Sunday, August 8, 2010

12 Step Recovery for Helpers...

Caring for others, whether as helping professionals, volunteers or family caregivers, can be a great source of fulfillment and satisfaction. It can also be a source of tremendous emotional strain. One of the ways that helpers are dealing with this strain is through attending 12 Step meetings and applying the program's principles in their everyday lives.

The 12 Step program was started by two alcoholics in the 1930's as a means of staying sober. They then formed Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) to share the program with others. Since that time the basic principles of the program - the 12 Steps - have been adopted by millions of others with chronic problems as varied as chronic over eating; other compulsive behaviours such as gambling, over exercising, over spending, or over working; and codependence. Many others, drawn by the inclusive, non-religious spirituality of the program, have chosen the 12 Steps as a practical pathway to peace and serenity in a chaotic world.

While not for everyone, the program helps many to relinquish control of the unmanageable, out-of-control portions of their lives to a Higher Power, however they understand that Higher Power to be. In doing so, they become more able to move with the flow of life rather than struggling against it and they learn to lean on their Higher Power for strength and support.

As author and family caregiver, Gail Sheehy, writes in Passages in Caregiving:

I confessed to Dr Pat that I had bottomed out. ... She suggested that I try a twelve step program.

Grateful, but skeptical, I walked thirty blocks down the street from Dr Pat's office to a twelve-step meeting in a large church. I expected a huddle of mournful souls reciting grisly accident reports on the train wrecks they had made of their lives. I had heard such accounts, secondhand, when my mother entered Alcoholics Anonymous for her recovery.

One step into the nave changed everything. Greeters lined the walls. They talked about taking positive steps toward living with gratitude and feeling more joyous and free than before they found the program. They clapped for anyone who announced progress.

I was shocked to find my own behaviour described in some of the stories. Like me, the narrators had attacked their problems guided only by a ferocious self-will. When it didn't work, fear overtook. Or resentment, or both. I realized I had become powerless over my fears. In the fever to "save" my husband, I was losing the ability to manage my own life. I needed to find a way to restore my faith.

This was a spiritual program, but no church affiliation was required. We were encouraged to entrust our wills (or egos) to God, who was introduced with the shrewdly tolerant phrase "as we understand him".

The God I hoped to meet was the source of serenity, the missing force in my life. To my delight everybody else at that meeting had the same idea. At the conclusion, we all held hands and recited the universal serenity prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr:

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.

"The wisdom to know the difference" was not just a catchy slogan. It sounded like something God would grant if I met him/her halfway, by accepting the things I could NOT change - my husband's life trajectory and my own limitations. That was the road to serenity. But first, I would have to quit Playing God. I was full of compassion for my husband, yes, but my caregiving was spiked with more than a pinch of egotism.

I had to find the courage to change the things I could - especially myself. In the twelve-step group everyone learned how to open up and shamelessly examine our defects and draw support from our fellowship. The best laughs are at ourselves, and we had many laughs at those meetings. The days went better after gathering in the early morning with my fellow pilgrims.

Others have written about the usefulness of 12 Step programs in helping caregivers to care for themselves while caring for others. If you are interested in learning more you might want to read, Self-Care for Caregivers: A Twelve Step Approach by Pat Samples, Diane Larsen, and Marvin Larsen.

If you decide to try out a 12 Step group, remember that a group is only as healthy as it's individual members. If you're not comfortable in one group, try several others until you find one that fits for you.

Also remember that any idea can be taken to an extreme or become rigid or warped from it's original intent. I have discovered this in relation to Chronic Sorrow in some groups. The notion of "the pity pot" (being stuck in self pity) has been applied to the ongoing grief of family caregivers by those who do not understand the concept of unending loss. As with everything one finds at a 12 Step meeting, it is always okay to, "take what works and leave the rest".

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