by Claire A.
I was deeply skeptical of the “God thing” when I joined A.A. I was accustomed to the icons of the Christian church, crosses, stories of miracles: Stuff I called hogwash. Asked to believe in a higher power, I was basically stumped. It wasn’t just that I rejected the idea of a god of some kind, it was that I rejected faith. I didn’t really have faith in much at that point. I guess I thought my parents would always be there for me, though those relationships were starting to crack. My mom died three years before I got sober.
I had faith in hard work. I believed that if I worked hard enough, anything was possible. Effort: I had faith in effort. I ran a lot. That was effort, too, and I had faith in exercise. I had faith in doing the right thing, too, but that was also starting to fall apart.
The idea of faith in a higher power was strange to me, something I had heard about but only distantly. When my sponsor started talking to me about prayer, I said, “Um, OK,” not wanting to be disagreeable, but inwardly rolling my eyes. Prayer. Like that was going to do anything, I scoffed.
An outer consciousness? An inner voice?
I looked OK. I had the perfect life: Two lovely, healthy kids, a loving husband, lots of friends, a nice house, a job, a car in the garage. But I still drank to pass out at night, every night. Drinking to “finish the job” became my goal, and it was scary. I felt I had to drink. I had suicidal ideations by this point.
Prayer didn’t fix everything
I couldn’t square my behavior with my morals. I mean, I justified things, sure, but I could never really bury the behaviors that I didn’t like. Toward the end of my drinking, they were multiplying. I hadn’t yet gotten jailed or had a DUI. But I had damaged many, many relationships. My life was totally out of control internally.
I saw no way out, and my therapist warned me that I needed to go to A.A. I thought, “The nerve of her!” but I came to A.A. She said what I needed to hear.
It gave me a moment of peace
At a later meeting, she asked me whether I had prayed, and I had to admit that I hadn’t. I don’t remember when exactly I first prayed, but I do remember it was by my bed. I knelt, feeling foolish, and put my elbows on the bed, hands together. My sponsor told me to read off the prayers we all learn: The Serenity Prayer, the Third Step Prayer, the Seventh Step Prayer. I did that.
At first, I felt silly, but also a sense of quiet. I was able to take a deep breath and let it out. Prayer didn’t fix everything, but it gave me a moment of peace, and it gave me something else: A connection to something I still can’t name. An outer consciousness? An inner voice? I don’t know how to describe it, but after many years of prayer I feel that my higher power is part of me and outside me, too. There are times when I feel utterly in sync with my HP and at those moments I feel incredibly happy. And there are times when I lean on it, specially when I am scared and I feel that somehow I can give up the fear without falling apart.
And there are times when I feel separated from it. When that happens, I need a meeting, because I know I will find my higher power there.
Photos by Branislav Belko + Sawyer Bengtson
by John W.
The world isn’t OK, but I am
When he spoke, it was with a noticeable Southern twang that made it clear, in Marin, he was not from around these parts. He had a home-spun way about him, born from decades of sobriety. That made it easy to listen when he talked. So it was no surprise for the guy who shared this morning to quote “One Drink Away From A Drunk,” by George L., recently deceased: “The world isn’t OK, but I am.”
As I listened to the line, I could hear George, complete with Lone Star State drawl. I had often been confused when members would spout that “God” spoke to us through our meetings. This certainly was just a bit too Elmer Gantry for me. No, I thought, I may want to get sober, but not around a bunch of losers who think they are speaking for God when they talk.
I went to an unusual meeting instead
That was the stuff that makes grass grow green I was trying to get away from, not embrace if I wanted to stay alive. But I did hear them say a couple of things: “Keep coming back” and “Don’t quit before the miracles.” So I kept coming back. Funny thing, to me at least, not to them I am sure, was that I didn’t drink. As time began to pass, sober, things began to change. Not so much around me, but most
definitely within me. When going through a particularly rough patch, with divorce court and bankruptcy court looming ever larger, I went to an unusual meeting for me. Instead of where I was longing to go, to my bar two blocks from home, within easy walking distance. There I heard a guy share about my experiences and how he got through them without taking a drink.
When I thanked him after that meeting, he said it had happened over 20 years ago. But he felt the urge to mention it that evening. He wasn’t sure why.
Years later I was chairing a business meeting for my home group. I can’t remember the thorny issue that was the focus of our heated discussion, only the lesson I took from it. We had discussed the problem, examined it from all sides and were ready to come to the correct, the only decision, the one which would guide our meeting thereafter.
