How does Twelve Step recovery actually work? In a few months' time, a person who works a good program can undergo a complete transformation of self: They may have identified as agnostic or atheistic before treatment, and now they feel the spirit of a Higher Power in everything they do. They may have considered themselves and acted as a loner, and now they surround themselves with friends and family. They may have lost hope in all things, and now they have faith in all the good to come.
It's a complete 180° from their days of drug or alcohol abuse,* and people might look on in disbelief and think, "There's no way that's authentic. They're completely faking it."
But they aren't: People who work good Twelve Step programs have found a spiritual remedy that restores their faith in the universe and all things. They have found peace and reconciliation for their behavior during active addiction, and they have implemented a new system of behaviors and beliefs that seems to address all manner of problems.
And whether they realize it or not, they've embraced the paradoxes of recovery.
When a person enters treatment for alcohol addiction or other drug misuse, they have begun two separate processes at the same time, both equally important in recovering from addiction:
The first one is obvious and imperative: a person cannot heal or recover from addiction if they continue to use alcohol or other drugs. There are some exceptions like medication assisted treatment and the use of Suboxone, but generally speaking, complete abstinence is mandatory.
But what about the second process? Why is it important to restore a core system of beliefs? During active addiction, a person likely betrays their own values in order to satisfy their cravings and addictive compulsions. There's no shame in that—addiction is a disease. But some of the most important work a person can do in recovery is to rediscover and start acting upon their true values.
It is within that work that the paradoxes emerge.
Some say that addiction is a life lived elsewhere: the compulsion to drink or use drugs is always present and inescapable, and a person in active addiction has to continually plan to satisfy their next craving. Even when they're in a room full of people, they're completely alone in their addiction. And it's only a matter of time before everything comes crumbling down. Eventually a person can bear this no longer.
People in Twelve Step meetings refer to this as "growing sick and tired of being sick and tired," and everyone in recovery intuitively understands what it means: the illness of addiction has made life unbearable for a person and for their friends and family. It's a constant nightmare—but it's also the force that's great enough to get a person sober and hopefully to keep them sober.
That pain and that gift of desperation become the threadwork for hope and recovery. And when a person learns how to work a Twelve Step program and leave behind the misery of addiction, their recovery will always be, in part, thanks to that pain—they are refusing to return to that state of utter hopelessness.
People who enter treatment for their substance abuse are often told to surrender, but that concept can be incredibly confusing. And interestingly enough, surrender isn't used in Alcoholics Anonymous to describe the Twelve Steps, making it even harder for a person to learn how to surrender.
To clarify, surrender means to stop fighting, to stop resisting everything in life. Within the context of the Twelve Steps, a person has to tear down all the emotional and philosophical walls they built up: No more fighting the program. No more fighting to do everything alone. And no more fighting Higher Powers and past resentments. Just let things be and let things flourish within.
Surrender is to make room for other things to grow and to allow room for other systems of belief. Surrender is to accept that life has been messy and perhaps miserable because of addiction. Surrender is to accept that the solution exists outside a person's own mind: "My best thinking got me here."
Then a person can make room for the Steps, and let go of selfish and self-defeating behavior, and they can start to live in the solution.
Fritz Pearls, the founder of Gestalt Therapy, said "To suffer one's death and be reborn is not easy." And neither is the path of recovery for much the same reason: the deconstruction of the addicted identity is never an easy task. In fact, it was an early member of Alcoholics Anonymous who said that the Steps are an exercise of uncovering, discovering and discarding that takes place over the entirety of life.
In treatment centers and Twelve Step meetings all across the country, people are quick to repeat that they "leave claw marks" on everything they have to let go of. Perhaps this is because they're afraid of the unknown and of trying new things. Perhaps the familiar villain is less frightening than the new one. Or maybe it's just the addiction speaking.
But when a person is capable of letting that addicted ego die, their fear will be replaced slowly and surely by new confidence and the ability to see beauty in even the smallest things, where the present and the rest of life are happening.
After working their way through the first nine Steps, a person will reach the part of the program that's dedicated to "recovery maintenance." Steps 10–12 are the instructions for continued honest living: nightly inventories, contact with a Higher Power and being of service to the recovery community.
It is at this point where a person will hopefully look back at their journey. If they look carefully enough, they will no doubt see the thumbprints of countless individuals who cared enough to help: The kind staff and counselors at the treatment center. The friendly Twelve Step members who greeted everyone at the door. The patient sponsor who answered the phone during that late-night panic attack.
No success in recovery is alone, and every success comes with a debt: a person owes it to everyone else in their community to keep giving back. And in this act of giving, a person also receives much more than could ever be asked for: a lasting recovery and a lifetime of happiness.
And although addiction was a life lived elsewhere, recovery is the journey of coming home to self.
* Editor's note: We prefer to use language that destigmatizes the disease of addiction. We don't ordinarily use terms like alcohol abuse and substance abuse because they imply that people with substance or alcohol use disorders are "abusers," rather than people with a terrible disease. However, we have decided to keep the terms substance abuse and alcohol abuse in this blog in order to reach the people who use those terms to search for help with their addiction.