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An Introduction to the Twelve Steps

INTRODUCTION: First, a word from our sponsor (pun intended)… by Irwin Morse

A few points for beginners as you start your journey completing the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, be it for alcohol, drugs, food, gambling, sex or any other addiction. First, the 12 steps are getting a lot of bad publicity recently as not being a panacea for treating addiction. I must say I agree, there is no panacea for such a cunning and baffling disease. There are too many variables to consider to think that one solution would work for everyone who suffers from addiction. However, before we throw the baby out with the bathwater, I question how honest the detractors were in the pursuit of recovery via the 12 steps.

Speaking from my own experience, when I started working the steps for my sex addiction, it took almost two years in the program before it began to work for me. At the same time it took me almost two years before I really dedicated myself to the program, or as is like to say, before I got the gift of desperation. Sure I went to meetings, met with therapists, took anti-depressants, worked with a sponsor; but, in spite of all of this effort, I was not truly desperate. I kept clinging to my old ways of doing things, keeping little stashes in my head, thinking that I could control my addiction, thinking I was smarter than everyone else. I knew how to handle my addiction without going through all the steps, and I was sure I was as rigorously honest as I needed to be.

This was my Monkey Brain at work and I was unable to hear or see the truth. A critical part of one’s success is how dedicated they are to what they are doing and putting first things first.

I would like to highlight the story on one of my successful sponsees. He is a young man, in his early 30s, successful professional with an addiction to prostitutes and strip clubs. We worked together for almost a year before I recognized what was holding him back. It was where he put his recovery in his overall list of priorities.

I had read him the riot act early on, saying “Your recovery comes first for if you are not successful at your recovery you will not be successful in anything in your life.” He heard and understood, or so he said. I later learned that an hour before our regular weekly meetings he would break out his workbooks and recovery readings and cram. As soon as our meeting was over, the books and readings were put back on the shelf, to remain there for the rest of the week.

It is very unlikely that the steps will work with this level of dedication and this level of dedication did not work for him. In addition, my concern is that in life as we live it today, with mobile phones, streaming video, chats, tweets, blogs, and other distractions, it is hard to truly focus on any one thing for any length of time. Our success is measured by how well we multi-task. Vacations are not taken without email access to the office, we go to scenic vistas only to see them through the viewer of our phones, we are not in the moment paying attention to one thing. Without getting into the morals of texting and driving, we know people do it.

I would venture a guess that if you asked the average person to rate themselves as a driver most would say they are good, if not excellent. They probably think of themselves as above average intelligence not to mention a good typist (using just thumbs or otherwise). So why not do both at the same time? There are a number of studies showing you can’t but this dissuades few if any from texting and driving. So I ask all you multi-taskers out there, before you give up on the 12 steps make sure you are not doing more than one thing AT THE SAME TIME.

In conclusion, to the group of detractors, the first question I ask is “how serious were you?” If you really dedicated yourself to working and living the steps, and they did not work; I would agree with your conclusion that the program was not for you. However, if you are rigorously honest, I suspect, you were not dedicated to the task, that you were stuck in half measures (as was I), and that you convinced yourself that what you were doing was fine (as I did). If you can apply the same level of honesty in answering that question and apply it to the steps, maybe, just maybe, they would have worked in the first instance.

The steps are very straight forward and simple. They have stood the test of time having been written almost 100 years ago, in the first have of the 20th century. Having said that, they are by no means easy. They take a lot of introspection and hard work. In other words, thinking AND action. If you are begin working the steps and feel uncomfortable, unsettled or uneasy in your own skin, congratulations, you are doing it right. Keep at it, it will work if you work it.

If you are really smart, and I assume you think you are, be warned. If you spend most of your time thinking but take little or no action you are doing it wrong. That is the hard way. If all you do is think about each step and what is required you are likely to spin you wheels and waste a lot of time. There are an abundance of work books out there, some great, others not so much, but the one thing they try to do is move you from thinking about your addiction to taking action to combat it (writing).

I have a sponsee who worked the program for more than 2 years, thinking about what he wanted to do, making lists of activities for his recovery, but never doing any of it. Is it a wonder he had trouble stopping his addictive cycle and rarely had 30 days of sobriety? This may help. I had a college professor whose wisdom I thought was dubious at the time but he turned out to be much smarter than I realized. He had two acronyms that he etched into our brains for taking exams. RTP and DFTP. Read The Problem and Don’t Fight The Problem. He knew that most students got twisted off trying to answer what they thought was the question and miss the actual question. As a result, they often made the exams harder than they actually were. These same acronyms served me well many times in my professional career.

