'I'm Not An Addict, But The 12 Steps Saved My Life And Marriage'

I found the 12 steps of addiction recovery in a way many addicts do: lost, desperate, broken, and looking for change. However, I wasn't drinking daily, using drugs, gambling or overeating. To most, I was a high-functioning, happily married, mother of two who was gainfully employed as a mental health therapist.

But after a string of brutal life events in the late 2000s turned my world upside down, I found myself floundering, rage-filled, and drowning in fear and shame. I initially turned to religion for help and answers but only found platitudes that further fed my resentment and despair.

Then I sought therapy and found a string of therapists that seemed to agree with whatever I was saying. Supportive? Yes. Helpful in changing my dire circumstances? No.

My mom had died suddenly and unexpectedly of pancreatic cancer at a time when I was having my own children and trying to figure out my role as a wife, professional therapist and mother. My husband shifted from a career in the military to the civilian sector amidst the chaos of a global recession. The years of poor communication, blaming, resentment, and lack of healthy coping skills took its toll and my husband wanted out of the marriage. I felt I had lost everything important to me.

My lack of understanding of myself, what I was experiencing, and how to cope with it all created a dark storm of emotions in me. I became possessed by my hatred toward God, cancer, my husband, and every other uncontrollable entity in my life. I became robotic and selfish in my choices, turning my back on all of my guiding principles and values.

Only retrospectively do I realize what I was searching for all that time: a community of non-judgmental people who bravely shared their stories and insight into their messiness, that one couldn't help but feel inspired to dig deep and begin to own one's own darkness and light. The 12 steps community was where I found that. Even as a non-addict.

Later, when I learned about step one of the 12 steps of addiction recovery, I realized that even though I was not technically an "addict", I was experiencing what addicts call "powerlessness." I had lost control of my life, my faculties; everything I had previously known was important to me. I was clueless about what healthy coping skills to use to stop the pain and what the healthy way forward from it all. My life had become unmanageable and I needed a new manager. I had to do what recovering addicts call "surrender."

12 steps, recovery, marriage, relationships
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With my marriage over and my life in shambles, I took a job running a new program at a high-end Malibu residential treatment center: a male-only drug and sex addiction recovery program. The job and the clientele intimidated the hell out of me, but desperation and intrigue pushed me forward. I figured I knew enough about addiction recovery and the 12 steps because my previous jobs and education had glossed over them.

In retrospect, I made a naive mistake when I was first introduced to the 12 step concepts and material: over-simplifying and under-appreciating the magnitude of a time-tested, worldwide program that has helped millions of people change their lives for the better since they were first created for Alcoholics Anonymous in the 1930s.

To members of 12 step fellowships, the steps are far more than a few sentences on a poster. The 12 steps represent a community, an accountability structure, and a system of challenging and restructuring flawed ways of thinking and acting. Most of all, they have been proven to be an effective pathway out of misery for many. This was precisely what I needed.

I dove into the work of learning about 12 steps and addiction recovery, reading several of the 12 steps fellowship material, including; Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, Al-Anon. Initially, I was driven by my desire to be a good therapist to my clients who sought recovery. Eventually, it became my lifeline. Most of my colleagues and my boss were in long-term recovery themselves, so I began to covet our talks and time together.

12 steps, recovery, marriage, relationships
A selection of books Kristin Snowden read to help her understand the 12 steps, including the book she eventually wrote. Kristin Snowdon

I found their honesty and willingness to call themselves out on their own s**t to be intoxicating. They shared stories of their struggles, 12 step fellowship "isms" -sayings like "if nothing changes, nothing changes," "tell the truth and tell it faster," "do the next right thing," and "one day at a time". Little by little I began to find my own truth hidden behind all of my shame and defensiveness.

Once, while talking to a female co-worker about the challenges of balancing roles as a mom and a professional, she joked: "I walk into those PTA meetings with all those moms doing mom stuff and I feel like such an imposter. I want to just say out loud, 'Girl, you don't even know! I used to do crack!'" Could I relate to her use of crack? No. But did I have a real, visceral reaction as she shared about the constant tug-of-war that goes on in our heads as we try to navigate our different roles in life? Absolutely. I also began to seek friendships where I felt safe to practice similar levels of honesty and willingness to discuss real, messy, life challenges in a non-judgmental space.

Its important to note that I didn't "work" the steps in the way that is recommended by recovering addicts. I didn't regularly attend 12 step meetings, form a 12 step sober community, find someone to "sponsor" my recovery while working the 12 step exercises with that sponsor. And I have tremendous respect for those who do.

At the time, I wasn't sure which type of meeting was appropriate for a non-substance using, semi-love addict, newly scorned divorcee. Instead, I tried to work the steps through osmosis, focusing on common themes of each step. Steps one through three are about realizing that I have a problem and that my best efforts still brought me here, so I need to own what's not working while also be willing to seek and receive help with my problems. Step four through seven focus on the internal work of exploring, owning, or repairing all of my wounds, strengths, hurts, and redeeming parts of my life and my personality. Steps eight and nine focus on exploring and repairing my interpersonal relationships. And Steps 10, 11, and 12 are meant to be daily practices to keep me conscious and connected to myself and others.

Learning about, and applying the principles of, the 12 steps provided me clear, applicable, relatable tools to meet life on life's terms. Things I'd never heard or understood before, even from my years spent in church or in a therapist's office.

Retrospectively, I see all that the 12 steps have given me: more intimate and fulfilling relationships, shame resiliency, less self-righteousness, and more authenticity; all things that are crucial to healthily navigating the uncertainties of life. I also credit this work with improving my capacity for empathy, compassion, and forgiveness—all skills that helped me as a therapist, but, most importantly, in my subsequent work with my husband when we were able to work toward healing our marriage and family.

My time with friends in recovery helped me adopt helpful, daily life practices like candid honesty, accountability and always considering "my part" in anything and everything, especially in my relationships. Those tools were paramount in helping me move beyond my season of victimhood, into a greater space of empathy and compassion for myself and others, and into forgiveness. Features that played a central role in repairing my marriage.

There was a season for acknowledging what was not OK and what we needed to improve in our marriage. However, steps four through nine helped me see that when I focused only on the ways I was harmed and hurt by others, that only fueled my bad choices and behaviors. Ultimately, the internal and interpersonal work of 12 steps concepts created a path for my husband and I to heal.

I've learned that non-addicts are not completely different to addicts. When faced with stress and other forms of emotional discomfort, both groups cope, at least some of the time, in maladaptive ways

However, the 12 step concepts, its community, and its structure allowed me a safe space to share our victories and failures, seek and provide comfort, and inspire or acquire courage in the face of numerous life's challenges.

Kristin M. Snowden, MA, LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist who specializes in treating intimacy disorders at Avalon Malibu and in her private practice in Westlake Village, California. Snowden co-authored Life Anonymous: 12 Steps to Heal and Transform Your Life with Scott Brassart. The book encourages everyone to explore and "work" the 12 Steps in all facets of their lives, regardless of identifying as an addict or not. Find out more at www.KristinSnowden.com or follow Kristin on Instagram @life_anonymous_book.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.