This is going to offend some folks, and that’s the point.
Over the years, I’ve spoken with alcoholics and other addicts who have done three and four 4th Steps, and (presumably) a 5th and 6th along with them. I’ve also talked with others who have adamantly stated that they did their 4th Step, cleaned house, and that’s it, that The Book doesn’t say anything about doing it more than once, and The Book is the way they work their program.
Without wanting to seem confrontational, that’s pure b.s. Honesty in Step 4, especially, is nearly impossible in early recovery and The Book doesn’t say we shouldn’t repeat it, either. When Bill Wilson wrote the book Alcoholics Anonymous three-quarters of a century ago, there was a boatload of things that he left out simply because no one had thought of them yet. Bill followed up the Big Book with several others that expanded on his thinking, but some folks seem to believe that all essential knowledge about addiction reached its peak in 1938-39. And, let’s be honest, the basic texts of virtually all the other fellowships rely so heavily on the Big Book that they’re practically interchangeable except for the adjectives and a few nouns, so it’s easy to carry that thinking over to those fellowships as well.
Fast-forward 70-odd years, and we know incomparably more about alcoholism and other addictions than Bill ever thought of. For example, there’s a superb article in last week’s edition of The Fix, CBT and the 12 Steps Have a Lot in Common, that compares the Twelve Steps to Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT). It establishes in one more way the validity of the Steps as they compare to modern knowledge and theory, and also confirms (once again) Bill Wilson’s brilliance.
I recommend the article, but it’s not the point of this one. The real point is that in the first stages of sobriety we aren’t able to face and/or talk about all of our issues. Our fragile self-image, just beginning to emerge from the shame of our primary addiction(s), can’t take any more battering, and we’re extremely likely to sweep a lot of stuff back under the pantry door instead of finishing the job of cleaning the kitchen. We aren’t able to be completely honest with ourselves, let alone with someone we’ve known for only a few months, no matter how sincerely we try.
So how can we trust a process we went through in the first few months of our recovery, and truly believe that we’ve done a good job with that initial inventory? The answer is our old demon, denial. We want to believe that we’re finally okay, and we are afraid to face the facts that mean we are not, that ignore issues that we’ve failed to address, and that are still screwing up our lives.
My drug of choice was alcohol (not that I didn’t sample many others over 20+ years of active substance addiction) and I was also addicted to some prescription drugs. Fortunately, circumstances in my life precluded easy access to illegal drugs, or undoubtedly I would have been hooked on some of those too. In any case, booze brought me to my knees, and that and the surrounding issues are what I dealt with during my step work. There was enough chaos connected with alcohol that it was easy to ignore some other things that were, in their way, creating dysfunction just as powerful if much less obvious. I’m still working on some of those, many years after that initial step work.
Nicotine, shopping, sex, codependency, gambling, energy drinks, eating disorders of any kind, hoarding, collecting carried to ridiculous extremes, video games (again, to excess), over-exercising — anything that will allow us to distract ourselves and that will give us that brief rush of feel-good brain chemicals — are disorders of our brains’ reward response. They make us feel better, while allowing us to ignore for a bit the normal problems of life that we haven’t learned to face. The trouble is, the good feelings don’t last and we’re so confused we don’t know or remember how to look for them in places less harmful. Our unhealthy attempts to avoid the normal unpleasantries and pain of life simply increase, along with our dysfunction, until we are in some way forced to contemplate change.
So I put it to you this way, my fellow addicts: If we think we have nothing to deal with but our substance abuse, the chances are we’re fooling ourselves. Until we become willing to revisit Steps 4, 5 and 6, whether in the rooms or with a good therapist who understands addiction, we may be hopping through life on one lame leg, thinking we’re just fine. And that kind of movement through life is not only uncomfortable, it also makes us far more likely to fall under a bus.