Guest 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.