Posted by: RealisticRecovery | June 3, 2009

Take the 12 Steps and Sit Down!

Take the 12 Steps and Sit Down!

by Pavel Somov, Ph.D., Huffington Post

In my former work as a clinical director of a drug and alcohol treatment program in a county jail and in my current outpatient work with substance use clients I continuously come across a certain iatrogenic (treatment-related) legacy of powerlessness which stems directly from the 1st of the 12 Steps of the AA/NA philosophy (“We admitted we were powerless over our addiction – that our lives had become unmanageable”).

I get it: admitting that you have a problem is a psychologically healthy thing. But admitting that you are powerless to solve it?! What a self-deflating stumble of a step to start a journey of recovery… What were Bill W. and Dr. Bob thinking?!

Perhaps, Bill W. and Dr. Bob were trying to pull off a bit of East-West synthesis? Perhaps, the thinking was that surrender or letting go of one’s attachment to the idea of being in control is power? That passively accepting and witnessing the urge to drink (or use drugs) rather than directly fighting the urge head-on would be akin to psychological judo or jujutsu, the “soft method” martial arts that harnesses the opponent’s strength and adapts to changing circumstance?

If this is the East-West synthesis that they had in mind, then, what a failure of articulation!

Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps…

Or, perhaps, this confession of powerlessness over addiction is nothing more than a failure to appreciate the psychology of a craving.

Let’s take a look!

Just the other day, a guy I’ve been working with, who’s been through the revolving door of the 12 step programs and who had decided to seek psychotherapy in addition to “working the program,” triumphantly announces that he “did” the first step. Again!

Now, he’s known about my approach to substance use treatment and he has showed himself to be an open mind capable of critical thinking. So he seemed entirely non-defensive when I asked him about what he meant when he “admitted to being powerless over the Disease.”

Keep in mind that by now he and I have spent many a session working exclusively on craving control skills.He paused… and, with a sheepish smile, dared: “I am powerful over the Disease, Doc?”

You have to appreciate the weight of 12 Step dogma that he was trying to raise from! Had he leaked this hypothesis at a meeting or in a session with a 12 Step “recovery zealot” he would have likely been accused of being in denial, “slipping,” or “lapsing.” So, for him to even dare to think that he might be, in fact, powerful over the Disease took guts…

It’s basic and axiomatic: if you’ve been drinking and/or using for any length of time, you’ll have craving thoughts. Nothing you can do about that. They’ll pop into your mind, uninvited, particularly, when you are around certain “people, places, and things” or when you are in a certain state of mind.

This is plain ol’ Classical Conditioning stimulus-response. And indeed, a person who has been using and/or drinking develops numerous conditioned associations between various stimuli and his/her drug of choice.

Naturally, until such person gets used to (“habituates to”) these stimuli (in his/her post-cessation, post-drug-use life), he or she will experience conditioned cravings. So, in this sense, up to a point, you are powerless to entirely prevent and/or eliminate craving thoughts from their initial occurrence (after having been exposed to drinking/using stimuli).


But just because you are powerless to prevent the craving thought from occurring in the first place, it doesn’t mean that you are powerless to manage or control this thought.

Bottom-line: you are not powerless over how to respond to these cravings, over whether to act them out or to manage them. In fact, the Buddhist mindfulness meditation has been researched, clinically piloted and increasingly mainstreamed into the craving control repertoire of the contemporary drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs.

So, how about this for a first practical step: step aside (from the craving thought) and sit down (in mindfulness meditation) to restore your mind to its non-craving baseline.

Let’s review what we got here…

Addiction is a habit. Habits are stimulus-response patterns. If you have had any given habit for some time, when you decide to stop, your mind will keep reminding you to engage in a certain conditioned response whenever you are triggered or exposed to certain stimuli. But just because, your mind reminds you that you used to do this or that in this or that situation, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you are powerless to avoid doing this or that, once triggered. So, while you are powerless to completely avoid these mental reminders, these craving thoughts, you do have power to manage these thoughts (through good ol’ self-talk or by merely witnessing these thoughts and controlling your experience through mindfulness and/or relaxation).

Now, take a look at the following equation (1).

Using/Drinking Episode = Access to the Drug + Desire to Use/Drink/Consume the Drug

In order for you to use/drink, two things have to be absolutely present: you have to actually have the boose or drugs in your immediate possession and you have to have an active, immediate desire to consume the substance.

