Since our lives and recovery depend up our interaction with other people, ‘personal responsibility’ is one of the greatest lessons that we have learned in recovery. The old joke goes, "The three requirements of life are: food, shelter and someone to blame it on." Before coming to the Program of Narcotics Anonymous, we blamed others in countless ways for all of our misfortunes, problems and limitations. In doing this, we backed ourselves further and further into a tight corner that allowed less and less freedom. Through all of our pain and dissatisfaction, we could do little to help ourselves. It was all up to these other people - or so we thought. This was our disease manifesting itself to the extreme. Before coming to the Program, most of us felt accustomed to repeatedly hearing from others about the many ways in which we were irresponsible. It became almost a matter of psychological survival for us to block out the constant criticism.
Of course, there was never any real doubt that ‘responsibility’ was a characteristic that we were short of. Responsibility is just the difference between knowing about something and doing something to make it better. Our disease robs us of this ability. The lack of personal responsibility in our daily lives still gives most of us problems. On the other hand, when we fulfill personal responsibilities, we feel good about ourselves. And we like to feel good. Even after time in recovery, some of us find ourselves trapped by these old attitudes and beliefs. We discover that these attitudes and beliefs hinder the process of change and we know that we must change in order to recover. We seek solutions within the Fellowship and with the assistance of our sponsor; we begin to work the Steps.
It is easy to become confused about the differences between negative self-will and accepting personal responsibility. Learning to distinguish between the two is a giant step in practicing the Program. In recovery, we learn that we can regain some control over our actions. In early recovery, we need to stay clean and learn a new way to live. Many of us have gotten sidetracked by establishing and working towards goals beyond staying clean and the results have not been pleasant. Finding a new job, entering a university or moving across town may distract or prevent us from entering this new way of living life! If we get recovery, we can enjoy all the good things of life! If we lose recovery, we loose it all. One of the differences between ‘clean time’ and recovery is that with recovery, we develop the ability and willingness to assume responsibility for our thoughts, actions and attitudes. The things that we allow to surface and constantly dwell on in our minds are what receive all of our energy. With enough energy behind them, our thoughts become tangible things and begin to have force in the world. Safe to say, all things man-made come from thought. It becomes a part of our personal responsibility to choose whether we will be a positive or negative force.
Our actions define our personalities to the world and our choices can rebound to us as pleasure or pain. Attitudes are the way we look at things. Attitudes are the basis that we use to form our strategies for dealing with reality and other people. An attitude is a group of potential choices. As we change, these attitudes change. If we see something wrong within our thoughts or actions, it is our responsibility to correct the faulty perception or wrongdoing. This is one way that God assists us in the constant improvement of our surroundings and ourselves. "Houses can only make a town, it takes citizens to make a city", reminds us that if there's nothing living inside, we are just a shell. Some of us are still tender from the scars of active addiction and hold back from general involvement in society as a whole. As we grow in recovery, we will find ourselves taking on responsibilities before we know it. A gradual disassembly of our lives resulted as our disease progressed. We reverse this process in recovery and re-integrate into general society. Many of us have to develop restraints that we never felt like we needed before. Some of us have to develop their ability to assert themselves personally.
One damaging aspect of our disease makes us feel pain and sadness over things we can not help. It also causes us to feel nothing over those things that we might be able to affect for the better. Both are distortions. We need to focus some energy into getting our thinking straight in this area. We learn to redevelop our attitudes. A good attitude allows us to feel grateful that we do what we can. We no longer feel guilty about things we can not control. Attitudes are like sails on a ship that are set to catch the winds that can power them. If our sails are set for the distant port, every moment brings us closer. If our sails are set for trouble, it is hard to go anywhere else.
Our personal responsibility does not go on forever. Our disease tells us that we have power beyond the tip of our nose. We need to remember that the universe is for God to deal with. Many times, we have heard, "Through our inability to accept personal responsibility we were actually creating our own problems." Many responsibilities are as simple as paying bills such as telephone, gas and electric but ‘personal responsibility’ goes much further than that. Personal responsibility in recovery means the process of using the tools of the Fellowship in all areas of our lives. We must do this in our home groups, with our sponsors, in service work, and in our personal recovery as well as at work, in school, in church, with our families, and with our partners in life. It involves honest sharing. We create our own problems when we do not share what is going on with us. Sharing as if everything is okay when we are hurting inside perpetuates a fraud on the listener who cares about us because they expect to hear the truth from us. This is how we create our own problems. "I'll show them," became the battle cry of our self-pity. Self-pity is a game that we can only win by being a loser! This is how we extinguish the light in our soul without even picking up the drugs. We recover by being able to reach out when the walls are closing in on us.
