Although it lies dormant most of the time, there lives within me a hair trigger instinct for closely guarding myself in relationships. The Ninth Step Promises tell us “fear of people” will leave us. To be honest, this is a bit of an overstatement, because I will always be a little afraid that the ranting lunatic on the corner might decide to unleash his anger on me as I walk by. But like most of the Big Book (and pretty much every other book), statements make the most sense when approached sensibly. In the same manner that my sobriety is a daily reprieve contingent on my spiritual condition, the Promises also depend on my continual work in the Program.
The fortress I used to have around me was primarily a buffer against hurt and rejection. But it also protected my drinking, because it kept people from getting close enough to start suggesting things to me about the direction my life was taking. These days, the fortress I need to guard against erecting is the one that purports to keep me safe from criticism and judgment. The overkill in my endeavors, and my habit of preemptive strikes to ward off others’ doubts, are the stones in my fortress of self-preservation. This half-finished fortress is more of a monument than a shelter. It mainly serves to remind me that I have much more work to do.
AA has provided a lot of unexpected benefits for me. Of course it is wonderful to have a Fellowship of people who understand my particular affliction and all the odd propensities that go along with it. And yes it is amazing to have a place to go where I can be completely honest, letting my guard down fully, where these things are received with compassion and understanding. Undeniably, the Twelve Steps have taught me things about myself, my personality, my behaviors and my motivations that I carefully hid from everyone, including myself. Without question, AA has taught me to live happily in a world full of alcohol and various socially acceptable substances without partaking in any of it. And notably, AA has given me the tools to walk with dignity and humility at the same time, without fear of ghosts emerging from my past.
All these pieces of the sobriety puzzle have given me a life that I rejoice in, one where I feel useful and worthwhile, one that looks promising when I gaze ahead. But AA has done something even greater than this. I am not alone, even when I am by myself. I have access to a mysterious and glorious source of infinite wisdom and intelligence, far beyond my limited human capabilities, the ones I used to rely on exclusively to guide me. I have the ability to make a huge difference in other peoples’ lives. I can speak to them in a way that they will recognize as their truth, irrefutable evidence of our brotherhood. I have a solid, steady, reliable compass for living, through the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous. No matter the question, the Program has equipped me with the answer or the manner of finding the answer. My intuition flourishes. My mind is clear and calm. I am as alive as I can ever possibly be.
AA’s founders had hoped to name the Big Book “The Way Out” but there were already 25 books by that name. So they chose Alcoholics Anonymous instead. I have known alcoholics who gave up alcohol without the help of AA. They found a way out of drunkenness. But they had no way out of the rest of their problems. They were still selfish. They were still manipulative and dishonest. And they were mean. Maybe there are some friendly dry drunks out there, but I haven’t met any.
AA is much more than the way out of the bar. It is the way out of a life consumed by fear, resentment, self-seeking and a perpetually restless heart. AA does not teach moral behavior. It removes the need to be a jerk. AA has cleaned up my act from the inside out. Society has benefitted, my family, friends and colleagues have benefitted, and I have greatly benefitted in ways that never stop unfolding.
From what I have witnessed and experienced, here is only one road clear out of misery. There are many different people on this path. They have may different beliefs and styles and dreams. But they all have one thing in common: they want the real deal, the full fix, the peace inside and not just the dry desert outside. I see only one road. Let us make it wide enough for all to walk.
When winter wanes, it reveals slivers of green and hints of blossoms unfurling from tightly wrapped buds. As the barren chill of my alcoholism began to thaw in the Rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous, the possibility of flourishing growth became real and achievable. At the end of meetings I often heard the Ninth Step Promises. I heard that I would “know a new freedom and a new happiness.” This filled me with hope. I wanted to be free and to be happy. When I could not stop drinking no matter how much I wanted to, I had no freedom. When I could not feel better no matter how much I drank, I had no happiness. Sometimes a tree in winter looks dead. And I was dead inside, and in the look in my eyes. Surrendering, releasing, doing things differently, slowly and steadily, I came to life. Now, my roots keep spreading deeper and wider. I am growing taller and stronger. I am nourished by the Sunlight of the Spirit.
The slippery places in my mind are those where half-baked thoughts linger and loll around. These are lazy conclusions drawn of convenience, passive presumptions unburdened by effort and examination. They have a limited vocabulary: “why not,” or “might as well” or “everybody else does” or “what difference does it make.” My sometimes hazy thinking can seem harmless, but like the shortcut that eventually wears a brown path in the green grass, it can have a cumulative effect. My first, second and third thoughts are often suspect and flawed. If I make decisions based on my superficial impressions, I am usually acting out of fear, prejudice or resentment. I am responsible for questioning myself. This entails its own vocabulary: “really?” or “are you sure about that?” or “what do you base that on?” The sober me has got to challenge the visceral me. Responses must replace reactions. Grey must replace black and white. It is hard work keeping my brain in line. Fortunately humans sleep some of the time.
Sometimes there seem to be two of me, doing everything together. One of us tends to get in the way of our progress. She seems to always be in a rush, insisting that everything be said or done right this very minute. This one has trouble keeping quiet while others speak. She is not inclined to wait until situations have “ripened.” These two constant companions are the “I” and the “Ism.” The Ism has trouble staying focused, often stuck ruminating over something unpleasant in the past, or fearing some unknown future. The I must spend a significant amount of time reassuring and calming the Ism. The I has learned that time spent in AA meetings and working the Steps is highly beneficial to the Ism. When properly maintained, the Ism rides along silently and enjoys the view. The Ism is less likely to express opinions, usurp decision making or carry on about things. When the Ism takes refuge in the Rooms, the road is clear of barriers.
Long after physical withdrawal has subsided, alcoholism leaves its marks on the mind, body and spirit. My liver needs special care now, and that is permanent. I have scars from falls and accidents that were the direct result of intoxication. Large swarths of my memory are gone. I feel conspicuous when people relate their college experiences with such great detail. There is so little that I recollect. In areas of my life where I choose to keep my anonymity, there is a secret that stands between my fellows and me. It is a scarlet letter that I carry in my pocket every day. There are relationships destroyed by alcohol that will likely never mend. Most days, I see my illness as a great gift, a passport to a fellowship that offers daily, universally available support, free of charge. Other days, I feel the bruising and scarring that drinking brought me. On those days, I remember that more wounds are waiting for me, should I ever decide to try a bit of controlled drinking. The final blow may leave me forever lying on the battle field.