Power and powerlessness in addiction and recovery

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Doctor-AddictionIn the third part of my interview with Tom, a doctor in recovery, he explains how the 12-step programme is at the heart of his recovery.

You’ve said a bit about the things that made sense for you when you started going to Cocaine Anonymous meetings, but were there any down sides?

There wasn’t much I didn’t like about CA. All my problems at the beginning with CA were driven by my self obsession. I had issues with using the word “god” or “higher power”, I had issues with speaking in groups, I had issues with too many cards being read at the start of the meetings, I had issues with what other people shared about etc.

There were many things that seemed to disturb me. However it is now clear to me that all of these issues are of little consequence. All of my dissatisfaction is self generated. My “issues” with things dissolve by working the 12 step programme. I try not to blame people, places or things for how I feel. If I am in a good place mentally / spiritually then I become open minded and tolerant to the “differences” within and without of CA.

Why did you keep going? What do you get out of it?

Once I had a firm understanding of Step 1 it became clear to me that this was a programme for my life. I am selfish and self-centred. If I could have stopped going to meetings I probably would have. If this condition was purely about not taking the first drink/drug then I would have taken this information and waved my goodbyes. Why continue to work this programme if all I need to do is to avoid drinking or taking drugs?

However I discovered that through reflecting on my own personal experience of active addiction I was unable to do this. I kept using against my will!

Power and powerlessness

This is a loss of will power and where the term “powerless” comes into the programme. This can be misconstrued as being powerless about everything. I have often heard people say they are powerless over people, places and things. This is not my experience. I have strong will power and an ability to achieve many things in life, I achieved many things in my active addiction. I have also directly harmed my wife and family within active addiction, this was my power in action.

However I don’t have “control” over what then happens to this power. I can’t predict the results of my actions. I believe that over the years this message has muddied. It is unhelpful to label people as completely powerless, but when it comes to alcohol or drugs it is necessary to accept defeat. The original “people, places and things” phrase maybe came from “we no longer blame people, places or things”. This is an empowering statement and encourages people to take responsibility for their feelings, emotions and actions.

Arzt mit FlachmannSo you’ve learned that; why are you still a member?

From a purely selfish perspective I continue to attend CA and work the 12 step programme because it stops me from picking up the first drink or drug. A wonderful paradox is that I need to behave in an altruistic manner to work the 12 step programme. I am both selfish and selfless at the same time.

If attending CA was a miserable experience and we were all bitter and angry about life then I suspect I wouldn’t last long. I have discovered that attending CA has been a profoundly rewarding experience. I have made many new friends, developing relationships far deeper than any before.

Being able to share in other people’s pain and suffering is a privilege but also seeing those same people start to recover and get better is amazing. It has also helped be mature as an adult and develop my empathy, loving kindness, tolerance, acceptance, gratitude, patience. It has helped me connect to my true self, identifying my assets and limitations, building my self esteem and ultimately triggering humility. Before engaging with CA I thought humility was about being humiliated.

It is clear to me that this reward remains conditional on sharing this experience with other addicts. I can only keep this good feeling by giving it away. My recovery is based on a mutual process, one addict helping another. If I break this chain I will lose the power in my recovery and become disconnected from this special process.

What about the steps? What was your experience there?

My experience was to work through the steps fairly quickly. By 5-6 months I was primed by step 12 to become a sponsor. I have found that working as a sponsor has been more rewarding than going through the steps as a sponsee. The opportunity to learn and grow when guiding another addict through the 12 steps is wonderful.

The clear undiluted recovery message shared within CA by other addicts who have experienced an entire psychic change as a result of working the 12 step programme is the bedrock of the fellowship. My understanding is that over the decades since AA was formed this message may have been lost at times. There is data to suggest that the current success rates within AA as a whole lie at 5-10% 5 year abstinence rates. Another stat suggests 90% of newcomers stop attending meetings after 90 days. (Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly in 2000).

I have listened to many recurrent relapsers share the experience of attending many meetings but never hearing a clear message of 1. What they were suffering from and 2. How to get better. My experience is that there is much more to getting better than only attending 12 step meetings. There is more to recovering than simply reading slogans on walls.

Mantras vs. the programme

The recovery programme is outlined in the AA big book but often this gathers dust in preference to mantras like “avoiding the first drug” or “just don’t drink today”. The “just say no!” message doesn’t work for real addicts and alcoholics, a newcomer who hears this message will be doomed to fail. They will relapse and use against their will and feel like they don’t belong because of these messages. Maybe that is a reason why 90% of newcomers stop attending after 90 days?

Non-dependent substance users

There are ongoing concerns that there may be many non dependent drinkers/drug users attending 12 step meetings. They maybe continue to attend because of the social connection but don’t actually need the programme to stop drinking or drugging. The only requirement for membership is a “desire” to stop drinking/using but a personal qualification is needed to see if you have the the core features of addiction (mental obsession/physical allergy).

Doing the best for newcomers

I have spoken to long-term sober people within 12 step fellowships who readily admit that they don’t need to work this programme. It scares me when they try to help the newcomer or even try to sponsor them when they don’t share the same problem. We can’t give something away that we don’t have.

The shared experience of the mental obsession, the mental blank spot, the peculiar mental twist and the physical allergy is at the core of how this works. I suspect these people don’t realise the harm they may be doing but we all need to reflect on our actions. Hopefully anybody in long-term 12 step recovery that reads this can reflect and take inventory. Are we doing our best for the newcomers?

Part one of this interview is here. Part two is here.

    2 Responses to "Power and powerlessness in addiction and recovery"
    1. Stephen says:

      “The only requirement for membership is a “desire” to stop drinking/using but a personal qualification is needed to see if you have the the core features of addiction (mental obsession/physical allergy).”

      How can you determine meets that criteria for membership and who doesn’t?

    2. Tom says:

      Hi Stephen,

      “How can you determine meets that criteria for membership and who doesn’t?”

      I can only determine if I fit these criteria. I need to review my own experience of drugging/drinking and see if I 1. Invariably lose control over how much I put into my body and 2. Find I start using again even when there has been a firm commitment to stop.

      It may be that I need help from other addicts/alcoholics to clarify the situation.

      However I have no right to judge another person and decide they are not the “real deal”.

      See Tradition 3 12+12 – http://www.aa.org/assets/en_US/en_tradition3.pdf

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