Today, I take the time to reflect on the First Step and how it applies to my life. I have often heard in the rooms that the First Step is the most important — and the only one that must be worked to perfection. As the old saying goes — “this ain’t my first time at the rodeo” as far as trying to recover by working Steps is concerned. Given that my prior attempts have been unsuccessful in terms of achieving long-term sobriety, I now believe that the importance of the First Step is not underestimated.
The Disease Concept
I first heard the theory that addiction is a disease around 25 years ago. The idea was presented to me in counseling which was thrust upon me as a result of — imagine this — going to high school completely and utterly intoxicated. The counselor explained to me what were then relatively new medical findings that indicated that the brain of an alcoholic processed ethanol differently than “normal people”. While the theory interested me (as it allowed me to further perceive myself as unique), I did not truly believe it about myself. In general, the talk of addiction as a “disease” seemed to be more about making excuses for poor choices while getting high than “real science”.
Having now taken the time to review the current medical and scientific findings, I can honestly state that, as an addict, I suffer from a disease of altered brain function. Whether the disease was self-induced through my chronic drug use or whether it was present in my genes and brain structure before I picked up for the first time are interesting and important questions for prevention, but are really of little relative importance now that I have the disease. What matters now is prospective treatment.
Why the importance that I fully accept that I have a disease? For one, I have an extensive scientific background. My learning and experience teaches me to trust the quantitative. Learning about the exact nature of the disease — not as an interesting theory but backed by sound medical evidence — helps me understand what seemed incomprehensible. I now accept that in active addiction I was working against the laws of neurochemistry. It had nothing to do with my being immoral, weak-willed, or even stupid as I sometimes thought. Accepting that I have a disease has allowed me to overcome the denial which has previously operated to block my fully accepting the ramifications of the First Step in my life. Understanding the disease concept of addiction has helped me to accept the need for treatment and to pursue the remedy with vigilance.
My addiction is a disease of altered brain function.
“Hitting bottom” is a phrase often heard in the rooms of recovery. It is generally thought to be the point from which an addict seeks and achieves lasting recovery. I had always thought of the concept as merely a terrible set of circumstances which always flowed to me as a consequence of my using. Going to jail, living in homeless shelters, losing my career are all examples of consequences I have faced as a result of my addiction. Each time that I experienced these and worse consequences, I proclaimed that I had “hit bottom”.
However, the truth is that if terrible consequences were sufficient to induce lasting sobriety then recovery success rates would be much better than they are. What one considers a “terrible experience” is truly a matter of perception, but it is safe to say that all addicts, including myself, have endured horrific consequences as a result of using only to pick it back up. Some call this the “trap door” to what was believed to be the “bottom”. As a result, in prior attempts at recovery, I often asked, “How do I know if I have hit bottom?” The fact that I had to ask this question was a warning sign that my “bottom” was yet to come.
Today, I describe “hitting bottom” not as a particular set of awful consequences, but as the point at which I wanted to stay clean more than I wanted to get high. It was then that I accepted that my “design for living” was not working and surrendered to the idea of recovery. While the culmination and cumulative effect of all of the dire consequences contributed to my reaching a point of total surrender, it was the surrender itself that marked my being aware that I had “hit bottom”. In this respect, the “bottom” for every addict who has achieved long-term recovery is the same, though the particular circumstances giving rise to reaching the bottom varies widely.
I knew that I had hit bottom when I surrendered my old way of living in favor of staying clean and sober.
My experiences using drugs (including alcohol) — as terrible as it often was — serve an important purpose in my personal First Step. In reviewing these experiences with the objective of ascertaining facts rather than wallowing in self-pity, two important truths about my addiction are evident. The first truth is this — once I start using it is impossible for me to say with any certainty whatsoever when I will stop. The facts of my own using history demonstrate that this is true notwithstanding my often prior laid plans to engage in “controlled use”. Again and again, important responsibilities that I fully intended to meet were shirked in favor of getting and using more drugs once I got started. Second, I have always used drugs again after a period of abstinence contrary to my expressed desire and need to stay clean. Thus, “powerlessness” as it relates to the First Step for me is rather inartfully summed up as follows: I cannot stop when I start, and I cannot stay stopped. These truths combine to form what I understand to be the vicious cycle of addiction — the two heads of which are comprised of “obsession” and “compulsion”.
