In 1986 I broke a cardinal rule. I walked into my 12-step group and said, I am feeling good and really happy. I’m excited to have just gotten a book contract. I added that while I wasn’t about to leave the group immediately, I was feeling that there was an end in site. You could have heard a feather fly. Eventually someone said I sounded cocky—an interesting choice of words. Others voiced a guarded approval or care for me, but there was no feeling of genuine celebration. The question that had plagued me from childhood as a female in this culture had come to roost in my 12-step meeting. Namely, why can’t I be powerful and happy and still be supported and loved? Why is it suspect to say I feel good and excited about the prospect of writing a book? What I wanted with all my heart was a group where we could bond in joy, creativity, and honoring our strengths. That was the impetus to create the 16- step empowerment model.
Empowerment is based on love, not fear. While fear may jump start people into recovery, only love heals. An empowerment approach encourages people to break through limitations, enjoy their talents and strengths, use their rational mind as an ally in healing from addiction and bond in power and joy. Developing one’s passions, finding purpose and strength, and becoming involved in social change are seen as antidotes to addiction. And while it is crucial to acknowledge the power of addiction–“This addiction is killing me or ruining my life”–we need not permanently reduce the miracle of human existence to limiting labels such as “addict,” or “codependent.”
Addiction as a survival mechanism. In an empowerment model, addiction is not seen as the enemy, rather as a survival mechanism that was often triggered in childhood. Neglected? Eat for comfort or become invisible. Abused or battered? Use drugs, alcohol, anything to numb the pain. Want to feel important? Deal drugs, seduce someone. Afraid you can’t survive without a partner? Hide your power and acquiesce to dull or repulsive sex. The task of healing from addiction is to validate the positive survival goals of comfort, pleasure, love and power, then find non-addictive ways to meet those needs.
Internalized Oppression — The wound within
In the empowerment model I put together for my book, Many Roads, One Journey: Moving Beyond the Twelve Steps I explore the ways cultural stereotypes and internalized oppression underlie many addictions. To explain internalized oppression: We live in a system of variable worth based on gender, color, class, ethnic background and sexual preference. As a form of social control to perpetuate these inequalities, limiting negative stereotypes are assigned to each group, and people are taught to absorb these damaging self- definitions. Punishment is swift if one departs from their assigned role. The first level is verbal: for example, a woman who asserts her power is called a bitch, while a sensitive, emotional man is labeled a wimp or a queer. If verbal methods of control don’t work, economic deprivation, violence, loss of jobs, lack of access to education, and various forms of harassment are used. It is often the resulting pain, alienation, poverty, and self hatred that fuels addiction. Being lost in an addiction sometimes feels preferable to feeling unloved, rejected or without hope.
Empowerment is about naming and recognizing negative images one has internalized, then casting them out and moving toward one’s authentic self and learning positive skills for living. This can be frightening because it means questioning, challenging and limiting cultural stereotypes of what it means to be a man or a woman and then taking charge of one’s life. It can feel like committing a crime against the established order–be it parents, church or the culture.
Find Your Voice, Learn from Your Experience
Empowerment encourages individuals to develop their own internal belief system based on their perceptions and experiences. It is not a path of quick fixes, pat statements, and simple solutions, rather a process that involves change and constant re-evaluation of one’s beliefs as we experience new situations and hear other people recount their journeys.
In designing an empowerment model for overcoming addiction I suggest the using the terms un-covery and dis-covery (terms coined by Mary Daly in the 70’s). Re-covery implies covering something over. To become empowered we need to un-cover the lies of the stereotypes inflicted upon us by our patriarchal system and then dis-cover their authentic selves.
Many people, Many Cultures, Many Needs
The underlying pulse of Many Roads One Journey, Moving Beyond The Twelve Steps evolved as I traveled around the country listening to Native Americans, rural Appalachian women, feminists, African Americans, incarcerated women, members of an ashram, working class groups, privileged white males, middle class women, lesbians and gay men tell their stories. If there is anything I learned a thousand times it is that people develop addictions for many reasons, and they heal from addiction in countless ways. The most successful programs for people were ones that were sensitive to individual needs and understood cultural conditioning. The program for African Americans talked about the effects of descending from people brought to this country as slaves; Native American groups incorporated rituals reflecting their indigenous spirituality; gay and lesbian people talked about living in a world with homophobia; women’s programs talked about female oppression, sexual abuse and the need to stay out of violent or dependent relationships.
As my heart felt the richness of theses stories, I imagined many groups of diverse people gathering together, sitting in a circle and sharing their stories. This image led me to write an introduction for group meetings that affirms all people’s ways. I call it “Many Roads, One Journey: We Gather Together”
Here are excerpts from “We gather together,” and the 16 steps for Discovery and Empowerment as they appear in Many Roads, One Journey. I encourage you to use them, change them and find the words that sing in your own heart. Love and healing are sacred, not the words that help you get there.
WE GATHER TOGETHER
Our purpose in coming together is to support and encourage each other in moving beyond addiction, dependency and internalized oppression. The only requirement for membership is a desire to maintain sobriety as we each define it.
We come together from many backgrounds and we can learn from each other’s ways and experiences. None of us has the answers for another person. We do not impose our beliefs on others or expect others to tell us the way. We have faith that through determination, sharing our histories of discovery and healing, supporting each other, and understanding the impact of our social system on us, we can each discover our personal path toward healing and sobriety.
Growing and becoming strong is a balance between self-acceptance and a firm commitment to sobriety. We overcome addiction and internalized oppression because we want to honor and enjoy the life we have been given and be of service to others. This process is not about moral worth. We are all sacred children of Creation this moment. These steps for discovery and empowerment are designed to create a healthy, aware Self which, over time, will help crowd out compulsive, addictive or dependent behavior. We believe that through bonding with others, speaking genuinely from our hearts, forgiving ourselves and others, finding purpose, helping create social change, and accepting the imperfections of life, we will find a sense of fulfillment that we have sought to fill through our addictive and dependent behavior.
The journey is sometimes difficult, sometimes smooth. This is natural. As we let go of our addictions and empower ourselves, some of us may use other resources to help us grow. We may also be faced with difficult circumstances in our lives that need advocacy and assistance. We support each other as we explore all avenues of personal empowerment and growth.
Several things you may want to remember as you use these steps:
- There is no perfect path, only the path we choose one day at a time.
- While we are aware of the powerful nature of addiction, our collective will and commitment to sobriety and growth is even more powerful.
- Change takes time and is made of many small steps.
- Many people have healed from addiction and internalized oppression.