There are a number of slogans and sayings that get chucked around in health circles, which some people find really helpful, and other people find both helpful and irritating, depending upon their mood.
One of the most common sayings, although not an actual slogan, is telling people directly or indirectly that they are as sick as their secrets.
The message behind the saying is that people need to open up, tell either an individual or a group what is going on in their life, or what it is from their past what is troubling them.
People will rarely question this message, in part because the process of 12 step recovery does involve an individual realistically assessing the past, sharing it with someone on a one-to-one basis and making amends harm done as a basis for moving forward and staying sober.
A degree of defensiveness can often mask a sense of underlying anger, which in reality is often protective rather than confrontational.
As Sick As Your Secrets ?
The problem with telling people that they are as sick as their secrets is that it often moves away from what is suggested in the book Alcoholics Anonymous to a different level.
This either puts significant pressure on people to share at meetings, and pressure on people that they should be telling everyone everything about their lives.
This is a hugely important issue, and unsurprisingly is really to do with boundaries.
When anyone starts the process of getting sober and staying sober they are quite likely to have experienced a significant degree of isolation, often both physical and emotional, often for a significant period of time.
Any emotional isolation is likely to have had a fairly devastating affect on the individual, often making them highly inward looking and secretive about their lives.
Telling individuals like this that they are as sick as a secrets can seem to make sense, as they will often think that they have to force their way out of that isolation in order to share and get better, otherwise they will drink again.
The process or an individual frame themselves in this type of isolation is as detailed in the book Alcoholics Anonymous. It is not a forced process and never should be.
A sense of moving out of this type of emotional isolation can only come from the individual feeling safe enough to let go of the various emotional coping mechanisms that they have set up within themselves.
These coping mechanisms are essentially what the isolation involves, and need to come down so that the individual can have a healthy sense of understanding what their own issues are.
What is key is that they come down from within, not as a result of being pressured from outside.
Whenever an individual is starting a process of getting or staying sober, either in a rehab or in a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous, it is a fair bet to say that the last thing in the world they need is any more external pressure.
Whilst every individual’s life is different, and their circumstances different, it’s a fair bet to say that they are already experiencing a high degree of internal pressure, as well as probably external pressure as well.
Telling people that they are as sick as their secrets invariably puts pressure on them. They either feel that they have to share at meetings, or that they need to share things that they are not ready to yet own themselves emotionally.
This type of pressure and the ensuing belief that people have to tell everyone everything about their lives often replicates the type of enmeshment found in alcoholic homes.
This is not surprising given number of AA members who grew up having been affected by someone else’s alcoholism.
It is important to realise the distinction between privacy and secrecy, and to realise that this is fundamentally a boundary issue, and one that can be hugely important in people’s recovery.
Bottom line is that putting pressure on people who are vulnerable is always a no no, especially when it potentially takes away from them one of the main things that they need in order to get well, a sense of safety at meetings where they can simply learn to be themselves.
Apologies at the outset if this seems a slightly patronising question (which it is) but it is one that a number of people do ask, and is generally around the so called issue of the God question in AA.
The history of AA largely revolves around the experience of people’s understanding and interpretation of God, and at the same time the freedom to experience this in anyway they do.
Part of this experience has always been a thread of underlying pressure for people to at some point come round to a belief in God in some way, shape or form.
People who would consider themselves atheists often feel they are being sort of being tolerated, with an expectation that at some point they will come round to the God view.
Right to Believe
Society as a whole has in many ways had the same problem for decades and centuries, reinforced by the institutional nature of organised religion.
Whilst AA doesn’t have any organised religious involvement, it does have a degree of being institutionalised, which can manifest itself in a degree of rigidity, both structurally and individually.
This often leads to people being referred to either as believers or non-believers, or believers or atheists.
It is almost a bit too obvious, but it does need saying, that labels of all sorts carry an inherent risk. They run the risk of putting people in a box, and categorising them from the outside in.
