Step 12: Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
In Western Massachusetts we have the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions on display and that’s what I saw at my first meeting. I was disgusted. To me it was just the Ten Commandments rearranged and sugar-coated. Then there was a blue banner that said “But For The Grace of God.” My religious upbringing had produced shame and guilt in me, and I thought AA was going to require me to return to those dark days of shame and guilt. Nothing could have been further from the truth.
For a year and a half, I tried and failed to stop drinking, even though I went to meetings every day when I was sober. I thought I wasn’t alcoholic enough. My story was wimpy. No one would believe me. I would be laughed at. I was going to have to give up sex! (If I had given that delusion one minute’s thought, I would have seen what a small sacrifice it would have been at the time.)
The problem was solved for me one night when I spoke at a jail for a friend. Something happened to me after the meeting. I felt different. I was so affected I had to call my sponsor to see what he thought. “Maybe you’ve experienced the same miracle that every drunk does who gets sober.” The drink problem was removed and as far as alcohol was concerned, I was restored to sanity. That was more than twenty-nine years ago. I have never had the desire to drink since.
I had been trying to stay sober on my own, and I thought my drinking was a failure on my part. I had not read the Big Book or the Steps. The book clearly stated that I could not stop drinking on my own. I thought I wasn’t trying hard enough. The idea of powerlessness when it comes to alcohol means I am completely unable to stay away from alcohol on my own strength. And every night as I walked up the stairway to my porch after work, I thought, “I can’t believe I’m still sober.” Four months. Seven months. These were days of amazement for me. And when the day of my first anniversary came, I was walking on air all day. Not because I was proud of what I had accomplished. But because I knew that a power greater than myself, which today I call God, had removed that problem from my life.
It took awhile to get the idea of insanity through my head. It seemed too extreme a notion to apply to me. As the fog lifted and I began to see the trouble alcohol had caused, I realized that the decision to take a drink was crazy. But the insanity that precedes the first drink shows up in other areas of my life. I continued to engage in behaviors that caused me and others pain, each time just not thinking of the consequences. The Big Book talks about a blind spot when it comes to alcohol. But I’ve had many blind spots over the years when self-will asserted itself, and sound sober thinking went out the window.
We didn’t have Step meetings in those days and I didn’t want to get bogged down with a lot of morality. I thought there was no way I could be happy following a spiritual path. I can remember bad-mouthing the Steps to the first guy I sponsored. Fortunately the AA program is bigger than any individual or group, and he is still sober and living happily married in San Francisco. He’s been sober about twenty-eight years. If you want to stay sober, I think it’s really hard to screw up in AA. I did all the don’ts in my early years in AA and stayed sober anyway. I felt I had suffered enough and now it was time for a little fun. I’m sure I did some good service work in those early years but most of my activity was directed outward to others. Only in time would I start to direct it inward toward myself. I don’t recommend this approach to anyone else but at the same time I’m glad I had it because I appreciate all the more the difference between staying sober and living sober. The insanity that precedes the first drink can creep up on me in any area where my basic instincts are threatened. Bill said once, “We are mentally sane but emotionally crazy.”
Step Three seemed impossible. How could I possibly just suddenly turn virtuous? I didn’t have the will, or the power. Then we started having Step meetings in the area and I started to hear people admit that they had faults and that they weren’t doing the Steps perfectly. They admitted to problems in their sober lives. Problems with faith, self-will, and instincts in collision. And these were people I respected for what I took to be their spirituality. The idea that I might be able to make a start was born. One night I heard an old-timer say, “If I take a drink I take my life back.” That’s the shortest and best definition of Step Three I have ever heard.
Step Four looked like an impossible hurdle. I was going to have to talk about sex. That brought up feelings of shame and guilt. I did tell a few people a few things. But the idea of sitting down and telling one person everything was just too scary. So for a long time I avoided it. But I felt the pressure every time someone told of their experience with Step Four. I knew that sooner or later I was going to have to take it. Since the first time I took it, I have taken it four times because my understanding of the exact nature of my wrongs has changed. And it continues to change. I expect it will go on changing for the rest of my life. Step Twelve says we continued to practice these principles.
Step Five was a real deliverance. I had told a lot of people a lot of little things, but never one person everything. What helped was he shared back and I made an amazing discovery. I wasn’t just a bad, sinful person. I was delusional, childish, immature, and most of all, human. I really did belong to the human race. That feeling of connectedness was magical. I was not connected just to the alcoholic community but the whole human race. It was tremendously liberating. Now I had something to share with others. I felt closer to the whole Fellowship. But that didn’t take away all my guilt and shame. It was a step forward but only one step.
Step Six promised to separate the men from the boys. How I hated that opening line. It seemed to say that AA was made up of those who “had the program” and those who didn’t. And how could you be sure which camp you were in? Today I believe that there are those who have the program for today. But no one has a mortgage on tomorrow. I heard too many men give beautiful talks and then go back out and do terrible things–including murder. One man who was engrossed in reading a well-known religious book shot himself in the head while sitting in his car in his driveway and it took him hours to die. Another man who had spoken at our men’s retreat and had everyone in tears was a real shocker. One night a few weeks later I was eating supper in front of the TV, and there was a story about a man who’d been arrested for murdering his girlfriend. It was John in orange regulation prison garb and wearing leg and hand irons. He had done other even more horrendous things that I learned about later and which are too awful to talk about. The point is, this is a guy who got a roomful of people to cry with his talk. He had proteges. He was a local luminary. But he picked up a drink. Somewhere along the line, something was missing. God only knows what it was.
