The 12 Steps for Everyone [Step One]

Hola mi Gente,
I realize there are many people who see the 12-step movement as a cult, as misguided, or as a failure. That’s fine. I have no interest in debating the merits of NA/ AA or in trying to convince anyone to join. What follows is my experience as someone who’s been free from active addiction for 26+ years. I do, however, believe anyone can benefit from practicing the principles that form the foundation of the 12 Steps…

Every first Sunday, I will post my attempt to translate these principles for the general public. Also, if you’re suffering, please know that there is hope after dope… There are links to resources at the end of this post.

Stopping the War

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We admitted we were powerless over our addiction, that our lives had become unmanageable.
— The First Step of Narcotics Anonymous

 

I was once told that these spiritual principles were as a bridge back to life. What I didn’t know then was that this bridge is built on the very bones of those who came before me. This series of posts is an attempt to honor that lineage.

The First Step confronted me with two problematic words: powerless and unmanageable. I also didn’t notice at first that every NA step begins with the word “We.” I was a loner; “we” wasn’t a word I used much. Everything was about me. They say an addict is an egomaniac with low self-esteem, and that contradiction in terms perfectly described my state of mind.

Let me just say that 12-step recovery is about action — it is an experiential approach. Every step involves growth, exploration, and some measure of action. I think people who have never attended a meeting have misconceptions about 12-Step Fellowships.

People in recovery like to say that the first step is the only step you have to get perfectly. I disagree, recovery is an ongoing process, and my understanding of the first step expands and deepens as I grow. However, there is a level of acceptance necessary for the integration of this step. But I get ahead of myself…

There are several powerful psycho-spiritual factors at work in the First Step. Primarily, there is an admission. Admitting to a problem has become a popular notion in our culture that first came to prominence in twelve-step fellowships. The act of admitting touches on the first spiritual principle of the first step: honesty. However, admitting means nothing without acceptance. For example, at one point in my life I had no problem admitting I was an addict; I could be honest about that. But that admission and $2.75 got me on the train, which is another way of saying that admitting by itself it is worthless. It wasn’t until I embraced another core spiritual principle of the first step, acceptance, that I was then able to make changes in my life.

The more NA meetings I attended, the more I heard my own story being told by others who were honest about themselves. I began to see that I had a lot in common with these people when it came to my addictive behaviors. On the other hand, it took me a long time to come to grips with powerlessness. I was raised to think of myself as powerful. I was taught that if I exerted my will on any issue, that I could overcome anything in the world. If I had enough cojones and worked hard enough, I could have power over anything.

Besides, it wasn’t my addiction that was the problem, it was everyone else. At least that was what I told myself. If only other people got their shit together and external situations in my life corrected themselves, I wouldn’t be in such a fix. The problem with my thinking was that it involved exerting willpower. The problem with my willpower was that it was warped. The more willpower I exerted, the more I fucked up. I tried everything: using only on the weekends, snorting instead of using intravenously, drinking instead of using other drugs, using only certain drugs in certain combinations, etc. The irrefutable truth was that no matter what I tried, I always ended up in the same place: all fucked up.

Imagine a machinery part that was made to perform only one action, or to move in only one direction, or in one specific way. No matter how much you oil that part, no matter how much you try to make it more efficient or move faster, it will still perform how it was meant to function. If a part was meant to move back and forth, for example, no amount of lubrication will make it move sideways. Similarly, if the only tool you have is a hammer, then everything begins to look like a nail. My will was fucked up, meant to move in a specific direction and no exertion of that will could bring about lasting change. In fact, my will often brought more destruction.

Simply put, I came to the realization that if I wanted to change, I needed to develop new tools, to come to terms that will alone wasn’t getting it done. And what that really meant for me was that in order to begin my journey, I first had to surrender. In fact, as I look back now, the whole process of recovery is one long, beautiful, liberating process of surrendering.

The First Step is like the beginning of a hero’s journey. In the archetype of the hero (or errant knight), most heroes begin reluctantly, clumsily, and then forces beyond their control propel them past their ordinary lives into a journey of personal change and renewal. Like most addicts, I was unaware of aspects of myself — my feelings, for example, and the wreckage I was creating. The first step freed me to begin my quest for self-knowledge and transformation.

Admitting to powerlessness was a long and slow process; accepting that admission brought me to the gateway of healing and sanity. That was also about another core spiritual principle: willingness. Instead of willfulness, what I needed was willingness. It’s part of what is often called the HOW (honesty, openness, and willingness) of recovery.

The common misconception about the first step for those who have never tried to apply it is that it is defeatist. The first step is not about defeat. It says powerlessness, not hopelessness. Powerlessness is not uncommon, in fact, and if we open our eyes, we realize that we have no power over many things. Take the weather, for example. As we Northerners brace ourselves for a cold winter as I write this, I understand completely that I can’t stop the snow, but if you take the time to stop, look, and listen, you may come to realize that preparation is a lot better than trying to control the elements. Another thing we have no power over is how others act or think, yet we spend enormous amounts of time and energy trying to exert control over other people. Oftentimes, we don’t even have power over our own emotions, but we can learn to relate to them differently.

The first step is really about admitting powerlessness over living in the extremes. Try fighting the rain, or better yet, a hurricane, and you’ll get a sense of what it is to fight addiction. You have to surrender. You have to take refuge.

As part of taking the first step, you take an inventory of the consequences of your addiction. For me this meant documenting the jobs I lost, the people I hurt, and most of all, the harm I did to myself. In reflecting in this way, I could no longer deny the unmanageability of my life as an active addict. This was a hard nut to crack because I never wanted to admit my life was unmanageable. I had it together, I liked to think, I just went a little overboard sometimes.

