When Weakness is Empowering

In recent years, criticism has been directed toward mutual aid societies that practice the 12 steps. In particular, they find fault with first step’s phrase “we were powerless over…”. Critics say that this perspective is wrong, too negative and needs to be replaced with the concept of empowerment.

Here is what I know to be true for me: it was really hard to quit using what my brain thought it needed to survive. Willpower is overrated and was ineffective for me when I was struggling with compulsive behaviors that turned into a physiological dependency.

This is what powerless means to me: There is something in my life that is so powerful, cunning and baffling that I am unable to comprehend that this thing that I think is making me powerful and in control is actually killing me. IN SPITE OF MUCH EVIDENCE TO THE CONTRARY, I am unable to see the writing on the wall and read its message. At the worst of my using, I was absolutely completely powerless over the denial and self-deceit that served as sentries, blocking the obvious truth that I was dying. Both served at the pleasure of my survival instincts, which were compromised and confused as a result of my eating disorder.

However, none of this made me a powerless person; it did mean I was powerless over the effects my Substance Use Disorder was having on my capacity to reason. In fact, the recovery process teaches me how to take responsibility for my recovery. It has EMPOWERED me by giving me a new, inspired way of seeing God, myself and others. It has provided me tools to manage the issues that drove my substance use. It has given me the support I needed as I regained my footing and found my capacity for taking the next right step.

If you are fretting over the word “powerless,” maybe it is because, to you, like me, the word feels shaming. Who wants to be powerless? Instead, consider it as an acknowledgement that you have figured out that your willpower and good intentions are not enough to treat what ails you.

For when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12:10 (b) NIV

Flexibility

Another component of resilience is the capacity to be flexible.  This is also key for emotional adjustment and maturity. Rigidity is not good for us.  I understand this because I read a lot of true crime books and of course, binge watch Criminal Minds like it is a part time job.  The really psychopathic demons on those shows inevitably are compulsive neat freaks. I am not suggesting that excessively neat people are serial killers but extreme rigidity is problematic!  The capacity to be flexible in terms of how we think, what we do, and even our core beliefs create the strength within us to have more resilience than the guy who demands precision and a rigid routine as a lifestyle choice.

 

Don’t buy the serial killer idea?  Ok, I can be FLEXIBLE.

 

Did you know that research indicates that folks who have messy offices tend to be more creative and better problem solvers than someone whose desk is arranged with military precision?

 

The promises of AA and the program itself asks participants to dare to believe that their whole attitude and outlook on life will change.  They expect and validate the concept of service to others. They talk about giving away what you have in order to keep what you received (meaning the gift of sobriety) through sharing experiences, strength and hope. This is often in the form of “12 stepping” and it involves going to help fellow sufferers in their time of need.  This is difficult and usually inconvenient work. I have found that overdoses and rough landings on “bottoms” rarely occur during office hours. This requires massive amounts of flexibility but lest we forget, it holds the promise of a better life for those who practice this service work.

 

How is your flexibility?  Are you able to bend your preferences to a higher power?  Can you go with the flow? Or do others find you difficult?

Belonging leads to resilience

If you participate at NSC this first point is going to feel sooo boring, but it is further confirmation that we are onto something when we nag, cajole, and entice our tribe to show up for one another!

 

It turns out that relationships are a key factor in whether or not a person has the capacity for resilience.  Resilient people have relationships (in and outside of the family) that offer love, encouragement, reassurance, acceptance, validation and the occasional dollop of accountability.  Being connected to others helps us practice skills necessary for sturdiness in the face of suffering and provide soft places to land when we trip and fall.

 

This is absolutely an essential thing to add to a life plan for those seeking a better life.  Because this is true, I continue my faithful support of the mutual aid societies as a viable element of any treatment plan.

 

Why?  Glad you asked!!

 

First, notice the language of AA, etc.  It’s “WE” this and “WE” that. They even have a saying, “Keep coming back; it works if you work it!”  Which is catchy and makes for a nice little chant at the end of a meeting - but here’s the rest of the story.

 

The mutual aid societies never ask us to get well in order to belong.  The only requirement for joining is the DESIRE to get sober. This is a beautiful way for desperate people to find a sense of belonging and connection and even shared purpose (get sober).  It turns out all of these elements help build...what? Yes! Resilience! Go team!

 

Are you taking the 12 steps for granted?  Do you long for something newer, shinier, perkier?  Maybe rethink that position!

New things can be "good" without being "better"

People like shiny new things.  I know that I do! I get tired of sofas, slacks and even cars.  I enjoy throwing out the old in anticipation of something new. I wonder if folks are tempted to feel this way about the 12 steps.  12 step meetings show up in Disney movies for goodness sake! Doesn’t that say something about our cultural awareness of AA and the other mutual aid groups?

