Button Pushers

If there are 100 forms of irrational fear, then I've got 100 bars in my prison cell. I can't name all the fears, but I can name many of the character defects that grow out of these fears: Perfectionism, people pleasing, approval seeking, blaming and shaming, comparing and criticizing, domination and dependence, making demands, playing God, acting childish, grandiosity, striving for self-importance and recognition, winning at all costs. Everyone of these character defects is rooted in self-centered fear. As long as I am "emotionally sensitive" I can never be free because my peace of mind depends on how others treat me.

There was a book written in the '70s entitled, "I've been down so long it feels like up to me." I had been living in my self-constructed prison of fear for so long it felt normal, like these fears were a part of me. I felt it perfectly normal to go into a rage if someone pressed one of my fear buttons. How else was the person to know not to? I had decorated my prison with all manner of people who I thought I could trust not to push my fear buttons, but sooner or later every one of them betrayed me and many pushed away with wild abandon. Sheesh. It's no wonder I drank like I did.

By the end of my drinking, I had chased all the button pushers (and everyone else) out of my life. I was totally alone: no family, no girlfriends, no boss, no real friends. Only the lower companions I met at the bar everyday at 4:00 PM where we made our dinner from the free happy hour snacks. I remember sitting alone in my darkened, messy apartment thinking what a great way this was to live -- no one around to hassle me about my drinking or anything else for that matter. Today this thought is perhaps the saddest I can recall from my last days.

In AA I have learned that other people are placed in my life to push my fear buttons! It’s their job to poke me in those unhealed places. It's the pathway to emotional sobriety and ultimate freedom. I continue to grow along spiritual lines if I am willing to look at the fear when it arises, not run away from it by blaming the button
pusher. Today I realize it is my wife's spiritual job to push my buttons. I only wish she wasn't such an expert at it.

Attitude is Everything

I heard that trying to "get spiritual" was like standing in water up to my neck trying to get wet. I can't become spiritual because I already am. I just don't realize it much of the time as I get so caught up in the things of the world. I feel closer to my higher power when I can escape from the "worldly clamors" that seem to demand constant attention.

It helps me to imagine that I am watching a movie. I sit in the theater looking up at the screen. The movie seems to be about me because I see glimpses of myself and people I know. I spend a lot of time trying to figure out the plot and if the the other people in the movie are "good" or "bad." I wonder how it will turn out. I'm become convinced that this movie is all about me and my life.

What I am learning is that the movie is not about me and my life. I am not the movie. I am the light coming out of the projector. The light is real. The movie is not real. The movie is not real because the light from the projector passes through the filters of my beliefs, attitudes, and programming before it reaches the screen. Thus as my attitude changes so does the movie I see.

My "whole attitude and outlook" has changed since I begin my spiritual journey in Alcoholics Anonymous. When I look up at the movie screen today I see I much happier movie than I did when I was back sitting in my dirty apartment in my "command chair" with my bottle of wine, bag of pot and my remote control watching reruns on Gilligan's island.

No Big Deals

When I was new I heard the old timers say there are no big deals in life. I wondered how he could say that because back anything that even slightly threatened my physical or emotional comfort was a big deal for me. I was unemployed and running out of money. Wasn't that a big deal? What about contracting a terminal illness? What about death? What about wars? Aren't these big deals?

In the past seventeen years I have lived through enough of these so-call "big deals" to realize that the old timers are right. There aren't any big deals. I've lived through job loss, serious physical injury, and my wife's multiple surgeries. Each time I make it to the other side of one of these scary periods without a drink, I'm able to see that all my worry and anxiety was a waste of my peace of mind. Today I live in certainty that I am exactly where I are supposed to be doing exactly what I am supposed to do. And everyone else is too. Perhaps not we are not where we want to be, but where we are supposed to be according to some kind of divine plan that I have given up trying to figure out. Perhaps this realization is a measure of my growing faith--a faith I acquired in Alcoholics Anonymous simply by continuing to do today what was suggested to me in my first few weeks.

When I am spiritually fit, I realize that life isn't either important or unimportant. Life isn't what it used to be, what it should be, or what it could be if I could just manage it better. Life just is. As long as I am making judgments about what is, I am arguing with reality. And every time I argue with reality I lose, but only every time. When I can simply accept life on life's terms and just do the next indicated thing, my days seem to go pretty damn good.


