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
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.
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.