Detail: Henri Rousseau - "Il Sogno" or "The Dream" in Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY

The Spiral Staircase: Dreams and 12 Step Recovery


The Spiral Staircase: Dreams and 12 Step Recovery

[This is a long post. I would not blame you if you decided to glance at the pictures and the poem first. If they interest you, there’s a lot of depth here!]

Clients have a knack for bringing in dreams that appear to comment on where they are in the developmental tasks in recovery. Therapists have a knack for applying their model to what clients bring in, like the old comment about the client who started to dream fluently in Freudian symbolism shortly after beginning psychoanalysis. So it is no mistake that in the Alcohol and Drug treatment Lighthouse glasgow spiral staircaseworld, therapists, including myself, will apply 12 step imagery to what we hear in the dreamtime. And how quick I am, or others may be as well, to seize upon the dreams where a client actually envisions a staircase or a series of steps! Historically, Freudians often go straight to the sex act and wish fulfillment with that. In fact, Freud said of staircases and pianos in the hyperlink above, that “It may be said that there is no class of ideas which cannot be enlisted in the representation of sexual facts and wishes.” In advanced recovery settings, like outpatient clinics and extended care houses, the image of a spiral staircase has surfaced in the dream of more than one client, seeming in context to suggest that the dreamer was winding up in a similar place as before, and on a higher level. For the reader who is not familiar with the language of the first few steps of the Anonymous programs, often covered in primary treatment, I’ll list the first five steps and then provide some dream images from actual clients for discussion.

Disclaimer: Now I am fully aware this topic is often understood differently by detractors of twelve step programs compared to twelve step adherents. I will also suggest even if you are skeptical of the validity of the twelve step approach, it is worth looking at the dreams of clients that may be a response to what they hear in the course of their twelve step recovery eduction. For a compelling and intelligent discussion*, see Charlotte Kasl, Many Roads, One Journey. Kasl adjusts some of the patriarchal language and retains most of the AA concepts in her 16 step program, basically a softer version of the steps for people who have been beaten down enough by addiction and who want something different in recovery than ego-bashing. [*For less intelligent discussions, see impassioned ravings here. Jack Trimpey founded Rational Recovery as an alternative to AA, then became disillusioned with the notion of dependence on mutual help groups in general and disbanded. I also tried finding a current page on and found it to be a dead link, so maybe those skeptics did not find a better solution after all. However, an excellent decision tree webpost on 12 step vs non-12 step can be found HERE. And Melanie Solomon provides a top ten reading list – or more- of alternatives to AA at this Amazon link.]

Step One: We Admitted we were powerless over (alcohol, narcotics, food, sex, etc) – that our lives had become unmanageable.

The main concepts of step one are powerlessness and unmanagability. A few months ago, an adult male client stated he had for fifteen years had a recurrent dream of being in a fistfight with an unknown assailant who was kicking his ass. “No matter what I tried, I couldn’t fight back. It was like my fists were underwater, my punches were in slow motion.” His use history spanned about twenty years, and at about three weeks clean and sober in a treatment setting, he could envision that the dream was an image for his repetitive inability to fight back against addiction, personified in the dream as a boxing opponent. Let’s be quick to add that people who are not in an addictive process may also have these powerlessness dreams. However, the frequency with which they occur for people in rehab settings is, in my observation, remarkably consistent. While personal variations exist for every dream and dreamer, the most common detox dream I hear is someone who is trying to use but cannot.

One example is a woman, 55, alcoholic. In her dream, she is sitting on the edge of the bed and her bottle is on a dresser a few feet away. She wants to lean over and pour a drink. First, her husband is in the way. Then it is her pastor who comes into the room between her and her drink. She also shares that the two main factors in getting help were familial and spiritual consequences of her addiction. The dream merely speaks in a symbolic language, and talking about it seems to clarify for her the deep motivation she actually has for her recovery.

