12 Steps

12steps800My therapist told me to craft my own version of the Twelve (12) Steps since I am always pointing out the illogic in several of the Steps. I’m not trying to replace AA’s 12 Steps, but rather, formulate my own personal set of steps or guidelines for my own recovery. Each person has a unique recovery program, or at least they should, in my opinion.

  1. Don’t drink! Yes, my program is one of abstinence. A few people in recovery believe they can drink in moderation or controlled, but I’ve already tested out that theory, and it doesn’t work for me.
  2. Work on and achieve acceptance. Accept your disease, but recognize that it’s ok not be happy about it and that you did not aspire to become an alcoholic. It’s ok to hate that word, alcoholic.
  3. Actively participate in AA. Embrace those steps which you believe in, and the fellowship. Discard the rest. Stop analyzing and pointing out deficiencies with AA program. It does no good. Consider reconnecting with your religion (mine is Judaism) to achieve some kind of spiritual foundation, whatever that may be.
  4. Go to private therapy as outlined by your therapist.
  5. Exercise, take care of my body, and eat healthy.
  6. Stay in frequent touch with your sponsor.
  7. Do Steps 4 and 5 of the AA program the way it’s laid out. It’s important to take that personal inventory and clean out all the “baggage.”
  8. Stay away from trigger locations, including bars, certain restaurants, parties and gatherings until I feel 100% confident I can deal with the situation without drinking or craving a drink.
  9. Do the making amends steps 8 and 9 of AA the way it’s laid out. It’s equally important to say your sorry to all the people you have hurt. But you can only do this once you have a solid foundation for recovery or else it’s just words.
  10. Seek rewards and gratification for a job well done and successes through healthy choices and inner confidence.
  11. Forgive yourself of all your past mistakes and focus on the future and the joy and happiness a sober you will bring to yourself and your family.
  12. Try to limit acting like a lawyer in recovery by over-analyzing everything and trying to “out-smart” the disease. Keep it simple. Again, if you don’t drink, you’ve done a good job for the day.

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Hijacking The Brain, How Drug and Alcohol Addiction Hijacks our Brains – The Science Behind Twelve-Step Recovery

During my time-off, I read this amazing book called Hijacking The Brain, by Louis Teresi, M.D., a Harvard neuro-scientist and also a recovering alcoholic. This book, for me, was like a gift from heaven. As you could tell from previous posts, my analytical attorney brain has always asked the question, “How does the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous really work”? Forget the blind faith and the answers from old-timers (“It just does..”). I needed evidence, data, and scientific proof. Well, this book answers the question and explains a lot more about the chemistry of addiction. Here are a few passages from the book:

Just as viruses hijack a cell’s RNA and DNA, drugs of abuse hijack the brain’s core reward pathway to promote continued use. Just as the cell’s survival is dependent on its core DNA and RNA, so is the survival of the organism dependent on an intact brain reward pathway. By hijacking the brain’s reward pathways, drugs of abuse—through changes in emotions, cognitive function, and behaviors—all too frequently lead to severely negative consequences for the host/user, including death.

This “hijacking of the brain” is the central theory of the book. It seems common sense to any alcoholic or drug addict, but to “normal” people, they don’t really understand how alcohol and drugs literally change the brain. It’s like brain damage. Well, not like it, it is brain damage.

Addiction is due to a dysfunctional, substance-dependent reward system, and is characterized by a stress state and cognitive impairment. Once an addict takes a drink or drug, the brain’s limbic reward centers are activated strongly while, concurrently, the stress-response is activated and decision-making centers in the frontal lobe shut down. The body is reacting to a foreign substance that disrupts the nervous system. There is elevation of the stress hormone, cortisol, and a generalized increase in the activity of the excitatory nervous system, particularly in withdrawal states and in reaction to life stress. There is associated cognitive decline characterized by poor decision-making and judgment.

Dr. Teresi talks quite a bit about addiction’s effect on the brain’s limbic reward system — our primitive reward center. As he concludes, “mood altering drugs hijack the brain’s reward centers, leading to compulsive thoughts and behaviors to acquire the mood-altering substance. Consequently, thoughts and behaviors needed to survive are displaced; all the addict or alcoholic wants to do is more of his or her drug of choice.” Any alcoholic can attest to the overwhelming and powerful forces of craving and obsession to drink, and how hard it is to “fight” those forces. Moreover, addition compromises the alcoholic’s cognitive/front lobe functionality — literally making you stupid and incapable of thinking clearly and rationally. Hence, the reason why very smart alcoholics (like myself) engage in incredibly stupid and self-destructive behaviors.

