Recovery’s Best Kept Secret: God

Recovery’s Best Kept Secret: God

If you live in Branson for any length of time, at some point a tourist may ask about the city’s best kept secret.  It might happen at a local retail store or restaurant, but more likely it will take place at the filling station.  The typical encounter begins when you spy from the corner of your eye a car with out-of-state plates rolling up to the gas pump next to you.  The occupant emerges and you both say hello.  Pleasantries are exchanged about the weather or recent big game.  You ask when they got here and how long they plan to stay, and the topic of conversation naturally steers to Branson’s best restaurants and highlights.  You hear the familiar questions: “What’s the best show?” “Where’s the best place to eat?” and of course “What’s Branson’s best kept secret?” 

These are common questions for travel destinations, for obvious reasons.  If we are traveling, once we arrive to our destination, we don’t want to miss out on what’s important.  After all, we might not be back for a long time, or ever again.  These aren’t trivial questions either even though some might mistake them so.  Moreover, any Bransoner worth their salt has a ready answer to them.  Our intuition tells us the tourist is looking for something grand, even compelling.  They want something real and extraordinary.  After all, by definition a best kept secret is some significant fact that isn’t appreciated by everybody.  The tourist is asking because we live here.  They trust our opinion.  If anybody knows, it’s us.  We at CORE who live in Branson have been asked these very questions by tourists.

CORE is about recovery from substance abuse.  That’s what we do.  It weighs on our minds and our hearts practically every hour of every day.  Our program is twenty-five years old.  We’ve helped thousands of people.  If anybody should know about recovery issues, it’s us.  Not surprisingly, in a variety of contexts, people often ask us the same sorts of questions that tourists ask – except – instead of asking about the best show, they ask about recovery from drugs and alcohol.  They might be asking for themselves, or a friend or relative.  It may be at one of our centers or at a social or business event.  But we naturally anticipate these familiar questions like “What’s the key to recovery?” “How do I quit alcohol?”  “What’s the secret to getting off pills?”  

As it turns out, there indeed is a “best kept secret” about recovery, and we are happy to share it.  In today’s $42 billion per year addiction industry, it has been often glossed over, warped, and sometimes denied for a variety of political, economic, and social reasons that really have nothing to do with recovery itself.  The best kept secret about recovery, to which every suffering addict and alcoholic should take heed, is God.

Too often we hear of certain 12 Step programs, run by the very individuals who should be guardians of the Big Book, claiming that God is optional.  Yet even a cursory review of the book reveals the opposite.  It was written by Bill Wilson, who was convinced of the “necessity of belief in and dependence upon God.1  

Bill himself was first approached by an alcoholic friend who previously had been pronounced incurable.  “His human will had failed,” Bill writes, but “my friend sat before me, and he made the pointblank declaration that God had done for him what he could not do for himself.2  His friend seemingly had been raised from the dead.  Bill took note because he personally knew this man.  He saw the hopeless extent of his friend’s condition and knew the power to recover could not have originated within him.3  Moreover, Bill also wrote about his most desperate moment, when he finally followed his friend’s wise advice:

I humbly offered myself to God, as I then I understood Him, to do with me as He would. I placed myself unreservedly under His care and direction.4

He further adds, “I have not had a drink since” to punctuate the significance of the event.

The central theme of the Big Book’s 12 Steps, six of which reference God, is summarized in a single prefacing sentence, “There is One who has all power–that One is God.  May you find Him now!5  

The Big Book itself flatly says that God is what it “is about.6  “Its main object is to enable you to find a Power greater that yourself which will solve your problem.  That means . . . that we are going to talk about God.7  And indeed, one of its most pertinent ideas is that “probably no human power could have relieved our alcoholism,” but that “God could and would if he were sought.8  

The foregoing seems clear enough to us, but people wanting to minimize God’s role in recovery point to Big Book phrases such as “Higher Power”9 and “Power greater than ourselves.”10  These don’t ignore God at all.  They simply acknowledge the fact that if we ask a hundred people who God is, we invariably get a hundred different answers.  The 12 Steps don’t try to force anybody’s particular conception of God on members.  AA has never been affiliated with any organized religion or tried to enforce rigid conceptions about God upon its members.  The Big Book is careful to note that our relationship is properly with God as we – not somebody else – understand Him.  

Unfortunately, some have taken these “higher power” references to the extreme and run with them causing all sorts of mischief.  They even tell addicts and alcoholics who are new to recovery that one’s higher power can be virtually anything – a door knob, the group, or even a ham sandwich.  Even some of the general service’s approved literature published after the Big Book appears to acquiesce to some of these ideas. 

We can’t take them seriously.  Who really believes that a ham sandwich is the Spirit of the Universe who keeps them clean and sober?11  Who wants to turn their will and their life over to the care of a doorknob?12  Who seeks to improve conscious contact with their home group by praying to it?13  There are inherent limitations on how far the idea of a higher power can be stretched and still do the 12 Steps.  There’s really no justification for warping it any further than to what the Big Book plainly refers: God as we understand him.14 

Our intent here is to be perfectly honest with the reader. Our clients come to us for real answers and help.  They’ve been to therapists, counselors and support groups before.  They’ve tried things like cognitive behavioral therapy, prescription drugs, physical exercise, finding new social groups, and many other recovery strategies offered by America’s billion dollar industry.  If any of these things had been sufficient to overcome their addiction and alcoholism, they would have recovered long before finding us.  Notwithstanding, they come to us because they are beyond human aid, powerless.  Their options are whittled down to one.  They are “100% hopeless, apart from divine help.15

It is for addicts and alcoholics that the value of the 12 Steps really shines.  This is as true today as it was eighty-years ago when the Big Book was first published.  We have seen this proven over and over again.  God never fails.

The Big Book’s promises always materialize for people who work the program.  We know freedom, happiness, and peace.  Feelings of uselessness and self-pity disappear.  We lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in others. Self-seeking slips away. We no longer regret the past but rather see how our experience can benefit others.  Our whole attitude and outlook upon life changes, too.  Fear of people and of economic insecurity leave us.  We intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us. 

In short, we realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.16  This is the miracle of the 12 Steps.  Our recovery comes from God.

A Conversation with Heidi Butler

A Conversation With Heidi Butler

Heidi Butler’s testimony is so moving that we cannot help but recognize her transformation as a miracle of God.  She exudes life, love, and laughter, and she is a joy to all who have the pleasure of meeting her.  

Heidi talked to us at the Branson Re-Store, which she manages for CORE.  She also was instrumental last December in putting together our holiday give-away at the Hollister School District.  “My heart was all there,” she says, thinking of her own humble beginnings.  As a child she had been blessed by the kindness of others: 

It was such a healing thing for me to be part of something that I had been on the receiving end before.  I was the kid that the churches brought gifts to.  So to be able to be part of this, where parents came in and picked out things their kids wanted and took them home and wrapped them, it was healing.  It was so rewarding for me to be able to be part of that.

Heidi’s done a marvelous job with the thrift store too.  The decor surrounding us is eclectic, with mixed patterns and textures that resist traditional sensibilities.  Yet the arrangements unmistakably reflect her personality, suggesting home and love.  The unique collection of items is a fitting backdrop for her story, which she began with memories of a bohemian father who could never manage to stay in one place for very long.

I lived in a school bus when living in one wasn’t ‘cool.’  Who does that?  Who lives in the woods in deer cabins when you don’t even know who owns them?  My father.  With four children.  We’d make homes wherever we were.”  

Heidi’s alcoholic mother abandoned the family when Heidi was in the second grade, essentially leaving her in charge.  “I’ve been a mother ever since,” she says.  So Heidi cooked and cleaned, dragging a chair to the kitchen counter to do kitchen work and dishes.  She remembers making spaghetti with barbeque sauce once because that’s all the family had to eat.  

Although the family was poor, Heidi took special interest in making good appearances.  In particular, she made up her mind that nobody would make fun of them because of the way they looked.  “I got up early and fixed [my sisters’] hair.  I always was scrounging around for clothes.  We always looked good.”  Local churches stepped in from time to time, like on holidays, to help.  But for the most part the family was on its own.  In the ninth grade Heidi took a job to help them make ends meet – all in addition to school and family responsibilities.

But for an accident of circumstances, Heidi may never have been introduced to drugs.  After high school, she worked for a telephone company in Arkansas and soon enough became a telecommunications engineer.  She married and had two children.  By the time she turned thirty-something, Heidi was living the life of a typical, suburban soccer mom, a long way off from her common roots.  She never cared for alcohol, and she knew nothing about illicit substances.  Unfortunately, her world was about to be turned upside-down.

Her second pregnancy had complications, resulting in multiple surgeries.  Heidi was prescribed pain pills.  Within a short time she was hooked.  “One day I realized it had been six weeks and thought, I don’t need these.  Then the next day I felt really bad.”  Her first thought was, “I’m not healed,” but a trip to the doctor revealed something else.     