I was also confronted with the insanity of an obsession that led to compulsion and how my fight would be futile until I surrendered. If you’re fighting an inner war, then someone has to lose. If you’re fighting an inner war, it follows, you, or an aspect of yourself, will always lose.

Taking the first step clearly showed me that my thinking had little relationship to reality. There were countless times during my active addiction, for example, that I would experience a blackout. A blackout doesn’t entail being unconscious or comatose. In a blackout, you can sit down one minute and the next thing you know you missed an entire episode of your life — while conscious.

A blackout is similar to what I imagine a time jumper would feel. One minute you’re in one time-space continuum and the next, you’re somewhere else and what’s horrifying is that you don’t know what the fuck is going on. One time coming out of a blackout, I had a whole house-full of people wanting to kick my ass, and I had no clue why. It seems I propositioned the bride-to-be (I was at an engagement party) and that kind of pissed a few people off. I once emerged out of a blackout in a different state and different year having lost track of several days. It happened during an extended New Year’s Eve celebration. Several days later, I woke up in a strange house, sleeping next to a strange woman and I had no inkling where I was or what day.

I used to laugh and brag about that (it’s still funny on one level) but it was a horrifying experience. Still I couldn’t admit my powerlessness. It wasn’t that something was wrong with me, I rationalized, it was that other people were too stuck up or rigid, and besides, I know that bitch at the engagement party wanted me. Perhaps you may have never experienced this extreme form of powerlessness, but have you ever had a situation spiral out of control to the point that you were at a loss?

Most of all, the first step is the beginning of the undoing of the karmic consequences of denial. I had to be brought my knees — from hopelessly addicted, being confined in institutions, and even close to death — and still I wouldn’t admit my powerlessness. There was definitely a lot of evidence of unmanageability in my life. Shit, I attempted suicide at least once. What “normal” person can say that?

More than anything, I realized as I became clean did the inner work, that I was addicted to insanity. If my life was going too smoothly, or things were going my way, or I had too many successes going on, I would find a way to sabotage that. I would pick a fight at a bar, or destroy an intimate relationship, or simply disappear. I didn’t know what it meant to have a measure of serenity or consistency in my life. I didn’t know how to cope with that.

Oh, and yes, I’ve kicked more habits than I can remember. The problem was that I just could never stay stopped. It was never hard kicking a habit. But addiction, I soon learned, was not merely about substance abuse. I would get “clean” and chill for six-seven months, but when I started again, it was as if I never stopped. My last day as an active addict, I had spent $300 after having been released from a Rikers Island jail for exactly fourteen days. I went from clean to a $300-a-day habit at the drop of a hat.

I would say that’s unmanageable…

However, there are other ways our powerlessness and unmanageability manifests in our lives. Whether it’s food or cigarettes, or relationships, I think we can all look where we’re being a little self-destructive or even slowly killing ourselves (cigarettes anyone?), suffering needlessly, or causing ourselves or our loved ones harm. I believe we all can identify with the compulsive need to exert control and the denial of powerlessness. I use my life as an example because the extreme manner in which I lived it makes it easier to illustrate my points, but we all have the dark places, the places that scare us.

Today, I apply the first step to many things in my life, especially in relationships and to certain behaviors. For example, in my job search one of the things that help keeps me sane is that I realize I have no power over outcomes. I cannot control how other people behave, or the decisions they make. My power is in the effort that I put in to my job search. Anything else, I have no power over that.

Addictions like to migrate. One might be able to kick the heroin or the alcohol, but then you see people acting out sexually or financially. If you don’t do the inner work, applying these principles in all your affairs, then you’ll continue to be in the grips of addictive behavior. The first step stipulated that I was powerless over my addiction. Addiction is not about a substance, but a way of thinking.

Eventually, I began to conceptualize the first step as something similar to the concepts of Aikido or Wing Chun, two martial arts that stress the importance of never meeting force with force. In a sense, the first step is about learning to flow with the forces of life instead of fighting all the time. It’s learning to transform difficult emotions into opportunities for healing. It’s knowing that while you can’t stop the waves, you can learn to surf.

My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…

Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it, please consider helping me out by sharing it, liking me on Facebook, following me on Twitter, or even throwing me some money on GoFundMe HERE or via PayPal HERE so I can keep calling it like I see it.

Resources

Addiction is one of the most pressing problems in our society — a society that actually encourages consumption at the expense of substance. If you think you have a problem, give yourself a break, and try something new, it just might save your life…

Alcoholics Anonymous: Official website

Narcotics Anonymous: Official website

Allione, T (2008) Feeding your demons: Ancient wisdom for resolving inner conflict. (click here)

Chodron, P. (2005) When things fall apart: Heart advice for difficult times (click here)

Note: The featured artwork is from Ben’h Usry.

The Beyond Help Series [Pain and Suffering]

Hola! Everybody,
I’ve been keeping away from posting on the current state of politics because a part of me doesn’t want to give either terribly flawed POTUS any attention. I am disgusted by the corporate media’s reality show treatment of this critical moment in our history. I guess that’s it: I’m disgusted.

However, I’m sure I’ll be back at it tomorrow.

Acceptance, Pain & Suffering

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Pain is the breaking of the shell of your understanding.
— Kahlil Gibran

 

Early on when I first began picking up the pieces of my life, I came upon the phrase suffering is optional. Like most new things, I didn’t understand it at first, but a friend instructed me just to keep at it with an open mind and I would eventually understand.

Today, I make a distinction between pain and suffering. Because of the nature of language, whenever we come face to face with a problem, our first impulse is to fix them. We try to get out of the quicksand. As an evolutionary adaptation and in our external world, this problem-solving approach is effective most of the time. Being able to figure out how to get out of undesirable events, such as being preyed upon, eaten, or natural catastrophes, is essential in securing our place as a species.

