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Powerlessness

I heard an old timer at a meeting once deliver a graphic explanation of powerlessness. He said, "if you think you have any power, just try not going to the bathroom when you have diarrhea." If I have any power, why can't I turn off my mind and stop thinking when I'm trying to meditate? Why can't I shut off the voices in my head that keep me awake at 3:00 in the morning, reminding me over and over what someone did to me two hours, two weeks, or two years ago? If I had any power why can't I just "let go and let God," turn everything over and live happily ever after?

Faced with years of evidence, it was relatively easy for me to admit I was powerless over alcohol -- when I picked up that first drink I just couldn't stop. But it's been far from easy to learn the whole truth, the extent of my powerlessness. In fact at times the lessons have been excruciatingly painful.

I have no power over anything, not over other people, not over my thoughts, not over the circumstances that arise in my daily life. I am reminded of this fact at every meeting when I hear in How It Works. "There is One who has all power, that One is God." It says God has ALL the power, not 99% of the power, but ALL the power.

Yet, I live in the illusion that I choose, I decide, I take actions. This illusion is a trick ego plays to try and stay in charge. It gives me the sense that I have power, but as I continue to grow along spiritual lines I begin to see I have no power, I never had any power, and I won't ever have any power in the future. I will also realize I don't need power because my HP already supplies everything I need before I even think to ask for it. 

Today I see my recovery is nothing I did, but everything God did. "I" didn't surrender. "I" didn't decide to come to AA.  "I" don't choose what I think and feel today or how I will act. On some mysterious level everything that has happened to me was supposed to happen to me. My life continues to unfold exactly as it should. If my life were supposed to be one iota different, then it would be.

If I have no power, then why do I go to all these meetings, practice the steps and put my hand out to other alcoholics? The simple answer is I do these things because I no longer want to suffer. I no longer want to be dragged through life kicking and screaming. I want to float down the river in the bright sunshine whistling "zippah dee doo dah." Practicing the AA program has dissolved much of the fear, guilt, and anger in my consciousness. I'm definitely no saint, but I sure am a whole lot cleaner inside and happier too.

The Habit of Sobriety

I was an avid reader of self help books for most of my adult years, especially toward the end of my drinking. I had a bookcase full of them. I'd pour myself a tumbler of wine, crack open a book and search for the solution to my life. I was convinced that somewhere within the pages of one of these books I'd discover why I didn't have the energy to look for work, why I couldn't hold a relationship together; why my life held no interest or enthusiasm. At that point the only thing I had to look forward to was the next drink.

One of the books I read was called "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People." Maybe you've heard of it. One of the habits the author suggests is to "Live a God-centered life." I thought this sounded like the answer for me, but I quickly realized I had no idea what God was and no clue about how to coax God into the center of my life. I certainly wasn't ready to quit drinking if that was one of the requirements.

Finally I received the gift of desperation and crawled into the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous. You told me early on if I really wanted to stay sober I might want to follow some suggestions: go to meetings, read the literature, be of service, take the steps. In the beginning I did these things because I feared what might happen if I didn't, but soon I began to enjoy the AA way of life. I fell into the habit of sobriety -- meetings, steps, service. This habit has served me well for almost 20 years. I continue to do all the things you suggested in my first couple of weeks and my life continues to get better and better.

My message of recovery is simple. Get into the habit of sobriety. Do what's suggested regardless of what else is going on in your life. Make AA the first item on your to-do list. Work the steps to take yourself out of the center of your life and make space in your consciousness for your HP. Sooner or later you will begin to live a God-centered life. Just like the book says!

Keeping It Simple

Will C. was the first person to greet me at my first meeting, a nooner at the Presbyterian Church in La Jolla, California.  He was 70-something with a well-trimmed gray beard and kind eyes. His face lit up when I told him it was my first meeting. Drawn to his gentle nature, I came to know and love Will in the years before I moved to China. When I think of keeping it simple, I think of Will.  

If you looked up humility in the dictionary you might find a little picture of Will C. He went to Mass every morning and a meeting every noon. Will loved newcomers. On Wednesday nights you could always find a couple of newbies at Will’s apartment, going through the Joe and Charlie tapes together. Will rarely shared, but when his turn came up, he always ended with, “I came for my drinking, but I stayed for my thinking.” These words echo inside my head.

Will had an old poodle he loved dearly named Lucky. Lucky was the color of Will’s beard. Have you noticed how dogs look like their owners? Will and Lucky were like that. They had been together for seventeen or eighteen years when Will died. Lucky died the next day. The AAs who handled Will’s affairs arranged it so Lucky could share the coffin with Will.