Before I crawled through the doors of Alcoholics Anonymous, I was a liar, a cheat, and a thief. I wore an aura of guilt. I was afraid that you would find out the truth about me so I kept you, and everyone else, at arm's  length with a full repertoire of character defects. It is fitting that toward the end of my drinking I ended up completely alone in my darkened, messy apartment, getting drunk twice a day.

I rejoined life in Alcoholics Anonymous. I came in from out of the cold. As I began to identify with you, the clenched fist that was my mind began to open. It took quite a few years, but my heart began to open as well. Today, if I am spiritually fit, I can see life through the eyes of compassion rather than judgment.

I'm coming to believe that we are all intimately connected. We are all a tiny, but valuable part of "One", the One that has all power. It's because of this connection that my thoughts, words and deeds have a direct impact on the world. The best thing I can do for the world is to continue my program of recovery: letting go of my faulty beliefs and other worthless ideas and helping others along the way.

Miracle of Healing

I received my first copy of the Big Book in 1987, seven years before I finally got sober. I poured myself a large tumbler of wine and skimmed through it in an evening. Then I promptly gave it to a friend who obviously needed it more than I did. After reaching that point of "sweet surrender" that Louise talks about, I was given a second copy which I read like a novel. But even as I sped through the book and the stories in the back, certain sentences jumped out at me. One of those remains my favorite today. You can find this sentence on page 57 in the chapter entitled We Agnostics:

"What is this but a miracle of healing? Yet its elements are simple. Circumstances made him willing to believe--then he knew."

Wow! Every time I read this sentence I feel drawn more deeply into the spiritual mysticism of Alcoholics Anonymous. It reminds me that recovery is a magical process that I had nothing to do with--that it’s only by the grace of a power greater than me that I am sober. It is truly a miracle that I am healing from a hopeless state of mind and body. It also reminds me that grace isn't always comfortable or pleasant. The circumstances that made me willing to believe were difficult and painful. I received harsh grace but it was an undeserved gift nevertheless. one that many drunks never receive. The first time I read “--then he knew”, I remember thinking "knew what?" “What did he know?” Today I realize there is no real answer to this question. The longer I hang around Alcoholics Anonymous, the less I seem to know.

One Day at a Time

Last night I was chatting with my old sponsor. He's eighty-one, his health is not good and his finances are meager. He said "if it wasn't for 'one day at a time' I'd go coo-coo." I know exactly what he means. Death is approaching, but before death what? What if I can't get around? What if I run out of money? What if my wife dies before me? Who will look after me when I no longer can?

My ego thinks that it is its job to keep me focused on all that can go wrong in the future. It compels me to solve problems that have not yet happened -- to make plans for every potential pitfall. Buddha called the ego "the little house builder." It takes all my guilty thoughts and scary memories from the past and creates a fearful future. The house of thoughts it builds seems so real, so terrifying that I forget it is illusion. I have no choice but to travel into tomorrow and worry about what could go wrong. I get so caught up in trying to create security against a fearful future that I miss what's going on right in front of me. I miss Life.

One day at a time for me is no longer about not drinking for twenty-four hours. It is about staying present and realizing that today is all I have. It is about learning to trust that life knows exactly what it is doing. It is about taking my hands off the steering wheel and letting life unfold naturally. It is the calm assurance that regardless of what happens somehow everything will be OK, that my needs will be met. These attitudes are a result of the dynamic action of the 12-Steps restoring me to sanity. I'm not there yet, but I'm getting closer every day.

This doesn't mean that I sit on my hands and do nothing. I do myself a disservice if I don't plan. I still make plans, but I try to hold those plans loosely. A mountain climber doesn't keep his eyes fixed firmly up the summit. He glances up occasionally, but his attention is focused mostly on what is right in front of him, his next step. I have some general ideas about what I would like the rest of my life to be, but I try not to let those plans become so consuming that I miss what's going on in the present moment.