However, it is also unfortunate that we try to use the same “fix it” mentality when it comes to understanding or coming to terms with our inner world. When we encounter painful psychic content within ourselves, we often resort to what we always do: fix it up and sort it out so we can get rid of it. The truth of the matter is that our inner lives are not like our external world. For one thing, humans live in the context of a historical frame, and time moves only in one direction, not two. Psychological pain has a history and, at least in some respects, the heart of the matter doesn’t entail getting rid of something. It is more a matter of how we deal with it and evolve.

Acceptance as I use it here is based on the perspective that, as a rule, trying to get rid of your pain only amplifies it, entangles you further in it, and eventually makes it more traumatic. This is best illustrated by what I call emotional quicksand: how meeting the suction force of quicksand with tension only makes you more stuck in the quicksand. Our psychological lives are a lot like that. When you’re engaged in fighting for your life, living your life is often pushed aside.

The alternative — something that is often misunderstood — is to accept pain. Acceptance, in the context that I use it here, is not the same as self-defeat; neither is it being passive about and putting up with your pain. It is very different from that. In fact, that type of negative acceptance is a far cry from the vibrant form of acceptance of the moment that can be liberating.

For now, try to think of throwing away the impulse to meet power with power, tension with more tension. Pain is an inescapable fact of life. It happens. You get up early in the morning, and you bang your toe on something. Pain. However, I define suffering differently. I see suffering as pain mixed with tension. Pain can be accepted and even used to transform our suffering. However, if we’re adding tension to pain, then we’re suffering. We have what’s there (pain) and then we have what we bring to the table. Add tension to pain and you have deep suffering. Here it is as a formula:

pain +tension = suffering

Most of us haven’t had much training in the proactive form of acceptance that I attempting to illustrate here. I want to ask you to keep an open mind and thank your mind for whatever it says this term means, but don’t try to pigeonhole it right now. This form of acceptance is difficult to describe, and learning to be willing to have and live your own experience is something I will focus on a little in future posts. In the meantime, be patient and open — as well as a little skeptical — about what your mind might be guessing what I mean right now.

My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…

Love in an Imperfect World

Hola Everybody,
I was at a second interview today and I keep getting asked the same question: “Why are you applying for this job.” My experience and resume sometimes works against me and it’s really frustrating.

Perfect Love/ Imperfect World

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Neurosis is the avoidance of legitimate suffering.
Carl Jung, Psychology and Religion

 

We are all manifestations of perfect love living in an imperfect world. And as I rant constantly, love is openness. When you are open — when you allow yourself to be open — the love flows and you can communicate with your lover and anyone else. Whether you are sexing or having an important discussion, you can open and come together as one love expressing itself through two bodies.

I know what you are thinking. You are thinking that opening up in that way sounds good, but in the real world, it is not practical. You have tried being open and it hurt and you are not going to be burnt again – ever. Too many hurts and you close in order to feel less vulnerable. So you walk around encased in your shining armor, walking awkwardly through this terrifying terrain. Sometimes the armor rusts and you can hear the squeaks.

Yet you still desire love. Underneath all that armor, behind all those walls, your yearning backs up into frustration and anger. So you punish the world by closing your heart off. You are safe now, but so alone, so very alone. You open, you get hurt, and you close. You lash out, the world lashes back, and you close.

I know that what I am about to say will make you roll your eyes, but the only way out of this cycle is by learning to practice love. I have a client who once came to me and before I could say anything, promptly informed me that she wasn’t opening anymore because it wasn’t working. I had to smile at that and I loved her honesty. The fact remains that there is an issue here and the issue is you. Or rather your ego — your mini me.

You can practice remaining open even when the reflexive, knee-jerk reaction to close your heart appears. You hear about this knee-jerk reaction all the time. People often describe it as “keeping the negativity out” as if one could spit out a cocoon and choose what life brings about. I find this entirely unrealistic. Do you honestly think you can keep negativity from your life? I don’t know, maybe I’m living in a parallel universe, but there’s at least about as much negativity as there are positives around here, so you want to shut out half of your reality, huh? Look around, if you keep doing this you are going to end up on an island somewhere all alone. Even then, some fuckin coconut will bonk you on the head, or you will step on a seashell, and those goddamned negative mosquitoes will bite and you will bitch about that too.

There is no escaping you, dearie.

There is an easier way out of all this. You can choose to feel the hurt and practice staying open. The choice is quite simple. You can chose to close when you are hurt, but that is like cutting off your nose to spite your face. I was hurt world, so now I’m closing this ma’fucca down. Eventually, that leads to more problems. It makes you numb and chokes off vital energy. The other choice is instead of closing in anger, you can allow yourself to feel the deep sorrow, the raw yearning, the wounding slashes.

In response to the hurt, you can practice love, or you can practice hate. Instead of tensing your body, you can relax into it, breathing deeply and fully, and feeling the deep hurt. Believe me, this will save you from a lot of unnecessary pain because when you confront your lover’s closing with openness, you will begin to see more clearly. And if what you see clearly that you have to move on, you will do so with an open heart. Your heart is your strongest ally and it only becomes stronger when you open it. Your heart is not a liability, it is an asset. It is an asset that you have consciously chosen to put in a cage.

Life is a lesson of love. Your life feels full in every moment you stay open as love. Too many people do not know what love is and wait to feel alive only when they experience a chemical reaction they attribute to another individual. That is not love, that’s ego looking for attention. Love is a state of being, not a feeling. The irony of all ironies is that you are, and always have been, love.

When you close, even for a moment, then you are creating suffering for yourself and pain in the hearts of those who would open in love with you. Your body is literally a neurological feedback loop and too many of us are starving for connection. To be fully aware and embracing of all that is within us and consciously seeking develop our full potential is our quest as human beings.

