I really have to control my impulse to judge people by my first impression of them. This happens both in and out of AA. I find myself scrutinizing their movements, facial expressions, posture, tone of voice, word choices and idiosyncrasies. Once I have decided someone is unappealing or annoying, I will feed this conclusion with further and further internal commentary on the person. When this happens in AA, I lose my incentive to go and speak to the person. If my efforts to avoid prejudicial attitudes have failed, my next line of attack is to force myself to go and say hello. I feel myself holding back, being a little icier than I normally would, strategizing about how to keep it short and sweet. These behaviors are a demonstration of anti-fellowship. I am fully capable of them, and my old programming has me well-trained to perpetuate them.
There are many things in AA that I don’t want to do, but I know I need to do them, so I do. One of these is reaching out to Newcomers and visitors, even if my internal critic has proclaimed them to be “weird.” Invariably, when I get to know people and hear their stories, I develop a lot more understanding, compassion and respect for them. There are still barriers in me that keep me apart from other people. One is that quick judgment that always ends in a guilty verdict. If I can classify people as not worth meeting, I can excuse myself from making contact. If not for AA, I sometimes think I would never leave my cave. And if I did, I would wander the desert for months at a time. Nothing to drink, but still not sober.
Accumulated sobriety and a close relationship to AA have led me to carry an optimistic view of my future. The difficulties I have survived have emboldened me to face new ones that will come next. The experiences of others in the Fellowship help me to develop my own faith that I can withstand extreme pain and sorrow and still stay sober. The collective courage of my fellow alcoholics becomes mine too.
I distinctly remember the way I clung to anything of value in my life when I was drinking. I latched onto things so they would not slip away. I once had a dog that could not bear to receive a juicy bone. He would pick it up and whimper, carrying it from room to room, finding places to “bury” it, then changing his mind. The bone was a huge burden to him, a treasure he did not feel equip to handle. These were my possessions and accomplishments before sobriety. Fragile prizes that I could not possibly guard against the indiscriminate ravages of fate or the punishment meted out by a vengeful god.
AA has taught me to value my sobriety over all things, even family. Without my sobriety, I offer up everything I have for slaughter. If I can work the Program, trust my Higher Power and never stop connecting with the Fellowship, there is nothing that can undermine the core of my wellness. As soon as my priorities shift, the little telltale signs begin. Life is difficult, but maintaining sobriety is easy, if I do what I know needs to be done. Red sky at night, do what is right.
I trust my Sponsor a lot. She is sincerely on my side. She is firmly rooted in AA, crystal clear about her primary purpose, our role, how the principles of the Program apply to her life and to our relationship. Whatever I say to her sinks into the walls of her home and stays there. My sponsor has no hidden agenda, no need to manipulate or control me, no over-investment in her own advice. Although we have a close bond, it is never stronger than the truth she needs to tell me. When I tell her my concerns I know that she will respond thoughtfully. There will be no quick judgments, handy labels or convenient assumptions.
My Sponsor is loyal. Not to me, but to her purpose in my life. If I call, she will respond. If I cannot meet, she will be balanced and understanding. If I forget to bring the book we are reading, she will give me that very special frown and tell me it’s okay. No matter how I feel when I walk into her study, I leave with an extra bounce in my step. I thank her and thank her, knowing that is not really what it’s about. I went for many years in the Program without a Sponsor. Cooincidentally, my own efforts as a Sponsor during those years were quite bumpy. I cannot transmit what I haven’t got. And as golden as my sobriety may become, I will always benefit from adult supervision.
By working the Third, Tenth and Eleventh Steps, and through my own trial and error, I have seen the wisdom of starting each day with some kind of peace, calm, and a commitment not to struggle. When the day begins this way, even if it starts to unravel some hours later, I know how to return to the frame of mind I originally sought. The morning connection with my Higher Power, both seeking and receiving, creates a framework for the day. When things go sideways, I have a reference point to which I can return.
