Take What You Like and Leave the Rest
A twelve-step perspective on recovery
Originally written for an issue of Many Voices News whose topic was "What recovery means to me."
When I think of recovery, I always think of twelve-step groups. This may be understandable, since I'm in three.
Before I knew anyone in recovery, and well before I began recovering from anything myself, I thought that twelve-step groups were only about recovery from substance abuse. I thought that it was a very simple equation: if you're an alcoholic, you go to Alcoholics Anonymous to stop drinking. I didn't really know anything about any other kinds of addiction. If I had heard of the idea that "it's not about alcohol," or that "alcoholism is the symptom, not the problem," I wouldn't have understood it.
Then someone close to me started going to AA, and I learned a little more. I went to a meeting with him early on, to provide support, and I saw a lot of people saying startlingly wise things about their lives. I watched my friend starting to take responsibility for his behavior and starting to reach out for support when he had problems. I kind of thought I needed something like that, although not around alcohol. I didn't really know what else there was. I heard about Survivors of Incest Anonymous, eventually, but I didn't know or accept that I was a survivor and I didn't see how the twelve-step model could work for that problem. And all the while, I was mired in abusive work and personal relationships, complaining loudly about family problems and work situations, and going rapidly more insane.
Now I have a little more than a year "in program," first in Codependents Anonymous and later in Survivors of Incest Anonymous and Debtors Anonymous. I've learned a tremendous amount about boundaries and money and relationships and a lot of stuff that basically translates to self-care. And I'm starting to understand why addictions are, ultimately, not considered the main issue even in groups dedicated to healing from an addiction.
ABUSE AND ADDICTIVE BEHAVIOR
Addictions and abuse often go hand in hand. I don't know anyone in SIA who isn't working another program around alcoholism, sex and love addiction, eating disorders, compulsive debting, drug addiction, et cetera. SIA, in fact, puts out a flyer with a drawing of a tree that has all these addictions and more nestled in its branches, and incest at its roots. As abuse survivors, it's natural for us to do everything we can to continue our abuse as adults, because it's how we were raised. It can often feel illogically safe to be abused or to harm ourselves, to be in an unsafe situation again, because that's what feels most familiar.
That can and does manifest itself in many ways. For example, I've tended to seek out emotionally abusive partners and stick with them harder the more my friends try to explain how abusive they're being; I find ways of overspending and confusing my records around money so that I'm in a perpetual state of financial crisis, no matter how much or little I'm making; and underneath it all, I don't clean up after myself, don't eat when I'm hungry, don't sleep when I'm tired, and generally make sure that I never actually feel safe. And that brings us to one of the reasons that people in AA know that alcoholism is merely a symptom: they know that if they want to, they can quit drinking entirely, focus all their self-destructive energy elsewhere, and stay just as stuck in the chaos and pain of their lives as before.
RECOVERY: WHO NEEDS IT?
SIA edited the steps by group conscience at some point to fit their program better. Now the revised version of the first step emphasizes that "we were powerless over the abuse and the effects of the abuse" and that eventually we learn to recognize when we are "behaving in patterns still dictated by the abuse." That's one of the benefits I've gotten from going to different meetings and working the steps. My understanding of what effects the abuse has had on me, and what it is that is bringing me to need recovery, is getting more and more fine-tuned.
Sometimes I notice the same signals in the lives of people around me, and even though I don't want to be so egotistical as to think I know what they need, I still keep a running list in my head of "signs someone might be helped by recovery." It has, at least, helped me remember where I'm coming from in my own recovery, because the things I notice are all things that I do.
The list goes something like this: "If your life feels unmanageable; if you don't have much self-esteem; can't commit to finding a job; feel like you have a hole inside that you don't know how to fill; feel like your needs aren't been met or don't know what they are; don't feel safe or even know what feeling safe would be like; if your life or some part of it seems out of control; if you can't tell the difference between what you can or can't control or think you can control everything, or nothing; if you try to solve problems with extremes or tend to binge/purge in general, like... deciding to never date again, going on eating or spending binges, swearing off alcohol forever with no support, becoming socially or sexually anorexic, trying to live in financial deprivation, overscheduling or always being late... then you might really be helped by recovery."
