I’ve said it before : I love 12-step recovery. I’ve learned many lessons and acquired many tools that have helped me live my life, free from drugs and alcohol. The meetings, the fellowship, and the readings have all been wonderful aids in my recovery. Through numerous attempts and failures to stay sober, the program of 12-step recovery was always there to help me clean myself up in order to start again. 

    But here’s the thing : AA didn’t provide me with the one tool that I really took hold of, the one lesson that I needed to learn in order to change my life forever. It didn’t teach me how to love myself and, hence, it didn’t teach me how to cherish the life that I had been privileged to live. AA started me down the path of recovery by showing me basic tools of gratitude and acceptance and the benefits of hard work. It helped me make the early transition from drinking daily to total abstinence. But it didn’t provide real answers on how to find inner peace and happiness so that I would never WANT to go back to using again. 

    I know a lot of people have sought a solution to their substance abuse issues through the rooms of AA and NA. Many of these people have achieved long term sobriety, and many have not. Of those that have, some are the most miserable old pricks you will ever meet. Why? Because addicts, by nature, are loathe to follow directions, and 12-step is all about following rules or “suggestions” in order to make it through the day. A person who is subjected to non-stop monitoring - even if he does so of his own free will - is still under the thumb of an authoritative regime. This provides little room for creative expression or personal growth, and it assumes the person has neither the ability nor the desire to make healthy decisions in his life.

     Of course, most addicts in early recovery don’t trust themselves, as is warranted by their history of bad ideas and lousy behavior. But when does trust begin to be reestablished? Isn’t the desire to believe in oneself a huge reason that a person seeks recovery in the first place? How long do you need to be guided through every moment in order NOT to fuck up again? And when are you capable of learning from these poor decisions on your own? Do you need to be micromanaged every day of your life?

    Let’s pretend you’re drowning. You don’t know how to swim, and you just got leveled by a huge wave, which now is dragging you out to sea. Fortunately, you’re not far from the beach, and a lifeguard swims out and rescues you. He hauls you back to dry land and begins giving you CPR (if you want to pretend he/she is the man/woman of your fantasies, go for it, but let’s stay focused on the lesson here) You start to breathe on your own, you’re starting to come around. Open your eyes, slowly get up, catch your balance, get your bearings. Now you walk back to your towel and the friends you came with. A couple weeks later, you start taking swimming lessons. You learn a few different strokes and a bunch of safety tips. You do a little research on your own about tidal pull, waves, undertow, dangerous aquatic sea life, etc. 

    Are you now prepared to go to the beach by yourself? Or do you need your swim instructor to go with you? If you disagree with him as to which stroke you want to swim or what beach you want to visit, does that mean you’re going to drown again? Will you bring a manual on water safety and read it every morning? Do you need the lifeguard to remind you to put on sunscreen and to not swim too close to motorboats? At night, will you meet with other folks who have had scary experiences in the water? Will you ask them to tell their stories about almost drowning, and will you tell your story again and again? While none of these are necessarily a bad idea, they do limit your choices as to how you will enjoy future experiences in the water.

    It’s up to you to learn from your mistakes and get on with your life. A lifeguard will teach you the strokes but he won’t teach you how to love the sport. Many people who almost drown avoid large bodies of water for the rest of their lives, but that solution is extremely limiting, and it’s not foolproof (there are bathtubs and hot tubs, just to name two ever-present threats). My suggestion is to learn how to swim, don’t eat before you jump into the water, and, if the water looks too rough, stay on the beach until the conditions change.  But for God’s sake, GO SWIMMING AS OFTEN AS POSSIBLE !!

    12-step recovery continues to be something I reach for on occasion. Its structure, its lessons, and the uniformity of the meetings I attend, all coalesce to provide consistent, solid, reliable support. I am eternally grateful for its inception and continued existence, and I continue to benefit from it while I live my life under the decision-making ability and leadership of my own free will. 

    Yes, I said free will. I don’t care who you are or how tight you are with your higher power, YOU are the one who keeps you sober. When you were tempted, who called your sponsor or another alcoholic? You did. When you needed strength, who prayed to your higher power? You did. When the opportunity presented itself to relapse, who stayed sober? You did. Who was at the last meeting you attended? You were. You, you, you, you, you. Holy shit! Maybe it IS all about you, after all (or at least mostly about you, as it appears from your perspective) And maybe that’s exactly how it is meant to be. 

     You are way more powerful than you give yourself credit for, but be careful how you wield that power. Tell yourself that you can’t be trusted often enough, and you will have no choice but to believe the authoritative voice in your head. Conversely, tell yourself that you are capable of changing for the better, of growing, of loving yourself, and of loving the present opportunity to live a joyous existence, and you will create a world that you don’t WANT to escape, and a life that you don’t WANT to avoid, and a YOU that you don’t WANT to get away from. 

    But always keep an eye open for sharks and jellyfish.