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Learning to Love More

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 through our mutual brokenness. We share together not to save each others' souls, but to save each others' asses.

My sponsor 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. I learned by observation that the number one and perhaps only responsibility of a sponsor is to be available, 24 and 7. My sponsor sponsored a lot of guys but he always picked up the phone when I called and made me feel like I was the most important person in the room.

Sponsorship is my favorite of all my AA activities. I've had the great good fortune to sponsor a number of men, especially in China before AA became fully established. Many weren't ready to receive the gift, but I grew every time.  When I'm sharing with another man, sometimes it feels like God is speaking through me. Seeing the light come on in a new man's eyes when he finally gets it is my greatest pleasure.

My grand sponsor told me we all need three things from our sponsors: love, discipline and direction. As my need to control continues to dissolve, I am better able to fulfill God's fondest wish for me: To love more.

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."

Becoming Ready

My one previous attempt at sobriety happened after my first marriage broke up. I lived in the delusion that this marriage was going to fix me. It would fill up the emptiness I felt inside despite having all the goodies on the outside. We tried therapy, fire walking and expensive vacations. Nothing seemed to help. We drank a lot and argued a lot. When we split I concluded alcohol was somehow to blame.

I quit drinking as kind of an experiment. I could not admit I was an alcoholic, but I could admit my father was. So I joined Adult Children of Alcoholics. I went to one meeting a week and half-assed worked a few steps. I stayed sober for thirteen months. As the cloudiness in my head cleared my life improved. I got a new job and moved to San Diego. I picked up a drink almost as soon as I arrived.

The disease progressed and four years later I found myself in a much deeper bottom. I was forty seven years old, paralyzed by fear and right up against hopeless. All my “stuff” was gone. I was out of ideas. I still did not believe I was alcoholic, but when a therapist suggested treatment I signed up because I didn’t know what else to do. Apparently I was ready because I fell in love with Alcoholics Anonymous at my first meeting. I remember having the feeling that I had finally found my way home after a long, painful journey. Like it says in our book, my life took on new meaning. The emptiness was gone.

I consider my alcoholism a blessing. There’s no way I could have traveled from where I was twenty three years ago to where I am today without having a disease that was going to kill me unless I treated it spiritually.

A We Program

My first sponsor used to say that meetings are like sex. All meetings are good, but some are better than others. The best meetings for me are when members share from the heart about the pain in their lives. This was difficult for me. Even if my ass is falling off, my ego wants you to think I’ve got it all handled, that I’m “fine.” Allowing myself to tell you guys I was hurting was one of the most difficult challenges of recovery for me.

Life on life’s terms is not always a trip to the beach. Those who came before me taught me by sharing their experience not their opinions. I watched them walk through terminal illnesses, financial ruin, debilitating physical problems, and deaths of loved ones. I listened to the heartbreaking frustration as they describe a son or daughter actively practicing our disease and beyond human help. By watching other members stagger through their stuff, I grew the faith I could too.

I like the promise that says, “No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we can see how our experience can benefit others.” A year after my wife passed, a member in my home group lost his wife. I didn’t know this man very well, but I put my hand out to him and shared my experience. My motivation was to help him, but talking with him had a wonderful healing effect on my own grieving process and on my own recovery. If I do not go to meetings I cannot hope to know who I might help with my experience.

I love that Alcoholics Anonymous is a “We” program. I can’t stay sober, but “we” can. When I share honestly about what’s going on at a meeting or one-on-one with another alcoholic, I move from the problem to the solution and grow as a result.

Accoountability

I sat in the treatment center with four or five other newbies as the woman who ran the center, a round, ex-heroin addict from New York, went through the rules. “To graduate from this program you are required to attend at least three AA meetings a week. Except for you Jeff. Because you are unemployed, you need to attend a meeting every day.” I was pissed for being singled out, but was afraid to speak up. I was issued a little attendance card to be signed by the meeting secretary and turned in weekly. I figured if I didn’t feel like going, I would sign the card myself, but I never did. I know today that going to a meeting every day to get that little card signed may very well have saved my life.

