There was a guy who used to come to my home group about 25 years ago, who would always introduce himself as a “hard-headed addict.” We would all laugh when we heard this – because we knew that we were all hard-headed addicts! The same fellow quipped, “My disease was up a half hour before me, and had coffee made.” Unfortunately, the disease must have started getting up an hour ahead of him, because he disappeared. That doesn’t mean that he went back out; for all we knew, he may have moved somewhere else, or found recovery somewhere else. But relapse was, unfortunately, a safe bet – because experience has shown us that those who believe that they are exceptional, or that their disease is irresistible, have a lesser chance of recovery.
Mind you, we’ve found that every addict is capable of recovery, as long as they do not pick up drugs, and try to practice the program conscientiously. If we stick around and keep at it, our reservations tend to evaporate, because the program starts to really work. Alas, before they’ve even given the program a fair try, a great many addicts look for loopholes and exceptions. Perhaps even most of us spend part of our time, in earliest recovery, looking for ways to disqualify ourselves: “You don’t understand – I’m a different kind of addict!” or “I might have made a mess of things, but I’m sure not as bad as those guys!” Hey – we all thought we were a special case; and we all minimized our own addiction – at first. It takes some kind of decision, event, crisis or scare to open addicts’ eyes, and convince them that they are not “terminally unique” – and that unless they take their recovery seriously and personally, they are at great risk of relapse. The so-called “pink cloud” of early recovery only lasts a little while. When it dissipates, addicts had better have a good grounding in the principles and practices of recovery, because things are gonna get real.
As one addict put it, “I didn’t use drugs because I was ‘having a bad day.’ I used because I’m an addict.” The disease doesn’t need an excuse or a reason to use – but it’ll find a million of them. Most of us who used drugs chronically, were not merely palliating pain or depression, or trying to get high, or to just “use socially.” We were trying to escape from unhappiness, from the misery of everyday existence; to “chase that first high”; to avoid growing up; to deaden the terror of feeling alone in the universe. We didn’t understand that “there is no chemical solution to a spiritual problem.” And being addicts, we simply could not use successfully, because our brains were too susceptible to wretched excess – so we had no way to process intoxication without endangering our sanity, our freedom, and even our very lives. Getting clean stops the downward spiral into a slow death. But it’s not enough to just stop using. Unless we find a route to a happy life, with joy, gratification, meaning and purpose, then the very same conditions that brought us to our bottom, can easily lead us back to the peril of active addiction.
Recovery does not merely “happen”; it is won. We have to practice fundamental principles of honesty, open-mindedness and willingness. We have to make a decision: to defeat the disease of addiction at all costs, and to stay clean no matter what. We then have to follow a way of life that has worked for other addicts who have stayed clean and continued to recover. If we do that assiduously and constantly, our victory over the disease is more than probable. Even though nobody works a “perfect program,” and even when our commitment to recovery might wax and wane over time, as long as we practice those first principles and sustain those first decisions, the likelihood of relapse will steadily diminish. We learn from other members that there will inevitably be problems and setbacks in recovery; nothing in this world is perfect. But that’s no reason to give up. If we keep doing the right thing, we’ll keep seeing good results.
Too often, newcomers have unrealistic expectations. “I’ve read the Steps; why aren’t I well yet?” “I’ve been clean for two months; why won’t my family start trusting me again?” “Other addicts in recovery have good jobs and successful relationships. Why am I still so lame?” “I keep having using dreams. Does that mean my recovery is doomed?” First, merely reading the Steps is not the same as working the Steps. Second, it took years to destroy others’ trust; we may have to show our loved ones, through the evidence of our actions, that we have become honest and trustworthy, and that does not happen overnight. Third, those successful addicts did whatever it took to rebuild a healthy, functional life. It didn’t happen by magic; it took work. Fourth, every addict I know in recovery has had using dreams. I’ve had them during every year of my recovery! It only means that the memory of using is very deep-set; it’s a subconscious echo or “ghost” of our using past. What changes is: when we wake up, we are relieved to know that we didn’t actually use, rather than disappointed!
