12 Steps, Addiction

Recovery is NOT a Drug!

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.



11 thoughts on “Recovery is NOT a Drug!

  1. I really appreciate the depth of the analysis and wisdom I read here. Without doubt recovery is not a drug and going straight is not synonymous with being on a lifelong “high”.

    Posted by timethief | June 8, 2011, 1:15 am
    • Thank you so much for your comment, and the compiments. Last night I was telling my wife that I was discouraged. While I write this blog first and foremost to develop my own thoughts, I was disappointed to get so few readers/comments.

      Such a nice compliment from a blogger I respect, and with two fantastic sites has really lifted my spirits.

      Thank you.

      Posted by The Habituated Buddhist | June 8, 2011, 9:25 am
  2. Hey there! A little bit of a new format for the comments! I dig it!

    Anyway, this post is super interesting to me, as I was speaking with a sponsee about this just tonight! I think your post is somewhat controversial and I admire that! I do think that putting effort into the program and being proud of the work and outcome is alright. Obviously, only to a certain degree. My sponsor tells me, “The only thing I do in moderation are the steps.” This is intended to be a joke, but I find it insightful. Many people spend all of their time with the program, and glamorizing the benefits, forgetting what the past was like.

    The positive attitude is good, and we SHOULD notice the “psychic change.” However, we must also keep our First Step close. We must remember where we have come from. When I speak at a Twelve Step meeting, I almost always say, “If you are new, I hope you feel like sh*t.” It gets a few laughs, and I may upset a few people, but I truly mean it. Some days, remembering how horrible I was emotionally, mentally, spiritually and physically is all the keeps me plugging along with both Buddhism and Twelve Step recovery.

    Just thought I would share my thoughts, and I did not intend to offend anyone with my vulgar word choice. I think that we must face our emotions and spiritual maladies, and not “mask” them as you so eloquently explained!

    I love this blog, and I truly enjoy your writing. I also am a bit impressed with my higher power tonight that I was discussing this with a fellow and then found this here! Never ceases to amaze me. Works in mysterious ways!

    Peace and Love my man!

    Posted by The Easier Softer Way | June 8, 2011, 3:48 am
    • Thank you so much for your comment. I’m a fan of your site as well.

      I like that you mentioned that you respond to new people with “I hope you feel like sh*t.” I have been criticized for having a similar response to people in meetings coming back in after drinking again. Particularly in those situations I think that attitude is not only acceptable, but appropriate. The main point of my post is that we too easily shy away from either harshness or solemnity when that is the emotion that the person needs.

      It is of course appropriate to welcome back a member who has strayed – but we should never act as if the straying is acceptable. As a group we should lament the continued self-destruction, be clear that continuing on that path is not acceptable, and only then welcome them to rejoin. Perhaps those of us in 12 step programs proper could learn from the model of Al-Anon, in that regard.

      Again, thank you for all your support!

      Posted by The Habituated Buddhist | June 8, 2011, 9:52 am
      • In my Buddhist group, we joke about a Zen master who greeted all the new monks with, “I hope you are prepared to suffer.” Buddhism is often mistakenly seen as a dour religion, but as you’re saying here, we cannot experience joy without grappling with our demons. The greatest gift of both the 12 steps and the Buddhist path are that they are fundamentally ways out of suffering.

        With newcomers, timing is everything. Like you’re saying, when someone is shaky in their new sobriety and self-esteem, a strong emphasis on hope is what they most need. When they’re ready, the ones who want deeper recovery will start noticing the strong meetings and people who are dealing with the tough stuff. People who seek real serenity are very appealing.

        Don’t get discouraged about your blogging. I, for one, am always happy to get an e-mail message that you’ve written a new post.

        Posted by The Mindful Feast | June 12, 2011, 12:37 pm
  3. A great post…I read it last night on my phone and came in to re-read it.

    Years ago, I had a friend in the 12 Step program…who seemed to use the program as a drug of sorts. I do not know how he is doing but I wish him metta wherever/however he is.

    It maybe slow at first getting comments…but it will happen. And many people will read but never leave a comment.

    Thank you for this post…very insightful and real.

    Posted by Debra | June 8, 2011, 9:51 am
    • Thank you for your comment and sharing with me about your friend.

      I do sincerely worry about people in 12 step programs becoming too addicted to the program and all the “warm fuzzies” Inevitably, everyone in the program reaches a point where that positive boost fades, and it is only a true commitment to a new way of life that wins out. It is a bit like any love relationship. Eventually, infatuation fades and only true commitmnent will preserve the relationship.

      Thank you again for your comment and support.

      Posted by The Habituated Buddhist | June 8, 2011, 10:38 am
  4. I realy enjoy your analiyical thinking. I consider self pity, and wallowing in negative emotions to be weakness. And in this sence: I give weakness no quarter. So at first I thought I was going to disagree with your words. But then I realized that it is not what you were attacking here. Rather, it is the driving motive behind why a person might seek happiness and the changing of one drug for self gratification with a substitute for another. You noticed how a simple positive reaction can be warped into an unhealthy programed response which traps a person into a false sence of security founded upon shallow feelings.

    If what you say is true about the meetings: (ive not been to one) then I find it ironic that one of the meanings of the word sobriety is seriousness, gravity, or solemnity.

    My take on this topic might be slightly skewed as I have never been to a meeting. As always your words can apply to things outside the realm of recovery. I hope you dont mind that a non-recoverer reads and comments?

    Posted by midaevalmaiden | June 9, 2011, 11:05 am
    • Thank you for your comment, and be assured, I welcome all comments, whether in recovery or not!

      I agree that “self pity, and wallowing in negative emotions ” is a weakness, but a weakness we all share.

      My fear expressed in the post, and which you accurately described, is that the proper response in not a “quick fix” but a real, sustained, and respectful appreciating of our situation.

      Thank you again!

      Posted by The Habituated Buddhist | June 9, 2011, 12:12 pm
  5. “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.” Thank you for the encouragement to walk that line. Love your blog. Very much so.

    Posted by Julie | June 15, 2011, 3:35 pm

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