12 Step Recovery and Therapy: Part II, my own sobriety

In the first part of this blog series on 12 step recovery, I gave an introduction of why the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous have become a part of my own identity.  In this part of the series, I offer some details about how A.A. works, my own history of sobriety, how I stay sober, and what it means to me know to live a sober life.

A few years ago, I was teaching a ten-week “Healthy Relationships” class to some prisoners at a state prison in Faribault. The class was intended to give the prisoners a wide variety of tools to make decisions about primary partner relationships that would support their personal growth away from whatever brought them to prison. One of the prisoners, a guy who was getting out of prison about half-way through the course, asked me to sum up the concepts in the course that day so he could use the core elements in his life after he left. Rather than thinking about all the tools, jargon, acronyms and other information provided in the course materials we were using for the class, I tried to quickly sum up how I used the same kinds of ideas in my own life.  Surprisingly, what came out of my mouth was something like this: “Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of yourself, with rigorous honesty, and do this in everything you do in your life, all the time, twenty-four hours a day, every day, no exceptions.”  I wrote this on the white board at the front of the class.  Some of the prisoners recognized this.  Its core is the fourth step of Alcoholics Anonymous.  The rest is stuff from the main book of Alcoholics Anonymous, simply called “Alcoholics Anonymous.”  In AA, we just call it “the Big Book” (it’s kind of big, and blue).

Here are the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous:

  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
  7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
  10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
  11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

I suppose everyone has their own way of using these steps to stay sober. In the AA meetings I’ve attended people often say Step 1, Step 11, or Step 12 are the most important for their sobriety.  That’s fine, for them, but that’s not true for me.  The first step is certainly essential.  No one can get sober until they realize they really need to get sober.  True enough.  That will only take you so far, though, and over the years, I have seen literally hundreds if not thousands of people reach this conclusion, stay sober for a month or two or a year or two, and then fall “off the wagon” of recovery, sometimes repeatedly.  This is part of the reason I wrote an earlier blog, called “Acknowledging the problem is not enough,” which states that recognizing the problem is not the most difficult part of personal growth. The most difficult part is following through on what needs to be done to solve the problem.  This is true for any kind of personal growth struggle, including sobriety. Step 12 is important because it gives people a chance to provide to others what they themselves have received in sobriety. This is actually a pretty beautiful thing.  I am sure that part of my decision to become a therapist is related to this idea. I want to give to others some of the tools and help others have given to me, including the tools of sobriety, but also many other kinds of tools for addressing other mental health issues. Still, it isn’t possible to genuinely share tools with others unless you are pretty solid at using them yourself.

I’ve already said the core of how we can make good decisions is a modified version of Step 4. This step is at the core of my own recovery and how I choose to live my whole life.  In some ways, though, the 12 steps might not be the most important part of what led to my sobriety.  I am, by nature, pretty rebellious. I don’t like to be told by anyone what to do. I will struggle and chafe at anyone who tries to control me.  This has caused me trouble, but has also probably been pretty good for me at times in my life.  AA works for me because it recognizes that a common feature of alcoholics (and drug addicts) is this rebelliousness.  Notice in the steps above the language “God as we understood him.”  The “as we understood him” stuff is really important in AA.  It tells anyone who comes to an AA meeting, “we are not here to tell you what to believe, or who you are, or what you need to do.” In other parts of the “Big Book” it says stuff like “these are but suggested steps” and “use what works for you and leave the rest.”  Beautiful! For a guy like me, always looking for whomever might want to control me, this is just what I needed to be able to make my own decisions about whether to stay sober and what I needed to do for myself to make sobriety work for me.  It also just feels very respectful, very nonjudgmental.

Beyond the 12 Steps of AA, there is another list of 12 items in AA, called the “Twelve Traditions.” They sort of set out the organizational rules of AA. They say things like “every group ought to be self-supporting…” (they read this one at meetings as they pass around the basket looking for donations, which are usually one or two dollars from each person there, if they can afford it).  Most of the Twelve Traditions are in one way or another a reminder that the sole point of AA is to meet in groups to talk about alcoholism to help other alcoholics stay sober, so there is no chance that the primary point will get sidetracked by money or politics or whatever.

There is one particular tradition, though, that goes along with what I was saying before, about not trying to tell me who to be or what I am supposed to do in AA or anywhere else.  The Third Tradition of AA says, “The only requirement for membership in A.A. is the desire to stop drinking.” This, along with the Fourth Step of A.A., led me to believe that I could actually participate in AA without feeling controlled—that it is entirely up to me from day one how to decide I want to stay sober.  I have even sat in AA meetings with someone there who was drunk but wanted to stop drinking. One time when this happened, someone else there told a drunk guy to leave and come back when he was sober. Several people at the meeting, including me, defended his right to be there based on the Third Tradition, which doesn’t say you have to actually stop drinking to be in AA, it just says you have to want to stop drinking.  Nice.

Giving me the choice about how to be sober has been an essential component of my ability to remain sober for nearly 30 years.  Staying sober means that I am not drinking, or using drugs, so in that sense, sobriety is a good thing all by itself.  But there’s more to it.  I have decided that I need to practice the fourth step, with rigorous honesty, in all my affairs, twenty-four hours a day, in order to stay sober.  This is a lucky break for me in a way. It actually forces me to do things in my life that have had an unintended side-effect.  Due to the way I need to stay sober, I have become very comfortable with self-awareness, self-exploration, and continual monitoring of my emotional and inner self as a way of life.  After all these years of sobriety, I wouldn’t know how and wouldn’t want to live my life any other way.

I was at an AA meeting about a year ago when someone there was crying; upset that his first anniversary of sobriety was coming up. Normally, this would be a happy occasion. He had been at this point in his sobriety twice before and relapsed each time. He was afraid he would relapse again.  He wanted to know why some people were able to maintain long sobriety and others did not.  I did not think I had THE answer to that question.  I had AN answer: my own answer for why I have stayed sober this long. For about two years, more or less, I stayed sober so I would not drink or use drugs because drinking and using drugs wreaked havoc on my life.  After about two years though, something changed.  I relapsed.  It scared me.  Not so much scared of what would happen to me if I continued using—scared I would lose the ability to live sober if I continued to drink or use drugs.  I had become accustomed to the benefits of sobriety, including being honest with myself about my character defects, my responsibilities, and also my freedom from unwanted guilt. I was very afraid of losing those “side-effects” of sobriety. After that relapse, I began to think, I don’t stay sober any more to avoid drinking and drugs.  I avoid drinking and drugs so I can stay sober. I told him this at the meeting.  I don’t know if it helped him or not, but listening to his concerns helped me think about my own sobriety in a way I hadn’t ever considered before that night.

In the next parts of this series of blogs on 12-step recovery, I will discuss how I incorporate what I have learned about 12-step recovery in my work as a therapist.  I will also discuss how I think the 12-step recovery process is not enough for many people in recovery to really address their mental health issues, yet some parts of the 12-step process can benefit many people who are not in recovery from addiction of any kind.