If you desire to live a full life and feel the profundity of love’s power, practice opening at all times, including times of hurt. Feel and breathe your heart’s deep hurt, and the hurt of others, without closing. Offer this openness to yourself and others, even those who are hurting you. The only alternative is to close and live an unfulfilled life. While I understand that a broken heart hurts, even worse is a heart that has no life. In the end, neurosis becomes a poor substitute for the noble suffering it takes to become a person of real character

My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…

The 12 Steps for Everyone [Step 6]

Hola mi Gente,
Today: my continuation of the series on the 12 steps.

Willingness

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We were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
— Step Six of Narcotics Anonymous

The readiness is all.
— William Shakespeare

 

I believe that the concept of willingness is one that isn’t given its rightful due — especially when it comes to relationships. Willingness here not being the narrowly defined ego-will we might think of when we think of “will” or “will power.”

Willingness is important enough in everything we endeavor to do whether it be spirituality, self-improvement, learning, relationships, etc. Our willingness or lack thereof, is key in all our activities.

I remember reading somewhere, or someone telling me (I forget which), that it was not enough to believe, that there had to be a willing to believe. At that time, I was a bit confused about this, “Does this mean willpower?” I asked myself. This was during my early process of attempting a relationship with myself, which I will define here as my spiritual journey. Over time, I have come to understand willingness differently. For me, willingness entails two important components. One is surrender, the other acceptance.

Surrender/ Acceptance

By surrender I don’t mean hopelessness or humiliation, or “giving up.” Surrender, in this context, is knowing, in a very deep sense, that the concept of total control is flawed and ineffective. Surrender in this sense is clearing the way to create an open space and preparing myself to be in more harmony with the world. Realizing that there are aspects of my life over which I have no control, I can become ready to be changed by surrendering to this truth. In surrender, I become ready (willing) to be changed.

That makes all the difference…

I can be wrong, but my own experience has shown me that love — true love — is about change, about transformation. It is about the willingness to let go of character traits that hold us back. It’s only when we try to control the process that it eludes our grasp. I could be wrong, though.

But surrender is not enough. We have not arrived at true willingness unless it contains another ingredient — acceptance. When I accept the truth of surrender I am already changed, I am more in line with nature and the universe. I can’t force family harmony into my life, but I can become ready to be harmonious. I can’t make a lasting love appear for me on command, but I can become ready (willing) for such a relationship when the opportunity arises.

Willingness is what I look for most in a relationship. It’s more important than looks or attitude, or sexual prowess — all of that is meaningless without willingness. When I first read internet profiles on dating sites that go on at length about the qualities being sought, I am completely, utterly amazed. Sometimes it seems that some of us are looking for “The One” who will fit our wish list of qualities. Here’s my Christmas wish list, Santa! It’s as if we’re still little boys and girls buying into the fairy tales of perfection

But my question to you is really quite simple: are you ready to surrender? Are you truly willing? Are you willing to become completely vulnerable and naked? Because what I am striving for is to become ready — not perfect, nor to satisfy a superficial list of ego needs and wants. So, my question for you is…

Are you ready?

My name I Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…

The 12 Steps for Everyone [Step Three]

Hola mi Gente,

Right off the bat: I am not interested in debating people who consider 12-step fellowships cults, or who think they are ineffective or whatever. The 12 step fellowships aren’t for everybody. If you were to attend a meeting, you would here this repeated in the prefatory readings at every meeting. However, if you were to ask me how I got clean, I would have to tell you that the fellowship of Narcotics Anonymous saved my life. My experience also tells me that internalizing and applying the principles found in the 12 Steps could be beneficial for everyone, regardless of whether they identify as an addict.

* * *

 03-15-16_ 12 Steps for Everyone [Step Three]

Turning it Over

Step Three: We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

 

The first time I came to the fellowship of Narcotics Anonymous, by the time I reached this step, I had decided to quit. This is bullshit! I told myself. Fuck that God shit.

At that time I wasn’t ready for recovery and I spent the next five years, the worst of my life, chasing my addiction so that I could get outside of myself. In a very real way, my addiction was my Higher Power, and at some level I knew this, but I would not kneel before a God I didn’t believe, or religious principles that I saw as intolerant and juvenile.

I didn’t sit still long enough to read the part of the step that says: … as we understood Him. The second time around, I was more willing to learn to listen and listen to learn because I had a burning desire to stop the suffering. Yet, while I was more open, but I also knew that I couldn’t pretend to submit to religious dogma because my efforts had to be genuine or I would risk going back.

My First Step work forced me confront the contradiction of my addictive process: that I felt powerful when in fact, I was powerless over my addiction and needed help. The First Step gave me hope… However, having internalized and accepted my powerlessness (not to be confused with hopelessness), I was left open and vulnerable, and while I understood my powerlessness, I needed something to latch onto, some form of support.

My Second Step work helped me come to terms with trust, at least a little, and it challenged my feelings of grandiosity, bringing me to the realization that I am a human being, and as such, I am not all-powerful — the “Great I Am.” It taught me the value of surrendering my small self in favor of my Higher Self. The Second Step helped me take a fresh look at faith and it helped me begin my spiritual search anew with a new perspective. In fact, I see my entire history of active addiction as a spiritual search gone wrong. Recovery was a matter of turning that mad search into something sane and good.

In the beginning, I was able to accept the collective consciousness of the fellowship of NA as my Higher Power, but as I continued to work the steps in my life, I revisited the teachings of Buddhism (The Dharma) and I accepted them as my Higher Power. In Buddhism, I found a Higher Power that could restore me to sanity.