For example, if I got some drugs on me but I’ve been pulled over for speeding, my desire to use is on hold. Right now, all I care about is to get back on my way preferably without a speeding ticket, let alone without a possession charge. So, even though I have immediate and direct access to the drug, I have lost my immediate craving to use. As such, there is no using episode.

Similarly, if I actually got busted for possession and now I am sitting in the county jail, and I got a “whopper” of a craving but no immediate access to drugs, there’s not going to be a using episode as I have no direct, immediate means to satisfy my craving.

Or, say, I am sitting at home getting ready to shoot up. But then I think: I gotta see my PO (probation officer) tomorrow and pee in the cup. If my urine’s dirty, the PO is gonna “violate” me and send me back to jail. So, here I am: I got access to the drug and I sure have a craving for it. But – based on my pragmatic calculations – I gotta wait till after I see my PO. So, I have the tactical motivation to control my cravings (even if I have no strategic, long-term commitment to recovery) and, if I have the skill-power to control the craving, the basic know-how of how to manage this moment of desire, I might just avoid a using episode (if only for a day).

Where’s the unmanageable disease here? Which part exactly am I so fundamentally unable to control? So, even though I have direct access to the drug, by controlling my craving – albeit for an arguably myopic reason – I am able to avoid a using episode. No disease here: just applied, situational morality of avoiding adverse circumstances. Mere interplay of tactical motivation and craving control skill-power.

But what a laudable, promising self-regulatory precedent to build on! What a clinical treasure trove of the distinction between “can’t control the craving” and “won’t control the craving” to process and analyze!

What all this means is that in order to avoid a using/drinking episode, you have to either eliminate the access to the drug and/or to control the craving to use.

The former – elimination of the access to the drug – is a Stimulus Avoidance strategy best accomplished through a tried-and-true AA dictum of staying away from “people, places, and things.”

The latter – elimination of the immediate desire to use the substance in question – is the Response Control strategy best accomplished through craving control.

It goes without saying that if you’ve been using for long, let alone drinking, avoidance of internal and external stimuli that may trigger a craving is simply impractical.

After all, even if you don’t go to the block corner any more, you still got your cell phone. And even if erase your contacts on the phone, you still hear all about it wherever you go – at a meeting, in the movies, you name it… And even if you were to go on a 7-years-in-Tibet retreat, you still have your mind to remind you of the good ol’ times, right?

So, the Stimulus Avoidance strategy, the strategy of avoiding access to the drug – let’s face it – is limited. What’s left – and that should be plenty enough – is craving control. If you work on cultivating a solid, no-nonsense craving control skill-power, you need no will-power or God-power, and you definitely have no need for this dubious relapse prevention scare-tactic of “powerlessness.”

“What kinds of craving control methods are out there?” you might ask.

I am glad you finally asked: psychological and chemical.

Psychological craving control methods, in the descending order of my clinical preference, are Mindfulness (best, in my opinion), Relaxation (good), Self-Talk (satisfactory), Distraction (so-so).

Chemical craving control methods: you name it – from methadone to Cyboxin…

I can almost hear it: “Busted! Gotcha, sucka! You said “methodone,” you said Cyboxin… See! See! It’s a disease. A Disease!!! Not a habit! How can you be in control of a disease?!!! It’s physical, not mental, don’t you see?!!!”

I see, I see… I’ll take an unpopular stab at this mind-body Cartesian non-sense in a minute… But for now, let me just reminisce a bit…

Back when I was running a non-12-step drug and alcohol program in a county jail, I’d get challenged on my assumptions (like above) all the time. In adrenaline overdrive for two years, at least, I had to fend off these Disease Model counterarguments from my inmate clients. There’s nothing, nothing like Antisocials’ thirst for justice… The energy, the righteousness, the hunger to stump the expert! I enjoyed that work greatly, working with inmates taught me volumes about what it means to be free: while imprisoned, many of these minds were admirably free…
So, back to this notion of disease… It’s just, frankly, silly Cartesian mind-body dualism. Thoughts and feelings are real, they exist – therefore, they have a chemical (physiological) signature in this three-dimensional reality. Of course! No one’s arguing with this – it is banally self-evident. So, just because somebody can show you what your “addicted” brain looks like on drugs, it doesn’t mean that your habit is a disease.

