The Intensive Journal Method and Twelve-Step Programs

by Jane A.

Jane A. has been a member of twelve-step programs for over twelve years and an Intensive Journal writer for nine. Her article proposes that the Intensive Journal [method] has a unique role to play as a partner with a twelve-step recovery program. The Intensive Journal program is a structured method of journal-writing that is based upon the principles of holistic depth psychology developed by Dr. Ira Progoff in the 1950s and 1960s. It employs non-judgmental and non-analytical approaches that utilize techniques to help individuals accept their life situation and gain a perspective from which they can access and develop their inner capacities and wisdom. Dr. Progoff emphasizes the importance of spiritual development to have a more meaningful life. These are only some of the many reasons why both individuals in the twelve-step program and professional counselors have found synergistic effects between the Intensive Journal method and twelve-step programs.


The Twelve-Step Programs

The twelve-step programs, also known as the anonymous programs, began in Akron, Ohio, when Bill W., a newly sober alcoholic found another drunk to help and realized how much helping another drunk to stay sober could help in maintaining his own sobriety. Bill's efforts eventually led to the formation of Alcoholics Anonymous. The original 100 members formulated the twelve steps of recovery. Since its start, A.A. has grown to become the model for recovery from addiction, with over 76,000 active AA groups in 118 countries (Alcoholics Anonymous, AA World Services, Inc., New York, NY, p. xxii).

Offshoots of this successful recovery program include Narcotics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, Sex Addicts Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, and Survivors of Incest Anonymous. For the families and friends of the various addicts there are twelve-step groups such as Alanon, Naranon, Oanon, and Gamanon. Plus, there are twelve-step groups for the children of alcoholics. They are: Alatot (for young children), pre-Alateen, Alateen, and Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACA). This article will mainly mention AA, OA (Overeaters Anonymous), and Alanon (families of alcoholics), though the principles are the same in all twelve-step programs.

The process of reaching out to help another suffering person, is of course a crucial part of the recovery process, but it’s not all of it. The twelve-step programs are so called because there are, indeed, twelve distinct steps that the recovering person must go through initially and revisit repeatedly in order for the process to work. To help the newcomer, the steps are often grouped into three major categories: trust God, clean house, help others. All twelve, paraphrased, are:

1) an admission of powerlessness over the substance, person, thought or activity to which one is addicted.

2) a process of coming to believe in a Higher Power who can "return one to sanity" (for some this means coming up with their own conception of a God who can help them).

3) a decision to turn one’s will and life and one’s hopes and dreams over to the God of one’s understanding.

4) the taking of a complete and totally honest written moral inventory of one’s character strengths and weaknesses.

5) sharing that inventory with a trusted sponsor (a recovering addict who’s further along on the path to recovery), therapist, or spiritual guide, and admitting "the exact nature" of one’s wrongs to oneself, God, and the person chosen to listen.

6) becoming willing to give up one’s character defects.

7) asking God to remove them.

8) making a list of all persons one has harmed.

9) making amends to those people except in cases where another person (other than the recovering person) would be harmed by doing so.

10) continuing to take personal inventory, and promptly making amends as necessary.

11) regular prayer and meditation in which one seeks to improve conscious contact with the God of his/her understanding, with the single purpose of gaining "knowledge of God’s will" in one’s life and the "power to carry it out."

12) By this time it is assumed that one has had a "spiritual awakening as the result of these steps." It is then time to carry the message of recovery to those still suffering and to "practice these principles" (outlined in the steps) in all of one’s affairs. (The twelve steps in their original form can be found on page 59 of the textbook of AA, listed above.)

Writing in Recovery: An Intensive Journal Perspective

The value of writing in recovery from alcohol and other addictions has long been noted in treatment and twelve-step circles. The twelve steps, which are the recovery tools of Alcoholics Anonymous and other programs patterned after it, include two written inventory steps, and there are many twelve-step guide booklets available designed to promote inner awareness in the recovering person through a question and answer format. In addition, many twelve-step sponsors recommend that their "pigeons" (the A.A. term for sponsee) keep a journal as their recovery journey progresses. When used under the tutelage of an available sponsor, counselor, or spiritual guide, these writings can provide the newly recovering person with an excellent recovery tool.

But, as the recovering person becomes more autonomous, just how effective is writing, and specifically journal writing, as a recovery tool? Dr. Progoff has written about the decreasing effectiveness of unguided journal writing over time (At A Journal Workshop, p. 28). Whereas unguided journal writing often declines into behavior analysis and circuitous thinking, says Dr. Progoff, the Intensive Journal process does not. Instead, through its non-judgmental, non-analytic nature, along with "Journal Feedback," it gives the writer a mirroring capability which increases the energy, power, and effectiveness of the process over time. This experience of seeing oneself through one’s own uncensored thoughts, feelings, and words, without the burden of judgment or analysis, has an empowering effect upon the journalist.

