Recovering addicts who’ve achieved lasting sobriety, no matter their addiction – alcohol, drugs, shopping, gambling, eating, sex, or anything else – will nearly always state unequivocally that the key to their recovery has been working the 12 steps. Steps one and two have been discussed in this space previously, which brings us to step three. Step one, of course, helps the addict understand the depth and consequences of his or her addiction. Step two helps the addict realize that if he or she hopes to make changes for the better, outside help is needed. Step three starts the process of actually accepting that help. In this sense step three is the first real “action” step of recovery. It the first time that the addict is asked to actually do something – he or she is asked to make a decision that outside guidance will be accepted and followed.
It is not unusual for the word “God” to bungle the works a bit, as many addicts have bad memories of the punishing deity with which they were raised. You know, tall guy, white beard, flowing robes, gets really, really angry when you don’t do exactly what he wants, when he wants, occasionally drops a plague of locusts, likes to flood the planet, etc. Some addicts, even those who are eager for recovery, have no intention whatsoever of ever re-engaging with that guy.
Well, good news: that’s not what step three is about. For addicts who struggle with the God thing it is perfectly acceptable to substitute the words “power greater than ourselves.” In other words, believing in God and understanding God are not necessary to successfully engage in the recovery process, especially not as this early juncture. Addicts only have to acknowledge that they need and are going to willingly accept help, which usually arrives in the form of supportive individuals who can aid in their ongoing sobriety – therapists, 12-step fellowships, 12-step sponsors, friends in recovery, etc. For many recovering addicts the word “God” becomes an acronym for the “Good Orderly Direction” provided by their advisors and support network.
Nevertheless, some addicts still struggle mightily with the God concept. The religion of their early life is simply too ingrained, and the resentments run too deep. In such cases a simple exercise often helps. The addict gets a large sheet of paper. On it, he or she draws a giant circle. Inside the circle the addict writes attributes that he or she thinks an ideal higher power would possess – loving, caring, honest, funny, protective, nurturing, etc. Outside the circle the addict writes attributes that his or her higher power should not possess – angry, judgmental, punishing, dictatorial, and the like. Then the addict uses a pair of scissors to cut away whatever lies outside the circle. These undesirable attributes are then ripped up and thrown away, ceremonially burned, or whatever. The addict then agrees to act as if what remains, the desirable higher power attributes, are the reality of God for that person.
If the addict thinks this exercise is silly, it may help to re-read the final five words of step three: God as we understood him. It is up to the addict to understand (or not understand) his or her higher power, and nobody in 12-step recovery should ever judge the addict’s concept thereof. In other words, each addict is free to find and include in his or her life a higher power that works for him or her. That higher power need not match anyone else’s in the program of recovery (or anywhere else, for that matter).
For addicts who are unwilling to consider any sort of spiritual entity at all, the program still works. For these folks, the way to work step three is to identify three or more people the addict is willing to trust and to ask for help about absolutely anything. Those people can form the addict’s higher power – the collective entity to whom he or she will (at least for now) turn over willful behavior and control. Essentially these higher power individuals become sounding boards, advisors, and accountability partners. For instance, a newly sober alcoholic might agree to call one or more of these individuals both before and after a work-related cocktail party to help ensure his or her sobriety.
In the end, addicts are well served to understand that a higher power (whether they choose to call it God, Higher Power, or something else) can be anything outside of themselves that helps them stay sober.