I might be in a habit of tearing up every time I see a picture of that couple – holding hands – leaping out of the Twin Towers on 9/11. Think about it: I see the image and have a sad thought, and my eyes make water! A thought in my mind results in water pouring out of my eyes! Some fleeting event in my consciousness and look at this mess: I need a tissue, my eyes are red. A change in the state of mind led to a change in the state of body. Mind and Body are the Twin Towers: they stand together and they collapse together.

Need another example? Okay, here’s one. I took a leak but forgot to zip up my fly. Now, when a client (God forbid!) points this out to me, I have a thought: “Oh, man! How could I?!” A fleeting event in my consciousness – and my face, my face (!) reddens as I blush. A thought of embarrassment – and blood, blood (!) re-distributes its flow and floods my face… What the hell… Must be a case of… “emotional-vascular” disease…

This mind-body connection is so tight that it’s time we took the hyphen from this “mind-body” dualism…

So, what am I getting at? What I am saying is that addiction is a habit, and as any habit, it is a stimulus-response pattern, and as any human habit, addiction involves both mind and body (or better yet, the un-hyphenated bodymind), and that there is no difference between mind and body, they are a one indivisible whole, so when you control one part of this whole, you control the other part of this whole. That’s how the whole thing works – as a whole! That’s why craving control can be achieved either through psychological or chemical pathways. All roads lead to Rome, don’t they?

You might say: “but what about the withdrawal effects, what about tolerance?” Again, everything you feel or think or do, has a physical/physiological manifestation.

If you want to have a sip of coffee, the thought “I want some coffee” translates into a complicated physiological cascade until this thought of yours eventuated in a motor behavior of your hand picking up a cup of coffee from a table and bringing it to your lips. If you drink coffee a lot, then eventually your bodymind adjusts to this ongoing and habitual intake of caffeine.

Namely (you are better off skipping this psychophysiological mumbo-jumbo straight from Wikipedia unless you’ve already had a cup of coffee yourself this morning): “Because caffeine is primarily an antagonist of the central nervous system’s receptors for the neurotransmitter adenosine, the bodies of individuals who regularly consume caffeine adapt to the continual presence of the drug by substantially increasing the number of adenosine receptors in the central nervous system. This increase in the number of the adenosine receptors makes the body much more sensitive to adenosine, with two primary consequences. First, the stimulatory effects of caffeine are substantially reduced, a phenomenon known as a tolerance adaptation. Second, because these adaptive responses to caffeine make individuals much more sensitive to adenosine, a reduction in caffeine intake will effectively increase the normal physiological effects of adenosine, resulting in unwelcome withdrawal symptoms in tolerant users” (Wikipedia).

My point?

Just because we are not consciously supervising all this psycho-physiological re-calibration, it doesn’t mean that it is a disease. When I cry, I do not consciously direct my tear glands to produce water. Nor do I instruct my circulatory system to divert a pint of blood to my face when I feel embarrassed. That’s just what happens. The Cartesian mind-body paradigm of modern medicine, particularly, addiction medicine, latches on to the fact that what we do has a physiological signature and imbues it with the significance of the disease.

Just because my body reflects the workings of my mind in the mirror of flesh it doesn’t mean that these workings are independent and uncontrollable. To think of addiction as a disease (rather than a habit with a physiological signature) is to presuppose a ghost in the (human) machine.

You might object: “But don’t you see, drug use changes the bodily chemistry… Haven’t you read the very passage you posted from Wikipedia… See, here they say, the increase in the number of adenosine receptors… These are actual structural changes!”

Yes, they are, indeed, structural changes. Real as they can be. Some structural changes are reversible as the postural crossing of the legs as I adjust my posture in the chair. And some, not so much: as you alter the pigmentation of your skin with the tat of your girl-friend’s name on your shoulder.

The body documents what the mind does and the fact of this physiological signature is not a disease but a reality of our corporeal psychosomatic organization.

But let us get back to the point of this blog (and, by the way, if you want a more definitive de-construction of the Disease Model, read Stanton Peele’s “Diseasing of America” and Jeffrey Schaler’s “Addiction is a Choice;” while at it, you might also check out Santoro’s “Kill the Craving” exposure-response prevention protocol).

So, the “steps.” I am not opposed to them. In fact, I clinically treasure the vast networking and support resources the 12 Step paradigm has on tap for the folks embarking on recovery. But three of these steps, in my opinion, could stand a bit of revision.

