On the Bus: Working the Twelve Steps
The power of the twelve steps for a successful recovery.
Posted Nov 19, 2018
James B. is a coauthor of my book The Craving Brain: Science, Spirituality, and the Road to Recovery. The following is a beautiful description of a profound moment in the healing process from his addiction:
A mix of sleet and snow was falling as I climbed into the city bus and took my seat. The long walk from my house to the bus stop had left me feeling cold and wet, and I was glad to finally be inside. Turning up the music on my earphones, I pulled my journal from my backpack and settled in to do some Twelve Step work.
It had been eighteen months since my last drink or hit of cocaine. My cravings had gradually tapered off, and now they were coming weeks and even months apart. Strangely, my taste for alcohol had all but disappeared, and even the smell of it nauseated me.
My weight had ballooned in early recovery because I replaced alcohol and cocaine with sugar and carbohydrates. Now I was working out three or four times a week. Thanks to help from a nutritionist, I was also eating better. My brain was still not working as quickly as it once had, but the mental rigor of working the Twelve Steps and living like a responsible adult was helping me think more clearly. I finally had health insurance and had begun to fix my teeth.
With each forward step, I was moving further from the intense self-absorption of early recovery. My parents and I were spending time together, and although they still didn’t trust me, we were beginning the journey toward mutual forgiveness. I had a few new friends in my life, and I was dating a woman who worked at my gym.
The restaurant where I worked had promoted me to assistant manager, and I had my old job back at the radio station that had fired me for missing an interview—because I was too high to show up for work. After receiving my letter of apology, the owner had talked to his staff, asking for their buy-in to offer me a second chance. He would only bring me back, he told them, with their unanimous consent. When they agreed, I was rehired under a zero-tolerance policy—one screw up and I was gone.
Working under probation was stressful, but after a period of proving myself, I was given the opportunity to co-host a sports talk show. During football season, my regular weekly guest was a football coach whose interview I had blown off on a morning when I couldn’t stop using cocaine. Thanks to the forgiveness that the station owner and my coworkers had shown me, everything I had lost professionally had come back to me—and then some.
Now I stared out the bus window at a snowy landscape and prayed that I would get to work on time. Even in the best of weather, the trip to the radio station was complicated, because I was no longer driving. When an old-timer in my NA home group had heard me talking to some new members about honesty, he had asked me to consider the dishonesty of driving on a suspended license. After thinking about it for more than a month, I had sold my car and quit driving. Public transportation in my town was hit or miss, and it took me hours each day to walk to the bus station and get back and forth to work.
On the plus side, riding the bus gave me an island of enforced solitude for reading and doing my Twelve Step work. The time for reflection had become more and more important to me. My developmental task was to grow up and clean up the mess I had made—while I was still a very immature adult. It seemed like asking a badly wounded person to exhibit superpowers, and working the Twelve Steps had become my roadmap for all the work I had to do, both in my inner life and in the outside world.
With each step that I worked, I matured a little more. In Step One I began to develop some humility. In Step Two I saw the true insanity of my behavior and began to believe that there was something in the universe—loving, caring, and greater than myself—that could restore me to sanity.
“The point is that you’ve been your own god forever, and it’s not working,” my sponsor had told me. “We’re not telling you to get this god or that god, but you need a Higher Power, and it can’t be you.”
Step Three, turning my thoughts and my actions over to my Higher Power, was more difficult because of my deep-seated fear of giving up control. My breakthrough came when a member of my home group pointed out that I had already lost control by giving my power over for years to something greater than myself—alcohol and cocaine. “What can it hurt to trust that a power greater than yourself can keep you clean?”
As day by day I was able to stay sober, my faith grew that something bigger than me really could restore my sanity. It seemed like a divine spirit was filling the void inside of me. This sense of God’s presence gave me the courage to begin Step Four, to take a fearless and moral inventory of my character assets and liabilities.
By following my sponsor’s advice—don’t be either too hard or too easy on yourself—I was able to face the destruction that I had caused, in my own life and the lives of others. I identified the fears and resentments that, if left to run their course, would leave me a crippled and bitter person. Step Four took almost an entire year because I had buried so much. The deeper I went, the more I saw that needed changing.
With Step Five I owned up to God and my sponsor the exact nature of the wrong things I had done. It was hard, painstaking work, but the result was a start at getting free from shame and guilt. In Step Six, I surrendered my “that’s just the way I am” excuse and became open to the possibility of deep character change. The negative traits that I had viewed as permanent parts of my personality began to look like unnecessary baggage.
Now, with Step Seven, I was beginning the process of humbly asking God to remove my shortcomings. To help me understand the process, someone had shared with me a story:
A child saw a sculptor working and asked what he was making. “A lion,” the sculptor answered.
“It doesn’t look like one,” the child said. “How will you make the stone look like a lion?”
“By chipping away everything that is not the lion,” the sculptor replied.
I felt like a lion in the making, and just like riding the bus, it was all slow going. In the process, I was beginning to see that the journey itself was my destination. For years I had been my own worst enemy, cutting myself off from all the goodness and love in the universe. Now, in the act of reflecting and writing about each step, I could feel my heart opening up to other people and my brain healing itself.
As the bus pulled up to its stop, I walked out into the falling snow with a sense of awe and gratitude. There was still a second bus to catch, and with the bad weather, it was likely to be a long wait in the cold. But step by step, things were getting better. I was recovering the lost dreams of my childhood and becoming the loving and disciplined person that I had been created to be. My life was nowhere near a finished product, but it was no time to give up. There was more goodness in store.