Her physician advised her to go cold-turkey and get off the medication.  It was easier said than done.  “I tried it, and that did not work.  It was amazing,” she said.  Then the obsession kicked in. “I lay there in bed thinking, I can’t do this, I’ve got to have something.  Then I remembered, my friend just had surgery, I bet she has some.” 

What followed was a five-year nightmare in search of pills.  Driven by obsession, Heidi applied all her instincts in pursuit of her addiction, “a whole nasty web of deception, lies, and manipulation.”  Heidi eventually entered a thirty-day treatment program.  Upon completing it she was confronted with two, new crises.  Her husband wanted a divorce, and her employer was shipping her job off to India.  

At this point Heidi clearly was headed for disaster, although she did not realize it at the time.  She left for Nebraska for a fresh start but became disillusioned, homesick, and desperately missing her children.  A chance meeting on Facebook with an old highschool sweetheart seemed to offer hope.  She returned home to Arkansas, and they married shortly thereafter.  The marriage was not the answer.  

The new spouse had a drinking problem.  He also used methamphetamines, which soon became a problem for Heidi.  Within two months Heidi was full blown into an addiction to meth.  Her life was spiraling out of control.  

Significantly, Heidi was almost completely isolated by this time.  She had nobody to talk to about the “thoughts that went on in my mind when I put drugs into my body,” and those thoughts were dark.  Her relationship with her husband became more toxic as he became more abusive.  She wasn’t working, had no social contacts, and had been cut off from her children.  With her entire world imploding, Heidi decided that it would be best for everybody if she just ended it all.  It somehow sounded polite to her, and she didn’t know what else to do.  Her only guidance was her own meth-corrupted thinking:  

I didn’t want my kids when asked, how’s your mom doing, to have to make up some story, like she’s off working somewhere or whatever.  It would be better off them being young saying, my mom died.  I knew I was going to be locked up.  Instead of them saying she was in a mental ward, they could just say, she died.”  

There was an old shotgun in the house.  Enough was enough.  With calm resolve, she picked up the loaded gun and walked out onto the patio so as not to make a mess.  Pointing it at her face, she pulled the trigger.  Click.

In that instant things looked undeniably bleak for her. But, as she came to understand later, Heidi Butler has an awesome God.  He’s always on time, never late.  God arrived for her in the moment she hit rock bottom, the only point she could be reached – when inside of herself she had given up and abandoned reliance upon herself and upon all things human.  

The gun didn’t fire, either.  Overwrought, she fled her home and ended up in Hollister.  Finding a church, Heidi sat in the back of the sanctuary sobbing.  “I know it was God who pushed me,” she says.  A woman seeing her distress went to her: 

She came in the back and handed me a napkin and said, you look like you could use a hug. That’s the first hug I’d had in – I can’t tell you.  I cried like a baby.  So she took me out to the lobby and said, I know you have a story.  I poured it out to her, I didn’t leave anything out.”  

Even better, the woman had a helpful idea for what Heidi should do.  As the two had lunch together later, she told Heidi there was a place for her to go that was close, right down the road.  It was a year-long addiction recovery program called CORE.

At CORE Heidi blossomed into the woman of God she was meant to be.  She arrived to find like-minded people with whom she had a connection, who had been there before.  She was impressed by the simple gestures of kindness shown upon her arrival, such as her house manager offering her a meal.  “I’ll never forget that, ever,” she says.  Heidi initially made a personal commitment to stay for four months, which enabled her “to start doing the things they told me to do.”  That entailed doing the Twelve Steps, which saved her life.  When the four months were up, she says, “I couldn’t believe the changes.  And I wasn’t ready to leave.”  

Heidi discovered that the Steps weren’t simply about healing from addiction but were a program for life.  She found balance and learned how to take care of herself.  She also reached out to her children, and she became an important part of their lives again.  She grew in her love for the Lord and eventually was asked to become a house manager.  Heidi ended up running three separate houses, and she acted as a mentor in CORE’s EDGE program for young adults.  And then one day CORE’s Program Director Kevin Hunt called with a job proposal:

He said, would you be interested in working at the [Branson] thrift store?  I was like, wow, I’ve never done anything like that before.  I said yes.  I just knew it was the right thing to do.  I started working for CORE in August 2019.

Still later, Heidi began running the Branson store when CORE opened our new Hollister location.  She could have gone back to her old career, but she decided to stay here.  “I’m here because I’m happy,” she smiles, “I have joy in my life.  It’s fulfilling and important.  I get to mentor these women and give back what was given to me.  I always want to give back to the newcomer who comes in.  I’m able to give back, and still have contact with clients.”  

Perhaps best of all, Heidi’s children now live locally because their father relocated to Hollister.  “If they had stayed in Arkansas, I don’t know what God’s plan would have been for me.  But I was here, right where I needed to be.”  So by happy circumstance, her children are now here too, and she is able to be with them all the time.  She concludes, “God just had his hand in all this – my story.

CORE and Hollister School District’s Holiday Store Spreads Christmas Cheer

CORE and Hollister School District’s Holiday Store Spreads Christmas Cheer

In December CORE and Hollister School District shared the joy of Christmas by holding a holiday giveaway for families in need.  Hundreds of people had the opportunity to shop – for no charge – in a “Holiday Store” specially created at the school district and stocked with thousands of retail goods supplied by CORE.  The week-long event was an unmatched success.  Participants described their experiences with glowing superlatives.  The Holiday Store was the brainchild of CORE’s CEO Cary McKee.

The driving force of innovation is need.  In mid-October McKee found himself looking out the window of his office at CORE’s headquarters pondering a problem created by the pandemic.  It wasn’t related to money or clients – McKee already had made moves earlier in the year that assured the welfare of both program and clients.  Rather, McKee had a warehouse full of retail goods waiting to be distributed to people in need.  The year had been full of trauma and turmoil for the community, and many were becoming desperate.  As related by McKee, “So much hope has been robbed from us this year.  Families may struggle with being able to afford gifts for their children.  Because of the pandemic, through no fault of their own, now they’re struggling to make ends meet let alone worry about gifts.  What can we do to bless them and bring them a little bit of hope?”  He knew that they could be greatly helped by the items in CORE’s warehouse, but the pandemic severely limited the methods for getting them into the proper hands.

Throughout the year CORE had been making pickups of donated items from area retailers under an agreement with Good360.  They included items of all types – automotive, bed and bath, clothing, electronics, hardware, home appliance and furnishings, kitchen, lawn and garden, living room, and toys – nearly anything one might find at a big box retailer.  McKee originally intended for periodic giveaways to happen throughout the year, but the pandemic put a stop to his plans.  Bans on public gatherings and social distancing made such events impossible.  McKee had been mulling over ideas, but nothing appeared ideal.  He then asked himself, “What programs are already in place where we can maximize our giving to the community?”  The question quickly led to Hollister School District.

McKee’s own children attended the school district, and he knew that the district held an annual holiday event whereby families were “adopted” and blessed with Christmas presents.  The district would surely have identified hundreds of people who would benefit from what CORE already had in stock.  McKee thus envisioned a much larger, perhaps even improbable, event whereby the resources of CORE and the Hollister School District would combine synergistically.  The plan was huge, but families in need would be blessed beyond anybody’s imagination if they could pull it off.  With this in mind he called Superintendent Dr. Brian Wilson, and scheduled a meeting at CORE’s warehouse.

As the two toured the facility going room to room, Dr. Wilson saw a genuine opportunity.  He’d heard people come up with ideas over the years and learned to moderate his expectations.  But what he saw at CORE’s facility was the real thing.  Commenting on his visit, Dr. Wilson said, “I saw that, and I was moved.  I saw what it could do for our families and our community.  I’ve known Cary for many years and we’ve partnered on things before, but this was just overwhelming.”  A new partnership was made, and the two principals called in their lieutenants to help make it happen.

On CORE’s side, McKee called upon Gary Osborn, whom he describes as a mastermind in logistics, to coordinate the monumental task of moving the inventory and reorganizing it at the school district.  Dozens of CORE staff and volunteers would be enlisted to accomplish this over a period of weeks using CORE’s vehicles.  Of their contribution, volunteer Bret Taylor, who also is a Hollister police officer regularly assigned to the school district, said, “They were phenomenal.  They came over here and worked, stacking and organizing, making sure things were clean and that everything was presentable.  It looked like a store.  We helped and directed, but it was definitely CORE.

For the school district’s part, significant space would be needed to create the Holiday Store.  For this they set aside rooms in the Early Childhood Learning Center.  More particularly, two parallel rooms, each the size of a school cafeteria.  Dr. Wilson also called upon his counseling staff led by counselor Sandra Brown to coordinate an entirely new kind of holiday event.  In past years, hundreds of people receiving assistance would come and go at their own convenience.  This year, each of the individuals and families would be scheduled to arrive at specific dates and times.  They not only would pick up the customary assistance, but also they would be invited to shop in the Holiday Store for whatever they needed.  School district personnel would be needed to help organize the store, coordinate appointments, and be on hand while people shopped.

In addition to CORE and the school district, several other organizations volunteered time too, such as the teacher’s union (MSTA), Rotary Club of Hollister, and The Connell Insurance Group.  

