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A Day at a Time: How to Apply 12-Step Principles During COVID-19 Times

March 30, 2020

Written by

Tian Dayton, PhD, TEP

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By Dr. Tian Dayton, Meadows Senior Fellow, Clinical Psychologist, Psychodramatist, Author

Messages in a Bottle

We are not strangers to unusual challenges in the addictions world. We have lived with chaos and unmanageability before, and we have learned to use program principles to create calm in a storm. We have also learned to accept and even embrace challenges as part of our spiritual growth. And we have found that embracing those challenges has ultimately led to our being happier, stronger, and more resilient people.

This current moment in time, however, is giving “practicing these principles in all our affairs” a whole new meaning. So how can we draw on program wisdom to get through the days and the weeks ahead? How can we, a day at a time, embrace this kind of challenge?

What we have learned about how to walk through difficult days with a level of equanimity, acceptance, and grace through working the 12 Steps provides a template for what to do in a moment like this. It’s a template that luckily includes many falls from grace throughout the day and, luckily again, plenty of tools and techniques to forgive ourselves and get back on track! Here is some of the time-tested program wisdom that might help you get through the special challenges of your days.

Step One: We Admitted We Were Powerless, That Our Lives Had Become Unmanageable.

We are certainly dealing with what feels like unmanageability. What could be more unmanageable than a virus that we cannot see, that communicates in many, unseen ways, and that we are scrambling for ways to test for or to protect ourselves from? A virus that seems to have a life of its own? A virus that can turn our world upside down with breathless alacrity?

We have experienced helplessness before. It is a natural reaction to feeling overwhelmed. It’s part of the collapse that can accompany trauma. But there is a profound, psychological shift that can bring us out of a state of helplessness and hopelessness toward surrender. This is an important shift in trauma parlance. By admitting our powerlessness, we surrender and make a conscious shift from helplessness to powerlessness. By surrendering, we’re shifting from a sense of feeling like a helpless victim to a chosen recognition of our own powerlessness over unmanageability (in this case, a virus).

We have learned in recovery that while helplessness made us feel like a victim, surrender gave us hope and a sense of lifting and light entering our world. Surrender opens a path so that we can “take the next right action.” That next right action may be simply walking across the room and drinking a glass of water. It may be organizing the kitchen or making a plan for the day. It may be reaching out to talk to a friend, doing work from home, getting dressed, or exercising. Surrender brings us back into the moment where we see that doing the thing that is in front of us as well as we can, with the best attitude that we can muster, will strengthen us to take the next right action and will make doing it all the easier until it becomes habit. And in times of stress, when our thoughts get muddled and we freeze in place, our good habits are our best friends because they are a part of us, and we don’t have to think about them. They are just there. They are habit.

Step Two: We Came to Believe That a Power Greater Than Ourselves Could Restore Us to Sanity.

When we surrender, we make the shift toward the kind of humility that is part of recognizing that we cannot do it alone. We give up, in the best sense of the word. We see that we need not manage in a vacuum, that to be marooned in our heads going in circles, even if we are good thinkers, is not helping. We get out of our own way. We invite a kind of light into our minds and hearts that is nourishing and restorative, that can quiet our raging, inner world. Once again, this is a form of trauma treatment. Trauma as well as depression makes us want to isolate, to withdraw into ourselves. We feel cut off. We don’t reach out. The second step is a way of reaching up, of feeling less isolated, a way to open ourselves to something else.

Step Three: We Made a Decision to Turn Our Will and Our Lives Over to the Care of God as We Understood Him.

And in the third step we make that quiet inner gesture that changes everything: We turn it over, we “let go and let God.” We may be socially isolating, but the third step connects us to a power greater than ourselves that is the very opposite of isolation, that carries with it a profound sense of belonging. We trust that we are cared for and carried by unseen hands, that we’re not struggling alone and in vain.

“God grant me the serenity To accept the things I cannot change The courage to change the things I can And the wisdom to know the difference.” -Reinhold Niebuhr

Whether we turn our will and our lives over to God, to a Higher Power, to nature or Good Orderly Direction, “turning it over” relieves us of staying stuck in the kind of negative feedback loops that make us crazy. We stop digging ourselves deeper into psychic holes, we get off of the hamster wheel. This clears the decks, so to speak, and allows us to know the difference between what we can manage and what is beyond our control. We can focus on managing our mood, because we have turned over to God or a higher consciousness what we cannot control. Then we are simply left to manage our part, which is our mood, our anxiety, irritability, fear, reactivity, hopelessness, negativity, sense of loss, and so forth. These are the things we can have some control over. And when these feel unmanageable, we can surrender them. In fact, surrender is one of our ways of managing them. We can forgive ourselves for having them and let them dissipate, let them go, or place them into the loving hands of that power greater than ourselves.

One other premise of recovery is that if we meet the challenges of our lives head on, we will not only survive, we will thrive. We will strengthen ourselves, we’ll template new, stronger, and better habits because our less-than-optimal habits will be in high relief and we’ll see more immediately and clearly that we need to trade them in for better ones. We will grow personally, inter-personally and we will grow soul.

It’s well known that 12-Step meetings the world over close with everyone standing up, joining hands, and repeating the Serenity Prayer. While joining hands is temporarily interrupted at this moment, we can still join hearts and say it together.