One Big Tent is a collection of stories, originally published in Grapevine, which represent the shared experience of secular AA members who have struggled with alcoholism, yet ultimately found a common solution in AA.
Atheists, agnostics, nonbelievers and secular alcoholics have been members of the AA Fellowship since its earliest days, making significant contributions to the development of the program, helping to swing the doors of AA ever-wider.
But finding their path has not always been easy.
In One Big Tent, these members share how they found their place in AA, work the program, do service and sponsor others.
I had heard about something called Unity Day that takes place each year here in the City. Some of my friends even said it was something I might like, something that would introduce me to service organizations worth learning about. I find it funny to think the first Unity Day I would attend would be the one I helped plan as Events Co-Chair for the District.
I realized that I wanted to skip it
How I came to be in that position was by making myself available a year ago. When no one else volunteered, the role was given to me. I didn’t really want it, but had learned from my service sponsor that being available was all there was to being of service at the District level.
Seeing as I’d never been to a Unity Day, I had to ask a lot of people how it had been done in years past and really take a look at the pass-it-on from the prior Co-Chair.
Working together with various service organizations (H&I, Intergroup and General Service), continuous discussions were essential in the months prior to the event. Someone volunteered a good printing spot for the flyers. Others suggested the design of the flyer and helped with the layout itself.
When it came down to the final planning stages, I took heed of the suggestions given to me and handed over the food planning to a little group of volunteers.
All of a sudden, the event that had seemed so far-off was only a few days away. We began planning the food run: one person had a car, the next person had the list of what was needed, and the final person had the sought-after Costco card. It was funny how it all came together like that.
On the morning of the event, I realized that I wanted to skip it. I was afraid all of these moving parts I thought I was in control of would crumble.
When I arrived, I realized something: I had made suggestions and handed out flyers, but the Fellowship had carried out the real work.
A couple of days before Unity Day, Central Office emailed me that a fellow A.A. member from Los Angeles was in town. His original plans had fallen through right before arriving and so he asked if there was some way he could be of service while he was in the City. He made himself available and pitched in all day during the event.
More than enough sugar to smooth it over
One of the volunteers had access to a commercial kitchen and so volunteered to bake some desserts from scratch for our event. He stayed up well past midnight the night before baking over 150 cookies and over 150 cupcakes for Unity Day. Even if something went awry the day of, I figured that there would be more than enough sugar to smooth it over.
With equal parts laughter and joy, Unity Day commenced. Members were putting out the chairs and making sure the sound system was running and greeting.
Those who attended finally learned what PI/CPC stood for (Public Information/Cooperation with the Professional Community). They learned why it’s important that Teleservice carries on. They saw what it means to continue the work started by H&I through joining Bridging the Gap.
Thank you to everyone who came out and made this year’s event fun, lively and joy-filled. I am grateful to the Fellowship and the volunteers who worked to make this day the success it was.
For service committee opportunities, visit aasf.org and go to the “Service & Sponsorship” dropdown or email Central Office at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ancient Maya considered the resplendent quetzal divine (aka “god of the air”) and a symbol of light. The Point is now moving from a print to a light medium and will soon reside in the cloud forest, too. Since December is our last print issue, your editor is getting up to speed with WordPress. Our primary purpose is carrying the message by any means necessary, as Kathleen C. reminds us on Page 10. Please let us know your thoughts via email@example.com.
In this issue Bree L. tells John C.’s story, including Boy Scouts and Mickey’s half pints. Anonymity helped John W. through the worst of times, then buoyed him into the best of times (with a nod to Charles Dickens). Luke H. puts all the pieces together for Unity Day. Daniel F. keeps mind and heart open with inventory questions on Page 8. In the beginning A.A. borrowed concepts from several belief systems and Bill W. credited three non-alcoholics for principles behind the Steps.
Claire A. finds out how wide-ranging the definition of normal really is. Ken J. hears the language of the heart after 28 years of deafening silence from his dad in “Those Three Words.” And Rick R. finds joy in the season with a new attitude. He practices radical concepts such as “not being the center of attention” and “preserving the dignity of the other person.” Like Lennon and McCartney sang: In the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.
