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Have Yourself a Merry 12-Step Meeting

December 22, 2016


Question #4 in our series 12 Answers to 12 Questions about 12-Steps: Can I go it alone?

The holiday season can make us feel the horrors of going it alone, especially when we’re disconnected from friends, family, or community. If we have become cut off due to our relationship with substances, we feel even worse around the holidays.
So it’s a good time of year to reflect on question #4 in our series of 12 questions: “Do I need a 12 Step program or can I do this on my own?

At this time of year, we are more likely to consider the question isn’t if we can go it alone, but why we would want to.

You are Not a Sponge

thinking about life

Just about everyone who goes to treatment for the first time wants to believe that getting clean or sobering up is all about moving on in life – to where they can drink or use “normally.”

It’s as if we are sponges. As sponges, we go to treatment because we simply got ourselves overly waterlogged. By a process of taking in too much, too often, we didn’t give ourselves a chance to “dry out.”
The sponge image means that all we need is a chance to start dry, and we can get ahead of the problem. It’s a problem of proportions. And it means the solution is to be more careful about the proportions. We say, “just let me ‘dry out,’ and then I will only take in little amounts at a time and never let myself get this ‘waterlogged’ again.“

In treatment, the sponge image can be a fatal flaw. It’s leaves the proverbial fly in the ointment for long-term recovery. It grossly underestimates the power of addiction.

Relapse rates are high. Any way you slice the relapse statistics, they are not encouraging:

  • “Whether compelled or voluntary, return to opiate use approaches 80% within two years of intensive residential treatment.3” – NCBI ;
  • “Follow-up interviews were conducted with 109 patients, of whom, 99 (91%) reported a relapse. The initial relapse occurred within one week in 64 (59%) cases.” – ?NCBI

One of the plus points for not going it alone is the overwhelming nature of the disease. A person seeking a clean life in recovery needs to arm him or herself with every tool available, because if they are struggling with alcohol or substance use disorders they are not like a sponge:

  • Addiction is a chronic disease, like asthma or allergy. If you’ve got it, you have to stay away from pollens, dust, poison ivy; alcohol, benzos, heroin.
  • “Long-term drug use results in significant changes in brain function that can persist long after the individual stops using drugs.” – NIDA



workaholics in medicine

Question #4 asks can I do this alone, and truthfully, the answer depends on how long a term you’re asking about. For example, the numbers above suggest that if we are addicted to opiates, we may have a 41% chance of “doing it alone” for a week. But we have only a 9% chance of doing it for 2 years. When addiction therapists and rehab facilities assess the benefits of a treatment approach, they’re trying to set their clients up for the long term.

This makes “can I do it alone?” a bigger question, one that looks at total lifestyle. Our friendships, our career situation, our home environment, our daily schedule all play into the assessment. Basically, addiction professionals view the work of treatment not as putting in a certain amount of “dry time” but as setting up a lifestyle that addiction will find inimical, a lifestyle that can provide shielding from the many powers that addiction brings to bear – triggers, cravings, crises and the like.

For example, one log-term (lifestyle) solution addiction therapists look for is something that remedies the problem of disconnection.

“When someone has been in active addiction to drugs or alcohol, they’ve experienced a disconnection from the world around them and the people who care about them,” says?Chip Peterson, M.Ed., LPC of AAC’s Oxford Treatment Center. “Learning how to rebuild those connections is an important part of recovery.”
At Oxford Treatment Center, those in treatment explore art therapy and experiential therapy as a means to connect with others. Hank Holmes, who leads Oxford Treatment Center’s outdoor challenge course program, considers progress in building relationships one of the strongest takeaways from his experiential therapy program.

“Especially among opiate and heroin addicts, they have become completely disconnected from other people and focused only on when their next hit is coming,” said Holmes.

Even before addiction takes hold, we generally disconnect for a reason. Maybe we disconnect as a defense against incoming threats, real or perceived. Maybe we’ve shut down due to hypersensitivity, or perhaps our external world has left us sadly disappointed. Whatever the reason, we have turned to substances rather than relationships.

Addiction will not only use this disconnection, addiction will build on it. As we disconnect from people who might be our sounding boards, and those who could offer us grounding, addiction is busy perfecting a chemical mind shift in our brains.  Addiction reroutes our lives into a rut of pure escapism. Such a rut holds us tightly. The vitality we may remember from our pre-drug days has been subsumed by the habit. Through repetition, we build a web of disconnect.

12-Step approaches help us re-connect. In fact, the National Institute on Drug Abuse recommends 12-Step meetings for the social connection they provide.