People sometimes like labels because it gives them a sense of external identity, something to hang onto, something to belong to, a sort of tribalism.
Understandable though this is, it also means that labels in effect carry very little meaning. Describing someone as a believer or an atheist in reality means very little if anything.
There are so many different arguments that people seem to want to go with about whether or not God exists as to drown out the real issue.
Most of the arguments seem to centre around a theoretical idea, and people’s ability to prove it or not. This is certainly the case with a lot of organised religion, and one of the reasons it is so divisive in its nature,
Theoretical beliefs are in effect a form of ideology, and wherever they have come from, they tend to become very tribal in nature, and normally end up being a rallying point for most types of fundamentalism.
Religion has probably been saved, not by its ideology, but by the fact that there are numerous people who have had some type of spiritual experience that manifests itself in Christianity and other religions.
Going back to labels, and why they are potentially very dangerous. People may come to a label, whether it is that of believer or atheist, because it seems to give them cover for where they are coming from.
This quickly can become something of a trap, as changing your ideas or beliefs then removes you from that label, and the sense of safety that may go with it.
On the whole, labels should really be avoided, and in effect replaced by the individual’s sense of self, and their ability to trust in their own experience.
AA as a Body of Experience
People sometimes forget that the book Alcoholics Anonymous was written to preserve the body of experience of the early members of AA, and to share that experience with anyone who wanted to read the book.
At the time the book was written, AA had two groups, one in Akron and one in New York.
Part of the purpose of the book was to share this experience with the whole world, and allow anyone who wanted to, to use the experience in the book to get sober and stay sober.
This principle was quickly established as the root of AA. That AA was essentially a body of experience, that anyone could use in any way they wanted to in order to get sober and stay sober.
This dual thread of AA was and is still core to its very existence. The structure of AA has continually reaffirmed the literature of AA as being deemed to be the experience of AA from its start to the present day, worldwide.
This experience is open to anyone who wants to use it. This gives people a freedom to interpret the experience of AA in any way they choose. Period.
Experience and Belief Systems
It is likely that now always been to be people who belief systems about God, whether for or against believing. What AA can offer is a way through this.
AA gives people the benefit of its experience, and at the same time freedom to use that experience, or any part of it as they see fit.
Whilst in theory this is the best of both worlds, in reality this freedom is often hugely abused. People often see other people’s freedom as a threat to their own identity or belief system.
This sense of a threat often leads people to try and curtail other people’s freedom, either through some type of bullying, or through the well practised fear factor.
AA, and the 12 step movement generally, should have nothing to do with either. Bullying and fear factors have no place in the world of recovery.
Happy Joyous and Free
This phrase of happy joyous and free from the book Alcoholics Anonymous is often one of the most quoted. It is often used as a sort of symbolic embrace of the AA 12 step program, and what it can offer.
The bit that is perhaps most important is the word free. In large part this because this freedom, the sense of being free is a precondition of the other two.
The reality is that many people in AA do not experience this freedom, not because they cannot, but because it is often curtailed by other people, intentionally or not.
This curtailment of freedom can take many forms, but is perhaps most common around the issue of the God question.
The issue is not really that belief or unbelief, God or atheist, but around people’s ultimate freedom to be themselves, and the right to have their own experience whatever that may be.
This right is paramount and absolute.
Depriving people of this right may ultimately deprive them of the freedom to attend AA or use its literature, which ultimately is about that right to recover from alcoholism, and potentially about their right to life itself.
When people talk about an inner voice in the context of spirituality, they are normally referring to an inner intuitive sense of direction in their life.
This sense of there being an inner world, and it somehow helping to direct our life is for most people a hugely attractive idea, and for a great number of people a hugely attractive reality.
In the same way that the idea of an external control freakery God puts numerous people off the whole idea of God and/or any religion, the idea of an inner sense of the spirit can attract people in large numbers.
In many ways, people in 12 step recovery often mirror people not in recovery, but in a much more intense and often urgent sense.
