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12-Step Process in a New Light: Spirituality, Service & Reinforcement Theory

by Davee Chandler, LCSW

Most people are familiar with the 12 Steps as a program, or have at least heard of them. Many, however, are woefully misinformed about 12 Step programs, particularly as they relate to the process of recovery. Unfortunately, this is the case in the professional community and even in the recovery community.

Too often, treatment programs rely on the 12 Steps themselves to provide recovery in a checklist fashion without really exploring the meaning and the depths afforded by the lifelong process of change they proffer. This article intends to present the 12 Steps a bit differently by focusing on the concept of spirituality. This method is tried and very well tested, but not really utilized purposefully. It is observable, measurable and empirically proven, however, must be implemented intuitively.

Spirituality is the absolute keystone in the support structure of this model that brings together the 12 Steps, providing service to others, and the empirical understanding of positive reinforcement in a way that allows persons of all ages to redefine themselves as beings of light capable of illuminating the world in a singularly as well as collectively powerful way. Again, the key is what we refer to herein as spirituality – the difficult-toarticulate or describe, yet easy-to-identify-when-it-happens sense that most people have felt but have yet to identify.

So, how can one provide the experience of spirituality, or more appropriately, provide an environment that is likely than not to produce the spiritual experience for someone who may have never had one or, at least, not had it identified as such? The question is made even more challenging when working with addicts and substance abusers who may have had aversive experiences with religion or who may have grown up in religiously addicted environments where church and religion were used in hurtful ways. Add to that the factor of adolescence with its natural emphasis on the physical, and we’ve got our work cut out for us.
The common response to the introduction of the concept of spirituality is, “Oh, I don’t go to church”; “I don’t believe in God”; or some similar declaration of atheism or at least agnosticism. Differentiating spirituality from religion and even from a necessary deity is important while still allowing for it. Helping adolescents understand that religion and spirituality are not necessarily exclusive or inclusive of each other is a task that seems to be primary to understanding the process we are presenting. Doing so in the early stages of treatment is paramount. It is important that adolescents understand that spirituality is found within, and that they needn’t fear that someone is trying to “convert” them to some religion.

The next task at hand is to provide an opportunity that will allow the individual to experience something akin to the spiritual. I discovered spirituality as a youth lying in meadows in the mountains of Colorado trying to talk butterflies into landing on my nose. I found myself and discovered my connection to the spirit of all things during the time I spent there. Many people find spirituality in nature or in the company of animals. Perhaps spirituality is on the beach watching the sun at the edge of a horizon, or found during a wilderness trek or some other challenge to mind and body. There are myriad ways of experiencing the spiritual and one is limited only by imagination and the immediate resources available to them in designing and carrying out activities wherein participants can experience themselves as spiritual beings.

However, in residential treatment, or in spaces and places where wilderness or places of nature are not so readily convenient, the spiritual opportunity can be a bit more challenging to orchestrate. Regardless of the setting, acts of service have proven very effective in unlocking the spiritual in those who are struggling with addictions, particularly adolescents.Service is a veritable wellspring of spirituality for many adolescents. By creating a culture of service in our adolescent residential treatment community, it has quite literally become a focal point for the adolescents and a fulcrum that is used to lever kids out of the self-absorbed mire of drug and alcohol use and into the excitement of feeling that their lives make a difference. Upon leaving a library with several tough-guy adolescent boys who just spent the last two hours reading to pre-school children, we have heard more than once, “Man, that’s better than any high I ever got!” That’s the point at which we stop, circle up, identify spirituality, what they did to get it and how they are going to use it. Later, they are able discuss this in a therapy group and share the experience with their peers. Similarly, adolescents who are returning from volunteer work at an animal shelter discuss how much the animals have changed since they have been there. This precipitates some discussion on the changes and the spiritual feelings they are experiencing from helping those who can’t help themselves. This and other types of volunteerism often results in the enthusiastic adolescents seeking out and organizing new service projects. They begin realizing that they can do it at home and that they’ll never get in trouble for it. They want to get their friends and family involved. The kids who thought they could only feel good when they were high, start smiling, having fun and feeling energy they never knew they had. Service is the key to overcoming the self-centeredness and selfishness that the Big Book of AA says underlies all addictions. In what may be one of the great ironies in life, adolescents discover that they get so much by giving. It may even be the unraveling of that riddle that brings a sense of reality to the notion of a Higher Power.