In a mere six weeks, the Holiday Store was ready.  Even as the first families arrived, it was apparent that the event would be successful. Everyone was touched by an outpouring of gratitude and joy.  As Sandy Brown observed, “What’s Christmas about?  It’s about giving hope.  It’s been a rough year, so the hope coming from this is huge.  Just seeing the families come in and being excited about taking home things they never could afford.”  Fellow counselor Ben Miller agreed, adding, “In previous years there were times where families sought support and there weren’t enough resources.  This year’s different.  We’re just over the moon to have the support this year because of the families who really need it.” 

In addition to hundreds of persons receiving support, all who helped make this happen felt equally blessed.  They were reminded that some of the most important Christmas gifts can’t be wrapped – like the giving of our time and helping fill someone’s heart with joy.  As McKee remarked, when CORE’s clients recover and become sober in mind and spirit, they are filled with gratitude and just want to serve and to give of themselves:  “What we teach here is a God-centered life that naturally leads a person to give of themselves without us even pushing them.  It’s a beautiful thing.  They found joy in it!”  School district staff agreed that Christmas indeed is the season of giving.  Dr. Watkins said “Our ultimate goal is to bless people.  Covid-19 has robbed us of things we normally do and take for granted.  This event has allowed us to make a difference in another’s life by being able to bless them.”  Counselor Jennifer Miller further added, “It’s been a blessing not only for the families but for all of the people working on it!”  

Everybody commenting on the Holiday Store expressed genuine interest in seeing it continue in the future.  Officer Taylor summed up everyone’s feelings when he said, “If CORE’s got inventory, we’ve definitely got the people who need it and the space to give it out!”  McKee further expressed his personal thanks to all of the CORE staff and volunteers who gave of themselves to help make Christmas a little brighter for the community during this event.

A Purposeful Life

A Purposeful Life

People have been making New Year’s resolutions for thousands of years.  The practice is older than our Julian calendar.  These days, so many resolutions concern mundane matters, like losing weight or washing one’s hands every time one goes to the bathroom.  The more ambitious ones involve a self-improvement project, maybe learning a new skill, or kicking a bad habit.  There is a sliding scale of New Year’s resolutions, after all.  As we get to the higher end of the scale, the goals become grander and progressively more difficult and unsure.  At the highest end we find what many consider to be the singular apex and mother of all New Year’s resolutions: discovering their purpose in life.  It’s the one aspiration worthy to claim the title of New Year’s Resolutions par excellence.  Only those with courage have their sights set on it.  Yet, at some point, many will find the drive within themselves to at least try.  Factually, success is uncertain, but it’s widely considered the ultimate, crème de la crème of undertakings – a truly commendable commitment. 

As we might anticipate, there is an entire industry of life purpose gurus out there waiting to help.  They hold so-called spiritual retreats and journeys that promise to show seekers how to “align role and soul,” “find purpose and reset your mind,” and even experience “shamanic life purpose rebirth.” A simple internet search yields dozens upon dozens of offerings like this.  They’re located pretty much everywhere on earth but tend to be clustered around scenic locations.  One can attend retreats nestled among Sedona’s monoliths and spires, Spain’s snow-capped mountains, or Peru’s Andean slopes, for example.  Each location boasts otherworldly touches in keeping with the gravity of the mission.  Sedona, we are told, has balanced energy vortices.  In Spain the journey happens among the Basque people whose language and origins are forgotten by time.  And in Peru there are the mysterious Nazca Lines and adorable alpacas.  The whole idea here is that both the geographic and cultural settings must be in keeping with the importance of the lofty undertaking.  When one is searching for their raison d’etre, a Motel 6 conference room won’t do.  Moreover, for those who need extra help, most of these retreats promise “psychedelic plants” to facilitate the pilgrims’ spiritual journeys.  All of these getaways basically share two things in common: big promises, and big price tags.  You want to spend 5 days with the alpacas searching for the ultimate meaning of life?  $8,000 reserves your place.

We at CORE sympathize with everyone wanting to find meaning and purpose.  The longing appears to be universal and not caused by an addiction or other misfortune.  We initially came from all walks of life and nearly every economic strata imaginable.  At one time many of us bragged about spouses, children, and lucrative careers and businesses.  Even with all of that, there still seemed a hole in our lives that couldn’t be filled.  Something vital was missing.  Importantly, things dramatically changed once we recovered.  We enjoyed peace of mind and discovered we could face life serenely, successfully, and purposefully.  It’s no exaggeration to say that every recovered alcoholic and addict knows their true purpose in life.  Therefore, we believe here that we can offer practical direction about this topic.  

As the reader may surmise, we have difficulty taking the spiritual retreats seriously.  Many of us at CORE, before arriving here, actually went on our own retreats involving psychedelic plants, among other things.  Our retreats, minus incarcerations and hospitalizations, often lasted years.  We didn’t find what we were looking for until we worked the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and found God.

Too many people today sink into what philosophers and mental health experts call existential crisis.  They think that finding purpose in life means always moving towards some significant goal that aligns with their personal values and passions.  Their efforts may be rewarded with victories.  Yet the sweetness of these victories isn’t what they hoped for and doesn’t last long.  In quieter moments, they wonder what all the fuss was about and, over time, they begin asking themselves, is this all there is?  This line of thinking inevitably leads them to question what life is about.  They may even ask if life has any real purpose and wonder why they’re even here.  Such existential moments happen even though they adore their families and outwardly appear successful to everybody around them (remember – it takes a lot of money to go on a pilgrimage to Peru.)

Such persons find themselves wrestling with the same dilemma as King Solomon while writing the Book of Ecclesiastes.  Been there, seen that, done that – that was Solomon.  He had the moxie and the means to accomplish all of life’s dreams and become wildly successful.  He saw and did, in his own words, “all things that are done under the sun.”  Ecclesiastes 1:4.  From education to entertainment, romance, and successful business ventures, Solomon had it all.  Living almost three millennia ago, Solomon checked off all of the categories and achieved everything that people today pursue in search of meaning and purpose.  

Despite success after success Solomon was stricken with the same recurrent thought.  “Meaningless, meaningless,” he said, “everything is meaningless.”  Ecclesiastes 1:2.  We believe that Solomon’s conclusion is the natural collision course awaiting everybody who hasn’t accepted God.  The English philosopher Bertrand Russell famously said, “Unless you assume a God, the question of life’s purpose is meaningless.”  On this matter, Russell may well be right. 

The alternative to God is a random universe without purpose, with our lives running solely on self-will.  When this is our paradigm, it doesn’t matter how many successes we achieve or how much property we acquire.  Even the significance we may derive from our families, careers, or diversions may become overshadowed if we think that ultimately, in some cosmic sense, existence isn’t really about anything.  The fact that something might be personally important to us in the moment doesn’t sustain us.  If the universe really is random, and if nothing in our transitory existence matters, then it’s easy to see how one might question and ask what’s the point of it all anyway.  There may be some who claim that living in a pointless universe is comforting, or even liberating, but we think they are few in number.

The Big Book teaches a simple prayer: “How can I best serve Thee – Thy will (not mine) be done.” Id., at 85.  All manner of ills are settled by the singular change in focus brought about when we acknowledge God and dedicate ourselves to live in accordance with His will.  We remember the old days, the disarray brought upon by trying to find purpose in our own self-will.  We had chosen “to believe that our human intelligence was the last word, the alpha and the omega, the beginning and end of all.”  Big Book, at 49.  Where did that leave us?  More often than not pursuing vague plans that lacked true focus, passion, and fulfillment.  We often were paralyzed by doubtfulness and indecision.  The universe rarely lined up with our intentions.  All of that changed in Step Three when we asked God to be our Director.

As the Big Book relates:

Here are thousands of men and women [who] flatly declare that since they have come to believe in a Power greater than themselves, to take a certain attitude toward that Power, and to do certain simple things, there has been a revolutionary change in their way of living and thinking. …[T]hey found that a new power, peace, happiness, and sense of direction flowed into them. …Once confused and baffled by the seeming futility of existence, they show the underlying reasons why they were making heavy going of life.

Id., at 50-51.

The search for the purpose of life has challenged people for thousands of years. Too often we begin at the wrong starting point – ourselves.  We ask self-centered questions like, what do I want it to be?  What are my goals, my ambitions, my dreams for my future?  By focusing on ourselves we never reach our life’s purpose which, as Solomon concludes, is to “fear God and obey his commands, for this is the duty of all mankind.”  Ecclesiastes 12:13.  Practically speaking, every purposeful life carries the “vision of God’s will into all of our activities.” Big Book, at 85.

We say these things because this is our experience and our perspective looking at the world and people around us.  We do not want to be seen as fire and brimstone preachers pounding the pulpit.  At CORE, we are a testament to the fact that consciousness of the presence of God is today the most important fact of our lives.  It is in God that we find happiness and freedom, empowerment and self-worth, and the heart-felt desire to be of service to others.  Our hope and fervent prayer is that everyone will find the One whom we have so happily discovered: God – our true purpose in life!

