AllTreatment talked with Mike H. of Realistic Recovery about the 12 steps and the challenges they can pose for individuals of certain religious persuasions. Mike developed his own version of the 12 steps, called the 12 Steps of Realistic Recovery, which are based in rational and realistic thinking. We had the opportunity to ask Mike a few questions about his revision of the 12 steps and how such an approach can be useful in overcoming addiction.
AllTreatment: Hello, Mike. Could you please say a bit about when and why you came into contact with 12 step programs, and how you became motivated to create the 12 steps of Realistic Recovery?
Mike: I first found 12 Step Groups in the late 90's. I just became sick and tired of all my addictions and addictive behaviors (alcohol, sleeping pills, pain killers, sex, food, gambling, and smoking). I have nothing against anyone, or even myself, using any of these things, it's just I was over-using and abusing them.
I heard about AA and the 12 Steps, but wasn't sure what it was, other than it was some secret mysterious cure for alcohol addiction that nobody ever talked about. I was so disappointed when I got there and found out so much of it was based on old-time religious thinking.
But at my very first 12 step meeting, I did have this overwhelmingly emotional feeling of "I am not alone" and "I'm not the only one" struggling with addiction, so I continued to go to meetings just for this connection to others who were on a similar path of recovery from addiction. And to be truly honest, there weren't any other types of free addiction recovery group meetings available, AA was the only game in town.
My motivation for writing my version of the 12 steps was extremely simple: it hardly seemed sane or rational to rely solely on a method of addiction recovery that required you to turn your will and life over to a fictitious character from a religious mythology. The original method just might cure some people from their addiction problems, but now they would have a second or even greater problem: a delusional belief that a fictitious mythological character was real and was in charge of their lives.
To trade one form of insanity for another is not true recovery.
There had to be a better way to write the 12 steps and recover from addiction than this.
So I re-wrote or "translated" the 12 steps for my own personal use as a way for me to participate in 12 step recovery in a sane, rational, realistic way.
AT: Do you think the traditional “12 step method” could work for non-religious people if they maintain a certain level of cognitive distance?
Mike: I personally believe that keeping a certain level of cognitive distance might be the "only" way someone who is not religious could be successful using the original 12 step method. Even someone who is deeply religious/spiritual, but is not Jewish/Christian, would have to keep a distance from the original wording and practice the steps in a way that was consistent with their beliefs and practices (ie: Buddhism). The intent of the 12 steps is incredible, but the wording was poorly chosen and not inclusive to other cultures and beliefs.
As for those among us who are not religious, (or are atheist/agnostic, and fully realize that the Hebrew/Christian god is merely a character in that mythology), they will not be able to convert to this religion even for the sake of recovery, they will either keep a distance from the dogma, or just find other routes of recovery.
Without finding a way to keep a distance, the addict faces a dilemma: how can I take this wording seriously and literally? It's like telling a modern, sophisticated, educated, contemporary person that the only way to recover from your addiction is to turn your will over to the care of Zeus as you understand Zeus.
It's the equivalent of telling a fully emotionally mature adult that only Santa Claus can help them recover.
Fictional characters cannot literally help you recover from addiction, because they simply just don't exist (maybe a delusional "belief" in these characters just might, but now you have another problem). This is the distance a sane, rational, realistic person must keep from the original AA 12 steps.
AT: One thing I noticed about the traditional 12 steps is that control of one's success is relegated to an outside body (in this case, God). Do you think this can undermine someone's sense of personal agency in regards to recovery?
Mike: Yes, completely, in some cases, for people who suffer from co-dependent issues, this step might just set them up for the ultimate co-dependent relationship in their lives. They are giving up self-autonomy in order to have a relationship with, and please, this external authority figure. In fact, also, they have given up all self-accountability and responsibility in their recovery, as it will now be "God's will".
If the AA 12 steps were truly real and accurate and this "God" truly existed, then it would only be a 3 Step program, because once you turn your will over to a god that wants you to recover, how can you still be an addict, case closed, no need for further steps (unless their god wants them to remain an addict, for his greater purpose. Just delusional..). Again, the intent of the 12 steps is great, but the wording was poorly chosen.
I think this 3rd step was a missed opportunity by AA. This step is a great opportunity to re-empower an addict who feels powerless, by making him accountable and responsible for his own recovery.
It was an opportunity for the addict to take part in their own recovery, help themselves, and to humbly accept help from others who have gone this way before them or have greater knowledge on recovery matters than they do.
It was an opportunity for the addict to promise to themselves to never turn their lives over to delusional, unrealistic, dysfunctional or addictive/distorted thinking again. (i.e.: religious thinking for one).
Opportunity lost by AA.
