12-Step Programs: Working Toward Freedom from Addiction

Our libraries and book stores are filled with books on addiction and treatment centers have materialized in cities across the globe; addiction has touched the lives of most people.

Therapists’ phones are ringing off the hook because addiction is causing incredible pain in many families across the nation.  Books, treatment centers and doctors all have a role to play in the process of recovery. The disheartening truth is that all the education in the world will not eliminate the obsession of the user. Self knowledge alone will not keep us clean nor will it help the family member to find solace in their quest for healing.

However, most these avenues of treatment will introduce the client to the 12-Step programs. In my first blog I talked about the programs of Alanon and Naranon. These programs are essential for family members and friends of the addict. I want to emphasize to parents the importance of embracing the 12-Steps into your own lives.

Intervention and rehab centers are important components in the treatment of addiction and can be important stepping stones in the pursuit of finding freedom from addiction, but they do not equal recovery. They are external support systems; the steps will be the channel to internalize this important information. There is a saying in the 12-Step arena that the therapeutic value of one addict helping another is without parallel.

Today, there are hundreds of 12-Step programs based on the original 12-Step concept launched by Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935. The steps are basically the same for each of these programs, except for the first step, which begins with, “We are powerless over….”

You can fill in the blank with “drugs,” “alcohol,” “food,” “gambling,” etc. I use the word “addiction” when referring to this step, because it encompasses all unhealthy obsessions.

The experience of working and living the steps can be as varied as those seeking recovery, and belief in a theistic god or God Itself is not a requirement. Spiritual principles work for the agnostic as well as atheist. The process simply asks us to believe in something, some Higher Power that we will be willing to let guide us on this journey of healing.

Sponsorship is highly suggested in all 12-Step programs. When asking someone to be your sponsor, you look for someone who reflects in life what you are seeking. This person will guide you through the step process—someone you can call in a time of confusion, someone who you trust spiritually.

Each of the steps contains certain spiritual principles. Some 12-Step literature emphasizes the HOW of the program. This acronym refers to three basic principles: Honesty, Open-mindedness, and Willingness. There is a deliberate order and harmony in the way that each principle is placed, practiced, and ultimately lived within the 12-Step process. As we work these steps, our lives begin to change. We are transformed by these principles from the “inside out,” and as our spirits heal and grow our material lives are positively changed.

The serenity that is spoken of so highly in 12-Step fellowships flows outward, attracting others who seek it out. We write out each step, identifying what the step means to us and how it applies to our lives today. This process is like when a Zen master gives his student a Koan to figure out, and solve in their life. The most famous example of these playful, mystical riddles would surely be, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” The student then meditates on this phrase (or step) to come up with what this means personally and spiritually in their present life.

Since our spiritual journey involves constant change, we continue to grow by working the steps over and over again, each time on a different issue and at a deeper level. The journey of the steps mirrors our lives, and their meanings change with us over time. The principles that occur as we work and live the steps are quite simply directions. Like points on a compass, they tell us where to go, directing our lives into a place of wholeness and fulfillment. I believe this profound personality change has to be ongoing. To assure our transformation continues, I suggest to the people I sponsor to keep their practice of the steps ongoing. The steps save our lives, and then they change our lives. We, in turn, show the next person how we did it. Ideally, this process of spiritual growth never ends.

When addiction enters our lives, either through our own use or that of a family member, it can cause enormous confusion and pain and turn life as we know it upside down. The spiritual path of the 12-Steps is not always easy, but the willingness to practice the steps will begin to soften our attitude toward addiction.  Compassion and understanding will begin to fill the void that anger and resentment used to occupy.

As we begin to witness our lives and those around us change, we come to see that our greatest challenges are often the introduction to a deeper compassion, engendering our view of life with a new sense of vision.

18 Responses

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    January 3, 2013 at 2:57 PM

    With all due respect, I can say rather conclusively that the 12 step approach hindered my efforts to recover from addiction rather than helped. I say this not to undermine those who have found these programs effective in their recovery, but for me it does rather hinge on the progressive state of being “in recovery” as opposed to finding an answer to one’s problems and finding oneself “recovered”. There is no room in most 12 step programs for those who do not want to surrender to something “greater than” themselves, and I found that (especially with the younger people I was surrounded with) those who eschewed any sense of spirituality or religious belief system were treated rather insultingly, even condescendingly. As if their atheism was somehow “selfish” and proof of the same supposed selfishness (“self-will”, stubbornness, ego, etc.) that kept them in addiction. I saw many lose hope under this constant insistence upon following this particular system.

    I am aware that many are helped by these programs, and my wish is not to denigrate these people. However, sharing my own perspective serves a purpose as well–I would’ve loved to have seen testimonials by people who recovered without the steps when I myself was struggling, to have known that “recovery” would not be a constant state for the rest of my life, nor would being condemned to meetings (if you don’t like them, then being told to attend them lifelong is rather a condemnation). I am free from cravings, but I am also free from constantly focusing on my past addiction now, free from substances, and free from the anxiety of constantly over-analyzing the thoughts in my own head. I had to fashion my own program, but once the drugs were cleared from my system, my brain led me to the right paths (so much for the “your brain is a dangerous neighborhood” business, eh?).

    My own method worked for me, it would not likely work for all others facing addiction to drugs or alcohol, but that is rather my point. Bill W.’s path doesn’t necessarily fit everyone either, and for his story to become dogma is a disservice to those who end up paying for treatment and instead of medical help get a rather rote set of ideas based on the ideas of a few alcoholics from the 1930s.

    I submit this comment in hope that others who want to recover realize they have the power within themselves, and that if they don’t like what they’re being told in 12 step circles/treatment centers, that they are not alone and that hope is not lost to them.

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    Peter Srodes

    December 24, 2012 at 3:21 PM

    I recoverED from alcohol dependence 27 years ago even though I was subjected to the religion of alcoholism at AA. Alcoholics go to a church basement, pray, do the confessional then pray some more. That is practicing the religion of alcoholism. A so called “higher power” is just unethical bait and switch for some invisible god Thingy. While we can be helped by being with others in recovery these religious 12 step programs aren’t suited to rational people. Rational Recovery was a religion free program back then and may still exist. If you switch from drug dependency to relegion dependency you still have a dependency. It’s better to switch to independence. The behaviors you exhibit at any moment are under the control of your current setting. If there is no alcohol or other drugs in your setting then you won’t exhibit drug taking behaviors. Being god free is simply the condition we are in and some of us are honest about it. Try honesty, it’s really easy.

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    Kate Bracken

    December 22, 2012 at 7:09 AM

    I have been blessed with a VERY LOVING & Sometimes tough Family. Really gets me snarly when someone “calls me on my *h%t” But after I have admitted that as usual, I have a part in every interaction in my tiny life – I look at myself. I learned that in the many smarmy, smoky, rooms of AA/NA filled with men & women (who I understood) – AND HAD I NOT HEARD THE LAUGHTER…..NOTICED A WOMAN MY AGE & OLDER SMILING……I doubt I would be here right now. TIP: no matter where you go, who you see, pay, etc…. You have the choice to “take what you like & leave the rest”… Simple.

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