Honest, Open, Willing – READY

We see the acronym “H.O.W.” on the wall of just about every 12-step club we enter, and often in church basements, treatment centers and other places where meetings are held. Honest, Open and Willing are the cornerstones of recovery. Without them, there’s little to no chance of our getting and staying sober.

An Honest Challenge

We need to be honest with ourselves and others. To begin with, this is hard. The farther we get from our drinking and drugging the easier it gets, but honesty doesn’t come naturally to alcoholics and other addicts. We've become accustomed to protecting our drugs and justifying our behavior by half-truths, downright lies and omissions that dishonesty is our default mode, at least in some things. The old AA saying, “I used to lie when it would have been easier to tell the truth”, is dead on for most of us.

To start with, honesty is easiest with folks who don’t threaten us much. That’s why it’s important to open up in meetings and begin to practice telling the truth. No matter how unpleasant it may seem to us, there will be people in the room who've been there, done that, and will be unsurprised and non-judgmental. Once we’ve become accustomed to the idea that the sky isn’t going to fall on us, we can consider expanding our truth-telling to others in our lives. We can learn to become more open with whomever we’re with.

be-honestLearning to Tell the Truth

That doesn’t mean that we spill the beans to everyone and his brother. Although the relief we feel in early recovery may cause us to lean in the direction of over-disclosure, it’s probably not a good idea to shock the civilians—certainly with no forewarning. What is important, though, is that we begin to incorporate honesty into our dealings with everyone. Just as lying is learned behavior, so must we learn to tell the truth automatically (as scary as that may be to begin with).

We have to be willing to make the changes necessary in allowing us to be honest and open with others. This requires a firm understanding of the damage our opposite behavior has had in the past, and the potential for further harm. Part of this will come more or less automatically as part of our 4th and 5th Step work, but it is never too soon to consider the value of honesty in our program. If I lie about selected things, then I have to lie to cover up the lies, and sooner—rather than later—I’m so wound up in my stories that the whole thing falls apart. Where do I have to go from there? All too often, it’s back to the old ways of coping with a life gone out of control.

Living Honestly

We need also to be willing to allow others to be open and honest with us. Addicts are experts at getting folks to leave us alone. We withdraw, change the subject, lash out, become amorous, walk away and use a variety of other tricks to make confrontation difficult for others. But if we expect to become clean and sober, to take our place in the real world we must become willing to learn from others and accept their feedback. We've been living in our own heads for far too long. Now it’s time to find the real us and live that story, instead of some drugged-out fairy tale.

On Anonymity in Recovery

Submitted by Bill: I was at a 12 step meeting a few days ago where one of the participants’ remarks showed that he had no real idea of what anonymity meant, or the reasons for it.  So I thought I’d weigh in with a few ideas on the subject.

I tell people that I have no anonymity; that I drank and drugged publicly and I consider it a privilege to recover publicly.  Despite that, however, I do not advertise my membership in a particular 12-step program.  I often mention attending meetings, in my writing and elsewhere, but not which meetings.  I speak knowledgeably about AA, NA, and other fellowships, but I don't talk about membership.  I have what I believe are good reasons for that, and I'd like to share my thoughts with you.

As I see it, there are two basic reasons for anonymity in a program of recovery: protection of the recovering alcoholic/addict, and protection of the program itself.

First of all, if we wanted to tell people we were members of AA, that would be our business, and ours only, provided that we did it on a personal level.  We might do so when speaking to people one-on-one, or in small groups under conditions where privacy can be presumed, because friendships are enhanced by such honesty under most conditions.  Then, too, that revelation might raise opportunities to bring the 12th Step into play.

Another area where we need to be careful is in speaking to outside groups.  We need to be sure that we're not thought to be speaking for a particular fellowship.  If we set ourselves up as some sort of recovering guru, how is the program going to look if, six months from now, one of those folks sees us passed out behind a dumpster, or in the ER being treated for an overdose?

Could happen.  If you don't think it could, speak to your sponsor.

There are excellent reasons, however, for us not breaking  your anonymity.  You might be hindered in your employment if word got out.  You might be an airline pilot with 20 years clean and sober who had neglected to tell the FAA about her problem — required by law — and lose your livelihood due to our big mouth.  It could simply be an issue that you find embarrassing.  It's no one else's business.  Our business is to keep what we have learned about others in the rooms to ourselves, period.  (Whether or not the airline pilot is behaving ethically in that situation is not the issue; it's our behavior we're discussing — and that is not a hypothetical example.)

