Most therapists do not realize that the 12 Steps are not merely an antidote for addiction, but are guidelines for nothing less than a total personality transformation.
Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, was influenced by Carl Jung. In correspondence, Jung wrote Wilson that the cure for alcoholism would have to be a spiritual one — a power equal to the power of spiritus, or alcohol.
The 12 Steps are that spiritual remedy. They outline a spiritual process of surrender of the ego to the unconscious, or a higher power, and very much resemble the process of transformation in Jungian therapy.
The following is a description of that process. However, the fact that it is described in a linear fashion is misleading, because the Steps are experienced both simultaneously and in a circular manner. Although the same process is applicable to recovery from addiction to a substance (e.g. alcohol, drugs, food) or a compulsion, such as gambling, debting, or caretaking, the focus of this article is on alcohol and drug addiction and the family members in a codependent relationship with the alcoholic or addict.
Facing the Problem
The beginning of recovery is acknowledging that there is a problem involving drugs or alcohol, that there is help outside oneself, and the willingness to utilize it. This also represents the very beginning of trust in something beyond oneself (such as a therapist, sponsor, or the program), and the opening up of a closed family system. Invariably, it takes years to face the problem.
With growing understanding of the problem, denial further thaws. In Step 1: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives have become unmanageable.”1 The addict begins to understand she or he is powerless over the drugs or alcohol, and the codependent begins to understand that she or he cannot control the substance abuser. The struggle not to drink and the codependent’s vigilant watching the addict begin to slip away. Gradually, attention starts to shift from the substance, and, for the codependent, the substance abuser, to focus on oneself.
There are deeper levels of working the First Step. The first stage of coming out of denial is to acknowledge that there is a problem; second, that it is a life-threatening problem over which one is powerless; and third, that actually the problem lies in one’s own attitudes and behavior.
The acknowledgment of powerlessness leaves a void, which formerly was filled with mental and physical activity trying to control and manipulate the addiction or the addict. Feelings of anger, loss, emptiness, boredom, depression, and fear arise. The emptiness that was masked by the addiction is now revealed. It is an awesome realization when you acknowledge that you or your loved one has a life-threatening addiction over which you are powerless, subject only to a daily reprieve. Now, with a modicum of trust, one acquires a willingness to turn to a power beyond oneself. This is Step 2: “Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”
In the book Alcoholics Anonymous, it states: “Without help it is too much for us. But there is One who has all power — that One is God.” (p. 59). That power can also be a sponsor, therapist, the group, the therapy process or a spiritual power. Reality itself becomes a teacher, as one is asked to continually “turn over” (to that Power) an addiction, people, and frustrating situations. The ego gradually relinquishes control, as one begins to trust that Power, the growth process, and life as well.
What has been happening up until now is an increasing awareness and observation of one’s dysfunctional behavior and addiction(s) – what is referred to as “insanity” in the Second Step. This crucial development signifies the genesis of an observing ego. Now one begins to exercise some restraint over addictive and undesirable habits, words, and deeds. The Program works behaviorally as well as spiritually.
Abstinence and forbearance from old behavior are accompanied by anxiety, anger and a sense of loss of control. New, preferable attitudes and behavior (often called “contrary action”) feel uncomfortable, and arouse other emotions, including fear and guilt. From a Jungian perspective, one’s “complexes” are being challenged:
“Every challenge to our personal habit patterns and accustomed values is felt as nothing less than the threat of death and extinction of our selves. Invariably such challenges evoke reactions of defensive anxiety.” (Whitmont, p. 24)
Group support is important in reinforcing new behavior, because the emotions triggered by these changes are very powerful and can retard and even arrest recovery. Additionally, resistance is experienced from self, family, and friends for the very same reasons. The anxiety and resistance may be so great that the addict or abuser may go back to drinking or using.
There is help in Step 3: “We…turn our lives over to the care of God as we understood God.” This is the practice of “letting go” and “turning it over.” As faith builds, so does the ability to let go and move toward more functional behavior.
- Other words, such as “food,” “gambling” or “people, places and things” often are substituted for the word alcohol. [↩]