In Narcotics Anonmyous I was taught that there are no “shalts.”In other words, nothing is forced down our throats and everyone works the steps to the best of their abilities and at their own pace. In fact, working  the steps is not a requirement, simply a suggestion. The first three steps serve as a foundation — a bridge — back to life. It’s not about belief, but about practice. Believing is not enough; it is through living and applying the steps that we recover our Original Self. I think what’s most important for anyone, is maintaining a frame of mind described by Zen masters as “beginner’s mind.” In the mind of an expert, it is said, there are few possibilities. But in the mind of a beginner, everything is possible.

Let me add that I as I have progressed spiritually, I have come to realize that bridge back to life was made from the bones of those who came before me, many of whom never got clean, never tasted spiritual freedom.

Truly, change and recovery are about coming back to a state where we’re open to suggestions and looking at life with fresh eyes. It’s about dropping the mess and listening to the message. If you’re like me and many others, there are issues that have tested you sorely. Whether it is drugs, sex, relationships, your emotions, food, or other people, we all have found ourselves at our wit’s end at one time or another. The Third Step is about letting be, as the Taoists put it.

One thing I was painfully aware of was that whenever I imposed my will, things became messed up quick. If I was in a relationship, my will meant lots of insanity. Imposing my will on my addiction meant that it made it worse because my will was warped. So recovery (and specifically the Third Step) is a lot about letting go of the impulsive need to control. It’s about allowing a Higher Principle, set of moral and ethical guidelines, Higher Power, or God — or whatever you choose to call it — guide your actions.

For me, that Higher Power as I understand it is The Dharma. In other words, instead of exerting my will on my addictive behaviors, I was letting go in favor of a set of spiritual principles that emphasized ethical behavior, contemplation, and cognitive restructuring. Rather than chasing a bag, or the delusional grasp for happiness through destructive behavior, I was instead flowing into a spiritual practice that guided me toward a saner way of life. For my purposes, I do not believe in an Abrahamic God, but I am an addict in recovery.

My experience with the 12 Steps is that they have taught me that when I’m less reactive and defensive, life becomes less stressful and simpler. The truth of the matter is that I’m constantly taking my will back. I become a backseat driver to my life and demand to make a left turn, when my Higher Power (as understood by me) is telling me to make a right. There are times I’m downright nasty about it and I take the wheel and “all of sudden” there I am, ass out on Broadway. In my early recovery I would take my will back on an hourly basis. I had the good fortune to have someone explain to me that recovery (and life) is really about practice not perfection. The point is if we’re to evolve, then letting go becomes a way of life. These principles are guidelines to progress. The issue isn’t spiritual perfection, but spiritual practice. No one, my guide told me, gets this perfectly.

Whatever your understanding of your Higher Power, it is suggested that it be a loving and understanding. For me this means living a life of non-harming, of skillful speech and action. If I can turn my life over to that Higher Power, then I’m released from the bondage of my smaller, ego-driven self. For some this can mean throwing away the concept of an angry and jealous God for one that is loving, accepting, and compassionate. It could mean an understanding of God that resides within, instead of the concept of a patriarchal God-in-the-sky. Perhaps the Universal Principle is a stream flowing through all of us. Maybe my Higher Power, rather than being an old white guy with a beard can look like Halle Berry, instead. Who’s to say? What’s important, in this spirituality, is that your Higher Power be loving and trustworthy.

Most importantly, this step is all about coming to terms with trust. It is really about learning acceptance, of letting go of the compulsive need for control. In my active addiction, I was more concerned with control than about relationships. Lack of trust, my friends, is really about control. If you don’t trust someone, then you’re trying to control that person. In other words, lack of trust is the impulse to control because if you can’t trust another, you want to do everything yourself. And how has that worked so far?

Let go…

This is for you, whoever you are. Take what is useful. Ultimately, however, this is mostly for the still sick and suffering addict out there all alone thinking there’s no way out, or defending a madness slowly killing him or her.

My name is Eddie and I am an addict in recovery…

 

 

The 12 Steps for Everyone [Step One]

Hola mi Gente,

I realize there are many people who see the 12-step movement as a cult, as misguided, or as a failure. That’s fine. I have no interest in debating the merits of NA/ AA or in trying to convince anyone to join. What follows is my experience as someone who’s been free from active addiction for 25+ years. I do, however, believe anyone can benefit from practicing the principles that form the foundation of the 12 Steps…

* * *

 Step 1_ 001

Stopping the War

We admitted we were powerless over our addiction, that our lives had become unmanageable.

— The First Step of Narcotics Anonymous

 

I was once told that these spiritual principles were as a bridge back to life. What I didn’t know then was that this bridge is built on the very bones of those who came before me. This series of posts is an attempt to honor that.

The First Step confronted me with two problematic words: powerless and unmanageable. I also didn’t notice at first that every NA step begins with the word “We.” I was a loner; “we” wasn’t a word I used much. Everything was about me. They say an addict is an egomaniac with low self-esteem, and that contradiction in terms described perfectly how I felt.

Let me just say that 12-step recovery is about action — it is an experiential approach. Every step involves growth, exploration, and some measure of action. I think people have huge misconceptions about 12-Step Fellowships. People in recovery like to say that the first step is the only step you have to get perfectly. I disagree, recovery is an ongoing process, and my understanding of the first step expands and deepens as I grow. However, there is a level of acceptance necessary for the integration of this step. But I get ahead of myself…

There are several powerful psycho-spiritual factors at work in the First Step. Primarily, there is an admission. Admitting to a problem has become a popular notion in our culture that first came to prominence in twelve-step fellowships. The act of admitting touches on the first spiritual principle of the first step: honesty. However, admitting means nothing without acceptance. For example, at one point in my life I had no problem admitting I was an addict; I could be honest about that. But that admission and $2.50 got me on the train, which is another way of saying that admitting by itself it is worthless. It wasn’t until I embraced another core spiritual principle of the first step, acceptance, that I was then able to make changes in my life.