Why Resentments are the Number One Offender

Why Resentments are the Number One Offender

American history is chock full of stories about famous resentments.  The most notable, well-publicized ones involve mutual dislike between people.  People like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali, Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison, and Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr – to name only a few.  Newspapers and magazines had a field day publishing features about their resentments and the resulting fallout.  The stories that have most captured America’s imagination, however, may be those about the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s.  It all started over a stolen pig.  Over the course of a decade, thirteen people were murdered, a home was burned to the ground, and various civil and criminal cases were prosecuted against members of both families.  Their stories are more than just a perverse American pastime.  They powerfully illustrate for readers how resentments can and do get really ugly.

Everybody probably has a basic understanding of what a resentment is.  That is, if you’ve ever been:  dumped by a girlfriend, fired from a job, passed over for a promotion, back-stabbed, made the object of gossip, lied to, ripped off, treated unfairly, embarrassed, bullied, unfairly blamed, verbally abused, or emotionally or physically abused, you probably held a resentment.  We’re human.  Our natural reaction if one of these things happens to us is entirely foreseeable: we become indignant; we resent it.

At the same time, we equally have a strong sense that holding resentments is somehow bad, even wrong.  While it’s true that resentments, because they are retaliatory in nature, imbue us with a sense of righteousness and control, they are more often likened to weeds that can multiply and ultimately take over a whole garden.  We suffer when we are filled with anger that has no place to go.  Lingering resentments can cause physical and emotional problems.  They can make us anxious and unable to focus on anything else.  They even keep us from sleeping.  Not surprisingly, the Lord himself commands that we love our enemies1 and turn the other cheek.2  Whatever sense of power that such resentments give us, all too often it comes at a terrible price. We become victims, playing the blame game to shield ourselves from responsibility, anxiety, and guilt.  Resentments rarely change the person whom we resent, either.  They almost never resolve conflicts. 

The Big Book definitely has a lot to say about this topic.  It says that the business of resentment is infinitely grave.3  It identifies the “greatest enemies” of alcoholics and addicts as “resentment, jealousy, envy, frustration, and fear.”4  Nevertheless, of these we are told that “Resentment is the number one offender.  It destroys more alcoholics than anything else.”5  This is a bold claim – one worth pausing to consider.  Why isn’t any other of the greatest enemies the number one offender, for example?  Why isn’t the obsession to use drugs and alcohol?  Or the physical allergy?  Or genetics?  Or neurobiology?  Or our psychological and social histories?   

Good questions.  The importance of resentments to the alcoholic/addict lies in the dead seriousness that the Big Book assigns to selfishness/self-centeredness.  Indeed, our own self-centeredness is identified as the ultimate root of our troubles.6  Unless this singular point about the addict’s selfishness is clearly understood, we can never appreciate why resentment is the number one offender.  Broadly speaking, there are three reasons for this.

First, in our self-centeredness we operate under the persistent, delusional, and dogged insistence that the world and everyone in it must conform to our desires.  We are, as the Big Book observes, extreme examples of self-will run riot.7  Time after time our self-centered delusion is powerfully refuted, yet we refuse to accept it.  Moreover, we refuse to accept it even while our lives are falling apart because our substance abuse impairs our ability to meet our responsibilities and protect our interests.  We become overwhelmed, angry and indignant, and turn ourselves into victims; and we blame others, refuse to take responsibility, and wallow in self-pity and fear – all of which are hallmarks of resentment.  Our emotional reaction, predictably, is restlessness, irritability and discontent – three bad hombres.  As substance abusers trapped in the cycle of addiction, we’ve only one way to deal with these.

Further, our resentments while we’re using are especially insidious because they loop back on themselves.  They create bitterness.  With our minds warped by substance abuse, we don’t just hold resentments, we become resentful people.  We invariably cloak ourselves with simplistic, black/white views of the world and everybody in it.  Our capacity to see things maturely in nuanced, complex ways is just not there.  Everybody gets lumped into opposing camps: good/bad, right/wrong.  Anybody who’s not for us is against us; but there’s nothing going our way anyway, so we may not see anybody on our side.  We still want justification, to see ourselves as good, and we need our anger to make us feel powerful.  With everything else in our lives out of control, our resentments are the only thing we have left to shield ourselves from the awful truth.  So we let our anger flow with abandon.  Our resentments become overblown and disproportionate to any wrongs we actually suffer.  We end up wanting to punish others not only for a present harm but also for every harm (or series of harms) that preceded it.  We even hold imagined resentments – freebies that give us all the rush of indignation without any actual harm at all.  In sum, when our resentments become our only sense of control, it’s no wonder that we can’t control our resentments, or all of the evils that accompany them.  

Finally, resentments shut us off from the “sunlight of the spirit.”8  They are a luxury that we simply can’t afford.  The very notion of a self-centered, recovered addict is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms.  Only God’s power allows us to rid ourselves of the selfishness responsible for the parade of horrors and resentments described above.  We can’t remove it by moral convictions or by wishing it away.  “We had to have God’s help.”9  It’s nonnegotiable.  Resentment is a recipe for powerlessness preventing us from acting in anyone’s best interests including our own.  We’re living in self and blocked off from God.  We’ve reneged on our 3rd Step vow to hand over the reigns of our lives and stop playing God.  Instead, we put ourselves back in God’s judgment seat.  Our resentments turn our focus inward and we again become spiritually sick.  Our attention returns to our own plans and designs.  We’re of no service at all to our fellows.  Instead, we’re propelled by selfish ambition, valuing ourselves above others.  We become easy targets – restless, irritable, and discontented – sitting ducks for wanting to experience again the sense of ease and comfort which comes by taking that next drink or drug.10

The Big Book well notes that a life which includes deep resentment leads only to futility and unhappiness.  The insanity of our addiction returns and we use again.  “And with us, to drink [or drug] is to die.11  If you haven’t worked your steps, you will have the opportunity to more closely examine your resentments when you complete your Step 4 Resentment Inventory while identifying your character defects.  Step 4 is infamously considered “the scary one.”  Because of the extreme importance of the work you will be doing, your efforts will be crucial to a lasting recovery.

Jeff Sage: A Prodigal Son Come Home

Jeff Sage: A Prodigal Son Come Home

Seeing Jeff Sage today, you’d never suspect he ever struggled with alcohol or drugs.  One of our CORE staff members recently interviewed Jeff, a man brimming with optimism who seems to inspire confidence in everyone around him.  Since coming to CORE three years ago, Jeff has become a born-again Christian, worked the 12 Steps, and commenced our recovery program.  In addition to holding down a full-time career, he also acts as a CORE house manager and is an advocate for our EDGE program for younger clients.  During our interview Jeff freely discussed the stark contrasts between his former life of addiction and his new life as a man of God.

Jeff enjoyed a typical American childhood growing up and played sports well into his high school years.  He showed an aptitude for billiards too.  There was no traumatic event that sparked his using, but he definitely had a rebel streak.  While a freshman at Kickapoo High School in Springfield, a friend introduced him to marijuana.  After high school, Jeff crisscrossed the country hustling pool and playing in tournaments from Chicago all the way down to Texas and Florida, and all the states in between.  During his travels he discovered that he liked to party: 

I liked the bar scene. A lot of gambling, a lot of playing pool, and drinking.  I was like, I like this.  It’s legal, and it’s fun, lot’s of fun back then.  My base was pretty much pot, and then alcohol.  They and other things just came and went. 

He eventually returned to Springfield and discovered his aptitude for sales.  Jeff hopped from selling fitness memberships, to cars, to interests in real estate.  Each transfer led to him making and spending more money than he’d ever dreamed possible, but his alcohol and drug use were starting to get out of control.  Even being blessed with a wife and child couldn’t reign him in.  In June 2009, he went out on a bender, wrecked his 4Rrunner, and went missing for several days while in the hospital.  Jeff’s relentless trek up the ladder of success came to a screeching halt.  He landed in rehab completely mystified by his inability to moderate his substance use:

So I’m full of shame and guilt. Things happened. How’d I let it get to this? Sharp guy [that I was]. I almost couldn’t get in because my blood pressure was so high I was so stressed out. How did I arrive to this point?

From rehab Jeff came to CORE for his first, albeit brief, stay.  His friends, family, and employer were supportive.  He still had his job.  All was not lost.  Yet Jeff wasn’t ready to do what was needed to recover.  He thought he knew more than the people who’d been there before and were trying to help him.  He recalls “I was going through the motions, telling them what they wanted to hear. I’d removed drugs and alcohol for sure, but hadn’t done any steps. Didn’t believe it.  I was different. I was smarter. I was successful. It didn’t apply to me.”  Jeff left CORE after only four months.  Things fell apart “pretty quickly” after that.  