With exposure to drugs or alcohol the stress hormone, cortisol, is elevated throughout our bodies, which potentiates and perpetuates the addiction and further cause’s cognitive impairment and damages other organ systems.

Dr. Teresi also discusses the stress hormone, cortisol. I know stress is one, if not the biggest, reason why I drank. The irony is that drinking at first calms you, but then turns on you, flooding the body with nasty stress hormones, and perpetuating a vicious cycle of wanting to drink to relieve the symptoms of stress. I didn’t really understand this process before reading this book.

Chronic Low Grade Agitated Depression: addicted individual experiences a chronic state of low-grade agitated depression due to abnormally low release of brain reward chemicals. This state is dysphoric and generates an urge to find something—anything— that will relieve this state.

The Big Book famously describes an alcoholic’s state of being “irritable, restless and discontent.” This state of feeling “yucky” is actually chronic low grade agitated depression, and is completely normal and common in early recovery and beyond. Whew, and I thought I was going crazy feeling like crap all the time…

The positive, empathetic socializing experience of the Twelve-Step group makes the addict “feel good,” which is why it is essential for recovery. Several empirical studies support this hypothesis and indicate that social reward is processed in the same brain reward centers in the limbic system as non-social reward and drug addiction. Working the Twelve Steps involves surrendering to a Higher Power and “letting go” of fear, resentment, guilt, self-pity and self-loathing. These emotions are known to be associated with stress physiological states, as exemplified in high autonomic nervous system tone: high blood pressure, elevated respiratory rates, and elevated cortisol (stress hormone) levels. Twelve-Step programs emphasize living along the lines of spiritual principles of honesty, humility, tolerance, patience, acceptance and empathy.

Numerous lines of research have shown that the processes of empathetic social interactions and spiritual practices stimulate the brain’s limbic reward centers, normalize hormonal imbalances and, therefore, we can hypothesize that these “natural” rewards replace those of the addictive substance. With empathetic socialization and spiritual practices, stress is reduced, lowering the blood cortisol level, increasing parasympathetic tone and stimulating oxytocin release.

Here are the goods. Participating in a 12-Step program makes the alcoholic/addict feel good and feel better. It’s a simple as that. Also, the fellowship of AA and 12 Step programs reduces stress and increases the release of the “good” hormones. As any AA member knows, we often feel much better leaving a meeting than when coming in!

Brain imaging studies also show that spiritual experiences achieved through intense meditation and prayer decrease activity in the area of the brain that orients our bodies in space, encouraging a blurring of the normal sense of self. This brain activity can stimulate feelings of mystical unity, “oneness,” peace, and even the sensed presence of God or other invisible entities.

Dr. Teresi advocates for lots of meditation and prayer, citing numerous studies that it makes the alcoholic feel better and heal those damaged neuro-pathways. This is an area which I definitely need to work on. In the morning, I do some reading out of the Hazelden 24 hour book and have begun to pray now and then, but I would love to find a weekly meditation group or class.

Well, that’s all the time I have today. I highly recommend picking up the book!

One day at a time, Dick

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Just a quick blog before I leave for our Disney family vacation (which is directly related to my sobriety!).

Last night at my favorite AA meeting — a speaker discussion — the topic was our past. For me, my past, and its associated wreckage, is a double edged sword. On the one hand, I still harbor quite a bit of shame, guilt and remorse about all the stupid things I did when I was active. On the other hand, I know that but for my past, I wouldn’t be where I am now in such a good place.

Letting go of your past is a very important step in recovery as the guilt and shame can literally eat you up inside and cause you to pick up. This reminds me of a meditation passage we read every morning at Hazelden from the 24 Hour A Day book:

There are 2 days in every week about which we should not worry, two days which should be kept from fear and apprehension. One of these days is yesterday, with its mistakes and cares, its faults and blunders, its aches and pains. Yesterday has passed forever beyond our control. All the money in the world cannot bring back yesterday. We cannot undo a single act we performed. We cannot erase a single word we said. Yesterday is gone beyond recall. Do I still worry about what happened yesterday?

I love that passage.

Do I wish I didn’t get pulled over for a DUI? Of course. Do I wish that I didn’t relapse after going to one of the best treatment facilities in the country? Of course. But through my falling down, I wouldn’t have hit rock bottom and had that “gift of desperation” that so many of I needed to finally accept and surrender to the disease.

