Rehab’s Approach to The 12 Step Program
If admitting you qualify for Step 1 (that you’re powerless and can’t control your drinking or drug use), is the beginning of the solution, learning tools to manage it is the rest of the solution. Raising one’s hand at 12-Step meetings and identifying yourself as a “newcomer” for the first 30 days satisfies the initial requirement and, after getting over the embarrassment, is relatively easy. Learning to live sober is infinitely harder. That’s what the program is designed teach.
It helps you deal with “the committee” of voices you hear in your head, the normal chatter of conflicting wants, needs, and motivations expressing all shades of personality. It helps prevent “spending too much time in your head,” listening to the wrong voices but not being able to help it.
Rehab reminded us constantly that all emotions are legitimate: there are no “right” or “wrong” feelings. But emotions are not created equal. Some are rational, some aren’t. Addicts hear critical voices louder and more often than positive ones, which are fleeting and dismissed. We drink and drug ourselves unconscious to escape those negative voices.
The program is an antidote, a form of mind-training designed to transform our default response to those negative impulses. It’s a mechanism to keep relapse triggers at bay instead of turning to chemicals to cope. Of course, recasting the addict mind isn’t easy. Everything seems to happen so automatically it’s hard to believe you can intervene, that you’re more than just a spectator. You have to learn that you don’t have to accept those negative voices passively; they’re an active thing and it takes action to counter them. That’s what working the Steps is all about.
Though the program does call for a spiritual solution, it isn’t a dogmatic religious doctrine. Rather, it’s styled as “a suggested program for recovery.” This was brought home to me at a meeting where I heard someone say she was grateful they were only suggestions because if they’d been requirements she would have spent all her time trying to get around them.
Step 2 and Step 3 say that God (or the individual’s concept of a “Higher Power,” whatever that is) can restore addicts to sanity if they make a decision to turn their lives over to Him or It. Steps 6 and 7 advise that one ask that one’s personality defects be removed. Prayer and meditation are suggested to deepen a conscious contact with one’s Higher Power (Step 11). (If you have problems with the spiritual basis of the program, click on Doubt a Spiritual Program Works?, “The God Thing,” and Contempt Prior to Investigation.)
The program prescribes sharing a rigorous, ruthless, moral inventory (Step 4) and an informal confessional (Step 5). It suggests that responsibility be taken and amends be made (Steps 8 and 9) to short-circuit the mind jumping from regret, anger, guilt and shame to the relief of a first drink or drug. It counsels continuing daily ethical reckonings, accompanied by action to atone for transgressions (Step 10) so resentments can’t build up and fester. This provides a constructive way to deal with the “fuck you” impulse to people, places and things which can lead to using. Finally, it recommends carrying the message of sobriety to those still suffering (Step 12).
All these tools teach you how to distinguish rational impulses from irrational ones and to stop yourself from acting on the irrational ones.
AA groups and individual members were our best resource, rehab said, and we were advised to immerse ourselves in the fellowship, to let the group buoy us until we could tread water on our own. Newly sober, we were still too susceptible to the addict brain to rely on our own devices. Alone, it was too easy to disregard rational plans. When a craving hit, it obliterated the best intentions. At that moment, the mind forgot its rational survival tools (for more, click on Amnesia and Amnesia Explained). It would take time, a lot of time, before we’d be able to cope by ourselves, one of the reasons AA was always described as a ”we” program, meant to do with others, not alone. Most addicts can’t master sobriety on their own, we were told, because it’s so difficult to see one’s own irrationality. You need to rely on others who can hold a mirror up to your thoughts and actions and show you the way.