Jeff eventually lost everything that mattered, his wife, home, and career, and he became almost a complete stranger to his parents and son.  A long string of lost jobs, wrecked cars, other rehabs, and another brief stay at CORE followed.  His life had become unmanageable.  “Sooner, worse each time, more miserable, and then on a spree,” Jeff tells us, “and the fun’s over.  Now, I’m full of anger, full of resentment. I hate myself. I’m drinking and using to survive.  And with all plans of quitting, getting a job, and starting over.  It never panned out.” 

To make matters worse, Jeff lost his dad in December 2016.  “He died, and we’d been close.  It messed me up really good.  And I used it selfishly to self-medicate.”  The next eight months are a blur in his memory, after which he found himself in a dark, bad place, both mentally and emotionally.  The man who once had everything had been reduced to “a broken person, empty, and scared.”  He had no plan to end his life, but he really didn’t care if he died, either.  That was the bottom for him.  After seven years of chaos, Jeff felt tired of hurting everybody, tired of not being able to look in the mirror, and tired of hating himself.  In his own words, Jeff was “completely beat down,” adding “I was done.  Really done this time.  I did not want to hurt anymore.”  Jeff prayed to God for help, and walked from a friend’s house to CORE’s recovery center in Springfield. 

Jeff made good on his plans this time.  He was baptized into Christ and dedicated his life in service to God.  He stuck with CORE’s program for the entire year and completed it.  Much of his year was spent in the company and under the tutelage of some men who already completed our program.  In them he saw a quality of genuineness and complete lack of motive to get anything from him.  “There was just something about them,” Jeff says, “it was the Holy Spirit in them.  There was a light about them.”  He wanted what they had and was willing to do what was necessary to get it.  They helped Jeff by showing him how to do the 12 Steps, do them right, and not question every little issue.  He distinctly remembers that, after doing his 4th and 5th Steps, he finally was able to sleep at night and get rest, saying “That stuff wasn’t eating my lunch anymore.”  By the grace of God and the 12 Steps, Jeff had recovered. 

As Jeff completed his year in the program, he was overwhelmed by what God had done for him:

“I’m getting paid spiritually. Maybe that’s weird to say, but I have a peace about me.  I know God’s real.  I know what he delivered me from to where I’m at now.  The relationships that I have with my son, with my mom, it’s nothing short of a miracle.  And I don’t have any resentments, I don’t have any jealousy, I don’t have any anger.  I’m grateful for the time I have with my son, being able to be part of his life.  God continues to show up and show off in my life.” 

Today, Jeff is confident in his transformation and knows that his mind has been renewed.  The Big Book Promises are happening, too.  His mother and son, whom he describes as his biggest fans, have come back into his life.  He’s grateful for the renewed friendship of his ex-wife, who hung in there with him during the years of his addiction.  Jeff also has embarked on a new career.  Further, having commenced our program, he wasn’t done at CORE, either. It was time to give back.  Thus, for the last two years, Jeff has served as a House Manager and worked part-time for CORE’s EDGE program, both of which offer mentoring and Big Book guidance to clients.  In transitioning into a leadership role at CORE, Jeff sees a golden opportunity to pay it forward:

I saw this as an opportunity to strengthen my foundation, get me out of my comfort zone, and work with these guys. Occasionally you work with somebody, and it will click. Then they’ll go out and work with somebody. It’s that ripple effect. It’s the most beautiful thing, so that now it’s just putting all this good stuff out there. The ripple effect reaches all these other people.

We at CORE foresee good things for Jeff and are pleased to have played a part in his recovery.  We look forward to more years of his friendship and help.  Jeff’s message to everybody in recovery: “God’s got a plan. We don’t always know what it is. You gotta have faith.”

A 2nd Mile Helping Hands Story: Branson’s Own Jan and John Prince!

A 2nd Mile Helping Hands Story:
Branson’s Own Jan and John Prince!

We all want our lives to matter.  We get the most joy and make the biggest difference when we use our God-given abilities to help and serve others.  Last May, we in CORE’s 2nd Mile Program became even more determined to make a difference by announcing our program to help deliver groceries without charge to our neighbors in the community.  We were not disappointed.  We’ve been able to meet amazingly wonderful people like Jan and John Prince!

The Princes moved to Branson in 2012 from Clinton, Missouri, after spending their working lives in academia.  Once they decided to retire, it was time to move to warmer climates.  Jan reports that they like Branson very much, “It has a small town feel with big city opportunities as far as shopping and stores.”  Also, when company comes to town, they are able to take in a show.  All in all, their retirement was going swimmingly well – and then the corona virus hit. 

Like so many across our great nation, Jan and John were faced with some hard choices about how to respond to the lockdown and added public safety measures.  They wanted to avoid getting sick and do their part to help keep everybody safe.  Fortunately, while on her church’s Facebook page, Jan spied CORE’s announcement saying we would deliver groceries for no charge.  She called and began scheduling weekly deliveries.

The process is simple.  For Jan, she orders her groceries online at Country Mart designating the day and approximate time for pickup.  Then she calls CORE, and we pick them up.  All while taking appropriate safety precautions, we deliver them straight to the door.  As Jan relates, “She sets them on the porch for us.  She wears a mask.  That’s what we really need.  . . . I think it’s great!”

Despite the adversity, the Princes aren’t about to let the virus stop them from living life.  They just pay attention to safety and “try to be as cautious as we can” while out and about.  They make extra-good use of their time at home as well.  Jan quilts and hand-stitches, joins in church Zoom meetings, and loves to cook.  John landscapes and works on the house.  They also look forward to doing some traveling, hopefully soon.  John is upgrading their travel trailer to make it warmer in case they have the chance to get away this winter.  Their daughter is coming for a visit over Thanksgiving, too, so the family can be together.  

Jan expressed genuine appreciation to the 2nd Mile program for being willing to help during these challenging times: “I want CORE to know, I don’t ever want them to underestimate that what they’re doing is not important.  It’s very important.  I’m so thankful that we have someone we can call to do this for us.”  She also gives a monetary gift for pickups.  We are pleasantly surprised by the Princes’ kind and pure generosity, but we do remind everybody seeking our help to deliver groceries that payment is not required! Above all, we in the 2nd Mile program express our sincerest thanks to Jan and John for giving us the opportunity to serve.  That’s what we’re all about – helping marvelous people like the Princes who make Branson such a wonderful place! 

Why We Admit Powerlessness over Alcohol and Drugs

Why We Admit Powerlessness over Alcohol and Drugs

The “Serenity Prayer” said in 12 Step meetings has received widespread media attention ever since Covid-19 entered the American consciousness.  Written by theologian Karl Niebuhr in the early 1930’s, the Serenity Prayer was adopted and adapted by Alcoholics Anonymous shortly after it published the Big Book.  It begins, God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change – a reminder that there are some things in life we can’t control.  The pandemic is one of them, as are natural disasters like hurricanes, wildfires, floods, earthquakes, etc.  We become helpless in the face of overpowering forces.  We feel hopelessness and despair upon seeing loved ones taken and homes and property destroyed.  Anxiety, panic, depression, and guilt are never far off during these times.  Nor is anger.  Natural disasters present paradigm examples of human powerlessness.  

Conceptually, powerlessness is also an element of 12 Step programs.  We might hear this word without giving it much thought if we aren’t steeped in drug and alcohol recovery.  Yet the admission of powerlessness is Step One, the very gateway to our recovery program.  It’s an essential condition.  We can’t minimize or skip it.  There’s no recovery unless and until we first admit that we are powerless over alcohol and drugs.  We have good reasons for saying this, as we explain below.

Alcohol and drugs act as the kryptonite, Achilles heel, or fatal weakness, of every abnormal drinker and drug user.  Powerlessness was our personal experience and the insight we reached after countless times of trying to moderate or quit.  All of our efforts failed, spectacularly.  Our addictions had grown beyond our control.  

When ordinary people think of the priorities of life, their thoughts naturally turn to family, home, career, and the like.  Not so with the alcoholic or addict trapped in the cycle of addiction.  The particulars vary from person to person, but each of us went from functional drinkers and users to compulsive drunks and junkies.  We developed laser-like focus, with all our thought patterns, belief systems, emotions, and actions converging on a singular purpose.  Whether we admitted it or not, everybody and everything else assumed secondary importance.  Our lives revolved around drinking and drugging.  

When in the cycle of addiction, it was not uncommon for us to wake up from a binge feeling guilty for what had just happened, yet with the obsession to use still clawing at our brains.  As it turned into a problem, we naively made up our minds to moderate or quit.  We still remembered the days when we just had fun like everybody else.  We thought we could go back to being that person.  We did everything we could to accomplish this.  We even began doing things like journaling, exercising, or watching our diet.  Self-help books began piling up on our shelves.  We consulted with people we trusted, whether family, friends, employers, ministers, physicians, or counselors.  Our futile efforts reached epic proportions.  

Nothing worked.  The obsession rarely left us.  We might even go days or weeks without actually using, and tell ourselves that we were better, but the result was always the same.  Once we started back again – and we always did – all bets were off.