When I was still pretty new in recovery, there was a guy who visited our area who had a very interesting take on the nature of recovery. He said,
“A complete program of recovery is an ‘Eight-Fold Path,’ to borrow the Buddha’s expression. This includes, at the very least, the following eight elements: 1/ Meetings; 2/ Steps; 3/ Sponsorship; 4/ Fellowship; 5/ Reading and Writing; 6/ Prayer and Meditation; 7/ Service; and 8/ the ‘thousand-pound telephone.’”
He said that a lot of newcomers stop at just attending meetings; and while that alone will probably keep them abstinent, at least for a time, it won’t give them the benefit of a well-rounded program of recovery. If we partake of all, or even most of these eight elements, we will enjoy a robust and stable recovery, and will never have to use again.
The goal of my program of recovery is to lead a balanced life. This means: a little of everything, (with the single exception of intoxicating chemicals, which I’ve already had enough of for two lifetimes), but nothing too much. Among other things, I am meant to enjoy all the pleasures of life; but I am meant to enjoy them moderately, and not addictively. Since life is about more than merely cultivating pleasure and avoiding pain, I need to put life’s pleasures and challenges into balance, and into a sane perspective. To achieve that balanced life, I’ve learned that I need to have a balanced program: partaking of some of each of those eight elements of recovery, without making only one of them the whole of my program. It would be useful to discuss each of those elements in some detail.
One/ Meetings. Meeting attendance is a kind of medicine: it helps to treat and reduce the severity of the disease. The disease of addiction can’t be killed, but it can be caged; it is not curable, but it is treatable. It can’t be wished or “prayed away”; but it can be arrested, and then we do recover. In meetings, we learn how other addicts stay clean. Just by attending, we express our commitment to going out of our way for our recovery, and our solidarity with other recovering addicts. We vote with our seats; just being there says we belong, we want what the group has to offer, and we are willing to listen and learn. The regular readings remind us and reaffirm for us our core principles of recovery; and the sharing of members provides the empathy and reassurance that we can get through anything, and stay clean regardless.
Meetings give us an hour each day when we can relax and be ourselves. Out there, in the “real world,” we have to pretend to be “normal,” whatever that means; but in meetings, other people not only don’t mind that we are addicts, they accept and understand it – profoundly. Most of all, meetings offer us support – the sense that others, just like us, want us to succeed in our recovery. The outside world can have many destructive influences, some of which can be direct triggers to using and relapse; indeed, some false friends could even deliberately try to sabotage our recovery! The meeting space offers us a serene environment in which we can share the message of recovery, and know we are not alone.
One of our readings says that “those who attend meetings regularly, stay clean.” But what is “regularly?” I’m a great believer in a “minimum weekly requirement” – sort of like the old “MDR” on vitamins. For some newcomers, they’re still so shaky in their recovery that that minimum is no less than two meetings a day; for others, with lots of time clean, once or twice a week is a sufficient “dose” to keep the disease at bay. But what of those who attend less than once a week? It’s hard for me to call that “regularly.” Some folks think they no longer “need” meeting attendance. They “drop in” every few months – or even just once a year to celebrate their clean-date anniversary. I don’t know how they do it! And I have no desire to emulate it. One can’t help but suspect that such rare or erratic attendance causes a sense of alienation from the Fellowship. Indeed, those “drop-ins” are exceptional. Most who try that, end up as drop-outs instead, and go back out – even with lots of time.
I have a different model: I consider it a joy and a privilege, not an ordeal and a punishment, to keep coming back. Regular meeting attendance, and active participation at those meetings, is the price I pay for my recovery. I consider it the best bargain I have ever been offered. I was told, “Keep coming back to meetings till you want to keep coming back to meetings.” By attending regularly, I have come to feel at home in the rooms.
