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The 12-Step Approach

In my eyes, happiness is what sobriety is all about. The ability to live life without all the extra problems that substance abuse brings. Lets face it, life can be tough enough without added embarrassment, jail time, tickets, fights, court, reduced self esteem, bank account draining habits, etc.


     The problem is: Until you've lived as a sober person, it's really hard to know what it will be like. The first question I think everybody asks themselves is: Will it really be worth giving up drugs and alcohol? I mean, I always knew that straightening up would cut my problems in a big way, but would sobriety bring me greater happiness...Ah, that was the big question and, for me, this is why:


     From around age 12, I was told there were only “3 choices” for people like me: AA, prison, or death. In other words, AA was the ONLY wAAy a person like me could ever stop drinking or doing drugs – all other roads (I was told) would inevitably lead to ruin. In line with 12-step teachings, it was drilled into my head that I was powerless, suffered from an incurable disease, and had to completely surrender my “will and life to the care of God.” If I resisted these fundamental tenets, I was doomed.


Well, struggling the rest of my life with a so-called “incurable disease” didn’t quite fit my description of “greater happiness.” Nor was I excited about spending 6 – 9 hours per week (for the rest of my life) in “meetings” where the overarching theme was: “Be careful, your disease could kill you at any moment!” Probably worst of all, I could see no happiness in forcing myself to believe that I was "powerless" over something that I WAS PHYSICALLY CHOOSING TO DO! It just wasn’t true, and I knew it. 

To me, “powerless” is an extremely powerful word. It essentially means you can do nothing to protect yourself – nothing to prevent a negative outcome – nothing to produce a more favorable result. In life, there are few instances where any human being is truly “powerless.” To accept this label (when it does not apply) is to accept a loss where a gain is possible. Further, suggesting that the only way to cope with this "powerlessness" is through the suspension of critical thought (adherence without scrutiny) undermines the self confidence a person needs to rebuild a healthy self image and life.


In my view, AA offered me a lose-lose scenario: If I failed their program it was because I was "in denial" or not working the 12-steps properly; if I succeeded, it was only because of AA and my “higher power” (without which, I was assured, I’d fail again.) Come on now! Where is my credit in all this? Based on what they were telling me, I was incapable any way I sliced it. And again, everything in me said it simply wasn’t true.


It was me that had to learn to live without drugs and alcohol. It was me that had to develop the strength necessary to face my life. AA’s insistence that I accept and announce I was incapable of controlling myself (that I was powerless over an inanimate substance) was unacceptable to me. If anything, I believed the substance was powerless. Drugs and alcohol needed me, not the other way around.


Expanding on that point; a bottle of beer cannot accomplish anything without my help. It cannot anger or sadden me. It cannot embarrass me, torment me; cause me to manipulate or lie. It cannot cause me to kill (or be killed) unless I give it a body to work with. In fact, it will sit for eternity (powerless) unless I’m kind enough to come along, ingest it, and let it have its way with my body, spirit and mind. The same is true of pot, cocaine, pills, whiskey, etc. They are all powerless without me.


The fact substances can do NOTHING without human intervention is just that; a fact. This fact (when realized) provides a valuable source of self confidence and much-needed “perspective.” It should be comforting to know who really holds the cards: An intellectual being with the ability to learn and grow, not a substance that serves only one real undermine our ability.

In fairness, some of the things I was told when I was forced into treatment weren’t too far from the mark. For instance, I could have easily wound up “dead or in prison” if I didn’t stop drinking / doing drugs. It’s the “solution” I was presented that was wrong for me. And the assertion that the 12 steps were “my only option” was just plain false.


In the end, AA is a “belief-based” system that can lead to sobriety – nothing more. In other words, you are not chained to a wall, you do not have a gun to your head; you are not on pharmaceuticals that diminish your desire to abuse drugs / alcohol. If AA works for you, it is because you believe it will work and you act accordingly. (You believe admitting you are powerless will help you achieve sobriety, so you admit you're powerlessness. You believe “turning your will and life over to the care of God” will keep you sober, so you do, etc.) If this is effective for you, that is excellent. In my case, these and other requirements clashed with my personal belief-system. And for that reason, their belief system was not something I was willing to accept or able to apply.


For instance, I did not believe it was a “disease” that drove me to drink. I didn’t believe it because I noticed, whenever I acted on an “urge” to drink, that urge was always accompanied by a favorable mental image; a favorable association in my mind of what “having a drink” or getting drunk would mean. (I was going to go have some fun at the bar, “put on a buzz” and chase the ladies, “relax” after a hard day, etc.)


I noticed the reverse was also true: When I was vomiting beer and double-cheese pizza out my nose, there was no “favorable association” tied to the idea of having another beer – and, as such, I never had to "fight an urge" to crack one open and take a swig. Likewise, the next day (suffering a terrible hangover and embarrassment) “drinking” was the last thing I had any interest in doing. Depending on the circumstances, I could go days, weeks, even months before my “total lack of interest” in drinking wore off and some of the old “favorable associations” (and urges) crept back into my head. ----->Continue to page 2