Wednesday October 22nd 2014

Working the 12 steps of AA – A lifelong effort or not?

Do We Ever Get Well?

Is it really true that “once an addict, always an addict”?

Another problem that many people have with recovery is that there is no such thing as being issued a clean bill of health. There’s no graduation day, so to speak.

But how can people who’ve been sober for years—decades even—still go to meetings regularly and, moreover, identify themselves each and every time as alcoholics or addicts?

Personally, I don’t have a hard time accepting that addiction can be treated but never cured. For me, the model for this already exists in Jewish teachings, particularly in Chasidic mysticism.

We have mentioned a few times in this book some of the teachings of the first Rebbe of Chabad, the great Chasidic master, Rabbi Schneur Zalman. I find it important to mention now that Rabbi Schneur Zalman, also known as the Alter Rebbe, wrote an entire book as a systematic guide for actualizing personal potential. The book is called Tanya, and its premise is that anyone who earnestly applies the methods clearly outlined in the book can attain personal perfection and, with continued effort, consistently maintain that state for the rest of his or her life.

The definition of perfection, however, is not what most people might think.

The Alter Rebbe points out an interesting dichotomy in the human condition. On the one hand, we are fallible by nature, prone to selfishness and self-justification. On the other hand, we have been endowed with the ability to control our impulses. We are not animals. Perfection, as such, is not defined by being rid of one’s ugly nature. Perfection means that one is vigilant never to allow these impulses to manifest as actual behaviors.

In other words, although we might not be perfect, we still have the choice to do perfect. That is the perfection that the Alter Rebbe tells us we can achieve—to become a person who despite being rife with imperfections on the inside, chooses to behave perfectly on the outside. It’s not easy, but it is certainly within reach. As long as we do what we need to do, we can keep the inner beast in check. Conversely, if we let up, it will have dominion over us before we know it.

I believe that this concept can help us to understand the disease model of addiction. The Twelve Steps outline a program by which we can live a happy and productive life in spite of still suffering from addiction. The Steps don’t get rid of the disease; they keep it in check. In clinical terms, this is what one might call “remission.” In the words of the Big Book (p.85), “What we really have is a daily reprieve contingent on the maintenance of our spiritual condition.”

And so, to answer the question, “Do we ever get well?” Sure! Absolutely! With recovery, we can get very, very well. But in order to stay well, we have to continue doing the same things that helped us in the first place.

Photo credit: Justy photography

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About Rabbi Shais Taub

Rabbi Shais Taub is one of today's most respected young scholars of Jewish spirituality and practice. National Public Radio called him "an expert in Jewish mysticism and the Twelve Steps." He is the author of God of Our Understanding: Jewish Spirituality and Recovery from Addiction.