What do the 12-steps mean to addicts and their loved ones?

Letting GoGuest blogger David Greenspan is a writer and media specialist for Lighthouse Recovery Institute . He’s been sober since 2008 and finds no greater joy than in helping still struggling alcoholics.

The twelve-steps are an often misunderstood part of recovery from substance abuse. AA and NA in general seem to be portrayed differently every time they appear in the media and that’s just the meeting aspect. Never mind the meat and potatoes of step work and spiritual growth.With that in mind, I’d like to clear up some misconceptions about what the twelve-steps are, how they operate, and what to expect if you have a loved one who’s embarking on an “anonymous” journey.

Before we go on, though, it’s important to note that part of twelve-step fellowships is the practice of anonymity. I’m sharing my experience out of a desire to help and shed light on the often mysterious nature of these fellowships. That being said, I don’t identify as a member of any twelve-step group publically and never will. Rather, I’m simply a man who’s found a spiritual solution to the disease of addiction.

The 12-Steps & Addicts

What do the twelve-steps mean to addicts? That answer is both simple and incredibly complicated. At their most basic, the twelve-steps offer a way for addicts and alcoholics to stop abusing substance and begin to live “normal” lives. It’s important here to make the distinction between an addict/alcoholic and a heavy drinker/drugger. An addict is someone who suffers from the disease of addiction and an alcoholic is someone who suffers from the disease of alcoholism. These are three-part diseases – they affect their suffers on mental, physical, and spiritual levels.

There’s the mental obsession. This is a thought that becomes, as the name suggests, an overwhelming obsession. It crowds out all else in the addict’s mind until they succumb to it and pick up a drug.

At this point, the physical allergy kicks in. This is perhaps the least understood facet of the disease model of addiction. This allergy, also known in recovery as the physical craving, has something to do with how addicts’ bodies process drugs and alcohol. Instead of processing it normally, our bodies react differently.  The how and why aren’t important to me. What’s important are the results. Once taking a drug or drink, I am physically unable to stop. Once I start, I won’t stop until something blocks me from my “medicine.” This could be an arrest, a trip to rehab, or simply being broke and unable to obtain any drugs.

Finally, there’s the spiritual malady. This is comprised of all the crap that makes drugs and alcohol attractive in the first place. Things like depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, worry, ego, anger, self-pity, and various other “character defects” (as they’re called in twelve-step fellowships).

So, someone who suffers from the disease of addiction isn’t merely a heavy partier or out of control. They’re suffering from a deadly combination of physical, mental, and spiritual symptoms. The result is around the clock drug or alcohol abuse and all the heartbreak that comes with it.

What do the twelve-steps mean? They mean freedom from this cocktail of suffering. They mean freedom from the tyranny of drugs and booze. They mean the ability to be a free man.

This is accomplished through doing the steps in order and with a sponsor who has a sponsor. It requires admitting we’re powerless over chemicals and that our lives, with our without drugs, are unmanageable. It means saying that maybe something greater than ourselves can help us. It means taking a look at our resentments, fears, sexual conduct, and people we’ve harmed.

It means sharing all the above with another human being. It means recognizing and coming to terms with our character defects. It means making amends to those people we’ve hurt (and making amends isn’t merely a mumbled apology – it’s correcting a past wrong through changed actions).

It means taking inventory of ourselves on a continual basis. It means correcting the new mistakes that are sure to pop up. It means praying, meditating, and seeking a greater and more personal spiritual connection. It means helping other addicts and alcoholics.

Most importantly, it means replacing old ideas, behaviors, and principles with new ones. It means changing everything about ourselves in order to live a life of serenity and (mostly) happiness.

Sounds hard, right? It is, but it’s 100 times better than the alternative – drinking and drugging ourselves to death and hurting everyone we come into contact with.

The 12-Steps & the Family

I don’t have as much experience on what the twelve-steps mean to the family of addicts and alcoholics. In fact, I have no experience with that part of recovery. I’ve had family members abuse drugs and alcohol, but never close enough family to warrant going to Al-Anon or another “family fellowship” and seeking their help. Call me hardheaded, but I simply haven’t found it necessary.

You know what? I pray that I never find it necessary. My heart goes out to the parents, siblings, significant others, and loved ones of addicts. I can’t imagine what we put you through. Probably the best way I can attempt to explain, and this is just that – an attempt, what the twelve-steps mean to the family is through relating an experience I had with my own mom.

