Ask Paul at the RSIC: 12 steps – and beyond – on the road to recovery |

Ask Paul at the RSIC: 12 steps – and beyond – on the road to recovery

By Paul Snyder, MA, LADC-S

Special to First Nation's Focus

The road to recovery should be treated like a marathon, not a race.
Photo: Getty Images

The Red Road to Wellbriety shares a lesson from the Seneca Tribal leader, Handsome Lake. He said, “Whiskey is a great and monstrous evil and has reared a high mound of bones. You lose your minds, and whiskey causes it all. So now all must say, ‘I will use it nevermore.’”

The Elders call alcohol and drugs the “mind changers.” The Elders also teach us that no one makes us take the first drink, and it’s this first drink that makes us drunk. They teach that help is available in many ways, and if we want to stop drinking or using drugs we must seek out help because we are made with free will.

Conversely, a Swedish proverb says, “The best place to find a helping hand is at the end of your own arm.” In many cases this is true. However, in addiction treatment, people can benefit greatly from the help of others. Trust is difficult for the person in addiction, because many times the person doesn’t trust him/herself. In sobriety, the person in addiction can learn to trust him/herself again as well as other people.

Let’s assume a person listens to the Elder’s wisdom, and uses their free will to seek help, and they have stopped drinking alcohol and/or using drugs. One suggestion the person may hear is to go to Alcoholic Anonymous (AA) meetings. The Red Road to Wellbriety says that if a person has read the Big Book or worked in the AA program, they know that the Great Spirit is behind all that’s there.

Unfortunately, many times the words and feelings a person receives in AA may be strange to a Native American because they are presented in a different cultural way. The Elders say that the 12 Steps of AA are just the same as the principles that our ancestors lived by, with only one change. When the Native American places the 12 Steps in a circle, they then come into alignment with the circle teachings and they become familiar.

At this point, it is important to know that some people use AA as the only thing they need for sobriety. Some people use AA for support and camaraderie, and some people say they never receive any benefit from AA. All of these points of view are OK. People stay sober in many different ways, and methods that work in the beginning of sobriety are different than the methods that work later on in the person’s sobriety. The idea is to try to receive benefit from the messages presented.

Also, the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous was written in the 1940s. Native Americans have been having talking circles and support groups for hundreds of years before AA came into being. The Elders share that if you want to let go of the painful spirit of drug addiction you can’t go half way with this. You must make a commitment.

The 12 Steps

Let’s look at the 12 Steps as written in the Red Road to Wellbriety; hopefully these steps will bring healing to the person needing help.

  1. We admitted we were powerless of alcohol – that we had lost control of our lives.

  2. We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could help us regain control.

  3. We made a decision to ask for help from a Higher Power and others who understand.

  4. We stopped and thought about our strengths and our weaknesses and thought about ourselves.

  5. We admitted to the Great Spirit, to ourselves, and to another person the things we thought were wrong about ourselves.

  6. We are ready, with the help of the Great Spirit, to change.

  7. We humbly ask a Higher Power and our friends to help us to change.

  8. We made a list of people who were hurt by our drinking and want to make up for these hurts.

  9. We are making up to those people whenever we can, except when to do so would hurt them more.

  10. We continue to think about our strengths and weaknesses and when wrong we say so.

  11. We pray and think about ourselves, praying only for the strength to do what is right.

  12. We try to help other alcoholics and to practice these principles in everything we do.

Notice that the word ‘alcohol’ is only mentioned in the first half of the first step, meaning that 11 and ½ of the 12 Steps are dedicated to changing the person’s life.

Consider these 12 Steps as a way to take a personal inventory. A shopkeeper takes inventory to discard the products that are not serving him and then replaces the old products with good, fresh new products. The same process is beneficial for people. The person is taking a life inventory and deciding which areas, behaviors and thought processes are helping them and which are hurting them.

Also, it’s not enough for a person to stop doing an addictive behavior — the person must replace the old negative behaviors with positive and productive new behaviors to grow into sobriety.

Finally, if a person wants to engage in the 12 Step process, it is best to find a trusted sponsor to help guide them through. A trusted sponsor can share wisdom, hope and strength while also relating to the person in addiction and, at the same time, keeping the person honest.

The next steps

The next question the person in early recovery asks is, “how can I go about healing the hurt and damage I have caused when I was under the control of the mind changers?

Most people want a quick fix. After all, if this person wanted to get intoxicated, the alcohol and drugs worked quickly. Why can’t sobriety work just as quickly? The answer is, sobriety is a process and earning trust in a relationship takes time.

Think about the relationships you have with other people. How do people earn your trust? Usually people earn your trust by their consistent behaviors. If someone is consistently intoxicated or leaves their home for a binge or a bender, the other people in that home learn to survive and live without the using person. Sure, they miss the person, but eventually they have to move on with their life. The family or loved ones are forced to accept the using person’s decision to choose addiction over spending time with them. Being a loving partner, mother/father and family member is an honor that takes effort. Using a substance does not take effort.

Here’s an example. Think about work — do you show up early? Do you do a good job? Do you get along with everybody? Do you leave on time? If the answer is yes, then your boss usually appreciates you. If you show up late, avoid work, gossip and are a negative warrior, the boss usually will correct these behaviors because they are not only bad for the business, these behaviors are bad for morale with the other hard working employees. It’s the same at home, if the home keeper mother/father allows the substance user to insert their drama and chaos into the family, the family will be weakened.

Sometimes when people seek help, they meet with their loved one and me. The person who was using substances proudly talks about not using for a week or so, and shares how he or she has been home every night taking care of the children and the home. The other person in the relationship looks at him/ her like he/she is crazy. The sober person is always home taking care of their children and home life. Now, the substance using person decides to stay home and take care of his/her responsibilities for one week, and everyone is praising this person! This is not fair!

Be patient with the person in the beginning stages of recovery. The process of sobriety takes one day at a time, as does a strong relationship. Don’t worry — this is a marathon, not a race, and the rewards will be plentiful.

“Ask Paul” is a health column by Paul Snyder, MA, LADC-S, a Substance Use Counselor at the Reno-Sparks Tribal Health Center. It publishes each month in The Camp News, the monthly newsletter for the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony community. Have a question for Paul? Email him at


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