Why You Need To Work The Steps in Recovery

Posted on July 8th, 2011

Once you’ve achieved sobriety – you’ve gotten clean and sober from alcohol or drugs – you might be tempted to think that you’ve done all you need to do. If it’s one thing that research studies have taught us, however, it’s that people in recovery who fail to actively work it are destined to relapse. How could it be otherwise? If you neglect your recovery, what’s to prevent you from slipping? The obvious answer is: nothing.

If, on the other hand, you take stock of where you are when you begin your recovery journey – whether this is your first time or just the latest in a string of attempts – you’ll be at a better starting point for more effective long-term recovery. With this as preamble, let’s talk about why you need to work the steps in recovery.

Being Sober Just Lifts the Lid

Granted, you can’t begin a journey of recovery until you first get sober. You need the clarity of vision – literally and figuratively – to be able to see how your addictive behavior has led to self-destruction, misery and troubles beyond count. Once you’ve purged your system of the toxins left by alcohol and drugs, you’re able to begin to peer out from under the lid that addiction has clamped on your existence.

One word of caution: It’s not easy looking at reality. You’ll need to guard against the panicky feeling that urges you to go back to the mind-numbing state of non-stop using. Yes, you could resort to drinking or drug use to ease the pain that facing the consequences of your actions brings about, but that’s just giving up. Sooner or later, you’ll find yourself wanting to get clean and sober again – and you’ll be right back at the starting point all over. Do yourself a favor. Resist the temptation to take the easy way out. Chin up and allow the light of day – and the chance to begin anew – into your life.

The good news is that being committed to enduring the necessary pain of coming face to face with your reality and doing the work required in recovery gives you the opportunity to heal your pain and achieve the two deepest needs of mankind: to love and be loved by others, and to be accepted by others and to feel a sense of belonging.

Aren’t these two core needs worth working for? It sure beats scrounging around in an alcoholic- or drug-induced haze for the rest of your life.

Ending Isolation is Key

There is no doubt that the harsh glare of reality is a lot to endure. And, let’s face it, you need endurance to begin your lifelong recovery journey. You won’t find the secrets to achieving effective recovery by sitting home and feeling sorry for yourself. They’re not contained in all the manuals and guidebooks that you can buy or borrow from the library or read on the Internet. Sure, books and guidebooks and FAQs you read are great resources, full of helpful tips on how to get and stay sober, but no one achieves recovery in a vacuum.

Let’s repeat that in slightly different words: No one recovers alone.

The truth is that people in recovery need people. Ending isolation is essential to breaking the self-destructive patterns of behavior you’ve come to see as part of who you are. But you are a human being who happens to be an addict. You’re not an addict who happens to be a human being. And human beings need contact with other human beings in order to achieve the core goals.

You also need other human beings to achieve your goal of sobriety in long-term recovery.

There’s no better place to end your isolation than participating in 12-step fellowship groups. The choices are many and varied, everything from Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Crystel Meth Anonymous, Cocaine Anonymous, to 12-step groups dedicated to helping newcomers to recovery from compulsive gambling, overwork, compulsive sex, overeating, overspending, and more.

Why attend 12-step meetings? Isn’t this just a bunch of reformed drunks and drug addicts (or others trying to overcome process addictions) sitting around telling tales? If you look at 12-step meetings with such a cynical view, maybe you’re not really committed to your own sobriety after all. Maybe you’re stuck in the why-me syndrome or think you can tough it out on your own. In either case, you’re mistaken if you think that the fellowships can’t benefit you.

Addiction, as you may or may not know, is an equal-opportunity disease. People from every socioeconomic, educational, religious or cultural background are addicts. It strikes men, women and children of all ages.

And there are millions of Americans who abuse substances, could be classified as addicted, and could benefit from treatment – but fail to get it.

Some of these millions begin their recovery journey by going to detox and then take part in 12-step group meetings. Some go into drug or alcohol rehab programs and start going to 12-step groups like AA or NA to help strengthen their ability to remain clean and sober.

