Letting Go

Last Sunday, three days after we arrived in the US, Lola had emergency surgery to control an internal infection that was spreading like wildfire throughout her body.

This whole week has been about letting go. Letting go of what I want, what I  expect, what I think all the doctors and nurses hospital should do, and most importantly letting go of my desire to try and change Lola -- to fix her.

It took a few days of trying to control the universe for me to remember that my job is simply to show up and help where ever I can. Trying to convince Lola not to be afraid and disappointed is not in my job description. That’s God’s business.

I’m coming to believe that “I”, as an ego, can’t let go. The best I can do is loosen my grip and not hold on so tightly. The dynamic process of the 12 steps dissolves my fear, grows my faith and makes me ready for God to remove my need to hold on.

Waiting for pain to motivate me to let go seems like such an inefficient way to go through life. Yet, that seems to be exactly where I am. The really good news is that today it takes less and less pain for me to realize I’m holding on too tightly.

Lola is receiving wonderful care and resting comfortably. We hope she will be discharged in the next couple of days. Unfortunately she still faces another major surgery in the very near future.  My AA friends here in San Diego have provided fantastic support.  Never once did I feel alone.

Cunning, Baffling, Powerful!

I remember sitting in the Treatment Center during my first few weeks along with five or six other newbies watching a recovery movie called the Three Headed Dragon. The dragon was a fierce-looking, life-like cartoon depiction of the disease of alcoholism. The dragon was a mean-looking, ugly green-scaled thing with eyes that saw everywhere and fire shooting out of it’s six nostrils. We learned the three heads represent alcoholic drinking, alcoholic thinking, and alcoholic feelings. The cartoon showed the dragon’s first head -- the drinking head -- sliced off with a giant sword. This depicts what happens when we quit drinking. Without alcohol to numb them down, the alcoholic thinking and feeling heads became hyper-agitated, much more scary and mean looking.

I am only just now beginning to realize how much damage my thirty year drinking habit did to my mind and body. Alcohol caused my brain to create abnormal thinking patterns which are etched deeply into my subconscious. My body became so conditioned to the effects of alcohol that not drinking today feels unnatural. My alcoholic thoughts and feelings represent the “ism” of my alcoholism. My “ism” wants only one thing. It wants me to drink again so things can get back to “normal”. Normal to my “ism” is me drunk.

This program continues to run in the background even after many years without a drink, hundreds of AA meetings and a dozen trips through the steps. I still experience “euphoric recall” when I see nice bottle of wine being poured into fine crystal wine glasses; “constructive” criticism often feels like a death threat; resentments keep me awake occasionally. The difference today is that I usually become aware of what’s going on before my reaction causes too much damage. Usually, but not always. My alcoholic thinking and feeling have not disappeared, they have gone underground. The more aware I become, the more subtle these thoughts and feelings become. Cunning, baffling and powerful? You bet.

The Voice of My Program

When I'm paying attention, I see I'm not really using my program to live life on life's terms, rather I see my program is using me. My program is a living, breathing thing. It reminds me, whispers to me, directs me.

When I'm tempted to insert myself into some drama, my programs says "are you really sure you want to get involved? You already know how this movie is going to end." When other people cry out to me for help by acting like idiots, my program reminds me that I've never succeeded in fixing anyone, not one, especially not my wife, although I've been trying for many years. When I feel my temperature rising in self-righteous anger over the latest national tragedy splashed across the headlines, my program points out judging and condemning others is self-incrimination and I might want to look at my side of the street before I go pointing the finger of guilt at others. I ignore the voice of my program much of the time and pay the inevitable price, but sometimes when I hear the small, still voice, I'm able to change course. Last Sunday night was one of those times.

A restless little Chinese boy sat in front of me at the church Christmas play. He fidgeted throughout the whole play, moving around, getting up and down, blocking my view despite a parent and others telling him to keep his seat. First I started judging him as a spoiled little brat, then I judged his parents as totally irresponsible, finally I judged all Chinese people everywhere for all their sins against civilized behavior. I became increasingly upset. After about fifteen minutes, the next time he got up, I reached over and gently but firmly pulled him back into his seat. When he turned around to see the source of the unfamiliar hand on his shoulder, he looked directly into my eyes and gave me a broad smile. My program whispered, "My God, Jeff, he's just a child acting like a child. Why don't you give the kid a break?" I smiled back and in that instant he changed from a spoiled Chinese brat into a beautiful child of God. I went on to enjoy the rest of the play.

My program is not a bunch of dead ideas and concepts, it is a living breathing thing that seems to have a mind of its own. My job is to nurture my program -- to keep the fire burning inside of me -- by doing the things you told me in my first week: meetings, steps, service and leaving the results up to God.


I remember whining to my sponsor when I was new about how some of the people in my life weren’t following my script. “Do you always expect to get your way?” he asked. “Yes, of course.” Well then you had better prepare yourself for a life full of disappointment because it’s never going to happen.” I was shocked. Of course I expect to get my way. Doesn’t everyone? Isn’t that the way life works?

Expectations of other people sooner or later end in resentment. For most of my life I expected people to treat me the way I treated them. Today I know that other people are not in my life to fulfill my expectations. We are all hot-wired to pursue our own happiness. Besides, if I always got my way, I would never grow.

The more reasonable my expectation, the angrier I get when it isn't met. Isn’t it reasonable for the people waiting to get on the subway or elevator to allow the arriving passengers to get off first? Well, not in China it isn’t. With so many people, parents train their children to push to the head of the line or risk being left behind. Today I don’t take this behavior as personally because I understand it. I learned the Chinese words for “you have bad manners.” I repeat this phrase when I have to push through a crowd to get off, but I have no expectations any one of them will change.

I suffered unmet expectations in intimate relationships throughout my life. When I allowed myself to be vulnerable, I expected the other person would never do anything to hurt me. When they didn’t love me exactly like I thought they should, I closed down in self-protection. I’ve learned the hard way that pain results from trying not to love. I aspire to allow everyone in my life to be exactly who they are. I’m not there yet.

Many years and hundreds of AA meetings later I see that disappointment, resentment and disillusionment are tied directly to my expectations. It is impossible for me not to have expectations -- to completely let go of results -- but my life is infinitely more peaceful if I don’t hold my expectations too tightly. When I demand others follow my script, unhappiness results. I try to keep my expectations as preferences. Then, if they are met, great. If not, well, that’s OK too.

