It is amazing to me how long I clung to the childish notion that “freedom” meant doing what I wanted when I wanted. What I failed to see was my own enslavement, not only to alcohol, but to my turbulent emotions, constantly roiled by the ordinary events of life in human society. Today I am free of addictions, for each of them have been lifted, not through my willpower, but through a psychic change that AA has brought about. Alcohol, drugs, money, power, work, sex, food, TV, anger, pride, none of them own me anymore. I am utterly astounded that this has happened to me. I credit a Higher Power that has worked on me in ways I could never have done with any amount of determination. Despite this extraordinary freedom from the forces that followed and haunted me my whole life, I am far from perfect. I still worry too much, I still flail away at things that really do not matter, I still try to control other people sometimes. But there are no monkeys on my back. Just a long road of growing that lies ahead of me. I am grateful to be trudging without a heavy sack of bricks to drag along. But I know this grace does not exist in a vacuum and is not a trophy to sit on my shelf. It is a daily blessing that is mine to enjoy or to throw away. I am free to live in joy and purpose. But I am also free to load up the bricks and haul them once again.
When I first read about H.A.L.T. (hungry, angry, lonely, tired) as a personal checklist during times of distress, I found the “A” to be out of place. In my mind, anger was not something I could fully control, so why even ask myself if I had it? It was what it was, and if I had to be without it in order to avoid relapse, then I was surely out of luck. Quickness to anger and poor responses to it were my greatest character defects when I arrived at the Rooms. It took an excruciatingly long time to get relief from this condition. The improvement was so slow and so slight as to be agonizing and demotivating. The only advice I ever got was to keep coming back. After I worked the Seventh Step, I realized that I could do no more. The rest was up to my H.P. So I kept coming back, and getting beaten down, and more and more willing, and as humble as the dust under my boots. Finally, several years into the process, the armor of anger slipped off my back. Just like that, it was gone. For the first time ever, there was something in me that resembled an “off” switch. When an old cause for anger bubbled up, I did not fall over the precipice like I always had. I could stop, I could breath, I could think. I could let someone insult me without tearing their head off for it. I could have any number of things not go my way or be profoundly unfair and unjust and I could simply shrug my shoulders and walk away. I could barely recognize myself. It truly felt surreal to experience these moments for the first time. Occasionally now, the lava does still flow. Usually these outbursts are reserved for family, and the general public gets to avoid them. But my family, for some reason, does not take any crap from me. They call me on it pretty quickly. And I have learned that trying to deny and fight my wrongs is really pretty silly, not to mention futile, because the smoking gun is always right there in my hand. So it’s progress, not perfection. An most of the time, the lava travels safely down its path and out to sea. It seems the plankton have some use for it. And so does the occasional Newcomer who is wondering how to manager her volcano.
Before I found sobriety, mild to moderate irritation was a common state for me. I woke up that way. I seemed to operate under the presumption that things should naturally go very smoothly all of the time. Although there was nothing in my experience to support this theory, it formed the core of my reactions to life. Consequently, anything that wasn’t easy or perfect called for complaints at best, and combat at worst. Everything was annoying. My hair, my clothes, my body, my face – all annoying. The water pressure in the shower, the squeaky door, the piles of laundry, the unopened mail, the low tank of gas, the briefcase full of work, the traffic, always the traffic. The receptionist, the co-workers, the bosses, the desk, the chair, the crappy lunch. The commute home was no better. I always felt tired, which was, of course, very annoying. But I never associated the fatigue with the irritability, negativity and lack of gratitude. And especially not with the one thing that I had to look forward to each day, drinky time.
Things still bug me today, and this has become the current frontier of my emotional sobriety. To be certain, there has been vast improvement. My list of “pet peeves” are down to a handful, and I still cling to them lovingly. However, there is something new as well. When I feel my feathers ruffling, the hairs standing up on the back of my neck, I have an internal dialog that intercedes. It is about “live and let live” and “easy does it” and “don’t sweat the small stuff” and “do I want to be right or do I want to be happy?” I used to hold my breath when something pissed me off. Now I tell myself to exhale, inhale, exhale. Instead of white knuckling my way through unpleasant circumstances, I try to glide through them without getting caught up in their barbs. I still smell the bait of all the things in the world that are messed up and wrong. But I no longer automatically swim over and take a bite. I have learned that things can only bug me if I pick them up and play with them. These days I go the long away around those bugs.
