One of the hardest parts of addiction is the feeling of being stuck. Stuck in your disease. Stuck in your habits. Stuck in your life. Stuck in your way of being.
Every time I think about changing, my thoughts keep coming back to the situations and problems in my life. They feel overwhelming, unsolvable. I want to change, but I don’t even know where or how to start. Does this feeling seem familiar?
Even years into recovery, I still feel stuck at times. Even after doing something quite uncommon—transforming into an upgraded version of myself—I still feel like this occasionally. While my sobriety became effortless, my recovery will always be challenging. But how can I work my way out of these impossible-looking traffic jams in my life? And especially for those new in recovery, how can we make a beginning with the obstacles and barriers to changing?
For me, real change began when I started to believe that it was possible. I had no reason to doubt other people when they said their lives changed, so I knew that it was doable. And if they could do it, so could I. But could it be as simple as learning the things other people have learned?
In my book, Infinite Recovery, I write about embracing many new ideas which contradicted things I formerly believed. The way I was raised, educated and influenced made me into someone whose beliefs were standing between me and changing. As I began to learn about my limiting beliefs, I started to realize that my whole way of being was built on them, and that I would have to become open to some new ideas if I was truly going to change. Once I began to consider the possibility that these old, limiting ideas were faulty, new possibilities appeared in my life.
Here are some examples of old, limiting ideas, as well as some new ways to think about them.
Old idea #1. I deserve the bad things that happen to me.
New idea #1. The universe is neutral. While my actions have consequences, in the big picture I can learn and change, and the things in my life will change to reflect that.
First, good and bad (right or wrong for that matter) are subjective, or subject to opinion, and based on our feelings about the outcome. If we happen to like an outcome, something was good. If we don’t, it was bad. The universe doesn’t play that way—it’s neutral. Things just happen.
As to my opinion of an outcome, I do better to take the long view. In the short term, something may seem unfortunate, but often turns out to be necessary so something else, often good, can happen. Example: losing a job that you hated anyway and landing in a great position after having a month off in the summer. Most every turd sandwich I’ve been forced to dine on was followed by a great dessert. I just need to relax about it, and look to a bigger picture.
As far as deserving something, actions do have consequences. Sometimes that might be a lesson I need to learn. The sooner I wise up, the sooner the consequence stops. The neutral universe will call me on my shit, but it’s not malicious or vindictive. The idea that bad things happen simply because I drank or drugged—that I was a bad person—is not valid. If I am willing to do the work of recovery and change, I can live on a new footing.
Old idea #2. I can’t do great things.
New idea #2. Just about ANYTHING is possible. My limitations are largely self-imposed.
I’m not going to sugarcoat it. Recovery is hard. Successful recovery is one of the greatest human accomplishments there is. While it won’t get you on the six o’clock news, and you won’t receive a medal or a parade in your honor, coming to terms with a disease of addiction is one of the most heroic and courageous things we can do. I say that to inspire, not to intimidate. And I was easily intimidated. Part and parcel of my addiction was an amplification of my fears, particularly fear of failure. I was just afraid to set my sights, standards and ambitions (that very word was barely in my vocabulary) high. Human beings are amazingly powerful, resilient and adaptive. Prior to getting sober, I would not have believed possible the things I’ve accomplished in recovery.
They said the Wright brothers couldn’t fly. They said we couldn’t go to the moon. Can you imagine what life would be like if those things hadn’t happened? If the Wright brothers and NASA had just shrugged and accepted that what they were attempting was impossible and given up? You’re reading this on a computer screen or some type of device; that you’re reading my words was only made possible as a fringe benefit of going to the moon. Great people don’t do great things accidentally. It starts with the belief that something is possible.
Again, the message the world sends us, transmitted through the medium of addiction, is one of fear, lack and limitation. We internalize this in the form of low self-esteem, low self confidence, and low belief in our own worthiness. My perception changes my reality, and if I look at myself through the lens of my addiction, my limitations will be both many and self-imposed. And sadly, many of those also arise from the false perception and judgment of others. If I buy what they’re selling, it’s a sure set up that I won’t set my mind to and accomplish great things.