Living without demands on others is truly the softer, easier way to go through life. Now if I could just get 1.3 billion Chinese people to learn some manners!

Stinking Thinking

Will C. was the first person I met in AA. He was a 70-something gentleman with kind eyes and a well-trimmed graying beard. If you looked up the word “humble” in the dictionary you might find a little picture of Will next to the definition. Will didn’t share often, but when he did, he always included the phrase, “I came for my drinking, but I stayed for my thinking.” Like Will, I don’t have a drinking problem today. I have a thinking problem. While my mind is certainly less conflicted today than when I stumbled through the doors to my first meeting almost twenty years ago, I am by no means restored to sanity.

These lines in the Big Book describe me perfectly: “Selfishness-self-centeredness! That, we think, is the root of our troubles.” I continue to think about myself most of the time, about my little plans and schemes. Gratefully, attending AA meetings, being of service in and out of the rooms and sponsoring others gives me a much needed break from thinking about myself. It’s amazing how much better I feel when I’m thinking about you instead of me. I am still self-centered today, but the good news is I know why.

My thinking is no longer driven by “a hundred forms of fear,” but I learned through repeated inventory I still carry ten or twenty forms of fear for sure. I watch my mind go into judgement of others who do not look like me, act like me or follow my script. If one of my fear buttons is pushed, restraint of tongue is almost impossible. I continue to try to do life perfectly, unable to follow the advice I received in the treatment center to aim for a “B-minus.” Occasionally the voice of one of my personal demons wakes me up in the middle of the night. Where do these old ideas, these ancient fears get me? Alone, all alone,  separated from God and you.

I understand the word sanity in Step Two to mean the perfect order, wholeness and harmony of the universe -- the “Oneness” of life.  Sanity means I perceive life the way life actually is, not how I imagine it is or wish it could be. I am restored to sanity as my mind becomes free of conflict and illusion. The dynamic action of the 12 Steps dissolves the self-centered fears that drive my “stinking thinking.” I am not yet fully restored to my right mind, but I am closer than ever.

The Magic of the Fellowship

I wasn’t looking to reconnect with life as I walked through the door to my first meeting. I wasn’t looking for meaning and purpose. I wasn’t looking for a relationship with God. But in the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous I found all these things and so much more.

I had never been a joiner. Like Groucho Marx, I never wanted to join any club that would have someone like me as a member. I spent the last eight months of my drinking in extreme isolation. I remember thinking it was a great way to live. There was no one around to bother me about my drinking or to criticize me for not looking for work or to nag me to clean my apartment. Today, this thought is one of the saddest I can remember.

I found a seat in the back of the room. The man who would become my first sponsor held out his hand when I introduced myself as a newcomer. When the sharing began I was amazed. I had never heard anyone speaking so honestly before. After the meeting my future sponsor said, "Some of us go to breakfast after the meeting, why don't you come along?" I lied that I had a lot to do that day. He said, "I'm sure you do Jeff, but why don't you come along anyways."

An unseen hand nudged me to breakfast. There were six or eight of us men altogether that morning. Remarkably I didn’t feel the need to try and impress anyone. I laughed, really laughed for the first time in years. Driving home I found myself looking forward to the next meeting. The magic of the fellowship had hooked me into AA!

I went to 400 meetings in my first year (it’s easy to do when you are unemployed). I hooked up with a few other newly sober guys. We played golf together. We chatted about recovery over coffee before and after meetings. I took my first year token in front of a roaring bonfire in the mountains above San Diego during one of my home group’s semi-annual spiritual retreats. In 1995 I had the privilege of attending our International Convention in San Diego. Wow. The power of 55,000 alcoholics standing and holding hands and saying the Lord's Prayer together continues to reverberate through my consciousness today.

The power of the fellowship is symbolized by the circle. In Shanghai we close every meeting by joining hands, forming a circle and repeating the Serenity Prayer. I like the expression, “God is not in me or in you, but at the place where we meet.” Slowly my ego is fading into the background. Today it's not so much, "what's in it for me" but "what's best for the whole." The sense of connection with life sparked at my first meeting continues to grow and expand.  

No Story, No Suffering

One of our AA slogans is: “pain is mandatory, but suffering is optional”. I am grateful that today I can see loss, pain and sadness is just a part of life on life’s terms, but suffering is all in my mind. If I am suffering it is because I am believing a story my mind made up. These self-centered stories are all about me -- what I want, what I need. They are not about how life is, rather they are fantasies about how I think life should be. I am grateful today that I don’t suffer as long before I recognize these ego traps.

A few days ago I was lying in the Shanghai fancy foreigner’s hospital with pneumonia. I felt like crap and worried that I couldn’t afford the treatment. Every few minutes I had a coughing fit that felt like I was coughing up a lung. Both my temperature and blood pressure were well beyond normal. My Chinese doctor said I may have hyper tension and I might need to begin taking blood pressure medicine. She said high blood pressure is common in “elderly” people like me because our veins get smaller. Elderly! It was the first time anyone had called me elderly and it stung.

After she left I lay there worrying. Ego began it’s self-centered story: “You are an elderly walking time bomb, Jeff. You had better get your affairs in order. You better learn to control your temper, you should give up caffeine, you can’t afford this medicine...” These thoughts and a whole bunch more whirred in my head for a good thirty minutes before my higher self whispered, “You are believing a story that is dragging you into the future, Jeff. Just relax and do the next indicated thing and you’ll be okay”. I felt peace return almost immediately. It turned out that my blood pressure was fine. The spikes were caused by my coughing. I smile when I think about all the hours and days and years I spent worrying about nothing. 

The longer I stay sober the more I become convinced that everything that has ever happened to me is intended for my highest and best good. I look at my alcoholism as a blessing. I could not have come from where I was to where I am today without having a deadly disease that was going to kill me.

Get Connected!

A few days ago at our noon meeting we had a newcomer on his first day. After the meeting I put out my hand to welcome him to our group. We chatted briefly, then I made him the offer I like to make to all newcomers. “If you will commit to going to 90 meetings in 90 days and you still want to drink after that, I’ll buy the first one.” He looked at me like I was slightly out of my mind.