Intrinsic to the 12 Step process is the emphasis on finding a Higher Power or “God as we understand Him.” Adolescents have come to expect that someone is going to dictate to them just what the nature of this Higher Power is going to be and explain the exact and proper methods to follow in paying respect to this Higher Power. With the emphasis being on spirituality, adolescents come to understand that it is their own connection to their Higher Power that matters more than the exact nature of the Higher Power. Once that is more familiar and exercised regularly through experience, prayer or meditation, the Higher Power seems to define itself to them and they no longer have the need to fight against it. Their Higher Power is their own and they use it and even defend it when necessary. It becomes a vital part of who they are and their own self-definition or self-image.

Spirituality and Reinforcement Theory

Reinforcement theory states that the attachment of a positive or desirable consequence to a particular behavior strengthens the probability of the behavior being repeated. One of the criticisms of early reinforcement theory, as propounded by B.F. Skinner and others, is that it ignores the internal states of the individual and does not consider certain things, such as acts of altruism. In our present use of reinforcement theory it is precisely those internal states that we are using as the reinforcements, essentially in the absence of external, tangible rewards. In other words, it is the good feelings; the spiritual “high” if you will, that are the desirable and very powerful consequences that have the effect of changing not only behavior, but actually altering the way adolescents perceives themselves.

While there are many reasons that people use substances, a couple of them seem to emerge as common denominators. One of these is that they want to feel good. If I were to ask any number of adolescents what they really want, a preponderance of them would answer with something as vacuous as “I want to be happy.” In pursuing that, the therapist would likely learn that this adolescent has no idea what that consists of, other than he or she wants to feel good and wants to be in control of those feelings. The easiest and shortest path to feeling good and having the ability to control this is, of course, drugs or alcohol. Add to that all the enormous rewards of social acceptance and many other factors, and it is not difficult to understand why so many kids use substances and consequently, become addicted. For someone who is addicted, it is difficult to find something that will be as neurologically or as psychologically rewarding as drugs of abuse. With what we now know about the effects of drugs of abuse on the various parts of the brain, our children are truly on the very precipice of an abyss that seems to have no light therein. This underscores and highlights the absolute salience of something far more powerful and more reinforcing; something that feels better and can be controlled by the individual. We need that some “thing” that the individual can call up or create and use whenever he or she needs or wants it that will be more powerful than the effects of drugs and that will give them what they want: good feelings and a sense of control in their lives. That “thing”, isn’t a “thing” at all; it is spirituality that is found through service. That spirituality is so reinforcing that the acts of service are repeated, thereby increasing the probability of further acts of service. This in turn creates a greater sense of spirituality and reinforcement.

All this is accomplished in the context of the 12 Steps, which assists adolescents with a structure or framework of change and self-discovery that will continue throughout their lives. It provides cultural support anywhere they go and a language they can use that will give them something in common with others who have at least some understanding. It emphasizes self-forgiveness and compassion and some direction when needed. Additionally, and of great importance to substance-abusing adolescents that have been in trouble, it provides several opportunities for achievement of goals and reinforcement as they work through the steps and the various challenges within each one. Our experience has been that as adolescents enter the program, and memorize the 12 Steps (one of their first assignments) in spite of adamant declarations that they will never be able to do so, there is a tremendous sense of accomplishment and self-reinforcement that comes along with it. They are not quite so quick to tell themselves, “I can’t.” They are just a little bit more open to the idea of change as a result of just that much reinforcement. Each subsequent step in the process amplifies the former steps as they discover and build these new persons. They begin to anticipate and look forward to working the next step with the changes and freedom it will entail.

“Spirituality is the key to providing adolescents with an enormously internally reinforcing experience that can change the way they see themselves in relationship to their Higher Power.”

