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Alcohol & Drug Recovery in the 12 Steps – How It Works

By July 25, 2017Ego
ego

Many therapists do not understand the 12-Step recovery process, unless they have participated in a 12-Step program. Although they may encourage their clients to do so, they may feel perplexed or intimated, or act patronizing. Often, therapists don’t realize that the 12-Steps are not merely an antidote for addiction, but are guidelines for nothing less than a total personality transformation. Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, was influenced by Carl Jung, whom he wrote seeking a treatment for alcoholism. Jung replied that the cure would have to be a spiritual one — a power equal to the power of spiritus vivi, or alcohol. He thought that addicts were “misguided ‘seekers for the spirit,’ …in the world of Dionysus, the god of renewal through the light from below, from the earth rather than from the heavens…” (Whitmont, 227)

The 12 Steps provide a spiritual remedy. They outline a process of surrender of the ego to the unconscious, God or a higher power, and very much resemble the process of transformation in Jungian therapy. Jung believed that unity and wholeness of the personality, which generates a sense of acceptance and detachment, occurs when both the conscious and unconscious demands are taken into account — when not the ego, but the Self, is at the center of consciousness. (Storr, 19) He wrote that his life was “a story of the self-realization of the unconscious,” and rediscovered, as suggested by the 12 Steps, that God was “a guiding principle of unity.” (Storr, 24-25)

The following is a summary of how the Steps work; however, any linear description is misleading, because, like transformation, the process is circular. Although these Steps apply to numerous addictions, whether to a person, a substance (e.g. alcohol, drugs, food) or a process (e.g., sex, gambling, debting), the focus here is on alcohol and drug addiction and the family members who are in a codependent relationship with the alcoholic/addict.

Facing the Problem: The beginning of recovery is acknowledging that there’s a problem involving drugs or alcohol, that there is help outside oneself, and the willingness to utilize it. This also represents the beginning of hope and trust in something beyond oneself (such as a therapist, sponsor, or the program). Invariably, it has taken years to face the problem, but by opening a closed family system, and learning about addiction, denial starts to thaw. The first part of “working the First Step” is an admission of powerlessness. Step 1 reads: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives have become unmanageable.” (Other words, such as “food”, “gambling” or “people, places and things” are often substituted for the word alcohol.) The substance abuser begins to understand s/he is powerless over drugs or alcohol, and the codependent slowly learns that she or he cannot control the substance abuser. The struggle not to drink and the codependent’s vigilance over the addict begin to slip away. Gradually, attention starts to shift from the substance, and, for the codependent, the substance abuser to focus on oneself. Before taking this Step, endless therapy sessions are spent by the alcoholic, wondering, “Why do I drink?” and the spouse complaining about the addict’s behavior.

There are deeper and deeper levels of working the First Step during recovery. The first stage is the acknowledgement that there is a problem with a substance; second, that it is a life-threatening problem over which one is powerless; and third, that actually the problem is not only with the substance, nor with the substance abuser or others, but lies in one’s own attitudes and behavior.

Surrender: The acknowledgment of powerlessness leaves a void, which formerly was filled with a lot of mental and physical activity trying to control and manipulate the addiction or the substance abuser. Feelings of anxiety, anger, loss, emptiness, boredom, and depression arise. The emptiness that was masked by the addiction is now revealed. It is an awesome realization when you acknowledge that you or your loved one has a life threatening addiction, subject only to a daily reprieve, over which you are powerless. Now, with a modicum of trust, and either out of desperation or faith, one acquires a willingness to turn to a power beyond oneself. This is Step 2: “Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”

In the book Alcoholics Anonymous, it states: “Without help it is too much for us. But there is One who has all power — that One is God.” (p. 59). That power can also be a sponsor, therapist, the group, the therapy process or a spiritual power. In working the Steps, reality itself becomes a teacher, as one is asked to continually “turn over” (to that Power) an addiction, people and frustrating situations. More and more, the ego relinquishes control, as one begins to trust that Power, the growth process and life as well.

