" The most important thing that Step Six brings us is this: a vision for who we can become."

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Episode 9 -- May 12, 2020

Readiness to Change: Step 6 for Those with Mental Illness

For those of us who balance both mental illness and substance use disorders, it's hard to find our footing during a global pandemic. Marya Hornbacher, in her book Sane: Mental Illness, Addiction, and the 12 Steps writes about the Sixth Step in Twelve Step programs: the willingness to have God [or our Higher Power] remove our defects of character. She identifies fear and anger as her own character flaws that she needed to examine. Perhaps you can relate. The novel coronavirus is sewing chaos in our lives; we are scared and angry. Read here about how we can work with that as we work through our recovery. This excerpt has been edited for brevity.

We used to fight change. I know I did. Change was threatening, even though I was always telling myself how badly I wanted things to be different--I wanted not to be drunk, I wanted not to be sick, I wanted things to slow down, be less chaotic, be different, be anything other than the way they were--and yet, curiously, I never seemed to be willing to do anything to change them. It's true that many people fear change and that we'll do a whole lot to stay stuck with what's familiar simply because we know it well. But addicts are particularly skittish about change, because it requires them to move out of their comfort zone, away from the self-destructive safety of their substance or behavior of choice. We may be in hell, but it's our hell, and many of us would rather stay there than risk the frightening world outside. And people with mental illness, in many cases, fear change because they fear things can never get better, only worse. So oftentimes, we cling to the known devastation and chaos rather than bother with what seems like a pointless effort to get things under control.

But we have changed. At this point in our recovery, we've changed a lot. When I got to Step Six and realized this was the case, I was stunned. I'd been convinced for as long as I could remember that I was stuck in my own private nightmare and that there was no way out--no way past the booze, no way past the mental illness, no way to live any kind of peaceful life, no way to reach anything like peace of mind. But when I found myself reviewing my work in the first five Steps, I found that I had become nearly unrecognizable--even to myself. And while that was really disorienting, it also meant that for the first time in my life, I was beginning to like who I was.

So, faced with the requirement of Step Six--were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character--I knew things were about to seriously change. And like a great many people embarking on this Step, I was scared.

This readiness means being totally open to a new way of life and a new kind of self. And going into it, you don't know what that life and self are going to look like. It's amazing how much we define ourselves by our defects of character. When I thought about my most glaring character flaws, they were these (and they were indeed glaring): anger and fear. Those weren't the only ones (not by a long shot), but they were big. And I was used to them. I still defined myself by them in many ways. So, I wondered, who would I be if they were removed? Who would I be if I weren't angry? Would I become weak? Get trampled by the world? And who would I be if I weren't, underneath all that bravado of anger, secretly terrified of everyone and everything? Part of me wanted these things gone, but part of me was so used to them that I was clinging to them with both fists.

But before we look at some examples of things that are commonly lifted from people in recovery, especially people with mental illness, we need to remind ourselves: symptoms of our mental illness are not character defects. So Step Six is not about asking for our symptoms to be removed. Our mental illness is part of our physical structure and isn't going to go away. We know it will probably get much, much easier to manage when we get the addictive substances out of our system and get our addictive behaviors under control, but we will still have genetic brain disorders that will sometimes act up. We will still have our bouts of depression, anxiety, mania, and other symptoms; it's important for us not to tell ourselves that we're ¿not working a good program" if symptoms set in. The trick here is accepting the presence of the brain disorder while doing all we can to manage it; meanwhile, we can work on the parts of our character, beliefs, and behaviors over which we have some control.

So how ready are we to have these character defects removed? We have to look at what we may still be hanging on to. These things serve us in some way, and figuring out how they serve us may take some close examination. Here are a few things I hung on to and that I know other people with mental illness sometimes hang on to as well:

  • Envy. I was jealous of people who didn't have mental illness. I thought they had it easier than I did, didn't suffer as much, didn't struggle. For one thing, this just isn't true. Everyone has struggles, everyone goes through suffering, and many people were struggling with far more than I ever had. For another thing, envy in my case was another word for "feeling sorry for myself." I had to get off my pity pot and learn something I was totally unfamiliar with, which is envy's opposite and its cure: gratitude. In asking for the defect of envy to be removed, I was not asking to be glad I had a mental illness; I was asking that my eyes be opened to all the other beautiful things in my life.
  • Fear. I was afraid of my own shadow. Also of other people, going broke, failing, succeeding, doing laundry, saying the wrong thing, having symptoms, having serious episodes, losing the people I loved, dealing with my mental illness, not dealing with my mental illness, facing my addiction, not facing my addiction. But above all, I was afraid of myself. Like a lot of people with mental illness, I was scared of my mind and the way it worked and sometimes didn't work. I was scared of losing control, scared of the thoughts and impulses I sometimes had, scared of the confusion that sometimes overcame me, scared of the chaos that seemed to consume me, and scared of the chaos I seemed destined to create. But I was so used to my fear that it seemed to define me; I couldn't tell who I was apart from it. I couldn't imagine a life without it. When I became willing to have my fear removed, I also had to become willing to do what I could to make my own life less frightening, and that meant imagining a new life.
  • Attachment to my disorders. Who wants to admit that they actually like some aspects of addiction and mental illness? Some of us are indeed attached, however ambivalently, to our disorders, and this is one of the reasons why: they are states of extremes, and they create extreme emotions in us. We get used to the thrills. We welcome them sometimes, and sometimes we even court them. We go off our meds; we do drugs that we know will exacerbate our highs; we drink to exacerbate both highs and lows; we get involved with people who feed into our illness; we don't keep up with our mental health appointments; we don't do the things that help keep our symptoms at bay; we rely too heavily on other people for things we could do ourselves, or blame things on our illness that are really our responsibility, and then we refuse help when we most need it; we do all sorts of things to destabilize our lives. And then, when we crash, we wonder what happened--and then we do it again. In recovery from addiction and mental illness, we need to be willing to let go of the thrill of extremes. That's hard, because we fear our life may be dull without them. But that just isn't what happens, as we soon learn. The rush of thrills is gradually replaced by the joy of peace of mind.

For me, those defects were just the tip of the iceberg. But you've got to start somewhere, so that's where I started in trying to let go of the familiar defects that caused me so many problems, but that I was so very attached to.

We have to bear in mind that in Step Six we are only becoming ready. No promises have been made to us about whether these character defects will be removed or when. I'm a pretty impatient person, and when I decided I was ready to have them removed, I wanted them all removed yesterday, if not sooner. Didn't happen. The important realization about Step Six is this: like the other Steps, it's not just a Step. It's not a quick glance over your work so far as you sprint toward the next six Steps. It's a permanent change in your approach to life. You're getting ready to become the person you will be.

The most important thing that this Step brings us is this: a vision for who we can become. Practicing this Step, we see that we have already changed, and we see that we're putting the discoveries of previous Steps to work. Surrender, willingness, honesty, humility, and acceptance are all at play as we recognize the truth of our addiction and our mental illnesses, as we face some truths about ourselves, and as we let go of the defects that are keeping us trapped.

About the author:
Marya Hornbacher, author of the international best sellers Madness and Wasted, offers an enlightening examination of the Twelve Steps for those with co-occurring addiction and mental health disorders.

Sane: Mental Illness, Addiction, and the 12 Steps
By Marya Hornbacher
© 2010 by Marya Hornbacher
All rights reserved.