The general consensus is that the first 12-step program for alcoholics and addicts began around 1935. Back then, there wasn't much in the way of medical information about alcoholism or addictive-compulsive behavior; many of us who were afflicted with the disease of alcoholism were locked away or warehoused in mental institutions. We'd be hospitalized every time we relapsed with our loved ones standing close watch over our deteriorating health and mental faculties and, wracked with the horror of detox, many of us resorted to screaming in agony or literally throwing furniture in rage because we were being kept away from the thing we valued most in the world: our alcohol and our drugs.
Now, legend has it that, once a hospital discovered their patient was suffering from alcoholism, they would opt to turn the patient away unless someone was willing to pay for the damages that might be caused by a patient fraught with the insanity of detox. We would literally need to have financial sponsors who would cover these expenses. 12-step programs today still have these men and women around, but instead of covering expenses, they provide guidance and support as new members find their way through the treacherous waters of early recovery.
And, believe me, these waters are horrendous to navigate.
The main issue is that many alcoholics and addicts have been medicating their feelings for years. It doesn't matter what their poison is -- alcohol, marijuana, heroin, cocaine . . . they've used them all to medicate their feelings on a daily basis (and they start at an early age, usually 12-17). Now, what this means is that the addict eventually has to "hit bottom" because the Body (when we talk about the healthy processing of feelings) can't handle it. The body breaks down -- the individual breaks down -- and emotional instability ensues because they've never learned how to manage their feelings in a healthy way. And that's interesting because, what we're dealing with in treatment centers today are people checking in and everyone else thinking, "Well, they're coming off of the drink and drug, so they should be Fine now!", but, in reality, they're emotional basket cases.
Treatment centers exist to contain and help the identified patient deal with feelings that are out of control because they are no longer medicating them. You need to think outside the box for a minute and look at what's really happening here. You need to think of the treatment center as if it were an Emotional Emergency Room.
Emergency Rooms in Hospitals are designed to help people with physical ailments. They set up a triage system to assist the patient in surviving physical trauma. Treatment centers, on the other hand, are all about helping people identify and regulate emotional ailments and emotional trauma. Because, now that we've taken the drink and the drug away, the patient has no coping mechanisms for all of these feelings which are, suddenly, so overwhelming. And, so, as a result, you'll have people in treatment centers who are screaming or crying . . . being a victim . . . experiencing seemingly uncontrollable anger and emotions that are all over the chart -- all while learning how to survive without their "medication".
With treatment centers, their job is to help the patient contain their feelings -- help them process them; help them learn how to now manage them without the substances they've come to depend upon -- and then manage them in a healthy way, which is what we call Emotional Sobriety.
Now, with Emotional Sobriety, you will have two very extreme groups: You'll have the ones who come into treatment who are very quiet (who isolate, who don't really communicate much), who, essentially, fly under the radar. These people, when you ask them how they're doing, will tell you that everything's okay, everything's fine.
But the minute they leave treatment, they're drunk or loaded.
These are your icebergs. And, in order to understand this, you need to visualize the TITANIC coasting along without a care in the world until it hits the iceberg. But has it really hit the iceberg? No, it has not. What it hit was the TIP of the Iceberg -- the exposed part that is visible above the surface of the water. Everyone learns in grade school that, in the dark below, there is actually a ginormous mass of ice that isn't visible to the naked eye. Our first grouping of patients is like this. They present themselves as "okay" and "fine" because they haven't learned to communicate what is going on below the surface with their feelings. And this is where the treatment center professional's real work begins, because they have to help the patient identify the feelings they're experiencing and then teach them how to verbalize them (because the only thing feelings need you to do is express them).
The second group are the ones who -- again, when you take away the drink and the drug -- are raging and crying. They spend most of their day blaming others or misplacing all of their anger on others. THESE people need to learn how to control their feelings because they have no impulse control (the drink and the drug were what they used to control their impulses). Without the substances they've been abusing, they have no impulse control and they wind up "emotionally throwing up" on the people around them.
And it's the job of the professionals to now create some healthy boundaries for the individual, to contain their feelings, and to teach them how to express their feelings in an appropriate manner or even an appropriate setting, instead of over dinner (or on a first date!).
If you can express your feelings and get them out of your body and let them go, you've now become able to manage your feelings in a healthy manner. Even I had to learn these very basic precepts in the beginning. I've got 28 years clean and sober, but my truth is that I grew up in a very dysfunctional family where I never learned about feelings, and here I was checking into a treatment center to get off of drugs and alcohol and discovering that it wasn't just about the abstinence; it was about me learning who I really am as a man. It was about me becoming comfortable in my own skin and learning how to process how I felt in a healthy way that eventually led to my having a stable lifestyle, which has led to my having an intimate relationship with my wife for the past 15 years while walking through the struggles of fatherhood and earning a living. These are great concepts, but, I've got to tell you, it takes a lot of emotional work to stay married and have kids – you need to be able to express frustration, hurt, anger . . . and you need to be able to do it in a healthy way that isn't just you puking (emotionally) on your partner or your friends every time you have a feeling.
Emotional recovery is really what we do as therapists. Because if you don't engage in emotional recovery, you will continually relapse on drugs and alcohol.
Emotional recovery is the cornerstone of mental health. It's a key component in stabilizing the newly clean or newly sober individual that helps them be in touch with their authentic self on a daily basis while we walk them into a better life, because it's the only vehicle toward peace and understanding that we know. And, when all else fails -- if you're thinking that the other painful, chaotic life is more attractive than the one you're trying to build in recovery -- it behooves you to sit for a minute and remind yourself that, in our eyes, what you are doing is heroic, which makes you the star of your own movie.
And I've yet to see a movie where the hero gives up and goes back to the way they were. Instead, we find men and women who are out there fighting the battles and moving the stones. Because these are the kinds of people we really are, when push comes to shove. And this is the community of which you are a part of.
So, to thine own self be true, my friend; To thine own self be true.