"The whole spiritual journey might be summed up as humble hope." Thomas Keating

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Dark Night of the 12 Year Itch

I have written before about the '12 Year Itch', that dry spot people tend to hit when they reach double digit sobriety, often leading to a relapse.  I firmly believe that this is a sign that we are reaching a new stage in our spiritual growth, in facing ourselves and seeing what and who we are.  

My observation (admittedly of the limited sample of AAs I know)  is that this itch can take two forms, depending on the AA's program. (I'm generalizing here.  There are, of course, exceptions to this pattern.)  For those who have spent 10 or so years 'just going to meetings and not drinking' it is a spiritual depression that almost always leads to a relapse, usually lasting years.  For those who have been seriously working the steps it leads to a deeply felt spiritual crisis that often includes a short but nonetheless extremely painful relapse, sometimes lasting as little as a few days.  This crisis is characterized by a feeling of confusion and loss and the experience that the program just isn't working. The AA is resolved to renew their spiritual journey but is usually at a loss as to how.  (Hint: You're REALLY ready for very hard, temporarily unsatisfying Step 11 work and a Step 12 that organically grows out of 11.)

As I have said before, this type of crisis is a known stage in the spiritual path, one that has been written about in popular literature (for example, Willam Styron's Darkness Visible) as well as in all of the great spiritual traditions.  In the Christian mystical traditions is often referred to as the Dark Night of the Sense and of the Soul.

St. John of the Cross talks about these two Dark Nights.  The first one we encounter on our spiritual journey is the Night of the Sense.  St. John says that the pain of this Night is caused by the our weakness and vacillation when faced with the possibility of a transformative union with the Divine.
St. John of the Cross says there are three signs that indicate that we are entering into the night of sense. The first sign is that we find both prayer and daily life begin to lose their general appeal. Prayer dries up and becomes uninteresting and difficult.  The initial consolations that began with our newfound love for God seem to disappear. It is no longer easy to pray and takes a real effort even to give time to prayer. The second sign is that we feel we  may have done something wrong or committed some  personal sin that has offended God. Since there is  no consolation at this time either, this seems to confirm  our thinking that we have offended God in some way. This can cause great suffering to the soul. The third sign of the night of sense is that we are no longer able to use discursive meditation. Discursive meditation now becomes virtually impossible. St. John says that if all three of these signs are present, then we are probably beginning the night of sense.....
The purpose behind each of these three trials is to help us see that at the heart of our various emotional  programs for happiness lies selfishness. --Murdach O Madigain, Centering Prayer and the Healing of the Unconscious
The Dark Night of the Sense is a purification.  We are stripped of the pleasures and satisfactions that have accompanied our spiritual practices - prayer, meditation, 12th Step work.  This is when we can move beyond the values of our false selves, constructed through our confusing happiness with the gratification of the instincts of the child for security, power/control, affection/esteem and move to a new spiritual level.  The false self promises happiness but leads us to a necessarily unfulfilled life. However unsatisfying the false self is, though, when we begin to break through it we are entering the unknown and that is scary.  

No AA relapses for the fun of it.  The victims of the 12 Year Itch go out because they feel their spiritual program has stopped working.  Prayer and meditation are dry, meetings become uninteresting or even annoying and in response the alcoholic usually dismantles their program piece by piece or occasionally throws everything out the window in one alcoholically dramatic swoop.  This is a major stage in the spiritual journey and one that our literature doesn't really deal with.  How could it?  The Big Book was written by a bunch of guys who were still on pink clouds.  The 12 + 12 was written by Bill when he was in the middle of a 10 year depression.  As a result very few of us -- generally those with really great sponsors -- are prepared for this crisis.  To deal with this we have to rely on our collective experience and on the great spiritual traditions.


  1. I'm astonished at the clarity within this post. Although i know it is a common occurrence among people of faith the relentless feeling of alone-ness is the most difficult to take.

