After the initial revelation of finding ourselves on a path to recovery, we have to get into action. Our first course of action is to find a sponsor: someone capable of leading us on the path toward taking responsibility for our actions. In the world outside of recovery, sponsors are those who vouch for you or who act as your benefactor. In recovery, however, a sponsor’s role is quite different. Their role isn’t to vouch for you but rather to guide you through the 12 steps. In more apt terms, your sponsor is more like a mentor.
When looking for someone to sponsor you, look for:
An individual of the same sex. Yes, you can have a sponsor of the opposite sex, but it’s more beneficial to you and has less potential for complications if sponsorship is gender specific.
Someone who has what you want. I’m not talking cars, finances or partner, but someone whose spiritual life and sense of self is something you can strive toward or which you admire.
An individual whom you can trust. If there’s any reluctance, look to someone else.
Find someone whose actions reflect his or her words. A sponsor who functions under the guise of “do as I say, not as I do,” is not the one for you.
Someone whose recovery inspires you.
When you have finally found someone with whom you are willing to do the work:
Call them, even when you don’t need anything. If you don’t have that relationship developed, you won’t call them when things are tough.
Be consistent. Remember the lengths you would take to use? Apply that same sense of urgency to your recovery.
If you think you made the wrong choice, realize it’s ok to move on. It’s your recovery, not theirs.
Your sponsor (is):
Tough when necessary
Works a program
Your sponsor is not:
Your best friend
Your higher power
If you are looking for a sponsor, keep this in mind: Finding the “right”sponsor may take time. If you are having issues beyond the reach of the 12 steps, your sponsor should ultimately ask that you seek professional help. They are morally obligated to do so. Remember, the basic tenants of sponsorship is to take you through the steps.
Stepping onto a path of recovery and beginning the removal of toxicity from one’s life is an arduous, often painful, but beautiful process. But I like to believe that some of our greatest lessons come from our difficulties. Those are the times that provide us with the most insight into what is actually going on with us. Take for instance your relationships with others. Is there a pattern? Have you continued to add links to an unhealthy chain be it consciously or subconsciously? Are you happy?
When there is a history of toxicity in one’s life, particularly when it’s introduced at an early age, what is considered “normal” tends to become skewed. For example, someone raised in a home with an abusive parent may inadvertently seek out relationships with similar personality types. This isn’t a conscious act but rather a direct result of being taught how to be in this world through violence (emotional, physical, visual, etc.). It feels familiar and therefore “normal” to be around toxicity. The question is, how do you break the chain? How do you make new, better choices that are healthy and nurturing? How do you place yourself in environments that celebrate you for who you are instead of those that persistently denigrate you?
The 12 steps are a brilliant start. They allow us to begin the process of unpeeling the layers of the onion by asking us to turn our eyes inward and check out what’s going on in our minds and in our hearts. That oft-dreaded fourth step tends to help identify a pattern, particularly if we are honest with ourselves when we write it. Personally, I’ve always liked that process because it feels like I’m stripping the layers of emotional dirt off of me. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s worth it. Frankly, it hurts like hell to look at ourselves and at our lives with a magnifying glass, but dang it, it’s liberating. You just don’t need to carry that stuff around anymore. Twelve-step work is just the start. If it were only that easy, right?
Taking a clinical approach is incredibly beneficial, especially when dealing with trauma, addiction, and mental-health issues. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), to name a few, are invaluable tools to help identify the psychological triggers and hooks we have embedded within us.
But you know what really seals the deal for me? Creating space for Spirituality. I can’t emphasize enough how invaluable it is to develop a spiritual practice. It is the very thing that will feed your soul. No, I’m not selling you religion or a canon of idealized thought. I am, however, urging you to find the calm in your breath, the grounding notion of having your feet planted to the earth, and the healing weight of your hand on your heart. You can break the chain of abuse. You can shut out the tapes that play in your mind, telling you you’re a piece of crap, a failure, not enough, stupid, fat, ugly, useless. You can take your power back. It takes work, but it’s worth all the sweat and tears. Trust me. Be patient. Understand that this process of recovery takes time. Nothing and no one is perfect.
I’ll leave you with this. I was involved in a series of abusive relationships growing up. I was doing the same thing, expecting different results. I eventually discovered I was continuing the pattern of emotional denigration established in my childhood and nurtured in my adolescence. When I finally smashed through that chain several years into my recovery and only after working tirelessly with a therapist, meditation, yoga, 12 steps, I was free. This doesn’t mean the trauma or triggers went away. It means I finally learned to identify them, and have garnered tools to help me respond to them differently. When I met my husband, I quickly discovered he was different. For one thing, he showed me unconditional support, which I hesitated to believe was true. It took me almost two years to accept the fact that I had, in fact, broken that chain and was capable of having relationships that were built on trust and respect. I realized I could believe someone; something this traumatized gal was never able to do. This was proof that I had redefined my “normal” and surrounded myself with a healthy, loving new family. In fact, I redefined my response to the world and its triggers, not just within my family, but also in my life. Ultimately, I took my power back. You can too. You just have to do the work!
