The 12 Steps for Everyone [Step Two]

Hola mi Gente,
Many people take issue with 12 step fellowships, calling them cults and ineffective. I don’t care to debate that here. I don’t know if the following will get you clean, but it is what helped me recover and it’s a set of principles that continue to guide my evolution as a human being.

These posts are best read in order. My take on the first step can be found here.

Faith and our Deepest Experience

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We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
— The Second Step, Narcotics Anonymous

 

As most who read these pages know, I am an addict in recovery. I’ve been clean (yes, clean, not sober!), one day at a time (sometimes one breath at a time), for going on more than 26 years. What follows is a narrative of my journey toward wholeness. I don’t know if this will work for you, but if you were to ask me, this is how I got clean and recovered my life. My story is extreme and you might find it hard to identify with some of its elements. All I ask is that you try to identify with rather than compare my story. As they say in the rooms: listen to the message and not the mess.

I believe all people, regardless of whether they are addicts or not, can benefit from a rigorous application of the 12 Steps.

So take a thorough First Step and what happens? We’re stuck in a bad place. I mean, c’mon now, coming to the full and painful realization that my way of doing things was fundamentally fucked up wasn’t a revelation that filled me up with spiritual joy. Furthermore, my bottom had me staring at some very harsh consequences. The last time I took a drug or drink, I was in detention and looking at a possible 15-year prison sentence. Talk about despair.

But years before I got to that mess, the first time I read this step, I literally walked away from Narcotics Anonymous. My understanding of the core principle of this step, faith, at that time caused me a lot of discomfort. I am not a religious person, nor do I believe in a patriarchal God-in-the-sky. To make matters worse, as I continued reading down the steps, I kept seeing the “God” word and the phrase “Higher Power” and I decided then that it was bullshit.

Consequently, I went through the five worst years of my life. The second issue I had with this step was the implication that I was insane — restore us to sanity. Years later, when in desperation I came back to NA, I did so with a more open mind. But I still had major issues with this step…

My sponsor at the time suggested that I simply commit to keeping an open mind and to make this process a personal search. The beauty of Narcotics Anonymous is that the fellowship doesn’t demand you do anything. There are no “thou shalts,” no “shoulds.” As part of taking this step, my sponsor suggested I do a close reading and learn the terms. One of the first things I liked about the step the second time around was how it starts, “came… ” and then, “came to… ,” then, “came to believe… ” In a very real way I was finally coming to my senses — I was awakening. The opposite of despair is hope and I came to understand that hope is what the Second Step offered me.

Faith was a harder score to settle, but there are enough agnostics and even atheists who are recovering addicts because the Twelve Steps allow for a kind of spiritual democracy. You do not have to believe in anything, or join any religion. You do not even have to apply the steps. They are simply suggestions and since whenever I followed my own suggestions, I usually experienced tremendous suffering, I figured it was time for me to listen to some alternative proposals.

There are many different meanings of faith. At one extreme, there is the more common understanding of faith as blind faith, but that’s just one way of looking at faith. There are degrees of faith. In fact, we all have daily moments of faith and belief. We have faith, for example, that when we turn on the faucet, water will flow. We have faith that our car will start, or that a toaster will work. We also have many beliefs. We believe, for example, that we have a personality. Actually, many of us believe we are our personality, though, scientifically speaking, there’s no brain center that organizes personality. Your personality is a set of beliefs and quirks that you constructed in order to operate in the everyday world. Similarly, scientists have faith in reason and logic to solve problems.

Shit, some of us believe that if we shove money inside of hole in the wall (as many of us did in the 1980s when we copped reefer or heroin), a bag of dope will materialize. LOL! I’m not kidding. Back in the day, the way you copped drugs was that you’d stick your hand with your money in a hole and a hand with bag would come out. I had complete faith in that transaction.

So early on in my recovery process, faith for me had to mean a temporary suspension of disbelief. What that means is that I made an agreement with myself to keep an open mind. Sometimes faith can mean trust. I came to believe that the spiritual principles of hope, freedom, and willingness would restore me to sanity. And believe me, by the second time around, I knew I was insane.

I have been studying human behavior for over a two decades now, and the best definition of insanity I have come across is: doing the same actions and expecting different results. Even an infant knows better not to stick his hand in the socket after the first go-round. But as adults we oftentimes commit the same behaviors — especially in the area of relationships — expecting different results.

Sometimes faith can mean trust in a teaching, or self-confidence. As a Buddhist, my Higher Power is the Dharma (The Law), a clearly defined set of ethical and cognitive principles. In sports, a group can develop faith in their ability as a team to overcome extreme odds. In that same way, I came to believe that the fellowship and principles of Narcotics Anonymous could restore me to sanity. Why? Because I was seeing people in the fellowship taking back their lives. People all around me were helping heal themselves and one another. I have been to NA meetings where a particular individual cried in despair because she couldn’t pay her rent, then see her cry in joy once again several months later because she was able to pay her rent.

Initially, my Higher Power was the group. I came to believe that what I couldn’t do alone we could do together. Like a team. Eventually, my spirituality would evolve and I would come to embrace Buddhism as my path. The historical Buddha didn’t make any claims to divinity and his last words, as he lay dying (of all things, food poisoning) were, “… be a lamp unto yourself.” What that means to me is that ultimately, you must walk your path. It means that sayings, scriptures, or instructions alone will not save you. Ultimately, if you want to awaken, to come to your full realization as a human being, you must walk your path — whatever that path entails.

And that’s what the second step helped me begin. It helped begin to walk the walk, trusting in my experience that I could be restored to sanity by a power greater than myself. The Second Step helped me come to a different understanding of faith, one that wasn’t associated with dogma or religion. I wanted a faith that encouraged and emphasized love and respect for ourselves as a foundation. I wanted to experience a faith that uncovered our connection to others, rather than designating anyone as separate and apart. The faith I came to know as part of my recovery process and that I describe in this post does not require a blind faith or even a belief system; it is not necessarily connected to a God, though it doesn’t deny one. This faith I speak of is not a commodity we either have or don’t have — it is an inner quality that unfolds as we learn to trust our own deepest experience.

My name is Eddie and I’m 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

Books I have found useful:

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

Ash, Mel (1993) The Zen of recovery (click here)

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

Griffin, Kevin (2004) One breath at a time: Buddhism and the Twelve Steps (click here)

Z., Philip (1990) A skeptic’s guide to the 12 Steps (click here)

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

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.