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An Approach to Recovery Using Alchemy and the Twelve Steps

by John Smethers, Ph.D.

posted in Self Improvement : Addictions

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What is alchemy?

Many of us are drawn to the mysteries of the past to enlighten the quality of the present. Mythology, astrology, the tarot, runes, and I-Ching have drawn the interest of many in recent years, and is being enjoyed and utilized in fresh and innovative ways. Ancient wisdom imbued by myths, legends and symbols can generate transformation, and transformation is what alchemy is all about. More commonly known as the art of turning lead into gold, few people realize what a vast philosophical foundation this early science has. Alchemy is a process that continues to grow and expand, offering deeper understanding, awareness, and has a profound potential to change your life. This fountain of ancient wisdom has nourished seekers of spiritual enlightenment throughout the ages.

The first material of alchemy, the prima materia (primal material), is a substance known to all yet recognized by only the astute. The outward form of the prima materia must be destroyed because it is pure chaos. Treatment of the prima materia in the alchemical vessel by heat leads to its death, a moment known as the ‘nigredo,' or blackening. With a methodical treatment and heat, the prima materia ‘whitens,' indicating that the elixir is perfected in its first degree, a moment known as the ‘albedo,' or whitening. To attain the gold-promising tincture of the sun, further treatment is necessary until the elixir reddens, which is referred to as the ‘rubedo.' There is also a ‘citrinitas,' a yellowing in the ancient process, but it isn't used in most texts that delineates the alchemical process, especially the psychological and philosophical treatises, and more specifically to the process of which I will correlate to this regarding the alchemical process of recovery from addiction.

Alchemy transforms consciousness, which is the project of depth psychology. When non- Jungians study Jung's concept of the transference, they are often struck by how heavily it draws on alchemical symbolism. I won't be relying much on alchemical symbolism in my approach, but transference is always an issue between sponsors and the people they sponsor in 12-step programs.

In a way, sponsorship is practicing psychotherapy without a license. Unlike therapists, however, sponsors don't get paid for it. Members of 12-step programs have been practicing psychotherapy without a license since the 30s under the guise of sponsorship. With this model of sponsorship, transformation through the alchemical process can be achieved using a modified version of the steps.

History:

Alchemy has a history stretching back at least 2,500 years and has been practiced in Eastern, Arabic and Western societies. Historically, alchemists were more interested in the chemical techniques, others in the philosophical aspects, and some saw alchemy as a path to the true meaning of Christianity, while others saw the possibilities of producing medicines and other concoctions. A more comprehensive coverage of alchemy can be found on any search engine.

12-step programs, however, have a much shorter history, originating in 1935 when two alcoholics, Dr. Bob Smith and Bill Wilson, met. From two people to millions just in AA, not to mention all the other 12-step programs, the 12-steps are now universally known. Carl Jung, a pioneer depth psychologist, had a key role in the founding of AA, and he has written extensively on the psychologically and spiritually transformational aspects of alchemy.

Alchemical formula for recovery:

The mercurial spirit of the prima materia is otherwise known as chaos, and the newcomer to recovery certainly fits that description. It is the job of the alchemist to kill the prima materia and in the process the prima materia is turned into the blackening state of nigredo. This sets the stage for a transformation--the first conuinctio (conjunction).

The first conuinctio begins when the ego (consciousness) discovers the reality of the unconscious and makes an effort to pay attention to it. If recovery is being sought for intrinsic purposes, then the ego has acknowledged an unconscious need; therefore, the first conuinctio is the transformation from the dregs of active addiction to the clamor of abstinence (and I emphasize clamor because at this time abstinence is often as chaotic as active addiction). This part of the transformation is tentative and unstable.

The second conuinctio is the transformation from abstinence to recovering. What was previously only an ideal becomes a living reality. This stage of recovering can be thought of as the whitening of the albedo--the ego having reached a new level of being. The addict (which includes the alcoholic), at this new level of being, now has hope.

The third conuinctio is the transformation from recovering to recovered. This can take anywhere from about six months to many years, and sometimes it never happens. There are those too who even stay in the simple-abstinence stage (albedo) indefinitely, and a regression can happen during any stage of transformation. There are also those who return to the chaos of the negredo--that prima materia that existed prior to the recovery process, which can be translated as relapse.

Application:

The main purpose of sponsorship is to guide the newcomer through the 12-steps. There are many approaches to this.