Other examples abound: A heroin addict is spending what seems like a night’s worth of dreamtime chasing after her dealer, and when she finally scores Roxycontin she cannot light it because the police are around. She sums up her frustration, “it is like I cannot even manage getting high to feed my addiction.” These dreams, when processed bring forth an opportunity for therapists to engage the client around their thinking process before and after the drug seeking sequence in the dream and to explore in real life what supports or tools can be in place to provide the addict with the support she needs to stay clean and sober.

Detail: Henri Rousseau - "Il Sogno" or "The Dream" in Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY
Detail: Henri Rousseau – “Il Sogno” or “The Dream” in Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY

Step Two: Came to Believe that a Power Greater than Ourselves Could Restore us to Sanity

If step one convinces people they are crazy, step two reinstates hope. A “Power Greater than Ourselves” can be any spiritual principle as understood by the addict. A cosmic consciousness. The reliability of Newton’s Laws or gravity. Taoism. Darwinism. Or even the Anonymous poet’s version of “Elmo Prays:”

Elmo prays                  not because he has faith or

Because he learned about God

At his mother’s knee or at a preacher’s elbow.


Elmo prays because he has tried everything else

Drinking          Screwing         Running away         Working


To take away the pain of being a frightened man

Which is totally unacceptable

Especially to women and most men.


And none of this worked very well

Till Elmo started talking

To someone          Somewhere

Who seemed to understand.


Now Elmo prays

Not to Jesus or Buddha

Not to a theological God or philosophical omnipotence

Not to a computerized and selective savior.


Just to someone           Somewhere

Who seems to understand

And likes the hell out of Elmo.

Two SnakesSo what does a “Step Two” dream look like? Dreams often occur in the 30-90-180 day range which offer the dreamer a choice. These dreams take on many forms, recur in many ways, and sometimes the dreamer fails the lesson and sometimes they pass it. Just like in life, it seems people have an option to act in the way they would have acted before – be it some trifling matter of dishonesty, backbiting someone, or merely acting in one’s self interest in a case where it might serve just as well to think of the thoughts and feelings of others. Or they can extend a bit and try some act that breaks the mold of the past a bit. “Ruth,” aged 26, 4 months clean and sober in an extended care setting, had this dream: “I am walking on a path with another person, a woman I do not know. Ahead of us are two snakes; a brown one and a green one.” That is the entire dream, but the processing through associations led her to talk about her treatment roommate – not doing so well at the time – and herself. The snakes represented choices for Ruth: the green snake being rebirth and regrowth, doing something differently in her life, and the brown snake representing the sere and dried choices she had made in the past.

Step Three: Made a Decision to Turn our Will and our Lives over to the Care of God as we Understood Him

As a recovering alcoholic, It took me three years to notice the word care in the third step. I didn’t feel too badly; it was pointed out to me in a 12 step meeting by a woman who said it took her five years to notice it. For those who grew up with a punitive idea of God (and I consider myself blessed that this was not the case for me, but still,) the notion of a loving and forgiving deity or spirit seems quite foreign. Many people in twelve step recovery can be heard to say, “For me, God works through people.” And I have been privileged to sit with many people who have found for them that God works through images in dreams as well.

A 65 year old woman with more than 45 year history of Benzodiazepene use had a dream about a year and a half ago with a numinous quality while working on step three, that went roughly as follows:

I am on an old bridge with my feet dangling over the water, and I jump in. There is someone in the water, I think it is a woman, holding me up so I won’t drown.

Like most of her dreams, this is a solitary dream set in nature and has a peaceful feeling. She associated that the bridge was like a covered bridge in the country, and that her jumping in the water was in no way an attempt at self-harm. In continuing to work slowly through the associations, the dreamer wanted to jump into the water, into the stream of life, where she found a helper. Helpers to her may be people in real life or more like angels, but it is significant that this dreamer is making the changes that she is and relying on others in faith.

