Wanting It

I walked into my first AA meeting, Mt. Soledad Men’s, a few minutes before 9:00 AM and found a seat in the back. The room was alive with with animated conversation and laughter. It felt like a big party was about to begin. I had just come out of eight months of isolation. It felt a bit overwhelming.

The leader asked for newcomers to introduce themselves. When I put up my hand, the man who would become my first sponsor put out his hand in welcome along with a number of other men sitting close by. I doubt I looked any of them in the eye.

There were a number of birthday celebrations that day. As each birthday was announced, one member lit the appropriate number of candles on a store-bought cake. The singing drew me in and I caught myself singing along. The celebrant and his sponsor both moved to the front of the room and shared. It was clear that these men genuinely cared about each other.

Still toxic and foggy, I don’t remember too much of what was said, but I was shocked at the honesty. I was forty seven years old and I had never heard a man admit he was afraid or that he didn’t have all the answers. One after another these men freely talked about their screw-ups without any sense of embarrassment. Most all of them used the word “grateful” more than once.

After the meeting a handful of members came up to welcome me with pats on the back and phone numbers. My future sponsor said, “Some of us go for breakfast after the meeting, why don’t you come along?” I lied and said, “I’d like to but I have some things I have to do.” With a knowing smile he said, “I’m sure you do, Jeff, but why don’t you come along anyways?” An unseen hand gave me a shove to breakfast.

As I was driving home from breakfast, I thought to myself, “I don’t know what those guy are on, but I know I want to go back next Saturday and get some too.” I wanted it.

Practice, Practice, Practice

I think AA could be called “Principles are Us.” There are AA principles to guide my conduct, measure my spiritual progress and establish perfect ideals to help me set my internal GPS. There is a principle contained in each and every one of the steps and traditions. There are the humble principles of the St. Francis Prayer. Then there are the guiding principles of the whole AA program: love and service.

I can even find principles to practice in my character defects. All I have to do is take a dictionary and look up each character defect, discover the antonym of the defect and Voila! I have a whole new set of principles to practice. If impatience is one of my defects, then the principle to practice  is patience. If I am a perfectionist, I ask God to help me practice “good enough” today. If judging is a defect, then I practice accepting others exactly as they are. When I am practicing the opposite quality of my character defects, I “act as if” I am doing God’s will rather than my will. 

By now I know most of the principles by heart. I can quote you a good long list. My life is the best it’s ever been, but am I as happy as I want to be? No. This passage from Step Seven in the Twelve and Twelve jumped out at me at a recent Step Study meeting:

 “Indeed, the attainment of greater humility is the foundation principle of each of A.A.'s Twelve Steps. For without some degree of humility, no alcoholic can stay sober at all. Nearly all A.A.'s have found, too, that unless they develop much more of this precious quality than may be required just for sobriety, they still haven't much chance of becoming truly happy. Without it, they cannot live to much useful purpose, or, in adversity, be able to summon the faith that can meet any emergency.”

Wow, this says I can stay sober with a half-assed effort at the steps, but I can never be truly happy. I want to be happier, I really do, but when things are going OK in my world I often forget to practice. I take my foot off the gas. I try to coast. Sure it’s easy for me to go to meetings, drink coffee and laugh at our hair-brained solutions to life. I enjoy passing on to others what was so freely given to me. But something inside resists practicing the uncomfortable principles, the ones that take real work like finding my part in resentments, making prompt amends and taking time in the morning to talk with God and listen.

Fortunately, life reminds me when I forget to practice. I get restless, irritable and discontented. I carry an ache of fear in my gut. I feel separate from you, life and God. If I ignore these warning signals, it won’t take long before I’m back to my darkened apartment with a liter of cheap wine, bag of pot and the remote control, lost in the illusion that being all alone is a great way to go through life.


I never realized I was locked in a prison of self-centered fear until I got my first taste of freedom in Alcoholics Anonymous. I ran as fast as I could through life, trying to outrun the fear that followed me everywhere. It was like trying to outrun my shadow. As soon as I stopped and rested the fear was there. I went through life in a state of dis-ease, but I thought this was just the way life was. I saw struggle and suffering everywhere I looked. I never thought to question it. Alcohol made life bearable for me, even “happy” sometimes. But always the fear would return.  

I had my first taste of freedom in Alcoholics Anonymous when I shared some painful truths about myself with my sponsor during my fifth step. I came in out of the cold that day and began to connect with you, life and my HP. Through the years, thanks to meetings, steps and service, HP has continued to remove old, false ideas that keep me in prison, separate from life.

Today I enjoy many freedoms. I am free from needing to change the way I feel, to self-medicate (unless of course you count caffeine). I am free from alcoholic loneliness -- that feeling of a hole in my gut that the wind whistles through. I am free from guilt and shame that kept me chained to yesterday. I am free from the war of self-hate I waged against myself for more than forty years.

I’m learning the AA promise, “a new freedom and a new happiness” is not only about freedom “from”, but also freedom “to”. Today I am free to make mistakes, free to not have to do every single thing perfectly. I am free to experience a whole range of emotions, not just fear-driven rage. I am free to care about others, to be of service, and to share my ESH without expecting anything in return. I am free to live my life anyway I choose. I am free to just Be.

Certainly my journey to freedom from bondage of self is far from over, but by now I’ve let go of enough old ideas to feel comfortable in my own skin most of the time. I have become a better man in the process.

Powerless Without AA

AA, twelve steps, service commitments, sponsorship, and helping other drunks didn’t get me sober and doesn’t keep me that way. God did and does. But Alcoholics Anonymous connects me to the God of my own mis-understanding. Without AA God would just be another idea in my mind. God comes alive for me when I take the actions you taught me in my first few weeks.

I like that St. Francis asks God to make him a channel. God’s peace, love and power doesn’t originate in me, but it flows through me when my channel is open. Continuing to do what was suggested keeps my channel open and flowing. Then I’m connected to the Power — a mighty power — and Life can never throw anything at me I can’t handle.

Some of you know I buried my beautiful young wife,Lola,a week ago.  Cancer finally caught up to her after a twenty year battle. These past eleven months have been extremely difficult, especially during the countless times she suffered pain spikes, frustration and deep disappointment. There were times I doubted I had the strength to make it through. But every time I turned around the power was magically there — compassion, courage, wisdom — whatever I needed at the time — showed up right on cue.

AA dragged me out of the gutter of alcoholic self-centered thinking and made me a stand-up guy. Today I know how to suit up and show up and keep the power flowing. I have a hole in my heart that will never fully heal. But I’m also closer to my Higher Power than ever before. Funny how that works.

To Thine Own Self Be True

Life decided not follow my script yesterday morning. I purchased some gifts to give at a luncheon an hour later, but I didn't notice they were slightly damaged until I got them home.  I didn't have time to take the gifts back to the store. Now what was I supposed to do?

I was an unhappy camper and I called the store manager and let her know about it. I needed them to make things right.  NOW! Surely she didn’t expect me to give damaged gifts. I didn’t use any four letter words, but my tone was condescending, sarcastic, and argumentative. I was right and the store was wrong.

My blood pressure went off the charts when she said she didn’t have the authority to offer an acceptable solution and no one else higher up the food chain was available because they were too busy due to the holiday. I became indignantly self-righteous. I demanded, cajoled, criticized all to no avail. Finally I hung up in disgust. I burned with resentment for a good hour.

I was in the shower when it happened…I suddenly realized I was suffering. All at once I felt the full force of the anger, frustration and fear coursing through my body. It registered that it didn’t feel good. Then I remembered I had a choice. I didn’t have to feel this way if I didn’t want to. This thought — that I had a choice — was like turning on a light in a dark room. The darkness disappeared. My balance returned.