Step Six says we were “entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.” First, I don’t believe anyone gets out of this world free of all his or her character defects. On one of his taped talks speaking to a crowd of thousands just before he died, Doctor Bob said he could count “on the fingers of one hand” the number of people he thought were doing the Steps right across the board. According to my understanding Step Six points me in a direction, just like Step Eleven. How can I believe I am entirely ready to have God remove all my character defects if I don’t even know what they are? My understanding of myself grows with experience through consciousness. What worked for me in this business of “were entirely ready” was pain. When behavior based on self-will and shortsighted goals brought pain into my life, by degrees I became “entirely willing,” at least for a while. But it wasn’t a closed file. Self-will and ego found their ways back into my consciousness, and I’d have to go through the entire process all over.
As time went by and my fear of the Steps lessened, I was happy when I came to Step Seven. Here was a Step that told me I’m powerless over my defects and God is going to have to take them away according to his desire to do so and my willingness to have them removed at the time. Step Seven reinforces Steps Two and Six in regard to being powerless. But does that mean I bear no responsibility? No, I don’t think it does.
I believe that experience is the raw material of recovery. When my behavior bothers others but doesn’t bother me, not much is going to happen. But when I start to feel the pain of what happens to a life based on shortsighted and unworthy goals, I start to look around for relief. For me, AA is the last house on the street. Experience for me is what happens when I make contact with the world around me. When I reflect on this contact I experience consciousness. I see my part in the wrongdoing and take responsibility for it, at least some of the time. The ideal is to take responsibility all of the time. I have an unmanageable alcoholic personality. I have to keep trying because there is no other way to go.
A lady once said, “We take the Steps but it’s funny where the Steps take us.” How do you let go of something that has a hold of you? Action, action, and more action. I have to stop playing the blame/shame game. I have to grow up. I have to get beyond playing the victim. Make a list of people I have harmed and make amends, absolutely. The “Twelve and Twelve” says it is equally important that I extract every bit of information about myself that I can. The problem was that for a long time I couldn’t see what I had done wrong.
Bill says that when I am off the beam there is something the matter with me. My understanding of that has changed over the years. I think of that “something” as a dysfunction. Just like a car can break down if you don’t keep it in oil. It’s not that I’m not wrong, it’s that there is something the matter with me. That I can accept. Something in my makeup needs fixing. Where else can I go but back to the Steps?
With regards to Step Ten, I always promptly admit when I am wrong–eventually. I have to see that I am wrong first. If I admit to something I don’t believe, that’s not being honest with myself. In my experience, the whole AA program is based on the kind of humility that it takes to be willing to change. Step Ten allows me to check every day my behavior to the extent that I am able to. And I include in all my self-examinations what is right with me as well. I have good qualities, and to deny these is just as dishonest as to deny the bad ones.
Many people believe that we “go through” the Steps in an orderly fashion, the way you pass through a series of doors. For me, it’s a revolving door. I believe I was getting something from Step Eleven at my first meeting. Here I was a helpless, hopeless drunk looking at people who didn’t drink anymore and who looked good. There was laughter and a sense of fun that filled the room, even in the face of tragedy. I wanted what these people had. The idea that there was another way to live, no matter how bad you thought you were, hit me hard. There was a moral objective toward which I could choose to move. And that’s what we do in Step Eleven, as I understand it. Consciousness of the Good is something I can have all the time. It includes for me the beauty of nature and the loving-kindness of human nature. Meditation is not something I do at a set time and place. It has become a part of my everyday activities.
Step Twelve promises the joy of living that comes when we practice these principles in all our affairs. At the same time I must remember I am delusional, immature, and self-centered. So I may start out on a pink cloud; but for me the cloud turned black in time and it rained hard on my parade. The one thing that has seen me through life’s speed-bumps has been trying to help others. In the early days there were no detoxes and we had people stay right in our homes. We were the drunk’s first contact with AA. I have held the wastebasket for a drunk to puke in. Once there was a young man, emaciated and very intelligent, who could see animals and vines in my living room. I talked to him and arranged to take him to a drunk tank in New Hampshire. He left there and in a few weeks he was dead. As the Big Book says, there are many ways of carrying the message. We don’t have to sponsor someone to be of help, even though we do well to get a sponsor as soon as possible once sober. But greeting people at the door, making coffee, taking inmates to a meeting, all these are ways of carrying the message. Sometimes just being at a meeting you carry the message because someone may be watching you to see how you do–maybe someone who is too timid to ask for a sponsor right away or who is too jittery to read the Big Book.
I have my moments when I wonder if it’s all worth it. But then I pick up the phone and talk to a drunk. When I am working with a drunk, sometimes the drunk I’m working on is me.
People talk about “doing the Steps.” I don’t believe that is what happens. I think that by following the good orderly direction of the group or of a sponsor, the Steps become a part of our lives and we learn that God’s will feels good. I drank to feel good and what happened was I didn’t feel anything. I drank for confidence and ended up living with the shades drawn and the phone off the hook. I drank to be able to meet people but was afraid to answer the door.
The Twelve Steps don’t need any endorsement from me. I just know that I probably would have picked up a drink if I had made no effort to make them a part of my life.