An anonymous alcoholic’s guide to the wisdom of Alcoholics Anonymous
I’ve been a member of Alcoholics Anonymous since 1988. After drinking and getting high for 18 years, beginning when I was 13, I saw that the jig was up and found my way to AA. A little more than nine years later, the use of prescription sleep aids became the misuse of prescription drugs: I relapsed. I quickly sobered up again. I’ve been sober—and, consequently, a little bit less of a jerk—since 1998.
I believe in the Twelve Steps. They saved my life, as well as the lives of hundreds of thousands of once hopeless addicts around the world. For AA newcomers, and the world outside of AA, there is sometimes confusion about the nature of the steps. There are misconceptions. To put it bluntly, people can show alarming ignorance—in the original, non-pejorative sense of that word—when discussing the Steps.
At the behest of the Good Men Project Magazine, I’m here to share my experience working the steps myself, and, as a sponsor, helping others work them.
First, for the sake of simplicity, I refer to drunks only. Alcoholics Anonymous is the Twelve Step mothership. Similar programs for other addictions and compulsions—drugs, food, sex, gambling, etc.—use the steps but are not part of AA.
Second, I don’t speak for AA. No one does; the organization has no spokespeople or leaders.
Third, I’m offering my take on the steps based on experience. The steps themselves are listed on page 59 of the AA book, and are best gone through with the guidance of someone who’s taken them. They are not intellectual propositions: nothing I thought about them, when I first read them on a scroll hanging on the wall at an AA meeting, proved to be “true”; what mattered is what I experienced as I took each step.
Finally, I’m writing this essay anonymously. Anonymity is a prized facet of AA for two reasons. One, as I mentioned, is that AA has no spokespeople; I’m just some guy sharing what I’ve learned. Two, the early founders learned the hard way that when AAs go public and appear to represent the organization, well, sometimes they get spectacularly drunk. Not only can that reflect poorly on AA, but, more to the point, the once-sober drunk is again caught in the destructive spiral of the alcoholic addiction, and no one, least of all fellow AAs, wishes that upon him.
Besides, you know what? Drunks, even sober ones, are nuts (said the nutty drunk). And AAs are rightly protective of their society, because it has saved their lives and countless others. So when an individual AA sets out to share an insight or two, as I’m about to do, the result can be a shitstorm. So I’m going to use the cloak of anonymity to hide out like the coward that I am.
A note about the keywords included with each step: I made them up. They’re just a shorthand for understanding the nature of the steps.
All right. You ready? Here we go:
Step 1. We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
One chapter of the AA book, written by the doctor who helped AA cofounder Bill Wilson sober up, offers what was, in the 1930s, a radical theory. He suggests that alcoholism is two-pronged: it comprises what he called an “allergy” of the body, tracking parallel to an obsessed mind.
What differentiates alcoholics and non-alcoholics is that the former develops unstoppable physical cravings for alcohol once he begins to drink. His mind begins the campaign of delusion. Against all evidence, it will suggest, and the drunk will believe, that this time drinking will “work.”
The bedrock of the first of the Twelve Steps is the admission that one’s best thinking and most focused willpower is of no use in the face of a raging addiction. The step suggests utter surrender—not to the affliction, but of the mindset suggesting that just one more shot at positive thinking or one more ounce of willpower will solve the problem.
Many alcoholics have said, “Tonight? Just two drinks,” “I’ll stop for the month of January,” or “I promise, honey—no more booze; I see how it’s affecting you and the kids,” only to have those assertions and promises shatter within, oh, a half-day or so.
Alcohol warps the brain; the alcoholic then uses the warped thinking generated by that brain to solve the problem of his affliction. Addicts are brilliant like that. A broken brain can’t fix a broken brain—its thinking is too deranged. But the addict thinks, Hey, why not give it a shot?
The idea that surrender is the way to overcoming a problem is difficult for many to stomach; we’re taught to handle our shit ourselves, and believe that our manhood depends on doing just that.
Plus, surrender to what? To whom? Well, that brings us to …
STEP 2: Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
Working backward, this step suggests that we were once sane and then, with regards to alcohol at least, lost it. In the face of alcoholic calamity—jail, DUIs, shredded relationships, lost jobs, sitting around for days in our underpants—we kept drinking, when any sane person would have stopped. This step, though, suggests that we can be restored to that soundness of mind. We may never drink “normally” again (if we ever did), but even knowing that we can’t is an enormous leap toward reason.
So, how is that restoration possible? By having faith, over time, that something greater and more powerful than our warped thinking will do the trick. Note that the step says “Come to believe”—not “Have to,” not “Immediately.”
The language suggests a process unfolding over time, rather than an instantaneous flash of light and a consequent massive shift in perspective.
Now. Who is this power? Oprah? Dr. Phil? Actually, no, oddly enough. …
STEP 3: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.