Letting Go of Old Ideas

Will C. greeted me at my first meeting and was instrumental in my early recovery. Like his life, Will kept his sharing very simple. He would often say one or two sentences then close with "I came from my drinking, but I stayed for my thinking." This slogan has taken on increasingly more meaning for me as the years pass by.

I didn't become a drunk because I loved the taste of scotch (although it didn't hurt). As Bill says "bottles were only a symbol." I drank because alcohol gave me a sense of ease and comfort--a temporary escape from the anxiety that gnawed constantly at my well-being. I know today that anxiety is a product of believing fearful, guilty and resentful thoughts. Like the Cajuns on the bayou who marry their cousins, my thoughts mate and a whole slew of mutated ideas result. Here's a short list of the false beliefs, my moldy oldies, that have surfaced so far:

People should treat me with respect; I can control how others feel --about me; Life should be fair. I am not good enough; People should keep their promises; more money will make me happy; I need to be in control; I am right about mostly everything; I know what’s best for me.

The insidious thing about these beliefs is that I don't even know I have them -- until somebody pushes one of my buttons that is. Then watch out. I will not only freely give away my peace of mind, but I'm likely to take yours hostage too! Going to meetings alone may keep me sober, but meetings alone will not restore me to sanity. I must be changed at depth. The steps, especially four through seven, open the door to truth by bringing these false thoughts into my conscious awareness. Only after seeing my stinking thinking up close and personal, can I finally be willing to be changed. As Bill said, "we learned we had to get rid of our old ideas absolutely." That word -- absolutely -- doesn't leave much wiggle room.

Enlightened Self - Interest

Being of service in AA is all about me. It's about my sobriety, my learning, and my growth. In a very real way our program is built upon the principle of enlightened self interest. In the process of helping others I receive real benefits. When I am passing on the message of hope, joy and love, my life becomes more hopeful, joyful, and loving. When I'm working with another drunk I, am reinforcing my own learning. Whatever it is I'm trying to pass on is the very stuff I'm trying to learn. If another person benefits, its just icing on the birthday cake.

My grand sponsor used to say that God always balances the books. Whenever I put out into the universe comes back to me as my own experience. If I extend my hand in welcome, there is another hand somewhere welcoming me. When I'm taking the actions to connect with a still suffering alcoholic, my life feels more fulfilling. It's simply a wonderful way to live.

I'm coming to believe that the true nature of the universe is unconditional love. I have not yet learned how to love without conditions, but I believe that every day I carry the intention of being of service into my daily activities, I'm heading in the right direction.

The AA Symbol

The circle around the triangle symbolizes God for me. Unity, recovery, and service are activities of spirit. They happen inside the circle, in God's world. I spent most of my life outside the circle of Life. I learned self-sufficiency from well-meaning, but ignorant, parents, teachers, and a society that placed the highest value on materialism. In the process of making my own way in the world, I separated myself from the Source of all good. I often felt lonely, empty but I didn't think I needed God because, according to society's scorecard, I was winning the game of life.

Then I started dancing with the gorilla. it went okay for a while, but toward the end when I wanted to sit one out, the gorilla wanted to keep on dancing. Finally, exhausted from the dance, I became willing to listen. I crawled through the doors of Alcoholics Anonymous and God pulled me inside the circle.

The sides of the triangle are equal in length and perfectly interconnected. As I continue to recover my spiritual sanity through the Program and the Fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous, I experience a deeper connection with life. I begin to see more and more of our similarities and less and less of our differences. As the feeling of Oneness expands, I am better able to share my experience, strength and hope with other alcoholics -- the only service I am uniquely qualified to provide to the world. Apparently, it is what I have been called to do.

Meetings, Steps, Service

When I was drinking I did the same things over and over again expecting different results, but the results never changed. I got drunk and said and did stupid things. As a newcomer in Alcoholics Anonymous, I did what the happy-looking people in the room did: I went to a lot of meetings, continuously worked the steps, and took service positions. The obsession to drink was removed and my life began to get better.

I wasn't satisfied. I wanted my life to get great. So I continued to do the same things over and over again, meetings, steps, service, expecting my life to continue to get better and better. I expected that as long as I was committed to my AA program I could avoid the painful stuff. Wrong!  Life got good for a while and then the you-know-what hit the fan. I lost jobs, faced health issues, endured financial disasters. I'm learning that life is a wonderful, awful mix. Life on life's terms does not always feel good, but it always feels real.

