Tool 16: LIVE 12-Step Groups
Because the 12 Steps are truly a life-changing set of principles as we discussed above, often they can be internalized properly only through joining a live face-to-face group. Trying to give up our will to Hashem is hard, since He is abstract to us. But by learning to give up our will in the group, and learning how to share honestly with the group and our sponsor, we are able to learn how to give up our will and be honest with Hashem as well.
Through the group, we learn how to work the steps into our lives, and we are able to see what others do to break free and follow their example. We get to hear the real-life stories of others who were even worse off than us, and watch as they miraculously recover. We share hope, strength and experience with the rest of the group and feel a strong sense of “accountability”. And we get a sponsor (from the group) who has good sobriety, and we work closely with him on implementing the steps into our daily lives.
One addict, who is sober in a 12 Step program now for many years wrote:
I didn't get sober until I was desperate to stop and reached out frantically for help. A drowning person does not quit until they feel safe again. B”H for me it wasn't just a moshol (parable), I really felt I was dying, so I didn't give up.
I was told to go to meetings to meet other people and be introduced to the real me by looking at them. The support was tremendous.
Still, many come to meetings and do not get sober. They leave after two or three meetings and stay out there. The next thing I needed was faith in the steps - at least temporary faith, so I'd give it a shot. Nothing else worked, so I had nothing to lose and everything to gain, for I saw that the way things were going I was about to lose it all.
And I have not yet turned my back on the knowledge that I am just as close to losing it all today, too. And if that ever becomes “just words”, I believe I'll be lost for good. I don't think I'd be able to hold onto that reality without at least some live in-person connection.
Trying to learn the 12 Steps without a group is similar to learning brain surgery from a book. Anyone who wants to become a professional surgeon must participate in hundreds of real-life surgeries before they may be qualified to practice surgery on their own.
Rabbi Avraham J. Twerski, who provides guidance for our network and is a world-renowned expert on addictions, has always advised those who contact him for help on this issue that the live 12-Step groups are the surest way to break free of any addiction. They have a very high success rate with even the most hopeless cases. Here is what Rabbi Twerski wrote to one religious person who had been struggling with the addiction for 20 some years, thinking that he simply had a much larger Yetzer Hara than most other people:
"Your case is not unusual. I say this because I can tell you what works and what does not work. Sexual compulsions come in a variety of ways, but the common denominator is that the person has a compulsion which he finds very difficult to resist. He tries all kinds of ways (like you did) but nothing works, including marriage. This kind of compulsion is essentially an addiction. The only thing that works, in my experience, is participation in a 12-step recovery program for sexual addiction. They have meetings everywhere, including Israel.
There are many excuses for not attending meetings. What happens if someone sees me? The bottom line is, if a person wishes to be cured from cancer, he'll do anything. If one wishes to overcome a destructive sexual addiction, nothing should stand in his way. Psychotherapy is the frosting on the cake, but the 12 step program is the cake. When you attend 12 Step meetings, you may be able to find the name of a competent therapist. Be aware though, that many psychiatrists and psychologists have not been trained in addiction.
The particular type of sexual compulsion does not make much difference. A beer drinker can be as alcoholic as a whiskey drinker. The core problem is the inability to restrain one’s self from doing something that one knows he should not be doing but appears powerless to control it. Quite a number of religious people have been able to do with the 12 step program what they were not able to do with mussar (religious ethical texts). Perhaps this is because of the group support. We may learn mussar together, but we don't practice it together, which is what happens in a 12 step meeting.”
Dov, who is the head moderator of our forum today and runs a virtual 12-Step group and phone conference on GYE, is sober in SA now for over 14 years. When Dov first found our network, he posted his story and shared his experience. We can all gain a lot from reading what he shared:
For years and years, I had thought I was just plain “bad”, at best pitied by, at worst despised by, Hashem. I was, in fact, doing severe aveiros (sins) and failing miserably at being an eved Hashem (servant of G-d). I knew that life was not supposed to be this way, but I always seemed to fall into trouble and act on my compulsions. As a result, my emunah (faith) that avodas Hashem (divine service) was really possible for me, was very low. That continued for over ten years.
Then I got married and it got much, much worse for yet another ten years. I went to a few different therapists and spoke with a few Rabbonim, usually under the pretense of “having marriage problems”. The real problem was, of course, that I had a double life and it was driving me crazy. Some of those people were a little helpful to me, some quite the opposite. I even called Rabbi Twerski (in 1991 or ‘92) who told me exactly what you report here on your website: that I probably need a 12-step group. I couldn’t do that though (I thought), because my wife would find out (I couldn’t hide going to weekly meetings!!). Also, I felt that the whole complicated recovery thing would “cramp my style”. I resigned myself to thinking that the best I could hope for, would be to die at a ripe old age with a big, giant, ugly secret in my safekeeping.
