12 Steps — Identifying With the Addict

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The person is always more — infinitely more — than the addict. Thinking of the addict as your real nature, liable to erupt at any moment if you’re not careful, may be helpful as a practical measure, but is it really true?

Last week’s post on Russell Brand’s book Recovery: Freedom From Our Addictions led me to think some more about the 12-step programme and its effects on some of the clients who have come to me over the years for individual therapy while working the programme.

It’s always been clear to me that the programme works, a fact that I’ve mainly put down to the power of a community, one based on transparency, raw authenticity, and a common experience of heightened experiences (be they addictive ones, or those provided by connection with the ‘Higher Power’) and shared values. The degree of commitment required to other members is also very important — and formalised so it’s more than just a declaration of understanding and support, it is a commitment to a very solid support system with rules which are adhered to.

In my last post I was writing from the perspective of respect for the view of addiction as caused by basic selfishness. Engaging with Brand’s first person account brought this view into focus, and it has generally been a liberating factor in the experience of many people I’ve met, turning the narrative of themselves as victims of addiction around as they realise the damage they’ve done to others during the course of their addiction, and also their responsibility and power to make amends.

However, the person is always more — infinitely more — than the addict. We’re not just selfish creatures plus higher power, there’s something in between. And thinking of the addict as your real nature which is liable to erupt at any moment if you’re not careful may be very helpful as a practical measure, but is it really true? Is it even helpful to think that it is essentially true?

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The vast gulf between what is considered good and what is considered bad, and the extremes involved in both concepts, in this model of addiction, leads much human behaviour which belongs in the grey area, to be shoved onto one side or other, leaving the person feeling that something is off.

There are things which people do in response to trauma, for example, which are not necessarily ‘bad-selfish’; rather, they are necessary in order for people who have been violated to build healthy boundaries. In the haste to see your own part in bad relationships and situations, to apologise and make amends, it is quite possible to overlook your own healthy self-protection, forcing yourself to mend or continue relationships that are simply not healthy through no fault of your own. Not all bad situations in the world are caused by addicts and their behaviour: some of the bad situations are the causes of people turning to addictive behaviours in the first place. Sometimes in the hurry to take blame for everything and receive a new life, discernment goes out of the window, particularly at the start when it’s common enough for people to get high on the programme itself. At moments like this, I have often been glad that I’m there as a counsellor to hold the space for a little more ambiguity.

People without addictions are not expected to be angelic in their conduct at all times — while addicts could be forgiven for thinking that this is expected of them. There’s also a concern about when real, healthy needs and impulses should be listened to and acted on when addictions appear in areas such as eating or sex.

An addiction to alcohol or hard drugs is brutal yet simple: you need to stop using the substance, and the damage that has been done to others is usually apparent. But there are so many more complex addictions, and so many addicts have suffered trauma, which has its own laws of recovery. The 12 steps, which rely on quite a simple psychological model, were not designed to heal trauma.

This simplicity is doubtless why it is generally so reliable in producing behavioural change and change in overall wellbeing. However, no-one’s life is always so black and white, and identifying with your essential nature as something evil in need of saving, does not serve as the best guide when working out the subtler complexities of your experience post-addiction. Identifying with the addict as your essential core can lead to knee-jerk responses about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ behaviour that, while useful in early stages of recovery or for simple situations of facing temptation, are not useful in rebuilding a life based on everything — including your own traumas, good intentions and bad habits, and dealing with ‘good’ people who do not have your best interests at heart.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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