I was stunned when entering recovery and found the same guidance worked here. So when you are perplexed or stumped, RTP and DFTP. I often get asked two questions from sponsees. How long will it take to complete the steps? And have I done enough in any complete this step? My answers are swift and unsettling. To the first question I answer “It takes as long as it takes.” I’ve had sponsees try to finish the steps in a week, and it just can’t be done. I have had another work for 18 months and not get beyond step 4. There is no set answer; but it does seem to be a function of the sponsor, the sponsee and how long the sponsee was an addict. My sponsor told me I completed the steps quickly and it took me a year. I had an excellent sponsor, worked the program diligently and had been an addict for 40 years. So if you can determine the mathematics behind that, good on you.

To the second I respond by asking, “How do you feel about what you’ve done? Do you think you’ve done enough or in your heart of hearts do you think you can do more?” For example, how would you feel if you received this letter of amends? If they answer that they feel they can do more, (which is generally the answer) then my reply is obvious, do more. So like the answer to the first question, you are done when you are done.

Let me share with you a work story which reinforces the above thinking. My boss asked me to do a write-up on a technical part of the business I was working in. This was long before the days of computers, tablets, word processors, etc. In other words, you wrote out your work on yellow legal pads and submitted them for review. I take on the assignment and a few days later drop my document in his in box.

He looks up and asks one simple question….”Is that the best you can do?”

I looked at the document sitting there and thought “Hmmm, I bet my raise could be at risk. Not to mention a promotion or transfer to another department. I better not screw this up. Maybe I should take another look at it before I turn it in. I am sure I misspelled something or made some other trivial grammar error that I can easily correct. I better do that before he sees it and rates me on it.”

I said, “Let me take one more look at it before I turn this in.” He smiled and went back about his business.

A day later, after going through the document a few more times, I hand it in to my boss. He repeats his question. “Is THIS the best you can do?”

A shudder of self-doubt goes through me and once I again I grab the document out of his in box and back my way out of his office. About two days after that I return again with the document in hand and drop it in my bosses in box. As predicted he asks “Is THIS the best you can do?”

Confidently I replied, “Yes, it is. It is ready for you to take a look at.

“He looked at me and said “Fine. NOW I will look at it. I don’t want to waste my time reading anything that you don’t think is your best work. I am not your babysitter or teacher. I am your boss. If it isn’t your best, keep working on it until it is. Then I will look at it.”

I tell you this story to make this point. When you are working the steps ask yourself this same question. Is this the best you can do? If you are rigorously honest and get a no in response to this question, try again. Having said all that keep this in mind. My advice is don’t get stuck overthinking things and trying to come up with the perfect answer. Remember as human beings we are perfectly imperfect and will never get things 100% right. Besides, in something as complex as addiction, there generally is no one right answer. Parts of all your answers are right and by the same token, parts of your answers are wrong. Usually the most straightforward answer is the best and most correct. Don’t try to overthink the process or look for easy outs or escape routes. Trust me, smarter people than you have tried and failed. You will be wasting a lot of time that could be better spent working the steps.

What is more, as we said earlier, this is a program of action. You must do certain things and make certain decisions, you cannot just sit around and think about it. Self-reflection and thought are part of the work, but not all of the work. Like all long term project or hard to define projects you undertake, it is better to have a time frame for completion. Like any project without a fixed deadline, if you’re not careful the work will expand to fit the time available. Without a deadline it will go one without end. As such, we encourage you to set realistic, but specific, deadlines.

Be gentle with yourself but set a timeline in which you reasonably expect to complete the work. This is not a budget you need to spend a lot time explaining why you overran. Just keep the end in mind and work towards your goal. You will be surprised before you are half-way through.

Another thing that worked well for me was to have a contract with my sponsor. This included important things like how often we would meet, what I was expected to do each week, when and how to confirm meetings, as well as what I was supposed to do in the event I acted out, or lost my sobriety. See Attachment I for a sample of that contract. What was interesting to me was that we had a formal signing and dating of the contract at one of first meetings.

I asked him if he wanted a copy for his records and he said “No. I know what’s in it. It is not for me, it is for you. It is to remind you of your obligations and to help you monitor your own progress. It is of no use to me. If you are not honest with yourself, my having a copy won’t accomplish anything.”

It is probably worth talking about what makes a good sponsor at this juncture. First and foremost your sponsor is not your friend. Although you will likely become life-long friends because of your shared experience of working the steps, you should not pick your friend to be your sponsor. The reason for this is a friend will not tell you the hard truths that you need to hear, or to say it another way, call you on your bullshit.