This is probably true in the whole area of spirituality, and the idea of listening to an intuitive sense of self.
Healing the Pain
When someone gets sober, it is probably fair to say that most of their life, both internally and externally, is somewhat of a blur. This is true whether or not they get sober in a rehab, or on their own through AA meetings.
Once sober, it will become apparent at some point that the real issue they have to deal with is what is going on inside their head.
The emotional turmoil that underlies most alcoholics drinking does not go away when someone gets sober, on the contrary for most people it begins to get more intense.
The search or journey to reconcile this emotional turmoil is in reality the purpose of going through the 12 step program, as a way of trying to bring some sort of internal stability to their life.
This necessity to reconcile their emotional life at some point leads to a degree of stability and internal peace that is normally the first time an alcoholic is likely to have experienced it.
This sense of peace and stability is in some ways both a precursor and an experience of listening to the inner voice, even if the person is not at all aware of it.
It is really the expression of turning inwards, in a healthy sense, and letting the world of the spirit work in its own unique fashion.
Looking for Meaning
Once there is a degree of emotional stability internally, people’s lives can take very different directions. There are likely to be a significant number whose lives will have been touched by the reality of this sense of the spirit.
This can of course mean different things to different people, but in general people will have some sort of sense of their inner world moving them in a different direction to where they were going before.
This sense of there being an inner world, and a felt sense of it guiding them comes to feel a very natural and healthy place to want to be.
It is rather like a sense of feeling truly connected to their life, in the context of its real meaning. It is not necessarily about understanding or even becoming aware of the nature of God.
It is really about feeling connected to the inner reality of one’s life, which in a more traditional sense used to be referred to as balancing the light and dark of the soul, of the spirit.
The inner world is not necessarily a land of milk and honey. It is more of a journey, a process, a sense of connecting to our real sense of authenticity, and a sense of where the spirit works with us.
Authenticity not Sainthood
Whilst there is nothing wrong at all with sainthood, there is sometimes a belief that people who really connect to their inner world, who really do get a sense of God in their life, necessarily become better people, become good people, and do good works.
There is obviously some truth in this, but there is something more important, the value of connecting to ones inner life, the value of authenticity.
The phrase to thine own self be true has always resonated with people, even if it has become a bit of a cliche. It’s truth however remains a constant.
The importance and value of having the freedom to be authentic cannot be overstated.
This is true in life generally, and especially true in 12 step recovery. The value of authenticity more than anything else is an inner freedom, and a real awareness of one’s own truth.
The idea of an inner voice is really an expression of a calling for people to turn inwards rather than outwards in their search for meaning.
The search for meaning is really about an inner journey, and importantly a freedom to pursue the journey however the individual feels the need to process it.
Looking outside of yourself invariably takes you away from the real you, and will take you in the wrong direction.
An inner voice is for most people a really comforting notion. It is an invitation for most to really begin the process of coming home to their true world, the world of the spirit.
The term rigorous honesty is used a lot in Alcoholics Anonymous, and in the 12 step recovery world generally.
Its original intent was to make clear the need for people to really own and take responsibility for the reality of their lives, both internally and externally.
Like a lot of phrases and concepts in recovery, its usage tends to depend largely on the motives of the person saying it.
That is why it can often be used in a slightly overbearing way, making people feel they are either being bullied, or pressured into a degree of accountability that they are not yet ready for.
The 12 step world generally has a number of degrees of vulnerability, and a number of people who seek vulnerability in different ways.
Some can seem quite harsh, others quite gentle and a fair number somewhere in between the two.
Why this phrase rigorous honesty matters so much is really because of what lies behind it in terms of its original intent.
This raises the issue of the reality of an active alcoholics life, and their denial of the fact that alcohol is causing a problem in it.
This covers both the inner and outer world of the alcoholic, as well as their potentially more deep seated emotional and mental issues.
AA uses the phrase moral inventory when effectively referring to the need for self-analysis.