After a few meetings I found that I was going not because I had to but because I wanted to. Ditto with the steps and the rest of the program. My sponsor never pushed me to do the work. I really wanted to be a member of the AA club so I did all that was suggested. The more I did in Alcoholics Anonymous the more willing I became to do more. In the process, self-centered fear began to dissolve and my grosser character defects began to fade into the background. Without fear, guilt, shame and resentment running my life a whole new world opened up to me.

Today I am grateful I was unemployed (unemployable really) when I began my journey in recovery. I had nothing better to do than go to meetings. I went to something like 400 meetings in my first year. I grew the habit of recovery and built a solid foundation that has carried me through some pretty tough times. I learned to think, feel and act in new ways. I am different in my reactions to my life’s experiences. I have become a whole new person. But I also realize recovery is a never-ending process. There is no finish line. If I don’t grow, I go.

I heard we alcoholics are a peculiar class of people who find something that works and then we stop doing it. Gratefully I’ve never stopped and don’t plan on stopping today either.

Detach with Love

Detach with love is perhaps the most difficult spiritual instruction I've encountered during my journey in Alcoholics Anonymous. When I was new I remember an old timer saying, "My job is to love everyone. I don't have to like everyone. I don’t have to hang out with people I don't like.” Twenty plus years later I still have trouble loving people I don’t like, but I’m getting better.

It helps me to realize it’s not them, it’s me. Today I can see that other people are put in my life to help me grow. When I'm awake, I see others are just a mirror for me. They reflect my good qualities and my so-called bad qualities. It's easy to be around people who reflect my good qualities, but it's uncomfortable when I see in others what I don't like about myself.

I had a friend in Shanghai who served as a mirror for me. We had been friends for fifteen years before I moved back to the US. We served together as founding board members of the Shanghai Alano Club. Like me, he has always been crotchety, quick to see what’s wrong, negative. But apparently I changed because a year and a half ago while visiting Shanghai I realized his negativity really bothered me. I told him about it and I haven’t heard from him since.

Yesterday I received a call from a member in Shanghai who told me this man was having a rough go of it. He has very serious health problems, was isolating and not reaching out for help. It immediately came to mind that he had talked about suicide in the past. I wondered what I could do. Then I remembered he had a daughter living in Seattle. I didn't know her first name, but I was able to track her down. My first impulse was to contact her and tell her what's going on with her dad, but my higher self instructed me to wait. I realized I loved this man and felt sad about his circumstance, but I was emotionally detached enough to allow God to work things out in his time and in his way.

Faith

I was unemployed, running out of money, all alone and taking Prozac in the months before I walked through the doors to my first meeting. Thin red veins were popping out on the sides of my nose. I drank against the constant ache of fear in my gut, yet my head told me all I needed was a new job and everything would be fine. I didn’t realize I suffered from a spiritual illness that made it impossible to live a life of peace and contentment. Gratefully a moment of clarity led me to Alcoholics Anonymous and the spiritual solution contained in the twelve steps.

I learned that the other side of fear is faith. My faith began to grow by watching other members walk though painful situations. I grew to believe I could too. Since those early days I’ve walked through job losses, financial problems, health challenges, and the death of my wife – all without picking up a drink. These walks were not always graceful. Often I was filled with doubt and paralyzed with fear. Yet I grew every time I got to the other side.

Today when I sense the termites of fear gnawing away at my peace of mind, I realize I’m living in the future. Now, in this moment, I have everything I need to live happily and usefully whole, but once my magic magnifying mind trips into tomorrow or next week or next year, I’m screwed. There everything that can possibly go wrong will go wrong.  My connection with my higher power only happens now. As long as I stay in today I am safe.

I like the verse in the Lord’s Prayer that says, “Give us this day or daily bread…” I only get today’s bread today. God doesn’t give me enough bread (money, ideas, creativity, solutions, etc.) to last me the rest of my life. God only promises enough bread for this day’s journey. Today I have faith that God will supply whatever I need to get me through any fearful experience as long as I do my part – trust him, clean house and help others.