As we abandoned responsibilities, our problems began to mount.  We found ourselves unable to stop any of it.  Ashamed to admit failure, we began hiding our use from the same people who tried to help us, and then we pushed them away.  Family and social relationships were lost.  We started doing things to support our habits that we never would have dreamed of doing before, sometimes taking risks with our health or crossing the law.  We lost jobs, homes, and businesses, not to mention our self-respect.  We beat ourselves up inside with guilt and shame because our best efforts just weren’t good enough, and we didn’t understand why.  A cloud of doom and foreboding hung over us, as did depression and, for some of us, thoughts of suicide.  Our lives had fallen apart, and we were living a nightmare with no way out.  In a word, we were powerless

Some generalities can be drawn from our experiences and those of others.  We become powerless over alcohol or drugs when we:

  • are constantly preoccupied by thoughts of using;
  • become irritable and discontent when not using;
  • suffer from an obsession to use;
  • consider ordinary life events, whether good or bad, as reasons to use;
  • use even though we know we shouldn’t, don’t want to, and fear the outcome;
  • can’t stop using once we start using; 
  • can’t quit or moderate our use despite having a desperate desire to change it.

To date, medical science is making headway on the particulars of addiction.  The results are considerable, but it hasn’t yet found any way to eliminate either our obsession to use, or our cravings to continue using until we pass out, black out, or become so high that we no longer know what’s real.  Until that happens, we who want to recover must accept the fact of our powerlessness, and by working the steps find the way to escape from that hopeless condition.   

Happily, we have recovered, although here we do mention one feature that complicated our recoveries: denial.  It was our last defense against the very circumstances that made us feel vulnerable and threatened our sense of control.  While trapped in our addictions we initially refused to accept our powerlessness and recognize the need for change.  We became angry and defensive, and we made sophomoric speeches similar to the following:

Don’t tell me I’m powerless!  That’s not what I want or need.  I live in constant humiliation, guilt, and shame.  How can it possibly help to see myself that way?  Don’t you know how demoralizing that is?  Don’t you see how that hurts me?  People wanting to control me tell me I’m powerless.  You can’t label me!  

And so we went on.  

Unfortunately, there was an entire self-help industry out there waiting to enable us in denial.  Their sales pitch is that 12 Step programs, whether AA or NA, make us weak by brainwashing us into thinking we are powerless.  The power is in us, they say, and in the books and programs they sell.  We need only learn how to empower ourselves.  

The self-help gurus really didn’t help.  Self-empowerment pitches are misguided when the target audience includes chronic drinkers and drug users, all of whom already suffer the hallmarks of powerlessness.  AA and NA did not make us that way.  Our shame, guilt, despair and anger weren’t triggered because somebody told us we were powerless.  We were miserable because we were powerless.  It’s the human condition, the natural and foreseeable consequence of wrestling with forces beyond our control.  

Our only viable course of action was to recognize our powerlessness for what it was.  Acknowledging it doesn’t relegate us to living a life imprisoned in fear, shame, or helplessness – in any context.  Quite the contrary.  Even when we consider the natural disasters cited above, we well know that not everyone bears the brunt of those forces of nature.  Only those unfortunate enough to be in the path of destruction suffer the effects of powerlessness.  By way of illustration, imagine for a moment, a group of people who live on an annual floodplain.  Every year the raging waters rise, steal away loved ones, and obliterate all they worked so hard to build.  They suffer desperation and hopelessness, and they further feel shame and guilt for not having prevented catastrophic loss of life and property.  But, what about their neighbors who live on higher ground, above the plain?  Factually, they are as powerless against the raging floods as those whose homes were swept away.  They do not suffer the ill effects of their powerlessness at all, whether loss of life, destruction of property, desperation, shame, or the other.  They sympathize with the plight of the victims, but they live their lives hopefully, not in helplessness.

To drive this analogy home, let’s further assume that as the waters recede from the earth and dry land reappears, our flood survivors become determined to rebuild on the same spot.  They are certain that next year will be different, even though they live on an annual floodplain and their recent, horrific experience is identical to every year they’ve ever lived there.  Anyone seeing that would call it insanity.  We agree.  We can’t imagine why they’d still want to live there.  We would urge them to come to their senses, admit that they are powerless, and move to higher ground with the rest of us.  That’s exactly the course of action we who have recovered from substance abuse took once we finally admitted that we are powerless over alcohol and drugs.  

That’s the essence of Step One.  It’s no accident that 12 Step programs teach both powerlessness and complete abstinence.  Only by realizing the futility of drinking and drugging, where disaster was forever certain to occur, did we pick up and move to higher ground, abstinence.  The latter we accomplished by working the remaining steps.  The miracle happened, and our sanity was restored.  We live with hope and purpose, and feel the deepest gratitude.  God granted us the serenity to accept something we cannot change, and we’re not in harm’s way anymore.

Is “Harm Reduction” Strategy Enough For Recovery?

Is “Harm Reduction” Strategy Enough For Recovery?

If I could drink like a normal person, I would be drunk all day long . . . 1  

In 2006 a self-help book titled “The Secret” hit bookstore shelves and immediately became a best seller.  Its premise is that our thoughts directly change our world.  The so-called Law of Attraction.  The principle seemed revolutionary yet intuitive, something that deep down we always knew.  People got excited.  Millions of copies were sold.  There was a movie.  A lot of money was made.  Except, there was only one problem – our thoughts don’t directly change the world.  The real secret, everybody came to realize, is that the book was garbage.  People came to their senses and forgot about it.

A corollary of The Secret called “harm reduction” now has arrived to the world of substance abuse recovery.  Zealots claim that we alcoholics and addicts can have our cake and eat it too.  They tout it in self-help books and on-line recovery forums.  Their message is simple: believe in yourself, drink like a normal person, and you can be drunk all day long.  They even publish success stories of their members who, not surprisingly, are drunk all day long.  Their message has intuitive appeal to an alcoholic or addict’s mind.  It’s the same type of guff that Bill Wilson foresaw back in 1939:

The idea that somehow, someday he will control and enjoy his drinking is the great obsession of every abnormal drinker. The persistency of this illusion is astonishing.  Many pursue it into the gates of insanity or death.2 

Sadly, many alcoholics and addicts today are pursuing harm reduction to the gates of death.  Their illusion finds its origin in the unfortunate tendency to lump everybody suffering problems from drugs or alcohol into one basket.  Some people today get sent to AA and NA even though they are not alcoholics or addicts.  They can control their substance use and aren’t dependent.  A host of problems follow.  We have a population of people going to 12 Step meetings who probably shouldn’t be there and who don’t want to be there.  Resentments arise.  Certain harm reduction methods nevertheless may be helpful to these people.  There is yet another population of people attending AA and NA, who probably should be there, but are unwilling to work the program.  They suffer huge problems from substance abuse.  They feel overwhelming guilt and shame over their inability to stay sober.  Resentments arise in this population, too.  They start blaming AA and NA for their problems.

We end up with two groups of bad attitude bears.  Eventually they find each other and join together.  From this unlikely union a marketing idea is born: offer harm reduction methods as an actual recovery program to alcoholics and addicts.  The idea offers an aura of hope to desperate people.  The promoters are profiting.  The results are predictably dismal.

Harm Reduction Promotion

So, what is harm reduction?  How do we recognize it if we see it?  Broadly speaking, it refers to the universe of ideas and strategies intended to reduce the negative consequences of drug and alcohol use. As promoted to alcoholics and addicts, the ideology starts with the notion that everybody has a natural, universal desire to get high.3   “To get drunk, to get high, to get out of one’s mind has been a natural phenomenon throughout human history.”4  Since the dawn of time, drugs and alcohol have been used by almost everyone, on every continent, for many reasons, whether recreational, cultural, religious, dietary, or medicinal.5  Drugs and alcohol are great.  They work.6 

Proponents assert that “[p]roblems with alcohol and drugs are not diseases, crimes, or sins.  They are health issues”7 that are personal to the user.  So, if a person really enjoys drinking a fifth of booze every day and has no desire to change, for example, then it is not anybody’s job to try and change them.8  Five to seven drinks per day are considered “low risk” drinking, by the way.9  Nobody should be diagnosed or labeled an addict or alcoholic, either.  To the contrary, the user is the expert, the only one who fairly can balance the benefits and risks.  Only they can evaluate how to best fulfill their needs through these substances.10  Harm reductionists further assert that people always think rationally.  They are the ones who can and should be able to examine – without harsh judgments – their own substance use and whatever trouble they may have gotten into because of it.11   

Some of the harm reduction methods promoted by these advocates may be considered relatively “new,” like using clean needles to inject drugs, substituting pharmaceutical medications for a substance habit, voluntarily installing a breathalizer on one’s car, and kicking an alcohol addiction by smoking marijuana.  Most of the methods have been around for a long time, however.  

