AA Birthday

Today is my twenty-second AA birthday. What a terrific journey it has been!

Looking back I can see I was dying when I walked through the door to my first meeting.  Dying not only from alcoholism, but also from terminal seriousness. I had flat-lined emotionally years before. I had no energy or enthusiasm for anything except getting high. Prozac helped, but alcohol was my real medicine. I drank for Technicolor, but the colors were fading like the colors on an old tee shirt that had been washed a hundred times. I had no job or real interest in finding one. I hid from life in my darkened apartment with empty pizza boxes on the floor. A moment of clarity sent me to a therapist who said she couldn’t help me, but maybe the treatment center up the street could. I took my last drink yesterday, April 28, 22 years ago. When I woke up the next morning something in me had changed. I can’t explain it. All I know is that I spent my last $3,700 of Visa credit signing up for an out-patient treatment program. I walked into my first AA meeting three days later.

The magic continued in that first meeting.  I think it was the laughter that hooked me. I remember laughing, really laughing for the first time in years. I identified with all your wacky solutions to the problems of life because I had tried every one! After the meeting some of the men surrounded me in welcome. I was invited to breakfast. An unseen hand pushed me to go. Driving home from breakfast, I tried to make sense of what had happened. I couldn’t. All I know is it felt like I had finally found my way home after a long, painful journey. I was hooked.

I was unemployed--unemployable really—during my first year. I hid out in Alcoholics Anonymous. I went to meetings daily—sometimes two. I worked through the steps with my sponsor. I hung out with sober alcoholics.  When my home group elected me dough-nut guy, it felt like I had just won the Nobel Prize.  My recovery went into overdrive when a man ask me to sponsor him. I suffered a painful job loss at three and a half years sober, but I didn’t drink. I worked the steps around the job loss and, a short time later, I received an exciting job offer in Shanghai, China.

It was 1997 and, as far as I could tell, there was no AA in Shanghai. The International Directory listed a phone number for one sober woman, but every time I called from San Diego a Chinese woman answered. I shared my fear about lack of AA support with an old timer who said, “Don’t worry about it. God wouldn’t send you to China if you weren’t ready to go. God didn’t get you sober to sit on the curb. It’s time for you to get off the curb and live your life.” Sure enough as soon as I arrived in Shanghai, I hooked up with a sober man who introduced me to the other three AA’s in Shanghai.

We had three meetings a week in each other’s apartments. Compared to hundreds of meetings and thousands of alcoholics in San Diego, it was definitely an AA “lite” program for me. But it turned out to be just enough. Despite the pressures of a new job, the frustrations of not speaking the language and the crappy weather, I did not drink. Instead I carried the message to newcomers in our budding Shanghai fellowship. When I left Shanghai a couple of years ago, Shanghai AA had an Alano Club offering twenty-three meetings a week to more than a hundred recovering alcoholics. Our website makes it easy for visitors from around the world to find meetings.

Today, I continue to go to meetings mostly every day. I go not because I’m afraid to drink, but because I really enjoy them. AA meetings are better than TV. Seeing the light come on in a newcomer’s eyes is still my greatest pleasure. My participation in Alcoholics Anonymous has been a constant in my life. It has supported me through many wonderful and a few painful experiences. In the process I have grown and changed. Today, thanks to all of you, I’m pretty happy with the man I see in the mirror.

Hide and Seek

 I was taught anonymity means giving all credit to God, taking no credit for myself-- for anything. This idea is clearly stated in the other big book where it says “of myself I am nothing, He does the works.” I’m coming to believe there is not me and God. There is only God. Growing spiritually is about me disappearing.

At best I’m just a channel for God like it says in our Eleventh Step prayer. I practice the steps. I empty myself out of old, mistaken ideas about me and how life works. I become an ever fuller expression of God. Struggle and suffering fall away as I stop believing the crap in my head. I experience moments of bliss as God’s peace, love and power flows through me.

I did not come by this realization quickly.  In fact, God is so anonymous He has me continuing to believe I am doing the work. After all, don’t I decide to go to the meeting? Don’t I drive myself there? Don’t I put my hand out to the newcomer? I want to take credit for this stuff, but then I remember How It Works. “There is One who has all power. That One is God.” All power. Not 99% of the power.

