Recovery and responsibility.

(November 9, 2017 – recovery and responsibility)

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 me keep the dark thoughts at bay.

like an eating disorder though, their rate of effectiveness began to drop as i used and abused. i started to take more pills because i needed more pills. then more again, for the same reason, until it was the taking itself that was the compulsion. i dreaded facing the day without them. giving someone like me a “take as needed” prescription with unlimited refills probably wasn’t the wisest call the doctor has made. still, i’m the one who made the decision to take, and to subsequently abuse them. though there was important information i didn’t know.

like many, i headed to rehab following an intervention by friends and family members who were tired of watching me slowly kill myself. they weren’t wrong in their analysis though the speed was sometimes up to question. the week before they sat me down, i’d 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 so very desperately. i stood down eventually, but it was close. so close that i crab-walked back from the door. so close that i still sweat when i think about it.

the facility i went to was beautiful, built in an old-growth forest far enough away from the city to make leaving unlikely. i talked to staff on the phone every day for a week while i waited to see if they’d take me. i wanted in at that point 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, but mostly home. i wanted my familiar life. i decided i could fix my problems myself as they removed bits and pieces of the familiar but now forbidden from my luggage. that i had failed to do so, repeatedly, was not something i considered. the lizard brain was in charge. i think the urge to run, and to fight treatment, are the death screams of people’s disorders (mine aren’t dead yet, but they were wounded by treatment. disorders don’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. the plans i’d made myself to get well had centered around rigid diets. i’d 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 other than the knee-jerk resistance to any treatment that emerges as soon as you enter treatment. the longer i was there, and the more i worked it, the more i found it had to offer.

take step four, “make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.” that’s a good one. hard. it forced me to look at my past, something i avoided. i revisited good things i’d done, and i revisited things that had happened to or had been done to me, but fearless about my own behaviour? no one wants to do that.

opening up about the past had another benefit. i started to believe people when they told me that there was a method to my coping madness. i started to believe that i wasn’t a bad person or a failure at life because of my behaviours and mental health issues. sharing my history was a big part of that. i expected criticism and mockery, what i got was was validation. it helped to hear people say “wow, that was really bad.” i was able to stop turning into an attempted joke bad things from my past. i started to stop judging myself for reacting 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 a gift. i hadn’t realized, until i sat down with a chaplain and to talk about my life and the things 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 treatment that i also learned that the lack of kindness and acceptance I showed towards myself made me more rigid and judgmental with others. i’d always thought of myself as being tolerant and accepting, but i started to see there was an edge to it, a mild contempt hidden underneath. we don’t 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’m kinder now, and more honestly accepting. i’m less judgmental, and that makes me better with people all around. i’m better with my friends, better with my family, and better with strangers. it’s nice: my actions are less incongruent with my beliefs and desires.


i’m not actively following the 12-step plan. that is, i’m not going to meetings. i did, while i was in treatment (you didn’t have a choice), and after i left, for a bit. i went to meetings. i reread the books (the AA big book, the NA book, the Eating Disorder 12-step book). i listened as people shared. i shared some myself. i even got a sponsor. it just didn’t like me. i felt inauthentic every time I showed. feeling like a fraud in your recovery group isn’t recommended.

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: i’m only starting to recover from that little challenge. meetings while i was contemplating the deep hole my life had fallen into seemed like a waste of time.

the other part of the problem is 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 really group-affiliated. it’s cobbled together from bits of this and bits of that, from this religion and that philosophical school, from fiction and non-fiction alike. i’m quite fond of it. when i think of it. i’m somewhat lazy in my relationship with god.

my problem was with powerlessness bit. i couldn’t accept that one. i wasn’t comfortable with what seemed to me to be an abdication of responsibility for my actions. i was there.

i also struggled with the idea that i needed to turn my will and life over to an outside force. i’d done that before and it hadn’t gone well. i turned control of my life over to my eating disorder. it tried to kill me.

giving myself over to something outside myself didn’t resonate 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 couldn’t accept that the solution was me doing what i was told. i’d spent my lifetime giving up control to my eating disorder. i wanted to own my life and my behaviours. i didn’t want to give up parts of myself anymore, no matter how often other people told me it was a good idea.

i discovered something else interesting in recovery. there’s a difference between taking responsibility and blaming yourself. responsibility is about owning your behaviour and doing what it takes to make the necessary correction. blame is about judging. blame is about criticism. it doesn’t seek change, it vilifies. finding fault doesn’t correct anything. if it did, i’d have been perfect long ago.

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’s 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 best choices possible, or, barring that, the best choices available. we do what we need to do in order to survive. survival is a pretty significant drive. we go with behaviours that we think will help. sometimes we choose badly, but that doesn’t make us bad or evil. i tell myself that over and over, and struggle to believe it – that the bad choices i don’t make me fa bad human.

i did what i needed to do in order to stay alive. it sounds dramatic but the 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.

it’s hard to excuse myself when i harmed only myself: it’s nearly impossible when my behaviours harmed other people. i want those times to be someone else’s fault. i want it to be the fault of my eating disorder, who is absolutely not connected to me. i want those choices to have nothing to do with me either. i want the stealing, and the lying, and the hurting others, and the not living a full life to be someone else’s fault.

i find it hard to forgive myself and move on, knowing i’ve caused pain. yet i reject the “out” offered by the idea that i was powerless over my decision-making. i just don’t believe it. was i being pushed and prodded by my eating disorder? sure. and yet. i was driven, compulsive, and damaged but no matter how i look at it, i made those choices. i’m 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 someone else is god.

giving up control to god conflicts with some of my fundamental beliefs. i believe in a god who helps those who help themselves. i don’t believe in a genie god, a god who grants wishes and takes 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. i believe god is down with efficacy.

part of the resistance to the program, however, is coming from my eating disorder. it makes sense, when you think about it. eating disorders are big into control. my eating disorder also doesn’t want to get gone.

the important thing to remember about twelve step programs is this: they work well for some of the people some of the time, but they aren’t perfect. if they don’t work for you, it doesn’t mean you have or are a problem. for me, on top of everything else. i’m wary of committing myself wholeheartedly to a single endeavor. it feels like obsession or MLM: i’ve done both and like neither.

i want to make my own my choices. i don’t believe i’m powerless. i believe i gave up owning my power because of a variety of factors – fear, fatigue, a weak sense of self, and an overdeveloped sense of responsibility that didn’t allow me to ask for help. i’m working on it. i have no interest in choosing powerless again.

for me, recovery is learning to believe that i have control over my life and my body. it’s learning to accept my history and my choices, while letting go of the hate. it’s understanding that i made subconscious choices that i might not consider ideal, but that helped me survive.

i believe in god, but i don’t believe they’re 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 we have.

references: http://www.lifehack.org/articles/communication/recognizing-the-distinction-between-blame-and-responsibility.html

 december 9, 2017 – recovery and responsibility

By Em

I like writing. Words help me unpack my thoughts so things can start to make sense. Once I have both myself and the universe figured out, I plan to take up macrame. "Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing, and learn as you go." E. L. Doctorow

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