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Grateful for the Pain

I had just lost my first job in sobriety and my ass was falling off. At my sponsor’s suggestion I shared about it at my Wednesday noon meeting. After the meeting an old timer came up to me and said, “Some day you will be grateful for this pain.” I nodded like I understood, but I really didn’t. It has taken many years, but today I know what he meant. Besides all the good things in my life today, I am grateful for the painful experiences both before and after I quit drinking. I needed every single one to get to where I am today.

It wasn’t only the drunk driving arrests, the divorce, and the bankruptcy that brought me to AA. It was the chronic suffering of an unfulfilled life that I had no power to change. It was the pain of pretending my life was great knowing the whole time it was all a lie. It was the paralyzing fear of financial ruin and my inability to get up off the couch and look for work. It was the feeling of loneliness in the center of my gut because everyone close to me had run for the hills. It was the guilt and shame over the harmful things I said and did and the sick secrets I carried. The cumulative effect of all this deep pain brought me to my bottom and, finally, something inside called for help.

My painful experiences became my greatest assets in Alcoholics Anonymous. I connect with other alcoholics when I share my pain. Even though our drunk-a-logs may be different, the feelings of self-hate, frustration and fear are all the same. If you identify with my feelings, you may connect with my solution. Then we all win.

I heard there are only two ways to grow — either we see the light or feel the heat. For most of my life and recovery it’s been pain that’s motivated me to open my tool box and get back into action. The steps are slowly but surely turning my character defects into solid principles I try to practice in my life. I’m growing from fear to faith; from isolation to connection; from ego centered to God centered. I’ve learned mostly all I can from pain. Now it’s time to see what joy can teach me.

Good Orderly Direction

I’m coming to believe my HP is bombarding me with nonstop directions about how to live a loving and fulfilling life. When my mind is noisy I don’t hear the directions nor do I always follow the directions I receive. But when I take the actions that put me in the center of Alcoholics Anonymous, the HP’s voice comes through loud and clear.

God speaks to me primarily through other people. Virtually every person in my life has been put there to help me grow if I’m only willing to listen and learn. Like it says in our book, I had to get pretty close to death before I became willing to listen. The first voice I paid any attention to was my sponsor, because I sensed he had my genuine best interest at heart. I listen to the old-timers in the rooms because they have what I want—peace of mind. The hardest people for me to learn from are the ones that push my buttons. I still don’t like it when somebody touches an unhealed place inside of me. When I awake, it's like every person in my life carries a sign. Some signs, like the ones my close sobriety buddies carry say, “go this way, follow me.” Others, like the sign my alcoholic father carried, said “don’t follow me or you’ll be sorry.” Today I am better reading the signs than ever before.

God also directs me through well-placed “aha” moments. Out of the blue I realize I am changing.for the better. My first aha moment in recovery was when I realized that the obsession to drink had been lifted clean out of me. I have  frequent aha moments when I read the Big Book and other spiritual literature. Words and phrases literally jump off the page at me with new meaning. I had a major aha moment when I was care-taking my wife before she died. I suddenly realized that there was no way I could be doing what I was doing. It became clear God was doing for me what I could never hope to do for myself. I liken these little aha moments to a trail of white pebbles leading out of the dark forest of alcoholism. Just as I begin to lose my way I spot another little white pebble on the path ahead. Another God shot that reassures me I’m heading in the right direction.

I liken my intuition to a cosmic radio receiver. When I am honest, open-minded, and am actively demonstrating my willingness, the directions come in loud and clear. I see solutions to problems I had never seen before. When I am selfish, dishonest and resentful, I am blocked off from the sunlight of the spirit, I am forced to react rather than respond to life’s challenges.

The disciples asked the guru, “Master, tell us how to live a spiritual life.” The guru simply smiled and said, “if you are hungry, eat; if you are tired, sleep.” Can life really be this simple? I think it can as long as I continue to show up, pay attention, do the next indicated thing, and stay out of results.

The Gift of Willingness

I’ve received countless gifts in sobriety beginning with the moment of clarity that led me to you, but I believe the most important gift I’ve received is the gift of willingness. Without willingness, I would not have continued to take the actions necessary for all the other gifts to materialize in my life.

I received the gift of willingness in my first meeting. I wasn’t sure I wanted what you had, but I was really, really sure I didn’t want what I had. I sensed there was some kind of magic going on in the room that day. I had no idea what it was, but I was willing to go back and find out. It didn’t take long for me to realize that AA offered a way out of my pitiful life. I was so grateful, I would have been willing to stand on my head in the corner of the meeting room and recite the Serenity Prayer if you had asked me to.

I was afraid I would lose interest in AA halfway through. This had been my pattern throughout my life. I read countless self-help books as I bounced along the bottom. I remember feeling very excited when I cracked open a new book. I just knew I would discover the answer for my life somewhere in the pages. But I lacked the willingness to take the prescribed actions and the book ended up with all the others — gathering dust on my bedside table. I started countless diet and exercise programs. I joined gyms. But after a few months you could find me vegetating on my couch. And I still cannot quite figure out how I ranked in the top third of my class halfway through my freshman year and still managed to flunk out in my sophomore year. I was great at starting things, but lacked the willingness for sustained effort.