In the rooms, you’ll find others who – although they may come from different backgrounds – have one thing in common with you: they’re committed to living a life free of drugs and alcohol. You’ll never have to be alone again. In the rooms, there’s always a member ready to listen and offer encouragement and support.

And you can rest easy in the knowledge that 12-step groups are always there for you.

Working the Steps Takes You Back to Your Humanity

During the deepest stages of your addiction or substance abuse, how dark and lonely a place was it? Likely it was the worst part of your life, one of unimaginable and unspeakable thoughts, words and actions (but, of course, you remember how bad it was). Somewhere, in the depths of your soul, you felt a yearning to reach for that part of humanity that had somehow escaped you in your drug- and alcohol-using days.

For some, beginning recovery is the first time in many months and years where hope for a better life is a goal that seems attainable. It takes a certain amount of faith to get to this point, and not everyone recognizes the opportunity in the first few weeks of recovery. Still, having a whole new beginning is enough to galvanize the most cynical into giving recovery a chance.

It’s also an opportunity to find your way back to core values or, having never recognized them in the first place, to discover values that are important to recovery.

Working the steps is, then, a basic way – some call it a roadmap – to find your way back to your humanity. There’s no one way to work the steps, just as there is no one path to recovery. Each person comes into their own understanding and choice of the path that works best for them. But there is something about the steps that universally applies. If you work the steps – really work them – they are progressive in nature. That is, the steps begin with a self-examination and steadily increase your ability to instill healthy habits and chip away at the wall of isolation that once kept you locked away from humanity.

Working the Steps Promotes Essential Values

It has been said that each of the 12 Steps incorporates an essential value. As you work the steps, you become more practiced in helping your healing process. You learn by doing, by being active in working the steps. Of course, there is no “official” list of values associated with each of the steps. You can ascribe any value you choose to any of the steps and it will be perfectly appropriate. What matters is that there are values that you begin to incorporate into your life of sobriety the more you progress in working the steps.

This listing of values pegged to each of the steps is not the author’s. Credit goes to Earnie Larsen, who, together with his sister and co-author, Carol Larsen Hegarty, wrote the book, Now That You’re Sober: Week-by-Week Guidance from Your Recovery Coach. We’ll list the values identified by the Larsens, along with our commentary on why they’re important in recovery.