Two/ Steps. The Twelve Steps may seem mysterious, arcane, even a little old-fashioned, when we are newcomers. The new member asks, “What does all this have to do with staying clean?” “Everything,” the experienced members reply. As pointed out before, when you take the drugs out of a drug addict, you still have an addict! The addictive mentality is self-centered, conniving, self-destructive and antisocial. It doesn’t just change all by itself. The Steps provide a plan for self-understanding, self-awakening, and self-transcendence – that is, going beyond the persons we used to be. Members tell us when we’re new: “The only thing you have to change is Everything!” This means that, since addiction has touched every area of our lives, recovery must do the same. Furthermore, recovery means developing a new, healthy self-concept, a new life-model, and a new way of interacting with reality and others. You can’t get all that, just from “Don’t pick up, and go to meetings.”
Working Steps means going through a process of identifying and resolving all those problems and attitudes that made using seem desirable to begin with. As my third Sponsor used to say: “If nothing changes, then nothing changes.” That is, if we don’t change our attitudes, beliefs, relationships and behaviors, then the circumstances of our lives inevitably have to remain the same, and the crises and calamities we keep enduring (and generating!) have to keep recurring too. The Steps provide us with a way to look at everything, dispassionately; and to develop a plan of action to overcome our past. At the other end, we are transformed. Instead of being the bane of others’ existence, we become their rock, their source of comfort, and their good example of a life well-lived. The “black sheep of the family” ends up being the center of wisdom and strength. Instead of careening from one crisis or emergency to the next, we have a happy existence and peace of mind. We have developed a good degree of impulse control that was mostly lacking when we used; and we can rely on ourselves to do the right thing with great consistency. Those are some pretty good rewards for working Steps!
But most of all, recovering addicts who have worked Steps, have developed a degree of dignity, purpose, serenity and self-approval. By raising their consciousness, and bringing their motivations to light and their inner life to the surface, they have a kind of “insurance” against relapse – because it is now harder to fool themselves, harder for the disease of addiction to sneak up on them, harder to justify getting high to escape what is now a really pretty good life.
Three/ Sponsorship. My first sponsor told me, “Your sponsor is not your banker, chauffeur, shrink or vocational guidance counselor. He is your guide through the Steps.” While a sponsor may have other areas of expertise, and a variety of helpful life experiences, the primary purpose of a sponsor is to work the Steps with their sponsee. Often, they are also a “recovery mentor,” offering suggestions and support. They are also often an “elder brother or sister” in the program, giving their sponsees a sense of stability and continuity. Some newcomers, in their confusion, may pick their first sponsor because they have success at money, romance or popularity; but if they survive the experience, they pick their second sponsor because they have proven success at working Steps.
It is fair to say that while Step experience is the first qualification of a capable sponsor, it’s not the only one. There needs to be some level of personal compatibility between sponsor and sponsee, so that they will trust and understand each other. We trust our sponsors to “take our inventories,” that is, to offer a frank analysis of our thoughts, actions and plans – but to do so lovingly, sparingly, and in confidence. If sponsees feel judged, berated or accused, (or worse, exposed,) they may stop coming to their sponsors for support. While every recovering addict can be a good sponsee, not everyone is cut out to be a good sponsor. A good sponsor is the anchor of a recovering addict’s support system. But some sponsors are less worthy than others. I have heard some addicts say that they chose someone other than their sponsor to hear their fifth Step inventory. If I had felt I couldn’t trust my sponsor to hear my fifth Step, I’d have had to get a new sponsor. Not everyone with long clean-time is qualified to be a sponsor. It is fair to say that if a sponsee comes to feel that their sponsor is motivated by a sick need to dominate or be superior, or never has time for them, or turns out to be a particularly bad example of recovery and integrity, it is time for a new sponsor search.
When a member has some experience in recovery, they may themselves be called on to become a sponsor. It is an honor and a privilege to be asked; though one should not rush into it, nor attempt to “collect” sponsees like “trophies.” A sponsor should determine that the relationship will be good for both of their recoveries; should be sure that they have the time and temperament to help; should have a good sense that they’re a good fit; and should have enough knowledge and experience at working Steps that they will set a good example, and be able to offer informed correction to keep the sponsee on the right track. Consulting with their own sponsor is often wise. My sponsor thought I was ready to be a sponsor when I had a year clean, and had a solid fifth Step. Your mileage may vary. It seems that having sponsees encourages us and spurs us on to make progress in our own recovery; after all, you can’t competently counsel a sponsee on a Step you haven’t yet worked yourself! The crown of the Steps, the 12th, gives us the gift of “carrying the message of recovery.” The most effective and efficient way we do this is through sponsorship.