The more NA meetings I attended, the more I heard my own story being told by others who were honest about themselves. I began to see that I had a lot in common with these people when it came to my addictive behaviors. On the other hand, it took me a long time to come to grips with powerlessness. I was raised to think of myself as powerful. I was taught that if I exerted my will on any issue, that I could overcome anything in the world. If I had enough cojones and worked hard enough, I could have power over anything.

Besides, it wasn’t my addiction that was the problem, it was everyone else. At least that was what I told myself. If only other people got their shit together and external situations in my life corrected themselves, I wouldn’t be in such a fix. The problem with my thinking was that it involved exerting willpower. The problem with my willpower was that it was warped. The more willpower I exerted, the more I fucked up. I tried everything: using only on the weekends, snorting instead of intravenous injections, drinking instead of using other drugs, using only certain drugs in certain combinations, etc. The irrefutable truth was that no matter what I tried, I always ended up in the same place: all fucked up.

Imagine a machinery part that was made to perform only one action, or to move in only one direction, or in one specific way. No matter how much you oil that part, no matter how much you try to make it more efficient of move faster, it will still perform how it was meant to function. If a part was meant to move back and forth, for example, no amount of lubrication will make it move sideways. Similarly, if the only tool you have is a hammer, then everything begins to look like a nail. My will was fucked up, meant to move in a specific direction and no exertion of that will could bring about lasting change. In fact, my will often brought more destruction.

Simply put, I came to the realization that if I wanted to change, I needed to develop new tools, to come to terms that my will wasn’t working too well. And what that really meant for me was that in order to begin my journey, I first had to surrender. In fact, as I look back now, the whole process of recovery is one long, beautiful, liberating process of surrendering.

The First Step is like the beginning of a hero’s journey. In the archetype of the hero (or errant knight), most heroes begin reluctantly, clumsily, and then forces beyond their control propel them past their ordinary lives into a journey of personal change and renewal. Like most addicts, I was unaware of aspects of myself — my feelings, for example, and the wreckage I was creating. The first step freed me to begin my quest for self-knowledge and transformation.

Admitting to powerlessness took me years; accepting that admission brought me to the gateway of healing and sanity. That was also about another core spiritual principle: willingness. Instead of willfulness, what I needed was willingness. It’s part of what is often called the HOW (honesty, openness, and willingness) of recovery.

The common misconception about the first step for those who have never tried to apply it is that it is defeatist. The first step is not about defeat. It says powerlessness, not hopelessness. Powerlessness is not uncommon, in fact, and if we open our eyes, we realize that we have no power over many things. Take the weather, for example. As we Northerners brace ourselves for a cold spell and some snow as I write this, I understand completely that I can’t stop the snow, but if you take the time to stop, look, and listen, you may come to realize that preparation is a lot better than trying to control the elements. Another thing we have no power over is how others act or think, yet we spend enormous amounts of time and energy trying to exert control over other people. Oftentimes, we don’t even have power over our own emotions, but we can learn to relate to them differently.

The first step is really about admitting powerlessness over living in the extremes. Try fighting the rain, or better yet, a hurricane, and you’ll get a sense of what it is to fight addiction. You have to surrender.

As part of taking the first step, you take an inventory of the consequences of your addiction. For me this meant documenting the jobs I lost, the people I hurt, and most of all, the harm I did to myself. In reflecting in this way, I could no longer deny the unmanageability of my life as an active addict. This was a hard nut to crack because I never wanted to admit my life was unmanageable. I had it together, I liked to think, I just went a little overboard sometimes.

I was also confronted with the insanity of an obsession that led to compulsion and how my fight would be futile until I surrendered. If you’re fighting an inner war, then someone has to lose. If you’re fighting an inner war, it follows, you, or an aspect of yourself, will always lose.

Taking the first step clearly showed me that my thinking had little relationship to reality. There were countless times, for example, that I would experience a blackout. A blackout doesn’t entail being unconscious or comatose. In a blackout, you can sit down one minute and the next thing you know you missed an entire episode of your life — while conscious.

It’s similar to what I imagine a time jumper would feel. One minute you’re in one time-space continuum and the next, you’re somewhere else and what’s horrifying is that you don’t know what the fuck is going on. One time coming out of a blackout, I had a whole house-full of people wanting to kick my ass, and I had no clue why. It seems I propositioned the bride-to-be (I was at an engagement party) and that kind of pissed a few people off. I once emerged out of a blackout in a different state and different year. It happened during an extended New Year’s Eve celebration. Several days later, I woke up in a strange house, sleeping next to a strange woman and I had no inkling of where I was or what day.

Still I couldn’t admit my powerlessness. It wasn’t that something was wrong with me, I rationalized, it was that other people were too stuck up or rigid, and besides, I know that bitch at the engagement party wanted me. Perhaps you may have never experienced this extreme form of powerlessness, but have you ever had a situation spiral out of control to the point that you were at a loss?

Most of all, the first step is the beginning of the undoing of the karmic consequences of denial. I had to be brought my knees — from hopelessly addicted to institutions and even close to death — and still I wouldn’t admit my powerlessness. There was definitely a lot of evidence of unmanageability in my life. Shit, I attempted suicide at least once. What “normal” person can say that? More than anything, I was addicted to insanity.

Oh, and yes, I’ve kicked more habits than I can remember. I just could never stay stopped. It was never hard kicking a habit. But addiction, I soon learned, was not merely about substance abuse. I would get “clean” and chill for six-seven months, but when I started again, it was as if I never stopped. My last day as an active addict, I had spent $300 after having been released from an institution for exactly fourteen days. I went from clean to a $300-a-day habit at the drop of a hat.

