Lessons I Learned From 12-Step Programs

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Lessons I Learned From 12-Step Programs

By Mark Smed 06/08/17

Committing to attend 12-step meetings, staying clean and my belief in the Fellowship (with a capital F) saved my life.

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Mark Smed

Recovery in 12-step programs like Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous is real and these Fellowships (with a capital F) offer hope to men and women who are suffering from the disease of addiction.

The reason I say capital F is that 12-step programs work for me when I stick with people who commit to the full program. My experience has been wonderful, and I’m truly grateful for the life I lead today. The transition to being a healthy person has not been easy and there were many obstacles. It’s been a bit like running in a forest, so be prepared to hit the occasional tree or branch.

A lot of what I’ve learned the last year has come from a great deal of trauma. I’ve learned about my character defects and shortcomings and I’m better for the experience. The principles I learned in the beginning are more important to me now than ever before: Clean house, help others, seek God.

I never trusted many people in my life, and unlikely to start now after recent experiences. In fact, I must say that trust is largely gone. I go to meetings, listen and share what is working but my understanding is that 12-step programs are full of dysfunctional people, which includes me. What you learn and apply in your life will shape who you become, and not everything and everyone is going to steer you in a healthy direction. There are cliques everywhere and most seemed to be formed from unhealthy attachment to some aspect of character.

What you can trust is the new way of living you are learning to develop. We share our stories, our experience, strength and hope and from this we can develop healthy living tools. Those are the things I have learned to trust. Being humble with an individual can require trust and is open to abuse, but humility as a manner of living is freeing. Cleaning house involves coming accountable and I need to take responsibility for my actions within society, and not just a select group.

Narcissistic abuse was part of my experience. Narcissistic abuse begins with belittling comments and grows to contempt, ignoring behavior and can develop into adultery, sabotage, and, at extremes, physical abuse. In my case, I developed complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I already have mental health issues and being exposed to toxic behaviors and abandonment by a clique or group is difficult. The unhealthy balance of power causes stress. The stress caused by the abuse caused me to suffer from anxiety attacks, mood swings and depression. My emotional and mental health eroded over time, and other stress factors became magnified.

It’s easy to get lured in and often we are encouraged to be a part of, but the danger is we become co-abusers in a group. I did some research and found it commonly referred to as flying monkeys. Flying monkeys will stand idly by and even participate in abuse. I have done it, and you will do it. Sometimes the abuse we inflict we do not understand until much later life. There are many types of abuse, and as individuals I believe we participate in, learn about, live with and oppose abuse on a regular basis. It’s not always easy to understand relationships, and abuse comes from ignorance. Not many people sit idle when a puppy is being kicked. Walking around a homeless person in distress becomes easier with practice, and sharing a funny fat joke on Facebook becomes normal.  

Narcissists and flying monkeys will use gaslighting to deflect from accountability to abuse. Gaslighting is a technique where an individual or group will present alternate truths, misinformation and manipulate your environment. Abusers will tell you that you have a resentment, or say there are two sides to every story. Sometimes, with the best of intentions, we get called on behaviors that simply enforce the abuse by people who are largely ignorant of the facts. Gaslighting victims can suffer for years after being abused. There are many forms of control and abuse and it is healthy to question any relationship or behavior.

In my case, I thought being a part of it would help me "help others" but it is easy to get caught up in the cliques, and "cleaning house" becomes everything, and we forget to help others. I realized that chairing a local service committee was toxic, and the focus was on who we were as a group, rather than what we were trying to accomplish.

On one hand, I was proud of who I hung with, and what we were doing with our lives, but I struggled to see how the fellowship was growing or improving. It seems like our efforts were designed to feed our narcissism and detracted from our primary purpose. Helping others was no longer the purpose, and the fellowship stagnates, with the same people attending events, groups and recycling service positions.

I learned to develop a relationship with a higher power in recovery. I used to think God was trusting my gut instinct, but at that point in my life, I needed more and sought out many spiritual teachings. Eventually, I became hopeless but remained grateful for what I had. I wondered if you could be both hopeless and full of gratitude. I did a google search and found I was in despair and from that point on, things changed. Hopelessness doesn’t have to be a negative experience. Often, we cling to unrealistic ideas about hope. An article on "the benefits of hopelessness" by Pema Chodron inspired me. It saved my life at one point once I understood that I was on a precipice, alone.

Once I left 12-step service, and the cliques, I learned what healthy service looks like in pursuing other interests. Many service organizations include a wide group of individuals of different shapes, sizes, and personalities. Willing hands are in abundance and volunteers easily available. The skills I’ve learned in 12-step groups by doing the steps and learning the traditions are valuable everywhere. I’ve rebuilt my support group.

Now I attend 12-step meetings regularly, but I’m not involved in 12-step service anymore and I’m currently looking for a home group who are inclusive, supportive and committed. My recent experiences were bad in many ways, but nobody said life would be easy. In talking with several people over the last year, I must say what saved my life is a commitment to attendance of meetings, staying clean and my belief in the Fellowship (with a capital F).

Twelve-step programs work for many because addiction is a disease, it is treatable and the spiritual component is vital. Spirituality doesn’t have to include a Christian belief in God. There are many forms of spirituality and defining it isn’t part of the solution. There is phrase you hear, “Before enlightenment, haul water, chop wood. After enlightenment, haul water, chop wood.” Who are you hauling water and chopping wood for, yourself? Is your life commitment to become a better version of yourself, or can we find some balance between self-love, and compassion for others? 

Mark Smed's entire career has been working with technology and small- to medium-sized businesses. He started with his own small company in 1989, while living in Summerland. Since then, he has continued to develop his knowledge and skills. Most of his adult life has been in Summerland since he arrived in 1989. He is married and raised two daughters who have grown up and are attending university. Mark has an enormous amount of gratitude for the life he leads, and looks for any opportunity to improve himself, and his community through discussion, volunteering and work. In his spare time he likes to write creatively, hike, fish and mutilate the occasional canvas with acrylic paint.

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