The message I carry to those seeking sobriety is to make a commitment to give AA a serious try for three months and then re-evaluate. During this time I suggest they put AA activities at the top of their to-do list, ahead of family, business and everything else. Going to a meeting every day is a proven prescription for newcomers. There are no guarantees, but the ones who make "90 in 90" seem to have a much better chance at sticking than those who go to meetings only when it is convenient.

AA doesn’t get me sober and keep me that way. That’s my Higher Power’s job. I connect with my Higher Power when I place myself inside the AA circle of recovery by doing all that’s suggested. I connect with the group by showing up early and helping to set up the chairs or make coffee. I connect with other alcoholics by asking for phone numbers and picking up the 500 pound phone and calling them. I become “a part of” when I join up for coffee or a meal after the meetings. Once I am connected to my HP, there are a whole bunch of other suggestions contained in the 12 steps about how I can grow and strengthen my connection: inventory, pray and meditate, carry the message to others. But none of these activities work real well unless I am connected.

The newcomer said, “I’m not sure I can come everyday during the week because I have to work.” “What time do you start?” “9:00 AM,” he answered. “Well, you are in luck. We have a nice little meeting that starts every morning at 7.” I looked into his bloodshot eyes and could almost see a glimmer of hope. We’ll see.


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."

I have no idea if I'll ever take another drink. I have no desire to drink right now and I haven't thought seriously about taking a drink for many years. But like the woman who ran the treatment center said, it's arrogant to think I know better than my HP about what I need to grow. Maybe another deeper bottom is necessary to surrender the last few layers of self-will. I hope not, but maybe.

The long-term AA recovery rates I've seen indicate that many of us drink again after long periods of sobriety. Then there's the story in the Big Book about a man who felt his drinking was interfering with his business. He put the plug in the jug and kept it there for thirty years. He started drinking again when he retired and was dead in three years. Of course my ego is quick to create a story that makes me special and unique, different from those who go out. "They stopped working the program, they didn't do all that was suggested, they became complacent. But not you, Jeff, you are safe. You have the power to just say 'No'."  Oh really? What about all those times I said "Yes" when I didn't want to?

My frightened, childish ego doesn't seem to understand that it has no power. It clearly doesn't believe what our book says in How It Works: "There is One who has all power. That One is God."  If God has ALL power then it follows "I" have no power, none. Not even a tiny little bit. Ego keeps trying to convince me that "I" have the power to choose, that I have the power to decide what's best for me. I'm coming to believe that ego stands behind the curtain like the Wizard of Oz furiously pulling the levers and creating a dazzling light show. But there is no truth. Ego is, to borrow a quote from Shakespeare, "full of sound and fury signifying nothing."

It took many years before I began to question the stories ego creates in my mind. I still get caught today, but I don't get as wrapped up in ego's web before I ask, "where's the evidence outside of my mind that this story is true? Is there one shred of evidence that I have the power to choose not to drink?" No! As my journey in recovery continues, I move from the illusionary world of ego to the truth of what I am and what I've always been. As ego loses its power, I naturally move toward what is healthy and right.

AA Unity

I wasn't looking to reconnect with life when I walked into my first AA meeting, but that's exactly what happened.  I wasn't a joiner. Intimacy made me uncomfortable. I had just spent eight months in isolation getting drunk twice a day. There was no one else in my life and I liked it like that. If I had my way, I would have hung out on the outside of AA, separate and apart. Thankfully, when the men in my first home group found out I was new, they reached out and pulled me through the door.

I was shocked when the sharing began. I had never heard anyone share honestly about their lives before, certainly not my golfing buddies at the country club. I was more surprised to learn these men knew all about me. They were talking about themselves but they were sharing about me -- about my campaign of self hate, my fears and insecurities, and my fragile ego. Their stories were different from mine, but the feelings they drank against were exactly the same.

The group broke into riotous laughter when one sad-mouthed young man shared his solutions to his relationship "issues." It was the first time I had laughed, really laughed, in years. I wasn't laughing at him, I was laughing because I had tried every one of his solutions at one time or another. Perhaps it was the laughter more than anything that kept me coming back in those early days.

I remember one of the men shared when he took a couple of drinks he couldn't stop until the booze was gone, his money was gone, or he was locked up. I realized I never wanted to stop after two drinks either. As other men shared about their bottoms, what happened and what their lives were like today, I had hope AA would work for me too. I wanted what you had and I was graced with the willingness to do what you did.

After the meeting a number of men surrounded me in welcome, gave me their phone numbers and invited me to breakfast. They told me to get a sponsor, work the steps, keep coming back and don't drink no matter what. As I walked out of the meeting room to my car I had the sense I had found my way home. I learned I can't stay sober, but "We" can.

Living in the Present

I was three and a half years sober when I lost a job I thought was much too good for me.  It was my first job in sobriety and had taken me 14 months to find. Now here I was again out on my butt --  sabotaged by my character defects. The voices in my head were screaming what a loser I was. It was the only time in sobriety I was  seriously tempted to drink, but because I had a solid foundation in AA, I picked up the phone and called my sponsor instead of picking up a drink. He said go and share it at a meeting. Boy, I really didn't want to do that! But I did it anyways.

The next couple of days were the most fearful of my life, but I continued to take the actions suggested. I worked the steps around the job loss, saw my character defects up close, and made amends to the people I had hurt. The dark cloud lifted after a week of hand-to-hand combat with my demons and surrendering through the steps. As the fear dissipated, I was left with the certainty that somehow (I certainly did not know how) everything was going to be okay. It turned out 100 times better than okay.

Life seems to be about old doors closing and new doors opening. A number of doors magically opened and a few months later I was on my way to China to begin a brand-new job and a brand-new life. I am absolutely convinced this would never  have happened without taking the suggested actions that reconnected me to God and you.

The slogan on the wall says First Things First. I cannot hope to become aware of the new doors opening in my life, if my mind is jumping around between the past and future like an ant in a hot pot. The only time I can have a spiritual experience is now. The program of Alcoholics Anonymous helps me quiet the disturbance, quell the fear, and come back to the present moment. It's simply a great way to live!

It Works If You Work It...

