i have issues with some of the twelve steps
in december of 2014, i entered a recovery facility to deal with my eating disorder and my tendency to abuse benzodiazepines. Ativan, Xanax, Valium – they were my friends. They were an adjunct to my bulimia. They kept my brain quiet and helped keep the dark thoughts away.
like an eating disorder though, their rate of effectiveness began to drop as i used an abused. i started to take more. then more still, until they were less of a help and more of a compulsion. i dreaded facing the day without them. giving someone like me a “take as needed” prescription with unlimited refills was probably not the wisest call the doctor could have made. still, i’m the one who made the decision to take, and to subsequently abuse them.
like many, i headed to rehab following an intervention by friends and family members who were tired of watching me try to kill myself. they weren’t wrong in their analysis of my state of mind. the week before they sat me down, i found myself standing at an open door at the top of a silo at work, ready to jump. i was tired of the fight. the leap seemed so tempting. i wanted peace. i stood down eventually but it was close. so close that i still sweat when i think about it.
the facility i went to was beautiful. it was built in an old-growth forest and set far enough away from the city to make leaving unlikely. i talked to staff there every day for a week, while i waited to see if they would take me. i wanted in quite desperately. it felt like my last best chance. i wanted to be there until the moment my family drove away. then i wanted to be gone. i wanted to be anywhere else. i wanted to be home. i wanted my familiar life. i decided i could fix my problems myself. the fact that i had failed to do so, repeatedly, was not something i considered. i think the urge to run, and to fight treatment, are the death screams of people’s disorders (not that mine are dead yet but they are wounded. they certainly didn’t want anyone challenging their existence).
the facility followed the 12-step model of recovery. it treated alcohol and drug addictions primarily, but there were three of us there for eating disorders. all the plans i had made and tried myself to get well had centered around rigid diets. i had never thought about using a 12-step program. i had been relying on will-power which wasn’t a particularly effective method.
i had no real issue with the 12-step process and the longer i was there, and the more i worked it, the more benefits i found.
take step four, “make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves”. it’s a good one. it forced me to look at my past, something i avoided. i revisited things i had done, and things that had happened or been done to me. unpacking my life and examining it allowed me to see my history more clearly, perhaps for the first time. it gave me the chance to see it clearly.
i started to believe people when they told me that there was a method to my madness. i started to see that my life history encouraged me to act in certain ways in response to stress and trauma. i started to believe that i wasn’t a bad person or a failure. sharing my history was a big part of that. it was validating; it helped to hear people say “wow, that was really bad” out loud. for the first time, i stopped trying to minimize things from my past. i started to stop judging myself for my reactions to trauma.
or step five, “we admitted to god, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs”. that step was truly a gift. i hadn’t realized, until i sat down with a chaplain and talked about my life and about the things that i’d done in the service of my eating disorder, how much guilt i carried regarding my behaviours. i didn’t realize how harshly i judged myself for every fall from perfection. i had no space in my self-judgment for sympathy or understanding.
it was at rehab that i started to realize that my lack of kindness and acceptance regarding myself made me more rigid and judgmental with others. i had always thought of myself as being tolerant and accepting, but i started to see that there was an edge to it; a feeling of mild contempt hidden away underneath. we do not have two operating systems. the way we think about and treat ourselves really does impact the way we think about and treat others. realizing that has led to positive changes. i am kinder now. more honestly accepting. i’m less judgmental, and better with people overall. better with my friends, better with my family, better with strangers. my actions are no longer incongruent with my beliefs and desires.
i’m not currently following the 12-step plan. i did, while there, and for a while after i left. i went to meetings. i read the books (the AA big book, the NA book, the Eating Disorder 12-step book). i listened. i got a sponsor. it just didn’t gel. i continued to feel conflicted and inauthentic when i went. feeling like a fraud in your recovery group is not conducive to healing.
part of the problem was biochemical. i was in the treatment centre for three and a half months and while there, i made what turned out to be an ill-advised decision to stop taking my anti-depressants. the result was a swift descent into a major depressive episode within weeks of leaving, and i am only starting to recover from that challenge.
the other part of the problem was with the first three steps. i struggled with them from the very first. step one: we admitted we were powerless over alcohol/drugs/food and that our lives had become unmanageable. I was fine with admitting that my life had become unmanageable. i was in rehab. that’s pretty convincing evidence.
step two: we came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. step three: we made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him/her/them.
i didn’t have a problem with the god stuff, like many did. i grew up in the bible belt. i’ve heard about god from the time i was small and i’ve developed a belief system that works for me. it’s not christian. it’s not anything you can label, really. it’s cobbled together from bits of this and bits of that, from religion and philosophy and fiction. i’m quite like it.
