The first of the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous is admitting powerlessness over alcohol (or any substance or behavior that is causing negative side effects in our lives); admitting that the thing that we’re doing addictively is a problem. We have to become aware of our problem in order to work toward changing it. Otherwise, we are in denial.
This is a very practical and intellectually sound first step toward recovery. But there is a step that comes before Step 1. Specifically, it is “reaching the bottom.” It’s necessary to reach a physical and/or emotional bottom with the behavior that is associated with the destructive lifestyle.
The bottom for any individual is relative to who they are and what they consider a bottom to be. My bottom (for example) is different from yours. My threshold for low emotional experiences might be deeper than yours. For some people, their bottom could be that they lost $5 million because of their cocaine addiction and now they’re left with only $20 million. Some people might find that their bottom is a disease related to or caused by addiction. Some people lose their families, their jobs, or their reputations. Some people end up in a jail or an institution of some kind, and some people end up on the streets.
Your bottom is a feeling in which you can become so low that the despair is overwhelming. Some people never reach this bottom, and I believe that that’s a serious problem. This is the case because if a person never reaches such a low point then they won’t have the strength, the impetus, or the power to make a declaration such as the following: “Enough is enough. I need to grow, I need to change, I need to fix my problem.” Reaching the bottom makes it so that the higher self may finally kick in.
The higher self is a part of our consciousness that is difficult to trace, difficult to discover the source of, and also somewhat difficult to define. Is the higher self divine? Is it connected to God? Is it just a survival mechanism that’s very deep inside of us? It may be all of those things. It doesn’t need to be described exactly at this point, but the higher self has a degree of self-love. The higher self doesn’t want us to feel badly any more, yet it drives us on to change for the better.
When we reach the bottom, we understand that there is no more escaping the reality that we have a problem. We no longer “negotiate” with the addictive behaviors; we’ve proven to ourselves that that doesn’t work. However, fear can kick in. We might feel a bottom at 1 AM in the morning on a given day. But then five hours later we become afraid, and the bottom seems to be diffused again. And so we postpone taking the next step towards wellness, only to find ourselves once again in the throes of addiction.
In most cases it’s a matter of time before we hit that bottom again. But strangely there are people who just never seem to hit the bottom. They always have a cushion to break the fall. And some people can just tolerate the negative experiences of their addictions for a very long time in their life.
I believe that the solution to this problem is something I refer to as “raising the bottom.” It’s something that a person who can’t seem to reach the pitiful place of the bottom should do. How to do so is a bit difficult to describe. I would like to give some detail about my own experience that might be helpful, though.
I was addicted to drugs for (only) one year beginning at age 14 1/2. During that year of addiction, my primary drug was marijuana. I took some harder stuff as well, but not multiple times. I got drunk three or four times during that period but never really craved alcohol after that.
I realized at age 15 1/2 that I was in trouble. I was frightened of not being able to quit, and I asked for help from my father to seek drug rehabilitation. While in an inpatient facility I was required to write extensively about my experiences with alcohol and drugs. In the process of doing the self-examination and in turn the writing that was required, I realized that I had a serious problem. I came to understand that I was on a negative, destructive path.
I was able to see that I really didn’t want to be in that place. Although I didn’t graduate to heroin or cocaine use, didn’t lose a job, didn’t lose a girlfriend, or didn’t face prison time, I just realized I wanted to stop. What I did was raise my potential bottom to a higher place.
Why does such a measure work for some people and not for others? In my case, it wasn’t because I was intellectually gifted, to put it mildly. I was 90% moron and 10% gifted. I was fortunate, though, in that years earlier my father got sober. Because of that, I was exposed to the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and the associated meetings. Some things about AA philosophy and methodology were already in the back of my head as a result.
So in my case the seed of recovery was planted previous to the events that precipitated my seeking to recover. I think that’s the case for many people. Even before they realized their need to get sober, seeds were already planted in their consciousness.
I often recommend to people who aren’t prepared to quit addictions but have at least an inkling of a desire to do so to surround themselves with self-help books. That recommendation isn’t driven by scientific studies, but I’ve known some people who benefitted by doing so. These individuals bought books on addiction recovery, read from them a little bit each week, and then their curiosity got piqued.
In the cases of the people that I’m speaking of, the books encouraged and strengthened them. They gained the willingness to quit their addictive behaviors after about a year of contemplation of the material they were reading. And I believe that this is essentially the case with everyone: Nurturing willingness draws the consciousness closer to recovery even before the point at which a person is truly ready to surrender.
So, there is a “pre-step” to the admission of powerlessness that is Step 1 of any 12-step program. It is saying to yourself, “I am willing to surrender—I am willing to let go.” You don’t have to actually let go in that moment, you just have to be willing to. Starting off by telling yourself you are ready and willing to let go is a tremendous step.
There is a progression. The willingness to let go runs side by side with some type of bottom. That is followed by admission of the problem. Subsequently, true acceptance of the fact that there’s a problem that needs immediate attention saturates into every fiber of our consciousness. At that point, we become prepared for the challenging but exciting and rewarding lifelong journey of abstinence from all destructive addictive behaviors.
