AA Role Models

Every single person I meet in AA or anywhere for that matter has something of value to teach me if I am willing to learn. There are some people I don't want to learn from. They make me feel uncomfortable so I tune them out. What I know is that the discomfort comes from seeing a reflection of myself in them. It's not their BS I hear, it's mine. It's not their rigidity I sense, it's mine. It's not their confusion I see, it's my own. I grow by having the willingness to look in the mirror when it is handed to me. Some days I have this willingness, some days I don't.

This mirror also reflects my good qualities back to me. These qualities might not be showing up in my life right this minute, but the potential is down there somewhere just waiting to be released.

Those men and women in my journey who stand out in my memory are the ones who make me feel good about myself when I was around them They came from different backgrounds -- one guy sold shoes at Sacs, another worked the swap meets, still another was a retired oil executive -- but they share a number of common qualities that drew me to them.

They all love drunks and share freely with anyone and everyone. They are good natured and don't take themselves too seriously. If they get angry, they seem to have an ability to let go and regain their peace of mind quickly and easily. They are not afraid to gently tell you the truth, even at the risk of hurting your feelings. They are kind and considerate to all. I guess you could say they are wise, though they wouldn't agree. They have a certain light in their eyes.These are the qualities of the people who have what I want.

I read somewhere that we are all but single strands of thread, but together we make a perfect cloth. No one strand is more important than another, but some strands, might be just a little brighter than most.

Freedom from Self

Dependence on others, negative thinking, worry, attachments and desires, family and cultural ties, and prejudice and judgment all keep me bound to self. Some are heavy chains some are thin threads, but all keep me in the self-centered prison of my own making. I start to free myself from bondage as I begin I let go of all these things that block me from a true experience of the life my higher power planned for me.

Chained against the wall in my self-centered prison, I must be full of fear because I know unconsciously that I have no power to free myself. This relentless fear creates dis-ease. Since I have been conditioned that all pain is bad, I won't look for the cause, but I’ll look for something to bring about a sense of ease and comfort. I’ve spent my whole life trying to make myself comfortable in my prison.

Growing spiritually does not mean that I can make myself Holy. I can only hope to become aware of what’s blocking me from a full experience of peace, abundance and joy -- that feeling of useful and contented sobriety. I use the 10th step and tools found in other spiritual literature to discover what’s blocking me. I’m coming to believe that this simple awareness is 99% of the work.

If I am willing to look honestly at myself and see where I am still selfish, fearful, dishonest or resentful, I begin to see patterns in my behavior. Each of the patterns binds me to self. Certainly I am willing to do this work when I am in pain. Then I’ll go to any lengths. But unless I’m willing to do this work continuously, even when I am feeling good, I’ll continue to stay in my prison, unable to truly love anyone else, even me, and still trying to make myself believe that a few scraps of stale bread is a lavish banquet.

Courage to Change

I never really saw the need to change anything all those months I sat alone and unemployed in my darkened, dirty apartment drinking cheap red wine and watching lame daytime TV. After all I was a pretty good guy who at one time was winning the game of life and would do so again as soon as I could find another big paying job. Except for the fact that I was running out of borrowed money and could not find the energy to even send out a resume. Denial was so strong that I didn't really believe there was anything wrong with me that a new job couldn't fix, so why would I want to change?

What I wanted was my life to be fixed, not changed. I wanted more energy and enthusiasm. I wanted my old "can do" attitude to return. I wanted the secret to a happy fulfulling life. Almost weekly I would head to the bookstore to the self help section and carefully select a new solution for my life. I liked to read and think about the ideas in these books, but since I didn't have the courage to actually DO anything differently, I stayed stuck in my dirty easy chair with my bottle of wine, overflowing ashtray and a week's worth of empy fast food bags and pizza boxes strewn on the carpet at my feet. The dull ache of fear grew daily.

God works is mysterious ways. One of these books was about men experiencing mid-life crises. This book sent me to a therapist who made it clear that my symptoms -- low grade depression, feelings of uselessness, and worry about the future -- were more due to alcoholism than any mid-life crisis. At her suggestion three days later I entered an outpatient treatment program. Three days after that I walked into my first meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. I have been changing ever since.