INTERGROUP COMMITTEE CONTACTS
Following are names and emails for Intergroup Officers and Committees. Email if you are interested in service or would like more information.
BOARD OFFICERS | COMMITTEE CHAIRS
CHAIR John R. | firstname.lastname@example.org VICE CHAIR Pete F. | email@example.com TREASURER Alix F. | firstname.lastname@example.org RECORDING SECRETARY James O’C. | email@example.com
ARCHIVES COMMITTEE Kim S. | firstname.lastname@example.org FELLOWSHIP COMMITTEE Michael P. | email@example.com ORIENTATION COMMITTEE Greg M. | firstname.lastname@example.org SF PI/CPC COMMITTEE email@example.com SF TELESERVICE COMMITTEE Layne Z. | firstname.lastname@example.org SUNSHINE CLUB COMMITTEE Ann M. & Scotie S. | email@example.com TECHNOLOGY COMMITTEE Taran R. | firstname.lastname@example.org
THE BUZZ COMMITTEE Anne Marie C. | email@example.com THE POINT COMMITTEE John B. | firstname.lastname@example.org
I have heard many people share in AA meetings that they felt like they were absent the day “they” handed out the booklet about how to deal with life. I shared that feeling. It seemed like everyone else knew the rules, and no matter how I tried, I couldn’t fit in. I was extremely uncomfortable in social situations. I would either clam up or blurt things that embarrassed me. So when I had a beer for the first time, it didn’t matter that I hated the taste: I loved the feeling. I could talk easily, I no longer felt fear. Social situations became manageable.
The relief I felt with alcohol didn’t last long. Drinking situations quickly became embarrassing. My inhibitions were gone, and with them any self-control. I was often scared by my own behavior, and would wake up in the morning ashamed of myself. I was back to feeling like I didn’t fit in, even with alcohol, and my consequences were worse than ever. I remember looking around at people my age and just wishing I knew how they did it. I was certain they knew I was not normal.
Not the only freak around here
I started isolating early in life. I have, since I can remember, never wanted to get out and meet people. I never wanted to go meet people with my family. I was shy in school. Without fail, I am still surprised when I get together with friends and actually have a good time. So, our program that encourages us to reach out and connect with others was a revelation to me.
After 44 years of tending toward isolation, I started calling other women in the program and realizing that I’m not the only freak around here. In fact, I’m not really even interesting enough to be called a freak. I’m just a garden variety, fearful, procrastinating, isolating alcoholic. Importantly, AA has shown me “normal” has a pretty wide-ranging definition. And AA has shown me that I can live in this normal world by doing what normal people do. There’s no handbook (to my knowledge, anyway. If you find one, please let me know!), but there are norms. A lot of them are listed in the Just for Today prayer card: Dress becomingly, act courteously, don’t criticize, make an effort, do something useful, get some exercise, get some rest, reflect on your life for a short amount of time, be happy. Others I’ve learned: show up on time, make amends for mistakes, call people and ask how their day is going, put your hand out and introduce yourself. Eat your veggies, get enough sleep, and treat your family kindly. Listen. Enjoy what’s beautiful. The list goes on and on. It’s not complicated and I think, honestly? I knew all this all along. I don’t think I really believed it could be that simple. But the secret is that it really is that simple for me. Each little action brings me a little bit of peace. Many of them put together make me a ridiculously happy camper.
I knew this all along
It’s funny, I say I’ve learned all this, but I forget it overnight. I need other people in AA to remind me not to listen to the committee in my head, which tells me that I don’t have enough, poor me, I’m miserable, nothing will ever be right again, I’ve been given a bum hand. Going to meetings, working with others, reading literature reminds me: if I want to feel “normal” I can—I just have to act that way. It really does work!
Shortly after my second A.A. anniversary I was faced with making an amends I dreaded. To my father. Due to the circumstances I had to do it over the phone. The call began as superficial as always. We talked about the crops, the weather and Nebraska football. With him being the epitome of a banker, the conversation was pretty much one-sided, with me doing the talking. I knew that my father was sitting there listening, stoically staring into space.