Every step to self-improvement begins first with the desire and the willingness to improve. It’s a mindset that doesn’t have an associated action at that point. Only after the mindset exists can you convert the thought to a positive activity.
But you must then take action. If you don’t know what actions to take you will linger in a head trip for all eternity. So this is where engaging in a self-help program becomes necessary. Steps to take action have been laid out before us many times by many different people using many different approaches to recovery. They include measures such as what 12-step recovery advocates as well as spiritual and philosophical programs (e.g., Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, etc.). If they are compassionate and offer belief systems that individuals are willing to put their passion into, they can be extraordinarily uplifting.
It is not uncommon for a person who is in the throes of addiction for most of life to be repelled from any type of spiritual or religious mindset. Conquering addiction can be done independently of that if need be. As an example, that can be the case if one immerses themself in studies of physical science to try to embrace creation.
Looking at creation and studying it daily helps one come to a place characterized by a sense of wonder and awe. Creation itself can be regarded as a higher power independent of what one might consider to be traditional spirituality by some. Creation is a miracle, whether a person attributes it to a supreme being or to chemical and scientific processes.
The universe can create, and so can we. We can go from a state of emptiness of mind to having a mind filled with many varieties of thoughts. These thoughts will eventually compel us to command our body to do something. We will act, and just by that alone we are creating.
We have to create in our minds the happiness we have always desired. We may have had such moments in childhood and lost them. We may have been incapable of feeling happiness because of anxiety and emotional problems and felt compelled to act out as a result. But we need to immerse ourselves in positivity in order to get beyond such ruts and experience growth.
It bears repeating again and again: To get clean from any addiction, it’s necessary to dispel negative thinking and embrace positive thinking.
If you have any self-awareness at all you can recognize your tendency towards negative thinking. Negative thinking creates the reality around us, making us uncomfortable often to the point of misery. We have to change the way we think in order to change the way we feel and then change the way we act in the world.
It’s crucial to understand one thing. That is that you cannot change the way you think by changing the way you feel. Trying to do so is a form of denial. When you feel angry you can’t just say, “I deny you, anger, and I choose to be happy.” If you do this, then your consciousness is not listening to the reflexes of the physical body indicating that something is causing you to feel angry. If you do not feel angry at that point then you might not take the appropriate action.
If somebody slaps me in the face and I refuse to feel anger, then I might just stand there and receive another slap. I’ve got to let myself feel my feelings. And we have to feel our feelings when we are in recovery. But the difference is that in recovery we can choose how we react.
If someone slaps me in the face and the danger goes away, I can choose to walk away. I can say, “I’ve been slapped. but I choose not to slap back. I choose to walk away.” All of our responses are within our control. Even though it sometimes seems as though we are 100% programmed and completely controlled by involuntary reactions, we aren’t.
We were only out of control with our emotions as children because we were relatively innocent. As a grown-up you have an intellect, you have the ability to learn, and you have the ability to immerse yourself in helpful informational material. You have the ability to discern right from wrong and comfort from discomfort. You can make choices and changes for the better, although it might not be easy. You can flood your mind with positive thoughts.
Before we take steps to arrest any addiction, it’s helpful to have a list of things we need to do in order to prepare ourselves to get ready to let go. I find it very helpful for me to make a list of things I need to do that are important to facilitate my recovery every single day. Daily yoga practice is one: It’s really important for me to reach my mat to relax my body, get my exercise and my endorphins, move my body, and focus on my breathing.
On the yoga mat I concentrate on the dialogue happening between the teacher and me. I can also often focus on tasks I need to do that day or that week and simultaneously focus on postures being called by the teacher. Sometimes, though, I need to focus intently on the postures and teacher’s instructions and avoid becoming too distracted.
The topic of focus warrants brief mention here. A lot of us find it hard to concentrate on tedious, meticulous things. We have a hard time doing small chores to make ourselves happy. This is both because we develop bad habits and because we have the mindset that being lazy is something that’s acceptable.
One way to move past that is to write down positive things about what to say to ourselves about what to do for that day. When we finish a given task, we can look back and say positive things to ourselves about our success. If we only partially complete something, we can then say positive things about the partial completion to ourselves.
Sometimes I walk down the street talking to myself, acting like I’m listening to music with my headphones. What I’m really doing is testing out my own philosophy. I’m asking myself where my true pain is, where it lives in my body. Sometimes I ask myself if I’ll ever get to the point in my life at which I’m perfectly happy. Then I have to remind myself that I’ve been perfectly happy for the last 10 years of my life. By perfectly happy I mean that I’m extremely content, I have activities in my life that are very helpful and important in my recovery, and I have the privilege of sharing such information with other people.
An important component of maintaining the positivity that I’m speaking of is writing about your journey. Begin by starting a journal and writing the words “I will be sober” or “I will be clean from my addiction” as your first entry. This can constitute the step of willingness that I mentioned in the beginning of this chapter. And the act of writing it down will be a concrete action that helps to turn thought into reality.