In fact, the methods most often suggested by harm reduction literature were familiar even when the Big Book was published.  They include strategies like: drinking beer only, limiting the number of drinks, tapering off, never drinking alone, never drinking in the morning, drinking only at home, never having it in the house, drinking only at parties, taking a trip, not taking a trip, taking more physical exercise, reading inspirational books, going to treatment centers, and any number of other measures, ad infinitum.  These methods are expressly identified in the Big Book as measures that are universally tried – out of desperation – and don’t work.12 

Harm reductionists promote paperwork, too.  Lots of it.  Users are encouraged to cultivate their relationships with drugs and alcohol by writing all kinds of descriptions, plans, and calculations.  The relationship must be nurtured and fine-tuned.  Nothing can be overlooked.  There are cost/benefit analyses, drinking goal worksheets, risk ranking worksheets, risk charting, drink charting, written drinking plan worksheets, rational emotive worksheets, and self-confidence enhancement worksheets.  The paperwork is an evolving process that can change at any minute, depending the user’s needs or wants, so maintaining all of these worksheets and charts requires vigilance.  

According to harm reductionist proponents, the results of these activities are great.  Alcoholics and addicts are empowered to use. Websites and books offer full-throated endorsements for using drugs and alcohol.  Users are expected to moderate, or quit, whenever they want.  Time to throw off the shackles of past prejudices and fears: 

You can be a daily pot smoker and a good parent; a weekend partier and a great teacher, lawyer, plumber, or gardener; dependent on heroin and a loving partner.13

Wow.  For somebody trapped in the cycle of addiction, this sounds appealing.  But, who takes care of the baby’s sudden emergency when we’re stoned?  How does a hangover help us at our jobs?  How do we love our partners when we’re too high to even think?  Advocates insist that we keep a positive attitude.  No guilt, shame, or remorse for past mistakes allowed!  Believing in ourselves is what counts.  Believing that we have the power of choice and the power to change is the essential ingredient for success.14  Better is better!

Harm Reduction’s Angst Against 12 Step Programs

As we alluded to above, a great many of the harm reduction group members formerly sat in AA and NA meetings.  Many appear to dislike 12 Step programs, and the writers of their literature and administrators of their websites cultivate their resentments and cheer them on.  Nobody bothers with the fact that they never worked the program.  How can one get sober if they don’t do this?  Inability to get sober can lead to shame and guilt, one reaction to which is anger.  None of this matters to them, however.  Nor does it matter when landmark scientific studies support 12 Step results, or when study after study is published that evidences particular points of the program.  Their literature, frankly, puts flat-earthers to shame in trying to minimize and tear apart what in our 21st century is a well-supported, scientifically evidenced truth:  12 Step programs help alcoholics and addicts quit their addictions.  Their resentments against AA really run deep.

An example may help illustrate this.  It is common in the on-line harm reduction forums to find posts by people claiming that AA made them feel guilt and shame for their drug and alcohol use.  Yet, what becomes apparent from reading these posts is that “attending” AA and “sitting in” their AA rooms means exactly what is said.  Attending and sitting.  Hundreds of proverbial frogs sitting on a log.  No action.  They not only failed to work the 12 Step program, most never ever made it through Step 1.  

One entry, offered here as example, is by someone who pseudonymously calls herself Jaya Angel.  She relates that she has been reading a book called The 30 Day Solution, which recommends doing a 30-day period of abstinence (Abs).  While she likes the book, doing a 30-day Abs sounds way too much like AA to her.  For years she attended AA and was never able to stay sober for even a month, which brought her only shame and low self-esteem.  The book thus poses a dilemma, one that in her mind can only be solved by never trying to stay sober for 30 days again:

…I’ve been setting myself up for horrible failure this past week and a half trying to do this Abs-30 thing! I’ve set myself up for over-drinking, shame, embarrassment, guilt, and truly hating myself.  I’ve set myself up into starting to believe again I’m an alcoholic!  Do you know how erroneously sad that is?  I think it even made my behavior worse when I drank because I wasn’t supposed to be drinking!!!  The problem ISN’T that I CAN’T complete 30 days of voluntary abstinence from drinking!  The problem is I SHOULDN’T!!!15

This poor woman clearly is living in torment.  She is blind to her chronic intoxication and sees only the shame and guilt it brings.  Her answer, then, is to stop even trying.  She can’t lose a race that she never enters, after all, and somehow that idea sounds entirely reasonable to her.  At all costs, she will not admit to herself that she is an alcoholic, the very essence of Step 1.

Others on Jaya Rainbow’s thread rush to comfort her, but the fact of her chronic drunkenness is never addressed.  They are more than willing to indulge her fantasy, to the point of blaming AA and the medical community for her problems:

You really nailed it on the AA stuff for sure . . . .  Forbidden fruit is enticing indeed.  We are setting ourselves up for failure if we base our recovery on ‘clean’ time . . .  The main problem being when the medical system blindly pushes us there.  . . .It tells me about what is going on in those [AA] secret rooms.  We are the survivors, we are the strong ones.16

Sad stuff.  Note his suggestion that recovery shouldn’t turn on sobriety.  He sounds sincere, too, even though he’s sincerely wrong.  Some of us in early recovery also felt ashamed at meetings at first because we weren’t sober.  There is a solution, however.  Work the program.

When the Word “Recovered” Comes to Mean that You’re High or Drunk

These harm reduction on-line forums are littered with embittered souls who can’t stay clean or sober.  Harm reduction advocates assure them not to worry.  Better is better, even if you’re drunk.  In this connection, we share some of the “success” stories from one of their books.  The authors are all members of a popular harm reduction group.  Amazingly, intoxication has become part and parcel of their “recovery”:

Stephen’s Story17

Stephen had “had enough of drinking.” He attended AA meetings for 90 days but then quit when he became suicidal.  “I don’t drink a whole lot,” he says, of his drinking history of 8 beers per night, but it makes him feel “disconnected,” the same word he uses when feeling suicidal.  Since adopting a harm reduction plan, however, he now has planned intoxification days.  In fact, he candidly admits spending his entire weekends drunk.  He drinks about two six packs per day on the weekends.  From this, he confidently writes that “nobody is powerless over their decision to drink or not drink.”  Really?

Jacqueline’s Story18

Jacqueline drank for four decades because “it’s not easy to stop.”  Her therapist wanted her to go to AA but she “didn’t want to become completely abstinent” and didn’t accept the idea that she “had a disease.”  Ultimately, she attended AA but cried hysterically and felt exhausted, so she quit.  Then she tried harm reduction.  She reports that “80% of the time my drinking is managed.”  Her sober days are Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays, although she sometimes trades Thursday for Wednesday.  As of writing her account, she reports continually “hearing” (presumably metaphorically) an evil voice on her shoulder telling her to drink, “whispering in my ear, just have a drink, it’s all fine, what’s one more?”  We assume this voice is her alcoholic obsession buttering her up for another binge during the 20% time.

Emily’s Story19

Emily is an older woman who always liked to drink alcohol and use marijuana.  She began attending AA but reports that it was an extremely frustrating experience because she was a “chronic relapser” and thus felt guilty.  The people at AA told her that she was failing because she was not “working the program.”  After she got 2 DUIs, she quit AA and began a harm reduction plan.  Following this plan, she “determined to make moderate drinking work,” but she discovered that her relapses were getting worse over time, and she started blacking out more.  She realized that she can moderate her drinking only sometimes.  When she can’t “bad things tend to happen, and they get worse over time.”  So, she decided to try abstinence instead of moderation, joined two support groups, and began seeing an addiction therapist.  As of the writing of her story, she still drinks, but she reports several months-long periods of abstinence.  Her drinking today, which she does not quantify, still causes “problems,” which she describes as “minor” and happening “occasionally.”

The Simple Truth About Recovering

What are we to conclude from stories like this, which are offered as harm reduction recovery stories?  These people inhabited AA halls, but they made no effort to work the program.  This is an unfortunate occurrence that we have seen before.  They harbor resentments against 12 Step Programs.  They all drink.  In fact, they all meet the criteria for alcohol use disorder under the DSM-5.  How can we possibly say this is recovery?  Their existence is hardly the kind of the life that we hope for our clients. 

The book does contain 15 stories in total, and there are people who positively report moderating and quitting.  We are pleased for them.  The Big Book well describes such people who, when given sufficient reason, go on to moderate or quit.  These are the people for whom the harm reduction methods may be appropriate. “If anyone who is showing inability to control his drinking can do the right-about-face and drink like a gentleman, our hats are off to him.”20  We agree. 

But what about people who are alcoholics and addicts?  Even the harm reduction people concede, if only sardonically, that “medical professionals, researchers, everyday people know that addiction is a disease that cannot be cured.”21  For such people – the rest of us – we do have the solution, and it isn’t harm reduction.  If we spent even half the amount of time working the 12 Steps as others do chasing vain attempts to use like normal people, then we wouldn’t have to worry about the specter of substance abuse anymore.  No more keeping track of charts and lists.  No more counting drinks or the other.  No more shame and disappointment.  We don’t have to live our lives revolving around the disease anymore.  We pick up the simple kit of spiritual tools laid at our feet by the 12 Steps.  We follow the path of sobriety.  By doing this, we find much of heaven.  We are rocketed into a new dimension of existence beyond what we ever dreamed.22  By the grace of God, we are recovered.

