The ubiquitous 12 steps of Addiction programs have been around for over 60 years and what began as an evangelical type movement to help men whose lives were run by alcohol, has become one of the most helpful and effective forms of group therapy.
More and more, I have come to believe that the 12 steps are a guide to life and to living life in the most healthy and productive way possible.
Most of us come into a 12 step program in a state of suffering and ill health. We arrive both skeptical and critical, knowing that we “don’t really need this” and yet desperate for some way to either crawl out of the deadly hole of addiction or survive the agony of watching our loved do so. We come as atheists, as zealots, members of any number of religions or beliefs. Most fear a dogmatic, religious program and yet, in desperation, we come just the same.
Admitting that our lives have become unmanageable is not all that hard, because in fact, our lives have spun out of control and on some level, we know that. So, Step one is tolerable. Step two gets a little dicier. Here we have to believe that a power greater than ourselves can restore our sanity. Whoa! There is an ego battle with this one. Raised in the “Me generation” and taught to believe that we alone were in control of our destiny, this one is hard to swallow. In the case of many young males I know, it is even more challenging, because in fact, they do believe that THEY are the highest power. This is a stumbling block because admitting you really have become powerless is key. In fact, without a doubt – THEE higher power in your life has become the substance you are addicted to, or the addict and his behavior that the family member is addicted to. So, indeed, finding an alternative higher power will likely be in your best interest. It could be as they say, “the tree outside” or the ocean or whatever, but likely it is in fact, the fellow travelers sitting around those tables or in the circle in the rooms. They are very much your higher power now and truly almighty in their wisdom, comfort, understanding, non-judgment, and support.
Step three is where most can really hit a wall. Here it is, turning your will and your life OVER to the care of God, as we understood him. I hear you, really I do. It is an awkward reference and by using the word, “God” there is much buckling of the knees for many. Bear in mind that this was written in 1939 and that in actuality, it doesn’t really matter all that much. Because, the important thing here is that this is a program of the HEART, not of the head and if you try to analyze and synthesize and criticize too much, it just won’t work for you. And that would be a pity and would be your loss. So, try and get over that and get past it and realize that very simply, when you are down in the trenches and the light is just not shining in at all, then, it is in your very best interest to let go and trust the universe. If you will, most things turn out quite well in the end. There has to be some “Come to whomever” moment, on your knees, knowing you have nowhere else to turn, in order to begin to find the light. And when the light, is finally what you are after, then, sometimes, giving up is the only path available.
The steps go on to ask that you face your shortcomings, make amends to others you have hurt, take a personal inventory, etc. But, the first four to me, seem to be the ones that trip up many. For me, I have never really worked the steps, one by one, in detail. I intended to many times, and yet, it just didn’t happen. I read the daily books and found them helpful. Some of the slogans like, “One day at a time” and my favorite (created by another member in a group I was in), “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” have stuck with me and come in handy. The Serenity Prayer is a long standing wall of strength.
About 30 years ago when I was a young mother starting our family, I was still beleaguered by the incessant badgering of my Borderline Personality mother. I realized that it would not matter how old I got, but that this would never end and that if I didn’t strengthen my own core, the sickness in my family of origin would quickly seep into my new, young family. I found my way to Adult Children of Alcoholics meetings in Southampton, New York and I believe my life was forever changed. I attended religiously, every Thursday night and rarely missed a meeting. This was my introduction to the 12 steps and the insight and wisdom I gained from others experience, strength and hope, was immeasurable. I felt a bit self-conscious when I thought about the fact that addiction was not really the problem in my family and wondered if I was really in the right place. Each week, one of us took a turn as main speaker and I dreaded my turn, fearing being “found out.” I will never forget what another member said to me when I finished my wrenching story of mental abuse and dysfunction. Carl came up to me and said, “Well, that was the most horrific story I have ever heard at any meeting and while addiction may not have had the starring role, the chaos and trauma that lived in your home were a match for any addiction.” Though I never vied for “the worst story” prize, I did feel validated by that comment and so grateful to have found the ACOA group.
So, it was at those 12 step meetings that I began to learn how to live, how to let go, how to trust, how to protect myself, how to own my feelings, and more. My faith was deepened and I began to unravel and unscramble the first third of my life that had gone by in knots. When my father came to live with us a few years later, I also realized that perhaps, he had been an alcoholic for all his years. It had been hidden under the guise of “normal behavior for a working class Irishman,” but in fact, it was not normal. So, I took my dad to a few AA meetings in Southampton, but his Parkinson’s and Dementia were taking hold by then and it seemed pointless.
Over the years I have been drawn back into the programs for various stages of family members and my living through each of them. Each time I felt a new kind of helplessness and hopelessness, when I found my way back to the rooms of Alanon or Naranon, the wisdom waited for me and received me with open arms. Certain things stick with me, like the night a woman who was desperate for her brother’s survival prayed, “Dear God, please let him live long enough to realize that he needs help.” Or, the time when we ran into the parents of one of my son’s friends. We had seen them at Compassionate Friends meetings (a 12 step program in a way as well) following the death of their 16 year old son. But, when we listened to their story of heroin addiction and of finding their son dead with a needle in his arm amidst his super heroes bedroom, I struggled to breathe. The learning to let go of “our” dreams for our kids and let them live out their own nightmares, was a new idea that brought me great relief. I got it. Yep, they were OUR dreams, and not THEIRS. Hearing parents speak of what a relief it was to have their kid in jail was always shocking to me, until I realized that for the nights in jail, they at least knew their kid would survive. This became far more important than having a record. They stopped posting bail and they stopped going to get them and instead, learned to leave them there in the cell awaiting trial. The black circled eyes of parents living through the terrifying days, that started to lighten when they reported that they had dropped their kid off at rehab and finally got a night’s sleep, revealed the relief that was found in treatment not only for their addict, but for them.
So, as I do on most Monday nights, I went to my Continuing Care meeting in Raleigh, NC. It is a unique meeting in that, the addicts and the loved ones of such, are all in the same room. This does not exist in any other meeting I know of and in addition, “cross talk” is accepted and encouraged, which also does not exist elsewhere. It has been immensely valuable for me to learn from other addicts what their journey is really like. I would never have really known, nor felt the compassion and respect that I have gleaned. It is of great comfort to be with other parents in all phases and stages and to feel the palpable gratitude that we all feel when all is well and all are healthy. But, mostly, I learn to live. And though my kids might ridicule and say, “Oh, she’s going to her drug meeting” I don’t see it that way at all. I am going for 75 minutes of intense learning of life skills. This week we talked about “guilt” which is of course, a loaded topic. I live and breathe guilt and though I am much improved, it still has a grip on me. I learned a lot last night and I bore witness to some events in lives that evoke a level of guilt that may in fact, never be erased. It is just not possible and so one must simply weave it into one’s life and keep on walking across the hot coals. I learned that we have no control over each other, our children, our lives, etc, so guilt really should have no home at all. And, I was again reminded of the impossible and impenetrable guilt that one of my sons has had since the death of his little brother, and how much work still needs to be done to absolve him. I wished he had been amongst the whole circle of people baring their souls and the guilt that runs their lives. It might have been very healing for him as well. But, again, this is for me and for my heart and mind. I am a very grateful member of 12 step programs whether or not I agree with some of the semantics or not. That is miniscule compared to the mountain of positive direction I have received.