After being sober for a few years, I’d regained the trust of my family. Although I lived many states away, we’d talk regularly and I was invited to all major family functions. This restored trust and communication was sacred to me. It was something I never thought would return.

Still, not everything was rosy. I noticed that whenever I was home, my mom would keep her purse close to her. When she went upstairs to go to sleep, she’d take it with her. Old habits die hard, I suppose. So, on a particular visit, I was taken aback when I wandered into the living room at night and saw her purse sitting on the floor by the table. This was the spot she kept it in when I was growing up. This was the spot I hadn’t seen it in in years.

I almost broke down and cried right there. It was a watershed moment for me. I finally knew my parents had forgiven me completely. I finally knew I was their son again. I’ve had some amazing experiences in sobriety. I’ve graduated college with honors. I’ve received awards. I’ve gotten (and kept!) good jobs. Still, none of them compare to seeing my mom’s purse that night.

What do the twelve-steps do for the family? They give them their children back. It’s as simple as that.

 

 

 

 

Should we expect Relapse when our loved ones get Rehabilitation for chemical dependency?

When my son entered a 12-Step rehabilitation program after 19 months of using, I was naively thinking 30 days and he’d be back to normal. There was just no way he would use again, it was such a waste of his young years, and surely he saw this. Well, not only did he relapse WHILE in rehab, he subsequently relapsed many times over. I heard others say that with recovery comes relapse. This helped me accept unfavorable outcomes and not be so disappointed, angry or resentful. Later someone shared that relapse expectations can be dangerous and that perhaps I should not expect it or justify it. Think about the addict who may rationalize as do I: “Craig has relapsed a bunch of times before he made it, so what if I have a drink or two.”

What is minimized is that the last time Sabrina relapsed, she went into a coma and never came back; the last time James relapsed, his drug induced high for 3 days left a trail of armed robbery and arrest. The last time Joe relapsed, he hit a pedestrian while driving under the influence, and Sally? She nearly died from insulin shock, no longer in touch with her blood sugar monitoring.

Having this brought to my attention changed my behavior and attitude towards expecting relapse.  Addiction is a deadly serious disease and any attempts to smooth things over, allow or assist the addict to justify relapse while in my sphere of influence cannot be tolerated.  I will not expect it, but I can learn to accept it.  And with love and prayer, a program of recovery from co-dependency, I have faith that a Power, greater than me, will guide us all toward a program of recovery.

Kindness and support for parents of addicts and alcoholics

kindness of others along the journeyWhile cleaning out my office this week, I came across a dusty folder from 2007.  It contained phone numbers of people who tried to help me and my son get help.  I can barely see these kind souls through the hazy recollection of chaos and confusion.  They were referrals from someone who knew someone who knew someone who had gone to rehab, or seen a certain counselor, or found a good 12-step program or interventionist.

I was utterly at the mercy of strangers.  My child’s disintegration took place in fits and starts:  one day all was well, the next day he was imploding, then perhaps he settled back into a relatively normal routine, or so it seemed.  Along the way, I interviewed various counselors, school officials and doctors on the phone, trying to find one who would “stick.”  They were all generous with their time, compassionate and earnest.  I imagine many of them didn’t spot addiction as the root cause of the meltdown…or maybe they did and tried to tell me and I couldn’t hear it.

I found emails from school counselors who tried to steer him to classes where he could succeed….phone numbers of young men who were in recovery and willing to sponsor….the name of the interventionist who convinced him that detox was better than a life on the streets…a note I scribbled when his boss called my number “by mistake” to see why he was late for work.  Looking back, I see that misdial as a subtle attempt to flag me that something was awry.

I never actually met any of these people, and they certainly have no idea how their kindness kept us from sinking entirely. The dusty folder that reminded me of them also reminds me how important it is to reach out to others in big and little ways.


A sibling’s view of addiction as a family disease

siblings talkingWhen I first heard that alcoholism is a family disease, I balked at that notion. I did not consider how all my thoughts and energy fields were directed on them: to get them to stop, to get them to see the light, to rescue or make excuses for them. I did not see my behavior at all – after all,they were the ones with the problem, not me! I might admit my stress level increased, but I’d justify “you’d be worried too if your kid was struggling!”

After I joined the Al-Anon family groups and started working the steps, I began to see how my actions, my feelings, my health and well-being were directly proportional to the degree of involvement with trying to control the addict. As the disease progressed, my obsessions increased and I started showing physical symptoms from the stress.

