All of us—recovering alcoholics, addicts and non-addicts alike—can benefit from the practical wisdom of the Twelve Steps, first developed by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and subsequently adapted by other groups whose members struggle with various forms of addictive behavior.
Recovering people know they are always vulnerable to relapse. That knowledge keeps them vigilant, and that’s why they take a mind, body and spirit approach to life every day to avoid slipping into behaviors that caused them and their loved ones so much pain.
The strategies those in recovery employ to keep themselves clean, sober and serene are also good prevention tools. Awareness of what behaviors or “mind games” can lead to relapse can also keep a non-alcoholic person from turning to alcohol or drugs in the first place as an escape from problems, feelings, or situations that may seem unbearable.
In his book “12 Stupid Things That Mess Up Recovery: Avoiding Relapse through Self-Awareness and Right Action”, Allen Berger talks about some self-destructive behaviors that can sabotage recovery. His straightforward advice easily translates to everyone who seeks to live a more balanced life in which individuals tap inner strengths, their higher power, and healthy resources instead of turning to destructive behaviors or mood-altering substances.
For example, Berger cautions readers to be aware of “self-erasure” and self-hate. Self-erasing, a term coined by psychiatrist and writer Theodore Isaac Rubin, is an inappropriate dependency on others and the obsessive need to be liked.
When we self-erase, we try to become invisible by avoiding conflict and rejection, by denying our own needs, and by stifling our own opinions. In short, Berger says we give way to fear and abandon ourselves, thinking others have the power to make us feel good or bad. “This leads to an avoidance of both authenticity and intimacy,” he writes.
“If we are self-erasing, we are sabotaging our life. Any life based on a rejection of or alienation from self is doomed to failure.”
He says self-hate starts when we don’t live up to the person we think we should be. “When we don’t live up to our ‘shoulds,’ we despise ourselves,” says Berger, leaving us to feel unworthy of help, joy, happiness, success, freedom or love, and making us vulnerable to addiction or relapse.
The Twelve Steps encourage people to take an honest look at themselves and, by practicing spirituality and humility, place “self” within a larger and more realistic framework. “We must accept that life can be difficult and that most of the time the path of least resistance isn’t the best one,” says Berger. “We need to quit trying to get other people to yield to our demands so that we can feel better about ourselves.”
At AA meetings, members are often reminded that they are “as sick as their secrets.” The more honest we are with ourselves and with others, the more genuine our lives and our relationships will be. Abandoning our false selves leads us to a solid place of integrity, which Berger defines as “wholeness: a process in which we are committed to respecting our true or spiritual self.”
Recovery is called a “process” or “journey” because those in recovery know it is an unending endeavor that requires daily diligence. For instance, recovering people don’t just “make amends” one time for hurts they have caused others. They understand that they are imperfect humans who will make more mistakes. Instead of excusing themselves or blaming others for harmful or inappropriate behavior, they learn to acknowledge their own mistakes when they occur and try to repair any damage they have done. This practice, although difficult, can benefit everyone because it strengthens humility, lessens anger and resentment, and improves relationships.
You don’t have to be a recovering alcoholic to benefit from the volumes of sound advice those in recovery have to share.
AA has been with us since 1935, and the principles on which it was founded are timeless for some very good reasons: they make sense and they work.
Alive & Free is a health column that offers information to help prevent and address addiction and substance abuse problems. For more resources check the Web site at www.hazelden.org.