I looked up the word “transformation” today for a reason. The dictionary definition is: “to change [something] completely and usually in a good way.”
I see change as a subset of transformation, stepping stones on the way to “complete.” For example, I have heard people in 12-step programs use a phrase that goes like this: “You can sober up a horse thief, but you still have a horse thief.” The horse thief stopped drinking – good as far as it goes – but still fundamentally is a horse thief; change, but no transformation.
“Cathy” was an alcoholic. She knew it, as did her family, but she was simply stuck on the notion she was no fun and would have no friends if she stopped drinking, which she did periodically when it got too uncomfortable. She relied on the notion she wasn’t a “bad” alcoholic, and her dishonesty with herself kept her in a constant state of guilt, doubt and shame.
After a couple of years of sometimes moderate, sometimes out of control drinking, she nearly clipped a pedestrian driving home late at night from one of her liquor store stops. This scared her, and she vowed to stop drinking again. She had been to AA several times before, but this time she stumbled on a group of women who were serious about getting beyond the “horse thief stage.”
Cathy finally owned up to her prodigious pill habit as well, and after a short period of discomfort was set to work in the change department. Small initial changes such as honesty with self and others led to a Cathy no one had seen in a long time, and she would tell you today there had been a transformation.
“Jim” had been in AA for a number of years, and although he hadn’t had a drink, he was short-tempered, judgmental and self-righteous. Most of the older AA members avoided him when possible because he was argumentative and wouldn’t listen to anyone. He associated mostly with newcomers because he could play the bigshot and they had yet to learn his ways.
Jim’s existence was lonely; his wife had left him many years before, and none of his kids wanted much to do with him. But as age would have it, his health started to fail. After his first stroke, a few AA guys tried to help, and one daughter grudgingly lived with him until he recovered, but it was about this time Jim realized he had alienated almost everyone who had ever cared about him. He started asking people for help, showing gratitude and sincerely offering to help others.
He made amends to his children and to many he had offended along the way. His health crisis was the event that opened his eyes and started the change-train to transformation. Jim died several years later having reunited with his family and many friends. People would say he was happy and a changed man.
• Rick Atwater is a licensed clinical professional counselor. He hosts the weekly radio show Straight Stuff on Addictions at recoveryinternetradio.com. He can reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.