I cannot change my past. The only thing I can do is live in today.

One day at a time…

~Dick

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The first part of Step 1 of the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous states that “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol.” There is a lot of talk in AA meetings about the concept of powerlessness and what it is.

Being the over-analytic attorney that I am, I often find myself trying to figure out what this whole notion of powerlessness really means — to me. I’m sure I’m guilty of over-thinking all this stuff, but it’s just my nature.

I certainly bristle over the notion that I am powerless over my choice to remain sober. Does Step 1 really mean that I am powerless over my choice to be sober? I hope not.

I believe that I make a choice everyday to remain sober and not take a drink. I don’t “turn it over” to anything or a Higher Power. (This is where I diverge from a lot of AA folks). I make a choice not to drink for a day. Just like when I was drinking, I made a choice to take that first drink. I make a choice to attend AA meetings. I make a choice to do a ton of reading about recovery. I make a choice to write this blog and hang out with others in the recovery community. I’ve made a choice, or more accurately, an informed decision (after extensive “research and development”) that I simply cannot drink anymore. It’s a complete evil force in my life which will doom and destroy me, and I won’t go down like that.

I’m hoping Step One really means that

“It’s the first stepping stone to obtaining freedom for yourself. You’ve admitted that there are serious issues with your life. You may have realized you have issues with your family, with work, your friends, and your career. You may have started to realize the extent of damage your addiction has caused in your life. And you know without a doubt that you’ve lost control. At this stage of your addiction you may not fully remember the actions you have taken in the past. But you have made the crucial first step in admitting that you have a problem. From this point you have a decision to make. Do you continue your addiction and risk losing your own life or risk other relationships that are important to you? Or do you reach out and seek treatment?” (Credit, Ocean Recovery)

Yet, I’m not relying on my own willpower alone. I have a lot of resources at my disposal:  AA, medication, therapy, meditation/relaxation, exercise, cognitive-behavioral strategies, fellowship, reading, writing and the sober online community. I think I use more recovery resources that most of the people I know in the AA program.

I do believe, however, that if I take that first drink, I am powerless over what may happen next. I could be fine. Yet, most likely it will lead me down the destructive cycle of addiction as it has done in the past, leading to the downfall of my family, my career and my relationships. Why take that chance?

I guess in the end, I believe that my recovery will always start and end with me and my own choice and personal responsibility. Maybe that’s non-AA thinking, but it’s the honest truth.

Well, enough debating AA doctrine for one day. I have a life to live and enjoy!

What do you guys think?

 

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Differences and Similarities Between SMART Recovery & Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)

My previous post about the Huff Post hit piece on AA has made me start reading more about the different alcohol recovery programs. I have all the respect for AA and its fellowship, but it was written in 1937 without the benefit of the last 70 years of major research and groundbreaking work in addiction. As with many recovering persons, I have issues with its over-spiritual and blind-faith-in-God approach.

The one program which has really caught my eye is SMART Recovery which is based in rational emotive behavior therapy. I doubt that SMART has the peer and fellowship power of Alcoholics Anonymous (or maybe it does?), but its principles really appeal to me:

  • Completely accept that you are fallible. Your fallibility includes thinking in a manner that greatly hinders you in your individual pursuits and in relating to people with whom you live, work, and associate.
  • Intensely focus on eliminating your emotional upsets quickly (as soon as they occur) and regularly (several times a week). Follow this practice to give yourself more freedom from self-defeat and toward happiness.
  • Forgive yourself your mistakes. You will make many of them. Practice effective self-help techniques and you will eventually improve your behaviors and your abilities to change. Tolerate others’ shortcomings and forgive their mistakes. Keep your friendships even with their problems, because you won’t find any that do not have them.
  • Accept that you are a creature who thrives on happiness, delight, joy, and love, and work to develop your ability to find and achieve these in as many ways as you can.
  • Accept yourself with your mistakes and shortcomings.
  • Work and practice, and you will eventually improve your abilities to change.
  • Absorb yourself in a long-term interest that brings you happiness.

Here is another very nice summary of the SMART program in comparison to AA. SMART Recovery emphasizes personal choice and responsibility for one’s actions. It is up to each addict to determine what is best for him or her, not have the choice forced upon him or her. This point is in particularly strong contrast with AA’s emphasis on “powerless.” Rather, SMART believes strongly in rational analysis leading to freedom for the individual and his or her empowerment through self-knowledge leading to control over one’s decisions.