Old idea #3. My brain won’t change.
New idea #3. The brain can heal, grow and modify through the entire lifespan. This quality of ‘neuroplasticity’ makes possible amazing changes in our thoughts, feelings and behaviors, i.e. recovery.
I remember always being told that we have a finite number of brain cells. Once they’re gone, that’s it. When we were kids and getting high, we joked about all the brain cells we burned out each time, but at some level we believed it. This limiting idea has also been proven to be false. We now know that the brain can change, grow and be modified with a kind of reprogramming. This is known as neuroplasticity. When we change our minds, we also change our feelings and behaviors, something vitally essential for recovery.
Most of what we do, 95% according to neuroscientists, is subconscious. Things like driving and some other learned behaviors (if you’ve ever said about something, “I could do it in my sleep,” that’s almost true) become so automatic that we don’t have to concentrate on them. Haven’t we all hopped in the car, only to arrive at a destination without recalling anything that occurred on the trip? We just drove. Well, addictive thoughts, feelings and behaviors become so practiced that they’re automatic as well. The good news is that just the way these things can be learned, the old addiction things can be unlearned.
When we do something new, we’re using brain cells (neurons) in a pathway. This is referred to as a neural network. The neurons are firing a small electrical charge called an impulse. The impulse travels from the brain to muscles which perform the action of the new activity. The brain wants to work smart, not hard. If the activity is repeated frequently, the neural network, preferring efficiency, will form a more permanent connection. It’s said that neurons that fire together, wire together. Likewise, when we stop using pathways, they tend to unwire.
This comes as wonderful news to those of us who, like I once did, think the brain cannot be changed. The ability to (literally) change our minds is one of the many miracles of recovery.
Old idea #4. Genetics determines my life.
New idea #4. My environment and my thoughts determine my life.
How often do we hear someone say “It’s in my genes,” as they resign themselves to what they believe is an inevitable condition. Everything from baldness to heart disease, diabetes, cancer and… diseases of addiction are thought by most to be inherited from generation to generation. However, we are not slaves to our genetic destiny.
In the last 20 years, the concept of epigenetics has demonstrated that the environment, not the so-called DNA blueprint, influences which genes are expressed. That’s right! What is happening within and all around us affects the way we are—all the way down to our cells. That includes our very thoughts, it’s been proven. So, why has the old theory of genetics always seemed to work? Precisely because our thoughts have so much influence; everyone has always believed in it.
I need not die in my 50s of the ravages of alcoholism, like my mother did (or go bald like my father for that matter). And if that’s not liberating enough, we’re free to create a genetic reality of our choosing. The people and situations we surround ourselves with and again—even the thoughts we think, are the basis of the lives we lead.
Given choice between recovering in a world governed by those old, rigid ideas, or recovering in a world of new ideas of greater potential, possibility and freedom, the choice is obvious. If these concepts seem a little complicated, remember that there is always a starting point. One need not buy into the entire bundle immediately. Try simply staying sober for one day, and working on acceptance of your worthiness to feel a sense of accomplishment. All change and amazing recoveries started with 24 hours. And remember: though change won’t always feel comfortable, it is your friend. So the next time you’re feeling stuck, think about whether some new ideas might serve you better than the old ones.
Alcoholics Anonymous turns 80 this year! AA is the first program of recovery. The originator of the Twelve Steps, it is the flagship of all self-help organizations, its very name synonymous with sobriety. AA is a cultural icon, and has done the best for the most for the longest.
Sometime after I stopped vomiting, I began to consider the tremendous significance of Alcoholics Anonymous. Feeling profound amazement that I was actually staying sober for the first time since age 10, I understood that I had never been able to do that myself. AA was doing that, not me. This organization (Fellowship, subculture, way of life) had been there the whole time. Only when I became ready did I begin to receive the tremendous gift of recovery, and I was truly in awe as I began to comprehend the scope of all that Alcoholics Anonymous is.