    Consider discovering and building the most intimate relationship that fills you with joy, and answers. Growing that relationship year after year, and then a dramatic drop from that which gave you strength and comfort. Knowing there once was something that answered a lifetime of 'fear doubt and insecurity' only now to consider a future without that.

    So many good natured people try to give the most obvious of solutions that you have been trying all along to no avail (which can be a little irritating at best, infuriating at worst). It does, or can, perpetuate into a crisis for an alcoholic, and this is where we tragically differ from the rest of the faithful, we may pick up. Since i do not want to give anyone an excuse to pick up, i will refrain from further discussion on the alcoholic drinking during this crisis.

    I don't have answers, but i did look at one of your references within the quote from Saint John, "night of sense", and found this: "John of the cross says that all one has to do in this state is to remain at peace, not try to think, and to abide before God with faith in His presence, continually turning to Him as if opening one’s eyes to look upon a loved one." - 'Not try to think'.... if only.

  2. When this topic came up at our meeting this morning I was, like you, disappointed at the number of people who said 'just pray' or 'go to meetings', advice that works for a normal 'dip' on the path but not when you hit the blackness. Again, the topic isn't dealt with in our literature or at many meetings, so a lot of people just don't understand what's being discussed.

    I agree that St. John of the Cross can seem to have a bit of that same 'just cowboy up' spirit. If I get it, though, and I am anything but sure that I do, the difference is that John is not just saying 'this too shall pass' but is saying this is your Gethsemane, this is a trial you must go through to get to something great. It's probably a terrible analogy, but a lot of the people this morning seemed to be saying 'hang in there, you have a tummy ache' while John would say 'keep pushing, you're experiencing childbirth.'
    But, like you say, if only.

  3. Thanks Brian. Actually i am pretty grateful for both your response and Saint John's; yeah he gets it (or got it). I don't know that a massive amount of enlightenment came as a result, but i am seeing things differently. My sobriety now is less pedantic in adherence to our literature, and although i am comforted in my fellowship and the people that are with me in our little organization, I have come to understand that the spiritual journey is far more individualistic than i had realized. That's not a bad thing at all, but a little bit of a hurdle to get over. I knew, and have always known that i think too much, and i wish, with all my heart at times, that i could turn that off - hence alcoholism.

    The only other distinction i would make between us and Saint John is the potential for picking up. I made it back, and am far better for the entire experience, but that is a gamble with life. How many would make it back, how many go out and never come back, and create untold damage to themselves and others as a result? For us the rebirth has a very high rate of miscarriage.

  4. True, as alcoholics we have the threat of picking up, destroying our lives and seriously damaging those around us always looming over us. That does make the price of failure potentially very, very high and to the degree it pressures us to move forward it is an advantage.
    Of course, we've been talking about picking up or breaking through to a new spiritual level, while another response to the 12 Year Itch is to enter a long dry relapse. The program doesn't work any more, the alkie manages to stay dry, but becomes a bitter jerk. I hear about people like that ("Joe hasn't come to meetings in years but boy could he use one") and occasionally I encounter them in meetings, but I wonder just how common that response is.

  5. In sobriety I have suffered many depressions and low spots. I can look back and see with some clarity what type each one is.

    There were the immediate depressions: Those that come from some incredible shock during the days events, and left me despondent and feeling that all was lost. My thinking compounded on itself and I spiraled down the abyss. These depressions led to deeper "funks" in early sobriety where they bled in to every area of my life causing weeks and months on grief and despair. In later years, thanks to large amounts of Step work, I was able to see them for what they were and get through them far quicker, not allowing them to lead me in to the deeper "funk" that could go on for days and weeks. I was able to realize that "I am not my thinking".

    Then there were the unexplainable dead spots. The times in my life when nothing would start the machine up again. I had an ineffable feeling of loss and disconnectedness that lead me to feel as if nothing could ever lift me out. During these times I attacked my depressions with everything I had in my arsenal. I prayed, I did Step work, I went to more meetings, I worked with new people and called on them (not the other way around), I sought professional help, and I even upped my physical exercise and took vitamin supplements. Eventually the darkness would lift, but with everything I had ben doing I never knew what was the magic bullet. Consequently, each time those dark times have reappeared I have just hit them with a barrage again. Maybe one thing worked, maybe if was the combination. I may never know, but at least I have a plan.

