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Pain is the touchstone

The tenth step for me is about paying attention to what’s going on inside of me. It’s a good step to take when things are going good, but it is absolutely necessary anytime I feel uncomfortable. Selfishness, dishonesty, resentment and fear are the very things that block my connection to God, the One who has all power. I’ve learned through painful experience that without God’s power flowing through me there’s no way I can really enjoy my life.

I lived in a state of chronic suffering before I was graced with a moment of clarity that led me to Alcoholics Anonymous. I had no idea the cause, so I concluded this was just the way life is. If you sat next to me at the bar and told me about your problems, I’d say, “What do you expect? Life is a shit sandwich and it’s always lunchtime.” I said this to be cute, but part of me really believed this to be true.

I drank against the pain until, finally, the alcohol stopped working. Oh, I still got drunk all right, but the booze didn’t kill the termites of fear that gnawed night and day on the foundation of my life. We walked through hell together you and I. Today I feel deep compassion for myself and all alcoholics everywhere for the psychic pain we endured to earn out seats.

Before AA I numbed myself to the pain with drugs and alcohol. I didn’t realize I was also numbing myself to happiness and joy. Back then the only feeling I felt was anger, outrage. I’ve grown in awareness through the years. Today I am much more  sensitive to pain and suffering. I refuse to go very long with any discomfort before I take a look at it. The tenth step is a perfect way to discover what’s going on.

The tenth step reminds us that pain is the touchstone for all spiritual progress. I’m grateful for the ocean of painful experiences I swam through during my life before AA and afterward. I needed every single painful experience to arrive where I am today. I could not have done with one less.

Sponsorship

Tension was present in every one of my relationships for as along as I can remember. Before I began my spiritual journey in Alcoholics Anonymous, there had not been one person in my life with whom I felt comfortable enough to relax and be completely me. Some relationships were less tense than others but tension was always present to some degree or another. Since I grew up in an alcoholic home, I became tense at a very early age. The anxiety grew to feel normal to me. I drank against this dis-ease for thirty years.

The tension came from the fear that at any moment I would lose your love, approval, and acceptance. I needed these things more desperately than I needed alcohol and drugs. My character defects grew up out of this cesspool of insecurity: perfectionism, people pleasing, lying. I was so afraid of losing love and approval that I had to try and control and manipulate you. I couldn't let you get too close for fear that you would see what a loser I was and pack your bags.

I lived this way until I met my first sponsor when I crawled through the doors of Alcoholics Anonymous at age 47. We went through the steps together. He learned everything about me -- all my failings at life, all the icky stuff I did, and all the names of my inner demons. He shared his stuff with me. Through this process, I grew to trust him in a way I had never trusted anyone before, not my parents and certainly not my ex-wife. It is such a relief to know there are at least one human being that know everything there is to know about me -- all my secrets, all my fears, all my twisted thinking.

Through the years I've had many wonderful opportunities to sponsor others. During the course of our step work, I share my shortcomings with them, just like my sponsors did with me. I'm coming to believe that sharing my human failings is much more helpful to our recovery than sharing spiritual ideas and interpretations of the Big Book. This mutual sharing connects us, no longer as egos, but as fallible human
beings.

As Leonard Cohen says, "Everything has a hole in it, that's how the light gets in."

The Prodigal Son

I love the story of the prodigal son in the other big book. It is a perfect metaphor of the journey of recovery for me.

A young man believes he knows better than his father about how to live successfully so he takes his gifts and leaves his father’s house. He squanders his inheritance on the pleasures of the world. Homeless and starving, he has no choice but to sleep in a pigpen. He doesn’t eat what the pigs eat. He eats what the pigs leave behind. Now that’s hitting bottom!

I separated myself from God at a very early age. I didn’t see the need. Instead, I used my gifts to accumulate money, property and prestige. I believed as soon as I had enough I could rest, but I never seemed to have enough. I spent more than I earned. I wasn’t homeless when I hit bottom, but I was close. My apartment was a mess. I lived off cheap wine and fast food.

Finally the prodigal son has a vision. He remembers the servants in his father’s home and how good their lives are. They have plenty to eat, warm comfortable beds, and loving friendships with each other and the father. He decides to return home and ask his father to take him back. Not as a son, but as a servant.

