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What Are The 12 Steps?

This is the first in a series of posts in which we hope to acquaint our readers with some of the details surrounding the programs that we recommend.  There are a variety of other programs, but because we and most other facilities shape our treatment plans around the 12 Step fellowships, those are the ones on which we will concentrate.

Twelve step groups have been much in the news over the past few years.  Most people have heard about one or another celebrity who was in AA (Alcoholics Anonymous), NA (Narcotics Anonymous) SAA (Sex Addicts Anonymous), or another of the roughly 200 fellowships more or less based on AA’s original 12 Steps.

The steps as we know them today were first published in the book “Alcoholics Anonymous” (1939). They were a synthesis of the combined experiences of the first roughly 100 members of the fellowship that took its name from the book, combined with principles from other sources.  There are far too many good histories of AA for me to presume to go further.

Essentially, the 12 steps are designed to change the way we look at addiction, our lifestyles, and the problems they have caused. They help us to accept the reality of our problems, identify issues, and guide us in clearing up “the wreckage of the past.” Finally, they provide us with means to continue to nurture our new way of life, and encourage us to help others achieve the same goals.

The steps work — for people who put in the effort.  However, they require quite a bit of work in order to gain the benefits. Many people who give recovery a try find that they are not able to do the work that is needed, for whatever reasons.  That isn’t surprising, because change is frightening, and because we alcoholics and addicts are accustomed to getting what we want quickly.  How long until I can connect to my next fix, pill, or exciting experience?  Is the sun “over the yardarm” yet, so that I can give myself permission to have that first drink?

After all that time thinking in the short term, it becomes difficult to think in any other way. Thus, when faced with several months or years of working on making changes in our lives and thinking, many of us find it difficult to knuckle down and get started.  Combine this with the ability of all addicts to find reasons, excuses and so forth for avoiding unpleasant things, and the ever-present temptations of old people, places and things, and we can see that there are some real obstacles to successfully completing the necessary work. This is true of all recovery programs, not just those based on the steps. As they say in the rooms, “It works if you work it, but it won't if you don't.”

In our Friday post, and those following, we will cover the steps and the rest of the program in more detail.

How do I do this on the outside — stay sober on my own?

You're asking the wrong question.  What we really need to know is how to find support on the outside so that we won't need to try to stay sober on our own.

One of the outstanding characteristics of active addicts is isolation.  Even when we're in a crowd, pontificating and running the show (or believing that we are) we don't really share the space with anyone else.  We don't have meaningful conversations.  We don't listen to what others say.  Our attention is turned inward, toward what we think, what we want others to think, what we want to keep secret, how this can work to our benefit — without concern for its effect on others.  We're concerned with how we can get our next drink or drug, how to manipulate others, how to bolster our nonexistent self esteem, and so forth.

We may share what's happening on the surface, but that's the problem: when it comes to our relationships with others, we're all surface.  What they see is not what's there.  We don't even know how to be honest with ourselves, and we surely aren't able to be honest and open with others.  That would put our relationships with our drugs in jeopardy, and no addict is going to chance that.  We don't know how to trust, because we can't afford to.

If you knew what I'm really like, you'd be disgusted.  Worse, you might take my drugs — my only friends — away from me.

So, one of the most important things about recovery is learning to relate to other people honestly.  We do that by developing relationships with people who will accept us as we are, who will be honest with us, and who will help us learn to be honest with ourselves.  We do that by gradually learning to trust others, so that we can be honest with them

We learn to relate to others honestly by developing relationships that are based on healthy ways of looking at life, outlooks that can take the place of a lifestyle centered around drinking, drugging, and the behavior connected with those things.  Eventually, we trust enough that we are willing to accept guidance in repairing other relationships, whether they be with family, friends, employers or the legal system.

We stay clean and sober by making in our lives, and in the way we approach life.  We get help doing that from people who have done it themselves.  We do it by developing a support group where we can practice recovery.  In short, we do it in AA, NA, or some other fellowship or group that can help us learn to live a lifestyle that is healthy physically, emotionally and socially.

If we don't do these things — if we continue to think the same way, relate to the world the same way, behave the same way — it is only a matter of time before we use again.  Why wouldn't we?

We don't do it on our own.

To paraphrase Dr. Phil, how was that working for you?

Sponsorship Stuff (Part 2)

Can a sponsor be an extended relative who attends AA and has been clean for over 10 years?