Step Four: Made a Fearless and Searching Moral Inventory of Ourselves

This is a dark step for many people, and it serves well for counselors to remind them it is a moral inventory, not just an immoral inventory. In a dream group this month, one dreamer related a portion of a dream that she was creating a resume, not of work history but instead a listing of qualities that she has which she considers marketable.  Seemingly, this is about what an individual person believes is right or wrong for themselves, not the court of public opinion or expectation from others. An example that comes up a lot is “Purse,” which as a dream image in Freudian terms was usually a thinly veiled image for female genitalia. However, in working with people who are trying to better themselves through personal inventory, a purse or wallet may point to values or identity, where one finds out who one really is. A common dream theme is losing a wallet or finding it again, or having it stolen. Here is a dream from a 24 year old woman who presented for treatment for alcoholism and sex and love addiction, with a strong history of picking abusive and unavailable men as partners;

I don’t remember much except my abuser/boyfriend had taken my cell phone, I had a couple of phones that did not work as well and I was trying to call him, then I lost my purse. I was in the mall, and there were department stores, and I was noticing things I wanted. I had to find my purse to call him so he would not be so angry with me. I was asking people, “have you seen my purse?” Then this lady who worked there found my purse and told me where it was.

So this is a case in which the concern is identity.The dreamer here lost her identity and in that, had fear of further physical abuse. The way out for her was working with a woman, and in the association phase the dreamer identified her twelve-step sponsor as her guide in the rediscovery of who she really is.

A different dream in the same setting five years earlier involved a scene in which a woman was at the mall, jealous of her boyfriend with a glamorous rocker-chick, as she called her. Purses in general say a lot about a person to this dreamer, about how people present themselves to others, as well as storing things of value.  She saw on the rack blue bags, green bags, and “a White and Silver Pursewhite one, a big white one with silver things on the edge and a metal overlap.”  This purse caught her eye and stood out above the rest.  We worked deeply with this image due to the way it stood out in the dream in terms of timing and position. The dreamer’s associations on white included “purity” and “angel” and “innocent” and to silver was “jewelry, rings, earrings, and money.”  Processing this dream gave the dreamer a chance to see what she had given up of value in her relationship, and in herself, out of her own sense of fear of abandonment. All this occurred while she was working on her inventory step with a sponsor.

Step Five: Admitted to God, to Ourselves, and to Another Human Being the Exact Nature of our Wrongs.

Around twenty years ago, this writer heard something like 75 fifth steps in a year and a half. Fifth steps have their roots in the confession aspects of the old Oxford groups and Catholic teachings. In about half the cases I heard, there was a numinous quality, as though a third presence was in the room. In sharing this with a mentor at the time, Dr. Ben Curtis, he stated, “and it probably had nothing to do with anything you did or did not do.” Some dreams also have that numinous quality, perhaps what Jung called a “big dream” with archetypal themes and old stories present. When that presence appears in a dream, it is rarely the patriarchal bearded and robed figure of some Zeus-like deity. We call those nightmares. Some recovering persons dream about their fifth step before (like a rehearsal) or after (like a review). These seem to either address the fear of admitting faults to another person or to solidify the commitment to go forward with the steps. Another former mentor of mine confided in me that he had withheld one secret in his first fifth step, and after a fitful night determined he had to call someone and go through the entire thing again, omitting nothing. He did not relate a specific dream, but more the certainty on awakening that he had to be thorough. He’s been clean and sober over 33 years now.

So in keeping with the spiral staircase motif, these dreams come around again in different forms, and at higher levels of letting go. While some people benefit from working through the dream with someone to help with associations, part of the key here is that the dreamer already has all of these answers within themselves, available to them from the dreaming psyche.

[Note: In gratitude, the writer, Randal Lea, celebrates 28 years of recovery October 18, 2013 within a day or two of posting this article. He credits 12 step recovery, knowledgeable treatment providers, effective counselors and 12 step sponsors, and the God of his understanding. It is also posted in memory of the many people in his acquaintance who did not make it, some of whom were convinced they had a milder or less serious form of addiction.]