June 1, 2006

A Half-Dozen Steps Toward Recovery

In Alcoholics Anonymous, they often say that alcoholism is not the problem, it is just a symptom. Many people, especially in early recovery, enthusiastically cast aside alcohol for another drug, and just about everyone in every twelve-step program discovers myriad other self-destructive behaviors as they take inventory of their lives. For many of these people, the addictive behavior is an outgrowth of past trauma or abuse.

The true problem is that these traumas have taught us that we deserve pain and chaos. We have learned to seek out and recreate our unresolved traumatic experiences even after the original harmful situations have passed. It is immaterial whether we perpetuate it by starving ourselves, berating ourselves, short-circuiting our bodies with harmful substances, underearning, choosing and staying with abusive people, cutting our bodies, or something else entirely.

So what's the solution?

Well, don't worry, we have our top psychologists, scientists, and therapists working on that around the clock... oh. We don't?

Well. Here are a few pieces that might fit.

Every twelve-step program uses the same twelve steps, regardless of the behavior being addressed. And, I believe, part of the reason that this is done and that it works for all our addictive "symptoms" must be that it addresses this core problem. Let's see what the steps ask us to do that might be vital to recovery from trauma and abuse.

The first step, of course, is to admit that we have a problem. It is a very profound step: it helps us begin to see what we are doing that is harming us. It shows us what is not working, what we want to change. It helps us begin to be honest with ourselves and others, instead of harming ourselves with denial and fear.

Step two gives us the opportunity to explore what we believe about the universe, and what parts of that have and haven't worked for us. We get to see what has worked for others, too, and see that other people have found relief from these painful problems. In step two, we begin to experience hope that things can be different, which I think is crucial to any kind of recovery.

In step three, we learn to ask for help. We seek a willingness to seek out healing from outside, trustworthy sources - to stop trying to do it all ourselves - to realize that our methods have not been working for us. This is mindblowing for many people, especially for those of us who have learned not to ask for help because we are just a burden. Beginning to understand that that is not actually true, and to see ourselves as worthwhile human beings who deserve support and who deserve to get our needs met, is nothing short of a miracle.

The fourth step brings us back to that honesty. We take a long, hard look at our lives, being as honest as we can about our resentments, fears, and relationships in general. This has tremendous implications: it can lead to much deeper clarity about what things have been like and what is harming us; it can bring us back to the emotions that we've numbed for so long; it can teach us where our boundaries really are and what we need to do to take responsibility for them. It is an incredible and far-reaching exercise.

The fifth step is even more terrifying for many people than the fourth. It asks us to share everything we learned in the fourth step with another human being and with a higher power of our own understanding. But when we share this with someone who is trustworthy, we learn amazing things. We learn that we are not alone. We learn that our feelings and actions and experiences are not so horrifying that people will run from us if they find out the truth about them. We even learn that those feelings, actions, and experiences are not who we are. And with all of this this comes a greater ability to trust, and a step toward self-acceptance.

Step six builds on that fourth step work too. We get to look at all of the behaviors that are harming us and start thinking about the possibility of maybe someday not doing them anymore. We get to just be willing for things to change, and to know that for the moment, that is enough.

So with the first six steps, what do people get that helps them recover? The beginnings of honesty; hope; help; reality; feelings; boundaries; trust; the possiblity of change; and a door opens toward self-acceptance and compassion. That compassion is not located in any specific step, but undergirds the whole process. It's the motor that powers all our healing.

comment on this piece. (c) 2005 catherine h.