When a newcomer ask someone to sponsor them, that someone sets the parameters of the sponsorship. Here's a crude example: I might ask the newcomer to squat down and quack like a duck around an entire football field. If he tells me where to stick the football field, then I won't sponsor him. Outlaw motorcycle gangs and college fraternities do similar things. Anyway, his first homework assignment will be for him to read some literature on alchemy, then give me a report on it.

The Twelve Steps:

The first conuinctio has gotten the newcomer to abstinence and to meetings--if recovery is being sought for intrinsic purposes, then the ego has acknowledged an unconscious need. Before the transformation to the second conuinctio can occur, he needs to get a sponsor and start working the steps. There is no specific schedule for working the steps, and with this model the steps are modified.

Those seeking recovery with a sponsor using the alchemical method, are most likely the ones who have issues with the traditional Christian sky-God--that is, the agnostics and atheists. The 12-steps are fraught with the word God, so I have reformatted the wording where the word God appears. I have made other minor changes in wording and process to conform to my approach.

1. We admitted we were powerless over addiction--that our lives had become unmanageable

This is the first step of recovery. While still in the nigredo state, the newcomer must admit he has a problem. He will actually be working this step when an alchemical oriented sponsor interviews him as a candidate for sponsorship, and this is when the sponsor determines whether the prospect's reasons for being in the program are intrinsic or extrinsic. If he is in the program as a result of a nudge from the judge, or to get his wife back, or for any other extrinsic purpose, then they can't go any farther until the sponsor is convinced the prospect is there for himself. If the prospect is there for himself, then he is no longer a prospect, but a sponsee. The sponsor will then give the following series of questions as a homework assignment.

Have you seriously damaged your relationships with other people because of your addiction? If so, list the relationships and how you damaged them. If other people have told you how you have hurt them, write down what they said. Describe times and ways that you have significantly neglected or damaged relationships with your loved ones in order to indulge in your addiction. Describe any illnesses caused by your addiction. Describe incidents where you expressed inappropriate anger toward other people. Describe embarrassing or humiliating incidents in your life related to your addiction. Describe attempts that you have made in the past to control your addiction. How successful have they been? Do you feel any remorse from the ways that you have acted in your life? If so, explain. Describe any irrational or crazy set of events that have happened since you began your addiction. Did you rationalize this behavior? If so, in what way? Have you avoided people because they did not share in or approve of your addictive behavior? If so, list these people and situations. Can you pinpoint when your life began to become unmanageable? If so, describe that period of time and what was happening. Is there one incident or insight that made you realize that your life was unmanageable? If so, describe it in detail. How would you summarize the powerlessness and unmanageability of your life in the face of your addiction?

2. Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity

The sponsee can use whatever he wants as a higher power, but for the sake of this article, we'll use the group, since this approach will be used primarily by non-religious persons. Once the sonsee really believes the group (or whatever he's adopted as a higher power) can restore him to sanity, the sponsor will begin to see the blackening contents of the alchemical vessel starting to whiten. The sponsor will then assign the following questions as homework.

What was the religion that your family of origin practiced? List the positive and negative aspects of your family's religion. Recall some of your best friends from childhood or adolescence. Describe what you liked best about them and what they liked best about you? Do you think that these qualities have any relationship to a Higher Power? Explain. Describe any dreams that you have had about a "Higher Power" or God, and what they mean to you.

3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of the group

This step doesn't mean for the newcomer to turn his will and his life over to the care of a sponsor or the group. It does mean, however, that he will make a decision to, if that's what it takes. It also means that he will take suggestions such as attending 90 meetings in 90 days. By monitoring his attendance, and listening to what the sponsee has to share in meetings, when 90 days has passed, the sponsor will have an idea whether he is serious or not. At the sponsor's chosen time, since all sponsees respond differently to treatment, the following questions will be given as homework.

What are your greatest fears about giving up temporary control over your life to the group? Do you think that the group can help handle your life better than you have? How do you feel overall about turning your life over to the group? In what ways will you keep up the process of turning your life over to the group? Possibilities include going to religious services, 12- step meetings, meeting with others in recovery, writing a journal, service to others, meditation, reading, physical exercise, contacting your sponsor or engaging in psychotherapy. Describe who or what you trust and to what degree. What changes do you expect to make and how will this look in specific detail?

4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

Step four and five are major action steps. Step four is an inventory which sets the stage for the fifth step. This inventory should include not only the deep dark immoral secrets of hedonistic and ignominous turpitude, but also the more admirable traits that have often gone unnoticed. Homework assignment:

Have you had any broken relationships? If so, describe them and how they hurt others or you. Describe any grudges, anger or resentment that you have over these relationships. Have you ever behaved self-righteously? Explain. Was this justified? What caused you to begin your addictive behavior? Describe situations, feelings, events or people that were a part of your life just before your addictive lifestyle. Have you held grudges? Did you get revenge? If so, explain and include whether or not someone else was hurt. Describe the faults that you most detest in others. Do you have any of these traits yourself?

