Grieving the Losses in 12 Step Recovery
by Pat Means
I am ill because of wounds to the soul,
to the deep emotional self
and the wounds to the soul take a long, long time,
only time can help
and patience, and a certain difficult repentance
long, difficult repentance, realization of life’s mistake,
and the freeing oneself
from the endless repetition of the mistake
which mankind at large has chosen to sanctify.
“Healing” D.H. Lawrence
One of the wisdoms of the 12 Steps is that surrender to God is not a one-time event. It is an on-going, multilevel process of letting go of the things that block us from God. First we let go of our addiction. Then, one after another, the Steps press us relentlessly to surrender virtually all of the things we’ve come to rely on in life: our sense of power and control, our (distorted) view of God, our idealized image of ourselves, and finally, in Steps 6 and 7, the character traits we depended on to protect us and to advance our agenda. Without this “long, difficult repentance,” in D.H. Lawrence’s words, we will continue to repeat the mistakes that have brought us so much pain. Nothing changes if nothing changes.
The difficulty, of course, is that we have reasons why we developed all these behaviors, and we have feelings about letting them go. Some time ago, my wife and I were speaking on recovery in a large church in the Seattle area. One of the issues we touched on was workaholism. As we spoke, I noticed a woman in the front row growing more and more agitated. When the service ended, this woman approached us with tears of anger in her eyes and said, “How dare you suggest I cut back on the hours I work! My marriage is a living hell, the church tells me I can’t get a divorce, and the hours I spend at work are the only refuge I have!”
This woman, like all of us who struggle with addictions of one kind or another, was using her addiction to keep her pain at bay. The very thought of letting it go filled her with terror and rage.
But by the time we reach Steps 6 and 7 in the 12 Steps, we’ve discovered that our problem is not primarily overwork, or alcohol, or inappropriate sex. Our problem is us. For even after the active addiction is gone, we discover that our lives are ruled by resentment, fear, dishonesty and selfishness. We simply don’t know how to live lives characterized by honesty and love.
Steps 6 and 7
Steps 6 and 7 address these core issues. They are the heart of the 12 Step program of personal transformation. But the stakes are high. The behaviors we’re asked to give up include those we’ve used to protect us from pain, to control our environment, and to make people like us. These “defects of character” may have helped us survive in childhood, but they wreak havoc in our adult lives and relationships. Hiding from family conflict may have made perfect sense when we were four. But that behavior will almost certainly defeat our efforts to build a stable marriage when we’re forty.
Surrendering these character defects leaves us feeling naked and vulnerable. We’re flooded with fear and a sense of impending loss. The inner work we must do here is very similar to the grief work that confronts us when we lose a loved one. We must embrace all our feelings of fear and loss, and begin to fashion a new life without one of the old familiar pieces we relied on. To make it even tougher, we’re asked in Steps 6 and 7 to surrender significant parts of who we are without knowing if we’ll be happy about the transaction on the other side. That’s because, at this point in our Step work, we’ve worked hard, done a lot of things we didn’t really want to do, and gone through withdrawal. The real payoff of the 12 Step process—consistent inner peace and contentedness—generally comes later, after the amends-making phase in Steps 8 and 9. We have to move forward by faith.
I grew up as a farmboy in arid eastern Washington state. Not far from our farm, a giant aqueduct carries leftover irrigation water down a long, steep slope to the Columbia River. To cool off in the summer, my friends and I would spend an afternoon sliding down this mossy-bottomed canal. The canal eventually levels off and ends in a 40-foot waterfall into the Columbia. I remember the first time I slid down to the end of the canal and gingerly pushed myself out to the lip. I sat there with my legs dangling over the end, the water parting around me, looking at the river far below. My friends had preceded me and were in the water, yelling and gesturing to me to push off. At that moment, despite the fact that all my friends had survived the plunge and were, in fact, testifying that it was fun, from where I sat, it looked like suicide. I eventually did push off, spent the longest four seconds of my life in free-fall, and survived. And, of course, I immediately wanted to do it again.