Will was a wonderful example of useful and contented sobriety for me. I am forever grateful to have known this kind, gentle man who kept it simple.

Life on Life's Terms

My wife is dealing with another medical challenge. It is like Life throws a wet canvas over our lives when this happens. It’s easy for my attitude to go south, but I’m not much help to anyone if I allow that to happen. If I do, I become part of the problem, not part of the solution.

When life get’s me down, it’s a sure sign I’ve lost my connection to my HP. I know when this happens because it feels like I am slogging through a swamp up to my knees in quicksand. I can’t muster up enthusiasm for much of anything except sitting, staring at my computer and eating. When this happens my knee-jerk reaction is to do the exact opposite of what my program teaches me. Instead of putting my hand out and re-connecting, I isolate.

I heard in a meeting once that isolation is a dark room where we go to develop our negatives. It’s a catch 22. Self-will takes over as I sink deeper into isolation. When I’m running on self-will I don’t have the power to free myself from isolation. Depression could be right around the corner. Thanks to my recovery program, I am sensitive to my tendency to isolate. I become “sick and tired” of suffering before I get sucked all the way to the bottom.

Reconnecting with life starts with me calling other alcoholics and talking about them, not me. I force myself to get to a meeting and share in a general way what’s going on. I put my hand out to newcomers. I do some writing. In a day or two I’m back t seeing the glass half-full. My attitude and outlook has changed.

I try to remember, it’s not life on my terms, but life on life’s terms. Life is calling the shots. Is life always fair? No. Is life always comfortable? No. But life is always real. As I continue to let go of all the old ideas that stand between me and life, truth begins to shine through. Peace is restored.

Self-centered Fear

I stood outside the meeting room waiting for the meeting to start. I hadn’t had a drink for 90 days. Charlie looked at me and exclaimed so everyone could hear, “what did you do to your body?!” I gained 20 pounds in three months by gorging on cookies, sweets and other snacks. My body craves the sugar I used to get from booze, but sugar isn’t the real problem. Self-centered fear is.

I drank at self-centered fear for thirty years trying to get comfortable in my own skin. This same fear lurks behind everyone of my so-called sins -- greed, pride, envy and my all time personal favorite, sloth. Willpower and self-discipline don’t work for me. Sooner or later the termites of fear gnaw away the foundations of my best intentions and I’m right back to where I started. I’ve lost 100 pounds in the last 15 years -- the same 10 pounds 10 times.

A few years ago I realized as long as fear was driving, I had to sit in the backseat. I had to go where fear took me. The fear took away my ability to choose. I had to drink, I had to lie, I had to cheat, I had to stuff cookies in my mouth. Once I realized I had no choice but to do what I did, I began to let myself off the hook.

Confronting these fears seems to be part of my spiritual journey. The Twelve Steps dissolve my self-centered fear by bringing my old ideas into the light of forgiveness. As the fear dissolves, my ability to make healthier choices returns.

AA is My Church

Yesterday I accompanied my wife to her church. Organized religion is not my thing, but I try to support her spiritual program just as she supports my AA activities. Sometimes I try to make her think I’m doing her a favor by going with her, but the truth is I like her church. Just like AA meetings, I feel better when I’m walking out of church than I did before I walked in. As I sat in church yesterday I thought about the similarities between church and AA and how lucky we alcoholics are to have the program we have.

I enjoy the devotional singing the most. My wife’s church features a six piece band complete with drums, keyboard, and bass guitar. They play modern worship songs with a rock beat. I sing off-key but fortunately the rest of the congregation drowns me out. When I am singing worship songs I feel my channel open, making way for HP to flow into my consciousness. I’m wondering if we should begin our AA meetings with a few songs, just to get the juices flowing? (just kidding)

I notice a number of church members have service roles just like some of us serve our AA meetings.  They greet the worshipers, act as ushers and collect the offering. The church supports a full calendar of events and activities, providing additional opportunities for members to serve. Just like in our meetings, the ones doing the service seem like the happiest people in the room.

Some of the members stand in the front after the service to pray for those who need a little extra help. I wonder if anyone ever asks their prayer partner for their phone numbers? I’m sure meaningful relationships develop between  church members, but I doubt if many of them go as deep at the sponsor-sponsee relationships in AA.

The sermon usually contains one or two spiritual thoughts I can apply to my recovery. Yesterday’s sermon was about carrying the message to non-believers. The minister shared some strategies about how to spot opportunities to deliver the message to others.  It wasn’t a hard sell program, but it made me grateful nevertheless that AA is based on attraction rather than promotion. An endless supply of drunks comes to us. We don’t have to go out and drag them off bar stools. No one is going to try to “introduce” AA to anyone unless they ask for it.