Four/ Fellowship. It is said that we sink into addiction in isolation; but we recover together. We addicts need the company of other recovering addicts, to encourage us and support us. Left to its own devices, the addict mind can turn negative in a heartbeat. But with our fellows around us to talk us off the ledge, or make light of a situation that we’re taking too seriously, or commiserate with because they’ve been through the same thing, we find the strength in numbers to fend off the disease’s insidious ability to poison our thoughts. Sure, we still have the ability to isolate even in the middle of a crowd; but our friends can hold us up when we may want to fall.
Meetings allow us a serene interlude in our busy days. But we can’t live in the meetings. Having a fellowship in which to socialize and gain moral support, adds tremendous stability and encouragement to our daily lives. The fellowship provides us with a peer group that shares our challenges, priorities, and our off-beat reality and wry sense of humor. I didn’t think there was anybody like me, till I met my fellow recovering addicts. It turns out that we share a lot in common; in so many ways, we’re more alike than different. Many of us were very stunted socially; but the company of other recovering addicts, some of whom are coming out of their own shells so they understand only too well, can be very therapeutic and comforting.
What’s most important is the encouragement of people who share the same goals and issues. As I’ve said often: If I told a non-addict, “I wanted to use today, but I didn’t,” they’d shrug and say, “So what? Big deal! Lots of times I may have wanted to get high, but it just wasn’t convenient.” They have no concept; it’s a non-issue to them. And if I told a using addict, “I wanted to use today, but I didn’t,” they’d say, “You should’ve used!” or “I know where we could get some!” They also have no concept; abstinence is not among their goals, and may even be seen as a threat. But if I told a recovering addict, “I wanted to use today, but I didn’t,” they’d congratulate me, and give me a hug – because they’d properly recognize it as a victory.
We understand each other. We need each other. When we socialize with each other, we reinforce the decisions and commitments we’ve made to preserve and strengthen our recovery, and to avoid intoxicating chemicals and experiences. When we hold recovery conventions that celebrate our recovery, the enthusiasm, fun and excitement we share can be a healthy magical high that amazes and delights the new member. And when we must endure illness or loss, we find that our fellows in recovery are there to love and support us, and ease our pain.
Five/ Reading and Writing. There’s an aspect to our program that I like to call the “university of recovery.” Dealing with addiction, and developing a program of recovery, turns out to be a whole education in itself! Forewarned is forearmed; and a well-informed addict is more likely to be alert to the many tricks and deceptions the disease can try to spring. I’ve read many of the main books of multiple 12-Step fellowships, and gained great help, inspiration and insight from each of them. I saw myself and my story reflected in the pages of those books; they helped convince me that recovery was possible.
The reading regimen starts with the basic seminal texts of our fellowships: written by us and for us. While the “stories” sections are compelling and attractive to the newcomer, the real education and enlightenment comes from the informational texts. These chapters can be a stunning, exciting revelation, and some of us find ourselves looking forward to doing “homework,” for the first time in our lives! A book can’t entirely replace a full-spectrum program of recovery, working Steps with a sponsor, or regular participation in meetings; but it’s a good place to start, especially for the isolated or incarcerated addict. The insights of our fellows and predecessors have shaped and expanded the recovery experience of millions of their successors. We don’t have to “re-invent the wheel”; we can learn from the vast body of knowledge about addiction and recovery that others have pioneered.
There are some other diseases like addiction that are chronic and incurable, but are treatable. Diseases like diabetes, osteoporosis, psoriasis, and even some cancers, may not be entirely curable, but can be arrested and prevented from worsening with careful and attentive treatment. In our addiction treatment centers, addicts are told that they can stop their disease from progressing, but they may have to go to some meetings and do some writing. If you told that to a diabetic, they’d knock you down to find out: where are those meetings? How many pens and pads do I need? They’d be so excited! But if you tell the same thing to an addict, they’ll scowl, grimace, pout, and say: “Whaddya mean, ‘write?’”