Today I continue to do the same things over and over again: meetings, steps, service, but I no longer go to Alcoholics Anonymous because I'm worried about drinking or for the good it might bring me. I go because I enjoy it. AA does not promise unending bliss or spiritual light shows, but it does promise a useful and contented life. By doing the same things over and over again: meetings, steps, service, this promise has come true for me.

My Family Afterward

I had no family toward the end of my drinking. I also had no friends, no relationship and didn't know my neighbors. My parents died the year before I got sober. My sister and I hadn't been close since we escaped from our parents in the early 70s. Three years earlier I moved to San Diego from Los Angeles for work, but didn't bother to make any friends. I had a girlfriend who lived in Denver. We honeymooned every few weeks until I suppose she figured out I wasn't a very good bet and dumped me. My neighbors would likely have described me as a quiet sort who keeps to himself. I kept the curtains drawn at all times.

Unemployed, I had spent most of the last eight months before I got sober inside my darkened apartment. I sat in my "command chair" for most of every day with my bottle of wine, bag of pot, Marlboro lights, and remote control all close at hand. I had an over-sized modernaire-green ashtray that would hold three or four packs of butts. There were always a couple of empty pizza boxes and a fast food bag or two strewn on the carpet at my feet. It was in this condition one evening that I had what I consider to be the saddest thought of my life.

I was nice and high. I remember looking at the bottle of wine on the table next to me, and, satisfied that I wouldn't have to get up and go to the store to buy more, I thought to myself (or may have even said
out loud), "this is great, there's no one around to hassle me about my drinking, I can do anything I want and there's no one here to stop me. What a great way to live." I find it funny that for many years of my sobriety I considered myself to be a high bottom drunk. Today I can see I was only a few thousand dollars away from being out on the street. When I remember this pathetic thought, I can see mind was already there.

I reconnected with life through Alcoholics Anonymous.  I crawled in from out of the cold and you warmly welcomed me, warts and all.  I learned how to be a friend, how to be of service and how to take responsibility. AA became my family afterward and remains my true family today.

King Baby

I Identified with a guy at a meeting once who called himself "King Baby." I have this image of myself dressed in a diaper, sitting up in my adult highchair banging on the fold-down table with my spoon, demanding that life give me everything I want and wailing when I didn't get it right away. Fortunately King baby makes only rare appearances these days, but he stills shows up every once in a while. I'm no saint.

It was a beautiful, sunny day here in Shanghai. As is my habit I was walking to the noon meeting feeling pretty good. Then an electric motor scooter came up behind me on the sidewalk and the driver began incessantly beeping at me get out of his way. Since I didn't hear him coming, it startled me. I turned around to face him, and still blocking his way, I glared at him and barked "be careful!" in Chinese. (I would have said "get off the f**king sidewalk", but I don't know the words ) He was totally expressionless and when I stepped aside he
drove on down the sidewalk beeping at the next person ahead of him. People ride their motor scooters on the sidewalks here all the time. It's an accepted part of the culture. But this was ME he was beeping at. How dare he ride on MY sidewalk beeping at ME?

The voices in my head told me someone had to be punished. So I blamed the motor scooter driver,  the Chinese culture that allows this abhorrent behavior and all Chinese people for their numerous crimes against civility. The jury in my head found them all guilty, every single one of them. I began to glare at all the Chinese people I passed as I continued on.

But I couldn't keep it up for long before I realized that I was the one who is suffering, not them. I had made a quick trip from heaven to hell. I went from having a nice day to having a crappy day. One more time I had given away my serenity to people, places and things that didn't follow my script. My peace of mind was shot.

It says in our book that God is either everything or else He is nothing. If I choose everything, then all people, places and things are all God, even the so-called bad people, the bad places and the bad things. Whenever I have a demand that a person, place or thing be in any way different from what it is, I am arguing with God about the way Life should be. I'm coming to believe that every time I argue with God (reality) I lose, but only every time.

Today I can still give away my serenity when people, places and things don't follow my script, but the time I'm willing to spend in hell is becoming less and less.