 

Sometimes I worry that we have gotten so accustomed to the concept of the 12 steps that we perhaps have not fully evaluated - or taken advantage of - or appreciated - the gift of actually working them.  And they are in every sense of the word meant to be worked!

 

I had a friend tell me one time that he just got tired of being associated with “the program.”  He lamented, “How many times do I need to go over these damn steps?” I totally understand his perspective.  And to be fair, I know folks who got sober at AA, eventually stopped attending AA and as far as I know are still sober.  (However research indicates that going to AA for 14 years, averaging 3 meetings a week is a best practice.)

 

The other factor is access and availability.  These mutual aid societies are so accessible, have free access and offer tons of meetings per week.  Is it easy to take them for granted? I dunno. Maybe.

 

New research related to the association of trauma and the addictive process is challenging all of us to take a good hard look at how we can offer resilience training to those who suffer from substance use disorder.  And I’ve heard people say - “If it’s all about the trauma, what good is AA?” To that I would suggest we actually investigate that excellent question rather than assume that the answer is “Nothing!” Let me issue my own personal spoiler alert and say this - I think that to the extent that mutual aid societies have been a helpful tool in recovery, in part it is because, hidden within the archaic language and repetitive structure, we discover some of the key elements that support and build resilience (antidote to trauma) in those who work the steps!

 

My thought is that these “new things” (alternative approaches to recovery) are super important AND we should take care and avoid taking a dismissive tone as it relates to AA and other groups.  I am convinced that AA, NA and the rest have some old and hard earned wisdom about recovery that fits nicely with our new-fangled ideas about trauma and resilience. If you are willing, I’d like to explore these concepts for a few days AND challenge us to consider how we might take these findings and use them to guide us in our own recovery journey.  With or without the 12 steps, building resilience is a recovery essential!

 

How are you doing in the area of trauma, healing and resiliency?

The Good Ole Days

Getting old has its advantages if you look hard enough. One of those advantages is the beautiful gift of experience.  Back in the old days when dinosaurs roamed the earth – you know, the 90’s….our local community had only a few options for treating substance use disorder.  

 

We suggested that everyone access and use the appropriate mutual aid society like AA, NA, etc. as their recovery resource.  As in all things there were exceptions. Some people were able to afford to kick start their recovery by going into an in-house treatment program.  There were outpatient programs as well. Whatever route a person chose, it ALWAYS led to AA or NA or the like. (Hence the oft heard phrase for folks coming out of treatment, “90 in 90”.)

 

Today we recognize that there are many pathways to recovery and I am all for this approach!  We are not making the progress we need in the area of treatment for substance use disorder - of course we need to keep trying new things!

 

But I have a deep and abiding respect for the 12 steps and those who work them. I have a hunch that, as time passes, research in the field of addiction and recovery will find ways to articulate why mutual aid societies have worked for many people trying to get sober and recover their lives.

 

For the next few days I’m going to talk about my opinions on the subject.  But first, I have to issue a strong warning and a few advisories!

 

Stay tuned!

The Truth about Ourselves

But God’s angry displeasure erupts as acts of human mistrust and wrongdoing and lying accumulate, as people try to put a shroud over truth.  But the basic reality of God is plain enough. Open your eyes and there it is! By taking a long and thoughtful look at what God has created, people have always been able to see what their eyes as such can’t see: eternal power, for instance, and the mystery of his divine being.
~ Romans 1, The Message

 

 

In the recovery world we have this marvelous process summed up best in the fourth and fifth steps:

 

4.  We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.  AND

5.  Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

 

These two steps help us deal with the most valuable truth of all - the truth about ourselves.  Yesterday I proffered an example of confused truth - using God’s word as a weapon to get what we want (no divorce) rather than as a surgeon’s scalpel in the hands of the Holy Spirit to perform heart surgery (on us not another).  I love how specific the steps are and I have born witness to the healing power of telling the whole unvarnished truth about ourselves to God, self and another trusted listener. Sometimes we get wrapped around the axle of what we want versus what we know.  The steps and God’s word help us refocus but neither can make us care enough to actually change our behavior. Nevertheless, there’s more:  

 

What happened was this:  People knew God perfectly well, but when they didn’t treat him like God, refusing to worship him, they trivialized themselves into silliness and confusion so that there was neither sense nor direction left in their lives.  They pretended to know it all, but were illiterate regarding life. They traded the glory of God who holds the whole world in his hands for cheap figurines you can buy at any roadside stand.

 

~ Romans 1 The Message

 

Let’s get real.  Are there any cheap figurines you have clutched in your hands for dear life?  They are not life.