That’s the way it is with Steps 6 and 7. We’re poised on the edge of our life to this point, wrestling with the decision to surrender our character defects, while way down below us are those who have preceded us in recovery. They’re all shouting their encouragement, but to us, it still feels like suicide. And, in a sense, it is. We have to consciously pull the plug on the life support system of our old programming, and deprive it of the energy it needs to control our behavior.
One of the men I’ve mentored in the 12 Step process is a partner in a successful company here in Seattle. A fairly driven overachiever, Steve (not his real name) had succeeded by demanding a lot of himself and of those around him. As we worked through Steve’s moral inventory in Step 5, we identified a repeated pattern in Steve’s life that interfered with his relationships. The pattern showed that, at times, Steve exhibited insensitivity, a critical spirit, and an over competitiveness that put career goals ahead of people. To a large extent, Steve had been unaware of these character defects before entering recovery. As God would have it, at the same time that Steve and I began working on Steps 6 and 7, he received a letter from his business partners. They had identified a pattern of behavior in Steve, the letter said, that was creating turmoil among the staff. They went on to identify insensitivity and an overly competitive spirit as examples of that pattern. Evidently, God figured subtlety would go right over our heads.
But even though we had already identified these very traits in our fifth Step, Steve’s first instinct was to protect himself from these accusations by writing a highly charged, defensive response. It’s understandable. He felt his job might be at stake. But I encouraged him to take the risky path of responding vulnerably and humbly. It took three drafts over the course of the next week, but ultimately Steve summoned the courage to write a humble, non-defensive response. He owned the offensive behavior, told his partners he was in a mentoring process to work on those very issues, and pledged to change. When he read them his response, his partners were stunned. They had expected the old Steve to come out fighting. One even said, “You’ve given all of us here a model to follow.” Steve left the meeting with healed relationships and new respect in his partner’s eyes. All his original instincts had told him that he’d be destroyed if he gave up his combativeness. But just the opposite proved to be true.
Ego and the Battle for Control
Michael Kearney is an Irish physician specializing in hospice care for terminally ill patients. In his fascinating book, Mortally Wounded: Stories of Soul Pain, Death, and Healing, Kearney says there comes a point where the patient has a choice to make. He can accept his impending, certain death, and obtain a measure of peace by so doing. Or he can follow the urgings of his “ego” (for Kearney, the non-reflective, activity-oriented self) and refuse to accept the inevitable. The second choice not only produces unrest but, in many cases, actually increases the patient’s physical suffering.
The core issue here is control, Kearney says. The ego fiercely resists letting go of control, of its own attempt to fix itself. “Such a move,” says Kearney, “appears to the ego as a disaster, a defeat, the worst possible scenario, the end…” In short, he says, “…the ego is terrified of death…[It] has a finely tuned nose for death and can smell its approach when it is still many miles away. This triggers one or both basic ego survival reactions of ‘fight’ or ‘flight.'”
Steve’s ego sensed its impending loss of control and immediately went into ‘fight’ mode. It required a great deal of courage and faith for Steve to override those old messages and break his self-defeating pattern.
The New Testament uses an identical metaphor to describe our struggle with the flesh. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies,” Jesus said, “it remains by itself alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. He who loves his life loses it; and he who hates his life in this world shall keep it to life eternal.” (John 12:24, 25) And throughout his epistles, the apostle Paul talked about “dying daily” to his old desires. (I Cor. 15:31, Rom. 12:1, most of Rom. 6) We can’t begin living until we begin dying. And to top it all off, the parts of us that need to die are among our most precious possessions. If that isn’t cause for grieving, then what is?
Grieving, in this context, means to face the mixed feelings we have about letting this part of us go, surrender the behavior anyway, and ride out the emotional backwash that results. We do this over and over, allowing God to transform our character defects into strengths over time. After a lifetime of putting all my energy into my image, in the last few years I’ve seen God use the laser beam of the 12 Steps to change me inside in areas I’d long ago given up on. It’s hard work, but it’s worth it.
For the purposes of this article, I have lifted Steps 6 and 7 out of their context and put them alone under the magnifying glass. But it’s important to remember that the Steps are meant to be worked through sequentially, and each Step readies us for the one following it. In this case, the moral inventory process of the fourth and fifth Steps is essential preparation for dealing with our character defects.