Briefly, Alcoholics Anonymous was formed in 1935 by two men, William (Bill) Wilson and Robert (Dr. Bob) Smith M.D. Coincidentally, both were born in Vermont, and grew up within 75 miles of each other. Both suffered severely due to their alcoholism. Their chance meeting in Akron, Ohio was the result of Wilson’s tenacious and desperate efforts at fighting to maintain sobriety. On the brink of succumbing to relapse, Wilson had the conviction that talking to another alcoholic would help him. In their shared suffering and common experience, they found a spark that became the basis of a solution to their drinking problems. The child of identification, if there was a single moment when AA was conceived, it was probably when Bob said to Bill during their initial meeting, “Yes, that’s me, I’m like that!”1
Wilson was a World War I veteran, natural leader, and a self-professed ‘power-driver’. He worked in finance on Wall Street in the era of the stock market crash of ‘29, yet his drinking hampered his career far more than prevailing economic conditions. Numerous hospitalizations were to no avail. Bill Wilson was consigned the designation of alcoholic of the hopeless variety. Despite his desire to get sober, he was simply unable to.
In his quest for a solution to his drinking, he became involved with the Oxford Group, an international religious-based organization dedicated to social and cultural change down to the individual level. Wilson was attracted to the Oxford Group’s ideals. They had a very progressive concept of personal change supported by tolerance and fellowship. Alcoholism was one of their missions.
Wilson struggled to make the leap of faith. The Oxford’s Christian God concept didn’t work for Wilson until he had a profound experience while hospitalized. William Silkworth, the doctor attending Wilson in the hospital, termed this a “conversion experience”.2 By way of helping Wilson integrate this conversion experience, he gave Wilson a book by William James, one of the founding fathers of 20th century psychology. The book documented varieties of such experiences in a framework that allowed Wilson to come to terms with this evidence of spirituality. This ‘spiritual angle’ proved to be the necessary element for Wilson to give up the drink.
To maintain the boost and momentum of the conversion experience, Wilson was compelled to help alcoholics that still suffered. This aspect, working with others, is another essential element in maintaining sobriety, and was the direct influence of the Oxford Group. Initially, Wilson worked with other alcoholics in the context of Oxford Group gatherings. He found this to be the necessary insurance against relapse in the face of cravings, waning willpower and the years of habitual drinking.
Wilson was months sober, and was attempting to reconstruct his alcohol-battered career in business and finance. These efforts found him many miles from his New York home and support system in the city of Akron, Ohio. The business having been conducted, Wilson was awaiting the outcome. It was the weekend, and he was appropriately anxious. In a strange city with his career in the balance, he was left alone with that waning willpower and the specter of those old habits.
The story goes that he paced the hotel lobby. At one end was the bar; at the other end, a payphone. In the face of mounting anxiety, he chose the payphone. He was desperate to talk to a fellow alcoholic as a measure to avoid relapse. The call he placed ultimately resulted in his first meeting with Dr. Robert Smith.
Smith was another alcoholic of the hopeless variety. Despite intense damage to his career, reputation and health, Smith was unable to stop drinking. Still more profoundly disturbing was the fact that he genuinely wanted to stop- to no avail. He was helpless in the face of his addiction to alcohol. Like Wilson, he had been dismissed as a hopeless case. At the insistence of his wife, he was brought to a friend’s home to meet Wilson. At the outset, Smith said he would remain only 15 minutes. He stayed six hours.
Wilson captured and held Smith’s attention because he could discuss alcoholism from his own experience. He knew all the answers, and not because he had read them in books. Bill W. stayed sober, and Dr. Bob would only drink one more time some weeks later.