My ego asks, “if everything were God and God is Love, then why would there be starvation, disease and wars and killing? The only answer I can come up with is that God doesn’t will these things to happen, but He allows these things to happen for our highest and best good. In the same way God graced me with alcoholism. I could not have traveled from where I was to where I am today without having a deadly disease that was going to kill me unless I treated it spiritually.

God and I play a continuous game of hide and seek. God tries to stay totally anonymous, but I see God every time I am willing to seek God. God hides in plain sight, everywhere I look. Our book asks me to choose. Is God everything or nothing? I have seen way to many miracles to believe nothing.

Staying in the Center

I didn't realize I was spiritually sick. I knew my life wasn't going well, but I thought a new job and a new glamorous girlfriend would fix everything. But I couldn't seem to muster the energy to look for work. As my bank balance plummeted, I woke up every morning with an ache of fear in my gut. Mostly I felt empty inside. I drank for relief from the grayness of my life, for some Technicolor.

I searched for answers in self-help books. Almost every week I'd walk to the Crown Books near my apartment and browse the New Age section looking for the solution to my life. I'd carefully select a book, take it home, pour myself a tumbler of wine, and excitedly begin to read. I read titles like Think and Grow Rich, Psycho-cybernetics, and Seven Habits of Highly Successful People. One of the books suggested I lead a God-centered life. This idea resonated with me. I committed to take some of the author's suggestions, but I failed to follow through and nothing changed. A few days later I was back in Crown Books looking for another solution.

It took a while in AA to discover why none of these wonderful books helped me. First I didn't know what my real problem was - alcoholism - and second I learned the ideas in my head can't solve any of my problems because the ideas in my head are the source of ALL my problems. You guys taught me AA is a program of action, not a program of thinking. I got that, but how much action is enough?

I was a week or so sober when our counselor at the treatment center gave us newbies a little exercise. She asked us to estimate the average amount of time we drank and used each day. Generally I started cocktail hour at four thirty and drank until I staggered off to bed at 10:30, so I estimated six hours. I thought this sounded high, so I didn't include weekends and holidays when I often drank all day. Once we had completed our estimates, she said, "Now if you really want to stay sober, you have to spend more time taking recovery actions than you did drinking." I committed to six hours and
fifteen minutes of recovery activities each day. It wasn't as difficult as my ego would have me believe. I was firmly in the center of Alcoholics Anonymous when my sponsor gave me my 90 day chip. I've stayed in the center ever since and life continues to be increasingly wonderful.

An Inside Job

It was 1988, six years before I staggered into AA, and my first marriage was on the rocks. We sat in the therapist’s office complaining about each other. I really didn’t want to be there. My memory is sketchy, but I do remember one comment the therapist made that shocked me to the core. I said I felt betrayed by my soon-to-be ex-wife because she didn’t make me happy. The therapist said, “It’s not Christina’s job to make you happy, Jeff.” I pretended like I knew this all along, but it was a stunning revelation. If not to make me happy, why did I marry her in the first place? I thought making each other happy was the whole idea of marriage.

For most of my life, even well into sobriety, I believed happiness was caused by something outside of me — a raise at work, a new car, the love of a good woman. I didn’t know I had been confusing happiness with excitement and pleasure. I learned I can never be free as long as I depend on people, places and things for happiness. I don’t have to do anything to be happy. I’m already happy. I just don’t realize it some of the time.

You guys taught me happiness is an inside job. I may not feel happy all the time, but happiness is always there.  Just like I may not feel the warmth of the sun on a rainy day. The sun is always shining even though I can’t see it. Just like the dark clouds, my old, dark ideas — self centered fears — block my experience of happiness. The program of Alcoholics Anonymous — meetings, steps and service — dissolve the cloud cover and happiness naturally shines through. AA for me is not about learning anything new. It’s about unlearning everything I think is true.  The Twelve Steps have proven quite handy for this work.

I had real proof of the eternal nature of happiness when I walked with Lola through the last year of her life. It was excruciatingly painful. Yet through it all I sensed happiness was always present. As a result of demonstrating my willingness to do all that is suggested, my insides feel cleaner, lighter. Since I no longer depend on anyone or anything for my happiness, I am free.