It's All About Me

I believe Alcoholics Anonymous works on the principle of enlightened self-interest. I benefit every time I share. If anything I say helps another alcoholic, it’s icing on the cake. I can’t get anyone sober, but sharing with others is absolutely necessary for me to stay sober and grow. It’s all about me.

I try to share what it was like, what happened and what it’s like today.  I pass on the touchstones of my recovery. I share about the first time I admitted I needed help, about my moment of clarity, about what my pink cloud felt like. I share about the relief of having the obsession lifted clean out of me. I share about my first meeting -- about feeling like I had finally found my way home after a long journey. I share that I wasn’t sure I was an alcoholic until a man said that once he took that first drink he never wanted to stop. I thought, “Yeah, that’s me. I never want to stop either.”

I was taught to start out talking a little about my drinking and my feelings of guilt, shame and remorse about the people I hurt with my drinking, including myself. Some say that the most important word in the Big Book is “Remember.” I never want to forget what it felt like to be me in those last few years as the disease dragged me down. The frustration of failed relationships, the terror of running out of money, the insanity of believing a new job was going to fix everything. I share about feeling paralyzed to take any positive actions to look for work or even to clean my apartment.  I don’t drone on and on in a never-ending drunk-a-log, but the newcomer needs to know that I drank alcoholically, suffered consequences, but kept on drinking anyways. Unless an alcoholic can identify with my drinking, he or she won’t pay attention to my solution.

I try to keep it light. As an alcoholic who suffers from terminal seriousness, it was the laughter in the rooms that kept me coming back in the early days. I try to share at least one humorous episode about the insanity of my drinking. Like how shocked the California Highway Patrol officers must have been when they saw me driving directly toward them going the wrong way on the Golden Gate Bridge. If  we can get a newcomer to laugh, there’s a good chance he’ll come back. If we can get him back to the meeting day after day or week after week, God will do the rest.

Most newcomers have been beating themselves with the whip of self-hate for years before they find their way to AA. I know I did. I share about what I learned on the first day in the treatment center: Alcoholism is a disease like cancer, liver or heart disease. It’s not my fault if I have it, but now that I know I have this disease, it’s my responsibility to treat it. If I fail to do so, my life will become a living hell. I suggest they check their whip at the door and use the energy to treat their disease by taking the actions prescribed in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous.

I talk about willingness. I put myself in the center of AA by demonstrating willingness. Willingness to me is not simply “go to meetings, get a sponsor and work the steps and don’t drink.” Equally important to me is demonstrating willingness by asking for help, allowing people to know me, putting my hand out to the new person and being of service to the group. By demonstrating willingness, I put myself in the center of the AA herd where I am safe. If I try to hang out on the outside with half measures, I’m fair game for the disease to have its way with me.

I firmly believe anyone can keep sober, grow spiritually and enjoy a beautiful fulfilling life if they are willing to go to any length. What is any length? Like what was suggested to me when I was new, I recommend a newcomer spend more time taking recovery actions each day than he or she did drinking and using. This equaled six hours of recovery a day for me. When I suggest 90 meetings in 90 days I watch the newcomer’s eyes roll back. I know he is thinking “you’ve got to be kidding me!” Most won’t commit, but those who do seem to have a much better chance.

Today my life feels useful and contented. I enjoy peace of mind much of the time. I have a newfound capacity to stay balanced regardless of how fast life is spinning around. I continue to take the actions that keep me in the center of Alcoholics Anonymous, not because I’m afraid I’ll drink, but because my life feels so much better when I do.  My HP doesn’t play favorites. My message to newcomers is you can have what I’ve got if you’ll do what I do.

Real Feel Good

Thankfully God led me to AA before I tried  crack cocaine. I have such an addictive personality that a couple of crack sessions would probably be enough to make me sell my blood to buy more. I tried everything to outrun the fear: making money, exercise, relationships. Nothing worked for long. Almost 21 years ago booze was failing me too. Oh I still got drunk all right, but the fear shadowed me wherever I went.

A therapist told me some painful truths about myself and recommended treatment. I wasn’t even sure I was an alcoholic, but I was out of ideas. When I committed to treatment, something inside of me let go. My thirty-year obsession to drink was lifted clean out of me. I didn’t realize at the time that God was doing for me what I could never do for myself.

I floated into my first AA meeting on a pink cloud, feeling like a two hundred pound bag of cement had been removed from my shoulders. I was welcomed with open arms. Still toxic and spinning, I don’t remember too much about what went on, but I do remember I laughed, really laughed, for the first time in many years. It felt like I had finally found my way home after a long painful journey. Hope flooded in. Like any good addict, I wanted more. You promised the good feelings would continue if I was willing to take a few simple actions. I took the suggested actions not because I was afraid of drinking if I didn’t, but because I wanted what some of the old timers in the room seemed to have -- peace of mind.  