This notion really appeals to me because one of the things I would do without is AA’s take-it-or-leave-it approach. While I may be “powerless” over alcohol when I drink it, I am not powerless over my choice to seek sobriety and not drink alcohol for that day. That is my choice over which only I have the power. I decide the choices I make in my recovery. Not AA, not a Higher Power, not my sponsor, not anyone else.

SMART also has a huge library of “homework” assignments and workshops, again, which greatly appeals to my rational and intellectual side. I actually did a lot of this type of work while at the Hazelden Recovery Program. Anyways, I’m considering checking out a local SMART meeting. This would essentially be to “add value” to my recovery, not to replace AA or anything. I may like it or hate it. Who knows? Can’t hurt right?

Anyone have experience with SMART Recovery? I would love to hear your thoughts and experience.

One day at a time…

~Dick

 

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Helping Another Alcoholic And Hitting 100 Days

April 4, 2012

Recently, I’ve been helping another alcoholic get into the program. I’ll call him “Mike.” I’ve kind of become his de facto sponsor although due to my limited sobriety I’m not qualified to be his sponsor. I’ve been trying to get him a real sponsor, but I’m not sure if he’s ready. Anyways, the situation presented […]

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Huff Post Therapist Doesn’t Know Diddly About Alcoholics Anonymous

March 30, 2012

My Thoughts On Huff Post Therapist’s Criticism Of Alcoholics Anonymous Laura Tompkins is a “certified addiction specialist” who blogs at the Huffington Post. She just penned a slam piece against all that is “negative” and “wrong” about Alcoholics Anonymous, entitled, appropriately enough, Is Alcoholics Anonymous Negativity Based? Ms. Tompkins repeats some of the same tired […]

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On Being A Jewish Alcoholic: My Spiritual Journey Continues

March 11, 2012

“Religion is for folks who don’t want to go to Hell. Spirituality is for those who’ve already been there.” –Anonymous I’m Jewish. At least in my area, which has a decent Jewish population, there are only a handful of Jewish folks in A.A. I definitely feel in the minority, and I’ve felt a bit of […]

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1705 Hours Sober, But Who’s Counting?

March 6, 2012
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It’s been awhile since I’ve blogged here. Too long, actually. As my handy AA iPhone app tells me, I’ve been sober for 71 days, 2.33 months, or 1705 hours. But who’s keeping track?! So what’s been going on with my recovery? Well, not much other than staying sober. So that’s a good thing, actually. I’ve […]

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Power In Numbers: Why I Think Alcoholics Anonymous Works

February 20, 2012

Forget All The Myths Surrounding The Program: It’s All About The Fellowship (For Me) Have you ever tried to do something really hard? Perhaps lose weight, start a new fitness program or stop smoking? Did someone else help you or support you? Was it less difficult with someone’s help and support who accomplished what you […]

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My Difficulty With Finding A Higher Power

February 3, 2012
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“Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” –Step 2, Alcoholics Anonymous For my Step 2 work, my sponsor told me to write a blog entry on my ongoing difficulty with the Higher Power concept. Like most new AA members, this is very hard for me. And as an […]

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Reality Check: My First Al-Anon Meeting

January 27, 2012

Alcoholism is a family disease. I had dinner with my dad the other night, and he was going to take me to an AA meeting after. Over dinner, we were talking about Al-Anon and how it has really helped him. I’ve been wanting to go to an Al-Anon meeting for awhile now, so I suggested […]

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Humiliation Leads To Humility In Recovery

January 18, 2012

For me, drinking alcoholically lead to a great deal of private and public humiliation. I have had a hard time dealing with the resulting shame and guilt. This, in turn, contributed to my drinking to escape those bad feelings. Spiritual growth and real recovery, however, occurs as a result of our failures, not successes. For […]

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Acceptance: The Foundation For Recovery

January 16, 2012

“We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable.” Step One: Alcoholics Anonymous For me, admitting that I was powerless over alcohol — more accurately, alcoholism  — has been the single most difficult thing to accept in my recovery. However, without a complete acceptance of powerlessness over my alcoholism, there […]

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The Importance of an AA Sponsor

January 9, 2012

If I had a dollar for every time someone told me “Get a sponsor” when I first came into AA, I would be very rich. Did I listen? Of course not. I didn’t need a sponsor, I told myself. Sound familiar to anyone listening? When I came out of Hazelden last summer, I did pick […]

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