Most recovering people and recovery professionals consider it unwise for us to choose sponsors with whom we have anything other than a casual relationship.  Relatives (even distant ones), co-workers, and friends are generally thought to be off limits. Put simply, it’s not a good plan to have a sponsor with whom we have a past.

Relatives, even distant ones, have ties to our families.  Friends often do too, and the opinions of both friends and co-workers are important to us.  Because they share our histories to a degree, all of these people will have their relationships, opinions, resentments and so forth — perhaps even  involving some of the same people.  In most cases, that would hinder their listening to us objectively, and would most likely affect our ability to be open and honest with them as well.

Sponsorship, when it works properly, involves sharing many things that we would not necessarily want a family member to know, from things about the rest of the family to our own circumstances.  The same could well turn out to be true of co-workers and friends.  Generally speaking, a sponsor who is completely uninvolved with our outside history is best.  While we might be more comfortable with people we know in the beginning, it is likely that down the line our previous association will become an obstacle, especially when we are being guided through the steps.  That, of course, is a sponsor's primary purpose.

In addition to all of the above, by choosing someone we already know we are depriving ourselves of the experience of reaching beyond our safe space for help — a skill that most addicts and alcoholics need to learn.

My sponsor makes has me spend two weeks or more on every step. I don’t feel that I need that much time to complete a step.  Is this typical, and why?

It is not unusual for sponsors to move us through the steps even more slowly than that.  When I thought things were going too slowly, it usually meant that I didn’t want to look at issues as closely as I needed to.

The purpose of the steps is to help reshape our ways of thinking about life.  They are not simply items to be ticked off a list, but are meant to be put to use.  In early recovery, most of us didn’t have a grasp of our denial, the ways our behavior had hurt others, or how to go about dealing with those things.  Taking our time over the steps allows us to absorb the ideas behind them, and to begin putting them into action in our daily lives.

Another reason for not hurrying is that, as time passes, we inevitably remember other things — other issues to which the step’s principles can be applied.  If we rush through the steps without giving those things time to happen, we greatly lessen the impact of the work we are doing, both immediately and as we move on in our recovering life.

Are there groups like NA and AA for younger people?

We don’t know of any fellowships specifically for young people, although some may exist.  However, both AA and NA have groups that consist primarily of younger members. Generally their ages range from the mid-teens to mid-20’s, but it’s not unusual to find a few older members as well, and that’s a good thing.  People with substantial time in recovery provide the continuity that a group needs.

A check with the Intergroup office in your area will get you the information you need on when and where to find young people’s groups.  There are young people’s meetings, conventions, and a variety of other activities aimed at both newcomers and younger folks with some time under their belts, and they are a wonderful way to become engaged in activities within the fellowship.

We’ve always recommended that people go to a variety of meetings: open, closed, discussion, beginner’s, book meetings, young people’s, and so forth.  There’s no question that it is easier to relate to those who are closer to our age and at about the same point in recovery.  However, we need to remember that while we may feel more like they are our kind of people, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are in a position to provide everything we need to work a program.

If we are uncomfortable with old-timers because we believe they’re judging our recovery, perhaps we need to get to know a few of them and get their actual opinions, instead of assuming that we can read their minds.  We may be surprised.  And they may have a lot to offer us, once we decide to talk to them.  After all, they’re the ones with the track record and experience.

It’s a good idea to mix up our program friends, concentrating not on their ages but instead on the quality of their recovery — but don’t skip the young people’s activities.  They’re the fastest track to healthy fun in recovery, and if you’re not having fun, you’re doing something wrong.

It’s also worth mentioning that both AA and NA have “sister” organizations for young people with recovering parents, other family members, or friends.  Check out Nar-Anon Family Groups or Al-Anon Family Groups for more information.

Do I Really Need A Program Of Recovery?

If there is one form of denial that is common to most folks who aren’t sure if they really want to stay clean and sober, it’s “I don’t need a program.  I can do it myself; all it takes is willpower;” or, “I have plenty of support at home, I don’t need to go to meetings.”  Hard on the heels of that idea is “I don’t like (insert 12-step program here), it’s too (insert excuse here).”

You don’t have to spend much time in recovery to hear folks make these statements, and if you work in the recovery field, you hear it all the time.  It usually doesn’t take too long for those people to fade out of sight, and sometimes we see them come back, weeks, months or years later, with a better attitude.

Often we don’t.

