Treating My Disease

They say that only three types of people come to China from overseas: mercenaries, missionaries, and misfits. Even though I came to China originally to work, I certainly fit the latter category as well. Like most of us I have difficulty fitting comfortably in my own skin. If shouting the praises of Alcoholics Anonymous makes me a missionary, them I guess I've got the hat trick.

Shanghai is an easy place to hit bottom. The bars are open late and there are all kinds of extracurricular activities that are easy to fall into. There is sense of freedom here that didn't exist in our home countries, a kind of anything goes mentality. The Chinese people look the other way when we act out. "Just another crazy foreigner", they say. They've been saying that about foreigners for a couple of hundred years now.  As the allure of China continues to grow, more and more misfits from all around the world are finding their bottoms here. Like the Chinese economy, our AA business is booming.

We've grown steadily since I arrived in 1997: from five alcoholics and three meetings a week to more than 100 members and 23 meetings a week today. I see newcomers in the meetings I attend almost every week. I love seeing newcomers in the meetings, not because it gives me an opportunity to provide treatment for their alcoholism, but because it gives me a new, fresh way to treat my own disease.

I believe AA works because of the principle of enlightened self-interest. Everything I do in AA I'm doing for myself -- to earn another day of sobriety. If someone else benefits it's icing on the cake. I get a great feeling when I see the light come on in a newcomer's eyes, but whether another alcoholic "gets it" or not is not up to me. When I put my hand out and share with a newcomer, I'm the one who grows and changes. I'm the one who experiences the 12 promises coming true. It's all about me as usual, but that's the beauty of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Home Group Family

I often hear the expression, "If you had my life, you would drink too." I recently heard someone share, "if you had my life, you wouldn't drink either." My life is filled with goodness today. I owe much of it to the three and a half years I spent in my first home group before moving to China. My first home group is where I reconnected with life, where I learned to be a friend among friends and a worker among workers, where I took baby steps in practicing spiritual principles like love and tolerance, and where, at age 47, I began to grow up -- a process I've not yet fully completed. 

I was not prepared for what greeted me on that first Saturday morning when I walked through the doors of the rec-room in the All Hallows Catholic Church in La Jolla, California. The seventy men in the room were a little to "up"-- a little to happy to suit me. I had unknowingly walked right into the middle of a big party -- a celebration of sober life. I didn't know what it was at the time, but, like any good alcoholic, I wanted more. I kept coming back.

I wasn't a joiner. I ran from intimacy. I had insulated myself from life with alcohol for thirty years. Now the alcohol was gone and I felt open, exposed. If it was up to me I would have stood outside with my nose pressed against the window. But you guys wouldn't let me. You surrounded me in welcome when I introduced myself as a newcomer. You gave me your phone numbers. You made me feel I was the most important person in the room. Slowly I allowed you to pull me inside the life boat and together we rowed away from the wreckage of our broken lives.

I went to a meeting every day of the week, but I looked forward to my home group on Saturday mornings. It didn't take long for my body to relax amid the laughter and enthusiasm in the room. I walked through my fear and began to get to know the regulars. My mind began to open -- like a door cracking and the light chasing away the darkness in a room. I could see that this "God Thing" was working for you, so I became willing to give it a try. I got myself a sponsor and began to do what was suggested. I showed up early; helped to set up the chairs; and cleaned coffee cups. When, at 90 days sober, the group elected me the "donut guy" it felt like I had just won the Nobel Prize.

I received a solid foundation in sobriety from my first home group. I was sad to leave when the time came, but as my grand sponsor said, "God doesn't get us sober to sit on the sidelines of life." The spirit of my first home group is alive in me. I've spent the past sixteen years passing on everything I learned in my first home group to the drunks here in Shanghai.

Today is a holiday in China called the Mid-autumn Festival or the "Moon Festival." Chinese people exchange small round pastries called Moon Cakes. Everyone gets a day off work to celebrate. This evening a full harvest moon will hang low in the sky and all over China, families will enjoy a meal together.  Tonight I'll have a nice dinner with my Chinese family, but I'll remember to be grateful for my AA family, especially my first home group.

Give It Away to Keep It

When I first read the 12 Steps on the wall at my first meeting, the ninth step caught my eye. I wanted to do the ninth step immediately with the ex-girlfriend who had unceremoniously dumped me a few months earlier. I wanted to show her what a good guy I was by coming to AA and all. I was sure that she would realize her mistake and beg me to come back.

