When I glanced around at my first AA meeting, I thought everyone looked like thugs. Despite everything I knew I had done in my lowest moments as an alcoholic, I used the difference in our wrappers to decide that these were not my people. Everything changed when the speaker shared. It was the first time anyone had ever parted the curtain and shown me a mirror that reflected my inner self. I felt more emotions in that one hour than I had felt in the course of many years. These emotions ran from one end of the spectrum to another: fear, relief, disorientation, recognition, denial, surrender, withdrawal, and yearning, to name a few. When the meeting ended, my disease quickly moved in to tell me it had all been imaginary and vague, that I should not be too quick to identify and leap. But the mirror behind the curtain had not lied. The images it showed me would never be erased. A chain of events had begun that could not be stopped.
I have shared with others and heard them acknowledge the changes that happen when we go too long between meetings. Rather than walk in the room relaxed and smiling, greeting our friends, looking forward to the readings, Newcomers and shares, we feel that something is not quite right. We are not comfortably at home. There is an oddness we cannot name, a sense that we are in a stilted, strange gathering of a quirky society, going through bizarre rituals that normal people do not practice. Even after many years in the Program, despite having involuntarily memorized the preambles and procedures, despite a long-standing connection with our local Fellowship, when we do not stay in close contact with one another, we lose something. Although it can be regained, often in a short while, there is something troubling and worrisome about where that deep affiliation has gone, how easily I can forget the bond that has been closer in many cases than family ones. I do not wish to take the risk that I will sever my ties to this life-saving Program. So I keep coming back. I keep standing before the mirror.
It is very important for me to constantly remember that my happiness needs to stem from leading a useful life of service and honorable actions. I remember clearly the elation and dejection that I would alternately feel as life dealt its good and bad news, as if specially made for me. Even though I use my skills and knowledge for the same tasks as I did while drinking, my motivation and incentive have completely changed. This, in turn, has changed everything about the way I relate to work, success and unmet aspirations. When I worked for recognition, praise and special privileges, I lived in a state of fear. I constantly worried about whether I was measuring up, whether a change in management would eliminate my fan base, whether my luck was running out. When I did not receive the accolades I was expecting, I grew bitter, defensive and alienated. When the recognition and pats on the back did come, I started to coast, resting on my laurels, feeling exempt from the drudgery others had to endure. I was either very special or I had been unfairly cheated for unknown political reasons. There was nothing in between.
In sobriety, I have learned that there is only one measuring stick for me – have I been of service, to the best of my ability, with honor and care? Having only to answer to my Higher Power and my inner most self, I am not inflated and deflated with each reaction I receive. If others are pleased with the results, I enjoy that feeling, but I do not cling to it. I think of all those who have contributed to my ability to be in the position of performing this service, all the people I rely on to be able to do what I do. There is no individual glory I can claim. And if others are not happy with my work, I have learned to practice humility, to seek to understand any valid criticism contained in their remarks. If an amends is needed, I make it. But the most valuable lesson I have learned in AA about criticism is that I do not have to take it personally. If I have learned to contain my reaction to praise, it is easier for me not to plunge into despair if I am criticized. It is in AA that I first heard the phrase “God is my employer,” and I have found it to be very valuable. I answer to the highest boss in the land – the one that does not have bad hair days. Success and less, I can handle them now. They are what I do, not who I am. The same goes for wealth and lack thereof. If I need luxury and a fat back account to be happy, then at some point in the future, the rug can be pulled out from under me. I can be grateful for the access that money can bring. I can enjoy the ability to give to my family and others. But I cannot cling to these states. To do so is to live in fear and worry. Security is a state of mind. It is a feeling of faith in a power greater than dollars and cents, houses, cars and designer clothes. It is faith in something that cannot burn or rust or break or be stolen. And health is a kind of fortune too. It comes and goes, and much is unpredictable. I must do the best I can with what I have. Even in failing health, I must try to be of service, if not to others, then to myself and to the very process of my living and dying. In all things, I must find my strength and courage in a Higher Power. A boat that cannot be rocked by the changing tide.