Making it Happen
Are you ready yet to step off that waterfall into the new life down below? If so, here are a few suggestions to help you apply Steps 6 and 7.
1. Getting ready. Step 6 tells us we need to become “entirely ready” to have God remove our defects. One of the best ways to break our denial and generate the motivation we need to make serious changes is to review the objective evidence. With the help of a mentor who’s been through this process, look carefully at the unhealthy patterns of behavior in your past.
Ask God to help you give up that idealized picture of yourself that hangs in your mind. This is the self-serving image we’ve patched together over a lifetime that pictures us by turns as heroic, selfless, spiritual, chronically underappreciated and, in general, pure as the driven snow. One of the idealized images of myself that had to go during this process was the one labeled “World’s Greatest Dad.” I wanted to be the world’s greatest dad, and I certainly love my two kids more than I can easily express. But an objective look at the evidence clearly revealed that I am far from the world’s greatest father. The truth is, some of my choices hurt my children deeply. Before God can change me, I need to connect with reality, even if that reality is painful.
2. The problem can’t fix the problem. Once we’re “entirely ready”, Step 7 instructs us to humbly ask God to remove these shortcomings. Notice that we don’t try to change ourselves. The problem can’t fix the problem, as the saying goes. Our job is to identify our defects, to own them, to be completely ready to let them go, and then to ask God to change us—every day. I ask the men I work with to pray through this list of defects daily for a period of time, acknowledging their inability to change these stubborn habits themselves. Then leave it in God’s hands. Changing us is God’s business.
3. Own your shortcomings. When you hurt someone because of a character defect, immediately own it and make amends to the person harmed. It’s humbling, it’s painful, and it’s a great inducement to not do it again!
4. Grab hold of grace. Your approach to character transformation must be balanced. Yes, God wants you to be more honest than you’ve ever been about your shortcomings. Yes, God will ask you to do hard things. But God is not asking you to “try harder” in these areas that have caused you so much grief. In 2 Corinthians 3, Paul contrasts legalistic living with living by grace. When we live by the law, we constantly feel condemned, he says. But when we live by grace an amazing thing happens. We begin to see God the way he really is (the veil is lifted off our face, in Paul’s words). And when we gaze at the true God, the one who doesn’t condemn us, but loves and accepts us, we become “transformed into the same image” (vs. 18). Living with that sense of being a deeply loved child of God is the key to character transformation. If you have difficulty believing God could love you that deeply, perhaps because you have experienced significant physical or sexual abuse in your past, I’d encourage you to work with a Christian therapist on those issues first. Whatever your situation, bathe the tough work of Steps 6 and 7 in God’s unconditional love and grace.
I recently attended my class’ 35th high school reunion. A group of us who’d been Christian friends in high school gathered for some informal fellowship prior to the event. This was the first time I’d seen most of these old friends in 35 years. We sat and talked and each shared a synopsis of our post-high school lives. I had a moment of sadness pass through me as I sat there. When I’d last been with these folks, I’d been deeply invested in my Christian hero image—squeaky clean, headed for the ministry, voted “Most Likely to Succeed.” Since then, I had had significant opportunities for ministry. But I had also lost my first marriage and my ministry because of sexual sin; I’d bungie jumped into and back out of alcoholism; experienced financial reversals; and started all over from scratch at mid life in almost every area of my life.
But the sadness came and went, and as I listened, I heard each one around the circle talk about battles of their own that they’d won and lost. Each one had their share of dashed dreams. And I was suddenly very grateful for recovery; it had allowed me to finally join the human race. The losses I’ve experienced have been real, and the consequences in many cases painful. But I know beyond a doubt that, without them, I wouldn’t be walking in this new, freer place. In this place there aren’t any heroes, just fellow pilgrims, all of us on a journey deeper into the heart of God.
Pat Means, a former executive director of the NACR and a contributing editor of STEPS.
You can visit Pat’s website @: http://www.nacronline.com/articles-on-the-twelve-steps/grieving-the-losses-in-12-step-recovery