Along with the usual attempts at controlled drinking, I sought out a number of supernatural solutions as well. I frequently visited psychics, except for those who actually were psychic and told me what I did not what to hear. I also believed that one could cause a sudden, dramatic shift in one’s personality if a critical mass of will power focused for one instant on a single thought. I tried these brain tsunamis in various forms again and again without success. I also went to see movies, allowing the leading actress to merge her personality into mine, transforming me into a completely different person, freed of my normal compulsions, sometimes for an entire afternoon. I tried various healing therapies, creams, oils, candles, crystals and incense. I threw coins into every fountain I passed. Ironically, none of this magic ever worked, but the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous worked like magic. Even today I am tempted to reach in odd directions for answers. But the only thing that seems to work is waiting for the right action to reveal itself. I am still drawn toward voodoo and wishbones, but fortunately, the basic tools of AA seem to be a lot easier to locate.
There are many unexpected results in recovery. Some of the biggest surprises for me have been the rewards of a life focused more on giving and serving and less on getting and keeping. Until AA taught me that service is the key to escaping the prison of self-centeredness, I was certain that relentless pursuit of my goals was the only way to achieve satisfaction. Until I learned to have a “spirit of service” in all that I did, I was never happy with the status quo. Looking back on my pre-sober life, I can see the wisdom in the Train song line “what we want is only what we want until it’s ours.” Before, the grass was always greener with a different relationship, neighborhood, city, or job. Now there is grass sprouting all around my feet and life growing in me and filling me up because I have learned some truth about lasting joy. What used to be a slogan on a charity donation bucket is now a belief I hold firmly in my heart and mind. It is when I give that I receive, grow and thrive.
To appreciate the concept of seeking progress rather than perfection, I need to acknowledge the gradual improvement that AA brings about in my life. Even when I am not happy with my behavior in certain situations, I can gain some perspective when I consider how seldom this kind of thing occurs any more and how the intensity and fallout of my conduct is far less than it used to be. When I disappoint myself I really have to work hard at not feeling shame and a sense of failure. These periodic stumbles serve an important purpose of reminding me that I am neither cured nor superior to others. It is easier to see progress in other alcoholics, especially those we sponsor. We have to point it out to one another or we may miss it. When people outside of the Program have not seen a recovering person in a long time, they notice the changes. “You look great and you seem really relaxed and happy” – this is recognition of progress in sobriety. Our wellness, our disposition, and our treatment of others are often leading indicators of our development in the Program. It works when we work it, even when we are a work in progress.
Even though I know that others in the Fellowship share my affliction and are my brothers and sisters, I occasionally want to distance myself from some of them, to see them as aberrations and outliers. This is the long-term version of my early tendency to look for ways that I was different from others in the Rooms. My addicted brain used this to suggest that I did not belong in AA. These days my “otherness” is more likely to center around the style or content of shares that I hear. How can someone drone on so long? How can she wander so far off topic? Doesn’t he know we are tired of hearing about his new car? Sometimes I imagine that I will wake up one day, cured of my judgmental tendencies, extending love and acceptance to all. Then reality sets in and I know this will never be a permanent state. All I can do is try to hold this ideal in my consciousness. I look across and see the other sitting there. We do not really exist apart from one another. We are reflections of each other, even when we do not recognize ourselves.
I have heard parents and grandparents share their eagerness to uncover the mystery a child’s future. They speak in terms of learning what career the child will choose or whom he will love. As if the moment of the child’s physical maturity and his selection of a vocation and partner will define him, end the guessing, solve the mystery. Children internalize this concept too – “what will I be when I grow up?” For those whose alcoholic partner, friend or family member is still drinking, there is a similar yearning to know if, when and how the alcoholic will “get it” and decide to sober up. Will it be this year? Before another hospitalization? Before he loses his job? If all goes well, he will choose the path of recovery. There will be some milestone, such as getting the sponsor, making the family amends, walking up to claim the one year chip. This will make one or another member of the alcoholic’s circle breathe a sigh of relief. The guessing ends, the mystery is solved.
But the question is not what the child will “be” – the question is what else he will be. As humans, our mystery is never solved, our destiny never complete. If we are growing and fulfilling our potential, there are no destinations, only platforms for continual evolution and elevation. So it is with sobriety. Ours is not a photo opportunity, a graduation ceremony, a parking lot. Sobriety is not where we land after we fall. It is our launching pad for a life of meaning and useful purpose. The Fellowship, the Steps, the literature, our sponsors and sponsees, these do not exist for the mere purpose of occupying us and diverting our attention from a drink. We came, we came to, we came to believe, and now we must come to do more, to serve. AA is not social club, or a sanitarium. We are not here for the end purpose of feeling good. We are here to become effective instruments of a Higher Power – to turn our mistakes into a lifeline for others. Now that we have finally joined the human race, we are here to put some hope and healing into the mix.
I was just reading an article in the December issue of The Grapevine, about a man who drank after 23 years of sobriety. He explained that he had become bored with the Program. After recounting the horrors of his relapse, he concluded that his feelings toward the Program were really a matter of attitude – a chosen perspective. Stories such as this help to keep my sobriety evergreen. If it can happen to him, it can surely happen to me. I could relate to his statements about thinking he had “accumulated” enough wisdom to last the rest of his life. If I do not take to heart the concept that we have a “daily reprieve,” I am apt to think that each day of sobriety permanently repairs a few more fibers of my psyche, and after some period of time, it will be made of whole cloth.
I earnestly took Step One because I did not want to repeat it. Now I want to learn from the experience of others. I choose to believe what you tell me, that I am not cured, that if I go out there and give it a whirl, the drunk me will be the old me, not a new wine-sipping version of me. To keep my sobriety alive and well I need to see it as something more than a chore or going through the same old tired motions. The Steps are self-contained operating instructions. They tell me how it is done on a daily basis and they tell me how it is done for the long haul: clean house, seek guidance from a Higher Power, carry the message, live the principles.
Happiness is both a choice and a byproduct. For the practicing addict and alcoholic, there can be short spells of elective happiness, such as a decision to smile at everyone for the next half hour. But lasting happiness is rare in the void of spiritual bankruptcy. The Ninth Step Promise that we will know a “new freedom and a new happiness” does not refer to the instant oatmeal kind. It refers to the slow-cooking, steel-cut variety.
Until I learned the basics of right living in Alcoholics Anonymous, the word “contentment” had a negative connotation for me. It was a status reserved for cats, sleeping on sagging sofas in the sunlight. Today I am contented. I do not crave a substance to give me peace. My memories do not scrape under the floorboards at night. I am not my ego’s foot soldier. I do not watch a continually rewinding reel playing out my worst case scenarios. I do not marinate in endless offense I take with others around me.
The longer I stay around the Rooms, the farther I progress beyond truisms, toward truth. At first, I try to embody the philosophies of service and humility because I am trying to embrace these as concepts. I am told they work for others and will work for me if I consistently apply them. After persistent effort toward these ideals, I experience a shift from concept to experience, from philosophy to integration, from hope to habit. Happiness finds me, not because I have summoned it, but because I am finally walking in its neighborhood.