It says “To thine own self be true” on the back of my twenty year medallion. Was I true to my own self throughout this incident with the store manager? Part of me thinks, “Jeez, twenty years and I’m still acting like a three year old. I should have done better.” But another voice reminds me to be gentle with myself. It urges me to be grateful for the pain and the opportunity to grow from it.


In the Chapter to the Agnostics on page 57 we read:

“What is this but a miracle of healing? Yet its elements are simple. Circumstances made him willing to believe. He humbly offered himself to his Maker-then he knew.”

This is my favorite passage in the Big Book. It describes my AA experience perfectly - What it was like, what happened, and what it’s like now. It reminds me that my recovery is a miracle. It is nothing I do, but everything God does.

I heard there is no in-between when it comes to believing in miracles. Either I believe everything is a miracle or I believe nothing is. I never believed in miracles before I came to AA. I relied on science to provide a plausable explanation for everything that happened. If I didn’t understand it with my mind, if I could not explain it, it simply wasn't real. Today that's all changed.

When the obsession was removed from me I didn't label it "miracle" at the time, but I did find it strange. After all, I drank almost every day for thirty years. I'd been getting drunk twice a day for the past eight months while I pretended to look for work. Now, before my first AA meeting, before getting a sponsor and taking the steps, before practicing any principles, the desire to drink magically vanished from consciousness. What the hell had happened? Today I know what happened. I was ready.

God had been setting me up for this miracle for thirty years. I had been living in a constant state of dis-ease for as long as I could remember.  Then there were the drunk driving arrests, the financial chaos, the divorce, the job losses. My disease convinced me that all these things could have happened to anybody. After all I was winning the game of life. I had success, money in the bank, new cars and fancy vacations. Yet, deep down I was plagued with a growing sense of dissatisfaction that no amount of material stuff could take away. Today I see all this pain and suffering was grace -- God's way of preparing me for the miracle of recovery.

I find the phrase "then he knew" to be downright mystical. Then he knew what? I know much less today than when I walked into my first meeting twenty years ago. I know that I feel better when I'm living a life of love and service. I know there is a plan for everyone of us even if I don't know what the plan is. I know that all the sickness, disease, war and poverty in our world is not the result of some cruel God punishing us for our so called “sins” but a loving God simply setting us up for a miracle.

Ten and Eleven

When I was new I heard the lady pastor of a new age church say our prayer-life is important, but equally important is our life-prayer. I cover both those bases when I am willing to practice Steps Ten and Eleven. I admit to running hot and cold on these steps. I use them most when the you-know-what is hitting the fan.

My practice of Step Eleven changed frequently throughout the years. Early on I recited the prayers in the book, but most of the time it felt like I had my fingers crossed behind my back. I didn’t really believe what I was saying. I finally settled on “please” in the morning and “thank you” at bed time. Just before closing my eyes at night, I say “thank you God for a wonderful day.” I say this prayer whether or not ego thinks the day has been wonderful. It seems to be working.

I always prayed alone. But a few months ago I began to pray with my wife. And you know what? I really like it. We lie in bed and just before we turn out the light, we hold hands and take turns praying out loud. We have slightly different conceptions of God, but it doesn’t seem to matter in the least.

I was a little embarrassed at first, but now I find I look forward to our prayer time. When it’s my turn, I just start talking to God. When I get stuck for something to say, I simply remember another thing I’m grateful for and go on. Our prayer time has brought us closer together than ever before.

I experimented with various forms of meditation and mindfulness. I read books and took classes, but never quite felt like I ever got the hang of it. These days walking alone in nature clears out the cobwebs for me. I’m grateful to be back in So Cal and the abundance of natural beauty. There is absolutely no nature in Shanghai, unless of course you include the pig farms on the outskirts of the city.

In the ‘70’s we used to say “whatever goes around, comes around.” Whatever I put out into the universe comes back to me as my living experience. I unknowingly pray for misery when I act like a jerk (my specialty), burn with a resentment, or point my finger of guilt at others on the planet.

Practicing Step Ten helps me stay aware of my life prayer. I heal when I am willing to focus the light of awareness on my thoughts, words and, especially, my deeds. Only then do I receive the whole package: sobriety, sanity and serenity. And life is pretty darn nice most of the time.

Ego Deflation

I bounced along the bottom for many years while spirit dozed on the couch in front of the TV.  Spirit woke up when I finally reached out for help after the pain became unbearable. I must have let go of a ton of ego, because I floated into my first meeting on a pink cloud.  My outside circumstances hadn’t changed, but something was going on inside me that I didn’t understand. I had no urge to take a drink. I felt downright blissful. Like any good alcoholic I wanted more. I wanted to keep this great feeling alive. You pointed to the steps on the wall.

The pink cloud wore off in a couple of months, but by this time I had a sponsor and was well into my spiritual journey through the steps. Ego began to fall away with each successive step. Huge chunks broke off when I saw my part in resentments, shared my secrets, and made heartfelt amends during my ninth step. Slowly I began to get glimpses of God working in my life. These God-shots were like white pebbles leading out of the dark forest of self-will. God was no longer an idea in my head. God became a living experience and remains so today.

Ego is like an invisible wall that separates me from God and you and everything wonderful in life. The steps dissolve ego much like a bucket of water melts the Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz. But unlike the Wicked Witch, Ego has a tricky way of reconstituting itself. If I am not continuing to grow and change through the steps, the wall rebuilds itself. Sooner or later I’m alone again. All alone.


Three days before I walked into my first AA meeting I was getting ready for bed when I realized I hadn’t thought about a drink the whole day. I found this very strange because I’d been staggering off to bed every night for the past ten or twenty years. And for the past eight months I had been unemployed and getting drunk twice a day. And yet, there I was, 24 hours sober without the slightest desire to have a drink. What had happened to me?

The only thing I can figure is that I asked God for help without consciously knowing it. That day I had spent my last $3,700 of credit on my Visa card to enroll in a treatment program recommended by a therapist. I didn’t visit the therapist because I thought I had a problem with alcohol. The only problem I thought I had was a rapidly shrinking checking account and no job. I went to see her because I wanted her to verify that I was having a mid-life crisis like I read about in a book I had just bought. I wanted her to assure me that it was perfectly normal for men my age to feel lost, confused and without a sense of purpose.

Instead of co-opting my BS she told me some painful truths. She started off by saying “I don’t think I can help you Jeff. You are welcome to come here every week and pay me $80 an hour and we can talk about your life, but I don’t think it will do much good.” I was shocked, but it got worse. Her exact words are emblazoned in my memory. “From what I know about you Jeff, you don’t have an ounce of humility in your whole body, you have the emotional maturity of a thirteen year old, and your brain is so foggy from your daily drinking, you cannot hope to get any clarity on your life.” She said she couldn’t help me, but she had a friend running a treatment center up the street that could.

Then she looked deeply into my eyes like she was looking directly at my soul. “You’re in trouble, aren’t you Jeff?” Inside my head ego screamed not to admit anything to this woman. There was a pregnant pause until finally I whispered, “Maybe.” I didn’t know it at the time, but what I had done was admit I needed help for the first time in my life.

Now here I was, three days after the visit with the therapist, $3,700 lighter and ready to start treatment the next day. I floated on a pink cloud. It took me a few months in AA to discover what happened. That “maybe” and the subsequent commitment to treatment deflated ego enough for God to begin to work actively in my life. Before my first meeting, before getting a sponsor, before working the steps, before even saying, “My name is Jeff, and I’m an alcoholic.” The obsession to drink was lifted clean out of me.

Help is what I needed then. Help is what I need today. But waiting for pain to force me to ask for help seems like an such an inefficient way to go through life. I’ve found the softer, easier way is to continue to take the actions you suggested in my first week: meetings, steps, service. Over and over and over again.

Grumpy, Angry Guy

We were back in the ER a couple of days ago for another overnight. We’ve been to the ER so often, we know a few of the nurses by name. Lola was comfortably sedated when nurse Tosh walked into her room. I remembered him from before.