Wilson remained in Akron for several more months, during which time he and Smith forged a friendship, a bond in their sobriety, and the foundation of one of the 20th century’s most significant movements of social and spiritual change. From that first meeting arose initially a small group of recovering alcoholics. Following Bill and Bob’s simple example of talking about their drinking and desire to stop, as well as carrying the message to others so afflicted, a few men managed to stay sober. They held their own meetings, and Wilson eventually separated from the Oxford Group. Wilson and Smith worked on their ‘pitch’ for prospective members, emphasizing the hopelessness of the malady, stressing that the angle of fellow sufferers working together and the spiritual component offered a solution that worked.
Wilson and Smith complemented one another well. Wilson was driven, outgoing and imaginative. Smith was stable, grounded and inclined to think things through thoroughly, and tempered his partner’s promoter impulses. Theirs was also a partnership based on many commonalities beside alcoholism. As a layman, businessman Wilson was interested in medicine; physician Smith viewed with concern the ‘business’ of medicine. They were both men of open minds and spiritual inclination. They had a chemistry that fueled their fledgling movement.
AA’s early days were challenging. While the founders had a vision, they had no model to follow. In the face of society’s stigma regarding alcoholism, they were blazing new trails. Though the prior decade had seen a temperance movement and the resulting prohibition, there had been no solution to the alcoholic problem. Society had viewed the hopeless alcoholic as merely lacking willpower. The Oxford Group’s vague spiritual remedy was not of itself nearly sufficient. The medical approach was to restore physical sobriety, and did nothing to address the psychological and behavioral addiction component. Bill and Dr. Bob learned as they went in the first months and years.
As well as carrying the message to others, Bill and Bob had to maintain their personal recoveries. In the weeks following their meeting, Dr. Bob managed to stay sober. He stumbled once after meeting Bill, while attending a medical convention. Bill helped him through the ensuing withdrawal, and Dr. Bob’s sobriety date was June 10, 1935, the day they consider as the real founding of AA. They set about spreading the message in earnest.
The book was Wilson’s idea, of course. Within the first year, Wilson and Smith became dedicated to the cause of spreading the idea that alcoholics could recover as they had. As they slowly converted other sufferers, they realized that some sort of resource would support the effort. The name Alcoholics Anonymous was settled upon for the book’s title, and came to be the name of the organization as well. Now referred to as The Big Book, the first edition consisted of twelve chapters plus early members’ personal stories. It also included a statement from Dr Silkworth substantiating the effectiveness of AA’s approach as well as emphasizing the validity of the conversion experience. The Twelve Steps are contained within the first chapters in a narrative form. Wilson is said to have lain in bed and written them in a single evening. With only minor alteration in the form of suggestions from Bob and the other original members, he wrote the Steps almost exactly as they appear today.
On the occasion of this 80th birthday, I wonder what Bill Wilson would think about the amazing phenomenon he and Dr. Bob set in motion. After spending the first 10 years building it, Wilson focused the next 10 years on making it self-sufficient, releasing it to the General Service Conference on the occasion of AA’s 20th international convention. Despite tremendous growth in those early years, anticipating the effects of decades of cultural, medical and scientific change was a daunting proposition, even for the enlightened and forward-thinking Wilson. How is the 80-year-old program doing in terms of meeting the needs of a recovery landscape changing ever more rapidly? I think Wilson would be struck by two things.
First, the staggering magnitude of diseases of addiction in contemporary society would seem epidemic in comparison to alcoholism of the mid-20th century. Beginning in the ‘turn-on-and-tune-out’ sixties, the formerly deep underground drug culture came out of hiding. Over the subsequent decades, the notion of better living through chemistry elevated recreational drug use to the status of cultural norm. The stupefaction of America was fueled by a growing black market eager to supply the ever-increasing demand. The stoned out sixties, and heroin-addicted seventies, the coked-out eighties, the crack-head nineties… The consequence being addiction as never seen before. Forward to the present day; the phenomenon of the polysubstance abuser is now rampant. People barely out of their teens, whose intensive use of anything and everything mind altering has catastrophic consequences in both the short and long terms, careen toward the fulfillment of the proverbial zombie apocalypse.
