The Longest Journey Starts with a Single Step—Why Stop with Twelve?
by Jem Tovey
When I first managed to quit drinking, I was very aware that I had only achieved abstinence. If I were ever to achieve sobriety – especially a long-term, happy sobriety – I knew that this would require a level of commitment I had seldom, if ever, demonstrated in my life to date. Six days before my 45th birthday, I celebrated my first six months without alcohol in more than 30 years. I hadn’t exactly been “white-knuckling” it, but I had certainly restricted my social life in a way that I knew wouldn’t be sustainable in the long-term. I’d only been out once in that time – to a close friend’s wedding – and to be honest I was getting a bit cabin crazy.
So, I did what I usually do when I need to know more about something – I turned to Google.
Although the situation has changed and improved in the intervening years, at that time nearly every resource, forum or blog my search returned was AA oriented or affiliated in some way. It would be fair to say that the Twelve Step approach dominated the recovery scene, the situation approached hegemony in fact.
At first, this didn’t really bother me. After all, AA had been around since 1935 and seemed to be the “brand leader” in recovery from addiction so they must know something, right? However, on the forums I couldn’t help but notice what I can only describe as a certain fundamentalism; characterised by verbatim quotes from the “Big Book”, repetition of slogans or clichés and a tendency towards cyber-bullying of dissenting views. The reason I couldn’t help but notice, was that a lot of this ire seemed to be directed at me.
Looking back, I can see how this came about. In sobriety terms I was still just some “cocky kid” full of pink cloud evangelism, I was keen to share what had worked for me and that was bound to rankle with a lot of people. Also, I’ve never been someone who just accepts whatever I’m told without challenging it. If I were to see someone advising another poster that they should just quit the booze “cold turkey," when I had been told by my doctor that this could cause dangerous fits and seizures, I would disagree with them. If I were to see someone disparaging anti-depressants (particularly SSRIs) as “happy pills”, I would challenge them.
In other words, I was probably a complete and total pain in the ass!
Eventually, and in retrospect quite wisely, I gave up on changing the world and concentrated on finding a cyber-environment more suited to my temperament. Initially, this meant joining a secular group whose whole raison d’etre was providing an alternative to the 12 Step approach and later founding a small group where other like-minded misfits could find a safe space to find and share mutual aid. Sadly within a couple of years, my co-founder lost his partner in tragic circumstances and the group folded.
However, this foray into helping others had given me the bug and I decided I was going to be a counsellor and alcohol treatment worker. So, I called up a local charity specialising in helping people with addictions and asked “How do I get to work with you?” The very nice man who answered the phone replied, “Start volunteering and working towards a counselling qualification, then start applying for jobs."
I did just that, and within four years I was working for the very same charity and that man was my counselling supervisor!
I’ve now been working in the recovery sector for 6 years, mostly with dependent drinkers but also drug users and helping to run a needle exchange. During that time, I’ve learned a lot about addiction and helping those who are afflicted by it, but the most important thing I’ve learned is that I don’t have all the answers and there are no magic bullets. Another significant development, which occurred just before I celebrated my 2nd soberversary was that I had returned to my Christian faith.
My maternal grandmother, Nana, had passed away when I was just four years old, but before she did she taught me to read; giving me my lifelong love of words and also arranged my baptism in the Methodist chapel in which she worshipped. She insisted that I be old enough to understand the ceremony and give my own responses and with hindsight, it seems to me now that she was equipping me with the tools for recovery, long before I even had a problem.
I hadn’t been an active worshipper since I was twelve years old, but walking through those big wooden doors that Sunday to a warm, loving welcome, felt like coming home. Very soon afterwards, I decided to become a full member of the church in order to serve as a steward. A prerequisite for membership was that I complete the Alpha Course, which had the effect of deepening my faith and increasing my discipleship.
A welcome side effect was a growing realisation that I WASN’T the centre of the Universe and maybe those crazy steppers, with all their talk of God and a spiritual solution, had a point after all – who knew?
The net result of all this was that I gained a fresh appreciation of the 12 step programme (I’m a Brit, by the way, so that IS the correct spelling.) I’ll never be a regular meeting-maker; although I would certainly attend one in a crisis, and I’ll never accept that, in matters of faith or sobriety, there is only One True Way. But, I have come to a fresh appreciation of at least some of the steps:
Step 1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable. I’m guessing that sitting in the corner of my living room, crying uncontrollably whilst rocking back and forth repeating “I don’t know what to do” qualifies under this heading?
Step 4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves. Yes, I actually did this. 2500 years ago, the Buddha taught the benefits of labelling our emotions and experience as an important part of mindfulness meditation. I wrote down several pages of guilty memories and anxious feelings and then I burned them. I felt unburdened.
Step 5. Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being, the exact nature of our wrongs. Formal confession isn’t a feature of Methodism, I do however I pray several times daily. In doing so, I acknowledge to God that I’m not perfect, but ask for His help in ensuring that everything I do is done in a way which honours Him and gives Him the Glory.
Steps 8 & 9. Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all & Made direct amends to such people wherever possible , except when to do so would injure them or others. There now follows something of a fudge; I didn’t actually make a list, and I certainly didn’t check it twice. However, over the first few months of my sobriety I initiated many conversations with family, friends and loved ones to apologise for my previous behaviour and ask humbly for forgiveness.
The incidents I broached were perhaps comparatively minor – nobody had died or even been arrested – but I had certainly caused hurt, anger and embarrassment. Without exception, my amends were accepted unequivocally and in fact, most people affected to not even recall the events to which I was referring. I have a strong suspicion that this says more about their tact and decency than the paucity of their memories.
Just as powerful to me though, has been forgiving those people who in my opinion have hurt or wronged me in some way. I have italicised those three words because, as my dear mum used to say: “People don’t do things because of you, they do things because of them.” Ultimately, we all act in accordance with our self-interest 99.9% of the time and the hurt feelings of others is little more than unavoidable collateral damage.
Step 10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it. (my italics) This, for me is crucial. When I was drinking my life was full of drama and I was so wrapped up in my own insecurities that even to acknowledge to myself any culpability in a situation was inconceivable. Nowadays, I realise that it’s OK to be fallible and when I mess up, I fess up. Of course, admitting to our errors is only half the story, we must also repair any related damage and ensure we don’t repeat our mistake.
Step 12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs. At this point, I don’t want to enter into a philosophical discussion of what does and doesn’t constitute a spiritual awakening – I’m very much of the opinion that if someone believes they’ve had one, then, by definition, they have.
My own spiritual awakening consisted of a deepening of my Christian faith and a feeling of a greater engagement with my friends, family and the world in general. I am very open about my past as a drinker and my subsequent recovery and always try to provide a good example of how enjoyable and full this sober life can be.
The Chinese philosopher Laozi once said that, A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step, and sometimes all we can do is keep taking the next right one.
After all, why stop at 12?
Jem Tovey is an addictions councillor, an advisor, a person living in long-term recovery, a writer, and an all around great guy. More links to come soon!