Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Twelve Steps to Freedom

Alcohol addiction (1)
Many years ago, I went through a period where I thought I was alcoholic. I was dating someone who had been in AA and recovery for several years, and he was very careful not to pressure me or make me feel bad. After a particularly bad night of drinking, and a few rather embarrassing episodes later, I asked him if he thought I was an alcoholic. His response stayed with me: people who are healthy and don't have these problems don't stay up worrying about whether they're alcoholic or not.

I started going to meetings. I gave up drinking for eight years. I followed the 12 Steps, read the Big Book, got a sponsor, and did all the proper things. My life got better, but my problems weren't solved. The problem, for me, was not alcohol. The problem ran very deep, and alcohol was just one way I tried to self-medicate myself.

Narcotic addiction (2)
Though I stepped away from AA many years ago, I still value the life lessons I learned there. The methods of self-examination, of believing in something greater than yourself, these were wonderful tools that I think all people should use. I'm not powerless over alcohol, but I am powerless over something else, and that's okay. Realizing what I was actually powerless over gave me a huge measure of freedom. It allowed me to attend Seminary, to live a better life, and to find a freedom that I never thought was possible.

So what are these Twelve Steps that everyone talks about? I'm going to take out the parts about alcohol for the purpose of writing today in a more generic way. Feel free to add in whatever it is you're powerless over: your eating, your smoking, your parents... The object can be anything. I'm also going to make the more religious parts a bit less Christian and a bit more accessible. While AA is open to everyone, it does have a rather Judeo-Christian feel to it, and sometimes that puts people off. I don't want anyone to be put off because of the tool I'm sharing today. Please remember that it's the tool that's important, not the person who made it.

The Twelve Steps, adapted from Alcoholics Anonymous

1. We admitted we were powerless over (something), and that our lives had become unmanageable.

2. We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

3. We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of Deity, as we personally understood Deity.

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

5. We admitted to Deity, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

6. We were entirely ready to have Deity remove all these defects of character.

7. We humbly asked Deity to remove our shortcomings.

8. We made a list of all the persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

9. We made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

10. We continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.

11. We sought through prayer and meditate to improve our conscious contact with Deity, as we understood Deity, praying only for knowledge of Deity's will for us and the power to carry that out.

12. Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to others, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

Heck of a list, isn't it? Some of it makes you recoil, especially if you're not Christian, Muslim or Jewish. Not all people see Deity as interacting with us, either for good or ill, and many don't see Deity as having the power or desire to remove shortcomings from people.  I still maintain that these Steps are a guideline for a better life.

Cigarettes and coffee (3)
Once, at a meeting, I heard someone make the comment that they didn't believe in any Higher Power. A grizzled older gentleman turned in his seat and said something to the effect that when you're face down in a toilet, pretty much everything in the world is a higher power than YOU are. Of course, we all laughed, but it did make me think. I knew atheists who had followed the AA program and done quite well. I know many pagans, as well, who have turned their life around through NA or AA or OA. There is something to this series of actions that goes beyond the religious and far off into the realm of spirituality.

The first Step often makes people stumble. It sure isn't comfortable admitting that you're powerless over something. The skeptic will say that all you're doing is giving up your will power to something or someone else, be it God or the group. That's not true, though, at least as I see and practice it. The first Step is the moment when you realize that you're out of control, and the very definition of "out of control" is to be powerless. By stating it, by speaking the words out loud, you take the first baby step toward regaining the power that has been stripped from you by whatever it is you're combating.

I'm powerless over my mother. For a very long time, I just saw her as abusive and horrid and nasty. Then I spent a long time pretending she didn't exist. Neither of these were practical methods for dealing with my own lack of power. When I finally realized just how powerless I was over her, I gained my own freedom. This is not to say she can't touch me anymore; she's my mother, and she'll always have the power to hurt me emotionally. I realize now, though, that the problems are hers, not mine, and that I need to deal with my own issues. I don't need to carry hers, nor do I need to impress her or attempt to "make" her love me.

Misuse of legal drugs (4)
The second and third Steps ware very organic for me. I turned to my Deity, to my spirituality, and asked for help. It was given, in small doses that I could accept. After years of practice, of trusting and working and believing, I am now understanding just how sane I can be when I depend on myself and on Deity as I understand her. In retrospect, I can look and see where my life was touched, molded, kept on tract despite my own blindness to where I needed to be. I see those moments as the hallmarks of Deity, keeping me on the path I need to be on.

When most people reach the fourth Step, they balk. What does it mean, "searching and fearless moral inventory"? I mean, let's be real. If I was able to search and be fearless, I probably wouldn't be working the Twelve Steps, right? WRONG! When Dr. Bob and Bill W. wrote the Steps, I don't believe they used "fearless" in the sense of being completely without fear. I think they meant "courageous" in that we need to be honest with ourselves, not shy away from uncomfortable truths, moving always forward even when it's scary.

Inventories are important, though. Why do you think stores do them? They need to see what is on the shelves, whether those items are good or bad, how much they need to replenish, and what they're good with. We can do the same with our own internal selves. I look at my morals and ethics, at my actions over the past year, and I ask myself where I did well and where I needed improvement. I write it all down, all the pros and cons. Yes, you have to write down the good things as well as the bad, or it isn't a true inventory of yourself! Sometimes, I find that part harder than picking out the negatives.

Having made that inventory, now we have to go and talk to our Manager, Deity in whatever form we see it, them, him or her. That's not enough, though, according to the Steps. The fifth Step tells us to not only tell Deity, but to tell ourselves, and another living, breathing person. Reading my inventory to myself, out loud, is one of the most disturbing things I have ever done. It's gotten easier over the years, but that first time is still very clear in my mind.