In AA, the recovering person experiences this principle of non-judgmental self-awareness through the mirror of admitting powerlessness in the first step. The burden of analyzing the whys and wherefores has been lifted for the moment and one has the opportunity to see one’s situation clearly before one’s eyes. On that basis, the recovering person begins to move naturally in the direction of change.

Yet according to the steps, that change comes from a "Power greater than ourselves." Through step two, one becomes aware of that power, indeed, starts to believe in that Power, and in step three, one makes a decision to let that Power guide his/her life. For some that Higher Power may be the recovery group, for others a sponsor, and for others the god of their understanding.

Similarly, through the Intensive Journal [method’s] catalytic process, one becomes connected with that power, experienced as a power from within that is somehow wiser than one’s everyday thought processing. One way this empowerment may appear is in the form of creative writing that one was not formerly aware of possessing; another is through an experience of more creative and empowered behavior.

In the Intensive Journal method, as in the twelve-step program, one’s understanding of which doctrine or belief system, if any, to attach to that power, is a personal decision. The experience, however, of combining these two powerful recovery tools, the twelve steps and the Intensive Journal method, is multiplicative.

My Personal Journey

I have been using the Intensive Journal method since 1982 when I found At A Journal Workshop at a campus bookstore. Following Progoff’s instructions, I set up my journal and began to write. As images of my life began to cover the pages of my journal, I began to feel more at ease with my life as it was unfolding. After a year of keeping the Journal, I attended my first workshop. The quiet atmosphere of writing and reflecting with other inwardly focused individuals has a renewing effect upon me. Since that first workshop, I have attended six Intensive Journal workshops, and each one has offered me valuable perspectives in my recovery journey.

Since I first set up my Intensive Journal [workbook], it has been my friend and confidant through many life passages and transitions. It has accompanied me to Alanon and to Overeaters Anonymous meetings, many of which have given me additional information about myself to add to my Journal work.

As for my twelve-step journey, I attended my first OA meeting in 1978, and weaved in and out of the program for several years as I struggled to figure out if I was indeed "powerless over food." One of the most powerful experiences I had in finally making this commitment to work on the twelve steps and my food compulsion actually came during a journal workshop when we did the "Dialogue with Body." I came out of that experience both amused and deflated by the powerful response that my body had toward my abuse of it. After the workshop, I continued these conversations and gradually became more and more able to look into the mirror of my writing and see the next logical step, which was to work the twelve steps.

Of course, the body dialogues were only part of the puzzle that the Journal work revealed to me. When I looked into my journal mirror through the angles of the various sections, I was able to see the inner pain playing itself out in my life and relationships, and to feel an inner core of strength that would carry me through whatever I needed to go through to heal. It would be dishonest to say that the Journal was the only factor in my returning to twelve-step work with a commitment that had previously been absent, but the mirror and push from within that it somehow created in my life, were instrumental in my readiness to begin the recovery process anew.

Once I made that decision, and began working my twelve-step program in earnest, I spent a summer doing daily Inner Wisdom Dialogues with my Higher Power, who I refer to as God. I would preface each writing session with a prayer to be guided to do His will, and would then sit in quiet meditation for ten minutes or so before beginning to write. I found this section very helpful in keeping me God-centered, rather than me-centered during the day. Eventually, as with many other sections of the Journal, I found myself able to do the writing exercises inwardly, without writing at all. This inward benefit of the Journal is one that I value highly.

At one point in my journey, a sibling of mine decided to begin working the AA program, and I then joined Alanon in order to understand my role in her illness and recovery, along with my proclivity to team up with alcoholics and addicts in all sorts of endeavors.

Today I can say that Alanon and the Intensive Journal method have been my constant companions in keeping track of myself and what’s best for me in the middle of the many ups and downs that life with addicts can bring. Through this inner work, I have met and become consciously connected with a very strong, sane core within myself. This inner calm, coupled with increased creativity in all areas of my life, has emerged naturally over the years, and continues to grow as I grow in my Intensive Journal  [method] /12 Step recovery process.

Of course, as with any skill, using the Intensive Journal method takes practice, especially when being balanced with the twelve-step program. For a while, during the mid-eighties, I used my journal as a daily personal inventory stop. I would diligently record my character defects in the daily log section and then leave them there to gather power with each rereading. What resulted was an impasse in both my twelve-step and my journal processes.

