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Atwater: The 12-step program takes both humility and time

Many people, in fact millions of people, have gotten sober and stayed sober by working the steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.

The 12 steps of the program are well-known and are by now a part of modern culture. The cost of that popularity is a pop-culture understanding of what the process really is. As a wise person once said, “a little bit of information can be dangerous.”

“Bob” had read up about alcoholism and treatment. He knew he had a problem, had for years, and knew the day would be coming, maybe soon, when he would have to address it.

After a particularly awful argument with his wife and a weekend bender, “Bob” decided rehab was the answer. “Bob” thought he had it covered because he knew about the books, the steps, the symptoms and what it would take to get to step 12. He even had some ideas about how the book might be improved to make it little easier and more understandable. He did his homework, could discuss the disease concept with clarity and participated in group, mostly to help the other patients.

When it was “Bob’s” turn to tell his story in group, it was clearly “alcoholism light,” and the feedback he got was that he was arrogant and in denial. Deeply offended, “Bob” assured himself he knew the steps, could recite them, had read the book and knew he was an alcoholic. What more could there be? “Bob” was discharged at the end of his stay with a “guarded” prognosis, which he could not understand.

It took three months for “Bob” to find out information and knowledge was not enough to keep him sober. Even though he went to AA, had a sponsor and did the homework, he never changed the attitude that he was smarter than the disease.

His relapse was unexpected to him but not to others who knew him, and it was both humiliating and consequential. “Bob” was the impaired driver of a car that hit and severely injured a pedestrian.

So here’s the parts that “Bob” didn’t get. It’s one thing to read and understand a book and another to ingest the principles of that book and apply them to life’s ups and downs. “Bob” thought knowing was enough. In fact, “Bob” was arrogant enough to think that knowing was all there was. He didn’t know what he didn’t know and wasn’t humble enough to recognize that.

The success of sobriety is the gradual movement toward applying the principles under all circumstances and then applying the principles under all circumstances with joy, grace and gratitude.

It’s not a 12-day or 12-week or 12-month program, but a 12-step program, and recovering people are not without their personal and human struggles. It’s really about the steady, regular process toward changing attitudes and lifestyle. That takes both humility and time.

• Rick Atwater is a licensed clinical professional counselor.

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