"I took the advice of all the people in the program: they told me, simply, Do the next right thing."

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Episode 21 -- June 5, 2020

Surrender: How Step 3 Helps During a Pandemic

One of the most obvious aspects of living through the unpredictability of the pandemic is how hard it is to feel like we're in control. Does this remind you of anything? Does it seem like it's just too much? For those of us who walk in the worlds of both mental illness and addiction, it's important to think about what Step 3 means for our need to make things work according to our will, especially with the coronavirus in our midst. Here, in her book Sane, Marya Hornbacher recounts part of her recovery journey, and shares some wisdom about the illusion of self-control and the concept of surrender.

This excerpt is from Sane by Marya Hornbacher. It has been edited for brevity.

Not many people sail straight through Step Three with no effort at all. Most of us are stubborn, and most of us are afraid. But what extra challenges does this Step pose for people with mental illness--and what extra gifts might it bring?

In my experience, and in the stories I've heard from other addicts with mental illness, the first stumbling block we reached was delusion-- the delusion that we could, through sheer force of will, make our mental illness go away, make our addiction go away, and force our lives under our control. My fondest belief, long held and without basis, was that if I just tried hard enough, I'd think like other people, drink like other people, and be like other people--or at least be as calm, cool, and collected as they all seemed to be. If I just kept trying, I'd be as in control of myself, my life, and the world as those people were. Where did I come up with this stuff? Well, apparently I wasn't alone in it. Turns out that addicts as a bunch are possessed of the notion that a bulldozing approach to life is the best one--and it turns out, too, that it has gotten all of us into the same mess. From the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions: "Our whole trouble had been the misuse of willpower. We had tried to bombard our problems with it instead of attempting to bring it into agreement with God's intention for us."

But for those of us who deal with mental illness, the illusion of control can be especially appealing. When we so often feel that our lives and our minds themselves are beyond our control, the first instinct we have is to try to wrest them back under control. We try this and try this, over and over, for years, each time becoming more frustrated and more bewildered by our "failure" to do the impossible--run our lives on self-will alone--and each time becoming more firmly convinced that we just need to try harder. In other words, with every attempt to force ourselves into sobriety and sanity by sheer willpower, and each failure that followed, we redoubled our commitment to the delusion that we're in control.

The revelation that we are not, in fact, running the show is not an immediately comforting or comfortable one. I felt like I was in total free fall when informed that I wasn't the one running my life. Well, I demanded, if I wasn't, who was?

My sponsor pointed out, somewhat sarcastically, that the world also did not turn because I told it to turn. I half-believed it did. And I seriously questioned the wisdom of turning my life over to whatever force turned the world; that force seemed far too big to have much concern with a life as small and wrecked as mine. She asked how it was working out for me to run my own life. I had to agree that it wasn't going all too well. So, she said, turn it over. Act. Make the decision to turn your life and your will over to the care of God as you understand Him.

Well, I didn't understand Him, It, or They. I couldn't make the leap of faith that if I trusted It, It would run my life well if I turned it over. Talk about arrogance. I was pretty sure that if there was a God, he was bound to mess up my life if I let him. And so I took the advice of all the people in the program: they told me, simply, Do the next right thing. And the difference between doing God's will and doing the next right thing isn't all that great. It is a difference in how we see a Higher Power, and we are free to see that as we choose.

Some people find it useful to think of turning themselves over to the program, to their group, or to working the Steps. These are concrete, practical things that require our willingness. We have evidence of their effectiveness in the other people in the program who are living the kind of lives we ourselves want to lead--we see their sanity, serenity, and sobriety, and we want it. Turning ourselves over to the program and the Steps is a viable way of practicing willingness, and it has worked for millions of sober people.

What I discovered was that the willingness to let go of the reins, to let go of the notion that my ideas of how to run my life were the right ones, was enough. I became willing to entertain the radical idea that I was not in charge.

And that willingness made all the difference.

It led to acceptance and belief.

For more thoughts about acceptance and control in this trying time in our recovery, read Sane by Marya Hornbacher.

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
© 2010 by Marya Hornbacher
All rights reserved