The miracle is now I know to listen
With an 11-2 vote, the result could not have been more obvious, so I prepared to move to the next agenda item—this was DONE. Not so fast, came the point of order from Jim D. in the corner—that’s not the way we do it in A.A., said he. Having run business meetings for years I assured him we were OK to move on, but he persisted.
We needed to hear from the dissent, to air their point of view again. That’s when the miracle happened, that’s when He began to express Himself in a way I had never expected. Not that the words were eloquent, passionate, or of such unbeatable logic. They were just another’s opinion, those of the two, just words. But we 14 (I had abstained as the tie-breaker) heard those words. In speaking and listening to them something happened. We voted again and it was this time unanimous, in favor of the dissent!
I believe He did express Himself at that meeting in the dissenters’ views. I also find that happening at my meetings more frequently now. Just like when George spoke or that guy I never saw again did. The miracle is now I know to listen for Him, and so many times I hear Him, just like I was told so long ago I would.
by Rick R.
Individuals choose their own concept
Alcoholics Anonymous came into existence in 1935 at a time when much of our society was centered around churches in the communities where we lived. Much of the South and the Midwest are still like that to this day. As a child in my home town on Sunday morning, I could look out the window and see the majority of my neighbors walking to church. That was the way it was in the early 1940’s.
The book Alcoholics Anonymous was published in 1939, influenced by early members of the program at that time. A.A. could have easily become a religious program, but fortunately the elders realized (from the mistakes of the Oxford Group and the Washingtonians) they had to make it clear a desire to stop drinking was the only requirement for membership. Individual members could choose their own concept of a power greater than themselves, i.e., God as we understand God.
Years of drinking made it hard to get my thinking up to speed
Tradition Two reads, “As He may express Himself in our group conscience” (Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, p. 132). When the word God is used in the rest of the book, it’s not always followed by the “as we understand him” qualifier, and I believe many members get the idea we are trying to push religion on them. I think that’s understandable. I personally found it easy enough to read the back part of the book and to not let myself become distracted by what I recognized as a cultural norm for the time.
I had no problem setting aside my religious bias and recognizing the parts of the Big Book and the 12 and 12 that clearly state all of the options available for finding “power greater than myself.” I can name several right off the top of my head:
1) Alcohol itself was my higher power for a long time and still would be if I hadn’t gotten into the program.
2) My ego ran my life for quite awhile until I got serious about life issues.
3) The A.A. program itself.
Collective conscience of the world we live in
Spiritually lost when I surrendered and entered the program of Alcoholics Anonymous, when faced with the need to come to terms with a Higher Power, I realized why it took such a long time to settle this subject. Years of drinking made it hard to get my underdeveloped thinking up to speed right away. As I got more familiar with the Big Book and the 12 and 12, I started to uncover all the evidence that debunked the idea that I had to conform to any particular religious doctrine.
In the 12 and 12 I read on page 26, “Alcoholics Anonymous does not demand that you to believe anything.” On belief: “To acquire it, I had only to stop fighting and practice the rest of A.A.’s program as enthusiastically as I could” (p.27). Also on page 26 it states, “Take it easy. The hoop you have to jump through is a lot wider than you think … A one-time vice-president of the American Atheist Society … got through with room to spare.” Then on page 33 of the 12 and 12 it says “Therefore, Step Two is the rallying point for all of us. Whether agnostic, atheist, or former believer, we can stand together on this step.”
Today I am very comfortable with my own concept of a Higher Power. I use the word God only to put a name on a concept that has no physical form. I might say that it expresses itself in the collective conscience of the world we live in. If you read these qualifiers and practice the rest of the principles of the program as enthusiastically as you can, you will come to terms with a personal concept of a higher power as well as any of us.
Photos by Sepp Rutz and Casey Horner
By Greg F.
Recently I fell and broke my neck. Retrospection as always is my friend. I’ve spent years cultivating my belief in my version of God. What do you know? God was and is with me through this. Four days later I had surgery. A C4-C7 laminectomy and C4-T2 fusion. I had a close A.A. friend go with me into the pre-op room. Thank God for him.
Could and would if sought
We never have to be alone when in A.A. I prayed, we talked, and he held my hand as I cried. I was afraid. When they rolled me into the O.R., I immediately was in Step Three. The tears stopped, I stopped thinking and just was. My faith seemed automatic. I felt my God’s love, power and was calm. We always say “God is everything or nothing,” and “You can’t have fear and faith at the same time.”
Turns out, both are true. I had not been in a hospital since I was a child, so one of my sponsees was with me pretty much every day for two weeks. He saw me in ways I couldn’t have imagined when I’d been in my first year and in his shoes. He was my rock, strength; he helped ground me to my life which was on hold. He put up with me when I was wacko.