There is for me a power that exists in meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous that I've not experienced elsewhere, not in Christian churches, not in a Buddhist Temples. The power of one alcoholic talking to another. It could be a chat over coffee, or at a meeting or it could be 60,000 drunks saying the Lord's Prayer together during an international convention. Magic happens when alcoholics share together. The Fellowship alone might keep me sober, but it cannot restore me to sanity. Restoration happens through the ongoing process of ego deflation contained in the 12 Steps. But I can't dream of taking the actions required but the steps without the prerequisite
spiritual qualities provided by the fellowship: Willingness, Honesty, Open mindedness.

Willingness. Left to my own devices I would have stood on the outside of Alcoholics Anonymous looking in. I wasn't a joiner. I was aloof. When I tested the water with my big toe, the Fellowship pulled me in. All around me I saw examples of useful and contented people. I learned from their example to put my hand out, to pick up the phone, to be of service. None of these actions came naturally for me. Slowly I began to enjoy sobriety.

Honesty. When the first person spoke at my first meeting I was shocked at what I was hearing. I had never heard anyone speak so candidly about their own experiences before. Today when I open my mouth in a meeting, truth seems to naturally flow out. It isn't always that way when I'm talking to my wife, friends, or business associates. It's not that I'm purposely lying to these people. It's just that when I'm sharing with another alcoholic, the thoughts seem to originate from a deeper place inside.

Open mindedness. By the time I crawled through the doors of Alcoholics Anonymous my mind was like a tightly clenched fist. I had relied on my stinking thinking for so long that I had become convinced there was
only one way to go through life--my way. I was hypersensitive to any challenges to my beliefs. My mind started to relax when I realized AA members were not trying to force me to believe anything, only to save my life. My fist unclenched, opening my mind and my being to the spiritual truths of the 12 steps.

The Fellowship is ineffective without the Steps and the Steps won't work without the fellowship. Together they have produced countless living miracles. I am grateful to be one of them.


There is an easy way for me to tell whether or not I'm accepting life on life's terms. All I have to do is ask myself if I am happy, joyous and free in this moment. If I can honestly answer "yes" then I must be accepting life exactly as it is. Am I happy, joyous and free right now? Yes, but it's early. My day is just beginning. My wife is still asleep; I haven't read the news; my neighbors are being nice and quiet. It's a good day, but I've only been awake for fifteen minutes.

On most days my life is like wading through a swamp filled with alligators. It's rare that I can get through a whole day without getting bitten by a variety of problems. I've got a repertoire of physical aches and pains waiting to flair up. Stock market reports and bank statements portend financial ruin. I struggle to make sense of news reports of wars, poverty, death and disease. I see a stain on our new carpeting.

Every one of the people I meet today has the ability to create a problem for me. They make demands; they don't treat me with the courtesy and respect I deserve; they fail to meet my expectations; they don't give me what I want when I want it. My wife has achieved expert status at creating problems for me. But it's not just my wife, It's the people on the streets; the drunks in the meetings; the servers in the restaurants; the drivers on the roads. Everybody really.

My reaction to the problems in my life is to complain, criticize and judge. I am more than happy to share my lamentations of the state of the world today--how everything is going to hell. I often cannot resist pointing out where you are mistaken, what things in your life need your attention, and how you might do things better. My attack dogs find evidence of your guilt and lay it obediently at my feet. I'll judge you as wrong, wrong, wrong.  Is it any wonder why I spent so much of my life angry, fearful and anxious?

What I am learning is that there are no problems with life. Challenges yes, but not problems. Life is simply what happens. What happens is never the problem, it's always my fearful reaction to what happens that creates the problem.  As the dynamic action of the 12-Steps dissolves the fear, guilt and anger that ruled my life, I am better able to live life on life's terms, to accept life as it is.

Thank God Life doesn't always follow my script. If I had my way, I would've found a new high-paying job instead of getting sober when I did. I might have missed the whole thing.