It's only when I look backwards to where I was can I see how far I've traveled. I have moved from a life of materialism toward a life of simplicity; from a desire to achieve success to a desire to connect with others; and from jealousy of what you have to certain gratitude for my gifts. I haven't reached the end of any of these roads, but I'm making progress. Practically no area of my life looks the same as it did fourteen years ago. Consequently I'm happier than I've ever been.

It takes courage to walk the path we are on. It's not been easy for me to leave the comfort zone and challenge self-destructive habits after so many years of living in the insanity. It takes guts to honestly share with others what's going on with me and to walk through fear when the voices say "run away." Without courage I can't move forward with my life.

It helps me to remember that this courage doesn't come from me. It comes from my Higher Power in the form of grace. Courage is always available to me as long as I am sincerely willing to seek it.

Letting Go of Results

Years ago I remember seeing an interview of George McGovern by Barbara Walters. McGovern was a former presidential candidate. He had five beautiful daughters. One had our disease. Despite numerous treatment centers and spin drys, she passed out drunk in the snow and froze to death. McGovern had tears in his eyes. He said he just never knew when to be tough and when to be soft. I can identify.

Ala-non teaches detachment with love. This has to be the most difficult thing a human can do. We are asked to watch people we care about make self destructive choices putting themselves in harms way while we sit on our hands. Yet that is exactly what is asked of us.

As soon as I put myself between the alcoholic and the consequences of his thinking and actions, I am trying to do God's job. Better I just put out my hand, be available, share my ESH, and take the person through the steps and let go of results completely. Whether anyone "gets it" or not is none of my business.

Willingness to Grow

I was told when I was new that just saying I was willing was not enough. I had to demonstrate my willingness by doing the things suggested. Today most of what is suggested like going to meetings, socializing with other alcoholics and sharing my ESH doesn't require much willingness because by now these things are comfortable, even fun. I might be able to stay sober on meetings and fellowship alone but I don't believe I can grow spiritually. And if I'm not growing, chances are I'm slowly slipping backwards into the cesspool of my own thinking.

I demonstrate my willingness to grow when I make the effort to see myself as I really am and to become "cleaner" inside. The steps help me do this. I grow when I sit with uncomfortable feelings instead of running away or numbing out. I grow when I try to understand the messages that the fear and anger bring. I grow when I am willing to look honestly at myself, to search for my part in every disturbance, to admit when I am wrong and make amends.

A part of me doesn't want to do these things. A part of me wants fo fall back to sleep in the childish illusion that my life will succeed by doing only the things I enjoy. And sometimes I do fall back asleep, I'm no saint. But sooner or later I realize that when I do fall back asleep I just stay stuck and the same lesson will just keep presenting itself over and over until I finally get it. There's no escape.

If I'm paying attention I notice that every day life hands me many opportunities to look at myself and grow. The main thing for me is to be willing to look in the mirror when it is handed to me.

Not My Fault

Twelve hours sober and three days before I walked into my first AA meeting I was in an orientation meeting with Dean, a counselor for an outpatient treatment program. I had to decide if I should commit most of my remaining meager funds to enroll in the program. I was skeptical because if I spent the money on treatment, what would I drink on?

At the outset Dean said something I'll never forget -- something that I've repeated hundreds of times since. He told me that I have a disease called alcoholism and that it was not my fault that I have it. Just like having cancer would not be my fault. But he also said that now that I know I have this disease, it is my responsibility to treat it, and if I fail to treat it my life would become more painful than I could possible imagine.

Had Dean said to me that I was somehow to blame for my alcoholism, that I had it because I lacked the willpower to put down the bottle, I would have been right out the door. My fragile little ego just could not have stood the thought that it was my fault.

I need to let myself off the hook with my ego too. This small, separated part of me was formed while I was still a little kid by well-meaning but ignorant and fearful parents, teachers and others who filled me with false ideas about what's important in life. I was scared to death that I couldn't measure up, but I just couldn't let anyone see my fear so my life became a lie that drinking made bearable.

It's absolutely true that all the pain I experience in my life today is of my own making. I make decisions based on self (ego) that put me in a position to be hurt. As long as I remain in bondage of self I will continue to experience pain even if my motives are good. It's the only way the universe has to tell me I'm on the wrong path, that I'm holding on to tightly -- that I'm heading away from the light.

