By, Dr. Allen Berger

What is recovery? I see the process of recovery as involving three things: first it helps break the bonds of addiction; secondly, it helps us recover our lost, true self,; and finally, it helps us grow and learn how to live life clean and sober. This third phase is what Bill W. referred to as “emotional sobriety.”

For many years, mental health professions tried to help their alcoholic patients by focusing on treating the underlying causes of their problem like a childhood trauma. Their thinking was something like this, “If I help this person resolve the underlying causes of their addiction they will be asymptomatic; they will no longer be alcoholic and, therefore, able to drink socially.” This approach failed miserably, as did other approaches that tried to teach a person to drink in moderation. Today we understand why.

Neuroscientists have validated something the founders of AA intuitively understood about alcoholism, “We are like men who have lost their legs, we will never grow new ones.” The addict’s brain changes during the process of addiction and is no longer able to regulate the use of alcohol or other drugs. This change is irreversible, once an addict always an addict.

Treating an addict without the direct treatment of their addiction doesn’t work. It didn’t work back then and it won’t work now. There is no easier way. So, how does someone who is addicted stop using or drinking? Successful treatment begins by helping a patient accept a paradox. They must surrender to win. They must admit they are powerless to find a way to arrest their addiction.

Once an alcoholic or addict realizes the futility of a frontal assault on their malady with willpower, they are thrown into an existential crisis. What I used to do doesn’t work and I do not have a viable alternative. Quite a predicament, isn’t it? This is exactly what is supposed to happen during recovery. The resolution of this predicament creates a willingness to go to any length to find a solution. Bill W. described recovery as being a spiritual experience that is conceived on a pedestal of hopelessness.

The recovery of our true self, our spiritual self is a consequence of working the 12 Steps. The 12 Steps systematically and methodically create a spiritual experience by shattering our reliance on our “false-self,” and replacing it with a reliance on a “Power greater than ourselves.”

Our false-self is our idealized self. This false self is the solution to a very basic problem. We all want to be loved and accepted. In fact we all have a basic fear or anxiety that we won’t. This basic anxiety must be resolved. To resolve it we construct an idealized image of who we need to be in order to be loved and accepted. The type of personality that we develop as a solution is shaped by an interaction of several different factors: our family dynamics, our biological constitution and our culture.

Typically personalities evolve along three different vectors: the appeal of freedom, the appeal of love, and the appeal of mastery. I will address these in more detail in a future article, for now I want to make the point that these solutions all alienate us from our true, spiritual self. We try to be something we are not. It’s no wonder that most of us are afraid we are going to be considered phonies, because we are.

The 12 Steps systematically dismantle this false solution and help us recover our lost, true, spiritual self. Another way of saying this is that in recovery we recover the ground we missed in our personal development. We are warned in the Big Book that “…until we let go of our old ideas the result will be nil.”

We need to let go of our false self in order to find our true self. We need to build life on what is real, not on misconceptions and myths. Recovery is about becoming authentic, actualizing our true self, and growing up,

The final stage of recovery is learning how to live life, clean and sober. In order to develop real maturity and balance in our relations with ourselves and others, we need to face our emotional dependency. Bill W. referred to this as an “absolute dependence.” Emotional dependency interferes with emotional sobriety. We need to grow up and learn how to take total responsibility for our lives, our spirituality, self-esteem, ignorance, misinformation, happiness, recovery, our relationships with our loved ones and what shortcomings we need to change. When we take responsibility for our need to change, other people stop trying to change us.

This is what happens in recovery. We are purged of our false self. We surrender to our powerlessness over drugs including alcohol and accept that our lives have become unmanageable. Our “false self” is shattered. Steps 1 thru 12 illuminate a spiritual way of life by the use of paradox and right action. The Steps help us integrate parts of ourselves we disowned and discover other parts of ourselves never realized. And finally they help us reunite with our loved ones and our community. We learn how to be a part of the solution rather than the problem. We live life with a new purpose, to help the alcoholic or addict who is suffering. We realize that our trouble are of our own making.

What a remarkable process. We owe a great deal to Bill W. and Dr. Bob. May they rest in peace!

About Dr. Berger:

Dr. Berger is an internationally recognized expert in family and couples therapy, and in the science of addiction and recovery. He is best known for his work on integrating modern psychotherapy with the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and for his insights into emotional sobriety. He is also recognized for his outstanding work as a psychotherapist and trainer.

He brings a highly unique background to his profession. His own personal journey in recovery started in 1971, on the beautiful island of Oahu, Hawaii. There he fell in love with recovery and with helping people find their way out of the abyss of addiction into the light of recovery. He overcame dropping out of high school, and received a doctorate in clinical psychology from UC Davis in 1987.

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