June 6, 2006

...And a Half-Dozen More

Last time, we looked at the first half of the twelve-step process and what it provides that makes it such a universally useful tool. What are the common denominators between what helps an alcoholic, a sex addict, the partner of a gambler, and an underearner? The first six steps offer hope, support, self-knowledge, and self-acceptance. What on earth could be left for the last six to provide?

Some people find that the first four or five steps are the "uphill" part of the process, and that once they are in hand the rest is almost easy. The first half breaks us in and teaches us how to be honest and to trust; the second half builds on those skills. Step seven, for example, is a place of hard work but great relief: it is an opportunity to ask for our destructive behavior to be lifted, to honestly let go of the harmful things that we have done. It is one of several steps that are really about freedom.

Step eight returns to the theme of honesty, clarity, and reality, as it asks us to become ready to make amends to anyone we've harmed. But as we think about the ways that we have harmed others and ourselves, what we really begin to earn is freedom from guilt. This process is not about owning other people's feelings and trying to guess when they felt that we did them wrong; it is about seeing what guilt and shame we carry around with us, and learning (with help) what we need to do to resolve it.

With the eighth step we move toward freedom from guilt. With the ninth step we get freedom from shame.

This part is so amazing that it has to stand alone. It blows my mind, every time. Freedom from guilt. Freedom from shame. It seems incredible to me. Shame and guilt, those most self-destructive forms of fear - gone. Because if we can be brave enough to go to the people we have harmed and make amends, and even to look at the ways that we have hurt ourselves and make amends to ourselves for it, we can learn tremendous lessons. Like that people are often less worried about what we have done than we are. Like that when we make mistakes and bad choices, we don't have to drag them behind us like weights, hating ourselves and fearing those we have hurt: we can take responsiblity for it and move on. We learn how to do that with less fear, and we learn the skills to do it well.

The last three steps are sometimes known as "maintenance steps." They provide the daily work that helps keep us present in our lives. Step ten, for example, asks us to do a miniature version of the fourth step every day, celebrating our accomplishments and taking care of our mistakes as soon as possible. Our honesty and sense of clarity about our lives grows with this work, as does our trust in ourselves. The tenth step provides a regular opportunity to see how our lives are going and change them for the better.

Just as the tenth step helps us take care of our everyday lives, the eleventh step helps us take care of our spirituality. Earlier we learned to turn things over to a higher power; here, we explore ways to build communication with a higher power into every day of our lives. It is a chance to try different forms of meditation, prayer, or other spiritual work, and see what brings us closer to inner peace.

The twelfth step is crucial to the program as a whole. It encourages us to reach out to help others. What we learn is that we have something to contribute to our communities. We have skills and experience that are invaluable to others. Sharing our experiences through the twelfth step shows us how much we've grown. It helps us keep the recovery we've earned through these steps, as we see our past pain in others and reinforce our skills by sharing them. And it shows us that we can participate in our communities in a balanced and joyous way.

Stability, spirituality, community... and freedom, freedom, freedom. This might be the biggest gift of the steps. Each of them, in some way, brings us freedom from one of the effects of trauma and abuse. These effects can include: denial; loss of hope; loss of faith; emotional chaos and loss of boundaries; inability to trust; fear of change; self-destructive behavior; a sense of guilt; shame; dissociation; control issues; and isolation. This hints at the deep ties between abuse and addiction. But more importantly, it helps us begin to sever these ties, and to heal.

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