When the Big Book speaks of progress, not perfection, it states that we are simply “willing to grow along spiritual lines.” My spiritual life was smaller than an acorn when I got to AA. I had even gone to a palm reader who pronounced me “spiritually dead.” In retrospect, my spiritual void was not about the absence of prayer, meditation and church. It wasn’t even that I did not have a higher power in my life. I simply had no connection with my own spirit, the part of me that is calm and wise and giving. I subsisted only on material reality – alcohol, objects, and the external manifestations of other people. For me to grow along spiritual lines meant letting go of having to win, having to be seen as always right, having to be feared. I also had to be willing to release my attachment to all things I coveted with panic and paranoia. I had to be willing to lose everything and everyone who mattered to me. My fear of these losses formed an invisible barrier between me and the total freedom I sought. Although the ideals that I now hold dear are presented in their most heightened forms, I am no where near a state of perfection or even proficiency in spiritual living. I just continue to aim upward every day, reaching for the highest good that I see in human relationships. As long as I am growing in the right direction, it does not matter that I make mistakes along the way, or that some parts of my growth are painfully slow. By seeking growth, I am affirming that there is a power greater than myself. I am affirming that I still have far, still so much to learn. That is the ideal state of mind for me, the one that makes change a real possibility.
I am the type who likes to plan in advance. I also like to be ahead of schedule and I get anxious if I am only keeping up with deadlines. Racing Father Time seems to be my primary attempt at controlling my world. Unfortunately, Western civilization tends to reward some of this behavior, and I am encouraged to stay with it. The biggest flaw in this lifestyle is the expectation that things will stay basically the same from day-to-day, and will therefore be predictable and manageable. AA is the only place where I have learned how to handle the unexpected. I have learned that it doesn’t pay to just react without thinking. Unexpected problems often require careful thought and consideration. I have learned how to ask for help, how to be patient while waiting for it and how to turn some things over to people who are better equipped at handling them. Sometimes, the best lesson is that unexpected problems can turn out to be blessings. If nothing else, they show me that slowing down does not result in irreparable or catastrophic losses.
I have also learned that if I do not hold on to tightly to my expectations, assumptions and presumptions, the world can be full of pleasant surprises. My approach to life has been so limited – like an artist who embraces realism and no other genres. The abstract, the anomoly, the incongruous, these are often the greatest sources of beauty and creativity in human endeavors. If I can let go, let God, let the unexpected in and let it unfurl, unfettered by me, it can open my mind, solve problems effortlessly, create pathways to new opportunities, and much more. To be sure, planning and routines are important to stability. But I must not be so wedded to them as to destroy the tremendous power of nature, human creativity and all the surprises they bring.
It is not enough for sobriety to be my number one priority. It is equally important that I practice the Program in the way it is designed and intended, and not in some diluted form where only certain steps matter and the others are treated as symbolic. It is also important that I stay focused on the Twelve Steps when working with other alcoholics, so I don’t try to become their psychiatrist, career counselor, financial advisor, or love doctor, all of which I have attempted. In working with new members, I need to be focused in the way that I communicate about AA, so that I don’t mislead them as to the commitment required of them. It is human nature to try and adapt and embellish instructions that have become rote. We get a bit bored with the same routine. Just as a cook likes to experiment with ingredients to create variations on a recipe, I am tempted to put my own stamp on the Program and make it more interesting. It is not inherently bad to bring some individualism to AA – if we all told the same story in the same way, meetings would quickly get boring. The goal of AA unity applies not just to meetings and groups, but to each of us as members, especially when carrying the message. Personalities can lend color and flavor, but they mustn’t overwhelm the main course, the principles of the Program.
There is an organization that started in my city and has grown and expanded across the country. It is a comprehensive method of rehabilitation for people with very hard core backgrounds involving extensive prison records, illiteracy, unemployability and many related problems. I often recall a magazine article about the founder, a petite woman, tough as nails, who helped the first waves of residents make their way through rehabilitation. In the course of teaching various trades to its clients, the organization built several facilities that would become the active businesses to be operated by the persons in the program. As they were building the first few walls of the first building, the founder came around and looked at the work. The residents in the program proudly displayed their first completed section of masonry. The founder looked at it closely and promptly instructed them to tear it down and start over. She told them they were building their own foundation, their future. It had to be done right.
There is a consistent message in Alcoholics Anonymous that we must be “thorough from the very start.” In the Sixth Step, we are told to look back at all our prior Steps and be sure we have been complete and thorough in working each one, “for we are building an arch through which we shall walk a free man at last”. I try to be careful and thorough when I work the Steps. The truth is, I am afraid of what will happen if I slack off. If drinking is a slippery slope, apathy seems to be one too. Maintaining my sobriety is a job, just like any other job I might have. If I want to succeed, I have to be willing to give my best effort as often as possible. There is much temptation to rest on my laurels, put on the cruise control. Having some time in the program can make me feel cured. But I know these are all manifestations of my illness. Happy or sad, inspired or bored, energetic or tired, busy or at leisure, I have to keep working on that foundation. I never know when calamity will test its strength.