Contempt Prior to Investigation
The first time I read the 12 Steps, they were on a poster on the wall at the initial AA meeting I stumbled into. I was shaky-sober after a torturous five-day self-detox and on my way home from an appointment with my psychotherapist, who’d been quizzing me gently about what was so scary about going to AA. (It was mostly denial and the stigma.) I’d taken a cab to my appointment as I was still too debilitated to drive, couldn’t hail one for the return trip, and wound up walking home past an AA clubhouse. I went in after much mental to-and-fro and pacing back-and-forth as if I were picketing the place. I walked in the door to prove to myself I didn’t belong.
Unsurprisingly, I looked at the other people and concluded I wasn’t like them at all. If AA worked for some people, good for them. But they were alcoholics and I wasn’t. I was still swathed in the misery of detox, determined never to go through that again, convinced the memory would stay with me, remind me, restrain me, retrain me. But in case it didn’t, I went to an AA meeting as aversion therapy. Drinking would land me in the same place as these unlucky unfortunates. I wouldn’t let happen to me, I was sure.
Looking for ways I didn’t fit in, I read the Steps and immediately discarded the first one, the one claiming I was powerless, because I’d just proven my power over alcohol by enduring another grizzly detox. (For more, click on Step 1). I broke the rest of the steps down to two basic categories: God and kindergarten.
The God Steps: Fully half the steps mentioned God: a “Power greater than ourselves” could cure our insanity (Step 2); AAers had to turn their will and lives over to God (Step 3); had to admit to Him all of their wrongs (Step 5), become ready to have Him remove all character defects (Step 6) and ask Him to do so (Step 7). And they were supposed to pray (Step 11).
I didn’t believe in a spiritual solution so it was easy to dismiss these steps as the delusion of religious zealots. This was an example of what AA calls, “contempt prior to investigation.” In rehab, I learned that you didn’t have to believe in God to obtain the benefits of the 12-Step program. (For more, click on Doubt A Spiritual Program Works?, Who Says I’m Crazy? and I Don’t Want To Join A New Religion.)
The Kindergarten Steps: The rest of the steps boiled down to simple moral instructions like those given to 5 or 6-year-olds: inventory wrongs (Steps 4 & 10), admit them (Step 5) and make amends (Steps 8 & 9), repeating this process every day (step 10); and helping others (Step 12).
I left that first meeting still convinced AA was irrelevant to me and I didn’t see any point in ever returning. My attitude was an example of what AA calls, “contempt prior to investigation.” My mind was closed to the possibility that a 12-Step program could have value. In rehab, I opened my mind.
When I entered rehab the counselors told me the Steps were the key to staying alive. I thought they were nuts. I objected, strenuously, particlularly to the first three Steps. But much to my amazement, I found that what they said about about Steps 1 and 2 did apply to me, (though Step 3 took a lot longer. For more on this, click on Have Objections to The Steps? I Did.). This convinced me to stop fighting and to keep an open mind. The counselors said my attitude was typical of new patients.
What I learned in rehab and by working the Steps with a sponsor after I got out, was that the spiritual program wasn’t a form of religious doctrine. It was a series of principles based on universal spiritual concepts: tell the truth; treat others as you’d want to be treated; monitor your inevitable failures, apologize for them and make things right if you can do so without hurting others; and help others in need.
I also learned that the Steps are designed to be tools that can relieve the anger, resentments, guilt, shame, and other negative feelings that prompt the addict brain to cry out for chemical relief. Since these emotions come up constantly, the program has to be practiced daily, one day at a time, even hourly or minute-by-minute in early sobriety. Applying the program every day is the way addicts transform their attitudes, making the enormous psychic switch from the false belief that drugs are the antidote to life’s problems to recognizing that sobriety is the remedy.
So if you have doubts or objections to 12-Step programs, I can relate because I shared them. Those doubts don’t have to stand in the way of obtaining the benefits of the program. And they don’t have to be kept secret. I hear people express similar doubts all the time at AA meetings. And rather than be criticized or ostracized for expressing them, members admire the honesty and courage that it takes to talk openly about them.
I urge doubters to keep an open mind, suspend your preconceptions, investigate 12-Step programs fully and give them a sincere chance before deciding they’re not for you.