Recently I hit another bottom with self-centered anger. I felt I wasn't being accorded the respect and honor someone of my lofty status deserved, so I went into my King Baby routine. I sat in my adult high-chair with my floppy baby hat, banging on the fold-down table with an over sized spoon. "Pay attention to me!" I demanded. When no one did, I decided to hold my breath until my face turned purple. That didn't work either.

Finally I realized my self-centered behavior was only hurting me. I was the one suffering, not them. I said a short prayer, asking HP for help and almost immediately my equilibrium was restored. How did I sink back down into the cesspool of my own thinking? How had I kicked myself out of heaven?

An honest look at my program showed I had been coasting for a while. I had been going to meetings and playing the part of the wise sponsor, but my daily practice of steps 10, 11 and 12 had fallen by the wayside. I had been giving lip service to my own interior work and, predictably, I ended up in a ditch.

I'm no saint, but in exchange for keeping me sober, I promised my HP I would live to good purpose. I cannot do this unless I continue to grow and change and that is exactly what the steps help me do. Meetings and sponsorship alone don't cut it for me. I demonstrate my willingness to grow but doing everything that's suggested, not just the fun stuff.

Life is unfolding exactly as it should. If it was supposed to be one iota different, it would be. It gives me a great sense of comfort to know I am always experiencing my highest and best good, even when I'm sitting in my high-chair.

Treating My Disease

They say that only three types of people come to China from overseas: mercenaries, missionaries, and misfits. Even though I came to China originally to work, I certainly fit the latter category as well. Like most of us I have difficulty fitting comfortably in my own skin. If shouting the praises of Alcoholics Anonymous makes me a missionary, them I guess I've got the hat trick.

Shanghai is an easy place to hit bottom. The bars are open late and there are all kinds of extracurricular activities that are easy to fall into. There is sense of freedom here that didn't exist in our home countries, a kind of anything goes mentality. The Chinese people look the other way when we act out. "Just another crazy foreigner", they say. They've been saying that about foreigners for a couple of hundred years now.  As the allure of China continues to grow, more and more misfits from all around the world are finding their bottoms here. Like the Chinese economy, our AA business is booming.

We've grown steadily since I arrived in 1997: from five alcoholics and three meetings a week to more than 100 members and 23 meetings a week today. I see newcomers in the meetings I attend almost every week. I love seeing newcomers in the meetings, not because it gives me an opportunity to provide treatment for their alcoholism, but because it gives me a new, fresh way to treat my own disease.

I believe AA works because of the principle of enlightened self-interest. Everything I do in AA I'm doing for myself -- to earn another day of sobriety. If someone else benefits it's icing on the cake. I get a great feeling when I see the light come on in a newcomer's eyes, but whether another alcoholic "gets it" or not is not up to me. When I put my hand out and share with a newcomer, I'm the one who grows and changes. I'm the one who experiences the 12 promises coming true. It's all about me as usual, but that's the beauty of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Home Group Family

I often hear the expression, "If you had my life, you would drink too." I recently heard someone share, "if you had my life, you wouldn't drink either." My life is filled with goodness today. I owe much of it to the three and a half years I spent in my first home group before moving to China. My first home group is where I reconnected with life, where I learned to be a friend among friends and a worker among workers, where I took baby steps in practicing spiritual principles like love and tolerance, and where, at age 47, I began to grow up -- a process I've not yet fully completed. 

I was not prepared for what greeted me on that first Saturday morning when I walked through the doors of the rec-room in the All Hallows Catholic Church in La Jolla, California. The seventy men in the room were a little to "up"-- a little to happy to suit me. I had unknowingly walked right into the middle of a big party -- a celebration of sober life. I didn't know what it was at the time, but, like any good alcoholic, I wanted more. I kept coming back.

I wasn't a joiner. I ran from intimacy. I had insulated myself from life with alcohol for thirty years. Now the alcohol was gone and I felt open, exposed. If it was up to me I would have stood outside with my nose pressed against the window. But you guys wouldn't let me. You surrounded me in welcome when I introduced myself as a newcomer. You gave me your phone numbers. You made me feel I was the most important person in the room. Slowly I allowed you to pull me inside the life boat and together we rowed away from the wreckage of our broken lives.

I went to a meeting every day of the week, but I looked forward to my home group on Saturday mornings. It didn't take long for my body to relax amid the laughter and enthusiasm in the room. I walked through my fear and began to get to know the regulars. My mind began to open -- like a door cracking and the light chasing away the darkness in a room. I could see that this "God Thing" was working for you, so I became willing to give it a try. I got myself a sponsor and began to do what was suggested. I showed up early; helped to set up the chairs; and cleaned coffee cups. When, at 90 days sober, the group elected me the "donut guy" it felt like I had just won the Nobel Prize.

I received a solid foundation in sobriety from my first home group. I was sad to leave when the time came, but as my grand sponsor said, "God doesn't get us sober to sit on the sidelines of life." The spirit of my first home group is alive in me. I've spent the past sixteen years passing on everything I learned in my first home group to the drunks here in Shanghai.

Today is a holiday in China called the Mid-autumn Festival or the "Moon Festival." Chinese people exchange small round pastries called Moon Cakes. Everyone gets a day off work to celebrate. This evening a full harvest moon will hang low in the sky and all over China, families will enjoy a meal together.  Tonight I'll have a nice dinner with my Chinese family, but I'll remember to be grateful for my AA family, especially my first home group.

Give It Away to Keep It

When I first read the 12 Steps on the wall at my first meeting, the ninth step caught my eye. I wanted to do the ninth step immediately with the ex-girlfriend who had unceremoniously dumped me a few months earlier. I wanted to show her what a good guy I was by coming to AA and all. I was sure that she would realize her mistake and beg me to come back.

A couple of months later her name came up on my resentment list. I was taking my fifth step with my sponsor and I shared how I resented her for evicting me from her apartment into the snow in Denver on New Year's Eve. She even threatened to call her building security if I didn't go peacefully. He asked what did I do, what was my part? "I don't know," I said. "You mean you have no idea of what you did that caused her to throw you out?" "No, all I know is I was coming out of a blackout as she was saying, "I don't have to take this crap from you anymore!"