The bible is loaded with spiritual wisdom and instruction, but I wonder how many people in church yesterday have ever taken a searching and fearless inventory of themselves. How many shared their guilt and fear with another? Maybe all these folks aren’t suffering like I was before AA, but I bet some of them are. Without the 12-steps I wonder how these people will heal and find peace.

As we filed out of the sanctuary at the end of the service, the energy felt like the end of an AA meeting. People were talking, laughing, and making plans. As we made our way to the exit I thought about how grateful I am that I don’t have to wait a week for the next meeting.  I don’t believe one meeting a week would cut it for me.

God's Grace

Yesterday at the noon meeting I sat where I could read the framed slogans on the wall. “But for the grace of God (go I)” caught my eye. I used to repeat this slogan whenever I’d see a drunk staggering down the street or the homeless person in filthy clothes passed out in La Jolla park in San Diego where I got sober. I said it as a reminder to be grateful for my recovery and to give all credit to my HP. If I didn’t always say it out loud, I whispered it to myself. I don’t use this slogan anymore and yesterday I realized why.

The slogan implies I received a blessing --  God’s grace -- that the drunk or the homeless person has not received. God’s favor, God’s light has shined on me, but not on them. But what about all those times I staggered and passed out myself? Weren’t these experiences God’s grace? It is by God’s grace I am sober, but it is also God’s grace that I spent thirty years living in alcoholic delusion. I am grateful for my sobriety and my recovery, but I’m also grateful for every drink I drank and every lie I told. Somehow they were all necessary. Every one.

I’m coming to believe it is all Grace. The good things that happen and the icky things that happen. Every bit of life is Grace. In every moment we are all exactly where we are supposed to be, doing exactly what we are supposed to be doing. If any of us were supposed to be somewhere else doing something else, we would be. I’m right where I belong. So are you. Like another slogan says,  “Nothing happens in God’s world by accident.” Nothing. 

Accepting Reality

My father was right at the top of my resentment list when I shared my first fifth step with my sponsor. He was a cold, critical alcoholic and I could not forgive him for the way he treated me. My sponsor asked "can you see that he did the best he could?" "No," I said. "Well can you see that he did what he did?" Huh? Of course I could see that he did what he did but how did that help me? It gave me a choice. The reality was he did what he did. I had a choice to accept reality or argue with it and continue to play the victim. I'm coming to believe that every time I argue with reality I lose. I don't have to like reality, I only have to accept it.

I'm one who believes nothing happens in God's world by accident. Somehow, every experience, even the painful ones (perhaps especially the painful ones) are meant for my highest and best good. I can either choose to accept these experiences and do the best I can or I can resist and struggle. Every time I am unwilling to accept a person or condition in my life I set myself in opposition to reality. In essence I am rejecting God's will. If I am running my life in opposition to God, it is impossible to have anything but a life of struggle and suffering.

I learned from suffering for most of my life. Now I want to learn what joy has to teach me.

Willingness

I received many gifts throughout my sobriety starting with the gift of desperation. But the most important gift of all is willingness. I was graced with the willingness to do what was suggested in my first meeting and I have pretty much stayed willing ever since. I don't take any of the credit for my willingness because it's a spiritual gift. I know it's a spiritual gift because you told me if I don't feel willing, I can pray for it.

If I let ego manage my sobriety, I'll get drunk.  Ego tells me I have better things to do than go to meetings, call other alcoholics and put my hand out to newcomers. Anything is better than writing my fourth step! It takes willingness to stand up to ego, bit every time I do, ego loses power and it is easier the next time. 

Some days I don't feel willing, but you taught me I don't have to feel willing to act willing. Big Al shared in one of my first meetings, "I felt depressed when I woke up this morning so I decided to stay in bed all day. Then I heard a voice that asked what I would do if I wasn't depressed. I heard another voice that answered, 'you would go to the meeting'. So here I am."

Willingness is spiritual energy. I prime the pump for willingness to flow into my life by taking the suggested actions regardless of how I feel. By acting as if I am willing, I become willing. I almost always feel better after a meeting, especially if I had to drag my butt to it.

Do I need AA?

Through the years I've heard various statistics on how many of us stay in AA for the long term. I've heard that only 2-5% of us who walk through the doors to their first AA meeting are still in AA ten years later. I am always surprised when I hear or read these statistics. AA is such an important part of my life, why would anyone want to leave? A number of possible reasons come to light as I look at my own experience. 