5. Admitted to our sponsor or to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs

All of those despicable things the newcomer has done during his addiction have been kept a secret and needs to be shared with another human being. If he or she doesn't wish to share things with their sponsor, then they should find another sponsor. Most sponsors, during their addiction, have done most of the things that their sponsees have done, so there's really not a valid reason to refuse to disclose past behavior. Homework assignment:

After working through the fourth step questions, what do you realize about your limitations and capabilities? Describe what it was like sharing the fifth step. How did you feel before, during, and after the process? Are you glad that you've done this?

Usually by this time the sponsor will have already witnessed the contents of the alchemical vessel transform from the blackening of the nigredo to the whitening of the albedo. The sponsor will discuss with him at what point of the alchemical process he's at--if he has internalized his recovery as an alchemical process and recognizes the importance of the transformation of the second conuinctio, then they can continue their journey of transformation. Hopefully the sponsee has internalized the death of his old self and the birth of the new. The benefit of the fourth and fifth steps, if the sponsee is successful, are the completion of the second conuinctio--the whitening of the alchemical vessel has turned red. He is in the rubedo phase.

12-step programs recognize various lengths of sobriety. In an alchemical recovery system we eliminate receiving chips during the first year and celebrate only the 2nd conuinctio instead, which is done after the fifth step. If the sponsor doesn't believe that his charge has achieved the 2nd conuinctio, then the sponsor should discontinue sponsorship. However, if the two of them celebrate the 2nd conuinctio, then the sponsee can get the first annual chip when that time comes.

6. Were entirely ready to have the group remove all these defects of character

It' time now for the sponsee to really get down to working on himself. The rubedo is the third stage and its color is red. Red was thought by alchemists to contain the essence of life. Medieval people believed that the soul resided in the blood and the heart was therefore the spiritual and physical center of a person's life. From here on, it's all about change. The sponsee has only one thing to change, and that's everything, so all the baggage he's carrying from the wreckage of the past needs to be disposed of. Homework:

Do you have any fairy tales or myths that you feel a special affinity with? Why? Describe situations and events where you have been full of pride. What has this brought into your life that you like? What problems has it caused you? Describe activities you really enjoy (excepting addictive behavior). What are some healthy eating or exercise habits that you could start? What are some unhealthy eating habits that you could give up? Describe some secret ‘good' deeds that you have done or would like to do. Describe situations and events where you have been greedy, overly needy or materialistic. Describe situations where you have given in to lust without regard for others or morality. What problems has it caused you? Describe situations where you have been dishonest. What problems has it caused you? Are you ready to depend upon the group to help keep you honest? Describe situations where you have been envious or jealous of others. What problems has it caused you? Are you ready to share these situations in meetings? Describe situations where you have avoided responsibility for your actions or lack of actions. What problems has it caused you? Are you ready to allow the group to help you take responsibility for your actions? List your major defects of character. What do you plan to do when these major defects of character begin to become evident? List each defect individually along with the proposed preventive behavior and how you will allow the group and/or your sponsor to help you in your battle against these defects.

7. Humbly ask the group to help remove our shortcomings

Timing is an essential factor in inner alchemy. Twelve-steppers have noticed repeatedly that a member will hear something clearly only when the time is right. Sponsors may continually point out something with no results. Then the sponsee comes informs him that he or she has discovered a great truth that is exactly what the sponsor had been trying to get across all along. Timing is a great mystery, for it cannot be controlled by us. At a certain moment, an experience that would have been impossible a week before unfolds with no difficulty. The alchemists warned that all haste was of the devil; rushing violates the gradual evolution that accords with time. As the Chinese philosophers well knew, to be in accord with the time make the difference between success and failure. It's not conducive to our recovery to beat ourselves up when his happens, but it is conducive to our recovery to listen to what's being said in meetings and by sponsors. Homework:

What have you heard in meetings that you have actually chosen to ignore because maybe you didn't like who was speaking? What other defects will be most difficult to give up? In what order do you plan to give them up? What kind of situations, stressors or pressures cause you to regress back into your defects of character? What can you do to lessen the likelihood of that stress occurring? What makes you lose hope? Can you avoid such situations? If so, how? What (person, situation, event, thought) restores your hope? Describe in detail how you think your life will be different without your defects of character. What are you grateful for? (I've heard it said that grateful people are happy people). When were you the happiest? Describe your typical day's activities in terms of how much time you spend on each type of activity. Describe your typical day's activities if you knew that you had only one year to live. Have you decided how much time you spend with loved ones? What can you do to contribute to the anima mundi (soul of the world)--making the world a better place?

