The Red Balloon

I like the metaphor about humility I heard on a Joe and Charley tape when I was new. One of the guys said to imagine that my being is like a big red balloon. If the balloon is inflated to bursting with ego, there’s no room for Spirit to work in my life. The continuous action of the 12-steps deflates ego and creates empty space in my balloon. Since nature abhors a vacuum, Spirit rushes in to fill the void. I’m coming to believe humility is the empty space created when ego is deflated -- when I've let go of all my old ideas (absolutely!), even my ideas about God.

But here’s where it gets tricky for me... Ego wants no part of God or the 12 steps. So it comes up with some suggestions about how to get itself empty. (This even sounds silly!). My ego tells me to “take a meditation course, go to an ashram, read more spiritual books." I feel better when I do these things, but I’m learning that feeling better does not mean I have gained one iota of humility.

I’m learning that humility is a quality of "being", not doing. It’s living life completely on life’s terms. It's complete harmony with what is. There’s nothing I can do to consciously create humility. Certainly the steps and service help to right size me, but there’s no formula to God consciousness. It's all a gift from God on God's time, not mine.

I can’t try to be humble. Even talking or writing about humility fills the space with ego. Humility is so anonymous that the right hand doesn’t even know what the left hand is doing. I'm not there yet.

Moment of Clarity

My recovery is nothing I did and everything God did. Certainly, I had nothing to cause the moment when delusion receded just enough for me to get a fleeting glimpse of truth. This was grace, pure and simple.

My ego was my amigo for many years. I achieved success in the world of money power and prestige. But here I was age 47, unemployed and broke, seemingly paralyzed to take any action to look for work. I had no energy for much of anything besides drinking cheap wine, smoking expensive marijuana and watching stupid TV programs for hours on end. Looking back, I can see that ego had finally run out of gas.

Even though my drinking had progressed, I never thought alcohol was a problem. After all, my last drunk driving arrest was more than 19 years earlier. I had been through divorce, bankruptcy and recent job loss, but in my mind these things happen to most people. Don’t they? As my checking account dwindled I awoke every morning with an ache of fear in my gut. I read many self-help books, but nothing changed. I know today that I was beyond human help.

I went to a therapist to find out why I was such a wreck. After I finished whining about my life for 30 minutes she said she couldn’t help me. Her exact words were, “from what I know about you Jeff you don’t have an ounce of humility in your whole body; your brain is so cloudy from your daily drinking that you can’t hope to get any clarity on your life and, by the way, I think you have the emotional maturity of a 13-year-old.” The voices in my head were screaming "you can't let this bitch talk to you like this" but somehow I was able to keep my mouth shut. Then she looked me in the eyes like she was looking at my soul and said, “you’re in trouble aren’t you Jeff?” I looked down at my feet afraid to answer. Finally, I whispered, “maybe.” For the first time in my life I admitted there was something I couldn’t handle. Without knowing it I had just taken the first step.

Working with Others

I work with others for the same reason I drank. It feels good. When I was drinking, I believed the more I drank the better I would feel. Of course, it rarely turned out that way. But being of service in Alcoholics Anonymous is different. The more I work with others, the more I share my experience, strength, and hope with other alcoholics, the better I feel. Working with others is not an effort for me. It’s a profound sense of enjoyment.

When I was new, there was an old timer in my home group who shared often about the spiritual love one alcoholic has for another. I had no idea what he was talking about. The only kind of love I knew back then was the kind of love you see in the movies -- sticky, demanding, conditional love. Today I know spiritual love makes no demands, expects nothing in return. This is the way I was sponsored and the way I try to sponsor others.

Spiritual love is Grace--a gift from a loving universe. There is nothing I can do to earn this gift, but there are things I can do to experience this gift in my life. The most powerful mindset I can have to experience Grace in my life is to put others first. I always thought the secret for a happy life was to be loved. In Alcoholics Anonymous I learned the secret is to be loving.

Spiritual love does not begin or end with me. It begins at the source, with God, and flows through me out into the world. My job is to become a channel for this love. Putting my hand out to newcomers, passing on what was so freely given to me, and being of service in any way I can open my channel for spiritual love flow through me. When the love is flowing, life feels fabulous!

Founders Day--June 10, 1935

Imagine how much fun Bill and Dr. Bob had watching AA grow up around them in those early years. How excited they must have been when they began realized their simple program of one alcoholic talking to another worked where nothing else could. How connected they must have felt as the light came on in the eyes of so many hopeless alcoholics. I had a small taste of their experience when I was one of the first AAs to carry the message to communist China in 1997.

There were four other AA’s in Shanghai when I arrived. We met three times a week in each other’s apartments. We worried that the public security bureau wouldn’t like us foreigners meeting together and talking about God. Our group grew steadily as more and more foreigners moved to China for work. We met in restaurants and hotel banquet rooms. We met for a while in communist -controlled churches until the powers to be discovered that we weren’t religious and asked us to leave.