“You’re Tosh, right? Like the guy on TV?” He remembered me too. “Yes,” he said, “and you are the grumpy, angry guy, right?”All I could do was laugh. “Guilty,” I said.

These days serenity is often hard to come by. My peace of mind is directly proportionate to Lola’s physical and emotional well being. When she suffers, so do I. I guess you could say I am co-dependent.

If her pain meds are working and she’s relaxed, so am I. If she is connected to her HP and accepting whatever God has in store for her, so can I. But when she is in any kind of pain, my stress level peaks, my serenity disappears and my character defects rise to the surface. I become impatient, demanding and intolerant of everyone, especially her care givers.

In the hospital, the clock starts ticking as soon as Lola rings her nurse call button. If no one comes with her pain med in five minutes I push it again. If no one comes in another five minutes, I’m out at the nurse’s station pushing them for some attention. It is not the softer, easier way to go through life. But it's the best I can do right now. Besides, it’s effective. The squeaky wheel gets the oil.

I simply can’t imagine going through the last ten months without God in my life. I often feel I don’t have the strength to make it through another moment. Yet, somehow, peace of mind magically returns. I know this is God’s peace, not mine. I am just the channel, like St. Francis talks about in his prayer. My channel stays open and flowing as long as I continue to show up and be of service, both in and out of the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous. These days I don’t have to ask God what I can do for the person who is still sick. I seem to intuitively know what to do. It's pretty amazing.

The AA Life Ring

I didn’t know I was dying. If I had really seen the truth about my life, who knows what I might have done? Thank God for denial.  I was right up against hopeless, but I didn’t know it. I knew something was wrong, but I refused to admit getting drunk two or three times a day had any thing to do with it. Alcohol was not my problem. It was my solution.

My own best thinking was that a new job would make everything all right. But every potential job looked beneath me. (After all, I was a seasoned veteran with a vast reservoir of skills.) Paralyzed to take any job hunting actions, my checking account plummeted and I awoke every morning with an ache of fear. The best I could do was wait until 10:00 am for the first drink.
I didn’t wake up one morning and decide to get sober. It was grace pure and simple. I was led to AA after God whispered to me that there was a softer, easier way to go through life than the way I was going. Powerful grace broke through the thick wall of denial and allowed me a glimpse of the truth about myself. I saw I was drowning. AA threw me a life ring and I’ve been holding on ever since.

Today the AA program for living is supporting me through the most difficult, painful experience of my life. Thanks to AA I am able to show up for my wife instead of hiding out in a bottle like I did with my mother. I don’t dwell in the future. Instead I simply do the next indicated thing and turn the results over to God. It works. It really does!

Cunning, baffling, powerful!

My disease wants only one thing from me — to take one tiny sip of anything with alcohol in it. My disease doesn’t care if I get drunk or even if I finish the whole drink. Just one tiny sip. That’s all it wants. Then it will have won. I stay away from the first sip by showing up for my recovery regardless of how I feel, regardless of what my head is telling me, regardless of what’s going on around me.

Spirit keeps me sober. I can’t be connected to spirit when I’m hiding from life. I hid from life with alcohol and drugs for thirty years and ended up spiritually bankrupt. I’m in dangerous territory if I try to hide today. I cannot allow myself to decide to stay home and rest just because I feel a little tired. Or to listen to my head when it tells me I don’t need a meeting today because I feel good. I can’t let a little thing like low energy or a blue mood keep me from showing up for my recovery. Once I allow my emotions or my thoughts keep me from taking recovery actions, the door cracks open for my disease.

In one of my first meetings an old timer said, “I woke up this morning feeling depressed. I rolled around for a while, then asked myself, what would I do if I wasn’t depressed? I’d get up and come to this meeting. And that’s what I did.” I also heard old timers in my home group encourage us newcomers to “show up even if your ass is falling off!” These are lessons I haven’t forgotten.

I’ve been taking care of my sick wife and haven’t been able to get to as many meetings as I like. Sometimes sadness rolls over me like a gray fog. My disease tells me to stay home with her instead of going to the meeting. Taking care of her is my primary focus, but first things first. I'm not much good to anyone unless I'm in fit spiritual condition and meetings are key for me. I can’t be practicing Step Three if I’m sitting on my couch eating Bon Bons when I ought to be at a meeting. But that’s exactly what my disease wants me to do.

Learning to Love More

I heard an Indian tribe on the Amazon cursed their enemy by saying, “stay just the way you are.” They know that if humans don’t change and grow, death is right around the corner.

Staying the same was exactly what I was after while I was drinking. I never saw the need to change. I wanted you to change. I wanted life to change. But not me. After all I was a pretty special guy. I had been winning at the game of life. I was just having a run of bad luck is all. Besides, change is uncomfortable. Why would I want that when getting comfortable and staying that way was the only thing that mattered?

When water doesn’t flow it becomes stagnant and starts to smell after a while. I was real stinky when I stumbled through the door to my first meeting. The twelve steps helped me get a good whiff of myself.

The doctor says in our book I need to change or I’ll drink again. One old timer in one of my first meetings put it more bluntly, “change or die, M-Fer!” The doctor goes on to say this change can’t be a “self-help” change. Change has to happen deep down in the center of me. That’s God’s territory.

I can’t change myself in any real,lasting way. I’m pretty sure I could sit and meditate on a mountaintop for twenty years, but unless God (or Life, or Consciousness, or whatever you call HP) has changed me I’ll still be basically the same schmuck I was twenty years earlier. In the same way, AA doesn’t change me. The AA program connects me to God. God changes me.

I invite God into my life first by really, really wanting to be changed. I keep God in the center of my life by remaining willing to take the recovery actions suggested to me in my first week. I seem to grow automatically when I consistently practice the principles. Most days I’m willing to practice. Some days I’m not.

If God gave me a two word job description for my life on earth, it would read, “love more.” Growing along spiritual lines is long hand for learning to love more. As I grow through the years in AA, I come into fuller expression of the loving God seed in the center of my being. Life is pretty darn good most of the time. 

Escaping the Pig Pen

I love the story in the other big book called the Prodigal Son. It’s the story of a young man who took his inheritance and wandered away from the father’s house. He went out into the world in pursuit of wine, women and song. After he squandered his inheritance he slept in the pig pen. He ate what the pigs left behind. As the story goes, he “came to himself” and remembered his father’s comfortable house. He realized that even his father’s servants had a nice warm bed and plenty to eat. He got up out of the pig pen and made his way home. His father saw him coming and ran out to greet him. This is my story.

People share in meetings that alcohol stopped working for them. That’s not what it was like for me. I could still get drunk all right, but the fun was gone. Toward the end drinking was just medicine for me. I went through the motions, but in truth I was living in the land of the half-dead in almost complete isolation in my dirty messy apartment. I was getting drunk twice a day, but I couldn’t see drinking was a problem for me. I needed to drink. Not having a job was the problem. I awoke every morning with an ache of fear in my gut.

My moment of clarity came when I sought help from a therapist. After I whined about my life for thirty minutes she took my inventory. Her exact words were, “From what I know about you Jeff, you don’t have an ounce of humility in your whole body, you have the emotional maturity of a thirteen year old and your mind is so cloudy from your daily drinking you cannot hope to get any clarity on your life.” She looked deeply into my eyes and said, “you’re in trouble, aren’t you Jeff?” My ego screamed not to admit anything, finally I whispered “Maybe.” Unknowingly I had worked the first step. I walked into my first AA meeting six days later.

During the last twenty years my whole attitude and outlook have changed, just like the promise in our book. Somewhere along the line I began to enjoy working with other alcoholics more than building up my 401 K Plan. Today my life feels useful and content. I feel abundant. I never had these feelings even when I was at the top of my game. I have never tried half measures because a whole new life has opened up for me and I don’t want to lose it. Besides, I saw plenty of evidence to know what happens to those who don’t fully commit to our simple program.

