So, I began this series last year and I think I stopped at Step Four. I’m going to revive this and see if I can finish it out.
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-=[ Surrender ]=-
“We admitted we were powerless over our addiction, that our lives had become unmanageable.”
-- The First Step of Narcotics Anonymous
This is for all those who still suffer needlessly, not knowing there is a way out. To you I offer my gratitude and love...
Every month, I will post my strengths, hopes, and experiences on one of the 12 steps of Narcotics Anonymous. What follows is a narrative of my journey toward healing. I don’t know if this will work for you, but if you were to ask me, this is how I recovered my life. My story is a narrative of a life lived on the edge -- extreme -- and you might find it hard to identify with some of its elements. All I ask is that you try to identify with and not compare my story. Listen to the message and not the mess.
I believe all people can benefit from a rigorous application of the 12 steps and I offer this in the spirit of hope.
The First Step confronted me with two problematic words: powerless and unmanageable. I also didn’t notice at first that every step began with the word “We.” I was a loner; “we” wasn’t a word I used much. Everything was about me. They say an addict is an egomaniac with low self-esteem, and I believe that was how I felt.
Let me just say that 12-step recovery is about action. Every step involves growth, exploration, and action. I think people have huge misconceptions about 12-Step Fellowships. People in recovery like to say that the first step is the only step you have to get perfectly. I disagree, recovery is an ongoing process, and my understanding of the first step expands as I grow. However, there is a level of acceptance necessary for the integration of this step. But I get ahead of myself…
There are several powerful psycho-spiritual factors at work in the first step. Primarily, there is an admission. Admitting to a problem has become a popular notion in our culture that first came to prominence in the recovery community. Admitting touches on the first spiritual principle of the first step: honesty. However, admitting means nothing without acceptance. For example, I had no problem admitting I was an addict; I could be honest about that. LOL! That and $2 got me on the train, which is another way of saying that admitting by itself it was worthless. It wasn’t until I embraced another core spiritual principle of the first step, acceptance, that I was then able to make changes in my life.
The more meetings I made, the more I heard my own story from the lips of others who were honest about themselves. I began to see that I had a lot in common with these people when it came to my relationship to addiction. It took me a long time to come to grips with powerlessness. I was raised to think of myself as powerful. I was taught that if I exerted my will on any issue, that I could overcome anything in the world. If I had enough cojones and worked hard enough, I could have power over anything.
Besides, it wasn’t my addiction that was the problem, it was everyone else. If only other people got their shit together and external situations in my life mended themselves, I wouldn’t be in such a fix. The problem with my thinking was that it involved exerting willpower. The problem with my willpower was that it was warped. The more willpower I exerted, the more I fucked up. I tried everything: using only on the weekends, snorting instead of using needles, drinking instead of using other drugs, using only certain drugs in certain combinations, etc. No matter what I tried, I always ended up in the same place: all fucked up.
If the only tool you have is a hammer, then everything begins to look like a nail. For me to begin my journey, I first had to surrender. In fact, as I look back now, the whole process of recovery is one long, beautiful, liberating process of surrendering.
For me, the first step is like the beginning of a hero’s journey. In the archetype of the hero, most heroes begin reluctantly, and then forces beyond their control propel them past their everyday lives into a journey of personal change and renewal. Like most addicts, I was unaware of aspects of myself -- my feelings, for example, and the wreckage I was creating. The first step was a tool I could use in my quest for self-knowledge.
Admitting to powerlessness took me years; accepting that admission brought me to the gateway of healing and sanity. That was also about another core spiritual principle: willingness. It’s often called the HOW (honesty, openness, and willingness) of recovery.
The first step is not about defeat. It says powerlessness, not hopelessness. We have no power over many things. Take the weather, for example. You can’t stop the rain, but if you take the time to stop, look, and listen, you may come to realize that using an umbrella is a lot better that railing against the elements. We have no power over how others act or think yet we spend enormous amounts of time and energy trying to exert control over other people. We don’t even have power over our own emotions, but we can learn to relate to them differently.
The first step is really about admitting powerlessness over living in the extremes. Try fighting the rain, or better yet, a hurricane, and you’ll get a sense of what it is to fight addiction. You have to surrender.
As part of taking the first step, you take an inventory of the consequences of your addiction. For me this meant documenting the jobs I lost, the people I hurt, and most of all, the harm I did to myself. In this way, I could no longer deny the unmanageability of life as an active addict. This was a hard nut to crack because I never wanted to admit my life was unmanageable. I had it together, I liked to think, I just went a little overboard sometimes.
I also discovered the insanity of the obsession that led to the compulsion and how my fight would be fruitless until I surrendered. If you’re fighting an inner war, then someone has to lose. If you’re fighting an inner war, it follows, you will always lose.
Taking the first step clearly showed me that my thinking had little connection to reality. There were countless times, for example, that I would experience a blackout. With a blackout, you can sit down one minute and the next thing you know you missed an entire episode of your life -- while conscious. It’s like what a time jumper would feel. One minute you’re in one place and the next, you’re somewhere else and you don’t know what the fuck is going on. One time I came out of a blackout, I had a whole party-full of people wanting to kick my ass, and I had no clue why. It seems I propositioned the bride-to-be (it was an engagement party) and that kinda pissed a few people off. I once came out of a blackout in a different state and different year! LOL! Still I couldn’t admit my powerlessness. It wasn’t that something was wrong with me, it was those damned stuck up muthafuckas, and besides, I know that bitch wanted me.
Most of all, the first step is the beginning of the undoing of the karmic consequences of denial. I had to be brought my knees -- from hopelessly addicted to institutions and even close to death -- and still I wouldn’t admit my powerlessness. There was definitely a lot of evidence of unmanageability in my life. Shit, I attempted suicide at least once. What “normal” person can say that? More than anything, I was addicted to insanity.
Oh, and yes, I’ve kicked more habits than I can remember. I just could never stay stopped. Addiction, I soon learned, was not about using. I would get “clean” and chill for six-seven months, but when I started again, it was as if I never stopped. My last day as an active addict, I had spent $300 and I was on the street (released from an institution) exactly fourteen days. I went from clean to a $300-a-day habit at the drop of a hat. I would say that’s unmanageable...
However, there are other ways our powerlessness and unmanageability can manifest itself. Whether it’s food or cigarettes, or relationships, I think we can all look where we’re slowly killing ourselves, or causing ourselves and our loved ones harm. I believe we all can identify with the need to exert control and the denial of powerlessness. I use my life as an example because the extreme manner in which I lived makes it easier to illustrate my points, but we all have the dark places where we butt our heads.
Today, I apply the first step to many things in my life, especially in relationships and to certain behaviors. Addictions like to migrate. You might be able to kick the heroin or the alcohol, but then you see people acting out sexually or financially. If you don’t do the work, then you’ll continue to be in the grips of addictive behavior. The first step stipulated that I was powerless over my addiction. Addiction is not about a substance, but about a way of thinking.
Eventually, I began to think of the first step as something similar to the concepts of Aikido or Wing Chun, two martial arts that stress the importance of never meeting force with force. In a sense, the first step is about learning to flow with the forces of life instead of fighting all the time. It’s learning to transform difficult emotions into opportunities for healing. It’s knowing that you can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.
Alcoholics Anonymous: Official website
Narcotics Anonymous: Official website
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Note: The featured artwork is from an artist who sells the prints online. I happen to like them. His website features prints of all the 12 steps.