There is often a strong sense of urgency about the need for people who are recovering alcoholics to begin the process of becoming self-aware, and it is in this context that the term rigorous honesty is meant to apply.
Implying that an individual has to be honest with themselves can also imply that they had been lying to themselves beforehand. Not always the case, but in recovery is often taken as the norm rather than the exception.
This raises all sorts of questions about motives and denial, and why an alcoholic is so reluctant or unable to accept the reality of their own life.
These questions are quite complex, and will be different as are the answers for a wide variety of different people. There are however a number of important factors which do sit with these questions.
Whatever the form denial takes, it is worth remembering that denial is a form of protection.
It can sometimes be quite delusional, but for a significant number of alcoholics denial is about protecting their need to drink. This may seem ludicrous in the light of the havoc that alcohol is causing them, but is normally part of the alcoholic mindset.
It is probably fair to say that most alcoholics believe that alcohol is the solution to the problems rather than the problem itself, even if they are not consciously aware of this belief.
As such, the worse their life gets, both internally and externally, the more they turn to alcohol as being the thing that is holding them together.
Denial of the reality of the life is often their way of protecting alcohol, which they believe they need to do at any cost.
It is important to realise that denial is usually a defence mechanism, trying to protect something the person believes is of utmost importance to them.
The depth of the denial can often make this difficult for someone who is not an alcoholic or addict to understand.
The need to feel safe or secure is a core element of most human beings identity, and for an alcoholic it can achieve enormous proportions.
Their sense of safety is often disfigured by growing up in an alcoholic home, or other childhood dysfunction.
Many people in recovery link a lot of their emotional dysfunction, both whilst drinking and recovery, to the issue of safety and security.
The denial mentioned above is a core part of helping someone feel safe, however irrational it may seem to anyone else.
Safety is primarily an emotional issue, and is also the key element in allowing people to change their inner world. A real sense of safety allows people the freedom to change – threatening them and making them feel cornered does the exact opposite.
This is why the issue of how people approach their moral inventory, and the whole process of developing a level of self-awareness in recovery is so important.
Self-awareness, without judgement, is the cornerstone of real freedom in recovery.
Although it has become a bit of a cliche, the phrase”know the truth and the truth will set you free” is perhaps the most important element of a person’s recovery.
Developing a degree of self-awareness allows an individual to question themselves without judgement, allows them to question their motives and allows them to develop a real relationship with themselves, with others and with God.
This self-awareness, which is often associated with the phrase rigorous honesty, is about feeling safe enough to begin and continue the process of self searching. Of understanding the nature of one’s own alcoholism, as far as possible, and of putting the nature of denial into its proper context.
Whilst it may take a while to really develop, the willingness to really look at oneself and genuinely reflect on behaviours and motives is not something that people normally want to do. For alcoholics in recovery there is often a sense of urgency, as this need to self-awareness is usually a key element in staying sober.
It is in this context that the phrase rigorous honesty should really be understood, almost as a plea for urgency rather than a call to fundamentalism.
Tough love is one of those expressions that has crept into the vocabulary of mental health and 12 step recovery in recent years.
It sort of implies that an action or directive is being given or taken which may on the surface seem a bit tough, but is being done from a place of love, for the benefit of the individual concerned even if they are unable to see it.
A couple of examples.
A family intervention to get someone into rehab is often talked about as being an act of tough love. In recovery, a sponsor will sack a sponsor and tell them it is for their own benefit.
In truth it is normally because they are not doing something the sponsor explained to get them to do.
Both the above examples have actually very little to do with love.
In many ways they are simply about an act of bullying, using the guise of people’s vulnerability as a way of exploiting that in ability to fight back.
Trying to define what love is obviously a very difficult if not impossible thing to do.
It is easier in a way to show what love is not. Any type of loving and individual must at its core have a sense of respect for the integrity and life of the other person. When people are in any way exploited, such respect is non-existent.
Looking at the case of an intervention in more detail, an intervention is often talked about as being something that is used as a last resort and is often done because people say ” that things simply cannot go on the way they are”.