We have been observing these harm reduction groups for some time.  Our opinion is similar to the dozens of rehabilitation centers whose websites give online opinions about the question of 12 Step abstinence vs. harm reduction.  We enthusiastically recommend and endorse 12 Step sobriety.

1.         An old AA Saying.
2.         Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, at 30.
3.         Denning, P., Over the Influence, Chapter 2 (2019). Retrieved from
4.         Id.
5.         Id.
6.         Id.
7.         Denning, P., Over the Influence, Chapter 1 (2019). Retrieved from
8.         Anderson, K., How to Change Your Drinking, 2nd Edition, Chapter 1, section 4 (2010). Retrieved from
9.         Id. Chapter 5.
10.       Denning, P., Over the Influence, Chapter 1 (2019). Retrieved from
11.       Id.
12.       Big Book, at 22 and 31.
13.       Denning, P., Over the Influence, Chapter 1 (2019). Retrieved from
14.       Anderson, K., How to Change your Drinking, 2nd Edition, Chapter 1.5 (2010). Retrieved from
15.       Http://…figure-it.html.
16.       Oddnes, Senior Member of HAMS, 06-22-2016. 02:12 PM.
17.       Anderson, K., Editor, Better Is Better!, Stephen’s Story (2019). Retrieved from
18.       Id., Jacqueline’s Story.
19.       Id., Emily’s Story.
20.       Big Book, at 31.
21.       Anderson, K., How to Change Your Drinking, 2nd Edition, Introduction by Pat Denning (2019). Retrieved from
22.       Big Book, at 25.

Protecting Our Sobriety When Someone We Love Dies

Protecting Our Sobriety When
Someone We Love Dies

We never thought it would happen to us. In a world of casual acquaintances, on rare and special occasions someone comes into our life whom we feel privileged to know and deeply love.  They may be our friend, spouse, child, or someone else, but, whoever they may be, the sight of their face never fails to make us smile.  Their joys and pains become ours, and we feel what they feel without spoken words.  It is cliché, but knowing them actually makes us want to become a better person.  We would do anything for them.  We feel like the world has to be made a better place for them, for no other reason than that the greatest honor and blessing is having them in our life.  Above all we want to protect them and make them feel safe and loved.  We love them so much that, in fact, if our love alone could have saved them, then they never would have died.

There isn’t a word to describe the shock that follows such a death.  A disbelieving, numbing state.  An invisible veil that separates us from everybody and everything familiar.  In the days that follow we go through the motions consciously, whether to eat, bathe, or do simple things like taking sympathy calls.  Even breathing becomes a deliberate act.  We observe ourselves as if watching another person while picking out flower arrangements and approving the order of services.  Nothing seems quite real.  There are slight exceptions to this, of course, like when we woke up in the morning and for a fleeting moment had forgotten what happened.  Words like grief and beloved – we understood what those meant now, too.  But, all in all, we are still in a daze during the funeral.  Familiar faces approach us and speak words of condolence.  Everyone pays their last respects, their words evaporating into a heaviness that hangs over us like a cloud.  We have trouble absorbing anything.  There’s nothing anyone can really say, anyway, when the most important person in the world has died. 

Perhaps no life event is more fraught with peril than the death of a loved one.  We can never be fully prepared, no matter how it happens.  In a place deep down inside of us, something feels decidedly wrong.  Someone and something is horribly missing.  It’s like part of us has died too, the best part, and we aren’t ready to say goodbye.  The memorial service is only an introduction to our bereavement, moreover.  There is a long and difficult journey ahead.  No matter how appallingly unfair and punishing the grieving process may sound from afar, the reality is worse.   

Social commentators tell us that grieving is hard because our society is a death-denying culture that does not like to think about death.  In consequence we turn the phenomenon of death and dying into something abstract and almost invisible.  We shutter away the old and infirm into institutions and facilities, for example.  Our medical technologies are geared toward avoiding death at all costs, and science has dissected death into so many bits that it sometimes becomes impossible to know whether someone even is dying, or the exact moment of death.  Even in art and film death is something that happens primarily to throwaway characters who are easily forgotten.  Over time our brains become accustomed to thinking that death only happens to other people who we either don’t know or don’t know well.  Our world is about progress, moving forward.  Nothing should detract from the idea of a long and happy life.

There is more to bereavement than that, of course.  Our loved one is an indispensable part of our lives, a human institution who represents stability, meaning and purpose. Their death profoundly impacts our physical, mental, and emotional well-being like nothing else can.  There are no quick or easy fixes for loss, either, only the long and drawn out grieving process.  While alone with our thoughts, we relive happier times and ask ourselves over and over the what-if’s, how’s, and why’s.  We pass through the recognizable stages of grief – denial, bargaining, anger, and depression – in no particular order, without consciously identifying them, and oftentimes revisiting them.  Within these stages there is a repeating cycle in which we alternately are stricken with painful memories and thoughts, and then feeling better, even okay, if only for awhile.  Then the draining, exhausting emotions of anger, fear, despair, and sometimes guilt, come flooding over us like a wave.  It’s relentless.  The particulars of this process differ from person to person, but invariably everyone will take a long time to overcome the natural denial response and finally reach the final stage: acceptance.  Grieving may last months for some.  For others, years.

It has been said that there is no right way to grieve but, for the alcoholic or addict, this process can take an unmistakably deadly turn. In our past lives, our reaction to every life stressor had been an overwhelming desire to escape through drinking or using drugs.  Death’s sting immediately and invariably strikes us as too heavy a burden to bear.  If we say to ourselves, I can’t do this, I must have help, in reality this is the specter of using and relapse returning to haunt us.  This happens when we are most vulnerable and our hopes and dreams are dashed.  Inside we feel as if we are dying of a broken heart, and picking up and using again superficially appears to be an entirely reasonable course of action. 

We who are recovered must be cautious when tragedy happens to us.  The truth, we well know, is that drugs and alcohol respect no one.  Our malady is merciless, unforgiving.  It doesn’t care whether we are grieving and find ourselves in our darkest hour.  It would gladly see us fall into mental and physical decline and finish us off for good.  The recovered alcoholic and addict, therefore, must take positive steps to assure light at the end of the tunnel.

First, we continually turn to God for support.  As we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, the one thing that feels natural is to run away and hide.  Yet, it was the Lord himself who, being in agony, “prayed more earnestly.” Luke 22:44.  He turned to the Father, and we must copy his example.  God is near to the brokenhearted.  Whether crying, shouting, sobbing, or pleading, we can and should unload all of our feelings – our sorrow, pain, loneliness, helplessness, and even anger – before Him.  He is a great and abundant God who understands and will carry us through.  It is written:  

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.  For I am the Lord your God.  

Isaiah 43:2.  God has all power.  He supports us, takes up our pain, and bears our suffering.  Even though we don’t understand how, make no mistake: God will help us to find our way back again.  In Him all things are possible, and we will learn to live again and find both meaning and purpose in life.

Further, we reach out to family and friends.  They want to help, to support us, and to share our burden.  They will be there to embrace us, and cry with us, while we talk about and relive our beloved’s life and death, no matter how many times we repeat ourselves.  Staying close to friends and family protects us from total isolation, fear, and loneliness even when it feels like the world is falling apart.  They help ground us enough to push on through the emotional chaos until we are ready to embrace life again.  Some of them have suffered profound loss, too, and hearing their stories somehow helps impress upon us the reality that death is an unavoidable part of life, but something we can get through.

Finally, our attention to the 12 Steps must be resolute.  The Big Book doesn’t have a chapter specifically devoted to death, and one isn’t required.  We merely reach a broader understanding of its scope, and we continue to process our feelings and resentments as outlined in the program.  Most importantly, we must continue to carry the message to other alcoholics and addicts.  By doing this we aren’t trying to ignore or avoid facing our own grief.  We rather are pursuing 12th Step work, our most noble purpose, with newly opened eyes, the blinders off, to the reality of how devastating loss can be for others.  With informed empathy and caring, we can better share with others not only our pain and grief but also our experience, strength, and hope, because we do continue to live clean and sober.  Helping others reminds us that we are still needed, and somehow it helps heal our broken hearts.  Watching people recover and go on to help others will always be the bright spot of our lives.  See Big Book, at 89.

Grieving the death of a loved one invariably takes a turbulent and irregular course, but with proper support we eventually pick up the pieces of our lives and embrace life anew. We convert the emotional energy spent on grieving and apply it to other relationships.  By doing this, we have not forgotten our loved one – far from it.  We belong to them, and they to us, forever.  Nothing can ever change this.  While we might still sometimes feel sad when thinking about them, more often our thoughts are pleasant memories of something they had done or said.  We do smile again, and we remember them without suffering disabling grief.  Moreover, by coming face to face with death, and experiencing grief firsthand, we become better teachers about life.  There will come a day when we can look back on our own experience and be better prepared to help others, “comfort[ing] those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves received from God.”  2 Corinthians 1:4.  We use our grief to transform ourselves into better human beings, for the betterment of everyone around us.