I have a friend who tells me that pretty much every alcoholic eventually needs Alanon in one way or another. She is active in both programs and has a sponsor and sponsees in each one. She jokingly calls people like herself “double winners.” Even if an AA member never makes it to an Alanon meeting, there are definitely teachings from Alanon that apply perfectly to alcoholics. One of these is the need to set and respect proper boundaries between ourselves and other people. This applies to virtually every relationship. The Big Book, in discussing the Fourth Step, alludes to resentments that arise from our inability to control other people and make them behave the way we want them to. I have experienced this with family members, including children, husbands, parents, siblings, in-laws, cousins, aunts and uncles. Like most meddlers, my motives are, by and large, fairly noble. The kid needs to have a busier summer, the spouse needs to get more assertive at work, the parents need to get enligtened on their political views, the siblings need to be more financially responsible, the in-laws need to improve their health, the cousin needs to finish her education, and the aunt and uncle need to sell everything and move into a nursing home. I am a wellspring of helpful advice. If my suggestions don’t work, it is because someone does not follow them to the exact letter. Being aware of this dysfunction and the strain that it puts on relationships, I have made efforts to become more aware of it and to stop perpetuating it. One method I have found successful is to refrain entirely from speaking when my prospective wards are relating their woes. This has entailed much lip biting, deep breathing and silent chanting. I often have to raise the volume in my brain, saying “don’t do it, don’t do it, don’t take the bait!” Although it is quite excruciating in the moment, I later reap many rewards from not having dispensed my tips for living. This is all part of growing up in AA, learning how to be “right sized”, and practicing the philosophy of the Serenity Prayer. Everyone has their own higher power, and it probably needs no help from me. Good fences make good neighbors.
Having an extensive support system to help maintain my sobriety is the opposite of relying on will-power. I remember how clear and strong my convictions would be, how fervently and adamantly I would pledge not to indulge in my addictions on a particular day or before a certain event. I would muster all the resolute will and devotion I had within me, harnessing all the determination in my brain, and I would fail. Over and over again. The thing upon which I relied was unreliable. It had a terrible track record. But seemed to be my only option. Today it seems that my support system keeps getting larger and more intwined. At the core are AA meetings, a sponsor, sponsees, commitments and AA literature. The Fellowship is an ever-ready support system, with any number of people I can contact in any number of ways when I need help working through a problem. Beyond the Program and its tools and community, I also have support systems in my fitness and recreation activities, where I can go to get physically recharged and rest my spirit. At every moment of every day there are many places I can turn for wisdom, guidance, understanding, encouragement and inspiration. The greatest support system of all lives in my connection with a loving and omniscient Higher Power. If I remember to invoke its assistance, its track record is 100% success. My will power has not been banished entirely. It has its proper roles. But running my life and getting me through tough times is not among them. Today I have the kind of support that can withstand any weight that life can bring to bear.
One of the first harsh realizations in sobriety is that we must fully experience our suffering (whatever that may be) without the buffering effects of alcohol. It is not until we have worked all of the Twelve Steps that we get the fullest relief from our fears and resentments, even if our craving for alcohol disappears much sooner. Between the First Step and the Twelfth Step, there was a lot of sorrow and confusion for me. I often wondered why it was necessary for me to endure such travails in order to stay sober. Why would any Higher Power want to stack the odds so heavily against a newly recovering person? Much later, I began to understand the purpose of my emotional strain in early sobriety. It turned out to be more complicated than I would have thought. It was more than just the Yin Yang of sorrow and joy, pain and freedom, suffering and peace, that one could not exist or be experienced in the absence of the other. The early feelings prepared me to be compassionate toward Newcomers after I had assembled some time in the Program. I could describe their own feelings to them in such a way that they knew I had firsthand knowledge, not only of alcoholism, but of the sometimes anguish of early recovery. We are far more likely to seek guidance from someone who understands us fully and does not judge us harshly. Lastly, when I looked at others who had not gone so deeply into depression in early sobriety, I saw that many of them had hit a harder bottom than mine in their drinking. They were more clearly ready for the Program than I was. They wanted it more and were willing to go to any lengths. For them, every day sober was a huge gift and relief. My struggle in the early days was my own way of hitting bottom. When I emerged from all that turmoil, I felt the incredible elation of stepping into the sunlight – free of fear, loathing and obsession. I had walked through that dark tunnel. I could finally see the sky.
