(This also appeared in the Faith column of the Sentinel-News in Shelbyville, KY on September 16, 2016)
“Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity” (Step Two, Alcoholics Anoymous, p. 59).
In the midst of a heroin epidemic in our community, now is the appropriate time for us to take seriously the fact that lives will continue to be lost and families ripped apart until we respond to this chronic, progressive and fatal disease with meaningful recovery. The good news when it comes to addiction to drugs and alcohol is that there is a solution, which has been effective at helping addicts achieve and maintain sobriety for over 80 years. That solution is called 12 Step recovery. It began with Alcoholics Anonymous and has since been adopted by new fellowships such as Narcotics Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Sex Addicts Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous and many others. But while this good news is here and available for anyone to use, the great tragedy is that there are formidable barriers that stand in the way of people getting help: ignorance and stigma.
Quite simply, ignorance about addiction leads well-meaning people to mistakenly believe that addiction is a matter of poor decisions, weak will power, moral failings or an invasion of evil drug dealers. These are simply not true. Addicts suffer from a brain disease, plain and simple. And while their actions are ugly and harmful to themselves and others, addiction must be viewed as a health crisis if we are to end this epidemic. Furthermore, stigma prevents addicts and the families of addicts from reaching out for help, because they feel ashamed. They feel as though they will be permanently marked as bad people, rather than sick people. And so they hide in the shadows, often trying desperately to stop on their own, which they cannot do, and continue to wreak havoc.
In the last two columns, I discussed the first step of 12-Step recovery, in which addicts surrender the fight against drugs or alcohol because they realize they are powerless over them and that their lives had become unmanageable. The second step is a natural extension of the first: Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
There are three concepts in the second step that must be understood. First, there is this issue of sanity. The addict’s life can be called many things, but “sane” is not one of them. Many addicts and alcoholics continue to use or drink even after the loss of a cherished job, after all the money in the bank is gone, after their beloved family leaves them. The disease of addiction produces something called a mental obsession to drink or use, which can only be described as the constant, overwhelming thought of drinking or using at virtually all times of the day. Addicts and alcoholics suffer from a distorted perception, which often prevents them from seeing the reality of the condition. They often earnestly swear off drinking or using and mean it sincerely to the bottom of their souls, and are just as baffled, disappointed and frustrated as anyone when they use again, despite burdensome consequences. Sanity can be defined as “soundness of mind.” A person in the throes of addiction demonstrates anything but soundness of mind.
The second concept of the second step is the “Power greater than ourselves.” Many of us, addict and non-addict alike, call this Power “God,” and reasonably so. That’s what I call my Higher Power, by the way. But the reason the step says “Power greater than ourselves” rather than God is to emphasize who is not capable of restoring us to sanity. Remember the first step. In the first step, we realize that the addiction is more powerful than we are. In fact, we are so powerless that it isn’t just that we cannot use or drink successfully, it’s that we cannot not use or drink successfully. The fight is fixed. So in the second step, we realize that if we are going to get better (be restored to sanity), then obviously it cannot be: a.) a Power less than ourselves that does it, or b.) a Power equal to ourselves, because after all I am a power equal to me and I can’t do it. So it’s only logical that if we are to have any hope at all, then it has to be something greater than ourselves.
The third concept that must be understood is this “Coming to believe” business. Notice how I just said, if we are to get better, and if we were to have any hope. Well, we can get better, and there is a reason for addicts to have hope. You want to know how I know? Because I have seen it with my own two eyes over and over again. I have been bedside with people whose organs were shutting down, and 12 months later I’ve seen those same people celebrate a year of sobriety. I have watched people start the 12 Steps in jail and end up not only in free society, but I have seen them pay their debts, repair their families, make full restitution for their harms, and lead others to do the same. I have seen resurrection of the helpless and hopeless. I have seen children get their fathers and mothers back, spouses get their loved ones back, parents embrace their children again. I have seen it, and I have experienced it myself.
When Jesus came down from the mountainside, large crowds followed him. A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.”
Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean!” Immediately he was cleansed of his leprosy (Matt 8:1-3, NIV).
Hear the good news that there is a Power greater than all of us who is dying to heal this community. And once we come to believe in that fact, all that’s left for us to do is ask.