As I continue my journey back home to my father’s house, I am filled with gratitude for the blessing of alcoholism. If I didn’t have a disease that was killing me, I might still be eating what the pigs left behind.

Living in the Solution

Before I began my spiritual journey in Alcoholics Anonymous, I had only one tool in my tool box — a rusty old claw hammer of self-will. It’s a good thing I had this hammer because back then my life was filled with nails that needed pounding. I lived in a sea of problems. Relationship problems, work problems, financial problems. The people closest to me caused most of my problems. Whenever I faced any kind of problem I’d yank out my hammer and begin to pound away. I pounded day and night trying to get life to follow my script. After a long day of pounding, I needed a few drinks to relax. Once I had a few, I needed a few more. Then…

Thankfully I was blessed with the disease of alcoholism. God made it baby simple for me: Seek spiritual help or die a lonely drunk. Something in me chose life and I began to live in the solution that is neatly written down in the book, Alcoholics Anonymous.  Since I was unemployed (unemployable, really,) I made AA my job. I went to more than 400 meetings in my first year. I got myself a great sponsor and began to make my way through the steps. I allowed the men in my home group to get to know the real me, I put my hand out to newcomers, set up chairs, picked up cigarette butts in the parking lot and brought the donuts to the meeting Saturday morning. I was a little over a year sober when a man asked me to sponsor him. I was hooked on recovery.

As I continued to follow the AA program of action I began accumulating new tools for living and growing along spiritual lines. Today I have tools to connect with others and with my higher power, inventory tools to grow in self-awareness, tools for keeping my side of the street clean and tools to deal with resentment and disappointment. I also have tools in the form of slogans which help me remember simple wisdom in moments of stress. Of all the tools, the one I rely on the most is connecting with another alcoholic. The most important instruction in the Big Book for me is, “ask Him in your morning meditation what you can do for the man who is still sick.”

The AA promise — I will intuitively know how to handle situations that used to baffle me — has come true. Today I intuitively know what tool to take out of my tool box and apply to my life. When I am living in the solution, life goes on pretty darn good without me even thinking about it. I still take out my rusty hammer every now and then, but not nearly as often and I don't do nearly the damage.

Emotional Boundaries

I grew up overly sensitive to criticism. Since criticism felt life-threatening to me, I established rigid boundaries to keep people at a distance. When criticism came, no matter how slight, I’d over react. I’d retaliate by pulling out a bazooka when a less sensitive person would pull out a squirt gun. I wanted to make damn sure it didn’t happen again. My first marriage ended right after the honeymoon period. She violated my boundaries so often that toward the end, she couldn’t say anything that didn’t offend me. When anger didn’t work, I retreated into my cave in silent resentment, blaming her for making me angry! 

I spent the last few years of my drinking in almost complete isolation. I had chased everyone out of my life except the lower companions I met everyday at my neighborhood bar for “happy” hour. A few months before I attended my first meeting I remember sitting in my “command chair” with my big bottle of wine, bag of pot and remote control surveying my surroundings. There were a couple of left over fast food bags and a Domino Pizza box on the carpet near my chair. Instead of getting up to empty my overflowing ashtray, I just dumped it into the box. As I looked around my dirty apartment, I remember thinking, “What a great way to live! There’s no one around to bother me about my drinking or to prod me into looking for a job.” Looking back, this is perhaps the saddest moment of my life.

Recently I broke off a forty-year friendship with a man who was best man at my first wedding. Instead of giving me love and support during a very difficult time, he offered up angry criticism. I heard my alcoholic father talking. I realized this man was toxic for me. I called it off without anger or drama. In AA I learned my job is to love everyone, but I don’t have to like everyone. I still love this man, but I no longer choose to participate in his life. The old me would have hung on, continuing to look for an emotional scrap of bread, but thanks to the beautiful love and support I receive from my AA friends, it was easy to let go.

My journey in Alcoholics Anonymous has been about reconnecting with life one relationship at a time. My boundaries have become more flexible through the years. I began to loosen up when I walked into my first meeting and reluctantly allowed you guys to begin loving me back to life. I still don’t do well with criticism, but I realize that God puts people in my life to help me grow. Those who violate my boundaries, who don’t behave the way I want them to, are my greatest teachers. Instead of blasting them to kingdom come, I should throw my arms around them in gratitude. I’m not there yet, but I’m heading in the right direction.

Happy to Be Sober

If my life is not substantially better sober than it was when I was drinking, it’s a good bet I will drink again. I may not pick up right away, but sooner or later the psychic pain I drank against, the pain that brought me to AA in the first place will begin to fade into the background. I'll forget what it was like and memories of the “good times” alcohol provided will begin to crowd into consciousness. Half measures — occasional meetings, hanging out with other dry drunks, health kicks -- may delay the first drink for many years as life dissolves slowly into a living hell.

Yesterday out of the blue I received a rambling email from a man I hadn’t heard from in four years. He was drinking vodka trying to take the edge off a coke high as he wrote. He said he had four and a half years of sobriety when he finally picked up “to drink with my business associates and to date women.” He said he hated AA in the US and in capital letters he wrote: “I REALLY DON’T WANNA GO TO AA. Reading his email made me think of this passage in the Big Book:

“He will presently try the old game again, for he isn’t happy about his sobriety. He cannot picture life without alcohol. Some day he will be unable to imagine life either with alcohol or without it. Then he will know loneliness such as few do. He will be at the jumping-off place. He will wish for the end.”

I’ve been happy about my sobriety since I stumbled through the door to my first meeting. Reading Peter’s email reminded me of this gift. My experience is that very few newcomers are truly happy about their sobriety. I am one of the lucky ones who realized right away that life was much better sober than it was drinking. This realization is nothing I did and everything God did. All I did was drink myself into a state of desperation.

Even when I was winning the so-called game of life, I always sensed an emptiness inside, a yearning. Today I feel filled up. I came to AA from a life of lonely isolation. Today I have millions of friends around the world, including a few close ones who know everything about me and love me anyways.  I’ve had the chance to carry the message to mainland China and see the fellowship grow up there. I am discovering the truth about myself and in the process I’m learning I’m OK just the way I am, warts and all. Thanks to the opportunities to be of service and work with others, my life feels useful and content. I have just enough of everything. Happy to be sober? You bet.


Patience for me is directly linked to my level of irritability. I rarely feel restless or discontented these days, but irritability always seems right around the corner. A few months ago while I was complaining about this thing or that, my wife said, “it seems like almost everything irritates you.” I thought deeply about this and she’s right, it doesn't take much to rile me up.  I identify with the character on the TV Show Curb Your Enthusiasm. Little things bother me. It’s impossible to practice patience when life is constantly nipping at me.

I believe I was born cranky just like I was born alcoholic. It’s the temperament I showed up with. My dictionary defines patience as “good-natured” tolerance of delay or incompetence." I do not have a good-natured personality.  Even on days that everything is going my way, the best I can hope for is “begrudging” tolerance. I’m not making excuses for myself. This is just the way I am.

My tolerance and patience is tested almost anytime I get into my car. In China everyone blows their horn impatiently. If you are one second late in moving when the light turns green, you might have three or four horns blaring behind you to get going. The horn blowing got so bad the government passed a law that made it illegal to blow your horn unless to avoid danger. Americans are much more patient, at least where I live. After the light turns green, the folks in my neighborhood wait patiently for the woman ahead of them to finish her text message. Sometimes the texting lady will give a wave in the rear view mirror as if to say, “sorry.” My neighbors wave back as if to say, “no problem.”  The best I can do is wait three seconds before hitting my horn. Then when I speed by the woman I glance over at her with my “stop being an idiot and pay attention” expression.