After brief discussions with both my sponsor and the folks up at Dialogue House, I figured out the glitch and got back on track. The problem was of course that I’d been using my Journal as a place to sit in judgment of myself, which goes against its basic purpose, and I’d stopped moving back and forth between the sections completely, thus all but eliminating the power of Journal Feedback in my Journal and in my life! Meanwhile, I had been simply recording my character flaws without becoming willing to have them removed and without then asking my Higher Power to remove them, thus turning my back on the power of God’s grace in my twelve-step program.

What I learned from this experience was that inventories and Journal writing play important, yet distinct roles in my recovery. The Intensive Journal writing is more of a mirroring and meditative process than an inventory exercise, yet each of these, when used properly, aids and strengthens the recovery process as a whole.

Even though I no longer use the Intensive Journal [method] merely for the inventory work, it has taken the sting out of inventorying for it has helped me to see my life as an unfolding process instead of as a series of wrongs and rights along the way. For twelve steppers, there’s the slogan "Utilize, don’t analyze" that reminds one to use one’s life experiences as lessons for growth rather than for self-bashing. Of course that slogan goes to the core of the Intensive Journal method. But the story that’s most helped me weather the storms of life’s ups and downs is the one that Dr. Progoff shares on his tape "Non-Analytic Ways to Growth." He tells of a monk who suddenly found himself unable to complete even the most mundane of tasks without error. Every dish he touched broke, every cloth he folded tore. Since the monk’s work was to maintain the monastery, these small mistakes were to him disasters. Nothing seemed to help, not prayer, not repentance, not anything. So the monk decided to go into solitude in the woods, if for no better reason than to spare his fellow monks his incompetence, which for all he knew would be permanent.

In the woods for several months, the monk was able to relax and simply observe the goings on around him. One day he noticed the leaves falling off the trees. As the days grew colder, he missed the leaves, but noticed that even without them, the trees were still strong and upright. Then, as the spring approached, he observed the buds appearing on the trees, soon to blossom again. Watching this process was so healing for him, for in the seasons of the tree he saw the seasons of his own life, at times in full bloom, at times barren, but always rooted, and thus always alive. And he realized that this bout of clumsiness would pass, that his old self would return, not by resisting but by simply being and accepting the cyclical nature of life.

My reference to this story is not meant to imply that a simple watchfulness of one’s own behavior is enough, or even that keeping the  Intensive Journal [workbook] is enough to heal every addict. The recovery process itself involves work and willingness to take action in one’s own behalf. At times, talking to one’s sponsor or other spiritual guides or a fellow traveler will help. At times, talking to oneself, trying a new behavior, making amends, or helping someone who is still suffering in their addiction are called for. At times, prayer and meditation, a spiritual retreat of minutes or hours or days, or group worship, will assist the process. But at times, none of these things help much in alleviating the pain or predicament of a given moment in time. For me, the above story and my journal work have carried me through those moments in my own recovery and life journey, as well as through those of the addicts and others in my life.

When all else fails, Dr. Progoff’s story about the monk, and my  Intensive Journal work, give me a helpful reminder which in twelve-step language is stated "learning to accept God’s timetable rather than my own." The impetus to act when necessary, along with patience, a willingness to accept reality, and the ability to see the value of all life experiences without having to label them as good or bad, are qualities that grow over the years through the practice of both Intensive Journal work and twelve-step work. In my humble opinion, the combination of the two allows these qualities to manifest in a more timely manner in the recovering person.

In the twelve-step programs, a story circulates about a person drowning in a lake. Another swimmer comes his rescue, but is unable to do much good, because the drowning person is carrying a large, heavy rock under his arm which keeps pulling was about to attend my first workshop. Associate Director June Gordon was in the office that day and took a few moments out of her busy schedule to discuss the Journal with me. I remember her saying that she’d been using the Journal for many years, and I, a mere novice, asked if it had helped her sort things out in her life. Looking back, I guess I was desperate for answers and solutions back then. Of course, June’s answer was, "Yes, immensely so." Though I realized that her answer might be biased, her poise and demeanor, along with my desperation at that time, made me believe her. Now, eight years later, recovering from addictions of my own and the effects of others’ addictions, I have no need to ask the question, for I own the answer myself and the answer of course is, "It has, and it does, and it will." As we say in the twelve-step programs, "It works if you work it."

Reprinted with permission of the authors and Intensive Journal Studies (Number 9 - Fall 1991).