I used to really doubt the sincerity of people who claimed their sobriety to be their most valuable asset. Some even put it above family. It was the most important thing to them, period. I used to think these people were saying that because sobriety was really just a consolation prize and they had to pretend they were proud of it. Then I got sober too, and I realized how much work it was. I saw that it had been easy to call others weak or dependent when I was sitting with a cocktail in one hand and a cigarette in the other. I could look down those AA saps. I could feel superior, like I had a lot more important things going on in my life than they did.
As time went on and I worked through the Steps with a sponsor, I began to appreciate how hard-won my progress could be. After waiting patiently for my character defects to yield way, I realized that all my problems could return in an instant if I did not do everything necessary to maintain my new spiritual understanding. I felt the supercharged awareness of my sober mind. I saw my relationships completely transformed for the better. I saw a person in the mirror I had never met before. I felt the elation of moving freely through the world without shackles of fear, suspicion and defensiveness. I felt a part of life in a fully integrated way. Then I began to realize, that I had found something worth its weight in gold.
There are so many ways that active alcoholics and addicts are self-centered and self-seeking. I remember that never-ending quest for fulfillment in all things. Everything was either good or bad depending on its impact on me personally. If something great happened for someone else, I was more deserving. If my luck took a downturn, it was unfair, unjust and certainly undeserved. People engaged in chronic substance abuse tend to have frequent mishaps. I never looked for my part in these things. If I flashed upon the truth of my own responsibility, I quickly obscured it and moved on. Mostly, I just felt sorry for myself.
I asked rhetorical questions such as “how in the world could this happen to me” or “what could I possibly have done to deserve this?” I thought about my suffering in depth, again and again. I called others to elicit their endorsement, embellishing my plight to make it more dramatic. I vilified and blamed others for my circumstances, churning in resentment as I thought of them. Finally, the only remedy, the richly deserved one, was escape through the very intoxicants that brought on the problems in the first place. “This should not be happening”, I would declare, as I took another swig. “Damn them”, I would grouse, as I refilled the glass. “What’s the point of it all”, I would mumble as the haze thickened and I slowly disappeared into the silent blackness of nowhere.
I met with a Sponsee this evening and it helped so much with my own stress. We talked about how our immediate response to problems is to start trying to control and manage everything, getting more and more emotionally wound up in the process. Nothing seems to work to dissipate the anxiousness. But if we get ourselves to a meeting, we are vastly improved if not cured. This, we concluded, proves that “what is wrong with us” is simply alcoholism.
When I was new in this Program, my state of mind was so fragile, that I would go from meeting to meeting trying to hang on to this handrail of sanity. That desperation was a blessing, because it led me to be receptive and willing. I needed that relief so badly, that I hungered for the solution. The rewards of long-term sobriety can form a kind of barrier because the clamoring for relief is gone. I often feel that I’ve got things under control just fine, thank you. And eventually I suffer. Fellowship reminds me that we are passengers on the same plane, sometimes rattling and shaking its way through the sky.
I have seen people go to very extraordinary lengths to help their fellow AA members, with no expectation of anything in return. Whether in ordinary suffering or in grave crisis, sober alcoholics in AA tend to rally around each other. Food, shelter, jobs, loans, transportation, living assistance, and in the end, hospice – help of every kind is given without hesitation. I once heard the story of a clergyman in New York who was preparing to give a sermon and was visited by a newly sober friend who looked very shaky and upset. The friend said his wife had decided to leave him, so he was ready to give up on his sobriety and go get a drink. The pastor asked him to wait until the sermon was over, and the friend agreed. It was a very large church with a big congregation. Toward the end of the service, the pastor said “Most of you will not understand what I am about to say, but that’s okay. If there are any friends of Bill in the audience, please meet me in the hallway.” Over fifty people stood up and proceeded to the hallway. They took care of the newly sober man for the next three days until he could regain his footing. I love this story, and it is not unique. I know that you have many stories of AAs helping each other up in big and little ways, and I would love to hear them all.
There are some areas of my life where I seem to do the bare minimum. Inevitably it catches up with me and there is some kind of hell to pay. I will not take that risk with my sobriety. Through trial and error I have clearly seen what I need to be doing in order to maintain emotional balance and serenity. I know firsthand what it takes to be prepared for sudden setbacks. If I want to lose weight I have to eat smarter and move more. It is that simple. If I want to stay sober, I have to go to meetings and continually work the Steps. It is that simple. Every time I connect with the Fellowship, I am buying insurance. Every time I carry the message of sobriety, I am putting money in the bank. Although I stay sober one day at a time, living for this day only is not enough. Part of every day is preparation for tomorrow and beyond. When the tide rises up without notice, I hope to be safely above the swell.
It is ironic that alcoholics have trouble dealing with uncertainty, given how often they tended to roll the dice just going out for the evening. Life is either a box of chocolates, as Forrest Gump’s mother would tell him, or it’s a crap shoot, depending how how favorably one views the infinite variables. I remember drinking and using and blotting out the dark visions that I summoned as possible outcomes in my life. I tried to drown and obscure them and in doing so, made them only more likely to occur as I clumsily made my way home late at night through dangerous areas or in the company of ominous strangers.
Today in the life I lead with sober eyes, any number of possibilities lie ahead. By leading a sober life thanks to the formidable guidance provided by Alcoholics Anonymous, I have eliminated a lot of potentially bad outcomes, but not all of them. Loss and sorrow are inevitable realities of life. There is inordinate suffering heaped upon innocents. While I enjoy the rewards of a sober life, I know that I am not special and have received a prize arbitrarily denied to others. In many ways the crap shoot has gone my way. I hope there will be chewy chocolates ahead, but I cannot predict what awaits me. The difference today is that I need not cower at the future. I will walk toward it, being as useful as I can along the way.
The Twelve Steps are not complicated ideas and they are written in simple terms. Some are better understood with some explanation, but even that is very straightforward. Yet, reading and understanding are not the same as implementing and experiencing. Living the Steps requires a leap of faith, a commitment to progress, and patience with the pace of results. It requires genuine humility and a willingness to let go of beliefs that have been closely held for years. The recovering alcoholic must remain teachable the rest of his life if he desires to maintain sobriety. His education will come from many different directions and will sometimes be painful. And to keep our sobriety we need to set aside our own convenience and leisure. Instead of basking in the vastly improved life that we have received through AA, we are called upon to share the goodness with others, to pass along what we have learned. A life of continual diligence, careful watchfulness, accurate self-appraisal, repeated vulnerability and rigorous honesty is not easy. Cleaning house, trusting a power greater than myself and helping others are simple concepts. Somewhere between simple and not easy is the road I will trudge.