Text AA

12 Steps and Harm Reduction: A Personal Story of Compassion, Forgiveness and Moving Beyond

I was asked to write a piece about recovery because apparently this month is “Recovery Month” whatever that means. As a harm reductionist who is engaged in a 12-step program I always feel like this word and topic are no simple task to discuss. If you look up recovery in the dictionary you’ll find the definition to be: the act of becoming healthy after an illness or injury; the act or process of returning to a normal state after a period of difficulty. What recovery means to an individual is for each of us to define. When I think of this word in my personal story I relate it to my process of moving beyond really problematic drug-use that was harming me and harming the people around me.

From a young age I always felt completely uncomfortable with life, I hated the way I felt, I knew I didn’t want to live life as it was handed to me. I didn’t have a traumatic childhood or anything quite the contrary I was just traumatized by life itself. When I found heroin among other substances I truly felt that it saved my life. It was the first time I felt at ease with myself so naturally I wanted to feel this way all the time. The first time I ever used heroin I was 13 years old and I overdosed, Narcan (Naloxone) administered by paramedics saved my life. I can assume another type of person might’ve never used it again but within a week I found myself a young runaway on the streets of San Francisco using as much as I could find. The truth is I had some great times while I was using if I didn’t I wouldn’t have continued. People use drugs because they work and because they make us feel good. The next several years that feeling of relief dissipated and my life became very small and very chaotic. It became a cycle of juvenile halls, treatment centers, lock up facilities, psych wards, committing crimes to aid my survival, creating wreckage and in the end becoming more miserable than I was when I found the thing that saved my from myself originally. I hated you and I hated me.

I had been introduced and court mandated to 12-step programs on and off that whole time. At times I would go and meet my dealer in the bathroom or hang out with my friends who would come meet me in the back. 12-step meetings were the only place my probation allowed me to go. I didn’t listen, I didn’t want too. Sometimes I think I decided I hated NA and AA just out of spite, because I knew other people thought it would help and I loathed others being right. The fact is though I knew I was an addict and I never denied that. Even now when I think about using I do not crave a beer or even a few after work, or a pill here and there or a little heroin, that kind of “normal or non-problematic” use baffles and does not appeal to me; I want to use everyday all day long and I don’t try to trick myself into thinking it will be any different.

When I did begin to listen in meetings the only thing I heard was the word God, so immediately as an atheist and anarchist I decided it wasn’t for me. But then I met people, people who looked like me, young punks who said the program worked for them. I mention this because it was important at that time that I found people I relate to and that I felt resembled me. Now my closest friends in the program outwardly look nothing like me but we have a deep connection and understanding of one another and our process. So again I decided to actually try it and by try it I mean I had to let go of my judgments and preconceived ideas about what 12-step programs were or were not. As my understanding of AA and NA grew I actually realized its formation was built quite successfully on anarchistic principals. I will stop trying to explain it at that and get back to my story.

The people I met in that first year in the program literally saved my life, and other would continue to show up for me throughout the years in a way that awes me to this day. They showed me how to live without trying to cope with my dissatisfaction of life by using drugs or alcohol. Once I got my footing living completely differently than I had become accustomed to I decided to work the 12-steps and see what happened. I found the steps to be kind of a manual for how to be a better person and deal with life as it happened while creating as little wreckage as I could while doing it. And when I did create harm to admit it and own my own behavior and apologize to others if I needed to.

The things I am most grateful for learning through this ongoing process are compassion and forgiveness, compassion and forgiveness towards others and for myself. I learned how helping others helped me. I learned how to be with my feelings and not try to change them or circumstances that will forever be out of my control. I came to the realization that the only thing I really had any power over was my reaction to things. That was when I really began to understand freedom. Freedom wasn’t something outside of myself it was something I found within myself. I believe these principals really enabled me to embrace the concept of harm reduction with ease and I believe what I continue to learn doing this work makes me a better member of a 12-step group. I have the life I have because of both of these things having a huge impact on the person I am.

12-step programs and Harm Reduction are not mutually exclusive, but this is how I felt went I began to do this work. I felt like for a group of non-judgmental people there was a lot of judgment being passed on me and my own personal path. For me I felt abstinence is harm reduction working in my life. I felt as if there was some invisible divide that meant you could not accept or embrace both things; I found that I indeed could. With time I understood there are close-minded individuals in both harm reduction and in 12-step groups who think the way they live is the only right path. I say fuck those people, while I accept them and their opinion I chose not to go out of my way to engage with them. I live as I want and I do not need anyone else to accept or approve of it. But the fact is there is stigma and judgment associated with both groups, no one should be ashamed of where they are at in this process of life. Acceptance of people and things exactly as they are is much easier than trying to change it.

I have 16 consecutive years without drinking or using drugs and 14 consecutive years working in harm reduction both have these have lent to having the life I enjoy living today. I do not think I would be alive today if it weren’t for drugs (which I know sounds insane to some) and if it weren’t what I learned from the 12-steps.

Mary H.

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