My opinion is that Wilson would be pleased with the trend toward a more homogenous mix. It’s common today for a significant proportion of people at AA meetings to identify themselves as alcoholic addict. The attraction of AA’s high-quality recovery draws many who don’t even consider themselves to be alcoholic. A desire to be sober has replaced the outdated requirement of a desire to stop drinking. Along with cultural and social diversity, people with a wide assortment of addictive issues identify with and support one another in the context of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and groups.
Second, and equally great in magnitude, is the self-help movement of today, which owes much to AA. Wilson would likely be impressed by the depth and breadth of a broad-based trend toward maximizing human potential. As the size of the self-help section in any bookstore will attest, there is a tremendous volume of information on personal transformation available out there. People today hunger for deeper insight into their lives and solutions to their problems. And Alcoholics Anonymous itself has inspired literally dozens of self-help programs, many based in the twelve steps. As information and knowledge expand exponentially in the areas of medicine, science and psychology, new ideas and approaches are many. Spirituality in the broad sense is overflowing the outmoded container of organized religion; people are looking for answers to the perennial questions about existence, yearning to find meaning. The desire to attach significance to our lives drives us more than ever, and circles back to one of Bill Wilson’s own ideas… that underlying alcoholism, or indeed any disease of addiction, is a search for meaning.
Wilson was ahead of the curve in many ways. His spiritual perspective was unconventional for the day. He believed that life, or existence anyway, does not end with physical death. He and his wife Lois hosted weekly “spook sessions” in which they used Ouija boards.3 In his open-minded pursuit of new ways to help the alcoholic, he explored some controversial possibilities, including the use of vitamin supplements and an experimental laboratory drug called lysergic acid diethylamide.4 That’s right! Bill Wilson took LSD under medical supervision, in hopes that it might aid the conversion experience in others. His position as leader of the alcoholic recovery movement allowed him correspondence with and support from some of the great thinkers of the era. It was Dr. Carl Jung, one of the giants of psychiatry, who supported Wilson’s notion of alcoholism as search for meaning.
Wilson liked to spend lots of time just thinking about how to better help alcoholics. Today, I suspect he would think hard on two things. For the newcomer, there is no real orientation or introduction explaining how AA works. The newcomer is at the mercy of happenstance. In this information age of Internet connectivity, there should be resources dedicated to the particular needs and circumstances of the brand-new person in recovery. An overview of AA, how meetings work, what to expect and what is expected, along with something directing them to beginner-appropriate meetings would better serve the newcomer. When so much depends on an initial experience, the proverbial first impression, isn’t it too important to leave to chance? Bill W. would think hard on this, and how to get more people safely from the door on their first day to that permanent, contented sobriety.
The other thing that Bill would ponder is the established AA who still struggles. To varying degrees, many people in recovery for years, even decades, still wrestle with the desire to drink. When people attend meetings, follow suggestions and do the work while still living in fear of drinking and situations involving alcohol, and in general still display the “-isms” that we talk about, something is not right. Bill would think about how to help the ones for whom the promises are not complete, the ones who haven’t attained that place of neutrality regarding alcohol. How to have harmonious balance in the elements of recovery, how to be free of the desire to drink, and how to believe in one’s own ability to stay sober under all circumstances? I think that would be Bill’s birthday wish for Alcoholics Anonymous.
Would Wilson make any changes? This is the million dollar question. For decades, the only changes have been in the form of adding some new stories to the Big Book. As the scales of the timeline tip the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous closer to the Civil War era, the literature and ideas require more abstraction to absorb. The reader is required to intellectually translate the ideas expressed into contemporary context. Like impressionist art or a Shakespeare play, it will stand on its own, well worthy of consideration and appreciation for what it is. The original literature of Alcoholics Anonymous will stand the test of time, but is becoming a period piece. Though increasingly a more bygone style, the message and meaning will always dwell within. The challenge falls increasingly more on the Fellowship to interpret and carry that message in as pure a form as possible, while making it accessible and adapting to shifting paradigms in thought and understanding.
To be continued.
- Alcoholics Anonymous World Services: Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, A Brief History of A.A. (New York: Alcoholics Anonymous Publishing, Inc., 1957), 68.