“Begrudging tolerance” is a huge step up from where I was when I started my spiritual journey in Alcoholics Anonymous. Back then I excelled at seeing the glass half empty - at finding what was wrong with practically everything. If walking in a beautiful garden, my eye would focus on the one weed. The program of Alcoholics Anonymous - meetings, steps and service - has reduced self-centered fear and altered my perception. Today I am see the glass half full more often than not.

The way I figure it, God is teaching me patience by filling my life with delays and incompetent people.  When I am finally able to tolerate reasonable delays and clueless people, I will no longer face these experiences. There would be no point. Changing me is God’s job, but I have to want to be changed and do my part. I can somewhat control my irritability and thus practice more patience by staying away from that fourth cup of coffee, by not allowing myself to get too tired or hungry and by keeping spiritually fit by doing all that was suggested in my first week.

Step One

I was a few days sober and floating on a pink cloud. I sat in counseling circle in the treatment center along with five or six other outpatients. When it was my turn to speak, I said, “I feel so good, I know I’ll never drink again.” The woman that ran the center, an ex-heroin junkie from New York with a pronounced lack of tolerance for newcomer bullshit, said, “That’s just ego Jeff, we don’t say crap like that in here. You have no idea what you will or won’t do in the future. Better you stay out of the future and concentrate on what you need to do to stay sober today.” Step One reminds me that the very first thing I need to do to stay sober today is to remember I have a disease that will kill me if I give it half a chance.

I’ve seen what happens to alcoholics who forget. At almost every meeting here in the US, I hear of people going out,some with significant time on the program. Most report they stopped going to meetings first, but not all of them. One guy shared that he just woke up with a drink in his hand. Step One helps me remember I am not bullet proof. I am not immune from picking up a drink even though I haven’t had one in a while. 

My brain will never forget the relief I felt from alcohol. My cares and concerns melted away after a few drinks. I am rubbed raw from my wife’s illness. Step One helps me remember I am in a vulnerable place and without spiritual help I do not have the strength to resist the relief that alcohol promises. Gratefully I have tools that will get me through anything that life throws at me without a drink, but I won't pick up the tools and use them if I forget Step One.

The Little House Builder

I was sharing with a sobriety buddy the other day about some of the darkness in my head around my wife's medical challenges. He said, “so you’ve been awfulizing,huh?” Yep. That’s exactly what I do. My mind takes a tiny fragment of reality and magnifies it until it becomes the worst possible thing that has ever happened to me. It could be almost anything: an unexpected bill in the mail, an abnormal number on a medical report, or a pain in my body that wasn’t there yesterday. Buddha called the ego “the little house builder” for it’s ability to grow a concern into a crushing fear.

Concerns are a good thing. They focus my attention and prompt me to take action - to do the next indicated thing. But I suffer when a concern morphs into worry or dread. When the same fearful ideas spin around in my head over and over, I leave reality and get stuck in illusion. Now I am cut off from spiritual guidance, I short circuit my intuition and I’m baffled by situations instead of handling them. Without my internal guidance system, I’m liable to stand up when I’d be better served by shutting up.

The only time I can have a spiritual experience is NOW. The key for me is to realize that one more time my mind has catapulted me into the future and separated me from NOW. Every single thing that can possibly go wrong will go wrong tomorrow, next week or next year. Today, right now, in this moment, I’m OK. I’m safe. Sure I have challenges, but I’m OK.

My mind slips into the future constantly. Like a puppy that won’t pee on the paper, I’ve got to keep dragging it back to the present. Fortunately I am an alcoholic and I have a program. Once I realize what’s going on, there are some things I can do to come back to the present moment. I can get out of my head and into my body with a little exercise. I can share what’s going on with another alcoholic and bring the dark thoughts out into the light. I can get to a meeting, connect with the presence in the room and put my hand out to a newcomer. Sometimes I don’t want to do any of these things. Sometimes I’d rather sit in my own crap for a while. Thanks entirely to Alcoholics Anonymous, I don’t sit and suffer for nearly as long as I used to before I get up and take some action. 

Practicing Step Eleven

I’m coming to believe that “conscious contact” is not in my head. It is something I feel, something I am aware of. My awareness of my HP has grown each time I make my way through the steps. When I practice Step Eleven I receive honest feedback about my relationship with God.

When I was new I began a practice of quiet time first thing in the morning. I read the thought for the day and dutifully recited the third and seventh step prayers. Often the words didn’t resonate with me. I didn’t “feel” them. It felt like I had my fingers crossed behind my back when I was saying my prayers. I asked my sponsor about this and he said. Don’t worry about it. Say the prayers anyways. God seems to appreciate it when I make the effort even when I don’t feel I’m getting anything out of it. I know today that praying is a terrific demonstration of my willingness to be changed.

One prayer that stayed with me is the “thank you prayer.” Just after I close my eyes at night I silently say to myself, “thank you God for a beautiful day.” I said this prayer for so long it became etched in my consciousness. I found that I could not sleep until I repeated this prayer. I remember one night a few years ago, after a day of non-stop stress during one of my wife’s surgeries, I lay down to sleep and automatically said my prayer. A voice said “hey, how can you say today has been beautiful?” I thought, “I don’t know how I can say it, but I do.”

I became a spiritual junky early on in recovery. An alcoholic picks up a drink when times get tough. A spiritual junky picks up another spiritual book. I was drawn to understand spiritual mystery. I read countless spiritual books. I listened to spiritual teachers on my Ipod as I walked to and from AA meetings. I wrote and recited my own prayers and experimented with different forms of meditation. It took me years to realize that God cannot be found in ideas in books. Spiritual ideas may point to God, but they aren't God. Finally, I gave up (well, almost). I stopped picking up search for answers outside of me.

A friend told me once that sometimes he feels God’s arms wrapped around him when he prays. Now that's conscious contact! I haven’t had this experience, but I often “feel” the presence of God when I’m hiking in the hills near my house. In the quiet and solitude and raw beauty of the rough Southern California landscape, I feel connected to something larger than my life, something vast. Something more beautiful than I can just now describe. This is my Eleventh Step practice today.

Me-go Amigo

When I was new my first sponsor used to irritate the hell out of me with the expression, "sounds like you are right on schedule." I'd be whining about one thing or another -- no job, no girlfriend, no money -- and he'd say, "sounds like you are right on schedule." I pretended to know what he meant, but I hadn't a clue. Was there some kind of secret AA schedule no one told me about? Today I know what he meant. At every moment of my life, through every single experience, I have been in the exact right place for my highest and best good.

Ego has been along for the ride the whole time. Sometimes ego drives the bus. Sometimes it sits shotgun and gives directions. It's ego when I react defensively to criticism. If you say something I don't like, it's ego that replays the scene over and over again. It's ego when I say the words, "you should" in conversation.  But it's also ego that motivates me to reach up ambitiously to be a fuller expression of the life force within -- ego drives me to be all I can be.

It's ego to believe there is something I can do to "right-size" myself.  That's God's job.  I can't make myself more spiritual because I am already 100% spirit. I just don't realize it yet. I can get to a meeting and share, pray and reach out to a newcomer and I might feel better, but I haven't grown one ounce in humility. Perhaps humility happens when I fully embrace my ego instead of fighting against it.  I haven't done so yet, but I'm right on schedule.

Six and Seven

I did not have any white light experiences when I took steps six and seven. I took these steps for the same reason I took the other ones -- I wanted what you had, so I did what you did. When I took my fifth with my sponsor, we identified a handful of my character defects that made it impossible for me to form true partnerships with other people and my higher power. This was new behavior for me because before this I could not admit there was anything wrong with me. I just drank a little bit too much.