I apologized when I realized it. He didn’t run. He hung in there with me. My sponsor suggested I ask for what I needed (on Facebook). It worked! I asked and my needs were met. That’s right, God works through people. A complete stranger came to visit me a couple times. He cut up my food and fed me.
The kindness of strangers
I couldn’t use my right hand. I needed help, and there he was. Watching him feed me helped me be able to do it the myself the next day. The kindness of strangers? Oh wait, in 12-step groups there are no strangers. We’re all one Fellowship.
I was not stuck in my head. I was OK. Regarding pain meds, someone said, “Your higher power works through your doctors” and “Surrender to the process.” This made it easier. I did not enjoy being on pain meds. It’s true what they say: Faith without works is dead. “Be willing to believe, be willing to be willing.” In return for doing my best to believe, I’ve found a new power and peace flowing in and through me. I’m glad I’ve gone back to church this past year and think it undoubtedly contributed to my faith. I look at this experience as an opportunity to slow down.
He hung in there with me
I was enjoying my life prior to my fall. I just moved too fast. I’ve always done so. I’ve embraced A.A. where I live, and this has been extremely important. Another group of folks just like me who I hadn’t reached out to before. As I heal, I keep attending meetings where I live. I’ll still go into San Francisco—just not exclusively. I love the fellowship and meetings in S.F. They are my peers.
Now I have a new sense of the importance of each moment of my life. I’m here. I’m sober. I’m okay. I’ll slow down. I’ll look forward to the next phase of my life. I know this will be the beginning of something different. Long-term sobriety is emotional sobriety and is so worth it! If you don’t feel yet like you know what emotional sobriety is, hang in there. It will come. It will go.
Change is the nature of being human. To think all of this starts and keeps working by not taking that first drink or drug. Amazing!
Photos by Michael Beckwith + mckenna-phillips
by Henry Y.
From the time I was young, I learned to gauge the wants and needs of those around me and conform my behavior accordingly. Roles of child and parent were often reversed. I didn’t realize that this was not the normal order of things. I grew up with a vague sense that things were always bound to go sour without a moment’s notice.
Afraid to allow myself to feel
While my sister, my mom and my dad stayed locked in conflict, I was usually outside the immediate line of fire. My role was triage, calmly explaining to individual family members the probable underlying motives and offering the most logical way forward. Part and parcel with this was my performance as the unassailable good child, the golden boy. That role required not only that I overachieve, but that I subvert my emotional needs to those of others. I was afraid that if I allowed myself to feel and to make my feelings known, I would be fired from my role, the only role I really knew. Over time, my solution became split between trying to stay as unaware as possible of the family drama, while still accepting emotional burdens foisted on me when they became impossible to avoid.
The only role I knew
I was unable to say no. I was afraid of being dominated by these outside circumstances. In my personal life, I often had trouble enjoying social situations because social situations didn’t offer me a cut-and-dried role to play. To my dismay, most other people didn’t necessarily expect things from me. What a foreign and unwelcome concept. If I based my self-worth on what I had to offer others, and others weren’t making it obvious what they needed me to do for them, then what was my worth?
As I ventured into young adulthood, the basic rites of passage most people experience as teenagers but which I had fearfully avoided came on with a vengeance: Dating, rebelling against expectations, engaging in any number of immature behaviors. With this came alcohol.
Alcohol, the unreliable friend I kept going back to
Alcohol lowered my internal defenses, allowing my id to run roughshod over my otherwise overbearing superego. Alcohol put me in touch with my emotions, the ugly loneliness that lurked beneath my composed surface, and a desperate desire for connection I believed was fundamentally unattainable.
Alcohol also allowed me to connect with others, to feel a part of, and to be my true, messy self. Alcohol didn’t necessarily provide the fun times, but it allowed the fun inside of me to emerge for brief “windows.” I drank because I believed outside circumstances were causing me to feel uncomfortable, and that alcohol would solve this.
Alcohol was like an unreliable friend that I kept going back to because I felt I had no other options. Trying to stop drinking on my own was motivated by a fear of what others thought of me, a desire to impress by my ability to quit. But I keep coming back to A.A. because of my internal circumstances – a spiritual sickness coupled with a desire for something better. I keep coming back because A.A. helps me to deal with my insides so that I can enjoy all the things on the outside.
