Many of us arrive at our first NA meeting spiritually dead, emotionally crippled and in poor physical health. Overwhelmed by shame, guilt, self-hatred and the painful rewards of our self-centered lifestyle, we are relieved to find that we have a treatable disease. In NA, we have evolved a concept of the disease of addiction as arrived at by addicts recovering in NA. Our moral values, which we thought were long gone, can be revived by living in harmony with the principles found within the Twelve Steps and Traditions of NA.
One of the first and most important tools we are given in our struggle to overcome addiction is an understanding of the disease. A thorough grasp of this new-found reality has opened the door to recovery for countless addicts worldwide.
A phrase often quoted to newcomers is "we are not responsible for our disease but we are responsible for our recovery." This short statement aptly captures the essence of the disease concept. We are no longer victims of some mysterious or other-worldly force. Rather than remaining overwhelmed by negative emotion, we are given a set of simple guidelines that we can apply to begin a journey toward inner peace and over all recovery.
Clinging to any reservations we may have in accepting the fact that we have a disease called addiction is referred to as denial. Denial of our condition is nothing more than an invitation to further pain and confusion. Denial is the mind game that all addict play to avoid dealing with reality and the consequences of our using. Often times our life_styles have become quite bizarre, yet we remain convinced that everything is normal. Denial is a mental operation of rationalization and justification used to shield us from the pain of our current situation, or the much deeper pains from our distant past.
NA offers a solution to those who stubbornly embrace denial and who doubt the fact that this disease is the source of our unmanageable lives. Newcomers are encouraged to write the first step of the NA program. When faced with the black and white evidence of our dilemma, it is difficult to deny the fact that this disease is controlling our actions, settings us up for failure time and time again, and spoiling any hope of a meaningful life.
Having accepted our disease, we must be careful to realize that our addiction can be easily transferred to other destructive behaviors. We may substitute the symptom of drug use, with other destructive habits such as going to extremes in the areas of compulsive spending, over-eating and sexual acting out.
New members are especially susceptible this form of denial. Many will use almost anything in an attempt to fill the void and emotional emptiness left as a result of giving up our primary symptom of drug usage. Although applying the steps, going to meetings and using a sponsor does not offer the immediate gratification found in our old addictive lifestyle, it does offer the long term solutions we truly seek.
We know that addiction is a three-part illness. It is physical, mental and spiritual. There is no greater advantage to the addict seeking recovery than learning the disease concept of addiction. This has enabled hundreds of thousands of NA members to recover. The more we understand the direct connection between our pain and our disease, the less likely we are to allow ourselves to drift back into the patterns that precede relapse. We have to take care that symptoms of our disease such as; exerting power in powerless situations, credit taking, judgment of others, and reluctance to do our part do not gain control again. Pain does not cure our illness; it does however motivate us to seek solutions. The most solemn vows and the strongest will power offer only temporary solutions. In our experience, until an addict finds the sincere desire to stop using there is little hope for recovery. It is this desire that fuels our recovery. Without it, we are lost.
We have come to understand that we suffer from a disease called addiction. This disease tells us that we do not have a disease, and therefore our minds work against us. That is how it fools even the most intelligent people. If we cannot grasp the concept of addiction as an illness, as in a medical text book, we may think of it this way: The belief that this illness exists and is "treatable" will help us get results while denial of its existence will surely kill us. While we readily admitted to powerlessness over drugs in early recovery, most of us struggled with the concept of being powerless over our addiction. Our addiction exists with or without drugs. Even without drugs, the disease often shows up in compulsions such as; arrogance, gambling, compulsive spending, over_eating, lust and generally overdoing anything that makes us feel good.
Understanding that ours is not a moral problem usually comes as an enormous relief for those of us suffering from addiction's guilt and shame. Our new understanding lifts that heavy weight. Most of us thought we had a problem from which recovery was not possible. We do not know why we have this disease nor does it matter. What does matter is the solution for arresting its progression. We may pretend that everything is all right, but this pretense is only our denial at work. We understand from the beginning that NA does not offer a definitive solution for all problems. We are just addicts who have a disease and have found a way to live clean and productive lives. Addiction promised us a lot, gave us a little and took away everything. Today we are able to stay clean and achieve ongoing recovery by living the NA way of life.