my problem was with the idea that i was powerless. i couldn’t accept that. i also struggled with the idea that i needed to turn my will and life over to an outside force. i’d already done that and it hadn’t gone well. i had turned control of my life over to my eating disorder. it tried to kill me.
i wasn’t comfortable with what seemed to be an abdication of responsibility for my actions. my eating disorder wasn’t an independent agent. i wasn’t possessed. i was there. giving myself over to something outside myself didn’t resonate with me on any level. i talked about my struggles with these steps with counsellors, therapists, and friends. i couldn’t find a way around it.
i could not accept that the solution was external. that idea didn’t work for me. i had spent a lifetime giving up responsibility to my eating disorder. i wanted to own my life and my behaviours. i didn’t want to give up parts of myself anymore.
there’s a challenge there though. there’s a fine line between taking responsibility and blaming yourself. there are more than semantic differences between the two terms. responsibility is about owning your behaviour. blame is about finding who’s at fault for it; it’s about judging and criticizing. blame is kind of vindictive. it doesn’t seek change. it vilifies. finding fault with oneself does not correct anything. if it did, i’d have been well long ago.
i’ve spent a lifetime blaming myself for almost everything, whether it was in my control or not. i criticize myself without compassion. blame and fault-laden thoughts led me to believe i was a complete and utter failure as a person. if i’d continued to evaluate my history and behaviours through those lenses, i’d have ended up back in the hole i was trying to crawl out of.
responsibility is not about blame, negative self-judgment, or self-criticism. it’s about being accountable. we all make choices. it’s the only thing that is truly in our control. some of the choices we make are good. some, less so.
we don’t deliberately choose the bad most of the time. we make the choices we do in order to survive. survival is a pretty significant drive. we choose. we pick behaviours that we think will help. sometimes we choose badly, but that doesn’t make us bad or evil. that’s what i tell myself over and over, and what i struggle to believe – that the choices i made are my responsibility, but they don’t make me fundamentally wrong.
i made the choices i did in order to stay alive. it sounds dramatic but truth is, sometimes. from the outside, it may have seemed that i was seeking my destruction, but that isn’t true. after all, i’m still here. i made the decision, subconscious perhaps, to serve my eating disorder, and my eating disorder was serving me. it helped me to control the emotions and feelings and memories i couldn’t deal with. granted, it was a destructive method of coping, but it was a plan.
it’s easy to shift from responsibility to blame when it relates to behaviours that impacted other people. those are the acts that are harder to forgive, and harder to own. i want them to be someone else’s fault. i want it to be the fault of my eating disorder. i want those choices to have nothing to do with me at all. i want the stealing, and the lying, and the hurting others, and the not living a full life to be because of someone else. i find it hard to forgive and hard to move on, knowing i’ve caused pain. yet i reject the idea that i was powerless over my decision making. was i being pushed and prodded by my eating disorder? sure. i was driven and compulsive and damaged but ultimately, no matter how i look at it, i made those choices. i am more comfortable with the idea of learning to own them than i am with the idea of turning it all over to someone else, even if that someone else is god.
i wonder if some of my resistance to giving up control comes from being a victim of sexual abuse. children are powerless when measured against adults, especially against abusers. i gave up my power during my childhood. i don’t want to give it up again.
giving up control to god conflicts with some of my fundamental beliefs, as well. i believe in a god who helps those who help themselves. i don’t believe in a genie god, a god who exists to grant wishes and to take over when things get tough. i believe god gives us personal agency and it’s up to us to use it or squander it as we will.
part of the resistance comes from my eating disorder. i’m aware of that. after all, eating disorders are about control. my eating disorder has been a part of me for a long time and no doubt bits and pieces continue to work on me. it doesn’t want to get gone. but part, however, is just me. not my bulimia, not my anxiety, not my depression. just me and my very own thoughts.
twelve step programs work well for a lot of people some of the time but they aren’t perfect. i have grown wary of committing myself wholeheartedly to a single endeavor like that. it smacks to much of obsession and i’ve been there before.
i prefer to own my choices. i don’t believe i am powerless. i believe i gave up the choice to own my power because of a variety of factors – fear, fatigue, an incredibly weak sense of self, and an overdeveloped sense of responsibility to others that didn’t allow me to share when i needed help. these are the things i’m working on.
that, and blame. i’m learning to walk the line between owning what you’ve done and hating and judging yourself for it. it’s easy to drift into judging myself negatively. i’ve had a lifetime to learn how to do it.
for me, recovery comes with learning to believe that i am not powerless and that i have control over my choices. it comes with learning that i can accept my history and my choices, and not hate myself for them. it comes from understanding that i was trying to survive and that the choices i made, while not ideal, were serving that goal. i believe in a higher power, but i don’t believe they are focused on the daily minutiae of my life. i think my choices are always, and have always been, up to me. at the end of the day, it is the only power i have.
december 9, 2017 – recovery and responsibility