With the above considerations in mind, the 1st, 2nd, and 11th Steps of the 12 Step approach could be reformulated as follows:

Step 1: “We admitted that while our minds become unmanageable when we are intoxicated, and while we are powerless over having an occasional conditioned craving for drugs and/or alcohol, we do have the power to control our cravings and thus to prevent drinking/using episodes in the future.”

*It is, of course, true that once intoxicated, a person’s capacity to render effective, strategically-savvy decisions is debilitated to the extent proportionate to the degree and type of intoxication as well as to the degree of one’s metabolic processes and tolerance. Consequently, a person is powerless over drugs and/or alcohol when he or she, in fact, ceases to exist as an intact psycho-physiological entity that he or she is at a non-intoxicated baseline. That, however, does not mean that once the person sobers up he or she is powerless to prevent future substance use. The extent of your intoxication yesterday has nothing to do with whether you will or not control your craving to use again tomorrow. Sure, it’s harder to control your cravings when you are “jonesing” than when you are not: but harder doesn’t mean impossible…

Step 2: “We came to know that we, ourselves, could restore us to our functional baseline**”

**Note that in paraphrasing step 2, I have replaced the phrase “restores to sanity” with “restore to functional baseline.” The term “sanity” implies that substance use is madness and therefore retrospectively invalidates substance use as a legitimate, albeit imperfect, form of coping. After all, in order to change, clients need a belief in their sanity; any implication of prior insanity only contributes to unnecessary sense of hopelessness. After all, if past predicts the future, then past insanity predicts future insanity. Clients should not be robbed of their phenomenology as being rational.

Step 11: “Sought through mindfulness meditation (or other craving control) to improve our conscious contact with ourselves and to control our cravings”

Re-processing of the Powerlessness legacy in such a way may allow the client with strong prior allegiance to the 12 Step philosophy to retain a modified version of the steps. Most of the 12 Steps, in my opinion, definitely take a person in recovery in the right direction. But, as the evidence on the use of mindfulness in craving control suggests, perhaps, it’s a good idea to take a few mindful steps and then to sit down in Zazen (Buddhist “sitting meditation”) once in a while.

So, to all you, steppers: march on! Just don’t goose-step past the obvious. You have the power to control your cravings. Craving is but another train of thought: step aside and sit down….

The journey of recovery, a millions steps no less!, perhaps, begins with, first, sitting still – transfixed in meditation…

source: Huffington Post

Pavel Somov, Ph.D. is the author of “Eating the Moment: 141 Mindful Practices to Overcome Overeating One Meal at a Time”, and is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Pittsburgh, PA.
Posted: June 3, 2009 07:38 AM (

Pavel Somov: p.s.: don’t get me wrong: the12 steps movement is well intentioned and is in the ball-park: it has raised the public awareness, it offers an almost 24×7 free (!) alternative to traditional treatment; furthermore, spirituality, socialization, and trigger control/stimulus avoidance are all important ingredients in the process of recovery; but as all therapeutic paradigms, the movement, would benefit from some conceptual and technical fine-tuning. Any rebels out there to kick start the NAA (neo-AA)?


  1. I like the revised steps above. I also like the concept of the mind and the body being one, because in my addiction, they became so detached.

    I have a problem with the powerless thing … I know I can’t stop once I start drinking, but I think I have the power to say no to the first drink. And I can somewhat control what I think/feel, so that’s powerful too.

    And I also think the higher power is within, at least partially. To me, right now, it’s kinda like the ability to connect with people and the world on a higher level. I don’t know if that makes any sense.

    I’m not sure if the 12 steps are for me, but they seem to work for others. They seem too “magical” for me to digest at the moment. I’ll just keep reading. Thanks for posting.

    • Hey blu, thanks again for the great comments,

      I like the revised steps above.”
      Yeah, I’m really liking his #11 version:

      Step 11: “Sought through mindfulness meditation (or other craving control) to improve our conscious contact with ourselves and to control our cravings”

      If I just had one step to do everyday, that would be the one.

      I have a problem with the powerless thing
      Me too. I will admit I am still powerless over getting cravings without warning.
      But have become extremely powerful in my awareness of them, and in not giving in to them.

      And I also think the higher power is within, at least partially. To me, right now, it’s kinda like the ability to connect with people and the world on a higher level. I don’t know if that makes any sense.”
      Perfect sense.
      I wish more people thought like that.
      And not just at 12 Step meetings.