I had the opportunity to understand this from another perspective from a sibling of someone struggling with substance abuse.   She shared how awful it was to see her mother spend all her waking moments worried about her sister. It seemed all her mother did was focus on the sister; wonder and wish she’d get better, always talk about her, often sad about her, …and if her sister was doing well, her mom’s attitude was better. She was learning to please her mom by being the “good daughter.” She believed that she herself could somehow make mom happy. When that didn’t work, she lost all sense of self-worth. The frustration she felt with her mom often made her angry. She wanted to scream “what about me?!! I’m here and I’m doing all the right things”! Then the notion that she could somehow control her addict sister in attempt to “smooth things over” in the family soon became her new obsession.

Hearing her story put things in perspective.  In many ways I related.  I was able to look at how my behavior towards the “problem” might have affected other family members and friends who cared about me. Was I so preoccupied that I closed them out? I was seeing proof from others who shared their experience. There is a commonality of the symptoms. With proof I no longer had doubt about this being a family disease.

I can run, but I can’t hide from substance abuse in the Family

Trying to manage addiction is like willing a train to stop. No matter how hard I concentrate on it, the train is moving with or without me. Depending on my location, I either get run over, passed by, moved or left behind.  Ultimately, addiction moved on but I lost who I was and what was really important to me. I remember my job’s demands were accelerating parallel to the addiction progression in my family. I was traveling several weeks a year away from home and I looked forward to leaving. I fantasized that if I could move far, far, away, the problems would go away. But the worry never left, nor did the problems when I returned home. I could engulf myself in long term projects to avoid feelings of failure as a mother. I heard a speaker at a 12-Step meeting say “everywhere I go, there I am!” and another said “nothing like Arkansas in the rear view mirror!” It made sense, intuitively; running away would not solve my problem because I was somehow connected to it.

At some point I had to face the reality. This was not going away or going to get better unless I decided to do something different. I had to make some changes, but how? Joining a support group with similar circumstances and seeking professional help was a good start. When I started to put the focus on myself and stop waiting for others to change, my life started to get better. My decision to change my behavior versus running away from the problems in my life was frightening at first. But overcoming this fear of unknown was worth the risk of continuing as is. Get on! Get off! Move out of the way…Do something within your control.

A Turning Point in the Family Disease of Chemical Dependency

bright closeup picture of magic twinkles on female handsI have often said my turning point in recovery from the family disease was to keep an open mind be willing to try the Al-Anon program. I somehow needed to re-wire my beliefs, truths and experience. This would be a completely different way of handling life’s situations – and I held doubt. Yet, I had been broken open by addiction and freely admitted that my life had become unmanageable.

I remember thinking about and using affirmations such as this:

  • I am willing to be willing to consider the Al-Anon program as a solution for healing from the effects of alcoholism/addiction.
  • I am willing to consider the Al-Anon program as a solution for healing from the effects of alcoholism/addiction.
  • I consider the Al-Anon program the solution for my living life happy, joyous and free.
  • I thank life for giving me the fellowship of the Al-Anon family group where there is love and understanding.
  • I see the hurt I have suffered as an opportunity to learn compassion.

And so goes the process – used at every step.  I’ve come a long ways from being angry, resentful and contemptuous.  I sleep at night, I’m not paralyzed by fear.  I have faith, better tolerance and acceptance.  I’m not perfect, but I keep working on me and I’m excited about the growth in my relationship with my loved ones.

Waving Goodbye to our Beloved Addicts and Alcoholics

Photo of Ricki TownsendThis is a guest post from Ricki Townsend, Family Counselor and Board Certified interventionist.

When addiction comes into our lives, we are so unaware of what to do.

A crisis comes, we have a blowup, and then we kiss and things go good again, and then another blowup happens. Eventually, this is how we get used to living our lives, oblivious to the craziness it brings for all of us.

It’s the “I am so sorry”, the “I’ll do well”, then the craziness starts up again. Or the arrest, manipulation and lying. We want to believe this time will be different.

It is almost like we live our lives believing in an unconscious awareness that our lives depend on them. If they are happy, if they are doing the things that we know leads to a great life, then we can be happy.

After the blowup (or what I call the long sit down), they start to behave as we want. This “they” can be a husband, son, wife etc. It doesn’t’ matter, it all has a sameness to it.

When they start to “behave” then we feel we can breathe again. We go along with a false sense of security that they are now on the right track. In most cases it is a false belief. They will only last so long, because no one can pretend to be who they are not. The drug or alcohol behaviors literally start sneaking back in. Another crisis comes about because we start getting resentful that they are not doing what they promised they would do. What’s really happening is they are not able to take away our fear.