8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all

Like the fourth and fifth steps, the next two action steps are imperative for an enduring peace of mind, and essential for the third conuinctio. It's very unlikely that anyone can live a happy and productive life if they're carrying around unresolved baggage. The third conuinctio is our final destination, but we have the rest of our lives to sustain it. The third conuinctio is the philosopher's stone, individuation of the recovery process--the Gold. Homework:

What important relationships did you destroy or damage because of your addiction? List all those that you have possibly harmed by your addiction. List the effect on them as and on you and on your relationship with them. Take the list of people that you have harmed and list possible amends for each of them. What consequences do you fear in making amends? List the worst and the best things that can happen? What is likely to happen? Do you feel angry or resentful toward any people on your amends list? If so, write them a letter of anger, but don't send it to them. Describe any other ways that you have used to get rid of the anger and resentment toward anyone on your list. Depth psychology is the psychology of the unconscious, which dreams are a part. Describe any dreams, if any, that relate to making amends to others.

9. Made direct amends to such people whenever possible, except when to do so would inure them or others

Once the list is made, and the essential homework in connection to the list, then the sponsee is ready to start a process that sometimes takes years. This is one of those steps that doesn't always get finished, but it's necessary to keep it in mind and apply it whenever the opportunity arises. Homework:

What amends do you think you have already made? These can include apologies already made, helpful tasks for those that you have hurt, changed attitudes and so forth. Remember, however, amends are more than just apologies, but often an apology is all you can do. From your list of amends, if there are apologies that you need to make, write them down first. Read your apologies to the group, a friend or your sponsor and ask if it sounds sincere or if it sounds defensive or like an attack on the other person. Record what response they have about them. After you have had your first encounter with making amends, record what happened. How did you feel about it? How did the other person respond? What have you learned from this? What would you do differently next time? After having done your first several amends, record your overall impressions. Is there anything common? Has anything surprised or disappointed you? Which amends have or will be the most difficult? What do you need to do to be able to make these amends? How are you dealing with being compelled to defend yourself? Again, have you had any dreams about making amends? If so, describe them in detail. Yes, recovery is a lot of work.

10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it

This is a maintenance step that will be worked periodically for the rest of the sponsee's life, providing he remains abstinent that long. We have a natural tendency to not admit when we're wrong. The philosopher's stone cannot be achieved unless we are capable of doing this-- despite how embarrassing or humiliating it might be. Individuation of the recovery process is a status not all people in recovery actually achieve. How can a sponsor elevate his sponsee to the ultimate level if he is still operating on an external locus of control. The philosopher's stone--the Gold--cannot be achieved unless an internal locus of control has been achieved. If we place the blame for everything ‘out there' and not take ownership of our part in it, then we're in an external locus of control. If we are truly accountable for all of our actions and are unhesitatingly willing to admit our wrongs, then we can say that we are really operating on an internal locus of control. But this is a process, we get better and better at it as time progress, providing we are actively and continually working on it. Homework:

What is your plan to allow time for reflection each day? What new behaviors would you like to try to make your alchemical journey more effective? How would you go about implementing these? What strategies do you need to stay away from the stinking thinking that so many addicts have such a hard time letting go of? What are your triggers for addictive behavior? How can you guard against them or prepare for them?

11. Sought through introspection or meditation to improve our conscious contact with humanity

If we were contumacious (assholes) during our addiction, then this step serves as a monitor to keep us in check and not be that way anymore. Everybody needs introspection, but far from everybody participates in this spiritual notion. The world we live in can be viewed as hostile or amicable. We can't achieve the level of individuation--the Gold--we desire if we don't view our fellow men and women as partners rather than antagonists. Homework:

Can you recall a time when your life was heading in the wrong direction? If so, what brought you back? Describe this in detail. How would you describe your outlook and beliefs concerning humanity? What are your favorite sources of wisdom and knowledge about healthy values? If you were stranded on a desert island with only one book, which book would you take? Why? If you had only one week to live and unlimited resources, who would you gather around you and how would you pass the time? Write a full page of what you would like your obituary to say.