In six and seven I learned that my character defects had guilt, shame, anger and self-centered fear at their roots. Since I had carried these negative
qualities of spirit deep inside all my life, they felt like a part of me
 -- like who I was. I was instructed to stay aware of these defects as I went throughout my day. I took a nightly inventory of my most glaring defects to see where they popped up during my day. I used the dictionary to discover the antonym of the defect. I prayed to be forgiving instead of indignant, calm instead of angry, and right sized instead of arrogant. Slowly, slowly I became aware that my insecurity expressing through my character defects was not serving me well.

In 2009 I had a mini-breakthrough. After one particularly angry, emotional meltdown with my wife, I heard a voice say “You don’t have to live this way anymore if you don’t want to.” After fifteen years of recovery, I had finally become sick and tired of being sick and tired of being manipulated by fear. I was allowed to see I had been repeating the same set of fearful behaviors over and over again and receiving the same crap tasting sandwich for my trouble.

I’d like to report that today, after more than twenty years in Alcoholics Anonymous and working a pretty good program, that my character defects are a thing of the past. This is not the case. They are all still there waiting to rear up if I let up on my program of action. Fortunately for me I love AA and have no intention of letting that happen.


I was taught that God is an experience not an idea. God is hard to find when I am spinning in my own head, searching the Rolodex of my mind for answers. God comes alive the moment I ask for help.

AA didn’t get me sober, God did. AA simply offers me infinite opportunities to ask for help. I ask God for help every time I attend a meeting, every time I work a step and every time I put my hand out to a newcomer. Help is what I needed twenty years ago when the best I could do was get drunk twice a day and watch TV in my darkened, messy apartment. Help is what I need today. 

I see evidence of God’s hand in my life when I look backwards from where I came. It’s God’s job to get me out of any jam I get myself into. God was there at my bottom with a moment of clarity that led me to AA. God was there to send me to China and a brand new life when, at three years sober, I lost a job that I thought I could not live without. God has been with Lola and me throughout the past six months as we battle her cancer together. There have been too many “miracles” to write off as coincidences.

My experience of God has blossomed as the twelve steps grind away at ego. Today, if I’m in the right space I experience God most everywhere. I see God in a little Chinese child who squeals with delight as he learns to walk on wobbly legs. A hawk glides through the eggshell blue sky in the hills near my home. Defying all odds tiny wildflowers bloom on the harsh desert floor. The same infinite intelligence that heals a cut on my finger keeps the planets spinning around the sun. The light comes on in a newcomer’s eyes, the same way it did for me.

God is, God was, God always will be. Of this I have no doubt.

Love and Tolerance

Charlie showed up regularly to one of the meetings I went to when I was new. He had a nice appearance and a good smile. Charlie didn’t sit in one of the hundred or so folding chairs, organized theater-style for our podium meeting. Charlie sat on the floor half-in and half-out of the door leading to the outer staircase. Like all of us, Charlie battled inner demons, but Charlie’s demons wanted to talk during the meeting.

A few times each meeting, one of us would be sharing at the podium and Charlie would start talking. No one could figure out what Charlie was talking about.  He wasn’t drunk. He didn’t rant or rave. He just talked out loud, diverting everyone’s attention from the speaker. The room fell silent until Charlie finished. Then when he was done, the speaker continued on. A couple of times when Charlie going real good, one of our group’s old timers sat down on the floor next to Charlie. This usually this did the trick.

As I newcomer, I could not understand why no one asked Charlie to leave. Today I know why.


I’d like to report I’ve eliminated most of my character defects, but an honest inventory shows I’ve still have just about every one of them I walked through the door with. They have simply rearranged themselves through the years. I guess I still need them to grow because God hasn’t seen fit to remove them yet. The difference today is I know they are there. Recovery for me is not about smashing my ego into smithereens. It is about having the willingness to learn the truth about myself -- that I’m an imperfect human being and I’ll always be imperfect.

I was working with another member when we were decorating our Alano Club in Shanghai. Dirk is good with his hands and besides, he was the only one of us who had his own tools. We were running out of time before the opening of the club. My need to control came out in a series of petty instructions. Finally I barked at him to do it my way. “You’re an asshole! Dirk said. Without hesitation I said, “I know.” It may not sound like much, but I look to this moment as a major turning point in my recovery. I didn’t get defensive and argue or stomp away in resentment. I simply admitted it was true--that I was acting like an ass. I recover when I have the willingness to look into the mirror when it is handed to me. People hold up mirrors for me every day. Some days I have the willingness to look at myself. Some days I only see the jerk holding the mirror.

The counselor in the treatment center told me that being an alcoholic wasn’t my fault just like it wouldn’t be my fault if I had cancer. Like my alcoholism, My character “defenses” are not my fault either. They developed as my way of trying to be comfortable in my own skin. I’ve learned to be gentle with myself over my character defects. I don’t use the whip of self-hate as much these days. Beating myself up for not being perfect is just one more character defect.

There was a book written in the 1970’s called, “I’m OK, You’re OK. ”I heard a speaker say he would rewrite this book and change the title to “I’m an Ass and You’re an Ass, so what’s the problem?” I’ve got the “you’re an ass” part down pat. It’s the “I’m an ass” part I have trouble with. I’m no saint.

Suit Up and Show Up

I have no idea how I practice spiritual principles. I just continue to do what you taught me in the first week or so -- suit up and show up and try to be the best me I can. I fail often. I'm no saint.

In the beginning I showed up to meetings because it was a requirement of the treatment center. I had to get my little card signed. But pretty quickly I sensed that you folks had something I wanted. I had no idea what it was, but I kept coming back to find out. When I was 90 days sober the men in my home group elected me “doughnut guy.” Now I had to show up. Seventy men depended on me for their sugar fix.

I kept showing up and my life began to change. I made my way through the steps with my sponsor. I learned that I wasn’t the bad person I thought I was. I saw that my resentments were hurting only me. In the process of taking the steps self-centered fear began to dissolve, making room for spirit to work in my life.

I began suiting up by spending a few minutes of quiet time each morning in prayer and meditation. I went for walks in nature. I read the Big Book and other spiritual literature. I was drawn toward the mystery of recovery. I began to try to do the next right thing even if I don’t feel like it.

The process of suiting up and showing up to life though the years has somehow made me a stand up guy. Today I am a friendlier neighbor, a more patient driver and a more loving husband. Earlier this year my wife had a serious medical challenge -- 60+ days in four different hospitals, an eleven hour surgery, and a battle with depression.

I spent eight to twelve hours in hospital every day, helping where I could. Thankfully, she is almost back to her normal happy self, but it was touch and go for a while, an emotional high-wire, but I didn’t get paralyzed in fear and I didn’t drink. I wasn’t thinking about spiritual principles. I just suited up and showed up and everything seems to be working out OK. Like it always does.

Asking for Help

Three days before I walked into my first AA meeting I was getting ready for bed when I realized I hadn’t thought about a drink the whole day. I found this strange because I was unemployed and had been getting drunk twice a day for the past eight months. I had been drinking for the better part of thirty years, yet the thought of a drink seemed to be the furthest thing from my mind. What had happened?

Earlier that day I spent my last $3700 on my Visa card to enroll in a treatment program recommended by a therapist. But the program wasn’t to begin for two days. No one suggested that I quit right away, but I was one day sober as I laid my head down on the pillow and turned out the lights. It was April 29, 1994.

I enrolled in the treatment program because I didn’t know what else to do. Life had been leaking out of me for many years. I had no interest or enthusiasm in looking for a job or anything else besides watching lame daytime television with a big tumbler of cheap red wine and my overflowing ashtray. There was no technicolor in my life, only shades of gray. I wasn’t really sure alcohol was the problem, but I was out of ideas. I had to try something -- anything.