Self-Awareness: What has been happening up until now is an increasing awareness and observation of one’s dysfunctional behavior and addiction(s) — what is referred to as “insanity” in the Second Step. This is a crucial development, because it signifies the genesis of an observing ego. With this new tool, one begins to exercise some restraint over addictive and undesirable habits, words, and deeds. The Program works behaviorally as well as spiritually. Abstinence and forbearance from old behavior are accompanied by anxiety, anger and a sense of loss of control. New, preferable attitudes and behavior (often called “contrary action”) feel uncomfortable, and arouse other emotions, including fear and guilt. From a Jungian perspective, ones “complexes” are being challenged:

“We regard and approach life in the light of our childhood values and conditioning, that is, in the light of our complexes. This would explain why our sense of being and of security are so tied to our familiar, personally-actualized frames of reference…Every challenge to our personal habit patterns and accustomed values is felt as nothing less than the threat of death and extinction of our selves. Invariably such challenges evoke reactions of defensive anxiety.” (Whitmont, 24).

Group support is important in reinforcing new behavior, because the emotions triggered by these changes are very powerful and can easily retard or arrest recovery. For the very same reasons, family, friends and lovers may resist change in order to preserve the system’s homeostasis. The emotional discomfort may be so great that the substance abuser may revert to drinking or using. The 12 Steps provide help in Step 3. Here one is asked to relinquish the ego’s central position as director, and to turn one’s life “over to the care of God as we understood God.” This is the practice of “letting go” and “turning it over,” meaning that one cannot control outcomes, others’ attitudes, and behaviors, nor daily frustrations that can trigger a relapse. In Jungian therapy, the individual “comes to change his attitude from one in which ego and will are paramount to one in which he acknowledges that he is guided by an integrating factor which is not of his own making …named the Self — a ‘God-image,’ or at least indistinguishable from one.” (Storr, 19). The idea of surrender can be particularly frightening to someone — like many addicts — who has been traumatized by abuse or neglect. Building trust is a process, but as faith gradually grows, so does the ability to let go and move towards more functional behavior.

Inventory; Building Self-esteem: Now with a bit more ego awareness, self-discipline and faith, one is ready to review ones past. This is Step 4. It requires a thorough examination (“a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves”), with a view towards uncovering patterns of dysfunctional emotions and behavior, called “character defects.” The “exact nature of our wrongs” is then “admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being,” in Step 5.

For Jung, the shadow “is moral problem that challenges the whole ego personality” (Storr, 91), and “no progress or growth in analysis is possible until (it) is adequately confronted.” (Whitmont, 165) “The shadow personifies everything that the client refuses to acknowledge about himself and yet is always thrusting itself upon him directly and indirectly — for instance, inferior traits of character and other incompatible tendencies.” (Storr, 221) Awareness of the dark aspects of the personality, an essential condition for self-knowledge, requires “considerable moral effort,” and “painstaking work extending over a long period.” (Storr, 91). Individuals conscientious in working the Steps often do a few inventories with one or more sponsors over several years, each time experiencing greater honesty and insight.

Jung felt redemption was possible only by facing ones “final guilt,” or “blackest shadow.” (Storr, 279, Whitmont, 226) Whether in therapy or with a sponsor, the process of self-disclosure in a non-judgmental environment required by Step 5 further develops self-esteem and an observing ego. Through conscious acknowledgment of one’s imperfections, one discovers his or her frailty and humanity. Guilt, resentments and paralyzing shame begin to gently dissolve, and with it, the false self, self-loathing and depression. For some, particularly people in therapy, this process involves recalling childhood pain and grief work, which is the beginning of empathy for oneself and others.

Self-acceptance and Transformation: The encounter with the shadow brings unavoidable conflict and pain. Following an acknowledgment of dysfunctional emotional and behavioral patterns, the person is still faced with the realization that awareness alone is not enough. Change doesn’t happen until old habits are replaced with healthier skills, and/or until the purposes they

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