Unless I continue to grow and change I will slip slowly backwards into the cesspool of alcoholic thinking and behavior. Sooner, rather than later, I'll end up back in the snow in Denver at 2:30 in the morning, dazed and confused. Going to meetings, drinking coffee and laughing at our wacky solutions to life might be enough to keep me sober, but it is not enough to keep me growing along spiritual lines -- the whole point. The power to change is in the steps. Sponsorship -- going through the steps with others keeps me growing and changing.

Each time I go through the steps with a new guy my own understanding deepens and I experience life from a new perspective. When I share some of my own secrets in Step Five I see how far I've traveled. I identify my own struggle with active character defects as we move through Six and Seven together. In working through Steps Eight and Nine, I often find some old debris from the past has floated up to my conscious awareness. I discover I'm not doing such a hot job with the living amends I promised to make.  I don't know how much the other guy benefits when we go through the steps together, but I know I do.

Going through the steps with another alcoholic is the backbone of my program today. When we share together, the Steps are transformed from a bunch of dead words on a wall to living spiritual principles.

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.

In AA I learned that belief in God is only a starting point. A belief has no real power until it grows into faith. 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. Blind faith never worked for me. My faith grew out of my own living experiences in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous. 

I began my journey to faith during my first couple of meetings. Even though my cells were saturated with alcoholism, I sensed many of the people in the rooms had something I wanted. I didn't know what it was at the time, but today I know. They had energy, enthusiasm, happiness -- life in full expression. These folks were nothing like the men I  met every day at my neighborhood bar for "happy" hour. They weren't just pretending to have a good time, they seem to be really enjoying life -- sober! A few days later I was getting ready for bed and I suddenly realized I hadn’t thought about a drink all day. I had no idea at the time how, after using alcohol as the solution for my life for 30 years, it was possible not to have a thought about a drink for a whole day! Something was going on I couldn’t understand, but I wanted more.

I started my steps. When I arrived at step three, I repeated the Third Step prayer as part of my morning quiet time. Since I had no real faith that God would change me, my prayer felt like empty words -- like I had my fingers crossed behind my back.  My sponsor said it really didn't matter if I  believed it or felt it. It only mattered that I was willing to keep saying it. I fell into a comfortable routine of meetings, work, and hanging out with other alcoholics. 

The first real test of my faith came at three years sober. I lost my job and, due to my age, had absolutely no prospects of finding another one. I was plunged into a pit of despair, but gratefully I had a large positive balance in my sobriety bank account so I picked up the phone instead of picking up a drink. I shared what was going on with my sponsor and other alcoholics. I worked the steps around the job loss issue, discovering my part. I made my amends to the people I had harmed on the job. I slogged through a couple of dark, painful weeks, but when I came out on the other side, I was different. I had been changed and my faith was stronger than ever. My faith has been tested many times during my recovery and it has grown every time. 

What started as a belief -- if I did what you did, I could have what you had -- evolved into a faith that works for me. Today I  know whatever mess I  get myself into, I can rely on HP to get me out, not by changing my outsides, but by changing my insides. I don't believe there is a God. I  know there is a God. I've had too many experiences of God working in my life to believe otherwise.


I heard an old timer at a meeting once deliver a graphic explanation of powerlessness. He said, "if you think you have any power, just try not going to the bathroom when you have diarrhea." If I have any power, why can't I turn off my mind and stop thinking when I'm trying to meditate? Why can't I shut off the voices in my head that keep me awake at 3:00 in the morning, reminding me over and over what someone did to me two hours, two weeks, or two years ago? If I had any power why can't I just "let go and let God," turn everything over and live happily ever after?

Faced with years of evidence, it was relatively easy for me to admit I was powerless over alcohol -- when I picked up that first drink I just couldn't stop. But it's been far from easy to learn the whole truth, the extent of my powerlessness. In fact at times the lessons have been excruciatingly painful.

I have no power over anything, not over other people, not over my thoughts, not over the circumstances that arise in my daily life. I am reminded of this fact at every meeting when I hear in How It Works. "There is One who has all power, that One is God." It says God has ALL the power, not 99% of the power, but ALL the power.

Yet, I live in the illusion that I choose, I decide, I take actions. This illusion is a trick ego plays to try and stay in charge. It gives me the sense that I have power, but as I continue to grow along spiritual lines I begin to see I have no power, I never had any power, and I won't ever have any power in the future. I will also realize I don't need power because my HP already supplies everything I need before I even think to ask for it. 

Today I see my recovery is nothing I did, but everything God did. "I" didn't surrender. "I" didn't decide to come to AA.  "I" don't choose what I think and feel today or how I will act. On some mysterious level everything that has happened to me was supposed to happen to me. My life continues to unfold exactly as it should. If my life were supposed to be one iota different, then it would be.

If I have no power, then why do I go to all these meetings, practice the steps and put my hand out to other alcoholics? The simple answer is I do these things because I no longer want to suffer. I no longer want to be dragged through life kicking and screaming. I want to float down the river in the bright sunshine whistling "zippah dee doo dah." Practicing the AA program has dissolved much of the fear, guilt, and anger in my consciousness. I'm definitely no saint, but I sure am a whole lot cleaner inside and happier too.

The Habit of Sobriety

I was an avid reader of self help books for most of my adult years, especially toward the end of my drinking. I had a bookcase full of them. I'd pour myself a tumbler of wine, crack open a book and search for the solution to my life. I was convinced that somewhere within the pages of one of these books I'd discover why I didn't have the energy to look for work, why I couldn't hold a relationship together; why my life held no interest or enthusiasm. At that point the only thing I had to look forward to was the next drink.

One of the books I read was called "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People." Maybe you've heard of it. One of the habits the author suggests is to "Live a God-centered life." I thought this sounded like the answer for me, but I quickly realized I had no idea what God was and no clue about how to coax God into the center of my life. I certainly wasn't ready to quit drinking if that was one of the requirements.

Finally I received the gift of desperation and crawled into the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous. You told me early on if I really wanted to stay sober I might want to follow some suggestions: go to meetings, read the literature, be of service, take the steps. In the beginning I did these things because I feared what might happen if I didn't, but soon I began to enjoy the AA way of life. I fell into the habit of sobriety -- meetings, steps, service. This habit has served me well for almost 20 years. I continue to do all the things you suggested in my first couple of weeks and my life continues to get better and better.