In summary, Step Twelve says we have had a spiritual awakening as the result of working the prior Steps, and asks us to try and carry the AA message to other alcoholics and to practice the principles of AA in all our affairs. In the early days of AA, Newcomers were put to work fairly quickly, attending 12th Step calls and reaching out to other alcoholics. Although we are meant to take the steps in order, I do not think it is too early for anyone to shake the hand of a Newcomer, and if his share was particularly meaningful and helpful, to tell him so. Sometimes people who are brand new can relate better to someone who is just a little less new than themselves. Their hand is easier to grasp – not such a far reach. But we all need to know our limitations. We “can’t transmit what we haven’t got.” Nor can we give advice. If we stick to sharing experience, strength and hope, we are likely to do some good. I have come across a number of people in my work and social environments who seemed to “need” the Program and I have had to think carefully about if, when and how to approach such people. Some of them have noticed that I don’t drink, and have asked about it. In these instances, I have sometimes been able to carry the message to the point of helping people find the doors of AA. Most of the time, unless someone approaches me, or is already a close friend, there is nothing I can do.
If someone wants to know how to get sober, I try to check in with my Higher Power before I open my mouth with this person. I ask to be taken out of the way, to allow the spiritual message this person needs to hear to be freely transmitted, with me being only a facilitator. I try to stick to my experience, strength and hope when answering questions. But sometimes I will borrow from the shares I have heard from others. Without identifying them, I might say “I heard a woman share about that very same topic.” Then I will relate the story in a way that answers the Newcomer’s question. One thing I have had to work hard at is the concept of “attraction not promotion.” I have a salesman inside of me struggling to emerge at all times. I have to remember not to “pitch” AA. I have found that the less intense I am about relating my experience, the more receptive the listener is. Again it is back to my Higher Power. What is the “message” this person needs to hear? I cannot fill their head with all the knowledge in AA. What do they really need to hear today, right now? I don’t know the answer to that, but if I am in the right frame of mind, I will help in a way that I am not even consciously attempting. Lastly, if I am to be of help to anyone who is suffering from alcoholism, then I need to be properly steeped in the Program. This means attending meetings, reading our literature, having a sponsor and one or more sponsees. If I am immersed in AA, I am more likely to impart useful information and insights. I will have something to offer. I will carry the message of Alcoholics Anonymous, and not some other message. The Twelfth Step only requires that I try. There are no quotas, no recruits. Just a very special parcel I carry with me in case it is ever needed.
Step 11: Sought through prayer and mediation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
Nearly every religion and spiritual path around the world and throughout history recommends some form of prayer and meditation. Medical science has acknowledged the benefits of both practices. Forms of meditation have become essentials in the highest levels of athletic performance. Even financial advisors, sales trainers and workplace consultants employ these tools. There seems to be ample evidence that our brains benefit from the serene concentration that prayer and meditation can offer. We seem to be hard-wired for it as humans. One of the primary aims of Alcoholics Anonymous is to teach us how to live sober, meaning how to handle “life on life’s terms” without needing to dull our feelings with alcohol. How we react to life and the feelings we develop as we live, are driven largely by our frame of mind or overall attitude. If we are irritable and combative, then we are likely to respond badly to life’s inevitable hiccups. If we are centered and serene, we are likely to handle things with more equanimity, keeping what happens in proper perspective. So it is no surprise that the Program of Alcoholics Anonymous calls for prayer and meditation.
Step 11 tells us that our responsibility is to seek improvement in our conscious contact with our Higher Power. And we are told the sole aim of prayer is to seek our Higher Power’s guidance. We do not have to have an out-of-body experience. We do not have to develop a Zen master’s level of concentration. We do not have to stand or sit a certain way or say any particular words. The when and how of prayer and mediation are left to us, and we are invited to search all available disciplines to find one that works. Many people are more comfortable with meditation than with prayer. For them I would suggest a certain type of meditation that can really be counted as prayer. If we reach a state of stillness and peace, we can add a special focus at the end. The first is a meditation of gratitude, visualizing all the goodness that has come our way and holding it in a state of appreciation. We receive this goodness and in our mind, we bow and acknowledge its bounty. If we cannot give thanks, then let us give acknowledgment and respect to the things that have come our way. Secondly, we can end our meditation with a visualization that we are surrounded by a living energy that is receptive to intuition, mysteries and unsolved riddles of the universe. If we can see ourselves as open and able to receive any wisdom that the great unknown may be able to impart to us, like the muse that sparks creativity in artists and musicians, the light that comes from somewhere they cannot name. If we can hold these thoughts in our head in a focused way, then I maintain that we have prayed. Regardless of the specific words of our texts, we must open our arms very wide to embrace all those who seek sobriety, regardless of how different their practices may be to ours. Everyone must be allowed to seek in the way that feels honest. I believe that each of us will be heard.