With a sponsor’s tough love and unconditional acceptance, he finished his Fifth Step and got back into life
At the meeting, he would sit facing the door. The vigil of a lonely man, I came to think of it as. The kind of vigil I used to maintain on a barstool, hoping for the right woman to enter and brighten my night.
But Bob did not appear to be lonely. People were drawn to him. I certainly was. To me, counting days, he was sober an eternity—17 years—and his slow, thoughtful way of sharing was mesmerizing. I would try to imitate him, with long pauses between my spare words and in a voice you had to strain to hear.
My relationship with my sponsor being somewhat distant, I asked Bob to hear my Fifth Step. After all, he was a psychotherapist and so I could be sure he would be a careful and skilled listener who would provide understanding and keen insight.
We met in a cafe and Bob did in fact listen, though with an air of distraction.
Whatever thoughts or insights he had he kept to himself, saying not a word other than to order more coffee from the waiter as I read through my 30 pages of typewritten inventory. Until the very end, that is, when he said, “Don’t be too hard on yourself,” called for the check and left.
For some, this simple response may have been perfect, but I felt disoriented, like a man lost in the middle of nowhere without a map.
There was another man at my home group who had caught my attention. Often, he sat at the opposite end of the front row from Bob. He was the polar opposite of Bob in more ways than their choice of seating. His name was Hugh and he had approached me after a meeting in which I had held the group hostage with a long rant. He encouraged me to call and handed me his phone number on a slip of paper, which I placed in my wallet with no intention of using it.
Hugh was an established writer, I learned from someone in the group. In fact, I had read two of his novels some years before, but he now bore no resemblance to the vigorous young man in the author photo in his books. To me, he looked like a frail, old man slowly fading from life.
That wasn’t my first interaction with Hugh. Halfway through my first year of recovery, I had been hospitalized for several weeks after being struck by a car while riding my bicycle. Following my release from the hospital, I began writing my inventory, at my sponsor’s suggestion. On returning to my home group, I sought out Hugh and told him about the accident. His response was not the sympathetic one I had been expecting.
“Maybe this will hasten your spiritual development,” he said brusquely and turned away.
Hugh had been given last rites after contracting tuberculosis and spitting up a lung on a Merchant Marine ship during WWII. Evidently, his experience of physical hardship had given him a familiarity with suffering and a clear understanding of the hazards of self-pity.
“No one feels sorry for a successful man,” I would hear him share at that same meeting, about his own situation. Long after the sting of his words faded, the truth of what he said to me lingered. He had given me a taste of AA tough love.
Though married, sometime later I visited one afternoon with a woman I had been involved with in the last year of my drinking. Nothing sexual happened during that visit, but because drinking and extramarital sexual activity were linked in my mind, I shared my discomfort with Hugh at the AA meeting that night.
“Do you want your marriage?” he asked.
“Yes,” I answered.
“Then you have to give it one hundred percent,” he said.
Five minutes later I grew honest. “I don’t know if I want my marriage,” I told him. “It doesn’t matter,” he replied. “You still have to give it one hundred percent. If you practice the principles of this program in all your affairs, the things that are meant to be in your life will be in your life and the things that aren’t will fall away.”
There were many other things he would say to me over the years: “The truth without love is an attack,” and “What we’re running from we’re running toward,” and “When no value is seen in suffering, healing is instantaneous.” He had a way of expressing himself that drew me to him.
Some months later, I turned to him again with another problem involving a family member and shortly thereafter I asked him to be my sponsor.
He lived outside the city in an affluent community, and it came as a surprise to learn that the small house he lived in with his family was a rental and that it was so plainly furnished. In my inventory, I had written of the taunts and ridicule I had received from friends about the chaotic, shabby apartment I had grown up in and the decision I had made to keep people out so I could never be hurt in that way again. But Hugh wasn’t keeping people out. He had not arranged to meet me at a cafe or other public venue. He had let me in, and the ease he displayed about his circumstances made a lasting impression. I was with a man who was OK with himself as he was, and I was not OK with myself as I was.
Over the course of two weekend afternoons, I read Hugh my revised inventory, including my reckless pursuit of sex; academic and personal failures that caused me great shame; brimming resentments against abusive family members; the sense of mental and physical inadequacy I had carried with me my whole life; and my great fear that God would take away my ambition if I gave myself to the program of recovery.
The negative impact of my evangelical Christian childhood was evidenced in the resentment Hugh had me write out against God. God, in my twisted conception, wanted me to stand on the sidelines jeering at those worldly souls who participated fully in the things of this life and to hold to the smug conviction that they would be consigned to the eternal flames of hell. The startling revelation gave new meaning to Bill’s insistence on letting go of old ideas in the Big Book and of the importance of self-examination.
At times, Hugh would add experiences of his own, which had the effect, as I have heard from so many AA members, of lessening my sense of uniqueness.
“A man is someone who can humble himself before God,” he said, in calm response to the evidence I presented that I was something less than a man: rejection by the military; academic and workplace failure; women I professed to love having abortions rather than babies. In the process, my relationship to the past seemed to undergo a radical, even revolutionary, shift. A deeper understanding came to me that alcoholism is indeed an illness.
Compassion surfaced for the person I had been, the lost young man on the barstool drinking away the day and my life. With that compassion came self-forgiveness, the realization that I had done the best I could. It was all right that I was ordinary, that I had been locked out of the gates of the Ivy League. Toward the end, Hugh suggested to me that self-pity was my principal defect, and even as he spoke, a childhood memory came to me of disappearing on my birthday so I could be alone and feel sorry for myself and take comfort in my own tears. The little party my family had planned was somehow not enough. Early on I had that sense of deprivation, of needing more taking hold in me.
In our Big Book it says, in relation to Step Five, that “we may have had certain spiritual beliefs, but now we begin to have a spiritual experience.” Toward the end of the inventory, it came to me that I was no longer alone and apart. My sponsor’s unconditional acceptance of me, blemishes and all, had ushered me into a transformed relationship with the world and with God and with myself. Afterward, I sat stunned in Hugh’s study for half an hour, reading and considering the last paragraph about Step Five in the Big Book and the section about Step Six, before saying the Seventh Step prayer that followed.
The symbolism of joining Hugh and his family for an early dinner that day was not lost on me. I was once again part of the human race. That evening, I returned to the city and went to a basketball game with a program friend at Madison Square Garden. Years before, as a teenager, I had regularly attended such events. But as my alcoholism progressed, my nights came to be spent in the bars and then alone at home with the bottle. And now here I was, out of the bottle and back into life. Though I was now, at age 33, far from my teenage years, I felt very young and very free. I felt like a man starting over. A liberating correction was underway.
My relationship with Hugh continued until his passing in 2003. As the months passed, my previous sponsor Bob either changed or my continued sobriety gave me a different perspective on him. In his sharing, he became sharply dismissive of the Big Book and sponsors, whom he denounced as fake gurus. He also exhibited a predatory tendency toward young women, married or single, who were new to the program.
For whatever reason, a couple of years later and 19 years sober, he picked up a drink. If there was anything for me to learn from Bob’s experience, it was that alcohol was not only cunning, baffling and powerful, as our literature suggests—but also patient.
Whatever measure of self-honesty I had so far shown about my life as well as my drinking, I would have to continue to practice the principles of the program. A new and wonderful way forward was available to me, but one day at a time and not on my terms.