It used to be said that only three types of foreigners come to China: mercenaries, missionaries and misfits. Shanghai is an easy place for a misfit to hit bottom. The bars are open till 4 AM; there are ample numbers of friendly Chinese “talking girls”; and the locals look the other way when the crazy foreigners act out. In the early years there weren’t many qualified sponsors in our small group. I was graced with opportunities to sponsor that I never would’ve had in America. Many didn’t make it, but a few did and are still sober today.

In 2005 a core group of members pooled their resources and founded the Shanghai Alano Club. By the time I returned to the US in 2014, the club had approximately 120 regular members and hosted three meetings a day. It’s still going strong. I’ll be forever grateful I was given the opportunity to be in on the ground floor of AA in Shanghai.

I can’t imagine life without Alcoholics Anonymous. Thank you, Bill. Thank you, Dr. Bob.


I was raised with the idea that real men don’t depend on anyone but themselves. They don’t ask for help. My hero was the Marlboro man, a rough and tumble loner. Yet the reason I couldn’t allow anyone close was not my manliness, but fear. The fear you would find out what a loser I was. I went through life alone, pretending I was fine. I became self-sufficient. Certainly, there was no room for God in my life.

I felt I had to earn your love by doing everything perfectly. I lived with the stress of these old ideas for more than 30 years. I used my gifts to become a success in the world, but despite outward appearances, inside I was a shivering wreck. Alcohol made life bearable, even fun for a long time.  Little did I know alcohol was eroding my spiritual center. By the end of my drinking I was an empty shell. I had no interest or enthusiasm for anything except getting high. I was a dead man walking.

At age 47 I asked for help for the first time. I was led to Alcoholics Anonymous. Hope flooded in during my first meeting. I was graced with the willingness to jump in with both feet. Even then I realized this willingness didn’t come from me. I concluded there must be a benevolent power that will run my life if I learn to depend on it. Through the years have done just that.

I demonstrate my dependence on God by continuing to do all that was suggested to me in my first week. I am asking God for help every time I attend a meeting, put my hand out to a newcomer, or practice a spiritual principle of the Twelve Steps in my daily life. Today I have the faith that if I continue to depend on the God of my own misunderstanding, I'll be shown the way out of any mess I get myself into. So, what’s there to worry about?


I was a couple of weeks sober and sitting in the therapy circle in the out-patient treatment center. When my turn came to share I said, "I feel so good, I'll never drink again!" The short, round woman who ran the center, an ex-heroine junky from New York, snapped back, "That's just ego bull shit Jeff! We don’t say crap like that in here. You'd better just do everything you can to stay sober today and pray it's enough.”

That was a long time ago, but my ego still tries to convince me I don’t have to go to the meeting today, that I don’t have to reach out to other alcoholics today, that I don’t have to ask my HP for help today. Ego says, “you’re fine, Jeff, really.” Ego is right. I am fine. My life is better than it has ever been. I take the suggested recovery actions today not because I’m afraid I’ll drink again, but because I really enjoy being a part of Alcoholics Anonymous.

I enjoy the meetings, the fellowship, and the chance to help another still suffering alcoholic. I often share about the feeling I had as I sat in my first meeting. It felt like I had finally found my way home after a long, painful struggle. AA continues to feel like home today.

I can’t imagine life without my AA activities. It’s how I get spiritually nourished. I connect with the God of my own misunderstanding at meetings, one-on-ones with other drunks and practicing the steps, especially ten, eleven and twelve. Seeing the light come on in a newcomer’s eyes is my most favorite experience. I am a radically different person than I was when I walked into my first meeting twenty-four years ago. Most of the time today I am sober, sane and serene. But growing along spiritual lines is an exciting, never-ending journey so I think I’ll keep coming back.


Recently I heard a man share that his alcoholism has a PhD in cunning. Boy, can I identify. My disease will try absolutely any trick in the book to get me to believe that my recovery is something I did, that I have this thing handled and I no longer need any spiritual help. We all know where this stinking thinking can lead.

Fortunately, I enjoy a solid relationship with the God of my own misunderstanding. Today I have the faith that if I do my part, God will get me through any problem life throws at me. This faith is not based on the ideas in my head, but on my living experiences. Time and time again, just when I begin to believe all is lost, God, in one of a million disguises, rushes in to save the day. I’ve become so aware of these miracles that today I’ve grown to expect them.