One path that some take to recover from their various symptoms of addiction is to attack each of them one-by-one. We may believe that we are powerless over "cocaine" or powerless over "sex" etc. Many 12 Step fellowships have appeared in the past sixty-five years using this exact methodology. We in Narcotics Anonymous have another approach. The First Step of NA says, "We admitted we were powerless over our addiction . . ." NA focuses not on what we used but on our addictive personalities that forced us to use and abuse many things. Addiction creates the emptiness inside us that drives us to seek contentment in all the wrong places. This step asks us to surrender our self-loathing, destructive thinking and our negative behaviors. Then what? Upon closer examination, we have found that every harmful behavior we have ever exhibited exists because we do not love ourselves enough. We may deny this, but look at what we do to ourselves.
Expressing love opens the door for us to obtain true freedom. We learn how to love by working the Steps and the Traditions. We learn to apply the spiritual principles embodied in twenty-four simple suggestions. It takes time, repeated effort and a willingness to learn what real love is all about. Many addicts have said that working with others seemed to be the only thing that could get them through particularly tough times in their recovery. When we show concern for another, we manage to divert attention from ourselves and our compulsions. We identify with the feelings that many addicts share because we have been there and done that. As we learned to care for our fellow addict in NA, so too we slowly learn to care for ourselves.
We used more drugs, more often, and substituted new drugs as our addiction progressed. Denial kept us blind to the fact that our lives were basically falling apart. Many of us covered our general failure by maintaining special skills or abilities. Our abilities diminished, and even the special skills we used to hide our addiction began to fail us. This strategy seemed to be "do an especially good job and that would keep others off our back". It was just another game we played in order to continue to make our using seem successful.
We knew we were in conflict with the world. Making excuses, criticizing others, feeling inadequate, unworthy, guilty and fearful had become our existence. Negativity became a way of life for us. Because of this unhealthy spiritual condition, we tried to escape more and more. Our mental processes broke down and our thinking became obsessive. We thought that the answers to our problem were out there somewhere and if we could only get enough of one thing or another, we would be all right. This obsessive thinking that follows the process of spiritual disconnection generally ends with compulsive activity. This is a recurring and dangerous pattern. We have seen this pattern emerge in many ways, even after we got clean.
Addiction creates patterns of fears and defense mechanisms to help us cope with life. When we could no longer hide the fact that our addiction had taken over our lives, we faced total collapse. We have found that the only way out is through total surrender. In spite of all the denial, evasive actions and repeated attempts to use successfully, nothing seemed to work. We came to a place where recovery started sounding good, even though it meant we could not continue using. Of course, we knew there would have to be a few changes.
One addict shared: "Having this disease is not my fault. We do not know why we have this disease nor does it matter. What matters is the solution for arresting its progress. This baffling and fatal disease compromises our morality. What would a cancer patient do for a cure, not to die? Just about anything, correct? The problem lies in not knowing we have a disease to begin with. Just as any cancer patient can identify with any other cancer patient, but may not accept his or her disease, so we as addicts may identify with others in recovery but still refuse to accept that we too suffer from the disease of addiction.
Another addict shared: "I was unable to recognize my disease until I got into recovery. Today I am aware of its symptoms as they occur within me. Obsessive thinking and compulsive behavior characterizes my addiction. It follows a simple pattern; First a loss of spirituality occurs when I slow down on meeting attendance, stop prayer and meditating, and then I take back my will. Second I lapse into self-centeredness and self-pity. Resentments set in and my gratitude goes out the window. 3rd life becomes unmanageable because of this emotional relapse. 4th I use something to change the way I feel and to fix me. 5th I try to cover up the pain and avoid uncomfortable feelings through laughter, people pleasing, and solving everyone else's problems. Of course these screwed-up coping skills will differ for each of us.
As always, none of this works. Once more, I have to surrender my will and my life to a Power that can heal me. After a hard and honest look at myself, I take responsibility for my part in the recovery process. Only then, is meaningful progress made."
