Are the 12 Steps A Cure-All?
When I first arrived in a 12-step program, at a tender young age, I had a truckload of issues tailing me. I felt broken and irreparable, and as if I qualified for every 12-step program under the sun. My first sponsor suggested something novel. She said, “just for today, why don’t we put all of your outside issues under the umbrella of your alcoholism and see what happens.” What she meant was, let’s treat your alcoholism and see what else clears up in the process. And she was mostly on track. Many of the issues I struggled with when I walked in the doors did get better or go away—problems with drugs, obsessive smoking, food, relationships. As I worked the steps and addressed many of the things that had led me to abuse alcohol and drugs in the first place, I healed on many levels. So my first sponsor was mostly right. But many years later, I learned that this might not be the end of the story.
While in a 12 step program, I had somewhere picked up the notion that seeking outside help was somehow “cheating.” That it meant one wasn’t working the steps properly, because if you were, the steps should fix everything. I judged people who sought out therapists and was skeptical of people who went on medication. I assumed, for example, if someone wasn’t doing well, it must be because they were avoiding the work of their recovery. If they were prescribed anti-depressants, I assumed it was a little something to take the edge off just enough so they didn’t have to face the scary work of transformation. And here’s the kicker—sometimes this is the case, and I believe this is why seeking outside help can be stigmatized in recovery circles. But in many instances, there is much more to the story.
What We judge, We Walk Through
When I accumulated some time in sobriety, I discovered some really persistent issues were crippling me. There was a level of discord and insanity surrounding certain aspects of my life that made me feel like I was living in a pressure cooker. I couldn’t seem to gain any traction with these issues; no matter how hard I worked the steps or how many meetings I attended. With many years of sobriety, I felt like I was losing my mind in recovery.
After some time, my sponsor intervened and told me that she did not have the tools to help me in these areas and insisted I seek out a therapist. Some of my initial hesitation and judgment arose. Did this mean I was failing at AA? That I wasn’t working hard enough? No, in fact. It meant that there are many aspects of our lives that steps 6 and 7 can transform: we can surrender many defects of character to the process and to a higher power and be changed. But—and this was crucial for me—there were other dark corners of my psyche that called for a wise professional to help me navigate the murky depths.
This shift in outlook enabled me to stay sane and comfortable in my sobriety year after year. As complex difficulties arise, I treat them with the steps, of course, but also take advantage of all the other resources that are available to me. In reality, my firm foundation in the steps enabled me to face hard things, and gave me willingness and a language to get help with my struggles.
The Wisdom of Outside Help
In 12-step programs, although we have experienced much, we are not the ultimate authorities on anything. Having a genuine humility surrounding issues like mental health is vital. In actual fact, those in the medical profession are best suited to treat issues that fall out of our wheelhouse. What may show up as a hint of depression for one alcoholic or addict may be a full-blown clinical disorder for someone else. In 12-step programs, we don’t diagnose anyone. When we defer to the expertise of medical professionals, it can actually save lives. The willingness to dig deeper to be happy and healthy in this world is what recovery is all about. Supporting each other unconditionally in that endeavor is a profound expression of love and humility.
For me, seeking out a qualified therapist was life-changing and sobriety enhancing. I now get to give the women I sponsor a much deeper experience, because I have addressed more in myself, and I know the limits of my help. Although in 12-step programs we rely on the spiritual realm for healing, I have come to believe that this universe made good doctors for a reason, and there is nothing wrong with taking advantage of their wisdom and services. It may just keep us alive and sober another day.