Looking at it logically, an intervention is a getting together of people who care about the individual, who try to shut that individual into agreeing to go into rehab seeking treatment in order to deal with their alcoholism or addiction.
The mindset behind an intervention is often that the sense of pressure from the family will make the individual see sense and do what he should have done some time ago.
What it fails to take into account is the mindset of the person who is the alcoholic or addict.
Although there is a slight risk of generalising, it is probably fair to say that an alcoholic will turn to alcohol at some point in their drinking as being one and only thing that is holding them together.
What an intervention does is pressure them into a situation that they possibly cannot handle, it presents them with a false choice about their future.
Whilst many will go into rehab following an intervention, some may get sober, some may not.
What people never really see is the emotional damage that may be done to an alcoholic by way of the intervention making them feel trapped, and forced to do something against their will.
The reason this matter so much is because an alcoholic will see his relationship with alcohol differently to people who are not an alcoholic.
The external chaos is real for everyone to see. But other people cannot see inside the mind of the alcoholic.
An alcoholic needs to drink until they get to a place where they are willing to let go of it. That willingness has to come from within, and is a fairly complicated process.
Tough but not Love
In the context of tough love, an intervention as understood in 12 step recovery is not really an act of love at all.
Normally a much better act of love would be to advise the family to go to Al-Anon and begin their own recovery in the context of the other person’s drinking.
Tough love is a phrase that seems quite active because it can provide a degree of certainty and harshness, under the impression that it is actually the loving thing that has been done.
Great care should be taken when anyone talks about tough love, as it normally relates to an action that actually is not particularly loving, even if the motives of the person doing it are coming from the right place.
Quite often in an AA meeting or similar, you will hear someone announce themselves as my name is so-and-so and I’m grateful alcoholic/ addict, or I’m a grateful recovering alcoholic/addict.
Equally, you are quite likely to hear someone say at a meeting something along the lines of a grateful alcoholic will never drink.
There is a sense that being grateful is not only a good and worthwhile things, it is an important part of recovery, and to some people it is a vital part of staying sober.
It is also often thought of as a way of preventing the build up of anger. The word gratitude can mean different things to different people, and it is worth being aware there are a couple of areas to it that are both really important.
There is no doubt that having some type of perspective about either what you have in life, or what is going for you in life can be helpful in terms of giving you a more balanced outlook on who you are and where your life is going.
This can be especially true for people who are alcoholics, especially those who are recently sober or trying to get sober.
There is a general sense that people in recovery to have a high degree of negativity about their thought and feelings, and as such being grateful or doing a crescent list hopes to counterbalance that sense of negativity.
This can certainly be true. The depressive effects of alcohol can induce a wide range of dark thoughts and feelings within an individual, often compounding an already distorted outlook on themselves and their life, and deepening a sense of dread about their future.
The process of 12-step recovery involves many stages, one of which is laying the foundations for a stable period of sobriety. Part of the process of laying the foundations is to give the individual hope, and let them discover for themselves the reality of their inner world, and what it means to them.
Developing a perspective that looks at their reality is hugely important to most people.
Often writing out a gratitude list helps people focus on the good in the life, and move away from an underlying sense of dread about the past and their alcoholism generally. Here comes the but – there are two other important things that need to be considered.
Gratitude is often touted as a good emotion or good feeling, as opposed to various other not so good feelings, and therefore one that should be encouraged. The danger with this idiot sometimes people will feel that they should be feeling a particular way when they aren’t.
This feeds into the whole issue of authenticity, and the need for people to have a genuine sense of being able to be they are.
It may be that in early recovery people are not able to face that in reality because of the dread attached to it. A focus on what is going well for them can help move them forward.
There does come a point however when that person needs to have space to own their own feelings, whatever those feelings are, and use those feelings as a guide to what is going on in there in their inner world.
This does not mean that they have to let go of looking for the good in their life, but it does mean that they need to be aware of what the so-called negative feelings are and where they are coming from.