The disease of addiction is one of reaction. When something happens, the fear that grows from our self-centered thinking pushes us into reacting or over-reacting. We feel threatened at every turn so we try to defend ourselves. When we feel attacked, we attack. Sometimes the attack happens only in our minds. We indulge in our resentments and fantasies of revenge so we can have or feel we have some kind of power in powerless situations. This is a common reaction but healthy recovering people tend not to dwell in this type of thinking for long. We interact positively with the people and events in our lives by sharing our feelings and then letting them go. We share, not to make others change but to free ourselves so we don’t have to live with ill feelings.
We have learned to align our actions with our principles. This concept may seem foreign to us when we are just beginning to understand the depths of our addiction. We are just beginning to see what a mess our lives have become. Is it really possible for us to have and live by spiritual principles such as; honesty, open-mindedness, willingness, patience, tolerance, acceptance, love? We come to utilize these principles in all that we do and say. In time, they become as natural to us as breathing in and out. They become effortless.
Addiction is rooted in the spirit and we call this the self-centered part of our disease. It is more than simple selfishness. The self-centered aspect of our addiction results in our isolation, loneliness and alienation from our fellow man. It is "feeling alone in the midst of a crowd". We feel unloved in the bosom of our families, separated from our fellow human beings and even separated from our Higher Power. We have found ourselves in a pit of despair, feeling that we are truly unique in our misery. We think no one else can possibly understand how we feel because we believe no one else has ever felt this way before.
In this state of mind, we may think of ourselves as the very worst or hide the truth by thinking we are the very best. We fear letting others know who we really are because we often believe that we are unlovable. We see every situation in the light of how it affects us. One addict summed it up succinctly; "It’s all about me! Don’t you know"? We are so insecure that we continually seek approval and acceptance from others, but seldom feel that we receive all that we so desperately need. Self_centeredness tells we are totally alone. This is a fearful state of mind and many of us have lived in it for years and years. After a time, we can’t remember what it was like to live without these negative feelings.
As individuals, we deal with many spiritual and philosophical issues. We need to feed ourselves both mentally and spiritually. Many addicts have said, "Yes, I am powerless over drugs and they have made my life unmanageable, but I only came to NA to get physically clean, I will deal with the other problems in my life, on my own." Where other people can use, we cannot without devastating repercussions some where down the road. Where they can control what and how much they use, we have sadly learned that over the long haul, we cannot. We may get away with using "normally" for a while but eventually, like the Basic Text says "we didn’t use drugs, they used us!" Where others can predict what will happen when they take even a small quantity of a drug, we cannot.
We have found that we could not stop by our own force of will. The fulfillment that our obsessive thinking promised never happened. No matter how much we got or did, we were never satisfied. Therefore, we have to practice total abstinence from all drugs, foods containing drugs, ice cream with liqueur, cold remedies with codeine, near beer beverages or anything else that could trigger active addiction. Our understanding has to improve and our personalities rebuilt to allow us to function successfully. We call this work spiritual because it affects our spirits.
We have tried dealing with life on sheer will power; buying things, chasing social acceptability, over-eating, compulsive gambling, working, avoiding working, emotional swings, wallowing in self-pity, having sex, and any other ‘fixes’ our minds could come up with. In the end, we always ended up with the same spiritual void that our obsessive drug use could never fill. This is the same void that got us to N.A. in the first place. Eventually, our substitutes land us in the exact same places that the drugs did, not some times, but every time.
We give our thoughts power when we only plan "successful" outcomes to our many various schemes. We begin to fantasize that acting out on our desires must surely be able to fix us this time. We imagine all the intricate details needed to accomplish our goal. As we do so, we tend to justify all that is needed to get that which we know will cure all our ills. Now it seems next to impossible for us to turn back.
Some have said that, as addicts, we suffer from a love deficiency. We are truly lovers in distress. Our addiction uses our every action to reduce positive human contact, when that is what we crave so much. It would seem that we are deep down, hopeless romantics. We crave the feelings we get from that new relationship. We focus on the honeymoon period of a relationship, when our endorphins are cooking on high. Love is in the air and all is well with the world. For many of us, we chase that fantasy well past the point when there is anything healthy left in the relationship. Our addiction will convince us that putting up with anything is better then being alone.