It's a backward way of thinking about the issue. That is, most of the twelve-step groups that I've run across have a checklist or two of things you might be doing (like smoking pot to relax) that might mean you have a problem. But instead I'm trying to make a list of the effects of those behaviors, or really of the general things in people's lives that lead them to addictive behaviors. It's sort of useful in avoiding all the stigma attached to words like "alcoholic" and "addiction." I don't understand the stigma that people associate with these things. I've seen a lot of people get very upset because their therapist or their boyfriend or their parents think that they're an alcoholic. Intellectually I can understand it -- if they do have a problem, it's a very scary suggestion because then they might have to let go of their addiction and they're not even ready to look at it head-on yet. But on a gut level, my reaction is more like, "The twelve steps are just a tool that anyone can use to deal with a wide variety of problems. They can help anyone. And if you don't have an addiction, then that's great -- if you do, well, so do a lot of people. What's the big deal?"
I know. I can be terribly naive.
SO WHAT'S RECOVERY LIKE?
I have a book about writing called "If You Can Talk, You Can Write." The main suggestion that the author keeps repeating is to just freewrite until something good comes out. As he puts it, "Blah, blah, blah... blah, blah, blah... blah, blah, blah... GOLD!"
That's a lot of the twelve-step experience, for me. I go to meetings, I sit through the various readings welcoming people, describing the meeting's format, the twelve steps, and so on, and then I listen to people share. And I share myself. And usually, at least once in a meeting, I hear something in someone else's share -- or even in my own -- that sets off fireworks in my head. Maybe someone talks about how their idea of God is still caught up with their violently angry father, and it makes me think about how one of my saving graces might be that in high school I ditched the religion I grew up with and found something I could believe in that had no connection to my family. Or they talk about how they have this tremendous resentment against their co-worker and they can't set boundaries with her or talk to her at all, and I finally get the concept that my resentments are a threat to my life. Or they talk about their struggle to pay their bills on time so they don't incur unsecured debt, and I think, "I have to stop doing that too?!"
It's the great thing that makes the world of support groups go 'round. The difference between twelve-step groups and many other support groups is that twelve-step groups are peer-led. That means there's no therapist guiding the discussion, and no leader who makes the rules for the whole group. Anyone can volunteer to be the meeting secretary, that is, to read everything and do whatever else the group has decided the secretary does, and they don't get to make decisions without everyone else discussing the decisions at a business meeting. And there's no discussion to lead, because (usually) there's no cross-talk; people get to share without worrying that people will start commenting on their problems or judging them.
Sharing without getting immediate feedback was hard for me at first; the silence after I spoke felt like judgment. Even though I knew it was just the same pause that happened after everyone shared, inside I was sure that it meant I had said something horrible and everyone hated me. I learned to try to make people laugh during my share so I'd know that they liked what I was saying -- classic codependent tricks! People still came up to me afterward and said nice things, whether they thought I was funny or not, and eventually I learned to let go a little and to say nice things to myself for sharing so I wouldn't have to depend on anyone else to convince me I was an okay person.
I know a lot of people who get plenty of recovery just from going to meetings, but I also know a lot of people (including myself) who have found that our recovery becomes much faster when we're working the steps. "Working the steps" basically means that we read the twelve steps and we each figure out for ourselves what they mean for us, and what we have to do to feel like we've got each one of them. There are plenty of workbooks, and lots of the "Big Books" of different programs have suggestions for how to work them too, but ultimately everyone does them differently. Often people will get a sponsor, which means that they find someone who has something they want (like the ability to weather body memories of abuse unfazed, or a lot of inner serenity, or a healthy relationship) and ask for help getting there themselves.
Those are the main pieces of recovery, for me: listening to other people who share my problems, talking honestly about my problems myself, and being willing to work on my problems in my everyday life. Recovery is the clarity and self-awareness I get when I do all of this, the supportive community I find of people who understand my problems because they have them too, and, slowly, the inner peace that comes from being able to trust my intuition, keep my boundaries, and understand that everything is going to be okay.
Contact information for the organizations mentioned in this article:
Survivors of Incest Anonymous
Survivors of Incest Anonymous World Service Office
P.O. Box 190
Benson, MD 21018-9998
An online meeting: http://leaves.wineberry.net/sia/online
P.O. Box 7051
Thomaston, GA USA 30286-0025
Fax : 1-706-647-1755
PO Box 920888
Needham, MA 02492-0009
475 Riverside Drive
New York, N.Y. 10115
Grand Central Station
P.O. Box 459
New York, N.Y. 10163