Like my alcoholism, it's really not my fault that I have a frightened ego. But now that I now I have it, I am responsible to treat it -- to reduce it's illusionary power over my decisions and actions. I treat my ego by trying to the best of my ability to practice the spiritual principles contained in the 12 step. The steps give me a way out of ego and the corresponding pain it brings to me and others

Then and Now

About one year before I got sober, I flew from California to Florida every other weekend to be with my parents while my mother was dying of late-stage cancer. I made five or six trips before my father ended her suffering and took his own life. My wife is a cancer survivor and has had to endure a number of surgeries in the time we've been together. When I compare how I handled my mother’s sickness while still drinking to how I handle my wife’s health challenges, it’s clear my whole attitude and outlook has changed.

I remember during one my trips to Florida during my mother’s last days. I sat up all night by her bedside and killed most of a fifth of cognac until I passed out in the chair. I just didn’t want to feel anything. It’s equally as hard to see my wife suffer for days on end, but I haven’t once had the thought to run. I consider it an honor to walk through this difficult time with her. I look forward to showing up at her bedside and being of service where I can. The contrast between the way I was then and the way I am now amazes even me.

I had no spiritual center before sobriety. I was terrified of death. I worried about painful long term illness. Thanks to Alcoholics Anonymous I am now connected with God of my own understanding. I have come to believe that only the body dies, that death is nothing more than a continuation of life in a different form. And as far as extended illness goes, I have seen so many of you walk through so much physical and emotional pain without a drink, that I just know I can too as long as I stay close to the program.

Asking for Help

A minute after she declared that I had probably had a drinking problem, the therapist looked deeply into my eyes like she was looking into my soul. "You're in trouble aren't you Jeff?" My ego fought hard against the truth. "Maybe," I admitted.

As it turned out, this slight admission that perhaps there was this one tiny aspect of life I couldn't handle myself -- this pesky 30 year drinking problem -- was just enough to give my Higher Power an opening to begin to work in my life. Many years later I'm only slightly better at admitting I need help. I'm getting pretty good at asking for help on the big stuff, but my response to the challenges and vexations of daily living is usually "OK God move over, I'll take it from here" rather than "Thy will not my will be done."

Self-will holds me hostage when things don't go according to my script. My attitude plunges and I begin to look at the world through crap-colored glasses. I usually try and fail to coach myself out of it. I even try praying, but it feels like I have my fingers crossed behind my back. A part of me doesn't really want to feel better. Finally, reluctantly, I call another alcoholic and let him know what was going on with me. After the call a tiny bit of light seeps in and the darkness began to evaporate. A short time later my positive attitude returns.

Help is what I needed before I got sober and help is what I need today, but admitting I need help and asking for it doesn't come easy. I was raised to be a rugged individualist and those old tapes are still playing. Fortunately the whole AA program is set up for people like me. In one sense everything I do in AA is an admission directly or indirectly that I need help. Attending meetings, calling other alcoholics, putting out my hand to newcomers, being of service to the group, sponsoring, reading the literature and working the steps are all ways I ask my Higher Power for help. Help always comes if I am willing to take the actions that prove I really want help.

My Blind Side

Bill talked about my blind side when he wrote:

"Very deep, sometimes quite forgotten, damaging emotional conflicts persist below the level of consciousness. At the time of the occurrences, they may actually have given our emotions violent twists which have since discolored our personalities and altered our lives for the worse." 12x12 pg. 77

"How are you, Jeff?" a member asked when I was a few months sober. "Fine," I replied. He looked at me and smiled. "Fine, for people like us, means frustrated, insecure, neurotic and emotional." I couldn't see how this could be true because I felt fine, I really did. The obsession to drink had been removed and I was floating on a pink cloud. Today I can see the truth in what he said. I can feel fine, but as long as I'm carrying around the accumulated guilt, fear, anger, shame and resentment from the past in my subconscious, I'm really not fine. I'm just experiencing a temporary lull between fearful reactions to the people and events of my life.

When someone pushes one of my buttons -- and there seem to be an abundance of expert button pushers in my world -- I instinctively react. I don't see it coming. Often my defensive, angry reaction seems to be stronger, more violent, than the situation calls for. For many years it used to surprise me when simple anger would turn to rage or a tiny mistake would turn to shame. Today I know whenever I over react it's because of some ancient hurt in my subconscious that's not yet healed. Fortunately I have a spiritual program that works both above and below the surface of my consciousness to make me whole. All I need is the willingness to take the actions suggested.