- Alcoholics Anonymous World Services: ‘Pass It On’, the story of Bill Wilson and how the A.A. message reached the world. (New York: Alcoholics Anonymous Publishing Inc., 1984), 123.
- Alcoholics Anonymous World Services: ‘Pass It On’, the story of Bill Wilson and how the A.A. message reached the world. (New York: Alcoholics Anonymous Publishing Inc., 1984), 278.
- Alcoholics Anonymous World Services: ‘Pass It On’, the story of Bill Wilson and how the A.A. message reached the world. (New York: Alcoholics Anonymous Publishing Inc., 1984), 369.
In Alcoholics Anonymous Turns 80 Part 1, I provided a historical overview and pondered how AA founder Bill Wilson would view the recovery landscape of today. It’s reasonable that the AA founder, a man who devoted much time and energy to thinking of ways to help the alcoholic, would appreciate today’s self-help culture while recognizing that the addiction problem has intensified. He’d likely dwell on how to better help both the newcomer and those established in recovery who still struggle.
I began recovery in Alcoholics Anonymous almost 25 years ago. I am in awe of this amazing phenomenon, and I believe it’s no less than a modern miracle in our culture. It gave me a new lease on life, and makes it possible for me to say that the biggest problem in my life today is that we still collectively struggle. I love AA, which has done something truly remarkable in terms of altering lives and maximizing human potential. It’s an example of creation in the highest sense.
For all the reasons stated above, what I’m about to unpack is going to sound harsh and less than grateful. Nothing could be farther from the truth. It is out of gratitude and a sense of duty that I raise some difficult, even uncomfortable ideas. In Part 1, I pointed out that the problem is becoming extraordinary; the phenomenon of the contemporary polysubstance abuser would be almost enough to ‘scare straight’ the old-time proverbial ‘garden-variety drunk’. Extraordinary problems require extraordinary solutions, and addiction is the smallpox epidemic of our time. I’m not an old-timer bitching about how AA has changed. In fact, this is where Big Book thumpers, hard-liners and the generally faint of heart should stop reading (not really, but if I tell you to, you won’t!), because this is jumping to editorial mode.
From a social and cultural standpoint, the time of AA’s formation, the 1930s, has far more in common with the Civil War era than it does with this modern age we live in. Nowhere is this more evident than in Alcoholics Anonymous, the Big Book of AA. In the time of the Civil War, and decades that followed, the rockstars of the day were not actors, athletes, musicians or celebrities. The people who commanded the respect and admiration of the masses were great writers and speakers. The Big Book, and to a lesser degree the Twelve and Twelve, reflect this. Unfortunately, the writing style of the books simply isn’t in keeping with our fast-paced, short attention span cultural context. It’s like a horse and buggy on an Interstate. In short, people are having more and more difficulty understanding the message of Alcoholics Anonymous.
In medicine 80 years ago, a common cold could kill you; today they can reimplant a severed limb and give you a new heart, liver or kidney. 80 years ago, physics said that everything was either matter or energy. Now it says that everything is both, and is connected at the most fundamental level. 80 years ago, neuroscience said memories were stored in specific locations in the brain, that the brain could not change, and that you had a finite amount of brain cells. Today, neuroscience says memories are everywhere in the brain, and you can absolutely change your brain. 80 years ago, biology said we were products of heredity; today biology says our environment and thoughts change our genes. 80 years ago, psychology said, “Ya, ve must analyse ze problem (sic).” Today it says we can choose to live in the solution. And 80 years ago, Alcoholics Anonymous said go to meetings, ask for help, and just don’t drink; today, Alcoholics Anonymous still says go to meetings, ask for help, and just don’t drink.
In fairness, those are simplistic overviews, and the substance of AA’s message is, of course, that it is not enough to merely stop drinking. However, AA has failed to become the promised vehicle of change for many.