I would say that’s unmanageable…

However, there are other ways our powerlessness and unmanageability manifests in our lives. Whether it’s food or cigarettes, or relationships, I think we can all look where we’re being a little self-destructive or even slowly killing ourselves, suffering needlessly, or causing ourselves or our loved ones harm. I believe we all can identify with the compulsive need to exert control and the denial of powerlessness. I use my life as an example because the extreme manner in which I lived it makes it easier to illustrate my points, but we all have the dark places, the places that scare us.

Today, I apply the first step to many things in my life, especially in relationships and to certain behaviors. Addictions like to migrate. One might be able to kick the heroin or the alcohol, but then you see people acting out sexually or financially. If you don’t do the inner work, applying these principles in all your affairs, then you’ll continue to be in the grips of addictive behavior. The first step stipulated that I was powerless over my addiction. Addiction is not about a substance, but a way of thinking.

Eventually, I began to conceptualize the first step as something similar to the concepts of Aikido or Wing Chun, two martial arts that stress the importance of never meeting force with force. In a sense, the first step is about learning to flow with the forces of life instead of fighting all the time. It’s learning to transform difficult emotions into opportunities for healing. It’s knowing that while you can’t stop the waves, you can learn to surf.

My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…

Resources

Addiction is one of the most pressing problems in our society — a society that actually encourages consumption at the expense of substance. If you think you have a problem, give yourself a break and try something new, it just might save your life…

Alcoholics Anonymous: Official website

Narcotics Anonymous: Official website

Alano: “The Online Alano Club is a nonprofit association intended as a resource for Alcoholics Anonymous® members and groups, as well as any individual who has a desire to stop drinking. Members from other 12-Step programs, especially the Al-Anon Family Groups, also are welcome.”

Allione, T (2008) Feeding your demons: Ancient wisdom for resolving inner conflict. (click here)

Chodron, P. (2005) When things fall apart: Heart advice for difficult times (click here)

Note: The featured artwork is from Ben’h Usry.

The 12 Steps for Everyone [Step One]

I realize there are many people who see the 12-step movement as a cult, as misguided, or as a failure. That’s fine. I have no interest in debating the merits of NA/ AA or in trying to convince anyone. What follows is my experience as someone who’s been free of addiction for 24+ years.

It is my belief that all people, regardless of whether they are addicts or not, can benefit from an application of the embedded spiritual principles of the 12 steps.

Step 1_ 001

Stopping the War

We admitted we were powerless over our addiction, that our lives had become unmanageable.

— The First Step of Narcotics Anonymous

I was once told that these spiritual principles were as a bridge back to life. What I didn’t know then was that this bridge is built on the very bones of those who came before me. This series of posts is an attempt to honor that.

The First Step confronted me with two problematic words: powerless and unmanageable. I also didn’t notice at first that every step began with the word “We.” I was a loner; “we” wasn’t a word I used much. Everything was about me. They say an addict is an egomaniac with low self-esteem, and I believe that was how I felt.

Let me just say that 12-step recovery is about action — it is an experiential approach. Every step involves growth, exploration, and some measure of action. I think people have huge misconceptions about 12-Step Fellowships. People in recovery like to say that the first step is the only step you have to get perfectly. I disagree, recovery is an ongoing process, and my understanding of the first step expands as I grow. However, there is a level of acceptance necessary for the integration of this step. But I get ahead of myself…

There are several powerful psycho-spiritual factors at work in the First Step. Primarily, there is an admission. Admitting to a problem has become a popular notion in our culture that first came to prominence in the recovery community. Admitting touches on the first spiritual principle of the first step: honesty. However, admitting means nothing without acceptance. For example, at one point in my life I had no problem admitting I was an addict; I could be honest about that. But that admission and $2.50 got me on the train, which is another way of saying that admitting by itself it is worthless. It wasn’t until I embraced another core spiritual principle of the first step (acceptance) that I was then able to make changes in my life.

The more meetings I made, the more I heard my own story being told by others who were honest about themselves. I began to see that I had a lot in common with these people when it came to my addictive behaviors. On the other hand, it took me a long time to come to grips with powerlessness. I was raised to think of myself as powerful. I was taught that if I exerted my will on any issue, that I could overcome anything in the world. If I had enough cojones and worked hard enough, I could have power over anything.

Besides, it wasn’t my addiction that was the problem, it was everyone else. At least that was what I told myself. If only other people got their shit together and external situations in my life corrected themselves, I wouldn’t be in such a fix. The problem with my thinking was that it involved exerting willpower. The problem with my willpower was that it was warped. The more willpower I exerted, the more I fucked up. I tried everything: using only on the weekends, snorting instead of intravenous injections, drinking instead of using other drugs, using only certain drugs in certain combinations, etc. The irrefutable truth was that no matter what I tried, I always ended up in the same place: all fucked up.

Imagine a machinery part that was made to perform only one action, or to move in only one direction or in one specific way. No matter how much you oil that part, no matter how much you try to fix it, it will still perform what is was meant to function. If the part was meant to move back and forth in a forward manner, no amount of lubrication will make it move sideways. Similarly, if the only tool you have is a hammer, then everything begins to look like a nail. My will was fucked up, meant to move in a specific direction and no exertion of that will could bring about change. In fact, my will often brought more destruction.

Simply put, I came to the realization that if I wanted to change, I needed to develop new tools, to come to terms that my will wasn’t working too well. And what that really meant for me was that in order to begin my journey, I first had to surrender. In fact, as I look back now, the whole process of recovery is one long, beautiful, liberating process of surrendering.