You can sometimes lie to yourself, and in doing so, lie to your Higher Power. Sometimes it's on purpose, and sometimes it's not, but it happens. That's where the other human comes in. In AA, you're encouraged to share your wrongs with your Sponsor or another alcoholic. I assume it's the same in NA and OA. Some people choose to talk to a priest or minister, knowing that it's private and confidential. In a way, though, after saying out loud to yourself, talking to someone else isn't so difficult. My first time I talked to my Sponsor, and he gave me quite a few skeptical looks which led me to revise my inventory just a bit. I hadn't outright lied, but I had skimmed over important things because they caused me so much discomfort. You can't leave metaphorical rotting food on your shelves, though. It must be thrown away, purged. That's what the other human being does. They give you a hand getting some of those really heavy rotten items down off the high shelves.

Steps six and seven are related, and there's a relief that happens after the fourth and fifth Steps that segues neatly into these. Now that you can see all those negatives (and the positives), you can stand there with an open heart and admit them, and ask that they be removed. This is not a magical spell, though, where defects are just excised from the body and mind. The work and responsibility is yours and yours alone. However, Deity helps, whether by stiffening your upper lip, holding your hand, or putting you into situations that allow you to do what needs to be done. Here, you are taking back a little of the power that you lost through your previous actions or inactions.

Gambling addiction (5)
The eighth and ninth steps are easy to misunderstand. It seems simple: make a list of all the people you managed to screw up, and go say sorry. It isn't that easy, though. There are subtleties to the making of amends. The list is probably easy enough to make, just by looking over the negatives in your moral inventory. You probably have a pretty good idea of who you've hurt over the years. Saying sorry is not enough, though. This is not about apologizing, but about making amends. If you stole money, it should be returned along with the admittance of guilt and the paying of whatever price comes along with that.

What happens, though, if the person you need to make amends to is dead? What if making amends will cause them physical or emotional harm? You must remember that making amends is NOT ABOUT YOU, but about the other person. If you find yourself trying to do it in order to feel better, you're doing it wrong. Feeling better about yourself is a side-effect of making amends, but it is not the point. In many cases, you'll feel worse for quite a while.

I owed money to someone who had passed on, and so I made a donation to their favorite cause in the amount plus interest. I did this along with the daughter of the person, because it helped her to understand some of what went on between me and her mother, and brought her closure. Had it been likely to cause her to suffer, I would have done it another way.

Another side of this is that you can't expect amends in return. You might get them, and that's great, but you cannot go into this Step wanting something back. I needed to make amends to my mother for some of the things that I did as a child and young woman. This wasn't about how she treated me, or what she said or did to me. It was about MY actions and MY words, and the things I had done to her that caused her harm. It ached, because I could so easily point to my actions and then to the thing she had done to spark my retaliation. But that shifts the blame. This wasn't about her negative actions; it was about mine. Due to the way our relationship goes, I couldn't make direct amends to her. Instead, I did a variety of volunteer things, in honor of her. It hurt, it ached, and when I was done I felt cleansed and whole. I regret only that she can't know about it, because it would cause her more harm than help.

The tenth Step wants us to keep making those moral inventories on a regular basis. Keep pausing now and again, looking at the inventory and deciding what needs to go. The best thing about the tenth Step is that once you've finished that huge clean-out in the fourth and fifth, you have the opportunity to do it often enough that the internal moral shelves never get that littered with filth again. You get to clean up once a year instead of once a decade. It's a feeling of relief, and of wholeness.

When we reach the eleventh Step, we go back to the work-oriented program. Prayer, meditation, reflection, and self-actualization are the points of this Step. Because it comes after all the other messy stuff, it's not as hard as it would be if we tried it way back at the first Step. Still, it's not easy. It's worth it, though. That conscious contact with Deity is fulfilling, inspiring, and brings with it health and joy. When your mind rests once a day on that which you consider Holy, then the Holy enters your life more and more.

The twelfth Step is the last, and is both a summation and a promise to keep on keeping on. If we haven't yet had a spiritual awakening, it's time to go back to the first Step and work through them again. It might take several iterations before you have that spiritual awakening, even if you're very religious or spiritual in general. That's okay! The Steps are meant to be repeated, worked on, and worked through. Like all steps, sometimes you go up them, and other times you find you're going down them. You can always go up again, though!

The idea of sharing the Steps with others causes some people to shy away. It reeks of evangelism, and that can be problematic. The sharing that is referred to is not meant to be a pushing of the Steps on others, though. As you work the Steps, you will find that you gain a joy of life that you thought you'd lost. Others will see it and ask why, and you can tell them. Be respectful, don't push it on them, but don't be afraid to share when asked. They will want to know the secret to your happiness, and it's perfectly alright to let them know.

You don't have to be Christian to follow the Twelve Steps. You don't have to belong to one of the Anonymous programs, although if you're powerless over alcohol, narcotics, or food, I heartily suggest checking the programs out. What you need is a willingness to move forward, and really, isn't that were all journeys begin?

You can find information about the various Anonymous programs here:

Check back often for prayers, spiritual musings and all manner of religious discussion and talk. If you have questions or comments, please write to me below. I love to answer questions! If you purchase items I have linked through ads or Amazon, I receive an affiliate portion of the sale. If you find the items are useful, please purchase from my site!
You may also be interested in:

Being the better person
Taking offense
Ash Wednesday invitation
Short-cuts to thinking

1) Image by Penywise / morgueFile
2) Image by earl53 / morgueFile
3) Image by gluefly / morgueFile
4) Image by Penywise / morgueFile
5) Image by Jane M. Sawyer / morgueFile
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