There are a couple of secrets to making it in recovery.  One is to do whatever we can to get over the habits, both mental and physical, that led us to, or reinforced the use of, our drugs of choice.  Without going into detail, some of those are:

  • using at certain times and in certain places, or with particular people
  • making excuses to justify our using (“I deserve it; If you were married to her, and so forth)
  • “drinking at” people, using booze or drugs to withdraw and let them know we don’t need them
  • always smoking a cigarette when we’re on the phone, if that’s the addiction we’re working on
  • we could continue the list ad infinitum.

The other — perhaps the biggest — secret, isn’t really a secret at all.  It’s bounced around the rooms all the time, but somehow some of us manage not to hear it.  That’s to keep an open mind!  If we don’t like what we’re hearing, we need to remember two things:

  • there are no rules in the 12-step rooms, only suggestions; no right and wrong way to do it, only ways that we have found — through 70-odd years of experience — work for most people; and
  • use common sense.

The common sense part is obviously open to interpretation.  For example, the “no romantic relationships in the first year” suggestion is a good one.  A new relationship is about the most distracting thing that can happen to anyone, and we don’t need distractions.  On the other hand, if we’re already in a relationship that hasn’t soured completely, that suggestion obviously doesn’t apply.   However, if we used with our partner, (or used them as an excuse to use) maybe we need to re-think that, too.

Another example would be the “Higher Power Issue.”  If you want the god of a particular religion as your higher power, that’s fine.  If you don’t, that’s fine too.  The thing is, we need to admit that we can’t do it alone, and surrendering to a higher power has terrific symbolism.  It works for a lot of people.

If it doesn’t work for you, great.  Just remember that part about not doing it alone.  It’s nearly impossible to recover without the support of other recovering people.  We need to remember, too, as long as we’re on the subject, that just as we have a right to choose what we believe is right for us, so do others.  So if they want to talk about their god, that’s OK.  It isn’t catching.  If we can’t be that flexible, we’re in trouble already.  After all, tolerance is the first step toward a spiritual life.

Ask yourself these questions: Do I really want to get clean and sober?  Do I want to have a full, satisfying life?  Do I want to improve my self-esteem, clean up some of the wreckage, and generally become a productive human being — or do I want to die in my active addiction?

That, my friend, is the most important question you will ever ask yourself.  Don’t answer too hastily.

I don’t feel that (AA or NA) works for me; any suggestions?

ADDICTION AND RECOVERY (c) Bill W. 2011

Q. I don't that feel (AA or NA) works for me; any suggestions?

Rather than answering the question directly, let me ask you a few questions. You only have to answer them for yourself. What your reply to me might be is completely immaterial.

1.   Did you go to a meeting every day, or did you find excuses to stay away?
2.   Did you talk to people, or did you arrive late and leave early, avoiding contact?
3.   Did you sit up front and pay attention, or did you sit in the back and keep track of all the things in the meeting that you didn’t approve of?
4.   Did you share — at least your name — or did you keep quiet and try to look cool so people wouldn’t know you were a newcomer?
5.   Did you get a Big Book or Basic Text (and read it)?
6.   Did you get a sponsor?
7.   Did you talk to your sponsor and get to know him or her?
8.   Did you do any work on the Steps?
9.   Did you become involved with service: putting away chairs, making coffee, cleaning up, greeting people (especially other newcomers) to make them feel at home?
10.  Did you get to know people who would include you in their activities outside of meetings, like going for coffee, picnics, and the many other things that program people to do have fun?
11.  Did you keep coming back, even when you didn’t feel like it?
12.  Did you want to believe the group could help, or did you look for things that were wrong with it — things to be offended by; reasons to disapprove?

The program won’t work for you — unless you work for it.  If you’ll think about your answers, you’ll discover the suggestions.

 

Sponsors and Sponsorship

In the early days of AA, the fellowship was really anonymous. The only way you even found out that there was such an organization was to have someone invite and escort you to a meeting. This person was your sponsor, and became responsible for showing you the ropes, making sure that you got to meetings, and so forth. Later on, after Bill Wilson wrote the Steps and they were adopted by AA, sponsors began guiding their “pigeons” (as newcomers were called back then) through the process that has since become pretty-much standard for all 12-Step groups.

Over time, the relationship of newcomers and sponsors has changed a bit, but the essential idea behind sponsorship has not. A sponsor is a person with substantial sobriety or clean time, who agrees to help a newcomer through the steps. And that is all a sponsor is, as far as the fellowships are concerned. He or she may become a friend and mentor in other respects, but the principal responsibility remains the same — to insure that the “sponsee” makes it through the first few months of sobriety with the skills to continue on the path to recovery. [Read more…]