A couple of months later her name came up on my resentment list. I was taking my fifth step with my sponsor and I shared how I resented her for evicting me from her apartment into the snow in Denver on New Year's Eve. She even threatened to call her building security if I didn't go peacefully. He asked what did I do, what was my part? "I don't know," I said. "You mean you have no idea of what you did that caused her to throw you out?" "No, all I know is I was coming out of a blackout as she was saying, "I don't have to take this crap from you anymore!"

Unless I continue to grow and change I will slip slowly backwards into the cesspool of alcoholic thinking and behavior. Sooner, rather than later, I'll end up back in the snow in Denver at 2:30 in the morning, dazed and confused. Going to meetings, drinking coffee and laughing at our wacky solutions to life might be enough to keep me sober, but it is not enough to keep me growing along spiritual lines -- the whole point. The power to change is in the steps. Sponsorship -- going through the steps with others keeps me growing and changing.

Each time I go through the steps with a new guy my own understanding deepens and I experience life from a new perspective. When I share some of my own secrets in Step Five I see how far I've traveled. I identify my own struggle with active character defects as we move through Six and Seven together. In working through Steps Eight and Nine, I often find some old debris from the past has floated up to my conscious awareness. I discover I'm not doing such a hot job with the living amends I promised to make.  I don't know how much the other guy benefits when we go through the steps together, but I know I do.

Going through the steps with another alcoholic is the backbone of my program today. When we share together, the Steps are transformed from a bunch of dead words on a wall to living spiritual principles.

Journey to Faith

I always believed in God. I went to church on Christmas and Easter and I even prayed from time to time when the you-know-what was hitting the fan. I prayed for money, jobs, girlfriends.  I prayed the pregnancy test would be negative. I always prayed God would come down from heaven and fix things for me. I never thought to ask God to fix me -- to change me in any way. After all, I was a pretty good guy. Why would I want to change? My belief in God did not stop alcoholism from slowly but surely robbing me of everything worthwhile in life. I lost friends, interest in challenging work, creativity, and, finally, all enthusiasm for life itself. After years of suffering, I was graced with a moment of clarity and found myself in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous.

In AA I learned that belief in God is only a starting point. A belief has no real power until it grows into faith. Faith allows me to trust that the universe has my best interest at heart. Faith gives me the courage to walk through fear and live my life fully. Faith assures me that regardless of how dark it seems, the sun is shining behind the clouds. What began as a wishy-washy belief in God, grew slowly into solid faith -- a faith that works for me regardless of what’s going on. Blind faith never worked for me. My faith grew out of my own living experiences in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous. 

I began my journey to faith during my first couple of meetings. Even though my cells were saturated with alcoholism, I sensed many of the people in the rooms had something I wanted. I didn't know what it was at the time, but today I know. They had energy, enthusiasm, happiness -- life in full expression. These folks were nothing like the men I  met every day at my neighborhood bar for "happy" hour. They weren't just pretending to have a good time, they seem to be really enjoying life -- sober! A few days later I was getting ready for bed and I suddenly realized I hadn’t thought about a drink all day. I had no idea at the time how, after using alcohol as the solution for my life for 30 years, it was possible not to have a thought about a drink for a whole day! Something was going on I couldn’t understand, but I wanted more.

I started my steps. When I arrived at step three, I repeated the Third Step prayer as part of my morning quiet time. Since I had no real faith that God would change me, my prayer felt like empty words -- like I had my fingers crossed behind my back.  My sponsor said it really didn't matter if I  believed it or felt it. It only mattered that I was willing to keep saying it. I fell into a comfortable routine of meetings, work, and hanging out with other alcoholics. 

The first real test of my faith came at three years sober. I lost my job and, due to my age, had absolutely no prospects of finding another one. I was plunged into a pit of despair, but gratefully I had a large positive balance in my sobriety bank account so I picked up the phone instead of picking up a drink. I shared what was going on with my sponsor and other alcoholics. I worked the steps around the job loss issue, discovering my part. I made my amends to the people I had harmed on the job. I slogged through a couple of dark, painful weeks, but when I came out on the other side, I was different. I had been changed and my faith was stronger than ever. My faith has been tested many times during my recovery and it has grown every time. 

What started as a belief -- if I did what you did, I could have what you had -- evolved into a faith that works for me. Today I  know whatever mess I  get myself into, I can rely on HP to get me out, not by changing my outsides, but by changing my insides. I don't believe there is a God. I  know there is a God. I've had too many experiences of God working in my life to believe otherwise.