Here’s where some folks entering AA freak the hell out. I know I did. But the genius of this step is that italicized bit at the end that folks tend to overlook while they’re freaking the hell out: “as we understoodd Him.” It is, of course, impossible to “understand” God: humans are fallible and finite; God—whatever that might be—is infallible and infinite.
But out of their fractious experience the early AA founders came to understand two things: One, they were sober as the result of having had some kind of spiritual experience—so spirituality was a key component of the message they wanted to pass on. Two, you can’t tell an alcoholic what to do, say, or believe. We’re just too obstreperous. (And some of us like to use big words.) So those early AAs found a middle way: spirituality is important, but believing in someone else’s conception of God is not.
For those new AAs who have a tough time with what’s often wryly referred to as “the God thing,” it’s suggested they consider AA a higher or greater power. No, that doesn’t mean that AA is a cult. A cult would have a leader. AA has no leaders. (A cult might also have more money, and better snacks.)
The meetings provide a sense of fellowship and common ground. There, once-isolated drunks find friendship and a beginning of a return to a social—and socialized—life. At meetings, drunks get together and honestly share their thoughts and feelings. There’s an intimacy and connectedness that results—something that can’t happen when drunks are isolated and alone.
The beautiful thing about AA is that there are no rules. The Twelve Traditions provide guidelines for how to maintain the AA structure itself, but even that is democratic unto anarchy. In the same way, no one sober alkie can tell another what to believe or what not to believe. Oh, people have opinions, and alcoholics, in less spiritual moments, sometimes foist those opinions on other members. But those are just opinions. People can believe what they choose to believe, when it comes to the question of God or anything else.
As for turning our will and lives over … This notion seems to fly in the face of the much-revered American ideal of independence and individualism. But let’s say, for the sake of conversation, that our thinking generates our will; our will generates action; and our actions constitute our life.
In that sense, turning our will (thinking) and life (actions) over to God (or to the AA group) means, at its core, learning to do the right thing. It’s that simple. Would God—any divine and loving being, or even energy system—want us to steal, kill, lie, or drink ourselves to death?
The most surprising thing for many newly sober alcoholics is to discover that, indeed, they (still) have a conscience. They know the difference between right and wrong. They know when they’re hurting or helping someone. The decision to be led by God (or the thought of “good”) simply means surrendering to doing right by others and ourselves.
Taking this step is a simple commitment to carry on with the rest of the AA program. And this is where things get interesting …
STEP 4: Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
Who wants to take a good hard look at themselves, especially at poor past behavior? Not I, said the little green pig. Or alcoholic. More or less consistently wasted, alcoholics figuratively set fire to everything important in their lives over time: marriage or partnership, family, job, societal relations. Driven by the illness, the drunk operates on a dual delusion: 1. if people would only leave me to drink as I wish to, all would be fine; and 2. every one of my life disasters is their fault.
This is where the alcoholic shifts from self-obsession to self-examination, maybe for the first time in his life. He is charged with writing down his resentments, fears, and the harms he has caused in sex and partnership relations.
The resentment list is often massive: we alkies can bear a grudge against just about anyone and anything. One item on my list, among more profound ones like family, the government, certain friends, and so on, was … wind. That’s right. Wind. It pissed me off something fierce, which meant that on windy days I could stay inside and—well, get loaded.
Listing resentments, fears, and harm to relationships is just the beginning. We take a candid look at how we’ve acted in ways that cause others to react in ways that we then resent. We look at where we’ve been selfish (I’m holding on to what I have), self-seeking (I’m going to go out and get something for me), inconsiderate (I don’t care about you so long as I get mine), dishonest (I’m going to lie to you, even if it means lying to myself first, so I can attempt to justify the lie and clear my conscience), and fearful (I’m going to lose what I have or not get what I want). This process encompasses the entirety of our past, all the way back to childhood.
The reason? For alcoholics, resentments are deadly. If we hold grudges, we work ourselves into a fever pitch of emotional distress, the alcoholic solution to which is—wait for it—to drink. But if we drink, the physical compulsion overtakes us and we keep drinking. Once again, alcoholism has us, and it’s a matter of time before it progresses to the point of death—psychological, emotional, and spiritual death first, but ultimately physical death.
Nursing a grudge is a luxury we can’t afford. Nor can we hold onto our fears.
And sex and relationship harms? Well, here we’re talking about doing things that have caused us great shame and humiliation. In this way, we’re no different from non-alkies. Everyone has challenges with sex and intimacy. But for alcoholics, shame is as big a killer as resentment; we want to repress memories of the events and the consequent feelings, and to pretend none of it existed. So now, on the road to sobriety, we face these events and feelings.
Taking moral inventory can be a huge undertaking—we’re lifting the rock to let the worms crawl out. It’s so challenging that many alcoholics don’t finish it—and they drink. As it turns out, though, completing this step brings a sense of relief, even if it’s muted by the painful recognition of who we’ve been.
But writing all that stuff down is only the first part of the process, because then we move on to …
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