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.