About six years later, I finally hit bottom. It became clear to me that I was getting only worse, never better, and that if I would take even one step further down – which I felt I HAD to do – I’d have to leave everything behind; my family, my self-respect, my community, the Torah and mitzvos, and even give up on any struggle for a connection with Hashem… In short, everything I defined myself and life by, was “up for grabs”.
I saw no way out and was terrified. I had been terrified many times before (usually by getting caught or fearing getting caught), but this was different. I knew it had nothing to do with getting “caught” by anyone. Even alone with myself “uncaught”, this life became unbearable.
I went to a therapist the next week and told her my story, and she suggested I go to SA meetings. Having no choice I took her advice, and after doing the first of the 12-Steps (admitting powerlessness) and sharing my story with others, it became clear to me that I was actually very ill. I have been going to SA meetings ever since and have been helped directly and indirectly by Hashem – Who I now know as my Best Friend – to stay sober so far. My davening (prayer) and learning went through a long cold period (for about 3 years) soon after getting sober, but with lots of help and a few years of patience, it finally turned a corner, and now, like my marriage and my life in general, the davening and learning are better than I had ever dreamed they’d be. I often have some awareness that I am really, comfortably, living with Hashem.
Of course, I still have plenty of problems and have ups and downs, but they aren’t as big a deal as they used to be, and there is always this “background music” of hope, telling me it’s going to be alright.
Here is my point: The traditional AA approach saved my life. By this I mean, the AA message that I have a mental illness of addiction (to lust), a spiritual disconnect from Hashem and from people, and a physical allergy (to lust) that will eventually kill me. Immoral lusting in any way, makes my life completely unmanageable and makes me useless to others. Many other people appear to be able to use lust a little without suffering as I do. For them it is just a “moral failing”, while for me it leads to a downward spiral of insanity and failure, just like alcohol for an alcoholic.
In my case, focusing on my struggle as having to do with my normal “Yetzer Hara” (evil inclination) was a sure recipe for failure. It made me simply try harder and use new tricks, which never worked. The message of AA to me (through SA) was not about any of those. It was about accepting the fact that I am fundamentally different from non-addicts, and accepting that I am not a BAD person getting GOOD, but rather a SICK person getting WELL – with help from Hashem.
I had to accept that this disease had me completely beaten, just like cancer or diabetes. You don’t struggle against a disease, you get the treatment. Plenty of people don’t, and they die as a result. The standard “Teshuva” (repentance) thing did me no good at all, simply because it is not structured for crazy people. This was not just a “Ruach Shtus” (spirit of folly), it had become my standard of living.
I needed to first learn to get honest with myself and others. That took me about a year and a half of frequent program calls, regular meetings, work with my sponsor, and the 12-steps. And my recovery was still clearly a neiss (miracle). Just like Hashem cures people from cancer and other illnesses when the patient takes his or her medicine/treatments, I had to do the same, and He did the same for me. And Hashem continues to do it each day, because I believe that I would still use my addiction and continue to ruin my life, should I just get uncomfortable enough with living. Putting the steps into action every day, keeps me comfortable and sane (at least it has so far!).
I think that some frum (religious) people, especially those who feel strongly about either beating the Yetzer Hara (evil inclination) themselves as a supreme kiddush Hashem (divine sanctification), or who feel that the answer must be in the Torah if they only look hard enough, may have a hard time with my approach. But I doubt they would use a “Torah” approach with any other disease. For me, it was too confusing to mix mussar concepts with the 12 steps, particularly early on. It was toxic, actually.
Yes, I know that lust – i.e. using and acting on lust, is not exactly like alcohol, as it involves aveiros chamuros (serious sins), while drinking alcohol is not an aveira per se. Nevertheless, hanging onto the purely religious approach would have left me as I was for twenty years: looking for the answers with broken eyeglasses.
The way I read them, the 12 steps are about getting my eyes (mind and body) fixed and THEN getting frumer (more religious), not about getting frumer in order to stop. In fact, I got very frum, but the frumer I got, the sicker turns my addiction took! I grew quite disgusted with myself along the way, to put it mildly.
Please don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that any other approaches are wrong, I’m just sharing what worked for me. Even though the principles of the 12-Steps are Torah-based, AA, in my experience is a sanity-building tool, not a religious one.
Because I am a Jew though, after I started to gain sanity and some freedom from the compulsive acting out and lust-thinking, I was able to start growing, thank G-d, into the Jewish man that Hashem wants me to be. And the steps are a tool that I use to stay on that path now as well, one day at a time.