We find ourselves faced with an addictive disorder looking for a way to express itself. No matter which symptom or substance we pursue, we appear as determined as any hungry predator that is closing in on its prey. Our drives toward these obsessions can be every bit as strong as our compulsions were to get high. We have found ourselves manipulating, lying and stealing to achieve our ends. We are in the grip of our disease and we do not want to turn back. Consequently, we indulge ourselves to the point where we just can’t do it any more. Finally, once again dissatisfied we surrender. Surrender doesn’t mean we give up. Surrender merely means we are willing to try another way.
Members of the Fellowship of NA have experience in practicing total abstinence over drugs. Many have applied the principle of "not picking up the first one" to overcome other self-destructive behaviors that have made our lives unmanageable (e.g. smoking tobacco, gambling, stealing, lying, etc.). What can we do about those necessary things of life like food that our disease causes us to use in a destructive way? Are we destined to be helpless victims or is there hope for us in these areas too? For many of us, the compulsive symptoms other than drug use were non-existent or only secondary problems during our active addiction. It was not until the drugs left our lives that we latched onto these other issues. We had to face our obsessions with food, sex, over-spending, or other things as our desire to use drugs was lifted. Some of us, sadly enough, have not found long-term relief from these substitute aspect of our disease even after years in recovery.
On a positive note, we have found that once we see how much freedom we get from surrendering the use of drugs, we can get that same uplift from letting go of other things. Many of us have given our recoveries a boost after many years clean by surrendering something new; Cigarettes, sugar, caffeine etc… We find that staying clean has become easy and we need to challenge our recovery by doing something difficult. Some times we need to shake up our complacency by doing something difficult and challenging. Of course, we don’t suggest this for newcomers who want to make every thing right in their first few weeks in N.A.
One of our greatest challenges is learning to stop compulsive behavior as it occurs. Identifying a non-chemical relapse is not always as cut and dried as it is with being clean. With drugs, either we used or we did not. Some times prescribed medication enters the picture. In those times, there are more shades of gray and the lines between abstinence and relapse can become blurred. Daily inventories coupled with regular prayer and meditation has proven invaluable for keeping our awareness heightened and our program on track. We keep in close contact with our sponsors by letting them know what our medical condition is and what has been prescribed for us by our physicians. Of course, we should always discuss any use of mood altering medication with our sponsors before filling any prescriptions or using over the counter medication that might contain alcohol etc.
Addictive overeaters cannot practice total abstinence. Anorexia or bulimia is not recovery from compulsive eating. The key to recovery is eating sensibly and moderately as a permanent lifestyle. We want to be able to eat to live, rather than live to eat. As one member said, "Recovery from overeating is much harder than when I stopped using because I still have to ‘kiss the dragon’ several times a day!" The same holds true for the compulsive spender. It is not our goal to turn from spendthrift to penny-pincher. We want to learn how to set up a reasonable budget and work within those parameters. What about the members who compulsively seek out sexual gratification or destructive relationships? A period of abstinence from sexual activity may be necessary for detoxing while we do a thorough inventory, work with our sponsor, develop personal boundaries and in some cases, seek additional help. While total abstinence from sex is possible, how many of us look forward to a lifetime of celibacy? Most of us have envisioned healthy and loving relationships as our goal.
Spiritual relapses frequently occur before we know it if we are not vigilant. If a spiritual relapse happens, forgiving ourselves for our mistakes and working the program "just for today" is even more crucial. Without this persistence, we could easily become discouraged and give up altogether. Never let yesterday's relapse be a reason to use today! At these times when we feel disheartened, many of us find comfort in revisiting the Third Step. We realize that our Higher Power is always present and can help us get through any situation. The road to recovery is long and will contain some potholes along the way. In time, we learn to be grateful for our non-chemical symptoms as well. They act as caution lights, warning us that there is something wrong which needs our immediate attention. Many of us have been down this path and have experienced the miracle of recovery from addiction. We cherish the freedom and inner peace that results from a surrender that is more than simple abstinence from the use of drugs. Recovery is the process of regaining the power to live. Everything we do in recovery increases positive human contact. This allows us to move up the scale to high-energy states of being that do not make us "loaded". We know the results if we use and that can be boring! The excitement is in living clean because we are never sure what will happen. We frequently find ourselves expecting similar situations to lead to old outcomes only to find differences that crop up and gradually ease away our fears. Total abstinence, the desire for recovery, nature, time and patience are the great healers.
