October Newsletter: Paradoxes in Recovery: Steps Six and Seven

John Steinberg, MD, FASAM
Medical Director, The Bergand Group

Continuing our ongoing thoughts and reflections on the steps of the twelve step programs, it is well worth another look at steps six and seven. In thirty years of work in this field and in thirty years of personal recovery, I have come to believe that these two steps- so often overlooked or trivialized- represent the essence of the work that must be done to fully recover.
 
The first subtle misunderstanding of steps six and seven derives from the language in the steps: they can be read as implying that if we become ready to have our character defects removed and actually ask to have our shortcomings removed, that, they will be, in fact, removed. Now ask yourself, have you ever actually seen anyone who is entirely free of character defects? Of shortcomings? Even after many decades of recovery? If the character defects remain; if the shortcomings persist, what then is actually removed? Anything?
 
Let’s start by way of an analogy, posed as a series of questions and answers between a recovering alcoholic/addict and a moderator:
M: Are you an alcoholic?
RA: Yes
M: Do you drink any alcohol?
RA: No, I am sober in recovery.
M: Do you go to AA?
RA: Yes.
M: Whom do you see there?
RA: Alcoholics.
M: Do they drink alcohol?
RA: Those in recovery, in sobriety, the vast majority at any AA meeting do not drink any alcohol at all.
M: Do you consider yourself cured?
RA: No, I’ll always be an alcoholic.
M: Let’s just make sure I got this right- You and other attendees at AA are defined by your relationship with alcohol. You are self-labeled alcoholics. Yet you do not drink any alcohol at all. Isn’t this a paradox?
RA: Yes, I guess it is.
 
And there you have it: the fundamental core paradox of recovery: alcoholics who do not drink, addicts who do not use. The fundamental character defect, the shortcoming, of alcoholism remains intact and present in all of us who recover and find sobriety. But, we gain the freedom to have the ability NOT TO ACT on this character defect. We do not drink.

Once we realize the power of this paradox, that we can retain the character defect but lose the compulsion to act on it we have an epiphany. If we can be alcoholics who do not drink and addicts who do not use, if we can achieve this fundamental paradoxical state of being, we can do the very same for any other character defect we possess. We can become thieves who do not steal, liars who tell the truth, cowards who are brave, insecure people who have self-confidence, etc. Many of these aspects are alluded to in AA’s 12 promises.
The only character defect we are asked to resolve entirely is our drinking and/or using. Resolution of all the other character defects is a matter of degree. After all, our watchword is progress not perfection. Using the first three steps to understand our identity, the next two steps to explore “the exact nature of our wrongs,” we can then begin to make as much progress as we desire, as slowly or rapidly as we like, to put our other various character defects and shortcomings into remission, to no longer be compelled to act on them, just as we did with our drinking and our using. Recovery is an ongoing adventure. It lasts as long as we do!

There is no limit to the progress we can make in recovery. It’s entirely up to us. Don’t sell yourself short. There’s a lot more to recovery than freedom from active use or drinking. Go for all the recovery you can!

John Steinberg, MD, FASAM
Medical Director, The Bergand Group