In AA I learned I received grace -- a free gift I did nothing to earn. In removing the obsession, God did for me what I could never hope to do for myself. Apparently, without know it at the time, I asked God for help when I went to the therapist and enrolled in the treatment program. Help is what I needed twenty years ago and its what I need today. I ask for help every time I show up at a meeting, work a step and connect with another alcoholic. If I want to stay sober I must continue to ask for help by taking the actions that were suggested in my first week.


Looking back I can see that I didn’t do what I did in AA out of a sense of obligation or responsibility or worry about the new people twenty years from now. I did it because it felt good then and it continues to feel good today. It is self interest, pure and simple. It’s icing on the cake if someone else benefits from the time and attention I give to Alcoholics Anonymous, but I’m doing it for me. My participation in AA in meetings, in service positions and sponsoring others gives my life a growing sense of purpose and contentment I never had before. 

When I was new I saw that the happiest folks in the room were the ones doing service. I wanted what they had, so I did what they did. I listened when you told me that grateful drunks don’t drink and that gratitude was a verb not a feeling. If I was grateful for my sobriety, you said I should do something to show it. I arrived early and set up the chairs, picked up cigarette butts in the parking lot and swept out toilets. When I was 90 days sober the 70 men in my home group elected me doughnut guy. It felt like I had just won the Nobel Prize.

I moved to China when I was three years sober. I was graced with the opportunity to help establish AA in Shanghai. We grew from four alcoholics and three meetings a week in 1997 to more than 120 regular members and twenty-three meetings a week today. I held the Monday night meeting in my apartment for years, then five years ago we opened the Shanghai Alano Club. I served on the board as the Club’s treasurer for four years. It’s easy to hit bottom in China. Fortunately for me there has been a steady stream of newcomers to sponsor. I simply pass along what I had been so freely given. I returned to the states a few months ago and already I've taken on the secretaries job at one of my local meetings.

It is none of my business whether or not AA survives in the future. That's God's business. My job is to suit up and show up and help where I can. Short of the total destruction of the planet, I can't imagine AA not surviving in the future. It is a force for good that is divinely inspired. I suppose it’s possible that science will one day invent a pill that will allow us all to drink moderately and think lovingly. Then instead of AA, all us drunks would walk around like Moonies with goofy-looking smiles plastered on our faces. I wouldn’t take that pill.

Loosening My Grip

I don’t believe I’ve ever let go of anything I deemed valuable without a life or death struggle. Not my drinking habit, not my expert opinions, not my beliefs about how life is suppose to work. I hold on despite overwhelming evidence these ideas are causing trouble in my life. I hold on until life finally rips them out of my hands.

Self-centered fear makes it impossible for me to let go. When I was drinking I had life by the throat and was choking it to death. I could not let go because I was afraid I would lose your love and respect. I struggled for thirty years trying to make my dysfunctional life work. I faced every set-back, drink in hand, with renewed determination to win the game of life. I worked harder, played harder, drank harder, but instead of winning I started to lose. I lost the big pay job, the wife, and the fat 401K plan. Yet I continued to hold on to the idea that material success is the key to long lasting happiness. The pain ratcheted up until frustration, confusion and disappointment became so great that ego ran out of self-will and plummeted down to earth.

In AA I learned that the key to a useful, contented sobriety is to let go of all of my old ideas -- even my ideas about God. These ancient false beliefs are at the root of every one of my character defects and cause all the trouble in my life today. But I can’t let go because, as the good doctor points out in his opinion, these beliefs are buried deep within my psyche. That’s where the 12-Steps come in. Like Chuck C. said in A New Pair of Glasses, the steps help me uncover my old limiting beliefs, discover the pain they cause in my life and discard them in favor of new life-affirming ideas.

I don't believe I have the power to let go of anything. The best I can do is loosen my grip by working the Twelve Steps to the best of my ability. God does the rest.

Spiritual Awakening

The newcomer asked an old timer, “How long do I have to go these stupid meetings?” The old timer responded, “Only until you learn to really enjoy them.” I enjoyed my very first meeting and have enjoyed every one since. Some meetings are better than others to my ego, but my HP is present in every one. Some days I can actually feel the presence in the room.

I didn’t have a desire to quit drinking when I stumbled through the door to my first meeting. I was there because it was a requirement of the treatment center. I had been getting drunk twice a day, but I didn’t see that I had a problem with alcohol. After all, my last 502 was in 1975 and here it was 19 years later. My problem was that I had no energy or enthusiasm to look for a job, to clean my apartment, to maintain a friendship or for any other meaningful expression of life. A week earlier I had a session with a therapist to find out why.

I whined about my life for thirty minutes. When I was finished she shocked me by saying she couldn’t help me. “Why?” I asked. She said I needed clarity about my life and I could never hope to get any with my daily drinking habit. (Hell, I hadn’t even told her how much I was drinking.) She said I was welcome to come back every week, pay her $80 and lay on her soft leather chaise and discuss my life, but she doubted it would do any good. “I don’t think I can help you Jeff, but there’s a treatment center up the street. Maybe they can.” Don’t ask me to explain how it happened because I can’t, but three days later I spent my last $3,700 of Visa credit to enroll in the treatment program. Now here I was at my first meeting to get my little card signed. 

If anyone had asked me what that meeting was like, I’d have responded, “I have no idea, but I’m going back tomorrow.” Even though my cells were still saturated with alcoholism, I sensed there was something special going on. There was laughter, honesty, and love that I had never experienced before. The message I got was to keep coming back, we love you just the way you are. I know today I connected with the spiritual healing of Alcoholics Anonymous in that very first meeting.

Once I had a taste of it, I wanted more. I wanted more, so I did more. No one had to tell me I must do this thing or that. I did everything suggested because it felt good. I realize I’m one of the lucky ones. Most that walk through the doors aren’t really sure they want what we have. I’ll be forever grateful that spirit woke up in my very first meeting.


I'm not much into organized religion, but the Easter story of the death and the resurrection is a powerful metaphor for me.

Toward the end of my drinking I was not as physically sick as some get before they are led to the Alcoholics Anonymous. I didn't get to the point of having to puke up that first drink in the morning to get the next one to stay down to quiet my nerves. I had tried many of the things in Chapter three to control my drinking (I actually did switch from Scotch to Brandy one time) but I was never committed to a health farm or sanitarium. God's grace came to me before the elevator got all the way to the bottom. But I can always get back on and ride down those last few floors.

Physically I probably wasn't dying, but I wasn't fully alive either -- not mentally or spiritually. I was just existing in the world of the half dead. There was no spark or enthusiasm in my life. Every day was the same -- drinking alone in front of the television and existing on fast food. I was a emotional flat liner. Nothing moved me, touched me. By then the colors in my life were only shades of gray. I had no job nor any interest in one. There were no other people in my life except the lower companions I met at my neighborhood bar for happy hour. In this state was physical death really that far away?

It was in this condition that God graced me with a moment of clarity that allowed me to see through the walls fo denial to some Truth about myself. After thirty years of drinking I was able to see that I was in serious trouble. I needed help. Powerful help. And I would find that help in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous.

I am a different person than when I walked into my first meeting 20 years ago. Much of the fear is gone. The cynicism and sarcasm is gone. The lying is gone. And many other character defects are on their way out. I still have a long way to go, but it's not too much of a stretch or me to feel that I have been reborn. That I have risen from the dead.


I was amazed at the honesty I heard at my first meeting, but it was the laughter at my second meeting that sucked me into the center of Alcoholics Anonymous and kept me kept me coming back for almost twenty years. I was sitting in the back in “half-measures row” worrying about what you thought about me. I had just spent eight months in drunken isolation and the seventy men at the meeting that morning seemed a little to “up” for me.

After the readings, the birthday celebrations began. One of the celebrants -- a sad-faced young man -- stood at the front of the room. He blew up the candles on the cake, his sponsor said a few nice words about him and gave him his three year token.  He looked down at his feet as he recounted, in graphic detail and four letter words,  how he caught his girlfriend sleeping with another man the night before. He went on for a good five minutes, bad mouthing the woman, some of the other stunts she pulled, how he never should have trusted her in the first place and what he would do to get even with both.