The 12-step model is certainly reliable and is the standard go-to place for most people seeking recovery. It’s certainly the model we refer to first in the recovery world. However, there are times when we come across an alcoholic or addict who is deeply atheist and subsequently hits a wall when they get to Step 2: “Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity.” Can AA work for them too? Most people will say that it can. Some will leave things as-is, and some will need to make some minor language changes in order to match their beliefs about spirituality. Unfortunately, there are some folks devoted to retaining the exact language that makes up the steps, so much so they are unwilling to accept even a minor change.
As reported in The Fix, a Toronto group of atheists in recovery has just run into that very thing. The group was listed in their local AA directory, they had a fairly large batch of regular attendees, and yet, some in the community still found their modifications of the steps to be a threat to AA as a whole. Apparently, the idea of a non-secular recovery group was too much and a controversy broke out. Los Angeles has its share of non-secular meetings, but to my knowledge, there hasn’t been newsworthy controversy thus far and the groups seem to be thriving.
Here’s the thing, the “only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking,” right? To me that means regardless of someone’s religious beliefs, gender or sexual orientation, they have a right to be there. When I got sober, I struggled a great deal with the God concept. Still, I was embraced by my fellow alcoholics and encouraged to find whatever worked for me. I managed to retain my viewpoint on the intangible nature of a power greater than myself whilst still developing a deep spiritual practice and strong foundation for my sobriety. The steps are viable tools for recovery for me even if I need to alter a few things. My sobriety hasn’t been negatively impacted as a result. So, why the resistance from some when it comes to change in AA? Isn’t our ultimate goal to achieve sobriety? Isn’t it a goal to untangle the addict mind and redirect it to a healthy, positive, less self-serving path? Aren’t we supposed to learn to reach out and be of service, giving back what has been so freely given to us? Why, then, would we want to close the doors on our fellow alcoholics?
With all the hubbub, I was interested in what literary changes sparked this controversy. The Fix printed two of them:
Step Two: Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
Adapted version: Came to accept and to understand that we needed strengths beyond our awareness and resources to restore us to sanity.
Step Three: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.
Adapted version: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of the AA program.
Frankly, I don’t see anything wrong with this. Those working this version are still fundamentally going to get to the same place: they will be come to believe that they cannot do this alone; they will use the power of the group to help them recover.
Whether you’re closely tied to a Judeo-Christian belief system or have roots deeply planted on a non-theistic path, recovery IS possible. The 12-step model IS effective. If you need to work the steps with some literary alterations, do so, as long as you work them.
When I think of the phrase “I’m an alcoholic,” I often think of Popeye and the fervency behind his frequently uttered catchphrase: “I yam what I yam.” When admitting to being an alcoholic, you’re taking the first step towards admission of powerlessness. It implies an understanding that in claiming that label, one is willing to look at the mind-body connection to their drinking and using. According to the 12 and 12, “Admission of powerlessness is the first step in liberation.” It is the way those of us in 12-step recovery begin to build the foundation on which our sobriety will steady itself; it is “the firm bedrock upon which happy and purposeful lives may be built.
I recently had an opportunity to do a workshop on addiction and pain with a Tibetan nun by the name of Chonyi Taylor. It proved to be a fascinating experience, particularly since there is a burgeoning movement to blend Buddhism with recovery. One of the things that really resonated with me during this workshop was the perspective she shared regarding addiction being a habit. Chonyi said, “Addiction is a mental habit in which there is no conscious control, which gives short-term pleasure and long-term harm.” Being able to look at my own addiction patterns as habits, and discovering that I can systematically break them by admitting powerlessness and renunciation, is incredibly helpful. Because, frankly, as addicts and alcoholics, we have terrible tendency toward getting stuck, reacting and responding to our triggers the same way over and over again. In essence, we have developed habits. We repeatedly meet negative experiences with the desire to get drunk or high. When we get sober, sometimes the habit of seeking numbing pleasure continues, often presenting as promiscuity, gambling, eating irresponsibly, et cetera. By admitting we’re powerless and that our lives are unmanageable, we are given our first opportunity to free ourselves from our negative, addictive, habitual behaviors.
No matter how you look at it, the message is this: we are required to admit powerlessness, renounce negative behavior(s), write moral inventories, and develop a spiritual path paved with honesty and service work. I’d rather have the opportunity deconstruct bad habits so I can build new, healthy ones, wouldn’t you?