Graced with a moment of clarity, I was allowed to see how pathetic my life had become. I reached out to a therapist for help. After telling me some very unpalatable truths about myself, she said she couldn’t help me, but maybe the treatment center up the street could. I wasn’t sure I was alcoholic, but I didn’t know what else to do.

The prodigal son leaves the pigpen and begins his journey back to the father’s home. His father sees him coming from far away and rushes to meet him. He throws his arms around the young man welcomes him back, not as a servant, but as a full-fledged son.  There is much rejoicing and a big party is thrown in his honor.

I believe my journey back home began when I spent my last $3,700 of Visa credit to enroll in an out patient treatment program.  The obsession was removed immediately and three days later I walked into my first meeting. You guys welcomed me with open arms. I felt the joy and excitement of one alcoholic helping another. I laughed, really laughed for the first time in years. It felt like I had finally found my way home after a long painful journey. It’s been a non-stop party ever since.

I know much less about God today than I did as a newcomer, but I do know God is present in every meeting. Another often used bible quote reminds me of this fact: “Where more than one is gathered in my name, I am present.”

Willingness

I was not a vision for you when I walked through the door to my first meeting. I had just spent the last eight months in extreme isolation while old delusional ideas went round and round in my head. I was emotionally frozen. I didn’t feel much of anything back then except fear. The face of my fear was anger. I think most of us are angry as hell when we finally make it to AA -- angry at others, angry at ourselves and angry at God. Take away the alcohol from an angry alcoholic and you’ve got a mighty toxic personality. That was me.

I wanted to be left alone, to remain aloof, to stand outside the circle of life where it felt safe. But you guys wouldn’t let me. You pulled me into the center of Alcoholics Anonymous with handshakes, hugs and pats on the back. You invited me to coffee. You told me to keep coming back. Something in me believed you really wanted me to come back.The icy veneer began to melt. It wasn’t long before I really wanted what you had and I was graced with the willingness to do what you did.

My recovery depends upon passing on to other alcoholics the love, understanding and support so freely given to me. Meetings and service commitments are enjoyable, but sharing my ESH with another alcoholic, one on one, is the key for my recovery. I’ve been blessed with many fine opportunities to work with other men. Many did not stay sober, but I grew with every relationship. My life feels useful and content when I’m actively working with another alcoholic.

I put my hand out when anyone, anywhere reaches out for help. I’ll go to any lengths to help an alcoholic who is willing to take the suggested actions. Through the years I’ve had a few difficult people. Then I try to remember what I was like when I first walked into the rooms. I am happy to work with unlovable people and unpleasant people, but I will not work with unwilling people. It’s simply a waste of everyone’s time.

The Fellowship of the Spirit

The Lone Ranger was my hero growing up. I wanted to be the man who saved the day and then rode off into the sunset. Instead, I became the man who drank alone in his darkened apartment with the drapes drawn. They say isolation is a dark room where alcoholics go to develop their negatives. That was me. Other people were hell. It was much more comfortable to stand, drink in hand, on the outside of life looking in. Grace lead me to Alcoholics Anonymous and the fellowship of the spirit. Without Grace I’d probably still be standing there wondering why I couldn’t find even a tiny scrap of lasting happiness no matter how hard I tried.

I felt safe in the rooms. It didn't seem to matter to you what I came from or what I did. You loved me anyways. Because I wanted what you had I did all that was suggested. A mighty power flowed into me and I began to love you back. My reliance on this power grew steadily during the last twenty plus years. Today I have a faith that works under all conditions. Since there is no need to worry about anything. I can just let life be life. My only job is to enjoy it to the fullest. My greatest highs continue to be giving back what was so freely given to me.

The Fellowship of the Spirit extends way beyond the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous. The Big Book reminds me “There is One who has all power. That One is God. May you find him now.” Even though we humans may different conceptions of this power, I believe our Gods are One and the same. When I am connected to the One, I am connected to all of life — to everything there is, both visible and invisible.

The Fellowship of the Spirit allows me  to go through life with a sense of ease and comfort that is a thousand times better than any drink or drug took to escape from life. Oh, I still have challenges, problems, and concerns, but today I don't need to fight through them alone. I have all of you to rely on, to learn from, and to love.