      “I’m not sure if the 12 steps are for me”
      Obviously, I think the same.
      I had to re-write them myself, in order to just understand what their purpose was and be able to use them.
      I am so glad to see an article by a professional where he has suggested some changes are needed.
      I seriously think that just as an exercise, everyone should re-write their own 12 Steps in a way that fits their recovery.

      I just boiled down the theme of each step and then replaced the mythological characters with a firm belief in reality, if you look at the version I wrote that started this blog (note the italicized words) back in January,
      but here’s the no-nonsense boiled down version I had to do to really understand what the purpose or theme of each step was:

      1. admit there’s a destructive problem
      2. believe it can get fixed
      3. let myself be helped by myself and others who believe it can be fixed
      4. make a realistic evaluation or “inventory” of my thoughts, feelings and behaviors
      5. review this evaluation with someone who has gone down this path before me
      6. let my patterns of destructive thinking be revealed to me
      7. replace my destructive thinking.
      8. make a list of all person’s I have harmed,
      9. make amends
      10. continue to evaluate my life
      11. seek to improve my conscious mindful awareness
      12. acknowledge my progress away from addiction and be willing to share any recovery information I might have learned with others

      I might have to make a post of this boiled down, no-nonsense 12 Steps. 😉


  2. “I seriously think that just as an exercise, everyone should re-write their own 12 Steps in a way that fits their recovery.”

    That seems like a great idea. Anyone who’s serious about recovery shouldn’t have a problem with that. Mine would be dynamic, because I reserve the right to change my mind, as long as I’m moving in a positive direction.

    I like your version of the 12 steps. I read them a while ago, but they mean more to me now — I think they’re kind of what i’m doing now, but I just had to find my own way. And I might do things out of order, but as long as I get there, it’s all good.

    I smile when I read “mythological characters,” because it seems maybe a little critical of others’ beliefs, but I think it’s funny because that’s esentially how I see it too.

    One of things that’s keeping me away from AA meetings now is the “Lord’s Prayer” at the end. I don’t have to say it, but when I look around and everyone else is saying it (and feeling it), I feel a little disconnected with the group. Maybe you should re-write that one too. 🙂

    It’s good to find like-minded people out there — thanks again.

  3. “I smile when I read “mythological characters,””
    HaHa, I know it does seem a little critical. But i’m losing my patience with peoples crazy beliefs. Somedays, I just feel like I live in world where everyone still believes in Santa Claus and they expect me to as well.
    I just can’t do that.

    “lord’s prayer”
    I really really don’t like that one, of course.
    It actually turns my stomach for some reason.
    To me, it just seems more like “the oath of the ultimate co-dependent relationship”.
    The one where people refuse to take responsibility for themselves, their own lives, thoughts, feelings and behaviors.
    But instead, they look outside themselves and nurture a relationship where they make someone else more powerful over their lives than themselves.
    And the sad part is that the co-dependent relationship is actually with a fictitious character from an old mythology.
    Might as well be Zeus’s prayer.
    This prayer is a great insult to reality.

    Ok, now that seemed just a little critical but it is reality. HaHaHa.

    • but Santa brings me presents, so he’s still cool, right? i’m over the tooth fairy, though, ’cause i got nothing for my wisdom teeth.

      • I don’t know bout Santa,
        or the tooth fairy neither,
        but I do know for a fact that there was once an elf up at the N Pole,
        who just wanted to be a dentist.
        Its for reals.
        Check It.

      • you’re crazy. hahahahahaha!

  4. Hi,These articles and posts are very interesting,and the site is doing a grand job.
    I would like to add somthing if i may,
    as a recovered alcoholic, i feel that the twelve step’s have been diluted in so many ways, by so many different groups, that they have lost the true meaning in what Dr Bob and Bill W. originaly intended them for.Having been a member of the fellowship for a number of years,and able to trace my sponsorship back to Dr Bob, i can truly say that i am a recoverd Alcoholic, as printed in the forward to the first edition in 1939.
    I “work the programme” as you hve referred to in a way that was sugested to me by my sponsor,and his sponsor as before him, in all its originality, and find that i am truly free of all cravings. I am no longer restless iritable and disscontent. I keep it simple.

  5. I attend AA meetings in the UK and we don’t say the lords prayer at the end of meetings. We do however say the serenity prayer (or chant as I prefer to think of it). Personally I use good not god to get me through the steps, the big book, the meetings and life!

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