The First Step is like the beginning of a hero’s journey. In the archetype of the hero (or errant knight), most heroes begin reluctantly, clumsily, and then forces beyond their control propel them past their ordinary lives into a journey of personal change and renewal. Like most addicts, I was unaware of aspects of myself — my feelings, for example, and the wreckage I was creating. The first step freed me to begin my quest for self-knowledge and transformation.

Admitting to powerlessness took me years; accepting that admission brought me to the gateway of healing and sanity. That was also about another core spiritual principle: willingness. Instead of willfulness, what I needed was willingness. It’s part of what is often called the HOW (honesty, openness, and willingness) of recovery.

The common misperception about the first step for those who have never tried to apply it is that it is defeatist. The first step is not about defeat. It says powerlessness, not hopelessness. Powerlessness is not uncommon, in fact, and if we open our eyes, we realize that we have no power over many things. Take the weather, for example. As we Northerners brace ourselves for a blizzard as I write this, I understand completely that I can’t stop the snow, but if you take the time to stop, look, and listen, you may come to realize that preparation is a lot better that railing against the elements. Another thing we have no power over is how others act or think, yet we spend enormous amounts of time and energy trying to exert control over other people. Oftentimes, we don’t even have power over our own emotions, but we can learn to relate to them differently.

The first step is really about admitting powerlessness over living in the extremes. Try fighting the rain, or better yet, a hurricane, and you’ll get a sense of what it is to fight addiction. You have to surrender.

As part of taking the first step, you take an inventory of the consequences of your addiction. For me this meant documenting the jobs I lost, the people I hurt, and most of all, the harm I did to myself. In reflecting in this way, I could no longer deny the unmanageability of my life as an active addict. This was a hard nut to crack because I never wanted to admit my life was unmanageable. I had it together, I liked to think, I just went a little overboard sometimes.

I was also confronted with the insanity of the obsession that led to the compulsion and how my fight would be futile until I surrendered. If you’re fighting an inner war, then someone has to lose. If you’re fighting an inner war, it follows, you, or an aspect of yourself, will always lose.

Taking the first step clearly showed me that my thinking had little relationship to reality. There were countless times, for example, that I would experience a blackout. A blackout doesn’t entail being unconscious or comatose. In a blackout, you can sit down one minute and the next thing you know you missed an entire episode of your life — while conscious.

It’s similar to what I imagine a time jumper would feel. One minute you’re in one time-space continuum and the next, you’re somewhere else and what’s horrifying is that you don’t know what the fuck is going on. One time coming out of a blackout, I had a whole house-full of people wanting to kick my ass, and I had no clue why. It seems I propositioned the bride-to-be (I was at an engagement party) and that kinda pissed a few people off. I once emerged out of a blackout in a different state and different year. It happened during an extended New Year’s Eve celebration. Several days later, I woke up in a strange house, sleeping next to a strange woman and I had no inkling of where I was or what day.

Still I couldn’t admit my powerlessness. It wasn’t that something was wrong with me, I rationalized, it was that other people were too stuck up or rigid, and besides, I know that bitch at the engagement party wanted me. Perhaps you may have never experienced this extreme form of powerlessness, but have you ever had a situation spiral out of control to the point that you were at a loss?

Most of all, the first step is the beginning of the undoing of the karmic consequences of denial. I had to be brought my knees — from hopelessly addicted to institutions and even close to death — and still I wouldn’t admit my powerlessness. There was definitely a lot of evidence of unmanageability in my life. Shit, I attempted suicide at least once. What “normal” person can say that? More than anything, I was addicted to insanity.

Oh, and yes, I’ve kicked more habits than I can remember. I just could never stay stopped. It was never hard kicking a habit. But addiction, I soon learned, was not merely about substance abuse. I would get “clean” and chill for six-seven months, but when I started again, it was as if I never stopped. My last day as an active addict, I had spent $300 after having been released from an institution for exactly fourteen days. I went from clean to a $300-a-day habit at the drop of a hat.

I would say that’s unmanageable…

However, there are other ways our powerlessness and unmanageability manifests in our lives. Whether it’s food or cigarettes, or relationships, I think we can all look where we’re being a little self-destructive or even slowly killing ourselves (cigarette anyone?), suffering needlessly, or causing ourselves or our loved ones harm. I believe we all can identify with the compulsive need to exert control and the denial of powerlessness. I use my life as an example because the extreme manner in which I lived it makes it easier to illustrate my points, but we all have the dark places, the places that scare us.

Today, I apply the first step to many things in my life, especially in relationships and to certain behaviors. Addictions like to migrate. One might be able to kick the heroin or the alcohol, but then you see people acting out sexually or financially. If you don’t do the inner work, applying these principles in all your affairs, then you’ll continue to be in the grips of addictive behavior. The first step stipulated that I was powerless over my addiction. Addiction is not about a substance, but a way of thinking.

Eventually, I began to conceptualize the first step as something similar to the concepts of Aikido or Wing Chun, two martial arts that stress the importance of never meeting force with force. In a sense, the first step is about learning to flow with the forces of life instead of fighting all the time. It’s learning to transform difficult emotions into opportunities for healing. It’s knowing that while you can’t stop the waves, you can learn to surf.

My name is Eddie… Addict

Resources

Addiction is one of the most pressing problems in our society — a society that actually encourages consumption at the expense of substance. If you think you have a problem, give yourself a break and try something new, it might just save your life…

Alcoholics Anonymous: Official website

Narcotics Anonymous: Official website

Alano: “The Online Alano Club is a nonprofit association intended as a resource for Alcoholics Anonymous® members and groups, as well as any individual who has a desire to stop drinking. Members from other 12-Step programs, especially the Al-Anon Family Groups, also are welcome.”

Note: The featured artwork is from Ben’h Usry.