If the problem were only physical compulsion, the solution would be to just simply “say no”. If I never ingested any drugs, then I would never again experience the physical craving which follows. If the problem were only mental obsession, the solution would be to simply use in moderation and avoid the binge use. However, because obsession and compulsion co-exist in the disease of addiction, I was powerless to control it. Caught in this downward spiral of obsession and compulsion, in the midst of active addiction, I had lost the power of reasoned choice. Understanding the role that altered brain function plays in my own addiction has helped me truly accept the nature and ramifications of my personal powerlessness and how it came to exist within me.
My personal powerlessness is comprised of two parts: obsession and compulsion.
The Unmanageability of My Life
Accepting that my life is unmanageable would most certainly seem an easy undertaking from an outsider’s perspective. Anyone who reviewed the consequences of my drug use — which include financial disaster, homelessness, loss of job, arrest and conviction to name a few — would easily conclude that my life is unmanageable. Certainly, if I limit the consideration of the unmanageability of my own life only to the dire consequences which come in the wake of using, I could easily conclude the same. It doesn’t take a genius to see that my life had become a mess. While reviewing the facts as they relate to the obvious outward unmanageability of my life was a good beginning, I had to go beyond the superficial to fully accept the unmanageability prong of the First Step.
If I honestly believe that my life is unmanageable, then what does this say about my own plans and designs for how to manage my own life? How well have those best-laid plans worked out? The truth is, not so well. Hence, the key to accepting the unmanageability of my life is not only to acknowledge the obvious — that my life is an outward mess — but to admit that my way of doing things just have not worked and that I have exhausted the notion that I might alone conceive of a successful life plan. Additionally, I must accept that the unmanageability of my own life extends to my beliefs from which my perceptions and actions have flown. Emotional volatility, constant fear, worry, severe anxiety and depression — all these things are symptoms of my inward unmanageability.
My life is unmanageable by me because my own design and plan for living has not worked.
In the past, I have never tried to recover for the sake of recovery. My willingness to engage in recovery and specifically to follow the plan of action set forth in the 12 Steps was conditioned upon my achieving certain objectives. For example, I wanted to recover so that I could have a great romance, prestige and nice personal effects. When these desires did not quickly manifest, I became disillusioned. I also viewed addiction as only a secondary problem. In other words, if I could fill the void I felt in my life — with money, a lover, or anything else I might perceive as absolutely necessary for my happiness — I thought my addiction would “go away” and that I might even be able to drink or use again.
I understand today that this sort of thinking was nothing more than my reserving a right to future relapse into addiction. It was impossible for me to surrender the fight when the measure of my willingness to do so was contingent upon fulfillment of certain conditions contrived by a disturbed mind full of faulty beliefs and perceptions. Today, when I have thoughts of using (and I do have them at times), it is important for me to revisit and reconfirm that I am powerless over my addiction (I cannot use successfully in the future no matter what the circumstances) and that my life is unmanageable by me (my prior attempts to achieve “happiness” by “filling the void” have failed completely). While everyone desires to be happy and fulfilled, including myself, my recovery cannot be solely based on my achieving preconceived emotional and material objectives, but must be something that I engage for its own sake notwithstanding the various circumstances which are present at any given time in my life. I must repeatedly acknowledge the truth of the First Step as it applies to my addiction so that the danger and delusion of any reservations will vanish.
I hold no reservation that I can use drugs under any circumstance, nor that I can fill the void inside of myself with that which is outside of myself.
The Spiritual Principles of the First Step
As I work each Step, I gain the opportunity to put into practice certain principles which are universally viewed as positive in application. In the context of recovery, these concepts are referred to as “spiritual principles”. In the First Step, the spiritual principles which I have applied are honesty, open-mindedness, willingness, humility, and acceptance.
I have practiced honesty by admitting the truth of my addiction as it relates to the disease concept, powerlessness, and the unmanageability of my life.
I have practiced open-mindedness by believing that there is a better way to live and not rejecting suggestions from others out of hand without first giving them a try.
I have practiced willingness by putting suggestions to practice such as calling my sponsor on a daily basis, working the First Step, and attending recovery meetings.
I have practiced humility by surrendering to the program of recovery with no lingering reservations.
My practice of acceptance in the First Step goes beyond admitting that I am an addict. It also means that I accept that there is a means for me to recover and that I do not have to continue living as I have been. This deeper level of acceptance brings about surrender and paradoxically gives rise to hope.