I have also learned that proper closure on the day makes for a better night’s sleep. Some bad habits linger, though, and I may fall asleep doing the opposite of the Serenity Prayer. But for the most part, AA has given me some nice general guidelines for the beginning, middle and end of my day. They are broad enough to allow me to shape my own routines in a way that is meaningful for me. Only by looking back and acknowledging what went well and what could have gone better do I make steady progress. Only by waking up and asking for help to live a little better do I give myself the best chance of getting there.
When I got to AA, I was encouraged to look for the similarities between other alcoholics and me. I found those immediately. Regardless of whether we had a common disease or a common personality disorder, when I put aside the semantics, the commonalities were undeniable. And they were strange. We all drank because we had cravings or obsessions to drink. We had overwhelming impulses. Certain things seemed to push our buttons: resentments, anger, disappointment, jealousy, success and acclaim. Our heads blew up like balloons until they popped and all the air slowly hissed out, leaving us in a state of collapse and hopelessness. We were not the most honest people. And we liked to play God. We were proud of our ability to manipulate people and situations. We thought about ourselves almost constantly. We could never get enough of anything. We could never feel secure. Though we did not realize it, we were constantly afraid. I would never have imagined how pleased I would be to count myself among this crowd. Most people have at least one or two of these traits as a dominant character flaw. But it is not easy to find people who have all of them at once. It is the oddity of our collection of quirks that proves to me we are a different breed. I belong here because I can check all 20 boxes. Finding the Rooms of AA was like finding the attic where they kept all the crazy relatives hidden. I had been looking for them all my life. When I found them, they found me too.
AA has taught me how to live with many forms of pain without drinking or drugging. It has taught me what to do with fear, loneliness, sorrow, anger, shame, boredom, resentment, envy and depression. It has taught me that this pain and sadness strikes a chord in my mind and in my heart, telling me that once again I must dig deep, look hard then turn to my Higher Power for direction. Alcohol brought me a kind of half-death, where pain became smooth and dull, a muffled sound, a weak and padded rapping at my back. Sobriety is a high definition state of awareness where every discomfort sends echoes through my consciousness.
I have learned to stop and listen to the stirrings that arise inside me. Where did that come from? Am I tired, have I eaten, have I spent too much time alone lately, am I nursing a grudge? Am I worrying about something that may not happen, that I cannot change or influence? Have I called my Sponsor, when was my last meeting, have I cracked a book open in a while? Am I self-absorbed today, am I indulging in self-pity, have I bothered to look at the positives in my life? Do I owe an amends that hangs over me in a cloud of guilt? What’s the next right thing I can do in this moment?
As AA trains and re-trains me to look beyond the agitation, sadness or apathy, my ability to really see what is going on inside is strengthened. Alcohol weakened me in so many ways, especially as it made me even more fearful of my fear and overreactive to my own feelings. My emotions were something to quell as quickly as possible. They were dark strangers that needed to stay behind a liquid barricade. Today they are visitors from a foreign land, speaking a language I try to understand. They are not my enemies, they bear information. I invite them in and I pay attention. This is much of what it takes to be alive. The privilege of existence, the never-ending lesson that is there. Stronger and stronger, I am learning to learn.
Oddly enough there seems to be more frequent change in sobriety than there was when I drank. My life had been suspended like a mobile with the same scenery floating by in circular repetition. Night, day, drunk, hungover, work, home. Something dramatic like jury duty occasionally broke up the monotony.
In sobriety there is endless change and full awareness of its transitions. When I feel a lingering nameless agitation that does not seem to respond to any approach, I am comforted to know “this too shall pass.” And when I am infused with a strange elation that magically follows me from room to room and day to day, I remind myself, “this too shall pass.”
When I first felt the tearing pain of raw emotions that I could not drink away, I felt that I would perish if I had to live with them. But they moved on, and new feelings came in their place. Today when new fears crop up and new self-doubt creeps in, I know they are temporary visitors. I am a being floating through time and space. My life is a fluid shape that grows and contracts. The phases sweep me up and carry me. When they set me down I walk and wait for what comes next.