(This also appeared in the Faith column of the Sentinel-News in Shelbyville, KY on September 2, 2016)
“We admitted we were powerless over our addiction – that our lives had become unmanageable.”
Two weeks ago (August 19), I addressed the epidemic of drug and alcohol addiction in our communities by sharing the good news that there is a solution to addiction. That solution is 12-Step recovery, which has been working for those who thoroughly follow the program (work the 12 steps with a sponsor and go to meetings) for over 80 years. Are there other ways to recover? My experience is too limited to say yes or no, but I sure hope so! As a person in recovery myself, my prayer is that there are many ways for addicts and their loved ones to find a happy, joyous and free life. But my experience is that 12-Step recovery groups absolutely work to help people achieve and maintain long-term sobriety. Furthermore, the current epidemic is not helped by the shame and stigma that people put upon addicts. I know that an addict in her/his addiction is ugly and painful and it can make us angry, but the fact of the matter is: addiction is a brain disease. That’s not an opinion. That’s the long-standing view of physicians, psychologists, and extensive medical research. And just as we would not shame or condemn someone with cancer or diabetes for being sick, we should not make addicts feel ashamed of their illness. This only makes the disease worse and the problem grow. And what’s more, treating a disease by locking people up does not fix the problem. Addicts need treatment. We are not bad people who need to get good; we are sick people that need to get well.
In the last column, I spoke about the first half of the first step in the 12 Steps: “We admitted that we were powerless over [the substance of our addiction].” This means that addicts are powerless to stop using the substance on their own. The second half, however, is even more critical to understand: “That our lives have become unmanageable.” Many people think that an unmanageable life means that the addict is living under the bridge, unable to hold together a job or a family. That is a misconception. Certainly, you will see some people who are addicted to drugs or alcohol and indeed cannot do simple things like stay employed or keep the water and electric turned on. But what this half of the step is really about is the fact that when an addict is not intoxicated, her/his life will eventually become so unbearable that they must take a drink or a drug. It might look from the outside that she/he is doing just fine, but on the inside, they will eventually become so restless, irritable and discontent, situations will become so stressful or overwhelming, people will become so demanding or annoying (from the addict’s warped perspective, mind you) that they must take a drink or a drug in order to get relief from that condition. The mind (remember, this is a brain disease) will tell the addict that even though the last time they used it got really bad this time will be different. And of course it never is. In other words, the first half of the first step describes the fact that when an addict uses a drink or a drug, they are powerless over what happens next and must get sober. But the second half of the first step describes the fact that when an addict is sober, their life without a drink is so unmanageable and unbearable that they eventually must take a drink or use a drug. Therefore, the totality of the first step is this: An addict can’t drink/use successfully—and can’t not drink/use successfully. And that is 100% of the addict’s life, which means that they are 100% boxed in with no escape. Not 99%. 100%. This fight is fixed. And the admission of the first step is a way of waving the white flag of surrender. It is to give up the fight. And why would someone give up the fight? Because only when we surrender the fight can we allow a Power greater than ourselves to come in and win it on our behalf.
Admitting complete defeat is nearly impossible for the average person, but this is the necessary step before any healing or transformation can take place. For an addict this is sometimes the most difficult step to take. We all like to believe that somewhere within us is the power to “do the right thing.” But there are some things that are just more powerful than we are and the only way to do the right thing is to let go of trying to win the struggle on our own, and to give it over to God. A lot of people fail to take this step and I’ve been to their funerals. Many times, the only reason an addict will take this step is because they come face to face with their mortality and figure they have nothing to lose by giving it a shot.
My intention in this column is to help somebody. If that somebody is a loved one of an addict, understanding how this wretched disease works is critical in supporting her/his recovery. And if that somebody is one who may be struggling with an addiction, please visit a 12 Step meeting. After all, you have nothing to lose and your life to gain.