One addict shared: "I believe that the use of barbiturates in my early life for seizures has created the possibility for me to be addicted to everything I come in contact with. The ability to stop using was only over when there was no more money, drugs or people to use. Using in the morning was the only way to ‘kick start' this body of mine. My compulsion to live within my own paranoia was both gripping and frightening. It was inconceivable to me that life would ever change. This lifestyle became tolerable. The others that used as I did seemed to be in the midst of all the social activity. Life would not have changed until I surrendered and accepted my problem. I worked because work was only a way to earn money for my addiction. I found it easy to be successful but eventually the disease of addiction took over and the job was expendable. The streets became the reality."
In recovery, we have found that our complicated disease boiled down to simple descriptions and simple facts. Powerlessness was one aspect. Denial of our problem was another telltale sign. Blaming others for our problems was a sign of our inability to take personal responsibility. Substitution was another sign, using anything and not being able to stop once we had started. Not being able to predict what would happen once we started using was another. One of the strangest things was the way our addiction forced us to use against our own will. We let down those we loved and those who loved us the most. Isolation resulted when we ran out of people. When we first notice that nervous and uncomfortable feeling, we can pause and become quiet. We can make a decision to turn the disease over to the God of our understanding. We choose peace of mind over discomfort. If we address these feelings when they first appear, we avoid the trap of insanity. As our mind searches for the quick fix, we must remind ourselves of the pain that easy solutions have brought us in the past. We play the tape all the way through to the end, not just stopping at the part where we get what we want. We admit the consequences of our actions and honestly ask ourselves if it is worth it. We consider the positive choices and give them preference to the negative ones.
What if we are obsessing on one of our destructive symptoms and have started the process of picking-up? Are we doomed to follow it through to the bitter end? Remember that we never have to give-in to our disease. We can call someone or go to a meeting if one is available. We can pray to our Higher Power to give us the strength we need to stop the madness. Many of us identify our addiction as an allergic reaction like poison ivy or a bee sting. Some people are not bothered by a bee sting beyond a minor discomfort. It is commonly known that someone who has had little more than momentary pain from a bee sting can progress in his or her allergy without knowing it. One more bee sting and they can swell up like a balloon! Many addicts can relate to addiction as something like diabetes and meetings as the insulin. This basic picture grows into something more complete and at the same time, it keeps us coming back.
As we grow spiritually, the internal battle may grow larger. In some of us, our system seemed to adapt to the drugs as our tolerance increased. Sometimes that adaptation seems to reverse and we are more susceptible and only a little will get us high. Many of us tried to substitute to avoid the unpleasant side effects of withdrawal. As addiction began to re-establish itself in our lives, we lost our ability to be around everyday people. We found it harder and harder to play the game of life convincingly. What the world did not know about addiction damn near killed us.
Looking at life as a clean addict gives us a whole new picture. We know that people can kill with their good intentions as if we are nothing more than lab rats. They speak with great authority on subjects they cannot possibly understand. It is important to realize that they repeat the promises of a world that offers countless products to make us feel good. We addicts are responsible to seek reliable information in order to live clean. We see where our addiction created a fantastic pattern of fears and defense mechanisms to deal with the hallucinations that we thought happened when we were using.
Even those who help us may be extremely limited in other areas of their lives yet they are entirely competent when it comes to staying clean on a daily basis. Their admission of powerlessness helps us come to terms with our own.
Some external factors can initiate temporary relief but we know that continued relief depends on personal responsibility. Our desire for recovery guides us to the very things we need most. This usually begins with our commitment to stay clean. Positive change and a revolutionary attitude can destroy a loser's point of view. As our addiction progresses during recovery, we must grow spiritually to hold it in check. Transition from a shame-based concept to a hope-based concept of self is necessary. Hope and the possibility of positive change compete with our accustomed state of despair. We must rebuild our personalities in order to function successfully. Surrender is the foundation of recovery. It opens the door to help from sources outside of our experience. When we recognize where we were and where we are now, we give credit to God and call it grace. Only by attaining and maintaining a sense of powerlessness can we keep surrendering and admitting our need for help.