Recently I was traveling in Southeast Asia. My lady friend and I were making a flight to Northern Thailand for some hiking in the mountains. When we got to the airport I couldn’t find our flight of the departures board. I didn’t know what to do, but I didn’t panic. A moment later God, disguised as a gray-haired Thai man in a suit, came up to us and asked if we had a problem. I showed him our ticket and realized we were at the wrong airport! He said the other airport was too far away to make our flight, but he directed us to another airline that had a flight leaving in a few minutes. We had to pay a little extra for the new flight, but we arrived on time without missing a beat.

These “coincidences” happen daily. Most are not as dramatic, but all are obvious signs that God is working in my life, that our relationship is solid. They simply would not happen if I'm still drinking and living in self-centered fear. No way.

Putting Others First

I’m coming to believe that spiritual love does not begin or end with me. It originates at the source of all life and flows through me out into the world to return again and again. Putting others first is a demonstration of my willingness to be changed, to learn how to love more.

In our 11th step prayer, St. Francis asked God to make him a channel of peace. When my spiritual channel is open love pours through. My life feels peaceful and contented. I become an ever-greater expression of the One that has all power. When my channel is blocked by selfishness, fear, anger, judgment and the like, the love can’t flow. This, I believe, is the spiritual malady that causes me to feel restless, irritable, and discontented. I drank against the anxiety caused by the spiritual malady for 30 years.

I learned everything about putting others first in Alcoholics Anonymous. I didn’t show up feeling very good about myself. But the people in the meetings loved me anyways. Slowly through the years the 12 steps dissolved much of the self-centered fear I walked through the door with. I learned how good it feels to give back the love that was so freely given to me. Seeing the light come on in a newcomer’s eyes when they finally “get it” is my favorite of all experiences.

Putting others first means the willingness to practice love and tolerance not only in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous, but on the highway and in the checkout line at the grocery store. Putting others first without expectation of receiving anything in return is the highest spiritual challenge. I feel I’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s possible.


Early on I heard something that has stayed with me through the years. "It is impossible for a grateful drunk to drink." I'm coming to believe that an attitude of gratitude is the absolute best defense against the first drink. Drinking is suicide for a person like me who has admitted he suffers from the disease of alcoholism. Drinking says to the universe, "I want to die." Gratitude says to the universe, "I want to live and enjoy this beautiful thing called life more fully."

My feelings of gratitude expanded through the years. Early on, like most of us, I wrote lists of the good things I had in my life. Today I feel grateful for not only the good things, but the painful things as well. I've come to believe that there are no accidents in God's world. Every experience is intended for my highest and best good. I could not grow without each and every one.

I'm grateful to be an alcoholic. There is no way I could travel from where I was 23+ years ago to where I am today without having a disease that was going to kill me unless I treated spiritually. I had to drink every drink and tell every lie to get to that jumping off point our book describes. I couldn't have done it with one less of anything. Not one less drink, not one less drug, not one less ​failed relationship, not one less financial setback. I'm grateful for them all, every one.

Journey to Faith

I always believed in God. I went to church on Christmas and Easter and I even prayed from time to time when the you-know-what was hitting the fan. I prayed for money, jobs, girlfriends.  I prayed the pregnancy test would be negative. I always prayed God would come down from heaven and fix things for me. I never thought to ask God to fix me -- to change me in any way. After all, I was a pretty good guy. Why would I want to change?

My belief in God did not stop alcoholism from slowly but surely robbing me of everything worthwhile in life. I lost friends, interest in challenging work, creativity, and, finally, all enthusiasm for life itself. After years of suffering, I was graced with a moment of clarity and found myself in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous staring up at the Steps on the wall.

My faith began to blossom when, after thirty years of daily drinking, the obsession was lifted clean out of me at my first meeting. How the hell did this happen? Since I couldn't answer this question with my logical mind, I eventually decided it must be God. I was drawn into the spiritual mystery. I kept coming back. Slowly I began to see God in every detail of life.

Since then I've walked through many painful life experiences without picking up a drink. Each time I get to the other end, I am stronger and my faith has grown.  Faith allows me to trust that the universe has my best interest at heart. Faith gives me the courage to walk through fear and live my life fully. Faith assures me that regardless of how dark it seems, the sun is shining behind the clouds. What began as a wishy-washy belief in God, grew slowly into solid faith -- a faith that works for me regardless of what’s going on in the world.


An old time member in one of my groups often says the most important word in the Big Book is “Remember.” My brain will never forget the relief I felt from alcohol. Step One helps me remember that without the spiritual help that comes from working the program of Alcoholics Anonymous, I am screwed. 

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, sneered at me and 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, 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. 

A few months ago, I began a brand-new phase in my life. I moved into a new home and met a woman I am mad about. My meeting attendance dropped off a bit. I didn’t realize these major changes brought any consequences until yesterday. As I sat in my third meeting in three days, I felt the peace return. One more time I realized I need to attend meetings to be around other drunks who help me remember the truth: My name is Jeff and I have a disease called alcoholism.