Part of our disease tells us to avoid taking responsibility for our own lives. We have become quite adept at avoiding personal responsibility by blaming others for our wrongdoings. This keeps the focus of our attention away from accountability for our actions. We have learned to be angry and resentful of others so it seems quite normal when we immediately seek someone to blame and resent. This is just one more way that our disease keeps us from growing and changing. "Look what they did to me," became our war cry.
What we need to do through working the Twelve Steps is to recognize how we blamed others and to identify exactly how we fostered our resentments. We need to set personal goals for our behavior and our reactions. We need to take a realistic look at a problem by asking ourselves, "What are my goals in this situation and how do I need to act with these goals in mind?" What should I do to be part of the solution and not remain part of the problem? We find our perception of reality changes with this newfound attitude. We become assets in the solution of our own problems.
Personal responsibility also includes not blaming others for the outcomes of our decisions. Making good decisions will encourage us to keep trying. Poor decisions make us cautious and we all need more courage. One thing that most of us have found helpful in finding a loving God in our Second Step is realizing that God does not require us to suffer before helping us. When we have failed to admit our powerlessness or promptly admit our wrongs, God forgives us. A loving God would not trick us.
Personal responsibility also means we should be cautious of mindlessly following others and failing to listen to the voice within us. We do not want to be ‘dead right’ like the driver who ran a red light just because the car in front of him made it through. Every rule has its exception and it is our responsibility to distinguish between what is truly important and what is not. When we assign priority to attending to the things that we really care about in our lives, we receive strength.
An addict shared: "When I first got clean, I thought that a sponsor was someone to tell me what to do. I realize today that I only wanted someone to blame if things didn't work out. My disease has tried to blame God, you, my home group, my sponsor, my husband, my family and even service work for all my problems. I changed sponsors about a year ago and recently had a conversation with her about how it seemed that the everyday occurrences that used to become situations sometimes don't even cause me to pause and think about them.
"Today, through the principles of NA, I have goals and ideals to focus on and am not so easily distracted. Recovery is wonderful! Thank you, Narcotics Anonymous for saving my life and allowing me so many opportunities to give back."
Feelings of being a genuine, caring, responsive and non-defective person allow us to know ourselves as we are today. Working the Steps is the process that gives us the ability and willingness to respond to others. In the course of working Step One, we recognize our disease for what it is and its effect on our lives. After working Step Two, we develop the belief that restoration to sanity is possible for us as well. Personal responsibility begins to become clearer after working Step Three. When we make a decision to turn our lives and will over to the care of God, as we understand Him, we are freed to look at who we are. We begin to see that we are human beings after all.
We are not ‘the disease’ that we suffer from, nor are we ‘God.’ We discover what the rules are for us and strive to become ready to have God remove our defects of character and shortcomings. With the worry over these in the care of God and out of our way, we respond to life in the moment. We no longer have to live in resentment, anger and fear because we are freed from the pain of contradiction in our lives. The pathway to being the people we want to be is clear because we have a loving God working in our lives today. Knowing our disease, developing a relationship with God, and coming to know ourselves are a few of the miracles of recovery.
After working the First Step, most of us experience a sense of humility and relief that we are not in control of our addiction. This knowledge allows us to stop beating ourselves up over the things that our disease made us do. There are however, some things that we do have control over, namely our attitudes and actions. Responsibility and autonomy go hand in hand, we can no longer do whatever we want to with no accountability. The more responsible we become, the less often others have the right or need to correct us. Actually, we may find ourselves in positions that generate harmony and order instead of disunity and chaos for the first times in our lives. We find out exactly how our lives intertwine with the lives of others and theirs with ours. Each part ultimately affects all others and a frayed edge will destroy the whole cloth if not mended.