The disease concept opens doors and encourages us to risk energy and to try again. Without the validation of the disease concept, the sense of powerlessness may be overwhelming. What addict has not tried and tried again to stop using and change his way of life? We failed and fell into a spiral of low self-esteem, defeat, and acceptance of our condition as permanent. When addicts hear about the disease concept, eventually, they identify. When asked what addiction feels like, we struggle to define it in accurate terms. It may first appear as a nervous or anxious sensation. We have a general feeling of being uncomfortable. Something just does not seem quite right and our minds start searching for an answer. With incredible speed we scan through our mental file cabinet for answers that have been stored away for just this situation. In a fraction of a second, we can usually focus on what we think will make us feel better. Sadly, this is only a temporary solution to our dilemma. The real solution is in taking personal responsibility for ourselves and our actions. We find a small amount of hope for a better way of life. We are relieved of the hopelessness of our addiction. The excitement of our hope attracts many newcomers.
Working the Steps relieves the symptoms. We learn that the disease of addiction is incurable, progressive and fatal if not arrested daily. The urge to live explains our continued interest and energy we put into maintaining our recovery. The answers that we share have proven themselves in the most important arena of all: our very lives. This is why it takes us years to fully understand the NA way of life. We spent a long time learning how not to live. We work the Program on a daily basis so we can continue to grow. We continue to monitor our feelings, thoughts and actions. This is the process of recovery. It is not an event, but a way of life.
People have painful living problems and suffer from the illusion that life's lessons aren't lessons but personal misfortunes that they deserved. They confuse this with their personal worth as human beings. As addicts, we base many of our feelings, reactions, and decisions on experiences that took place in the past or while we were loaded. We were in denial over the fact that all our perceptions of life where drug induced. We spent all our time with other addicts who told us that we were doing just fine. We automatically cut ourselves off from non_addicts who could point out our irrational thinking.
It is worth discussing this subject in some depth because in a short time, addiction makes us forget our past. Non-addicts expect us to snap-out of the patterns of addictive thinking, acting and reacting by just putting down the drugs. They think that we can act as if nothing happened. After all, is that not what recovery is all about? No! It is not! Recovery is learning a new way to live. We do that by facing the past and healing, not by avoiding it.
The Program of Narcotics Anonymous teaches us that we have choices. By practicing spiritual principles we arrest insane patterns of self-indulgence and self-gratification. Knowing that "using is losing" is not enough, we must find a way to live differently. This is why we call it ‘working' the Steps.
By working the steps we find that faith coupled with action brings change, hope replaces despair and faith in a power greater than ourselves empowers us to do greater things. We must repeatedly throw ourselves into contact with clean addicts in every conceivable situation. This is how we learn to go through situations without using. Once into recovery, many of us cannot explain exactly how we have stayed clean. Grace (undeserved favor) is how we got clean in the first place. It enhances our ability to act on faith and trust God to help us.
How many times have we struggled with our obsessive thinking and compulsive behaviors only to find ourselves having to surrender one more time? We have accepted our condition as permanent. Symptoms appeared to offer satisfaction only to leave us feeling cheated. We expected positive outcomes in our endeavors but they were never sufficient.
Total abstinence, a desire for spiritual growth, and practicing principles will relieve the pain of our addiction. The spirituality acquired by working the steps is necessary if we are to stay clean. We no longer use to change how we feel, we utilize the steps to heal our feelings. Spirituality has the power to do this. An addict believing in a higher power, responsive to his cries for help, is well on his way to recovery. Don't give up five minutes before the miracle; as long as there is life left in us, there is hope for recovery.
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Reprinted from the
N.A. FELLOWSHIP USE ONLY
Copyright © December 1998
Victor Hugo Sewell, Jr.
NA Foundation Group
6685 Bobby John Road Atlanta, GA 30349 USA
All rights reserved. This draft may be copied by members of Narcotics Anonymous for the purpose of writing input for future drafts, enhancing the recovery of NA members and for the general welfare of the Narcotics Anonymous Fellowship as a whole. The use of an individual name is simply a registration requirement of the Library of Congress and not a departure from the spirit or letter of the Pledge, Preface or Introduction of this book. Any reproduction by individuals or organizations outside the Fellowship of Narcotics Anonymous is prohibited. Any reproduction of this document for personal or corporate monetary gain is prohibited.