My message of recovery is simple. Get into the habit of sobriety. Do what's suggested regardless of what else is going on in your life. Make AA the first item on your to-do list. Work the steps to take yourself out of the center of your life and make space in your consciousness for your HP. Sooner or later you will begin to live a God-centered life. Just like the book says!

Keeping It Simple

Will C. was the first person to greet me at my first meeting, a nooner at the Presbyterian Church in La Jolla, California.  He was 70-something with a well-trimmed gray beard and kind eyes. His face lit up when I told him it was my first meeting. Drawn to his gentle nature, I came to know and love Will in the years before I moved to China. When I think of keeping it simple, I think of Will.  

If you looked up humility in the dictionary you might find a little picture of Will C. He went to Mass every morning and a meeting every noon. Will loved newcomers. On Wednesday nights you could always find a couple of newbies at Will’s apartment, going through the Joe and Charlie tapes together. Will rarely shared, but when his turn came up, he always ended with, “I came for my drinking, but I stayed for my thinking.” These words echo inside my head.

Will had an old poodle he loved dearly named Lucky. Lucky was the color of Will’s beard. Have you noticed how dogs look like their owners? Will and Lucky were like that. They had been together for seventeen or eighteen years when Will died. Lucky died the next day. The AAs who handled Will’s affairs arranged it so Lucky could share the coffin with Will.

Will was a wonderful example of useful and contented sobriety for me. I am forever grateful to have known this kind, gentle man who kept it simple.

Life on Life's Terms

My wife is dealing with another medical challenge. It is like Life throws a wet canvas over our lives when this happens. It’s easy for my attitude to go south, but I’m not much help to anyone if I allow that to happen. If I do, I become part of the problem, not part of the solution.

When life get’s me down, it’s a sure sign I’ve lost my connection to my HP. I know when this happens because it feels like I am slogging through a swamp up to my knees in quicksand. I can’t muster up enthusiasm for much of anything except sitting, staring at my computer and eating. When this happens my knee-jerk reaction is to do the exact opposite of what my program teaches me. Instead of putting my hand out and re-connecting, I isolate.

I heard in a meeting once that isolation is a dark room where we go to develop our negatives. It’s a catch 22. Self-will takes over as I sink deeper into isolation. When I’m running on self-will I don’t have the power to free myself from isolation. Depression could be right around the corner. Thanks to my recovery program, I am sensitive to my tendency to isolate. I become “sick and tired” of suffering before I get sucked all the way to the bottom.

Reconnecting with life starts with me calling other alcoholics and talking about them, not me. I force myself to get to a meeting and share in a general way what’s going on. I put my hand out to newcomers. I do some writing. In a day or two I’m back t seeing the glass half-full. My attitude and outlook has changed.

I try to remember, it’s not life on my terms, but life on life’s terms. Life is calling the shots. Is life always fair? No. Is life always comfortable? No. But life is always real. As I continue to let go of all the old ideas that stand between me and life, truth begins to shine through. Peace is restored.

Self-centered Fear

I stood outside the meeting room waiting for the meeting to start. I hadn’t had a drink for 90 days. Charlie looked at me and exclaimed so everyone could hear, “what did you do to your body?!” I gained 20 pounds in three months by gorging on cookies, sweets and other snacks. My body craves the sugar I used to get from booze, but sugar isn’t the real problem. Self-centered fear is.

I drank at self-centered fear for thirty years trying to get comfortable in my own skin. This same fear lurks behind everyone of my so-called sins -- greed, pride, envy and my all time personal favorite, sloth. Willpower and self-discipline don’t work for me. Sooner or later the termites of fear gnaw away the foundations of my best intentions and I’m right back to where I started. I’ve lost 100 pounds in the last 15 years -- the same 10 pounds 10 times.

A few years ago I realized as long as fear was driving, I had to sit in the backseat. I had to go where fear took me. The fear took away my ability to choose. I had to drink, I had to lie, I had to cheat, I had to stuff cookies in my mouth. Once I realized I had no choice but to do what I did, I began to let myself off the hook.

Confronting these fears seems to be part of my spiritual journey. The Twelve Steps dissolve my self-centered fear by bringing my old ideas into the light of forgiveness. As the fear dissolves, my ability to make healthier choices returns.

AA is My Church

Yesterday I accompanied my wife to her church. Organized religion is not my thing, but I try to support her spiritual program just as she supports my AA activities. Sometimes I try to make her think I’m doing her a favor by going with her, but the truth is I like her church. Just like AA meetings, I feel better when I’m walking out of church than I did before I walked in. As I sat in church yesterday I thought about the similarities between church and AA and how lucky we alcoholics are to have the program we have.

I enjoy the devotional singing the most. My wife’s church features a six piece band complete with drums, keyboard, and bass guitar. They play modern worship songs with a rock beat. I sing off-key but fortunately the rest of the congregation drowns me out. When I am singing worship songs I feel my channel open, making way for HP to flow into my consciousness. I’m wondering if we should begin our AA meetings with a few songs, just to get the juices flowing? (just kidding)

I notice a number of church members have service roles just like some of us serve our AA meetings.  They greet the worshipers, act as ushers and collect the offering. The church supports a full calendar of events and activities, providing additional opportunities for members to serve. Just like in our meetings, the ones doing the service seem like the happiest people in the room.

Some of the members stand in the front after the service to pray for those who need a little extra help. I wonder if anyone ever asks their prayer partner for their phone numbers? I’m sure meaningful relationships develop between  church members, but I doubt if many of them go as deep at the sponsor-sponsee relationships in AA.

The sermon usually contains one or two spiritual thoughts I can apply to my recovery. Yesterday’s sermon was about carrying the message to non-believers. The minister shared some strategies about how to spot opportunities to deliver the message to others.  It wasn’t a hard sell program, but it made me grateful nevertheless that AA is based on attraction rather than promotion. An endless supply of drunks comes to us. We don’t have to go out and drag them off bar stools. No one is going to try to “introduce” AA to anyone unless they ask for it.