It seems that we have such deep resistance to doing proactive things that can stop the progression of our disease! Part of it is the function of denial and stealth: the disease talks to us, tells us we don’t have a disease, and tries to talk us out of doing things that will defeat it. Part of it is that we addicts are notoriously bad students: we rebel against following directions and managing assignments in a timely manner. But it’s true: wonderful things happen when we surrender and pick up the pen.
In the old days, people only wrote their fourth, eighth and tenth Steps. But my first sponsor told me I’d be writing from the very start. That turned out to be a good thing – by the time I got to my fourth Step inventory, I was quite used to the idea of writing for my recovery, and it was not such a struggle as some others had reported. I wrote on every Step, and so did my sponsees.
My rule with sponsees is that every Step assignment is both written and oral. That is, they will first write it out; then they will call me or meet with me, so we can go over it and discuss it. I may have insights that will illuminate the experience; and just as often, discussing it can remind them of ideas or incidents that ought to have been included. Like my first sponsor, I remind sponsees: You don’t have to write the “Great Recovery Novel.” In fact, it’s best that you don’t. Keep it as simple as possible, and whenever possible, just do simple inventories or lists of facts. It’s harder to hide the truth or rationalize the insanity of the disease that way.
What I learned from writing my Step assignments was that, when problems and questions are merely posed in the mind, they can quickly be erased from the mind – forgotten or distracted. Indeed, the disease of addiction hurries to change the subject away from uncomfortable truths, and cover them up as soon as possible. But when they are put down on paper, in black and white, it is harder to take them back or deny their truth. The process is cleansing and healing. Like other aspects of recovery, it is a gift, not a chore, if one chooses to see it that way.
Six/ Prayer and Meditation. The old saw goes, “Prayer is talking to God, and Meditation is listening to his answer.” Actually, in my humble opinion: if you do hear those voices in your head, please – get back on the medication! (Joke) Seriously, though, expecting the “voice of God” to be manifest in our meditations may be putting too much pressure on ourselves. Meditation is simply a state of peaceful, quiet, open contemplation. It takes practice, because usually the mind (especially the addict mind) is constantly busy, constantly conflicted, constantly chattering to itself. In meditation, we learn to let all that chatter die away, so we can either focus on an issue, or simply allow the mind to heal, or try to contact the inner self. If we find profound and inspiring insights in the process, wonderful! But that may not happen every time. Good enough that we attain inner alertness, attention and poise, and better mastery over our impulses. It is a great gift in a noisy, confusing, anxious world. The ability to tune into inner peace on command would be enough of a victory against the disease, even were it not for the other blessings to be derived from meditation.
Prayer is more straightforward: we are enjoined to contact the Higher Power of our own understanding, usually silently, to seek knowledge of that Power’s will for us, and gain the power to carry it out. We don’t have to wait till our 11th Step to do this; the sooner we come to rely on our Higher Power, the more smoothly recovery seems to go. More often than not, the answer to our prayer lies within, or is revealed unexpectedly from someone sharing in a meeting – rather than from some flashy revelation. Sometimes the answer is: Wait. Sometimes, it’s Patience: something even better than you have asked for is coming.
In my experience, the best prayers are those that are informal, like talking candidly to your best friend – rather than ritualistic, precise, rehearsed, verbatim recitations from our old religious trainings, which can too easily become mechanical and empty. The great thing about the 12-Step program is that it is practical, experiential, and non-theological. That means that it’s what we do that counts, not what we believe. A God of our understanding is a God we can “stand under” – like an umbrella of grace. No magical stories or vows are necessary; no elaborate rituals are wanted; no cultish conformity is demanded. Nor is it necessary to comprehend that God; and it may not even be possible! For some, that God is the creator and master of the Super-universe; for others, it is nothing more than their own highest, deepest self; for still others, there is no contradiction between the two; and for still others, there is no attempt at all to define or describe God, being beyond any human ability to do so. What we call our Higher Power, is less important than that we call on our Higher Power. What is needed is to make and keep contact, and often, the simpler the connection, the better. There will surely come a time when we can’t reach our sponsors, or get to a meeting. If a loving Higher Power is present and available, then the ultimate Source of our recovery can never be taken away.