    So what happens when you have been doing all of these things and AA begins to lose its sparkle? What happens when our meeting attendance is limited by personal commitments such as family or work requirements and when we finally can attend a meeting where (and this recently happened to me) the topic is "resentments and how to get rid of them", and not one person in the 25 who commented on it are able to refer to the 4th Step, the section in the Big Book on resentments, or anything else from our literature? It's little wonder that that we get disillusioned by meetings.

    Sure we can make sure we do our part. But what happens when "our part" gets us eye rolls from half of the room for bringing up "the Steps" and "the Big Book" in an AA meeting? Have we ourselves become too idealistic? Or have the meetings themselves started to represent something outside of where our primary purpose lies? Do we still have a "common solution" and a "way out on which we can absolutely agree"? (BB pg 17)

    These are, of course, question for my me to answer. But I feel they bear on the posting and my own "itch" that I struggle with lately.

  6. First, ditto to all of the above. This is such immensely difficult stuff.

    My FIRST thought was that, really, only people who have actually had the experience of being sober for a long time, relapsing, coming back, and then having enough time to reflect on what the hell happened ... could really get it.

    My SECOND thought - in this case, I think the better one, is that that's not right at all. In fact, I think to "get it" one needs a full understanding of - and therefore the courage to have sat in and experienced - the "dark night of the soul" ... with or without a relapse attached. Oddly, that means there are people who HAVE had the experience (sober for a long time, relapse, back in the program...) who, I sense, do NOT really "get it" - whose explanation for what happened is something like "I wasn't working the steps the way they were laid out," or some such ... AND there are people who have NOT relapsed who DO "get it" (Brian is such an one, as I know because we've talked so much about my own relapse as I continue to try to understand what happened, so it may best inform my practice and spiritual journey NOW.)

    For a time, I thought it would be a good idea to start a meeting ABOUT relapse for people who HAVE relapsed and "come back," so that people with this experience could share on the level at which this conversation - the one we are having in virtual space here - could take place. I now realize that the forum I need doesn't require that at all - it requires that I commune with others who have the courage to lean into the shadow, or sit in the dark moments - or nights - of the soul, with the intention of being informed and - in the end - strengthened by doing so.

    Thanks, all, for being part of that club.

  7. As I continue to reflect on this topic it occurred to me that Bill did correspond about this topic with one of his "sponsors" Father Ed Dowling. In some of these writings he admits that he too recognizes that it still needed a certain amount of the "cowboy up" treatment that Brian mentions.

    "I would set myself a small stint. I would determine to walk a quarter of a mile. And I would concentrate by counting my breathing - say, six steps to each slow inhalation and four to each exhalation. Having done the quarter-mile, I found that I could go on, maybe a half-mile more. Then another half-mile, and maybe another"

    I can relate to this kind of debilitating depression. The feeling that you are unable to walk even a quarter of a mile, but the inner spirit that knows you have to do "something, anything" and pushes you just a little further. That one of our co-founders knew this depth of despair in late-stage sobriety helps me realize how similar I am. I personally feel that these correspondence should be more widely published, not less. AA as a whole seems to want to cast our founders in a better light than they lived. Whereas they were human like the rest of us, and as such, suffered in the same ways we do. It helps to have people in front of you on the path.

    Also, during this time the fellowship pelted Bill with the same accusations we get today. They accused him of not praying enough, of not working the steps the right way, or thoroughly enough. He got the same suggestions and found, much as many of us do today, that they do not apply to all cases.

    He did however change many things in attempts to life the depressions. He also used physical exertion (as evident above), vitamins, prayer, and outside help (for that matter, that's where I got many of my ideas on what to do).

    And finally they even included some suggestions in our the Big Book (p. 133) on what many of our founders thought and did about depression and mental health. Not a bad thing to bring up when these discussions start at meetings.