Solemnity is often the appropriate attitude
It is far from uncommon to hear a person in recovery talk about how great working on a step, or especially completing a step, makes one feel. Or, if not a step per se, how doing some aspect of the 12 step program makes them feel great. One will hear, “I just did my 5th step, and wow, I’ve never felt better!”, or “I can’t wait to do a 5th step on some more of my character defects, I love the release I feel when I’ve done it!”
These positive declarations come, I think, from two main sources. First, doing the steps, and other parts of the program, does often times feel good. After weeks, months, or years of abuse, where there has been no substantial spiritual life, no real honesty, and no real hope, the addict can become awash in the new-found relief and sense of a positive and promising future. At each stage of the program the addict feels, for perhaps the first time in years, that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. They may even begin to see the light. Stress, fear, and tension begin to lose their grip, and actual human relationships begin to unfold. The addict feels, in a word, better.
The second source of these positive declarations is the culture of 12 step programs themselves. The phrases “we are not a glum lot” and “happy, joyous and free” (as well as many others) have become mantras of the program. The reason for this is simple. By and large they are true. As described above, people working the program are happier than they were while using. Additionally, The culture of 12 step programs recognizes the very real danger of the new (or new-ish) member slipping into a morose and self-hating lack of hope. Having developed a committed and exclusive relationship with alcohol and the alcoholic life, a member can feel alone, perhaps abandoned. They may see no chance of a happy life without the alcohol drip of happiness to which they were formerly committed. Instead of the hope, they experience only loss. Thus the culture of 12 step programs promotes the positive, in an attempt to buoy the addict long enough to learn the truth and peace of a sober life.
There is, however, a real danger in the over promotion of the positive attitude in recovery: It encourages a denial of the real pain, loneliness, and grief that in recovery we must learn to befriend. I often think we do a disservice to new(-ish) members by failing be respectful of the solemnity of the situation. That we were addicts is a truly sad thing. We were lost, lonely, and self-destructive people. From the outside (or other side) we can see the damage to others we have caused. It is important not to paint over this truth. While humor and positive incantations may make the pain of that recognition easier, recovery is not the “easier softer way” that we had sought. Until we learn to sit with theses negative emotions, without recourse to humor and feel-good clichés, recovery will elude us.
This said, the greatest danger of the over promotion of the positive attitude is that it simply becomes a new drug. “I feel bad, so I need to fix it…”, or, “I do this to feel good…” Note, there is no difference between the attitude here between the user and the non-user. I want something to make me feel good – be it drink, pill, or step. We can fall victim to taking a “hit” of the program every time we don’t like how we’re feeling, a “bump” of acceptance, a “dose” of step 5. No quarter is given pain, mourning is not permitted here.
Obviously I am not advocating encouraging the new(ish) member to indulge in self-pity, but it is important to learn how to mourn our past (or our present). We must learn not simply how to avoid the mistakes of the past, but how to feel bad about them without that feeling destroying us. Further, we must do it without recourse to a mainline of “recovery” to mask or deny them.
Thus, the person in recovery ought to be encouraged to learn to regard their mistake, addictions, and defect with solemnity but without being consumed by them. Otherwise, just as our drug of choice began to fail to mask our pain, and greater doses were required until no dose was enough, “recovery” itself, as the new drug, will ultimately fail. Pain, sorrow and regret are not the enemy, it is how we dealt with them that almost destroyed us. That is what we must learn to live with them – and a reverent acknowledgement is, in the end, more valuable than a slogan.