First Step Stories

One assignment given all patients was to tell their “First Step stories,” inventoring their lifetime history of alcohol and drug use, inevitably a catalogue of severely worsening consequences. They were intended to illustrate how we’d each become powerless over drug use and how out-of-control our lives were as a result.

They all started the same way, with a counselor saying the exercise was based on the first of AA’s 12 steps, a poster of which hung on the wall. We were to listen for three key characteristics of addiction: denial, powerlessness, and un-manageability. We were supposed to identify with the similarities rather than dwell on the differences in our stories. We were to look for analogous “feeling states,” like desperation at running low or the bafflement you feel when you promise yourself day after day that today will be the day you quit, only to succumb again and again. Like the feeling of “incomprehensible demoralization” AA describes as an addict’s bottom.

The first time I heard one of these drunk-a-logues, I was still deep in detox and disbelief. I saw no point in attending and was forced to very much against my will. It was given by one of the first of my fellow patients to offer me help, like getting juice from the kitchen so I could stay in bed. So I thought he was a good guy. But when he opened by saying he was a cocaine addict, I was skeptical, both from general dismissal and because I didn’t think cocaine was addictive unless it was “crack.” But my attitude changed as he described his inability to stop even as he watched his life fall apart. He confessed through tears a litany of despicable things he’d done to get drugs and lies he’d told his wife, family, friends, co-workers, employers, and himself.

I came from a law-enforcement culture where junkies of any kind were about the lowest of the low so it was striking to hear the story of someone who, now safely sober, was a decent guy, not some gutter scum. Middle-class and well-educated, he’d been brought to his knees by the overwhelming power of his addiction. Though well out of detox, he had the recent memory of his bottom to keep him sufficiently scared of failing at sobriety. It made for an odd emotional mix: grateful for and hopeful as a result of his new sobriety, while simultaneously terrified that having finally acknowledged his powerlessness, he’d be doomed to repeat it.

No matter how debilitated or resistant I was, hearing his catalogue of powerlessness and denial made me reflect on my own. I didn’t wanted to, it just came with the territory. And it kept coming with the territory as I heard one First Step Story after another.

Of course. there were many commonalities in the stories. My fellow First steppers, for example, didn’t use drugs for fun but to survive a world of pain they didn’t know how to cope with. They told stories of physical, psychological and sexual abuse, of arrests and imprisonments, of terrible emotional repercussions. (My history, by comparison, was nowhere near as appalling. I came from a loving, supportive family, a distinct minority among my peers.) What struck me was how much each person struggled and suffered. Addiction is anything but fun. Each had his or her unique psychological dilemmas, but the torment was the same and so was the urgent need for relief. Pain is pain and the craving for solace is primal. When it’s your suffering and you have no tools for dealing with it you grab whatever’s handy to dull it. That’s what we all did. We used drugs as medicine. For us, alcohol and drugs started out as the solution. But then they turned on us, becoming a bigger problem than they solved and bringing us to the edge of death.

And yet, prompted by the counselors who were teaching us Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, we were led to see that each had more strength than he thought simply to have survived. I could perceive others’ strength in a way they couldn’t. And just as I had to look to others’ stories to see my own powerlessness, I had to recognize their resilience to think I might have a bit of my own.

Rehab First Step stories are similar to the first part of what you hear from speakers at AA meetings who share “what it was like (while using), what happened (their bottoms, resulting in seeking help) and “what it’s like now,” sober. But there’s one huge difference. Whereas the tales told at AA meetings are initially ones of degradation and horrendous consequences, they proceed to stories of positive transformation brought about by the program. In rehab First Step stories, the jury is still very much out as to whether the speaker will succeed at sobriety.


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