We have all heard that one bad apple will spoil the bushel but not if we take inventory and have it removed. We have all faced the dilemma of our disease asking, "How do I judge myself for having a disease?" and "Is it not a mistake to imply that we have some control over our addiction?" The main difference after we get clean may be the feelings that we have about ourselves when we're having a rough day or a genuine crisis. We need to develop our ability to distinguish feelings that may have been indistinct in active addiction, i.e. we were always upset about something. Our advantage in recovery is increased control in the areas of our lives where we can see the quickest results by doing something for ourselves. When we have the need to enlist the support of others, we will get results more quickly and better by our willingness to take personal responsibility. Demanding accountability from ourselves, to ourselves, helps ensure our personal dedication to recovery. Sometimes, the ability to stop and care for ourselves is enough. At other times, helping another human being is within our ability.
One addict shared: "Although my preference or habit is to live inside my head, I often find myself able to do things I hadn't thought possible. The greatest temptation is to withdraw into a fantasy and watch, seemingly helpless, while my situations dissolve and opportunities fade. To reach out and perform daily tasks or take a chance by doing the best I know how, seems to be as difficult as picking up the phone when I am hurting. The strength to be productive today comes from knowing what is productive for me. I find this knowledge through honest sharing of my daily life with my sponsor and other NA family members.
"All my life I sought a purpose. I now have a purpose: doing the next right thing. The strength I gain from performing the task at hand rather than living in tomorrow or yesterday has a snowball effect today. It allows me to take still more positive steps. I don't know what God has planned for me on a grand scale, meaning what am I going to do with my life, but surprisingly, life isn't lived on a grand scale. It's lived today."
Most of us agree that it is God working through us and making the miracles. Our responsibility then is to allow our ego-based personalities to step aside and let God work through us. We learn to pray that this will happen, especially when someone has asked for help. There is a special feeling of gratitude from being able to take care of our personal responsibilities. It feels good to be adequate where we used to fall short. Recovery must continue in spite of circumstances, environment or atmosphere. If we are self-admitted addicts in the sense of the First Step of NA, our lives depend on our recovery. It is more comfortable and preferable to have the support of the fellowship, family, friends, employers, society, government, and pets, etc. However, if we falter in recovery - it is our life, not theirs, that is sacrificed. One of the requirements of our process is building character and conviction through coping with adversity. Gratefully, the joy of recovery also comes through other addicts and loved ones who have helped us.
In claiming our God-given right to personal responsibility and freedom of choice, we reap the reward of knowing that we can grow regardless of circumstances because this is God's will. Immediate gratification has proven an empty promise, although it does occur. When we take a longer period of time to focus on a goal, we seem to be better prepared to accept the goal when it is attained.
The Steps guide us in changing until our inner reality matches up with life around us. Things work out better if we adjust our attitudes to match reality. By a simple process of evaluation, we can respond personally. We work ourselves back into the fabric of life by doing what we can, when we can. We no longer strive to be the person we should be or even the person we could be, but to be the person we are.
Personal responsibility was an alien concept to most of us before we came to NA. Many of us had gone through life believing that we were victims. This belief allowed us to justify our behavior and insulated us from our feelings of guilt and remorse. Taking the victim role gave us feelings of self-righteous anger and led us to believe that we were entitled to behave the way we did. Retaliation was a common theme of our unacceptable behavior. Personal responsibility is a duty we have to ourselves as well as the Fellowship. Responsibility requires action, both spiritual and physical. Maintaining recovery is our first responsibility. Daily maintenance evaluates our response to responsibility and we can see progress. The gifts that come from our new image of being responsible are a direct result of our meeting the needs of our fundamental obligations.
In the past, we ignored our responsibilities and this only caused our problems to build up and overflow into all areas of our life. It made our using and behavior irresponsible. Today, we learn to assume responsibility before the effects of irresponsibility become self-evident. Responsible effort is a tool that we use repeatedly in our recovery. As with other concepts of recovery, when we practice personal responsibility we become personally responsible for our lives and recovery.
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Reprinted from the
N.A. FELLOWSHIP USE ONLY
Copyright © December 1998
Victor Hugo Sewell, Jr.
NA Foundation Group
6685 Bobby John Road Atlanta, GA 30349 USA
All rights reserved. This draft may be copied by members of Narcotics Anonymous for the purpose of writing input for future drafts, enhancing the recovery of NA members and for the general welfare of the Narcotics Anonymous Fellowship as a whole. The use of an individual name is simply a registration requirement of the Library of Congress and not a departure from the spirit or letter of the Pledge, Preface or Introduction of this book. Any reproduction by individuals or organizations outside the Fellowship of Narcotics Anonymous is prohibited. Any reproduction of this document for personal or corporate monetary gain is prohibited.