12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to addicts, and to practice these principles in all our affairs

If a sponsee is uncertain what a spiritual awakening/experience is, like I was for ten years into my recovery, then he or she can read my research on spiritual experience available on my website @ http://www.ScumbagSewerRats.com

Under Ezine Articles entitled Spiritual Experience. This is original research where I interviewed and tape-recorded addicts and alcoholics, asking that they tell me about their spiritual experiences. Homework:

Have you been able to reach out to another recovering addict? If so, describe the situation and how it feels to you. What do you say if someone asked how the 12-step program has worked for you? How do you usually handle conflict? Do you know of any way to be more effective in conflict resolution? If so, how would you become more effective? How much time are you willing to devote to working with others on their program? What outside resources can you call on when you need help as a sponsor? Do you want to be a sponsor? List the reasons why or why not.

Once the third conuinctio has occurred, which can be from six months to several years, the addict has achieved individuation of the recovery process. The content of the alchemical vessel has turned into Gold. He has become the philosopher's stone. He has recovered from a seemingly hopeless case of mind and body. Again, the alchemical imagery and processes will continue to be used, and hopefully the sponsee will also have found a life worth living and an enduring interest in the spiritual aspects of recovery and of alchemical transformation and alchemy in general.

Archetypes & Culture:

The wounded healer is an archetypal dynamic that may be constellated in an analytic relationship. Whereas sponsors don't practice psychoanalysis without a license like they do in the psychotherapeutic relationship of sponsor and sponsee, what we sometimes have in common, however, is a relationship with those we sponsor that lasts for years and sometimes the duration of our lives. The term wounded healer derives from the legend of Asclepius, a Greek doctor who in recognition of his own wounds established a sanctuary at Epidaurus where others could be healed of theirs. The wounded healers in the 12-step environment are sponsors, and sponsors are addicts, and addicts personify two archetypes--the puer aeternus and the trickster.

Adolescents usually live for the moment. Practicing addicts and alcoholics also live for the moment. Emotionally, addicts and alcoholics act like adolescents and are often described as adolescent in behavior and attitude. After all, a lot of issues that they struggle with are the same that face adolescents. The difference is that addicts stay trapped in an adolescent stage as long as their disease is in progress. Though this describes the addict, it also describes the puer aeternus. Von Franz agrees--she says that "in general, the man who is identified with the archetype of the puer aeternus remains too long in adolescent psychology."

The trickster however is more obvious because tricksters are constantly on the con, and their behaviors are wide and varied. A good example is the addict who steals his friend's dope, then helps him look for it. Here's an allegory of the wily trickster--the coyote:

In the old days sheep farmers tried to get rid of wolves and coyotes by putting out animal carcasses laced with strychnine. The wolves, they say, were killed in great numbers, but the coyotes wised up and avoided these traps. Another story has it that when trappers set metal leg traps they will catch muskrat and mink and fox and skunk, but the coyote only rarely. Coyotes develop their own relationship to the trap; as one naturalist has written, "it is difficult to escape the conclusion that coyotes . . . have a sense of humor. How else to explain, for instance, the well-known propensity of experienced coyotes to dig up traps, turn them over, and urinate or defecate on them?"

Addicts are tricky, but most of them are intelligent, and that combination makes addiction very difficult to overcome. That's why recovery is so much work.

Puer and trickster psychology of the chemically dependent is a cultural phenomenon. From the time I started using, it didn't matter where I went, I could spot people of my own ilk. Going to jail wasn't much of a threat because my type of people was there (read my autobiographical sketch, No Ordinary Happiness @ http://wwwScumbagSewerRats.com

The cultural ethos of 12-step programs is similar. We can go to a meeting and get help from people just like us. Those who adapt to the ethos of 12-step programs usually recover. Hopefully we can put a dent in the amount of people who leave, or don't try 12-step programs, because of their discomfort with all the God talk--which is the reason I've developed the alchemical approach to recovery using the twelve steps. I am fascinated with alchemy and 12-step programs, and I believe this alternative method is an effective option for those who are interested.

After 40 arrests, five formal probations, four country jail sentences, and a prison term (as a result of chemical dependency), I turned my life around. I was released from prison in Dec 1989, and have been clean and sober since. I started at Barstow College in Feb 1990. Received my AA degree in '92 from Barstow College in Barstow, CA; BA in '94 from Chapman University in Orange CA; MHS in 98 from National University in San Diego CA, and finished with a Ph.D. from Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara, CA in Feb 2004. I have taught as an adjunct instructor for Park University and Barstow College. I can be contacted through my website @ http://www.ScumbagSewerRats.com

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