Step 5: Facing Dissociation

“Admitted to H.P., to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”

–Alcoholic Anonymous 12 Steps 

In early recovery the most important task of our journey is to confront our dissociation. The term dissociation derives from the Latin word dissocio meaning to separate or sever. Addiction is complex trauma. During active addiction many, if not all of us, buried our troublesome behaviors. We kept secrets. We buried feelings to the point of extinction. We rationed no one would accept or understand us if we made known what we did during the acute phase of the disease. We thought we were alone and unique. The lengths we went to avoid discovery for drinking, using, and acting out consumed every fiber of our being. 

Feelings of shame, worthlessness, and other negative belief systems perpetuated a vicious cycle of self-hatred, destructive risk taking, impulsivity, suicidality, and self-injurious behaviors. For our survival our minds shut down and fractured reality through amnesia, denial, fantasy making, compartmentalization, and avoidance behaviors. Fragmentation of the self was our new normal. We could not show up to life and be our whole self. The Big Book provides us with an archetype of the conflicted and fragmented self. Dr. Bob and Bill W reference Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The novella centers around a respected English Doctor Dr. Jekyll who attempts to repress evil urges inside himself. His plan is to concoct a serum which he believes will mask his dark and shadow side.  In taking the serum the respected doctor transforms into Hyde, an ego state without compassion, remorse, and prone to destruction.  The plot of this story and its reference in AA literature suggests the founders of 12 step recovery programs valued the role dissociation plays in addiction and recovery. 

Dissociative disorders are widely unrecognized in people with substance use disorders and process addictions. In the rooms of 12 step meetings and treatment centers across the world dissociation is rarely mentioned. Recovery allows us to face our dissociation, accept the painful truths we have buried deep in the closets our minds, and find inner peace. Fear of the unknown and rejection often block our progress. A trauma-informed approach to the 12-steps suggests we have compassion for ourselves. The person we were in active addiction and the person we are today are not the same. 

My recovery journey lead me to recognize that I am a dissociative person in long-term recovery. I have parts. There is nothing good or bad about that. They are what they are. Each part represents a piece of my life story and attempts to survive in a harsh world.  The level of honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness needed to progress in recovery is terrifying and freeing. Ego-States Therapy, Parts Work, and EMDR helps recovery seekers, like me, to honor and acknowledge the role their fragmented parts hold, use their insights to deepen their recovery, and live authentically. 

In active addiction we were like Sisyphus pushing a heavy rock up a mountain side. The rock continued to fall backwards requiring repetitive action to get it to the top. Instead of a rock we pushed our wrongs, character imperfections, wounds, hurt, pain, emotions, fears, and insecurities deep inside us. Like Sisyphus our actions were futile. Experiences began resurfacing and nothing helped to keep them hidden.  

In the fifth step we ground to connectedness with others in the program. The recognition that we are not alone in our destructive using, drinking, and acting out helps us to clean house. In confidence of another understanding and trustworthy recovery seeker, spiritual adviser, or recovery ally (therapist, minister, rabbi, or trusted friend) we share what we wrote in our searching and fearless moral inventory. A trauma-informed 5th step values safety, choices, and containment. When choosing someone to disclose your recovery story it is critical to find someone who will accept you and practice nonjudgment for your experiences. We have already lived in the pangs of isolation and shame. Psychotherapy with a professional trained in complex trauma might serve you well. 12 Step wisdom is clear on working with professionals in a wide array of disciplines. If you do not feel comfortable sharing step work with a sponsor, you may elect someone else. The benefits of a professional person are the protection of confidentiality and the added benefit of therapy to address issues contained within your step work. 

We have been wronged by others. We have wronged others. Our step work to this point shows us that we can begin the healing journey of forgiveness. We learn it is ok to give forgiveness and receive it. All human beings have lacked tolerance and honesty, prone to grandiosity and self-pity, and pride. We needed help to overcome these obstacles. Recovery teaches us humility. Humiliation is shame for what we did and are as people. Humility is a lack of false self-pride.  Humility keeps us grounded to living one day at a time and the reparative work of recovery. 

The spiritual aspect of the 5th step is not only righting relationships with other people. We also need to improve the relationship with a higher power of our own understanding. Addiction and dissociation block spiritual connectedness. Spiritual wounding creates tension for recovery seekers who feel inadequate and the judgement of their higher power. In being honest with another person we confirm honesty before our HP.  The Big Book echoes ancient spiritual wisdom about diving into spiritual matters alone which is a dangerous territory. Stay connected to the program and trusted spiritual teachers, guides, and ministers. No one among us is infallible. Even the greatest of spiritual guides embraced their imperfect humanness.  

Some common 5th Step Prayers

  1. Higher Power, My inventory has shown me who I am, Yet I ask for Your help. In admitting my wrongs to another person & to You. Assure me, & be with me, in this Step, For without this Step I cannot progress in my recovery. With Your help, I can do this, & I do it.
  • Higher Power, Thank you for helping me complete my housecleaning. I can now look the world in the eye. I can be alone at perfect peace and ease. My fears have fallen from me. I have begun to feel your nearness. I have begun to have a spiritual experience. I feel I am on the Broad Highway, walking hand in hand with the Spirit of the Universe. (75:2) 
  • God, I thank you from the bottom of my heart that I know you better. Help me become aware of anything I have omitted discussing with another person. Help me to do what is necessary to walk a free man at last. AMEN (p. 75 BB) 
  • Find words that work for you. Let your heart discern what feels right to say and aligns with your cultural-spiritual belief systems. 

The 5th Step promises that “We can look the world in the eye. We can be alone at perfect peace and ease. Our fears fall from us. We begin to feel the nearness of our Creator. We may have had certain spiritual beliefs, but now we begin to have a spiritual experience. The feeling that the drink problem has disappeared will often come strongly.”

Perhaps you might read these promises for a few nights as you prepare for this crucial step in your recovery. Meditate on the words and allow yourself to tap into inner resources. When anxiety or fear creep into daily living turn it over. Stay committed to recovery. Talk at meetings about your experiences through step work. Seek support from others who have walked the road before you. 

We will continue to cultivate our recovery program. The remaining steps will help us to clean house and enjoy the freedoms addiction never afforded us. 

Welcome home! 

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