Perhaps the most important aspect of recovery is helping adolescents redefine themselves. They must be able to perceive themselves differently as a result of treatment, as it is generally the case that their drug and alcohol use and the attendant behaviors have resulted in their troubles. Those troubles have garnered them the attention of parents, authority figures and others who have, in all likelihood, offered an abundance of disapproval. It would seem that the very station of adolescence carries with it a measure of social disapproval – the word “teen-ager” almost has a negative connotation and adolescents are keenly aware of it. By the time they reach the treatment professionals, these adolescents likely have already been labeled; often diagnosed; frequently adjudicated by the courts; and carrying a heartbreaking assortment of shame, guilt, defensiveness, feelings of opposition, anger, being unlovable and a host of other self-defining characteristics. How can we possibly expect these adolescents to escape drug abuse and addiction without fundamentally and dramatically altering this way of experiencing themselves?
For the sake of discussion, let’s accept as given, the notion that drug and alcohol abuse, along with the typical associated behaviors and lifestyles, is characterized as darkness. Further, let’s also accept as given that sobriety, along with pro-social, healthy behaviors and lifestyles, is characterized as light. Here’s the question I get asked all the time: “How do I get my child to stop __________ ?” The parents are generally referring to some behavior that I would describe as “dark.” While there are many possible answers and behavioral techniques, this one question strikes me over and over: How do you make dark go away? You turn on the light! Since we were babies, we’ve known that the way to make a dark room light was to turn on the lights. The instructions are: To make a dark room light, you turn on the lights. When you want to make a light room dark, you turn off the lights.

Wait! What was that? You turn off the lights? You don’t turn on the dark? Of course not; but that simple concept is profound. Ponder it for a moment … light governs dark; light makes dark go away; light rules dark; light is more powerful than dark. The implication is that if we want to help a child’s darkness go away, we must help them discover and turn on their light. This simple, profound truth applies in all realms of life. We have become so accustomed to it that we don’t think of how powerful it is in our emotional, spiritual or psychological lives. In order to make our own, or our children’s, or our client’s darkness go away, we must first help them see that they have light, and then be able to turn it on. I believe that characterizes the very essence of good treatment and is a description of what happens when adolescents begin to change the labels and the words they have adopted to define themselves.

As simple as this sounds, it is not easy. We live in a very negatively biased world. You’re probably not going to be pulled over by a police officer any time soon and issued movie tickets for driving well. Your child will not likely be congratulated for getting the majority of the answers correct on the next exam on which he or she scores a 60 percent; more likely the grade will indicate failure. Often, those who evaluate us are more apt to point out our weakness or mistakes than to recognize our strengths and successes. I consider that to be unfortunate and a mistake of grave proportions in treatment. Sadly, in substance abuse treatment, it is a mistake we continually make. We can change that with an understanding of what has been set forth in this article.

Spirituality is the key to providing adolescents with an enormously internally reinforcing experience that can change the way they see themselves in relationship to their Higher Power. The 12 Steps provide guidance in understanding their Higher Power and discovering themselves as spiritual beings capable of changing and growing. The 12 Steps are also reinforcing themselves as individuals work through the steps. Service opportunities provide the experiences of spirituality that give adolescents real-time understanding that is unique to them. They can then process with groups and professionals who can help them see themselves as beings of light and of worth who can then give to others what they have discovered themselves. They see themselves as a source of light for others and are anxious to be that. They want to mentor others and provide answers to questions they once had. As the adolescents work the 12 Steps, provide service and experience spirituality, they are reinforced more powerfully than they ever were with drugs and alcohol. They know what they can do and want to do to achieve that feeling wherever and whenever they choose. They leave treatment with a sense of efficacy and hope, as well as a humility brought on by the relationship with their Higher Power. Recovery is more than just not using drugs or alcohol. “Recovery is about a new way of being. That new way of being is being a being of light!”

This is nothing new. Reinforcement theory has been around since the first person gave a pet dog a treat for rolling over or sitting. Acts of service and the resultant warm glow or satisfaction has been around as long as man, I suppose. Spirituality has also been here probably since the dawn of time. The 12 Steps as a program is relatively new, but I believe the process that Dr. Bob and Bill W. put together into a series of steps is the process of true self-discovery and lifelong change that may have predated them by a long time. That they were wise enough and inspired enough to bring it to the rest of us is something that I will be forever grateful. That I can use what they put together to help others is an opportunity I don’t want to miss.

Davee Chandler, LCSW is the Clinical Director at SunHawk Adolescent Recovery Center in Utah, and has been working in the helping profession since 1986. He has worked in an agency setting and specialized in providing therapy to young children and adolescents, as well as participated in some residential, hospital treatment at the same time. He has maintained a successful private practice for about 15 years, working primarily with adolescents and young adults on addictions and substance abuse work.


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