12-Step meetings “can be particularly helpful during recovery, offering an added layer of community-level social support to help people achieve and maintain abstinence and other healthy lifestyle behaviors over the course of a lifetime.” – NIDA

Internal Work

Because addiction is a disease that rewires our neurochemistry, unscrambling it is not easy. Add to that the reasons we began using in the first place, and addiction is slamming us from two directions. De-fanging these forces calls for a lot of “internal work,” of the kind 12-Step #4 refers to. It asks us to “make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”

If we can bring brutal honesty to this internal work, it will help us rally a 2-pronged defense against addiction’s 2-pronged attack. “Fearless moral inventory” helps us:

  1. See or recognize the patterns that belong to addiction, which have buried themselves into the skin of our lives
  1. Break the patterns, which have become our go-to “tool” when we seek comfort or a sense of safety or purpose

Add to the fearless inventory a community of like-minded people, and we have sounding boards for our recovery. Their voices are not meant to be whips cracking over our heads, they are meant to be navigation markers that will help us check wrong turns, such as denial and self-deception.

Who said recovery was easy?

In her “Far from Finished” podcast, AAC Alumna Kylie remembers how hard this work was for her. Caught in the deceptions of the disease, she found herself returning time and again to treatment. Kylie had an AA sponsor, but “That first time in treatment, I just wanted to get out of there. I talked a lot of game… I would call her after I picked up. That’s how it went for a year almost.”

If you listen to the early parts of Kylie’s story, it sounds like she subscribed to the sponge concept. She thought she would get help drying out, and then return to her old life, only drinking “in moderation.” She certainly yearned to be a “normal” drinker. But finally, Kylie had the courage to take that “fearless inventory.” She began doing Step work for real.

“I just realized that I’m never going to have a time when I can just drink alcohol like a normal person,” Kylie says. Over time, she was able to be more “searching and fearless” in her moral inventory.

She began to realize, “I don’t know what I am without alcohol.”

Kylie has been faithfully attending her 12-Step meetings for a year and a half now. “Slowly the program, by working it, you figure those things out,” she says.

As Kylie attended meetings, she began to see the pattern of addiction and got better at calling it out. She also reports that she learned more and more about the value of just listening. She even began to enjoy recovery.

“All the step work is not as daunting as people make it out to be. For the longest time I wasn’t doing any step work because I was afraid of Step 4 and all of these horror stories people were talking about.”

Big Bad Step 4

While it’s easy to find the 12-Step material helpful and to understand the steps, in principle, the idea of opening up or sharing our weaknesses among other people at a meeting can still be horrifying. Step 4 takes a lot of strength – and those like Kylie who are maintaining regular attendance at 12-Step Meetings should be congratulated for making the commitment to this “fearless” work.

When American Addiction Centers clients leave treatment, they are encouraged as part of their aftercare to attend “90 meetings in 90 days.”

Even if you attend NA or AA meetings just to listen, the commitment to attend those meetings can be critical on first leaving a treatment program. The transition from a treatment program to a regular population is fraught with challenges. In treatment, a caring clinical community all aligned around someone’s recovery is reinforcing the individual’s recovery by the hour. Once a person is released to “out there,” he or she can get lost in a pool of disinterest.

Having been tested over the years with much success, the 12 Steps have already done the heavy lifting. Arguments regarding medical interventions versus 12-Steps are irrelevant. The Steps provide a clear, organized path that can literally “walk us through” a good deal of internal work. It can direct us to our soft spots and our pain points. It can provide us a community of support among people dealing with the same pain points. We can listen to, observe, or question these people to gain insight, and probably more quickly than we could do on our own.

Anyone who responds well to encouragement and inspiration, especially from someone who “gets” your struggle, would be overlooking a great resource. Members of AA are a group of people designed to offer just this.

Can we go it alone? Though the odds are against it, there are always exceptions. But when disconnection is our issue, can we trust our quest to “go it alone”? How do we know that is not just our “habit” talking, a habit of avoidance, escape, denial, or self-deception?

The hard work of Step #4 is less about “going it alone” versus “doing it with a group” than about setting up a lifestyle by bringing in all the tools available. It’s about gathering tools to provide backup we can turn to. It’s about taking the long view.

As Kylie reports in her podcast, the work of meetings does pay off over time.

Recovery for the Long Term

At Oxford Treatment Center, where they work to instill faith in relationships again, landscape designer Bill Hewitt created a 12-Step path in the woods. Hewitt thought of the internal work that needed to be done and considered the Step’s as he chose and sculpted a landing for each Step. For Step 12, he used burnt logs to evoke both the pain points and the rewards of pursuing the 12-Step path.

“The fire scorched the bark from the logs, but didn’t burn the heart. Having gone through the flames, Hewitt says, the logs are now more resistant to rot and will last for years.”

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