The conversation was pretty one-sided
Running out of things to say, I got down to business. I did a thorough 4th, 5th and 9th Steps. I don’t think my father said a word. It felt like I talked forever. Finally I was finished. And then I did something I had never done. I said, “I love you dad.” There was this deafening silence on the phone. And then my father said, “I love you son.” And hung up. And one month later my father died. I never saw him or spoke with him again.
The last words I heard my father say were the three words I had waited to hear my entire life. Those three words. A year after my father had died, my sponsor asked me to explain something. He said that before my father had died I had usually spoken about him negatively. I had often talked about his shortcomings, his failures as a father, his rigidity and his coldness. But in the time since he passed, I tended to talk about him in a much more endearing way. Iadmiringly referred to his strengths, acts of charity and support. He told me that rewriting the past is not the same as reconciling it.
Tomorrow, November 6, 2018, is my 33rd A.A. anniversary. My father has been gone 31 years. I was 28 when he died. I have replayed that phone call hundreds of times, hearing his voice crack on those words. It was somewhat surreal because he just wasn’t someone who showed or expressed his emotions.
My father did not say a word
I have often wondered how we would have interacted in person after he said “the words.” Would it have changed how he acted around me? Would I have been more understanding and patient with him? Would we perhaps even have hugged? I will never know. And I get very frustrated by the insane “what if…” game. It’s one of those mental exercises in futility, usually playing out in unrealistically happy or disastrous scenarios. That game has no place in my toy box. For me the events of the past are static. I can work to understand and accept them and their implications. But I cannot rewrite them and make them something they are not.
A long time ago I accepted the reality that my perception of the relationship with my father will change daily. I have learned to accept the good and the bad. I know today that my parents never sat at the foot of the bed in the morning and planned how to make my life miserable. They did the best they were capable of doing. My father showed he cared for me in the only ways he was comfortable with. I resented him for not showing me he cared for me in the ways I wanted it shown.
So, those three words. I have put so much time and energy into them that I never fully understood and appreciated the concept behind them. I have probably said them recklessly and desperately thousands of times in my life, trying to compensate for not hearing them as much as I wanted. I have discounted or ignored love and acceptance so many times because it wasn’t expressed on my terms. Words definitely do matter. But in A.A. I have found the language of the heart is much louder.
“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.” ~Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 60
No wonder the next line in How It Works is: “Many of us exclaimed, ‘What an order! I can’t go through with it.’” I mean really? Are you kidding me? Carry the message? Practice these principles? When I first got sober, my idea of Step Twelve was that once I stopped drinking I would carry the message to everybody I knew who ever drank a drop of alcohol that they were probably alcoholics. I mean, if I was, they were too, right?
I was dancing the alcoholic two-step–Step One and Step Twelve–“I’m an alcoholic and so are you.” Not surprisingly, nobody agreed with me that they were alcoholic. But I kept going to my one grudging meeting a week–as close as I was willing to get to Step Twelve. I finally asked Bonnie to sponsor me, after almost two years of being dry.
I was dancing the alcoholic two-step
I had worked the steps in another program, but it was time for A.A. Bonnie is a Stealth Sponsor. Not bossy, not super-directive. Just There. She was at our home group meeting, Hilldwellers’ Monday Night Big Book, every Monday.
She always returned my phone calls. She always arranged to meet with me, even though she was commuting to work in San Francisco while taking care of her very ill mother in San Jose. Bonnie is still my sponsor today. We are both retired and have a lot of fun, in the midst of the stuff that happens in sobriety. She has 29 years sober, I have 28, and she is probably my best friend. She is blazing the trail of life ahead of me, calling back over her shoulder, “Watch out! There is a big resentment over here!” She doesn’t TELL me how to be a good A.A., how to practice these principles in all our affairs. She SHOWS me.
Watch out! Big resentment over here …
I try to do the same for the women I sponsor, not perfectly, oh hell no, but doing the best I can. Today my sponsees keep me sober. I give them advice and then realize I need to walk my talk. One night I was on the phone with one of the women I work with. As I hung up, I heard my husband’s voice, “How many people do you sponsor? Isn’t that a burden?”