The last, and perhaps best, reason that I can think of for sticking with the tradition of anonymity is humility.  It makes me just “another bozo on the bus.”  If I'm going try to be a guru, it's going to have to be on my own merits, not those of the program.  That's good for me and for the program, because my opinions often vary somewhat from more traditional positions.   When they do, I need to take the credit — and the criticism.

Anyway, those are a few of my thoughts about the issue, and I'm only speaking for myself.  Your mileage may vary.

Complete Honesty In Step 4 Is Difficult The First Time

This is going to offend some folks, and that’s the point.

Over the years, I’ve spoken with alcoholics and other addicts who have done three and four 4th Steps, and (presumably) a 5th and 6th along with them. I’ve also talked with others who have adamantly stated that they did their 4th Step, cleaned house, and that’s it, that The Book doesn’t say anything about doing it more than once, and The Book is the way they work their program.

Without wanting to seem confrontational, that’s pure b.s. Honesty in Step 4, especially, is nearly impossible in early recovery and The Book doesn't say we shouldn't repeat it, either.  When Bill Wilson wrote the book Alcoholics Anonymous three-quarters of a century ago, there was a boatload of things that he left out simply because no one had thought of them yet. Bill followed up the Big Book with several others that expanded on his thinking, but some folks seem to believe that all essential knowledge about addiction reached its peak in 1938-39. And, let’s be honest, the basic texts of virtually all the other fellowships rely so heavily on the Big Book that they’re practically interchangeable except for the adjectives and a few nouns, so it’s easy to carry that thinking over to those fellowships as well.

Fast-forward 70-odd years, and we know incomparably more about alcoholism and other addictions than Bill ever thought of. For example, there’s a superb article in last week’s edition of The Fix, CBT and the 12 Steps Have a Lot in Common, that compares the Twelve Steps to Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT).  It establishes in one more way the validity of the Steps as they compare to modern knowledge and theory, and also confirms (once again) Bill Wilson's brilliance.

I recommend the article, but it’s not the point of this one. The real point is that in the first stages of sobriety we aren't able to face and/or talk about all of our issues. Our fragile self-image, just beginning to emerge from the shame of our primary addiction(s), can’t take any more battering, and we’re extremely likely to sweep a lot of stuff back under the pantry door instead of finishing the job of cleaning the kitchen. We aren't able to be completely honest with ourselves, let alone with someone we've known for only a few months, no matter how sincerely we try.

So how can we trust a process we went through in the first few months of our recovery, and truly believe that we've done a good job with that initial inventory? The answer is our old demon, denial. We want to believe that we’re finally okay, and we are afraid to face the facts that mean we are not, that ignore issues that we've failed to address, and that are still screwing up our lives.

My drug of choice was alcohol (not that I didn’t sample many others over 20+ years of active substance addiction) and I was also addicted to some prescription drugs. Fortunately, circumstances in my life precluded easy access to illegal drugs, or undoubtedly I would have been hooked on some of those too. In any case, booze brought me to my knees, and that and the surrounding issues are what I dealt with during my step work. There was enough chaos connected with alcohol that it was easy to ignore some other things that were, in their way, creating dysfunction just as powerful if much less obvious. I’m still working on some of those, many years after that initial step work.

Nicotine, shopping, sex, codependency, gambling, energy drinks, eating disorders of any kind, hoarding, collecting carried to ridiculous extremes, video games (again, to excess), over-exercising — anything that will allow us to distract ourselves and that will give us that brief rush of feel-good brain chemicals — are disorders of our brains’ reward response. They make us feel better, while allowing us to ignore for a bit the normal problems of life that we haven’t learned to face. The trouble is, the good feelings don’t last and we’re so confused we don’t know or remember how to look for them in places less harmful.  Our unhealthy attempts to avoid the normal unpleasantries and pain of life simply increase, along with our dysfunction, until we are in some way forced to contemplate change.

So I put it to you this way, my fellow addicts: If we think we have nothing to deal with but our substance abuse, the chances are we’re fooling ourselves. Until we become willing to revisit Steps 4, 5 and 6, whether in the rooms or with a good therapist who understands addiction, we may be hopping through life on one lame leg, thinking we're just fine. And that kind of movement through life is not only uncomfortable, it also makes us far more likely to fall under a bus.

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?

Should I Tell A Prospective Employer About My Addiction And Recovery?

This really comes down to a personal decision.  Our program is intended to develop “a manner of living that demands rigorous honesty,” but it is also an anonymous program.  The “rigorous honesty” demanded is self-honesty.  There are, without question, situations where being too open about our past can destroy careers and create chaos in other ways.  Those situations are not beneficial to our recovery either.  In some circumstances, it may be best to keep things to ourselves.  Some employers simply won’t hire people in recovery — especially in early recovery.  A newcomer of my acquaintance ran into that just a couple of days ago.  With the job market being what it is, possible employment opportunities can be few and far between.

