Acceptance of what is. Self-Examination. Right Thought. Right Action.
The central tenets of 12 Step recovery are similar, if not identical, to the central tenets of Stoicism. In this series of articles, we shall compare the words of the Stoic Masters with those drawn from 12 Step literature.
We Admitted That We Were Powerless Over Our Addiction – That Our Lives Had Become Unmanageable
“You are afraid of dying. But, come now, how is this life of yours anything but death?”
—SENECA, MORAL LETTERS, 77.18
“You know what wine and liqueur tastes like. It makes no difference whether a hundred or a thousand bottles pass through your bladder—you are nothing more than a filter.”
—SENECA, MORAL LETTERS, 77.16
12 Step Stoic: So, how many more gallons of booze do you need to drink? How many more joints do you need to smoke? How many more pills do you need to pop? Does cocaine have anything more to give you? How many more sexual partners will satisfy your desire?
We must give up many things to which we are addicted, considering them to be good. Otherwise, courage will vanish, which should continually test itself. Greatness of soul will be lost, which can’t stand out unless it disdains as petty what the mob regards as most desirable. —SENECA, MORAL LETTERS, 74.12b–13
“Whenever you get an impression of some pleasure, as with any impression, guard yourself from being carried away by it, let it await your action, give yourself a pause. After that, bring to mind both times, first when you have enjoyed the pleasure and later when you will regret it and hate yourself. Then compare to those the joy and satisfaction you’d feel for abstaining altogether. However, if a seemingly appropriate time arises to act on it, don’t be overcome by its comfort, pleasantness, and allure—but against all of this, how much better the consciousness of conquering it.” —EPICTETUS, ENCHIRIDION, 34
Big Book: For most normal folks, drinking means conviviality, companionship and colourful imagination. It means release from care, boredom and worry. It is joyous intimacy with friends and a feeling that life is good. But not so with us in those last days of heavy drinking. The old pleasures were gone. They were but memories. Never could we recapture the great moments of the past. There was an insistent yearning to enjoy life as we once did and a heart-breaking obsession that some new miracle of control would enable us to do it. There was always one more attempt – and one more failure.
12 Step Stoic: Never allow yourself to imagine or fantasise about any real or imagined pleasure that you got from using. Alcohol is poison and will kill you stone dead. Cannabis is a poison that has infected you at a cellular level. Other people might be able to enjoy these chemicals with impunity – you are not like them. Accept this fact.
“Chasing what can’t be done is madness. But the base person is unable to do anything else.” —MARCUS AURELIUS, MEDITATIONS, 5.17
Big Book: Most of us have been unwilling to admit we were real alcoholics. No person likes to think he is bodily and mentally different from his fellows. Therefore, it is not surprising that our drinking careers have been characterized by countless vain attempts to prove we could drink like other people. The idea that somehow, someday he will control and enjoy his drinking is the great obsession of every abnormal drinker. The persistence of this illusion is astonishing. Many pursue it into the gates of insanity or death.
We learned that we had to fully concede to our innermost selves that we were alcoholics. This is the first step in recovery. The delusion that we are like other people, or presently may be, has to be smashed.
“There is no vice which lacks a defence, none that at the outset isn’t modest and easily intervened —but after this the trouble spreads widely. If you allow it to get started you won’t be able to control when it stops. Every emotion is at first weak. Later it rouses itself and gathers strength as it moves along—it’s easier to slow it down than to supplant it.” —SENECA, MORAL LETTERS, 106.2b–3a
Big Book: Though there is no way of proving it, we believe that early in our drinking/using careers most of us could have stopped using. But the difficulty is that few addicts have enough desire to stop while there is yet time.
12 Step Stoic: Let us enter our time machine and travel back in time to the moment that you took that first drink or drug. We approach your teenage self about to smoke the first of a thousand joints, the first of a hundred thousand pints. “Hello. I am from the year 2021. I am your Prison Drug & Alcohol Recovery Worker. I am here to advise you about the pitfalls of the journey on which you are about to embark. Within several months of smoking that first joint you will have developed a dependency which will continue for the next decade or so. This dependency will greatly impair your decision making capabilities and leave you unable to consistently control your thoughts, emotions, actions or indeed, yourself. You will gradually lose contact with reality and your sense of connection with the world. I know that you do not intend to become an addict, for nobody ever does – but nevertheless that is how your story will end. And what about your friend beside you? Well, he will smoke on and off for the next couple of years before losing interest altogether. Your friend is not like you for his genetic and psychological makeup is different to yours. We do not know the reason why – but we know that this is just how it is.”
Now let us enter our time machine and travel a decade into the future. When you left prison you were able to remain clean and sober for a few months – but then you relapsed. How do you think the story ends?
“If you are defeated once and tell yourself you will overcome, but carry on as before, know in the end you’ll be so ill and weakened that eventually you won’t even notice your mistake and will begin to rationalize your behaviour.”
—EPICTETUS, DISCOURSES, 2.18.31
Big Book: Men and women drink essentially because they like the effect produced by alcohol. The sensation is so elusive that, while they admit it is injurious, they cannot after a time differentiate the true from the false. To them, their alcoholic life seems the only normal one.
“The first steps toward wisdom are the most strenuous, because our weak and stubborn souls dread exertion (without absolute guarantee of reward) and the unfamiliar. As you progress in your efforts, your resolve is fortified and self-improvement progressively comes easier. By and by it actually becomes difficult to work counter to your own best interest.”
Epictetus – The Art of Living
Big Book: Simple, but not easy; a price had to be paid. It meant destruction of self-centeredness. I must turn in all things to the Father of Light who presides over us all. These were revolutionary and drastic proposals, but the moment I fully accepted them, the effect was electric.