AT: Step number three of the 12 steps of Realistic Recovery involves the commitment to “never again turn my will and life over to addictive thinking.” Is this the same as proclaiming to never again have addictive thoughts?
Mike: These are not the same. What I meant by addictive thinking could better be described as a distorted or un-realistic thinking process.
I can not possibly proclaim to never have "addictive thoughts". In my case, I would consider "addictive thoughts" to refer to my cravings or triggers for an addictive behavior or substance.
I'll use cigarettes as an example: many times, I'll find myself triggered or craving a cigarette, sometimes it can come from a scene in a movie or TV, or sometimes just seeing someone enjoying one on the street is enough. These cravings, I would call "addictive thoughts".
I cannot possibly control every event or situation in my life that might trigger these addictive thoughts or cravings, just as I cannot possibly control a random stranger on the street smoking or not smoking.
But what I meant by not turning my life over to addictive thinking (or un-realistic, distorted thinking) is that I can not listen to any inner thoughts that tell me one cigarette won't hurt.
In reality, if I smoke just one cigarette, soon I will be a smoker again, I get addicted to smoking that easily; if I have just one, soon it will be a pack a day.
So although I can't control when addictive thoughts happen or where they might come from, I hold myself accountable and responsible for how I handle these thoughts realistically.
"Addictive thoughts" are a natural response, a trigger or craving for an addict to indulge in a past and missed unhealthy behavior, while "addictive thinking" is an un-realistic or distorted thinking process by which the addict thinks that they can actually safely indulge in that unhealthy and addictive behavior.
AT: Steps six and seven of the traditional 12 steps involve asking God to remove “defects of character” and “shortcomings”. You refer to “patterns of thinking” rather than personal characteristics. What motivated this change?
Mike: I do not like the terms "defects" and "shortcomings". I think these phrases are old, outdated, and were never a truly accurate description of the addicts pattern of reacting, thinking and behaving. Another poor choice of phrasing.
I think more accurate phrases for an addict's reactions, thinking and behaviors would be "coping mechanisms" and "survival techniques".
I'll give a stark, extreme example: some addicts I have met and heard their stories were sexually or physically abused as children, or just simply neglected or abandoned.
In order to kill the pain, shame, embarrassment, humiliation, powerlessness, trauma, anger and resentment of their childhood, they might turn to drugs or alcohol to temporarily hide their inner wounds.
The use of drugs and alcohol could become a "coping mechanism" or "survival technique" for someone like that just to get through the day, or to get through life. And I don't think it would then be appropriate to then slap labels like "defects" or "shortcomings" on someone like this because they feel anger and resentment. They have every right to feel anger and resentment about their childhood, anger occurs in humans when they witness an injustice to themselves or others. Anger is a useful emotion.
In reality, there are only two ways to deal with this inner wound: attempt to heal it or continue masking it. The problem is that a person in this situation might not have role models or examples to learn healing techniques from. They might have only learned or inherited the "escape from reality" techniques of dealing with life.
In my case, an injustice is usually the cause of my anger, which I now know to be a trigger for my addictions. Using my step 6, I would now have to try to be aware of the effect anger is having on me and to be watchful for a need and an attempt to mask this emotion.
In my step 7, I would need to find a healthy way to resolve this anger, either by finding a way to achieve justice, or if that is not realistically possible, by finding ways to forgive, let go, move on, and relax (meditation, exercise).
Step 6 is about "revealing" these destructive patterns of coping.
Step 7 is about "replacing" unhealthy patterns and techniques with healthier ones.
AT: In the final step of Realistic Recovery, you mention carrying the principles embodied by the 12 steps into all areas of life. How do you think these 12 steps can positively affect daily life (relationships, work, etc)? How can they help to prevent relapses?
Mike: I think living in reality and sobriety is important for me. I think I owe it to myself and others to be sane, rational, realistic, respectful, honest and sober when dealing with people. This has made me a better employee, co-worker and friend at the workplace compared to before. My personal and work relationships are true and honest now, and I no longer allow people who could be a negative distraction or influence on my progress to get too close.
As far as relapse goes, I have a much better understanding of my addictive, distorted thinking now and have a few skills and tools I didn't have before:
1. I know what a lot of my triggers are now for each addictive behavior (denial depleted).
2. I have much better refusal and healthier coping techniques now.
3. I'm still willing and do attend 12 step meetings to give and receive support.
4. I have personal friends now who are also on a path of recovery who I can confide in.
5. This work and recovery I’ve done has re-established some self-worth and self-esteem.
6. I'm better able to identify and replace my self-destructive patterns of thinking and living now.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us, Mike. Addiction recovery is certainly not one-size-fits-all, so there is much to be said for alternative approaches to traditional recovery programs.