"Recovering people with mental illness have a unique and critical capacity to help others."

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Episode 114 -- May 17, 2021

The Joy of Step Twelve: Help Yourself by Helping Others

In her book Sane: Mental Illness, Addiction, and the 12 Steps, author Marya Hornbacher examines the Twelve Steps and how they support the tough yet rewarding journey toward recovery from addiction and successful management of a mental health disorder.

Hornbacher offers suggestions and ideas for how those who suffer from co-occurring addiction and mental health disorders can practice the Twelve Steps. In this excerpt, we dive into Step Twelve: "Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs." Hornbacher discusses how, even in early sobriety, we are working the Twelfth Step daily. She explains that through the various ways of carrying the message to others, we make a vital move beyond ourselves. We can hope for ongoing, contented sobriety and expect the blossoming of emotional, mental, and spiritual growth when we are a service to others.

This excerpt has been edited for brevity.

"Faith without works is dead." We read this line in the Big Book more than once. At first, it calls for action toward the immediate, critical project of being restored to sanity as we work the Steps. But when we reach the Twelfth Step, we turn our attention outward toward people who are still suffering. It is because we have worked these Steps, and because we have had a spiritual awakening as the result, that we are now uniquely qualified to be of service to other people suffering from mental illness and addiction.

When we talk about Step Twelve, we generally focus on service work—"tried to carry this message to alcoholics"—but really, it's a three-part step. The first part—"having had a spiritual awakening"—and the last part—"to practice these principles in all our affairs"—are no less important in understanding the Step.

The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions says that "the joy of living" is the theme of the Twelfth Step and "action is its key word." It's action in service of others that brings joy. When we work this Step, the Big Book says, "Life will take on new meaning. To watch people recover, to see them help others, to watch loneliness vanish, to see a fellowship grow up about you, to have a host of friends—this is an experience you must not miss." And I have to agree. In Step Twelve, we become a part of a vital, living community of people working together toward the common goals of sobriety, sanity, and spiritual growth. We become a part of that community the moment we walk in the door. But we begin to truly feel the warmth of fellowship when we freely share the gifts that we have been given, without expectation of praise or reward.

When I set out on the path of sobriety, the idea that I could be of use to anyone, in any way, was entirely unexpected. I was used to the ways in which my unwillingness to manage my mental illness and arrest my addiction had caused others pain and struggle. I saw myself as little more than a burden to other people. I had trouble re-conceptualizing my role in the world of others; it was an unfamiliar notion that I had anything of substance to offer other people. It took me some time before I could see all the ways in which I was capable of being of service. It began with recognizing that the very nature of my own struggle—dealing with both mental illness and addiction—was the source of my greatest strength, a strength I wanted to share with others who might need it.

Recovering people with mental illness have a unique and critical capacity to help others. Not only can we be of service to any other addict, to our groups and Twelve Step organizations, to people in our communities, and simply to the people in our lives, but we also have the ability to understand and help people like ourselves, addicts who have struggled with mental illness, in a way that many other people cannot. Those of us who have experience in handling both mental illness and addiction are of critical importance to each other. We know better than to put forward uninformed opinions about matters of science and brain chemistry; we know better than to play armchair psychiatrist; we know how essential medication is for the majority of us; and we know that managing both mental disorders and addiction is a major challenge.

But we know one more thing, which matters more than anything else: we know that recovery is possible for us. We are growing by leaps and bounds in our own recovery, and because of this, we can share that vital piece of information with another person: there is hope.

Much of the Twelfth Step is about bearing witness. Having walked this difficult and rewarding path ourselves and knowing as we do that this path will take us through our whole lives, we can bear witness to another person's struggles and recovery. Our job in fellowship and service is not to tell another person how it's done, nor is it to carry someone along the path; our job is to walk with them, telling them how we did it and how we do it daily, when they ask.

Those of us with mental illness can bear witness to one another in very particular ways. The fact of the matter is, my sponsor has no idea what psychosis is like. She does not know what mania feels like and has never been in the hell of depression. I do, and I have. And because I have been to these places, I can listen more closely and with deeper understanding when other people tell me about similar places they've been, things they've felt, things they've thought, when they were suffering from their mental disorder and when they were not.

The recovering people in my life who deal with mental illness are a crucial resource for me, and I hope I'm a resource for them. They know the landscape of mental illness intimately; they also know the landscape of health. Those of us who are recovering from mental illness and addiction are able to hear one another's stories without judgment and fear. For many of us, recovery may be the first time we have felt so fully understood. It may take some time for us to find the groups and the people who will get it. But we're there, and the more vocal we are, the more supportive we can be.

We can be open with each other in a way perhaps not possible for us with just any recovering person. Openness and honesty are critical to sobriety; all of us need someone with whom we can share our stories completely. As we embark upon the Twelfth Step, we can make it our goal to be that person for someone else. It's said time and again that when we work the Twelfth Step and offer our help to others, they may actually be helping us more than we're helping them. That's not a bad thing as long as we are genuinely trying to be of service; it's just how it works. "Give and you shall receive" is an old and apt saying here. And it's true.

Our service work can expand beyond that, even early in sobriety. We don't have to look far for opportunities. We can join our groups in taking meetings to treatment centers, shelters, prisons, detox centers, or homebound people. We can make calls to newcomers or to just about anyone, and make a connection that will be useful to both ourselves and them. We can offer to tell our story or speak on the Step or topic in our meetings, or get on the list of volunteer speakers in our Twelve Step organization and visit other groups. Simply putting our time and energy to use in service of other recovering people's needs, large or small, is how we carry the message.

We may also be able to offer particular insight not just to other recovering people with mental illness but also to their families or friends when those people have questions about the program and about recovery from mental disorders and addiction as a whole. Families and friends are often in the dark about how their loved one is working toward health, and our experience with that process can help them understand what's going on, what they can hope for, and how they can help. We can also offer to be a contact person for people we meet who deal with co-occurring disorders; simply having a phone number for a person who will understand is immeasurably valuable to people who are setting off down this road.

About the Author:
In addition to her international best sellers Madness: A Bipolar Life, and Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia, Marya Hornbacher is the author of the novel The Center of Winter as well as Sane: Mental Illness, Addiction, and the 12 Steps and Waiting: A Nonbeliever's Higher Power.

© 2010 by Marya Hornbacher
All rights reserved