First is the psychological nature of the disease. My alcoholism is the only disease that works non-stop to convince me I don't have it. Cancer, Hep C, and heart disease all scream for treatment. Not alcoholism. It goes to any lengths to make me believe I am not really alcoholic, or, if I was at one time, that I'm fine now. If I believe either of these ideas I am on my way to believing I no longer need AA.

Ego, the main spokesperson of my disease, fights against AA. Ego wants no part of spirituality. It is scared to death that there could be any power greater than itself.  Ego points out I've got more important things to do than attend meetings, talk to other members on the telephone and make coffee. If I know what's good for me, I'd better make more money, spend more time with the family, and go to the gym every day. According to Ego AA is for suckers.

I begin to slip out of AA when I begin to forget what it used to be like. My memories of the pain my alcoholism brought to me and others are fading away. Sometimes a memory of a pleasant drinking experience will shows up in my head uninvited. I've noticed only a few people in our meetings share about their drinking. When I was new an old timer said, "don't ever forget to share about your drinking. It's the only thing the newcomer can hold on to." I don't need AA if I forget I have a drinking problem that was well on its way to killing me.

Finally, how many of us really practice the program as a way of life? Maybe 2-5% is not too far off. It is so easy for me to slip into a comfort zone in my recovery. I know I'm in the comfort zone because I go to the same meetings every week, talk to the same people, and let someone else take on the service positions. I stop writing inventories, stop paying attention to my character defects and stop putting my hand out to newcomers. AA becomes just another social activity. I begin working MY program, not the AA program. I don't need AA if I lose the desire to change and grow. AA works for people who want it. 

Let's face it. The odds are stacked against us. Staying in AA for the long term is a long shot. Wow. This makes me even more grateful to be a sober member today.

Returnees

My first sponsor said AA meetings are like sex. All meetings are good, but some are better than others. Last Sunday's meeting was great! We had five newcomers out of 12 people. Two of them were returnees, both of whom had recently celebrated their 90 days by going out and getting drunk. I no longer worry about people going out for more research, but I am always thrilled to see them come back.

One of the other newcomers, a young man with 52 days, shared a beautiful story about fighting off his demons when he was feeling overwhelmed by a craving. He shared how he prayed, read the book, and even cried for two-hours until the craving lifted. As he described what he felt when the craving finally dissolved, I sensed something of great importance had occurred, not only for him, but for all of us.

I have come to believe the universe is so divinely ordered that nothing happens by accident. I trust every single experience is intended for our highest and best good. Even the ones that hurt. Perhaps especially the ones that hurt.
Those who go out and drink again are supposed to go out and drink again. I welcome the ones who return with open arms and grieve for those who don't.

Blessing of Alcoholism


I consider my alcoholism to be a blessing. It sounds funny to say that. But I don't know how I could have  traveled from where I was to where I am today without having this life-threatening disease. I was too committed to my own ideas, my own grand plans and schemes. I reached out for help nineteen years ago and I continue to reach out for help today. I have no other choice. God makes it baby simple for me: continue to grow spiritually or suffer.  I suffered for thirty years before I stumbled through the doors to my first meeting. Now I want to see what joy is like.

I do not regret the past. I had to drink every drink, tell every lie, and endure every humiliating experience to find my bottom. One less of anything and I might have missed grace, that moment when it was clear there was a softer, easier way through life than the way I was going. Back then I wasn't thinking about the promise of a better life, I only wanted the pain to go away -- the pain of frustration and confusion, the pain of resentment, the pain of self-hate, the pain of isolation.

Today I spend very little time in fear, anger, or guilt. Like our book says, I enjoy a new freedom and a new happiness. I am no longer baffled when a painful situation arises. Today when I lose my peace I know it is because I am trying to impose my self-centered version of reality on life instead of accepting Life exactly as it is. Pain must result whenever I cannot accept a person or circumstance in my life because, in essence, I am rejecting God. I forget that life is unfolding according to divine plan. I forget each experience, each lesson, is presented to me to help me grow. Today, more than ever, I see that life is perfect just the way it is. Today I know if life were supposed to be different than it is, it would be.

Disappearing Act

The summer before I got sober, my girlfriend and I spent a weekend in Vail, Colorado. The morning after we arrived we hiked, hungover, up to the top of the ski mountain in the bright sunshine and fresh clean air. I will never forget the vista that greeted us when we made it to the peak: eggshell blue sky, flimsy white clouds and the snow-covered peaks of the Rockies towering in the background. Overwhelmed by the incredible beauty of the view, I stood mouth agape, unable to speak. I experienced a moment of awe -- a pure spiritual experience.