I call on a hidden reserve of willingness every time I have to take actions that are uncomfortable. I really didn’t want to share my secrets with my sponsor during my first fifth step, but I did anyways. Somehow I was graced with the willingness to face a hotel manager and admit I had stolen money from his hotel twenty years earlier. Recently I demonstrated my willingness to forgive by using the tools to let go of a couple of sticky resentments even though it felt so good to hold onto them.

Today I enjoy peace of mind most of the time. My life feels useful and contented. It’s true I’ve taken the suggested recovery actions, but God supplies the fuel—willingness.

10th Step Promises

I guess I must be a real slow learner. The promise that I will stop fighting everyone and everything has not come true for me. I’m better today but I still need to be right much of the time. I continue to have trouble with that restraint of pen and tongue thing. But I’m not complaining. Despite ongoing struggles with a variety of pesky character defects, I’ve had no desire to drink for more than 21 years. The fact that the obsession was lifted clean out of me is the foundation of my recovery. I still can’t explain how it happened.

Six days before I walked into my first AA meeting, I was getting ready for bed when I noticed I hadn’t thought about a drink all day. I found this surprising as I had been getting drunk twice a day for the past eight months while pretending to look for a job. I had been bouncing along the bottom for the past five or six years. Denial kept me from the truth about my alcoholism. I actually believed that living all alone with no one else in my life was a wonderful way to live.

A few days earlier I had been to a therapist to find out why I couldn’t muster the energy to look for work as my checking account plummeted. She told me some very unpalatable truths about myself. Her exact words were “You have the emotional maturity of a 13-year-old, you don’t have an ounce of humility in your whole body, and your brain is so foggy from your daily drinking that you cannot hope to have any clarity on your life.” Then she looked deeply into my eyes, like she was looking at my soul, and said “you’re in trouble aren’t you, Jeff?” The voices in my head screamed not to admit anything to this woman. I stared down at my shoes. After a few moments, I whispered, “Maybe”. I am coming to believe that, without knowing anything about Alcoholics Anonymous, I had just taken the first step.

Like the promise says, I have been placed in a position of neutrality regarding alcohol. I don’t want to drink. I don’t want not to drink. I don’t even think about it really. It feels like I am bulletproof as far as alcohol is concerned. But I’m not taking any chances. I’ve seen too many bulletproof alcoholics go out and get drunk. So I continue to take all the actions you suggested to me in my first two weeks. But I don’t take these actions because I’m afraid of drinking again. I go to meetings, work the steps, put my hand out to newcomers and sponsor because it gives my life a sense of meaning and purpose. The program of Alcoholics Anonymous is simply a wonderful way to live.

A Family Disease

When I was new I attended a few Al-anon meetings at the suggestion of my sponsor. I went to work through the resentment of my father who showed up at the top of my fourth step resentment list. I learned that alcoholism is a family disease. I learned you don’t have to be a problem drinker to suffer from alcoholism — at least from the ism. We all became ill, but the disease manifested in each of us differently. My father became more and more controlling as the years went on. I crossed the line into active alcoholism and all that entails. My sister, needed to have everything perfect in her life. She was a straight A student. I remember her crying when she got a “B” on her report card. My mother was consumed by bitterness, but suffered in silence. She never complained, but the pain was etched on her face. I didn’t know my family suffered from alcoholism. I knew we were not like a TV family, but for most of my life I thought we were pretty normal.

My sister and I left the craziness of our family home as soon as we could. I ended up in California and she moved to Boston. During the next twenty years, until my parents died in 1994, we made the pilgrimage home to Florida for a week at Christmas. Invariably, at least once during the week of our visit, there was a family blow-up fueled by my father’s drinking that doomed our family Christmas. It usually started with dad deciding to have his fourth drink before dinner. All was well as long as he stayed at three, but once he took the fourth all bets were off. Mom knew this best of all. I remember her standing behind him with an angry scowl as he sipped his fourth drink. Looking back I sensed they must have had many arguments about dad taking that fourth drink. At some point during dinner, dad would make a comment — a veiled attack on either my sister or me. So sensitive were we to his life-long criticism and control, so sick were we ourselves, we just couldn’t let it pass. The argument started as soon as we spoke up for ourselves and another beautiful family meal was ruined. I don’t believe dad was trying to start an argument but, like me, he just couldn’t let anything go. He found something not to his liking with one of us and he just had to tell us about it. The dinner ended half way through with my sister in tears and my mother choking on bitterness. I stormed away from the the table angrily vowing never to return. We made believe we patched things up before we left, but the week left us bruised and battered.

Like clockwork we received a letter from dad a week or so after we returned home. He always typed them, single space on his old Remington manual typewriter. In carefully worded paragraphs he apologized for his part, but was quick to point out where we had been at fault. He defended his drinking. He justified taking the fourth drink saying he felt free to drink a little more while my sister and I were there. He announced, despite everything that happened, he was not ready to quit. I don’t know if my father ever sought help from his drinking. I do know that his need to be right, his frustration about life and his inability to keep his mouth shut resulted in him becoming estranged not only from his wife and children, but from friends and relatives. The reason I know this is because I became just like him before I was graced with a moment of clarity that led me to Alcoholics Anonymous.