Seven/ Service. The selfish addict says: “I got mine; see ya!” But our common wisdom has discovered not only that we “keep what we have only by giving it away,” but also its inevitable corollary: when we stop giving it away, we tend to stop keeping it and start losing it. That is, the message is meant to be shared – not bottled up like a hoarded commodity. When we speak for recovery, we are affirming it in our own lives and minds. When we stop doing so, little doubts and arrogances tend to slip in, thanks to the unkillable and always-waiting disease of addiction. But as our recovery grows and deepens, so does our love and compassion. We don’t just carry the message as a kind of “insurance,” merely to keep what we have. Rather, we start to care about the recoveries of other addicts, and want their good, happiness and success for their own sake, and not just for what the sharing can do for us. In the process of sharing our recovery, we sometimes find that problems we have been struggling with are simplified, and their solutions are clarified. Sharing is profoundly therapeutic, for in the process of offering love, help and healing, we ourselves are helped and healed.
The meetings, groups and fellowship have also spawned an extended “service structure,” much of which is vital for the functioning of a healthy group. It’s in service that we also learn and practice the Traditions: the sequence of principles that help us deal with others, peacefully and spiritually. I have served on every level, at one time or another; I have had the honor of speaking at over three dozen fellowship conventions, and many hundreds of meetings. It has all helped my own recovery, and I hope has helped others’. But the most valuable service is still the most personal: one addict helping another. Everything else we do, I believe, is in aid of that.
Eight/ Telephone. From the very start, 12-Step recovery has used the gift of modern telecommunication to support recovery, and especially to support the newcomer. We tell them at every meeting: “Get phone numbers! Dial ’em, don’t file ’em!” (That’s a reference to the old office joke: the waste-basket is sometimes called the “circular file.”) Experienced members put themselves forward to accept calls. Those conversations can be as deep and healing as anything else that happens in recovery – often aided by the fact that it’s just a caring voice on the other end, and in the spirit of anonymity, that’s all that is needed. We could hang up at any time; but we don’t, till we know the need is met and the process is completed. I could never count the many times that some newcomer, whose name and face I had forgotten, called me needing to talk – and took me out of my own obsessiveness, or self-pity, or grumbling discomfort. At the end, they’d say, “Thank you for taking my call” – and I’d reply, quite honestly: “Thank you for calling me! I needed that!”
Of course, we’re urged to call our sponsors regularly too; but when they’re unavailable, or doing so is awkward for some reason, it’s good to know that there are many other members who will gladly listen. My first sponsor told me that there would inevitably come a time when he did not have the experience or expertise to answer one of my questions or problems; but that he would make an effort to find another member who did have that experience, and would give me their number to call. In that way, we have a vast network of mutual support. In times of need, sometimes the phone can seem too heavy to lift, because we’re afraid the other addict will be annoyed or inconvenienced, or we’re afraid of being rebuffed, or admitting our situation. But almost always, members are glad to hear from us, glad to help, and glad to be able to give their program away.
The disease of addiction is not irresistible or insurmountable; if it were, none of us would be recovering – yet wedo recover. But the disease is subtle, sneaky, pernicious and patient. It has been to all those meetings with us, and has learned the language of recovery – so it can even attack us by denigrating our own program! What changes is that our recovery more than catches up with our disease. Our recovery prepares us for those times that the disease tries to talk to us, using our own voice, and tries to lie and con us into giving up. Now, the recovery was up an hour before the disease, and had a full breakfast ready. Instead of rolling over, we had a good answer and a strong defense against anything the disease tried to throw at us.
It is said that this is a “rainy day program.” Which means that it’s easy enough to recover when the sun is shining and all is sweet; but we need a program that can withstand all that life may bring. By walking that “eight-fold path” and developing a varied and versatile program, we put on armor that would protect us, even when the sky fell.
– David H., Cutler Bay FL
©2016 David L. Hecht