  • Acceptance: Step One – You could just as easily say honesty is a value associated with Step One, since you need to acknowledge what is really going on in your life as you work this step. You admit to yourself that you have an addiction and choose to no longer deny the ramifications of your self-destructive behavior. Acceptance is a prerequisite to moving forward in recovery.
  • Faith: Step Two - Certainly we are all powerless to overcome addiction on our own. When we work Step Two, we come to recognize that there is a Higher Power at work that fosters our ability to climb out of our addictive past and make steady progress in our goal of recovery. To actively work this step, we need to open up to the idea that there’s something infinitely more powerful at work in the universe than just ourselves.
  • Trust: Step Three – Faith, which may be associated with Step Two, goes hand-in-hand with the value of trust so intertwined with Step Three. You cannot go forward in faith of a Higher Power and do the work you must without trust that you will have the strength and courage and wisdom to keep on going. Trust also means that you learn to step outside yourself, end your isolation, and begin to extend yourself to others.
  • Honesty: Step Four - Closely aligned with acceptance (the value associated with Step One), honesty requires that you peer inside yourself and scrutinize what you see there. Addiction masks many character defects, but being clean and sober allows you the opportunity to peel away that mask. Doing something about glaring faults and self-destructive behaviors requires rigorous honesty first – and continuing to work the steps.
  • Courage: Step Five - How do you build connection with “God, self, and another human being” that Step Five encourages? It takes courage, for one thing, and courage is not a value many in early recovery have in abundance. Still, you’ve come this far, so you have some measure of grit and determination. Courage is another word for what it takes – and, you’ve summoned up quite a bit so far on your journey.
  • Willingness: Step Six - Being open to learn a new way of life without the masks of addiction means having the willingness to make further progress. At this point in your recovery journey, you may come face to face with things that you find troubling or even dangerous from your past. But you can’t hope to end your isolation and connect with others if you aren’t able to progress further in this step. Allow yourself the willingness to push on – despite how uncomfortable or disquieting your revelations may be.
  • Humility: Step Seven - The world is so much more than each of us and our immediate concerns. Once you start working Step Seven, it helps if you feel a sense of humility. None of us is, after all, God. Therefore, none of us is perfect. Humility allows us to accept and own that there is a better way to live our lives other than remaining trapped in our addiction.
  • Forgiveness: Step Eight - Months and years of addiction have kept you trapped in destructive and self-destructive behaviors that hurt many others besides just you. As you begin the tough work of Step Eight, you need to find within you the power to forgive yourself and others for all that has happened to cause harm due to your addiction. Yes, you need to own the responsibility for your thoughts, words, and actions. And, yes, you need to do something about it. But first, embrace the value of forgiveness – which makes working Step Eight that much easier.
  • Freedom: Step Nine - Now that you’ve identified and accepted responsibility for the wrongs that you have done to others, making amends brings along with it an incredible benefit – freedom. Once you have lightened your burden by making amends, your soul feels lifted. You have a sense of well-being, an almost tangible sense of goodness and light – and you feel empowered to keep going, to keep working the steps in recovery.
  • Perseverence: Step Ten - You’ve come a long way by the time you reach Step Ten. In some respects, it’s getting tougher to make further progrss working the steps. You need the endurance of a long-distance runner, since you may hit the wall at any time. It is often at this point in recovery when you realize the value of perseverence. You know your ultimate goal: effective long-term recovery. You also know that there are many obstacles that rear up along the way. At any time, you could come smack up against the urge to slip back into addiction. Stick with your resolve. Keep working the steps.
  • Patience: Step Eleven - An awful lot of water has roiled under the bridge since you first set foot on the journey of recovery. It helps if you acknowledge that you don’t always know what’s best for you, that perhaps, it’s your Higher Power or the God as you know Him that can help you through the tough times. The steps you work day in and day out may not reveal a payoff that you can readily see – but they are working in your favor nonetheless. Strive to cultivate the value of patience – which can help see you through periods of indecision or confusion.
  • Love: Step Twelve – When you arrive at Step Twelve, you may be tempted to think that all your work is done. In some respects, however, this may be the toughest step of all. Achieving effective long-term recovery requires that you give of yourself to others. In essence, it means that you recognize and accept the value of love as integral to true recovery. Looking at this another way you could say that recovery is love gained, whereas relapse is love lost.

Other Thoughts

Knowing that you cannot recover alone, that you need others to inspire and listen and offer support and encouragement, working the steps is a simple blueprint that can help you achieve your goal of effective long-term recovery.

You need to know at the outset that the journey isn’t easy. It may have some patches of smooth sailing, but the recovery journey is filled with periods of indecision, confusion, painful self-acknowledgement, tough choices, and a lot of hard work. It’s also worth all the effort you put into it.

Recovery experts caution that recovery cannot begin in a life that’s devoid of relationships, of interacting with others in honesty and integrity, in isolation, anger, fear, and distrust. In other words, if your life is a mess, it will be next to impossible for recovery to take hold. You need to chip away at the impediments, the obstacles, the blockades to recovery – most of which are of your own making – before you can sustain your sobriety for the long term.

It is possible. Millions have already embarked on the recovery journey and many are beginning to work the 12-steps today. You can be among those who have chosen sobriety and a fresh beginning. Start your journey now by working the 12 Steps. If you’ve already begun, keep on going. When you run up against an obstacle or feel it’s too tough, talk it over with your sponsor and fellow group members. There’s strength in numbers – and everyone is committed to helping you succeed.

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