Step Up to the First Step of Recovery

Like the foundation of a twelve-story building, the first of the twelve steps must be solidly laid before a person can construct the floors to which he needs to climb to re-reach a level of wholeness. Paradoxically, it is the shattering scaffold on which he usually teeters before he does so, thus first requiring a step up in and of itself.

The first step of any recovery program, which states that “we admitted we were powerless over the effects of alcoholism and other family dysfunction (and) that our lives had become unmanageable,” is the initial one from which a person must ascend from his all-time emotional and spiritual low.

Threshold to this rise are usually the debilitating aspects of a person’s life that prove more precarious and painful than the plunge into the unknown-that is, that first step into a twelve-step recovery room where, sitting before a sea of strange faces, he must confront his demons and reveal the mostly buried scars and secrets of his upbringing that bred the hole in his soul and his ultimate spiral from wholeness. What irony: the single letter “w” designates his diametrically opposed states of “whole” and “hole.”

What he may not be aware of in the midst of the fellowship is that behind those unrecognizable faces is the same upbringing that caused everyone’s wounds and that the helping hand of a Higher Power, in whom he may have long ago ceased believing, will lift, dissolve, repair, and restore. The very damage and debilitation that separated him from humanity is the very commonality that creates his bond with them now.

That first step across the room’s threshold may not be easy, however. Indeed, the same anxieties he may have about attending his first meeting are assuredly the same ones which restrict him from partaking of most of everything else he would like to do in life.

Pain, like bulldozers, can move mountains into recovery venues and surrounding them are the wheels that turn them into that vital first step: unmanageability, powerlessness, surrender, brushes with the rocks at the bottom-often called a person’s “rock bottom”-and,, perhaps, ignorance of what caused his plight.

Although he may have suffered from a strange malady throughout his life that both physicians and psychologists could only circumvent, but not cure, a lack of alcoholism in the traditional sense during his upbringing may have left him clueless, poising him for a witch-hunt to uncover what may have caused his parent’s unpredictable, detrimental dual-personality behavior toward him. Like most, he may believe that alcoholism is a liquid, not a behaviorally characteristic disease, much less than that it could be passed, like a baton in a relay race, from one generation to another, even without the drip of the drink. As a race, however, it leaves one to run to his demise until that first step in a recovery room is undertaken, where he admits that he is powerless over the effects of alcoholism or family dysfunction.

“Step One requires that we admit that our family is dysfunctional and the dysfunction affects our thinking and behavior as adults,” advises the “Adult Children of Alcoholics” textbook (World Service Organization, 2006, p. 122). “We must admit that we are powerless over the effects of growing up in a dysfunctional home. Our lives are unmanageable regardless of appearances of self-sufficiency. Social standing or compulsive self-reliance does not equal recovery.”

Al-Anon’s “Courage to Change” text (Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters, Inc., 1992, p. 283) echoes this reality. “The first step prepares us for a new life, which we can achieve only by letting go of what we cannot control, and by undertaking, one day at a time, the monumental task of setting our world in order through a change in our thinking,” it states.

Certain diseases are resistant to treatment. This one, whether resultant of pure- or para-alcoholism, certainly is-not necessarily because twelve-step recovery is ineffective (with time, persistence, and dedication, it is), but because the sufferer has long been indoctrinated in the need for his isolated self-sufficiency.

There are two concepts in this term. In the first, “isolated,” the person has forcibly, albeit it subconsciously, disconnected from others in an anti-social manner because of his upbringing-bred distrust. While at times painful, his loneliness fosters stability, eliminating the re-firing of his triggers. Add alcoholic toxins to them and he becomes the center of the traumatic re-explosions in his head, vowing to resort to any tactic to avoid them.

The second concept, “self-sufficiency,” was once a necessity, but now becomes a deterrent to the implementation of the first step. As the recipient of repeated shame, blame, belittlement, and abuse, he first had to weather his internal storm and the psychological, emotional, and neurological damage that treatment inflicted. He was subtly taught not to rely on those he most needed-namely, his parents or primary caregivers-and often had to substitute for them, assuming their role by administering care and attention to younger siblings. Whatever he needed, he was forced to find within himself.

Relinquishing this self-sufficiency survival trait later in life is the equivalent of tossing a life preserver aside in the middle of the Atlantic. It goes against his grain. It was the only method he could adopt to function and endure an adverse childhood experience he never understood.

Turning his will over to a Higher Power now may be virtually impossible until he sinks to an all-time low, especially when he believes that that Higher Power abandoned him just as his parents did. Why, he may ask, would He be there for him now?

Isolation and self-sufficiency are only two of the survival traits he unknowingly adopted. Amazingly, however, these traits illustrate two functions of the brain.

Firstly, they demonstrate that the brain is so flexible and survival-oriented, that it reconfigured its circuitry during his chaotic upbringing so that he could adopt the traits themselves, such as people-pleasing, approval seeking, an overdeveloped responsibility, and virtual addictions to fear, over and above the isolation and self-sufficiency, to function and create the perception of safety in the midst of the adversity. Exposed to such conditions in the child’s home-of-origin, the brain can only assume that the world-at-large, which it considers a natural extension of it, will offer the same conditions.

Secondly, these necessary behavioral characteristics are so natural to him, that the brain’s self-preservation ability precludes him from questioning or challenging what can only be considered “normal,” ensuring that he will not tamper with the only way he knows of negotiating life. That others do not similarly think or perceive as he does is equally not questioned or considered.