How do we handle this??

WE take back our life. We start our own recovery on a daily basis. The same thing we are asking of them, but this time we do it ourselves. We “do” things every day: Therapy, support groups, Al-Anon, even a couple of open AA meetings regularly. The latter shows us how recovery can happen. We put down strong boundaries. We finally ask them to leave or we leave the situation ourselves and take up residence somewhere else. All of these things we do respectfully.

We cannot control another human being into being what will make us happy. At a healthy level, addiction is like seeing someone drive away after a visit, lovingly waving goodbye at them…WE have no control over them making it home.

When the Unthinkable knocks on your front door

Unthinkable things sums up what happens to parents of drug addicts, at least in my world. Take for example, the phone call I got from a police officer of a special fugitive division. He was looking for my son and wanted my help. He knew my name; he knew all my family members’ names. We talked for 30 minutes about the perils my son faces – he’s concerned, he said. The last time he relapsed – pulled over for a traffic violation – he bolted. This “excites” police officers and the conversation turns to the dreaded, unthinkable – the likelihood that my son might do something that causes a police officer to fire his weapon. He might overdose, be killed by another junkie, and a host of other things. My mind already conjures up the worst case scenarios -these events are happening daily in my community. “You could rescue your son,” he threatens with fear. He suggested luring him in with the promise of money; they would wait around corners in undercover gear.

This put me in a strange, but familiar place. It reminded me of a time when I held onto the pseudo-belief that I have a lot of power and control over my son. With my own recovery from the family disease I know better. This is bigger than me and it’s not my business. Besides, there are always more outcomes than he presented – we don’t know. If I did these things, and my son was harmed as a result, would I be able to live with myself? If I didn’t do the sting operation and my son is killed on the street, would I be able to live with myself? Do I really have that much power?

I decided I would encourage my son to get help as I have always done, knowing this is his life and I’m not in control of it. That was if and when I would hear from him – he does not answer my calls either. Today I have a Power, greater than me that will guide me to a sane position. The perils of drug abuse, addiction and the disease related crimes by young people are unthinkable. And they progress. And their family, who love them beyond measure, can not save them with that love.

Blaming and Excuses – A Parent Takes Ownership

mom taking ownership with teenage daughterI sometimes ponder how quickly my fear and sadness of having a child with a drug problem resulted in my own physical issues: The teeth grinding at night, hair loss, weight gain, and high blood pressure to name a few. Initially, throwing quick fixes to the symptoms has had high costs: dental work, medical bills and revenue recovery.

With righteous indignation, I had plenty of excuses. If you walked in my shoes, you might understand why. It was easy to blame THEM for what THEY were putting me through. To add insult to injury, the disease of addiction and alcoholism were also affecting my immediate family and I resented that too.

But further contemplation while working the 12 steps of Al-Anon has shown me that I am better off doing a self-examination of myself, my motives and reasons. I had to relearn how to take ownership of my own actions and quit already with the excuses.

My attitude, if left unchecked, models the addict/alcoholic. I can easily blame others and have a distorted view on life. When I take the focus off THEM and work my own program of recovery, I am given gifts beyond measure. Here, true rehabilitation begins at the root cause – ME. I am able to deflect and change the course of how I feel both emotionally and physically.

Should you step or talk your way to recovery (or do both)?

301883_8582 mother daughter walking on beachWorking the steps has offered powerful tools against addiction or alcoholism ever since they were invented by Bill Wilson more than 60 years ago. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can also be a powerful ally in the quest for recovery. Turns out, “the 12 steps and cognitive behavioral therapy have a lot in common” according to an interesting article posted on The Fix. Guided by a therapist who works with the chemically dependent, this article points out where the two meet and where they diverge.

I found this article thought-provoking because, as a Blue Chip co-dependent, I have been addicted to my child’s addiction. We all know that drill: if they are sober, we can be happy; if they are using, our world falls apart. If they relapse, so do we. And sometimes we relapse even if they don’t. For those reasons alone, I need the twelve steps as much as my child.

At a minimum, this article was powerful because it reinforced the notion that Al-Anon and AA are not religious; they are spiritual.  The fear of getting cornered by a religious zealot has kept people away from 12-step program unnecessarily.

Take a look at the article and see if it makes sense to you. As parents of beloved addicts or alcoholics, can the twelve steps replace our therapy, or can our therapy replace the twelve steps? Or maybe they work best hand-in-hand.  Only you can tell.