My reply was quick: “Honey, you just don’t understand. It takes a village. It takes a lot of sober women to keep me sober.”
How appropriate it seems that there are 12 months in a year and we have 12 steps in the program. The joy of good living is the theme of the 12th Step. It blends right in with the holiday season in November and December, starting with Thanksgiving and ending with the New Year’s Eve celebration. This time of year does bring a lot of joy to many of us, but it also brings distress to some of the less fortunate ones who haven’t yet been blessed with the gift of sobriety and peace of mind, in and outside of A.A.
During my drinking days I used to be very uncomfortable about the holidays. I never knew how to act around normal people unless I was half smashed. When invited to a celebration, I felt like a charity case and would rather just hang out at the bar where I felt safe. I never got into the spirit of reaching out to others. My family always celebrated the different holidays; I always (due to my discomfort) would put a damper on it by complaining about the tacky gifts that people would buy for each other, the mad rush to go shopping and the commercialized facade that it had become. Any excuse was better than facing myself and the miserable wretch I had become.
After being sober for several years it occurred to me I still had some of those same attitudes. I was still holding on to them largely due to the inconvenience of it all. I explained this problem to a dear friend once.
“Does the rest of the family enjoy the holidays?”
He asked, “Does the rest of the family enjoy the holidays?” I said yes. He suggested, “Why don’t you just take a back seat and watch the joy in their eyes as they experience these things?” I did exactly what he suggested. When I started to observe the childlike innocence and happiness it brought to them, it gave me a whole new appreciation for this time of year. It brought tears to my eyes and I no longer wanted to be the grouch or put a damper on the their joy. I have been following this line of thinking ever since and it has changed my whole attitude concerning these things. This change of attitude has inspired me to apply the unselfish lessons that I’ve come to understand, so now I spend the holiday season filled with joy. If it works like that for the holidays, then why can’t I bring it with me for the rest of the year?
Bring it for the rest of the year
This has been my mission for several years, and I am always looking for the opportunity to brighten the lives of people less fortunate than myself. I do these things anonymously and without fanfare. I also try to consider the discomfort that I used to feel when I was the one on the receiving end of a charitable gesture.
I am very careful to do these things in a way that preserves the dignity of the other person. I don’t have to wait for the holidays to do these things. Every day is a holiday inside and outside of my home, and you can believe me when I say: I reap more than my share of the joy.
What became Alcoholics Anonymous dates from June 10, 1935, when Bill gave Dr. Bob his last beer. A month earlier, members of the Oxford Group, a back-to-basics Christian movement started by dissatisfied Lutheran minister Frank Buchman, had brought them together to meet and talk. Buchman was willing to work with people of different religions without demanding they convert to Christianity. A.A.’s first book, Alcoholics Anonymous, was drafted using the language of that group. The text was heavily edited before publication with input from 300 non-alcoholics (religious, medical and academic professionals) who received a draft of the book, as well as the 100 people who were members of the yet-to-be-named alcohol recovery program.
A.A. has always taken concepts and language from outside sources before, during, and after its birth. On A.A.’s 20th anniversary, Bill W. said, “It would be false pride to believe that Alcoholics Anonymous is a cure-all, even for alcoholism … Let us constantly remind ourselves that the experts in religion are the clergymen; that the practice of medicine is for physicians; and that we, the recovered alcoholics, are their assistants.” (Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, p. 232.) In a Grapevine article for A.A.’s 25th anniversary, Bill W. drew on three non-alcoholics’ work for the spiritual principles behind the Twelve Steps: his own doctor, Dr. William Duncan Silkworth, for Step One; William James, the American psychologist who delivered the Gifford Lectures at Edinburgh, Scotland in 1901-1902 which became the book The Varieties of Religious Experience, for Step Twelve; and Episcopal minister Rev. Dr. Samuel Shoemaker, the leader of the Oxford Group in the 1930s, for Steps Two through Eleven. (The Language of the Heart, pp. 297-298.)