The more we learn, the less we believe to be true—Peter Dennis Blandford Townshend
The more we prove, the more remains to be proved
We’ve got to have faith in something bigger
Faith in something bigger
Faith in something big inside our self …
Faith in Something Bigger
I remember a friend making jokes about The Who’s lyrics in high school. I laughed right along with everyone else, but secretly still liked the song. My sophomore self felt there had to be something beyond platitudes I heard from clergy whose actions didn’t seem all that loving.
In this issue, Claire A. has faith in hard work and exercise. She does an inward eye roll when her sponsor mentions prayer (“Something I Still Can’t Name”). John W. has a similar reaction when members say God speaks to us through meetings and pictures Elmer Gantry (“As Love Expresses Itself: Tradition 2”).
Rick R. saw his neighbors walking to church in the 1940s in a scene reminiscent of the psychological climate during A.A.’s early years (“As We Understand God”). Henry Y. describes a different dynamic with authority figures with parent and child roles reversed in “Outside Circumstances.” Carla H. reviews The Recovering in Crime, Punishment & Recovery. Luckily for us, A.A.’s founders didn’t pick any particular religion and we are free to choose our own concept of higher power. For some of us the concept of a loving spirit is barely remembered and we must reimagine what one would be like. Like The Who sang all those years ago, to be strong we can pick out the path again.
Guitar photo by Joanna Avalos
Book Review by Carla H.
The Recovering is a fascinating read for people who are and are not in recovery. The author has been to Harvard, Yale, and the Iowa Writers Workshop, and now directs a graduate program at Columbia University. She covers who goes to recovery, who goes to prison, and the stories that divide us; her own journey; and famously alcoholic writers who tried recovery and mostly relapsed.
Those who think the disease of alcoholism doesn’t apply to them
I mention the author’s academic history and current position to support my belief she wrote this book to reach and affect “elites” everywhere, those who went to “good” schools and have good jobs, who may think the diseases of alcoholism and addiction don’t apply to them or their families, and to those who think the poor, people of color, and those of different cultural or economic status deserve punishment instead of treatment and recovery. These are the most powerful aspects of The Recovering. Author Leslie Jamison builds a strong case that society punishes those it sees as criminal (addicts) but helps rehabilitate those with the disease of alcoholism.
Plenty of writers imbibed to devastating effect without recovering
The stories that societies tell themselves about addicts and alcoholics are starkly different, in terms of race, gender and economic status. The vivid imagery never obscures the details of recovery, which makes for an engaging, effortless read. These sections felt almost like a women’s meeting. She doesn’t stint on the recurring dangers drinking put her in, damaging her relationships with men, employers, and writing. She discusses what “story” means for those of us in recovery versus “story” for those who are learning and attempting to be published writers. The differences are worth mentioning because so often writers are encouraged and urged to be original, avoid clichés, and achieve the unique in voice and story. Ms. Jamison catalogues and explains why commonality of story is so critical in recovery. She struggled with it, and as a newcomer so did I.
Interspersed with her story are the stories of famous authors, known in part for their debilitating drinking, including Raymond Carver, Denis Johnson, Stephen King, Jack London, Malcolm Lowry,
Jean Rhys, David Foster Wallace; and Billie Holiday, co-author of Lady Sings the Blues. She also notes a few writers I didn’t know—Charles Jackson, author of The Lost Weekend; George Cain, author of Blueschild Baby; and poets John Berryman and Louise Bishop. Plenty of English-speaking writers have imbibed to devastating effect and used drugs habitually without recovering. I’m not sure why she picked these particular writers. But each story is telling and moving. The author’s note says she’s changed names, genders, and particulars in the book, as she writes, “One of my highest priorities … was preserving the anonymity of the people I was writing about.” She has what it takes to carry a message, and I’m all for it. This is a great read.
Neither [A.A.’s] General Service board … nor the humblest group committee can issue a single directive to an A.A. member and make it stick.
—Twelve and Twelve, p. 173
How John W. learned there are no rules in knife fights: Watching Paul Newman’s opponent hit the ground in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Makes sense to most drunks. A.A. should never be organized.
Melissa M. made a career of moving from country to country to avoid looking at the carnage she had created. Bree L. tells how Kathleen C.’s sister used the b-word to help her get sober. Also in this issue: The sense of purpose driving the survival of members and their meetings. The general service committee suggests ways groups can communicate about keeping meetings safe for newcomers.
A sense of purpose drives the survival of members
Our common welfare comes first, as Carla H. sums up (after adding emotional sobriety maintenance to her toolbox of coping mechanisms). We are the anarchists who rebel against the rules. The paradox is: We are the ones with the message we have been waiting for.