I was recently invited to speak to a class of student nurses and discuss how 12-Step Recovery programs like AA can help an alcoholic or addict.

Not being in recovery myself, but having worked in this field for over 10 years now, I have a profound sense of the transformation that happens when a person gripped by the noose of addiction comes to find freedom in ‘working the steps’.

Coming to mind now is a young woman, in her late 20’s. Marleigh (not her real name, of course) grew up in a chaotic home. Her mother was very likely an undiagnosed and therefore untreated person with bipolar disorder, and a multiple substance abuser. Her father did not have the capacity to deal with the situation and was not very present in Marleigh’s life.

Marleigh spent her teen years vacillating between deep depression, self-harm, and extremely high-risk behavior. She started with alcohol and pot, dabbled with cocaine (too expensive), and ended up on pills, then heroin. Somewhere along her journey she made it into a 28-day treatment program and began to learn a little something about her self and the disease of addiction.

She moved to Richmond and became involved in a 12-Step group. She sought medical care and realized she, like her mother, met the criteria for bipolar disorder. This is called a dual diagnosis, when a person not only has a substance use disorder, but also a mental health diagnosis such as depression, anxiety in one of it’s many flavors, or bipolar or one of the schizoaffective disorders. As you might imagine, to add alcohol or other drugs on top of a diagnosis like this can make it incredibly difficult for a person to successfully navigate the complexities of a human life.

Marleigh began treatment for her bipolar disorder. Between that and the new world of support she was finding in her recovery community at AA, her experience of life is like wave after wave of unexpected—and in her mind, never deserved--miracles.

Her miracles? Friendship with sober people. A full time job with benefits. Laughter. A sponsor who she meets with regularly and can call day or night. Sleeping like a rock. Crying when she has another break through. Compassion for her mother, and a very small sliver of hope that just maybe, by example, her mother will come to see that a different way of living is possible.

I think the great gift of AA and other recovery meetings is the discovering and owning of one’s own innocence; recognizing finally and wholly that each of us is a beloved, unique creation, no matter what we do or have ever done. Such a hard message to swallow for people who have spent years covering pain with false beliefs and gathering ‘evidence’ that they are undeserving.

Richard Rohr says, “Free and un-earnable love is a humiliation for an egocentric or narcissistic personality. We have no control over it. Only a radical experience of grace can move us beyond the self-defeating and tired story line of reward and punishment, in which almost all lose. Only a deeply personal experience of unearned love can move us beyond a worldview of arbitrary requirements to a worldview of abundance and availability.”

When Marleigh came in for a visit last week, this ‘worldview of abundance’ was very apparent. “I never believed the sense of freedom I feel was possible,” she said. “It is such a sense of relief. I get to be sober. I get to use it in the service of others…I can’t wait to spend the rest of my life sober.”

I hope you’ll call our offices if you or a loved one has any doubts about your ability to experience freedom from addiction. While I’ve talked a lot about 12 Step recovery programs in this post, we recognize that a variety of different programs can be useful for different individuals, and we connect our patients with the full range of options, including: SMART Recovery, Celebrate Recovery and Refuge Recovery. And in the 12 Step world itself, there are cool options like Y12SR (Yoga 12 Step Recovery). Please choose the path that is the best fit for you.

Joan Shepherd, FNP