I can’t find my HP hanging out on the outside of the program. God comes alive for me when I’m in the center of Alcoholics Anonymous. If I really want to enjoy my recovery and my life, I must take the suggested actions day in and day out, rain or shine. I don’t do this perfectly, but my life feels useful, content, and exciting when I do.

We arrived in the area at the end of 2013 for what was to be a two month winter vacation. Almost immediately Lola became very ill. As her caretaker I did not have time to get to many meetings last year. After she died I realized I needed to get connected. A month ago I committed myself to 90 meetings in 90 days. My ego would much rather hang out in Cheers (where everybody knows my name) than to walk into new meetings and introduce myself to a bunch of strange alcoholics for the first time, but I knew there would be a payoff if I did. As of yesterday I’ve been to 34 meetings in 31 days. Already I’ve discovered a number of new enjoyable meetings and made some new recovery pals. My life is beginning to feel full once again.

Love and Tolerance

A year ago, just after we arrived back in San Diego, I was asked to lead the noontime meeting near my home. During the meeting a newcomer raised his hand to share. He said that his main problem was drugs. He asked if it was OK if he shared. I paused for a moment waiting for the meeting secretary to intercede, but when she didn’t, I said, “Sure.” After we said the closing prayer, the meeting’s self-appointed sheriff came up to me and said I shouldn’t have allowed him to share. He said the group had taken a group conscience about the issue that stipulated only alcoholics could share at the meeting. His criticism stung. This incident caused me to consider this issue at length. I concluded that, if the same scenario occurred today, I would respond in the same way. I believe love and tolerance takes precedence over the group conscience, but I must also love and tolerate those who hold opposing views. I think this is the way Bill W. would see it if he were around today. 

Years ago in China, before NA meetings were firmly established, a newly sober man asked me to work with him. I declined because he introduced himself in our AA meetings as a drug addict. I told him I thought drug addiction and alcoholism to be two separate diseases. I pointed out that, while we both had mental obsessions over our drugs of choice, I had a physical allergy to alcohol that he didn’t have. Besides, the literature is different, the meetings are different, even the wording of the Steps is different. He still didn’t fully understand why I wouldn’t try to help him. Today I don’t understand either. I regret not agreeing to work with this man. I got  caught up in our differences and lost sight of our similarities: the hopelessness we felt, the never-ending fear, the self-hate. I do feel that drug addicts are best sponsored by drug addicts, but if God ever drops another drug addict on my doorstep, I’ll gladly take him in. God doesn’t give to one and withhold from another. Why should I?

In my view, AA is growing and changing, becoming a ever more solid force for good in the world. I have a choice. I can either go along or resist these changes. I’m learning that anytime I resist change I suffer. It’s hard for me to identify with young people who have completely screwed up their lives in five years -- a job that took me thirty, yet, it seems that is exactly what I’m called upon to do.

Language of the Heart

I couldn’t put it off any longer. I was running out of things to read to my sponsor during my first fifth step. The tension had been building for an hour as we discussed my resentments and fears. I really, really didn’t want to share my secrets with him. After all, what would he think of me? These were the icky things no one was to ever find out about me. They were so embarrassing, I tried not to look when I wrote them down. Now I had no choice. Somehow I summoned the courage, held my breath and plowed ahead. It didn’t take long to read my secrets to my sponsor. The last one was particularly painful to share, but when I finally admitted what I had done, he said, “Oh, did you do that too?” Then he went on to share a couple of his secrets and my anxiety immediately vanished. Through the years I’ve shared these very same secrets with a number of other alcoholic men without a twinge of anxiety. I learned that my painful life experiences are like gold, sharing them with other alcoholics enriches us both.

I share not only the stupid, embarrassing, hurtful things I did when I was drinking. I also share sad, angry and fearful experiences. We had a first timer at our meeting on Wednesday who broke into tears when he shared that his wife had passed away a few months earlier. I gave him my number after the meeting and he called me the next day. I shared with him about my experience losing Lola and he shared his feelings about losing his wife. He said he felt better after chatting with me and promised to stay in touch. I don’t know if he will call me again, but I felt glad that my grief over losing Lola had been put to good use.

AA’s official start date is not the date Bill W. got sober, but the day Dr. Bob got sober. The whole foundation of our program is not lofty spiritual ideas, but simply one alcoholic sharing honestly with another alcoholic.  This is the language of the heart.