Hindus greet each other by clasping their hands together in front of their heart and saying the word,"Namaste." "The spark of God inside of me bows to the spark of God inside of you." This love and respect for others is impossible for me when I'm coming from ego or my false self. It is impossible for me to salute others as equals because in ego I must always be better than or worse then everyone else. Namaste reminds me that regardless of race, creed, color we all have a common spiritual identity. Sometimes when I'm sitting in a meeting room I can actually feel this spiritual connection with the other alcoholics in the room. The challenge for me is taking this feeling of love and respect for others to the street.

In Alcoholics Anonymous we compare spiritual growth to the layers of an onion peeling away. I'm coming to believe that each one of these layers is nothing more than a collection of old, worthless ideas. The ideas by themselves are not the problem. The problem is that I believe them. It's my beliefs that cause all the trouble there is, even my ideas about God. Whenever I react in anger or fear I know that a subconscious belief has been threatened. "Step on my foot and I'll forgive you, but step on one of my beliefs and I will resent you forever."

One of the most important instructions in How It Works for me is to let go of my old ideas absolutely--not my bad ideas my OLD ideas. I let go of my old, worthless beliefs by continuing to practice the Twelve Steps and the rest of the AA program in my daily life. Each time I am able to let go of one my beliefs about what I am and how life is supposed to work, another layer of the onion falls away and I move closer and closer to my spiritual core -- the eternal divine spark that gently pushes me to wholeness, completeness...sanity.

Lessons Not Punishment

I believe that any day I spend in any form of guilt, shame, fear or anger is a non-living day. At the end of my life if I were to add up all the days I've spent being afraid, angry or guilty, I will find that I missed a big chunk of living. They might write on my tombstone "He missed it."

Living in the present moment is impossible if I'm angry about what someone did to me in the past, even if the past was just a minute ago. The same goes for being afraid about what might happen tomorrow. Guilt about what I did 30 years ago will pollute the present until I bring it to the light of day. The steps helps me do just that.

I can pretend I'm not angry or afraid or guilty by putting on a happy face. Given enough time, sooner or later the cause of my upset might go away -- sinking into my subconscious, but it does not disappear. Instead the voices wake me up at 4:00 in the morning. The "don't they know who you are" indignant voice, the "your gonna get it now" critical parent voice and the "you are a worthless piece of crap" voice of self loathing.

I perfect my character defects in an attempt to hide from you the fact that I am carrying around this guilt, fear and anger. I isolate, I blow up over trifles, I live my life trying to get your approval, I create drama to get "poor me" your pity, I try to control every aspect of my life and yours, The list goes on ad infinitum. Without any real
peace in my heart, how can I expect there to be peace in the world?

I no longer want to live this way. I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired. I no longer want to give away my serenity and the chance to experience the beauty of each moment. Fortunately AA has given me some tools to help me let go of guilt, fear and anger. Of all the tools the two most important to me are acceptance and forgiveness, but I must choose whether or not I want to pick up these tools.

It helps me to accept when I remember that everything happens to me to teach me, not to punish me. When I finally learn the lesson, I no longer have to have the experience again, but the lessons will keep coming until I learn.

Back to the Future

I'm in the car featured in Back to the Future, but I'm not driving, Spirit is. As I travel backwards in time I leave all the sadness, anger, and fear behind. I unlearn all the old ideas that keep me chained to self. One by one my moldy beliefs fall away. Finally, I return to the innocence of childhood. The spontaneous joy, the freedom, the aliveness that Life fully intends itself to be. I run and play with abandon. I eat freshly baked chocolate chip cookies and sticky sweet slices of bright red watermelon. I see how far I can spit out the seeds. I color outside the lines and make sloppy mud pies. I don't try to be special because I know I already am. I'm filled with delight. I love freely, deeply, equally.

Spirit drives me to remain in AA. I think that I am choosing to go to the meetings, that I am choosing to work the steps and I am choosing to put my hand out to other alcoholics, but it isn't me. It is Spirit gently pulling me in the direction of my highest and best good. Left to my own devices, I'd still be sitting alone in my dirty darkened apartment drinking cheap red wine, smoking pot and watching stupid television programs day in and day out. Spirit has always been there parked at the curb, motor running, waiting patiently for me to come to the end of my rope. Fortunately, I was graced with the disease of alcoholism. My life became so painful I had no other choice but to let go and let God. It's been a great ride.