What happened?  I know today that for just a few moments my mind stopped. My identification with self gave way to pure reality. My psychological center evaporated. One moment there were two -- me and nature (God). Now there was One. Since I stopped thinking about myself, I had literally disappeared. Now there was only God.

A few seconds later my mind caught itself being absent. In the midst of this incredible experience, a thought barged its way into my consciousness and kicked me out of heaven. "If you take a few hits from the joint in your pocket, you can make this better." Poof. The sense of Oneness vanished.

Practicing our Twelve Steps takes me out of the center of my being and lifts my consciousness. By taking the suggested actions, I slowly dissolve the illusion of self that blocks me from fully realizing the incredible beauty of life. When I am willing to practice the spiritual principles of the Steps to the best of my ability on any given day, I take one step toward God. God responds by taking two steps toward me.

More Grace

Sometimes when I glance at myself sideways in the mirror, I see my father's reflection looking back at me. It is scary how much I look like him when he was my age. I can see today that,like me, dad tried to control every aspect of his life. His family, his work and especially his alcoholism. He even used a shot glass to measure his scotch! His suicide was a final act of control, an exclamation point.

I grew up afraid of him. He was an ex-military officer. His favorite expression was "straighten up and fly right." I resented him for not being the dad on the TV program, "Ozzie and Harriet." His constant criticism, nitpicking, and non-stop judgement drove me and my sister away from home as soon as we were able. I vowed never to become like him. Yet I became exactly like him.

Thanks entirely to AA and the 12-steps, my resentment against my father dissolved first into pity and finally into compassion. My father is no longer the cruel task master of my memory, but a garden variety drunk like me, just trying to hold it together as best we can.

I do not believe all gifts come in pretty packages. My alcoholism was far from pretty, but I consider it a gift -- divine grace. Without becoming an alcoholic I could never have learned to forgive.

Reconnecting with Life

I took the first few faltering steps on the bridge back to life when I walked into my first meeting and introduced myself as a newcomer. I laughed, really laughed for the first time in years. I couldn't put my finger on exactly what it was, but I sensed there was some kind of magic going on in the meeting rooms. I wanted what you had so I got myself a great sponsor and started in on the steps. When my home group elected me doughnut guy it felt like I'd just been awarded the Nobel Prize. 

My reconnection with life began in earnest when I shared my fifth step with my sponsor. It was the first time I had been totally honest with anyone in 47 years! More imaginary barriers fell away when I cleaned up much of the guilt and shame from my past by taking Steps Eight and Nine. I began to look people in the eye instead of down at their feet.

As my insides began to change, my outsides changed too. After more than a year on the sidelines, I became gainfully employed. A new girlfriend showed up to help me grow. I fell into a comfortable routine of work, romance and meetings. Apparently HP understands that the comfort zone is the absolute worst place for an alcoholic like me. So he sent me an alcoholic to share with and my recovery jumped to a whole new level.

Through the years I've had the honor and privilege of working with a number of men, especially here in China. I have come to realize I've been given a gift of great value -- my own experience. I share it freely with anyone who asks (and often with some who don't. Grinning.) The time I spend one-on-one with other alcoholics pays off like a Las Vegas slot machine, not in silver dollars, but in a shiny life that feels more useful and contented as the years roll by.

Meetings

I was less then 90 days sober when my grand sponsor caught me walking into the meeting a few minutes late. "Do you need a new watch?" he asked after the meeting. "No, why?" "Because you were late. You didn't hear How It Works. If you understood How It Works, you wouldn't be late!" Then he added, "AA is my church and church starts on time."

Today AA is my church too. I connect with the God of my own understanding in AA meetings. I also connect with God in my wife's church, in Buddhist temples and in hiking alone in nature, but it's not the same. Sometimes I actually sense the power circulating throughout the meeting room. A mighty power, a healing power. I think the other big book says when we seek together, "when more than one are gathered," our power is multiplied ten fold. I am so grateful I don't have to wait until Sunday to go to my church. I can attend "services" three times a day, even here in Shanghai.

Meetings are where I practice spiritual principles like acceptance, tolerance, and forgiveness that, for some reason, I struggle to practice in the outside world. It's where I feel most at home, most comfortable in my own skin. I have nothing to prove and nothing to fear. You all have already seen all my warts and love me anyways. It is in AA meetings I experience the joy of seeing the light come on in a newcomer's eyes.

I don't know what my life would be like without meetings because I've never gone without. I can't see this changing in the near future. I found a useful, contented life in meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous. I'm not about to screw with the formula if I can help it.