When the 12 Steps are Not Enough

When the 12 Steps Aren’t Enough

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When the 12 Steps aren't enough

This post was originally published on August 31, 2016.

My husband and I are having a discussion about my work. We have had this talk before, but I never tire of it. It goes something like this:

Me: I am a bit stressed about this article.

Husband: Really.

Me: Yea. I can’t write and I will never be able to again and everything is awful.

Husband: Huh. Well, maybe you need to…

He spends the next few minutes giving me a list of things I need to do to alleviate my stress, and I hum listlessly as his voice takes on the “Wwa-wwhwaa” sound of those teachers from the Peanuts cartoons. My husband can’t tell me what to do. He’s not the boss of me.

This is not helpful for my stress levels or my relationship with Brian. Deciding who is or is not the boss doesn’t have anything to do with the troubled feelings I have about deadlines and my general writer’s angst. But the conversation is as old as our marriage, and we are comfortable with it. He attempts to help and I ignore him completely. And we both feel slightly better having tried.

I am a writer and we are an angst-y bunch. It’s taken over four years in recovery for me to accept this. I acknowledge my angst and, on a good day, go to battle with it using all the tools I have garnered from group meetings and daily meditations and those irritatingly successful 12 steps.

As weeks, months and even years passed in recovery and I became sober AND sane, recovery became my therapist, priest, friend and policeman. My program was my faithful and constant lighthouse in the storm—because it was right and good. It works, if you work it—you know.

But then, it didn’t.

One afternoon I found myself tidying up the train wreck we call a play room, and as I bent down to pick up my millionth tiny Lego, the greens and reds at my feet became blurred. Teardrops stained the wood floor below me and I sat among the notoriously sharp Legos, sobbing. I wondered if I was going crazy. Then I realized that I kind of wanted to be crazy, because then I could just give up trying to wade through life. I felt like I was caught in the current, struggling to get to the shore.

I had been going through some considerable life changes. My writing career had taken off, which was really good. I had started teaching again—a job I loved. I had sent my boys off to school and was alone in the house for the first time in six years. This was also really, really good.

So why did I feel really, really bad?

I upped my meetings, hitting some new ones and making sure I shared at each. I called my sponsor and I prayed. But every day, I wanted to pull the covers up over my head and sleep away the hours. Which I did, on occasion. After the boys were safely off to school each day, I would cheerily wave goodbye—all smiles and hugs—and then trudge back home, slip into the sheets and stare up at the ceiling.

I found even more meetings online and ordered books on sobriety. I wrote—prolifically—about the sober lifestyle. And all the while I sank lower and lower into a thick blanket of depression. Then one day I had the familiar conversation again with my husband. But this time it was a little different:

Me: Ok. I’m really stressed.

Husband: Huh. Well, maybe you should—

Me: No. Listen. This is bigger than that. I’m done. I think I’m…unfixable.

Husband: Huh. Have you gone to a counselor yet?

Me: No. Why? I have my meetings.

Husband: Honey, they don’t do it all. Nothing can do it all.

Then I remembered: when I first got sober I had surrounded myself with every sort of help I could find. I didn’t really understand meetings or even like them that much, so I had lots of other options. I met with my pastor, kept a journal, I went to bed at 8 pm (really) and did other peace-seeking things like booking massages, dousing myself in lavender and eating endless Godiva chocolates. I was a self-care guru and you could spot me a mile away with my fancy La Croix water, a yoga mat and my Big Book.

During all of this, I saw a counselor twice a week. I can’t really remember how long it lasted because my early days seem to be shrouded in a mysterious fuzzy glow, like a Glamour Shot. I do recall that early recovery was very hard (which is sort of like saying child birth is tricky) with many tears. But it was also a time of total surrender and desperation that cleaned out my soul—which really needed a good scouring. And my counselor, Steve, helped profoundly though all of that.

I tend to be extreme in my behaviors. If there is a season of Nurse Jackie on Netflix, then that entire season will be watched within a 48-hour period. If there is a Diet Coke in front of me, it will be gone within four great glugs. I am an alcoholic, so I had framed it in my head that recovery was an all-or-nothing, all-inclusive trip to wellness. Seeing a counselor felt like a cop-out. If I made that appointment I would no longer be putting all my eggs in my 12-step basket and that must mean I never trusted my footing with those steps in the first place.

I called Steve and made an appointment. During my session, he enthusiastically wanted to talk about my sobriety: how many years now, how it was going, how I was feeling—all of it. I explained that somewhere I got the idea that my recovery has to be the center of my life confused with my sobriety being the only thing in my life.

“Your life is your sobriety, I get it,” Steve said. “But leaning on one thing for help? That’s not helpful. Also, as much as your groups help you, sometimes you need medical advice—or at least another voice besides the one in your head—to weigh in. So, let’s start.”

It was like making the decision between staying with the same Tilt-a-Whirl ride every time you go to the summer carnival and then someone persuades you to ride the The Mind Melter instead. Both rides have their merits: The Tilt-a-Whirl always thrills you just enough and leaves you breathless, laughing and ready to go again. But the roller coaster that you walk away from feeling turned inside out? Terrifying, but so very worth it.

For some, therapy and sobriety is an easy relationship. For me it had become fraught with guilt and fear. What if therapy only made me worse? Then I would be a confirmed mess and NO one could deal with that. Instead, it fit. It fit with group meetings, the steps, all those daily devotionals, the sweaty yoga classes and yes, my endless intake of swanky sparkling water. It fit and opened up a life that is better than I ever imagined.

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About Author

Dana speaks and writes about recovery, momhood, and beating the perfection myth. An English teacher for over twenty years, she decided to take up a writing at momsieblog.com, while mothering two babies, because she had so much free time. Her first book, Bottled was selected as a Kansas Notable book in 2016. Her second book, How to Be Perfect Like Me is out August 2018. She had a horrible time with edits on this book and fully appreciates the irony.