Perhaps the best way to address this is simply to not offer information.  If it is a drug-free workplace and they want us to take a drug test, that shouldn’t pose a problem (assuming that we’re clean and not on methadone or other drug maintenance).  Direct questions about health issues are not permitted, but we need to be careful.  If we lie and are found out, we will almost certainly be fired.  That would eliminate any chance of good references from that employer, and could impact our employability in other ways.

The Internet is a major issue.  If we’re determined to remain anonymous, we need to avoid recovery-related Facebook groups, and all references to our issues in all social media.  If we participate in online recovery forums, we must be extremely careful to use pseudonyms and avoid photographs and other identifying data.  It may be difficult or impossible to keep the secret regardless of our preferences, if we have been careless in the past.

My policy over the years has always been complete honesty.  If someone can’t handle who I am, I want to know it immediately, not months or years down the road.  I make part of my living writing about alcoholism, addiction and recovery.  In that context my history is clearly a plus, not a disadvantage.  However, my other job is in the security industry.  From my beginnings with the company, my employers have known about my past as an alcoholic and addict.  On occasion, I have been able to use my knowledge to help out with the issues of other employees.  But what if I had lied, early on?  What changes would I have had to make in my life, over the years, to keep the secret?  Would I be a senior manager in an industry that requires trust?  Would I have been able to take part in the recovery community as I have?  Would I be the same person?  Would I even be sober?

There’s no cut-and-dried answer to this question, but honesty has one big thing going for it.  It’s less likely to come back, months or years later, to smack you upside the head.

H. O. W.

ChangeAfter we leave detox, and during and after drug and alcohol treatment, we often start hanging around recovery clubs and other meeting rooms.  There we see and hear a lot of slogans, aphorisms and so forth.  Some seem pretty inane.  Others seem too simple to be of much use.  But one thing they are is ubiquitous — they seem to be everywhere that recovering people are likely to gather, other than coffee shops.  Inane and simple or not, all of those sayings have one thing in common: they have been found useful to people in recovery.  Like so many common sayings in general, they are repeated because they carry truths.  “Live And Let Live” is no less important to a recovering person than the famous “Red sky at morning, sailor take warning” was to the captain of a sailing ship.

H.O.W. (Honesty, Openness, Willingness) is one slogan that we’re likely to run across in any 12-step room.  Let’s take a look at that one.

Every addict I’ve met (and I include myself) had in common three traits: secrets relating to their addiction, unwillingness to let others know any more than the addict thinks is necessary, and stubbornness. These things are all understandable, viewed from an addict’s perspective, because in one way or another they help to protect the addiction.

One of the first indications of a developing addiction is secrets.  We keep secrets about where we were, what we were doing, how much of it we did, with whom, and how much it cost.  We weave these webs of deception until they become so complex that often we can’t keep them straight ourselves.  In fact most addicts come to believe at least some of their own lies.

The same is true about openness — we treat it like poison.  We don’t want people to know who we really are because, deep down inside, we’re afraid that if they really knew us they would disapprove — that they wouldn’t like us, would find us unacceptable.  Sometimes we've done things that we truly believe no one in their right mind would want anyone else to know about, perhaps even committed serious crimes.  Keeping these secrets makes it really hard to be open, because one thing leads to another, and we may reveal more than we intended.  So we answer questions about our lives with vague generalities, or spin fanciful tales that we believe will enhance our image.  Sometimes we end up believing that we really are the person we’ve made up.

And, of course, we’re stubborn.  In many things, it’s our way or the highway — another way that we protect our addictions.  We don’t like that well-regarded restaurant (because they don’t serve booze); we don’t want to associate with those people, we just don’t feel comfortable around them (we can’t drink at their house, and they get upset when they find people doing lines in the bathroom).  Naturally “no one can tell me how to live my life,” either.  I’d never be able to keep all the balls in the air if I had to worry about someone else’s opinions and advice.  (Besides, they might be right.)

Generally speaking, recovery is about reversing the effects of addiction and correcting the personality problems that supported it.  Is it any wonder that H.O.W. is so common?  It addresses three of the core problems that we must overcome if we are to make progress towards a life that is free of alcohol, other drugs, or addictive behaviors.  If we can't be honest and open with others, how can we learn to be honest with ourselves?  And if we aren't willing to learn, we might just as well go out, use, and make our relapse official.

Honesty.  Openness.  Willingness.  Master those, and we’re well on the way to a sober life.  Continue to ignore them, and…well…you know….