The first step to the first step is emerging from denial and realizing these facts.

“Separating from our dysfunctional family is a healthy act of defiance,” the “Adult Children of Alcoholics” textbook continues (op. cit., p. 123). “By doing so, we are challenging the authority of the family lie. We are making a statement that we will no longer be loyal to denial and family dysfunctional roles.”

Step up to the first step and allow the recovery process to relieve, release, and heal until you are once again whole.

The Second Step of Adult Child Recovery

The second step of recovery-namely, “Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity”-may be a relatively short proclamation, but greater analysis of it reveals three significant concepts a person must understand and transcend before he can embrace it.

The first of these is the belief itself. Elusively definable, “believing” is acceptance, without facts or proof, that something is true or that someone exists, both of which may be beyond a person’s logic, reasoning, understanding, or detection by means of at least one of his five senses. It requires trust, faith, and confidence. Belief is that physical world-transcendent power that draws a person higher, toward his Creator, connecting his soul with the realm from which it came, causing him to realize that there is more to him than his earthly existence suggests. The Nicene Creed states, in part, “We believe in… all things visible and invisible.”

The second concept concerns God himself or a Higher Power of a person’s understanding, since his connection with Him Is usually the first bond-and hence belief-that is broken as a result of a betraying, abusive, alcoholic, and/or dysfunctional upbringing. There are numerous obstacles to his conceptualization of such an essence or force now.

Existing, first and foremost, in an imperfect, impermanent, finite physical state, in which “seeing is believing,” he may find it difficult to identify with an entity that is perfect, eternal, and infinite, all properties opposite of his human condition.

If, secondly, he was abandoned, shamed, criticized, or abused by the primary caregivers he most needed during his upbringing, why, he may ask, would a Higher Power, who equally seemed to have abandoned him during these traumatic times, be there for him now?

The stored traumas, negative emotions, and wounds he was forced to squelch and swallow, but could not express, most likely collected into a defensive wall, which now separates his soul from his Creator.

That wall, as has often been described by the “edges God out” mnemonic, is nothing short of the “ego,” which is a barrier to his Higher Power, since this false sense of self is the opposite of that Higher Power’s properties.

His inner child, furthermore, which was created during his initial trauma so that he could spiritually escape the danger he was subjected to, is so buried in its protective cocoon, even as an adult, that God is equally unable to reach him.

Not entirely able to trust others, he has most likely entered into “forced exile” or a state of isolated self-sufficiency, having learned that he could not rely on others to aid him, fulfill his needs, or even protect him, forcing him to find the resources within instead, as if he lived on an emotionally deserted island.

Now disconnected and untethered, he perpetually lives on the outside, looking in. Unable to form a link with them, he is equally unable to connect with the God of whom they are extensions.

Unable to see His face, he may subconsciously see the face of his dysfunctional or alcoholic parents instead, incapable of penetrating the fearful or distrustful emotions he associates with them.

If his parents were that destructive, he may reason, how condemning and destroying must the most powerful force in the universe be?

Finally, having lived a fear-based life as a result of his survival-mode, fight-or-flight upbringing, he may not have learned the true concept of love or been deluded into believing that “love” was abuse and pain. God is love, but how can he feel Him if he cannot feel it?

“Some initially believe we are speaking of a religious entity,” according to “Paths to Recovery: Al-Anon’s Steps, Traditions, and Concepts” (Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters, Inc., 1997, p. 18). “We are not. We are speaking of a loving, caring, nurturing Power that provides us with guidance in dealing with the effects of the disease of alcoholism.”

The second step’s third concept is restoration to sanity, which begs the question: what is its opposite or insanity?

Living in an unstable, unpredictable, chaotic, toxic, and sometimes downright dangerous environment with a pure- or para-alcoholic without means of protection or escape is certainly one definition and forces the child, who cannot understand the reason for his detrimental treatment-which he invariably assumes are justifications for his own flaws and unloveablilty-to adopt later-in-life survival traits, such as isolating and people-pleasing, as a result of the rewiring or reconfiguration his brain initiated in the midst of his danger.

Developmentally arrested and viewing the world through a distorted lens, he acts as if there had been no time passage between child- and adulthood, and he is most likely stuck somewhere between the two ends.

The definition of insanity in this case is the mind’s continued re-creation and reaction, through defenses, of the childhood home-of-origin conditions in the world-at-large as an adult, prompting the person to finish out what was never understood or resolved then.

“Since we grew up with an orientation to fear, shame, and abandonment, we seek out situations that re-create these feelings in ourselves,” according to the “Adult Children of Alcoholics” textbook (World Service Organization, 2006, p. 136.) They are, after all, all he knows.

There is another element the adult child may attempt to complete.

“The insanity we speak of in Step Two refers to our continued efforts, beyond all reason, to heal or fix our family of origin through our current relationships,” the “Adult Children of Alcoholics” textbook also advises (ibid, p. 134). “In an attempt to heal our dysfunctional family from the past, many of us set ourselves up as a Higher Power in our current relationships.”

“The basic spiritual principle introduced in Step Two suggests that there is a Power greater than we are that provides hope for sanity, whether we are living with active alcoholism or not,” according to “Paths to Recovery” (op. cit., p. 18). “Step Two reaffirms that we may be powerless, but we are not helpless, and we are not alone.”

The disease of dysfunction, in the end, is not necessarily a mental condition, but a shattered spiritual one and God or a Higher Power of a person’s understanding can integrate and restore him to wholeness through twelve-step recovery.