The group was completely silent until he finished, then burst into riotous laughter. I caught myself alternating between feeling sorry for the guy and laughing my butt off. It was the first time I had really laughed in years. I connected with this guy because I identified with his wacky solutions, his rationalizations and justifications. I love AA because we develop the courage to tell it like it is. Where else does this happen?

I'm coming to believe life is a third rate comedy and we are all slipping on banana peels. Growing along spiritual lines allow me not to take my little plans and schemes too seriously. I simply can't enjoy life fully if I do. When I finally learn to laugh at myself, I'll have a lifetime supply of material.

Joined in Spirit

The deep desire to fully connect with Life was born into me. I showed up hot wired to love, but I squandered this gift in a relentless attempt to find absolute security in an absolutely insecure world. I developed a whole slew of beliefs and concepts about what I must do to win your love and respect and live happily ever after. Unknowingly, these old ideas separated myself from you, my Higher Power and from life itself. I sensed I was all alone in a cold, cruel world.

I chased money, power and prestige like my parents, teachers, and the celebrities I saw in People Magazine. For a few years, like Bill, I felt I was winning the game of life, but even during the best times, I had the nagging sense something was missing. I drank against this dis-ease for thirty years.

Fortunately I was blessed with the disease of alcoholism. God had me right where he wanted - recover or die. Something in me chose life and I was led to our spiritual fellowship. You taught me by loving example how to live life on life’s terms. Today, thanks to spiritual power in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous, I am a stand-up guy. I show up for others. I try to do the right thing.

When I first got sober one of the old timers used to talk about the spiritual love we alcoholics have for one another. Today I know what he means. As I continue to let go of my old ideas, my connection with life grows. It’s simply a wonderful way to live.

Grateful for the Pain

I'm coming to believe that genuine gratitude goes beyond a sense of thankfulness for my life and all the good stuff that has happened and continues to happen to me. I'm learning I can extend gratitude to every area of my life -- all the way to the emotional turmoil and upset I experience from time to time. When I was new an old timer told me that I will become grateful for the pain. It didn't make sense to me then, but I'm beginning to see the truth in what he said.

Life doesn't follow my script. In sobriety I've experienced painful job loss, painful relationship problems, painful financial setbacks and the painful frustration of my wife's serious health issues. I've lived much of the time in uncertainty and insecurity. I wish these painful things didn't happen but they do -- they seem to be part of life's terms.

I begin to be grateful for the pain when I remember that the pain is not punishment from an angry God or some penalty I have to pay for screwing up. The emotional pain I experience is a message. It says to me that one more time I've lost my way. I'm holding on too tightly. I'm resisting. It tells me there is a lesson I have not yet learned. Once I realize the pain is a message and not a punishment. I can begin the process of letting go and letting God through an honest inventory and heartfelt amends.

Bill Wilson's essay on Emotional Sobriety resonates with me. He says my basic flaw is my demand that others give me what I want. He goes on to say I cannot hope to fully heal my alcoholism until my "paralyzing dependencies" on others are broken at depth. My job here is to be of service. What others think about me and how others treat me is none of my business. Boy these are hard lessons to learn!

Live and Let Live

I identify with members who share that the booze stopped working for them. Oh, I still got drunk all right, but the psychic pain had ratcheted up to the point that a few drinks would no longer produce the sense of ease and comfort I craved.  Instead, I woke up every morning paralyzed by fear. I was unemployed and running out of borrowed money, but all I could do to help myself was get drunk and make believe a job would solve all my problems. 

Gratefully something inside of me cried “Uncle” and let go. I experienced a moment of clarity and was led to Alcoholics Anonymous. You told me if I really wanted to quit drinking I had to do what you did. Little did I know at the time that I had to change pretty much everything about who I thought I was. Fortunately I was so sick and tired I was willing to try.

Relationships with others was a fertile area for change. I had chased everyone out of my life with my judgmental, “my way or the highway” attitude. I didn’t hate, I simply had no time or interest in anyone who didn’t think, act, and dress like me. I was so insecure, I couldn’t risk letting a person into my life who might try find out the truth about me. It’s no wonder I ended up all alone, getting drunk twice a day in my messy apartment with the curtains drawn.

In AA I was taught when I point my finger in judgement of another, I have three fingers pointing back at me. During my first fourth step I came to see I had almost the exact same character defects I resented in my father. I was cold, critical and emotionally unavailable. Today whenever I get twisted up in judgment of another -- especially people in the program -- I try to take a good look at myself. Usually I find I am guilty of the very same shortcoming I see in them. These discoveries are like little doors to freedom.

Live and let live means I allow everyone else on the planet to be exactly who they are. I try and treat others the way I want to be treated. I do not always succeed, but I have the willingness to keep trying. Thanks to the many loving examples of the alcoholics who came before me, I am becoming more loving and tolerant as the years go by. It is nothing I did and everything God did.

Wanting What I Get

"Life is a sh*t sandwich and it's always lunchtime." This was my favorite expression during the last few years of my drinking. I said it to get a laugh from the lower companions I met at the bar every afternoon for "happy" hour, but part of me believed it totally. It beautifully summed up my attitude about life. I was negative, cynical and sarcastic, but I couldn’t figure out why my life was swirling down the toilet. In my mind I was a pretty nice guy just going through a bad patch.

Gratefully, in the midst of this insanity, I was graced with a moment of clarity. I was led to the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous where I learned I have a disease called alcoholism. You said I needed to undergo a complete change of attitude or I would drink again. You went on to say the only way to change my attitude is to change my behavior. I had to act my way into better thinking.

I watched the old timers and the other regulars at the meetings. They seemed to move through life effortlessly. I wanted what they had so I began to do what they did. I went to a bunch of meetings, put my hand out to newcomers, made coffee and helped to put away the chairs. Slowly my attitude began to change. I began to see the glass half full rather than half empty. My drive for money, power and prestige gave way to my desire for a peaceful life. Today I see life as an exciting adventure not a painful endurance contest.

I used to gag when someone would say something like, "If life hands you lemons, make lemonade." But today I know that every experience holds a gift designed for my growth if I am willing to look for it. The secret to a happy life is wanting what I get, not getting what I want.

Sponsorship and Sponsoring

AA is my church. The sharing of one alcoholic with another is sacred because somehow God has brought us together. Holiness is of little value in the AA church. We connect though our mutual brokenness. We share together not to save each other’s souls, but to save each other’s asses.

I learned everything I know about AA in my first home group, Mt. Soledad Men’s in San Diego. The meeting was run by the book. The group emphasized sponsorship and an abundance of qualified men put their hand out to me. I chose Larry, the one with the new Mercedes. :)

I learned we all need three things from our sponsors: love, discipline and direction. Larry supplied all three. He taught me to tell the truth by sharing his truth. I learned about his fear, his abandonment issues, and the problems of his life. When it came time for my fifth I had the courage to tell him my secrets, even the icky stuff. Today I sponsor the men I work with much the same way Larry sponsored me.

There were only four or five other drunks when I arrived in Shanghai in 1997. Early on I hooked up with my current sponsor, Paul. Actually we sponsored each other since there was no one else around. Even through Paul moved to Thailand thirteen years ago, he remains my sponsor today. I test my thinking with him and he is not afraid to give me another perspective. We continue to share our life experiences with each other—the good stuff and the not-so good stuff.

I've been graced with an abundance of opportunities to sponsor in Shanghai that would not have come my way in San Diego where there are thousands of wiser, more experienced alcoholics. I have had the chance to take dozens of men through the Steps and I have grown each time. Today some of the men I work with are sponsoring others.

Passing it on to others is truly a major source of joy in my life.