The bible is loaded with spiritual wisdom and instruction, but I wonder how many people in church yesterday have ever taken a searching and fearless inventory of themselves. How many shared their guilt and fear with another? Maybe all these folks aren’t suffering like I was before AA, but I bet some of them are. Without the 12-steps I wonder how these people will heal and find peace.

As we filed out of the sanctuary at the end of the service, the energy felt like the end of an AA meeting. People were talking, laughing, and making plans. As we made our way to the exit I thought about how grateful I am that I don’t have to wait a week for the next meeting.  I don’t believe one meeting a week would cut it for me.

God's Grace

Yesterday at the noon meeting I sat where I could read the framed slogans on the wall. “But for the grace of God (go I)” caught my eye. I used to repeat this slogan whenever I’d see a drunk staggering down the street or the homeless person in filthy clothes passed out in La Jolla park in San Diego where I got sober. I said it as a reminder to be grateful for my recovery and to give all credit to my HP. If I didn’t always say it out loud, I whispered it to myself. I don’t use this slogan anymore and yesterday I realized why.

The slogan implies I received a blessing --  God’s grace -- that the drunk or the homeless person has not received. God’s favor, God’s light has shined on me, but not on them. But what about all those times I staggered and passed out myself? Weren’t these experiences God’s grace? It is by God’s grace I am sober, but it is also God’s grace that I spent thirty years living in alcoholic delusion. I am grateful for my sobriety and my recovery, but I’m also grateful for every drink I drank and every lie I told. Somehow they were all necessary. Every one.

I’m coming to believe it is all Grace. The good things that happen and the icky things that happen. Every bit of life is Grace. In every moment we are all exactly where we are supposed to be, doing exactly what we are supposed to be doing. If any of us were supposed to be somewhere else doing something else, we would be. I’m right where I belong. So are you. Like another slogan says,  “Nothing happens in God’s world by accident.” Nothing. 

Accepting Reality

My father was right at the top of my resentment list when I shared my first fifth step with my sponsor. He was a cold, critical alcoholic and I could not forgive him for the way he treated me. My sponsor asked "can you see that he did the best he could?" "No," I said. "Well can you see that he did what he did?" Huh? Of course I could see that he did what he did but how did that help me? It gave me a choice. The reality was he did what he did. I had a choice to accept reality or argue with it and continue to play the victim. I'm coming to believe that every time I argue with reality I lose. I don't have to like reality, I only have to accept it.

I'm one who believes nothing happens in God's world by accident. Somehow, every experience, even the painful ones (perhaps especially the painful ones) are meant for my highest and best good. I can either choose to accept these experiences and do the best I can or I can resist and struggle. Every time I am unwilling to accept a person or condition in my life I set myself in opposition to reality. In essence I am rejecting God's will. If I am running my life in opposition to God, it is impossible to have anything but a life of struggle and suffering.

I learned from suffering for most of my life. Now I want to learn what joy has to teach me.


I received many gifts throughout my sobriety starting with the gift of desperation. But the most important gift of all is willingness. I was graced with the willingness to do what was suggested in my first meeting and I have pretty much stayed willing ever since. I don't take any of the credit for my willingness because it's a spiritual gift. I know it's a spiritual gift because you told me if I don't feel willing, I can pray for it.

If I let ego manage my sobriety, I'll get drunk.  Ego tells me I have better things to do than go to meetings, call other alcoholics and put my hand out to newcomers. Anything is better than writing my fourth step! It takes willingness to stand up to ego, bit every time I do, ego loses power and it is easier the next time. 

Some days I don't feel willing, but you taught me I don't have to feel willing to act willing. Big Al shared in one of my first meetings, "I felt depressed when I woke up this morning so I decided to stay in bed all day. Then I heard a voice that asked what I would do if I wasn't depressed. I heard another voice that answered, 'you would go to the meeting'. So here I am."

Willingness is spiritual energy. I prime the pump for willingness to flow into my life by taking the suggested actions regardless of how I feel. By acting as if I am willing, I become willing. I almost always feel better after a meeting, especially if I had to drag my butt to it.

Do I need AA?

Through the years I've heard various statistics on how many of us stay in AA for the long term. I've heard that only 2-5% of us who walk through the doors to their first AA meeting are still in AA ten years later. I am always surprised when I hear or read these statistics. AA is such an important part of my life, why would anyone want to leave? A number of possible reasons come to light as I look at my own experience. 

First is the psychological nature of the disease. My alcoholism is the only disease that works non-stop to convince me I don't have it. Cancer, Hep C, and heart disease all scream for treatment. Not alcoholism. It goes to any lengths to make me believe I am not really alcoholic, or, if I was at one time, that I'm fine now. If I believe either of these ideas I am on my way to believing I no longer need AA.

Ego, the main spokesperson of my disease, fights against AA. Ego wants no part of spirituality. It is scared to death that there could be any power greater than itself.  Ego points out I've got more important things to do than attend meetings, talk to other members on the telephone and make coffee. If I know what's good for me, I'd better make more money, spend more time with the family, and go to the gym every day. According to Ego AA is for suckers.

I begin to slip out of AA when I begin to forget what it used to be like. My memories of the pain my alcoholism brought to me and others are fading away. Sometimes a memory of a pleasant drinking experience will shows up in my head uninvited. I've noticed only a few people in our meetings share about their drinking. When I was new an old timer said, "don't ever forget to share about your drinking. It's the only thing the newcomer can hold on to." I don't need AA if I forget I have a drinking problem that was well on its way to killing me.

Finally, how many of us really practice the program as a way of life? Maybe 2-5% is not too far off. It is so easy for me to slip into a comfort zone in my recovery. I know I'm in the comfort zone because I go to the same meetings every week, talk to the same people, and let someone else take on the service positions. I stop writing inventories, stop paying attention to my character defects and stop putting my hand out to newcomers. AA becomes just another social activity. I begin working MY program, not the AA program. I don't need AA if I lose the desire to change and grow. AA works for people who want it. 

Let's face it. The odds are stacked against us. Staying in AA for the long term is a long shot. Wow. This makes me even more grateful to be a sober member today.