A sponsor must be able to tell you how he / she worked the steps and to tell it like it is. They usually have an uncanny knack of seeing through your smoke screen. Of course, your sponsor should be in the same program as you, be it AA, COSA, OEA, NA, SA, SAA, SLAA, etc. However, it is not imperative they have the exact same acting out behaviors. I have worked the steps of SAA with both gay and straight men. What is most important is that you “connect” with this person, and that you “speak the same language.” To find out if this is the case I recommend you interview your sponsor to see if you “get them” and if they “get you.” It adds to the uphill battle of recovery if you don’t communicate well with your sponsor.

If you don’t make progress with your sponsor in a reasonable period of time, look for a new one. If your sponsor makes you uncomfortable, he is probably a good one and you should stick with him.

By the way, if you spend 6 months interviewing sponsors you are probably either stalling or doing it wrong.

What many dismiss as an “I’ve got that” minor detail in reality is the key to success in recovery — spirituality. If you go to meetings you will hear time and time again that the 12 steps are a spiritual program. This cannot be overemphasized. Spirituality IS the key. If you have no connection to your higher power, you need to get one. As fast as you can. Many consider being active in religious worship to be a proxy for spirituality. For some it is. For me, not so much.

For some, their religion engrained in them by their parents ironically can contribute to their addiction. As you will read later on this was true for me. I had no connection to my higher power for the first few years in the program and my sponsor was certain that I would have trouble making progress. As was true of so many things, he was right (as much as I hated to admit it). So one of the things to be sure to work on from the very start is a connection to your higher power.

Your higher power is not your therapist, your sponsor, your spouse, your acting out partner or whatever person or substance you are addicted to, it is you connection to something greater than yourself. One go-by that may be helpful, if the ground starts shaking and the buildings start falling around you, the one you look at to get you out of there just could be your higher power.

With a connection to your higher power, the right mental attitude, and the willingness to change, you are ready to take certain steps which are a means of recovery.

At some of these we balked, we thought we could find an easier and softer way. YOU CANNOT. Stop thinking that way. If you just do what we say there is a really good chance you will recover.

So let’s start with a high level road map. Call this the 40,000 foot view of the steps.

Looking at them from this perspective, steps 1, 2 and 3 are: I can’t, God can, I think I’ll let him. To recap, you are powerless over your addiction; God can help you (and he is the only one who can), and you are ready to let him take over. I have hear said if God is your copilot you are sitting in the wrong chair.

Then in Step 4 through Step 9 we move on to cleaning house. Over the time your addiction was created, practiced and perfected, you accumulated a lot of baggage. Emotional issues created by childhood trauma or elsewhere, which were the fertile ground for the creation of character defects. Some call them rocks in a back pack that you carry, others call it dirty laundry, whatever name you call it doesn’t matter as much as recognizing you’ve got them and that you carry them every day and they affect every thought you have and decision you make.

The key to this part of the recovery process is recognizing them and getting rid of them. Simple as that. Here is where the rigorous honesty comes in, again. Without going too far afield I want to mention that here was one of my recovery epiphanies.

I knew my family had issues but I never thought there was anything really wrong with them. I never felt abused, neglected or physically mistreated. As such I never thought of myself as traumatized. When I met with my first counselor she started talking to me about emotional trauma. I balked as I said my parents never hit him and I always had food clothing and shelter and was provided a good home and an education.

She countered that all this was true and yet I was emotionally abused for much of my life.

As I made progress, with counseling and working the steps, I learned that what she said was true and what I had been taught as a child was skewed way over to one side. Accordingly, to get back to “normal” I had to recalibrate and move things more towards the middle. Doing all that work was part of cleaning house. No small feat.

Step 10 through Step 12 builds on what we’ve done and makes sure we don’t add new character defects, or collect a bunch of new rocks for our back pack or new dirty laundry.

In addition, it requires we reach out to others to help them through what we’ve learned. We endeavor to keep our house clean and to share our experience, strength, and hope with the addict who still suffers. This continues for the rest of your life. You are never done. To keep what you have you must give it away. And like any healthful activity, you must do it the rest of your life to stay healthy.

The 12 steps are not a binge diet where you lose a lot of weight and go back to eating like you always did before the diet. We are talking permanent thinking and life style changes that you will practice for the rest of your life. When you stop doing the work, your sobriety is immediately threatened.

So, what are we waiting for? Let’s get started.

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