A.A. borrowed spiritual concepts during and after its birth
I keep my two feet planted in A.A. because I am one of the minority who cannot safely drink alcohol. I keep my ears, eyes, mind and heart open to all sources of information and inspiration inside and outside of A.A. Pioneers of A.A. did, too, in order to continue to grow farther away from the last drink and realize the “full potential of … genetic endowment,” as Dr. George Sheehan used to preach the night before the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C., which I ran a dozen times.
I have been sober over half my life and half of A.A.’s life. I have written the 12 Questions, below, with language discovered from sources on my journey on the Road of Happy Destiny. They help me find out who I am and what my higher power wants of me each day.
Who am I?
What do I want?
What do I not want?
What behavior of mine helps me reach what I want?
What behavior of mine does not help me reach what I want?
What behavior of mine helps build relationships with others?
What behavior of mine harms relationships with others?
What do others say they like about my behavior?
What do others say they do not like about my behavior?
What have I done well today?
What have I not done well today?
What behavior do I admire in other people and want to imitate?
Dan F. was born in San Francisco a month after the first edition of Alcoholics Anonymous was published in 1939. He took his last drink in Washington, D.C. December 8, 1976, the day after he attended his first A.A. meeting. He lives with his wife in Europe and does volunteer service for three international nonprofit, non- governmental organizations (NGOs).
“We of Alcoholics Anonymous believe the principle of anonymity has an immense spiritual significance. It reminds us that we are to place principles before personalities … to actually practice a general humility. This to the end that our great blessings may never spoil us …” ~Twelve and Twelve, p. 192.
Not ready to stop fighting
My first Christmas without drinking: “It was the worst of times.” Still as fresh in my mind as breakfast this morning. My four siblings and their families, with my family of 3 all under age 11, at a mid-afternoon dinner at Grandma’s. We sat around her tree enjoying the Spirit of the Season.
Grandma asked the kids, “Did Santa visit your house last night?” The children said, “As soon as Daddy got back from his meeting.” What meeting was that? Who could have a meeting on Christmas morning? The stigma of being an alcoholic was alive and well in my family. My mumbled reply and changing the subject addressed the silence of the room, but not the cacophony between my ears.
“Principles before personalities” means more than ignoring the belligerent drunk, or the old timer who loved to say how much better A.A. was way back when. The principle of anonymity actually helped heal my soul from the stigma of alcoholism. I gravitated to A.A. the last time because it was anonymous. I certainly wanted no one to know I was an alcoholic—fighting words for sure.
Christmas only got worse when I retreated to the bottle later that night after kids were tucked safely into bed. I was not ready to cease fighting everyone and everything. I didn’t want more, but I was unable to stop with less. Amazingly, the attraction of my 7:00 a.m. homegroup got me there the day after Christmas. I was told: Don’t drink, work the steps, and your life will change.
Don’t drink, work the steps, and your life will change
On my first sobriety anniversary, St. Patrick’s Day, I received was a license plate with my sobriety date. Not quite shouting from the rooftops, but no longer a secret either. Certainly a vivid, daily reminder of that which saved my life and has kept me alive since. What I have witnessed in myself is how I have changed about admitting I am an alcoholic. I no longer feel isolated by stigma. Rigorous honestly compels me to admit I have yet to label myself a “grateful alcoholic.” Yet I can see hope on the road I trudge.
I had been the arrogant drunk who knew it all. No one was going to separate me from the daily indulgence I “earned,” even though I knew it was separating me from all I held near and dear. So if there had been no anonymity at the beginning, I might never have gotten in the door. If I had to get out on the circuit and proclaim to any within earshot how it was working for me, I do not believe I could have stayed in the rooms.
Flash forward to Christmas afternoon, two years later, in the same place, with the same cast of characters and the same questions for my youngest. She told grandma about calling that morning to tell Daddy (living elsewhere due to the divorce) what Santa had left and the celery his reindeer had half eaten, right after he “got back from his A.A. meeting.” This time there were no strained silence and no shoe stares, just a couple of high fives and a warm hug with a grateful alcoholic Daddy and his daughter. It was the best of times.