There is a sense in recovery that there are two ongoing parts to it. One is dealing with the day-to-day stuff which most people should get better until sober, and dealing with the underlying stuff which for many people can be fairly traumatic, especially if there is a history of abuse or trauma, especially in childhood.
For many sober alcoholics, the process of dealing with the underlying issues becomes more important as time goes on, and also leads to a more healthy resolution of the effects of trauma and abuse which give rise to much of the so-called negativity or dread that helped fuel their drinking.
It has become almost something of a cliche in society nowadays to use the adage that you cannot cope with a problem unless you first admit it.
Not that this is a new or a novel idea, but it is probably true that this sentiment has become much more powerful and widespread owing to the nature of the growth of Alcoholics Anonymous and the 12 step recovery movement generally.
The first step of the AA 12 step program refers to an admission of being powerless over alcohol, and is generally taken to mean that the person has to accept or acknowledge their reality of powerlessness in order to move forward.
This can often involve fairly mixed emotions, ranging from a deep sense of anger to a feeling of being in complete limbo.
There is often much debate about the intricacies of what various words and phrases mean in all of the 12 step programs, and unfortunately this often misses the real point.
12 Step Programs
The 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, and the book itself Alcoholics Anonymous, were written as a statement of experience. This means simply that the words and phrases were designed to reflect the broad understanding and experience of the original members of Alcoholics Anonymous.
This experience was codified and written down in order that anyone who was interested, either for themselves or for other people, would be able to access this experience, and use it in whatever way they found helpful.
It is worth realising that the word acceptance, and the more broad notion of accepting one’s own alcoholism, has a particular slant in Alcoholics Anonymous that differs from other 12 step fellowships.
It is probably fair to say that Alcoholics Anonymous has in some ways a slightly more to do or die approach, a more black-and-white perhaps rigid sense of 12 step recovery, and this is reflected in its attitude to getting and staying sober.
Acceptance in AA has quite an all or nothing feel about it.
The term surrender is quite often used in the same context as acceptance, and there is what is often a general sense that someone needs to surrender to the program, surrender to God, surrender to the 12 step fellowship, and sometimes even surrender to a sponsor in order to get sober and stay sober.
Dangers of Surrender
The package of surrender and acceptance in this approach to recovery is very much the do or die attitude mentioned previously.
It is a sense of almost having to accept the entire premise of what alcoholism and recovery are about, almost without any sense of the understanding of process. It is a very black-and-white attitude, and can come over as being quite fundamentalist, quite rigid.
The very word surrender implies some level of defeat, often worded as the defeat of the individuals own ego, or the defeat of their self-will run riot life and their journey with alcohol.
For some people this probably works, but equally it is probably fair to say that a significant number of people get put off by such a hard line point of view.
Interestingly, in other 12 step fellowships, the notion of acceptance is a much more gentle one. It is really about an acknowledgement of one’s own reality, not such a strong sense of fundamentalism, more such a strong sense of the implications of what it means.
At any level, step one in the AA program is about an individual who is an alcoholic accepting that this is their reality. Whilst that is very easy to say, for many alcoholics it is an extraordinary difficult concept to grasp, be they drinking or newly sober.
One of the main reasons for this, is that acceptance of the fact that an alcoholics cannot drink any more is often a pretty terrifying experience.
To really understand this, it is necessary to understand the mind of an alcoholic, which is hard at the best of times, but to understand that for many the idea of losing alcohol is a prospect too scary to countenance.
This may be completely at odds with the reality of alcohol has taken them, and often the need to drink, and the illusion of safety that it gives them is too strong for this reality to be allowed a place in their lives.
This is why an understanding of the term acceptance matters.
It is about giving people who are looking at AA a sense that the 12 step program is actually a very gentle one, albeit one that is quite demanding in many ways.
It is also one that is about helping people to acknowledge that in reality and move forward with it in a way that is non-threatening and healing.