Blessing of Alcoholism

I consider my alcoholism to be a blessing. It sounds funny to say that. But I don't know how I could have  traveled from where I was to where I am today without having this life-threatening disease. I was too committed to my own ideas, my own grand plans and schemes. I reached out for help nineteen years ago and I continue to reach out for help today. I have no other choice. God makes it baby simple for me: continue to grow spiritually or suffer.  I suffered for thirty years before I stumbled through the doors to my first meeting. Now I want to see what joy is like.

I do not regret the past. I had to drink every drink, tell every lie, and endure every humiliating experience to find my bottom. One less of anything and I might have missed grace, that moment when it was clear there was a softer, easier way through life than the way I was going. Back then I wasn't thinking about the promise of a better life, I only wanted the pain to go away -- the pain of frustration and confusion, the pain of resentment, the pain of self-hate, the pain of isolation.

Today I spend very little time in fear, anger, or guilt. Like our book says, I enjoy a new freedom and a new happiness. I am no longer baffled when a painful situation arises. Today when I lose my peace I know it is because I am trying to impose my self-centered version of reality on life instead of accepting Life exactly as it is. Pain must result whenever I cannot accept a person or circumstance in my life because, in essence, I am rejecting God. I forget that life is unfolding according to divine plan. I forget each experience, each lesson, is presented to me to help me grow. Today, more than ever, I see that life is perfect just the way it is. Today I know if life were supposed to be different than it is, it would be.

Disappearing Act

The summer before I got sober, my girlfriend and I spent a weekend in Vail, Colorado. The morning after we arrived we hiked, hungover, up to the top of the ski mountain in the bright sunshine and fresh clean air. I will never forget the vista that greeted us when we made it to the peak: eggshell blue sky, flimsy white clouds and the snow-covered peaks of the Rockies towering in the background. Overwhelmed by the incredible beauty of the view, I stood mouth agape, unable to speak. I experienced a moment of awe -- a pure spiritual experience.

What happened?  I know today that for just a few moments my mind stopped. My identification with self gave way to pure reality. My psychological center evaporated. One moment there were two -- me and nature (God). Now there was One. Since I stopped thinking about myself, I had literally disappeared. Now there was only God.

A few seconds later my mind caught itself being absent. In the midst of this incredible experience, a thought barged its way into my consciousness and kicked me out of heaven. "If you take a few hits from the joint in your pocket, you can make this better." Poof. The sense of Oneness vanished.

Practicing our Twelve Steps takes me out of the center of my being and lifts my consciousness. By taking the suggested actions, I slowly dissolve the illusion of self that blocks me from fully realizing the incredible beauty of life. When I am willing to practice the spiritual principles of the Steps to the best of my ability on any given day, I take one step toward God. God responds by taking two steps toward me.

More Grace

Sometimes when I glance at myself sideways in the mirror, I see my father's reflection looking back at me. It is scary how much I look like him when he was my age. I can see today that,like me, dad tried to control every aspect of his life. His family, his work and especially his alcoholism. He even used a shot glass to measure his scotch! His suicide was a final act of control, an exclamation point.

I grew up afraid of him. He was an ex-military officer. His favorite expression was "straighten up and fly right." I resented him for not being the dad on the TV program, "Ozzie and Harriet." His constant criticism, nitpicking, and non-stop judgement drove me and my sister away from home as soon as we were able. I vowed never to become like him. Yet I became exactly like him.

Thanks entirely to AA and the 12-steps, my resentment against my father dissolved first into pity and finally into compassion. My father is no longer the cruel task master of my memory, but a garden variety drunk like me, just trying to hold it together as best we can.

I do not believe all gifts come in pretty packages. My alcoholism was far from pretty, but I consider it a gift -- divine grace. Without becoming an alcoholic I could never have learned to forgive.

Reconnecting with Life

I took the first few faltering steps on the bridge back to life when I walked into my first meeting and introduced myself as a newcomer. I laughed, really laughed for the first time in years. I couldn't put my finger on exactly what it was, but I sensed there was some kind of magic going on in the meeting rooms. I wanted what you had so I got myself a great sponsor and started in on the steps. When my home group elected me doughnut guy it felt like I'd just been awarded the Nobel Prize. 

My reconnection with life began in earnest when I shared my fifth step with my sponsor. It was the first time I had been totally honest with anyone in 47 years! More imaginary barriers fell away when I cleaned up much of the guilt and shame from my past by taking Steps Eight and Nine. I began to look people in the eye instead of down at their feet.

As my insides began to change, my outsides changed too. After more than a year on the sidelines, I became gainfully employed. A new girlfriend showed up to help me grow. I fell into a comfortable routine of work, romance and meetings. Apparently HP understands that the comfort zone is the absolute worst place for an alcoholic like me. So he sent me an alcoholic to share with and my recovery jumped to a whole new level.

Through the years I've had the honor and privilege of working with a number of men, especially here in China. I have come to realize I've been given a gift of great value -- my own experience. I share it freely with anyone who asks (and often with some who don't. Grinning.) The time I spend one-on-one with other alcoholics pays off like a Las Vegas slot machine, not in silver dollars, but in a shiny life that feels more useful and contented as the years roll by.


I was less then 90 days sober when my grand sponsor caught me walking into the meeting a few minutes late. "Do you need a new watch?" he asked after the meeting. "No, why?" "Because you were late. You didn't hear How It Works. If you understood How It Works, you wouldn't be late!" Then he added, "AA is my church and church starts on time."

Today AA is my church too. I connect with the God of my own understanding in AA meetings. I also connect with God in my wife's church, in Buddhist temples and in hiking alone in nature, but it's not the same. Sometimes I actually sense the power circulating throughout the meeting room. A mighty power, a healing power. I think the other big book says when we seek together, "when more than one are gathered," our power is multiplied ten fold. I am so grateful I don't have to wait until Sunday to go to my church. I can attend "services" three times a day, even here in Shanghai.

Meetings are where I practice spiritual principles like acceptance, tolerance, and forgiveness that, for some reason, I struggle to practice in the outside world. It's where I feel most at home, most comfortable in my own skin. I have nothing to prove and nothing to fear. You all have already seen all my warts and love me anyways. It is in AA meetings I experience the joy of seeing the light come on in a newcomer's eyes.

I don't know what my life would be like without meetings because I've never gone without. I can't see this changing in the near future. I found a useful, contented life in meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous. I'm not about to screw with the formula if I can help it.