We might do well to examine how well some of the Traditions are serving us. For example, if Alcoholics Anonymous is going to rely on attraction (as opposed to promotion), something has to give. Alcoholics and addicts, by their very nature, are too cool for school, especially when they’re new. This doesn’t go away overnight. People have to stick around long enough to get past their own inherent obstacles before they can begin to realize their potential. Somehow, there’s always an overweight AA dinosaur, dressed in the height of Wal-Mart fashion, standing at the podium saying, “Come along with us.” I’m not drinking that Kool-Aid, why would a newcomer? Not attractive. I’m not advocating shameless promotion! But how about more mindful attraction? Role models are powerful, whether positive or negative. We need to carefully consider who we choose as ‘poster children.’
AA fails to warn us of the risks versus benefits of the suggested program of recovery. We are compelled to step out of our comfort zone. Ask any newcomer how they feel about steps four, five, eight and nine. Shock and dismay—“I have to do that?!?” And to get something more out of it than merely being able to say they did it, it’s not enough to merely follow the directions. Understanding the nature of the discomfort, being warned of how it will feel, and being made aware of the rewards of facing fears would likely yield better results than asking for a display of blind faith. I have to leave my comfort zone to step into my greatness, but remind me about that greatness again please?
On the other side of that fear is the freedom we could only dream about while living under the jackboot of addiction. Going through that fear, not around it is the only way to that freedom. But it is SO worth it. Inspiration motivates better than fear of consequences.
Then, while I’m compelled to do some uncomfortable, even painful things, the advantages and benefits are tightly reined in. I’m allowed a sense of ‘new freedom’, but should not be too free because I’m… powerless! The idea is that personal powerlessness and humility (a carrot on a stick to be sought after for its own sake), are paramount. I’m not disputing my or anyone’s powerlessness; my true desire is to be and remain humble in my heart and mind. What I strive to keep in mind is that I have some powerful tools which I received as gifts of recovery. The challenge becomes integrating powerlessness and humility while growing into my true human potential. Here’s an analogy… By the time the black belt martial arts expert acquires the power to kill with his hands, he has (hopefully) acquired wisdom not to. If the steps of recovery give me wings to fly, I feel compelled to use them, not sit on the ground humbly and powerlessly staring up at the sky. I have the option of rejecting limits.
I need to find balance—sustainability—in all the elements of my recovery. While the steps start with an admission, my recovery really started with a decision. On my first day, I made a decision with more intensity, focus, clarity and energy than any other decision I’ve ever made. I decided that recovery was the right thing for me. Everything else has grown from that, things I would have never dreamt were possible. Meetings, sponsorship (both having and being one), working the steps, recovery knowledge base, contact and identification with others, i.e. sense of community are an overview of those elements I need to balance.
The obstacles were that my fears, doubts and insecurities were continually reinforced far more than my dreams, goals and aspirations. When I was new, I questioned and analyzed, and I was repeatedly told not to. I asked questions, and floated ideas about the things I encountered and observed while genuinely doing the work of early recovery. The response was not warm. “Keep coming,” I was told disingenuously. Keep it simple. I was laughed at, even mocked for thinking a little differently. But I kept coming, and responded by questioning that reaction I got. Should I be true to the integrity of my personal concept of recovery, a higher power, and objectives in sobriety in the face of adversity, or lower my head and follow the crowd, taking the path of least resistance? The answer was that my real obstacle was not the fear, lack, limitation or judgment of others; my real obstacle was my judgment of myself.
Is there anything simple about alcoholism? Um… HELL NO! Keeping it simple was not really an option. I took them seriously when they said contempt prior to investigation is a bar to information 1 , and would keep me from progress. I finally realized that most of the time, when people said keep it simple, what they really meant was don’t threaten my old ideas with your new ideas—I’m very happy right here in my comfort zone. Which brings us back to the fact that no one ever explained the benefits of leaving the comfort zone. The problem with staying in a nice, predictable comfort zone is that nothing changes there, and I need to be willing to continue changing every day, constantly raising the bar of what is possible for me personally, and in recovery in general.
It wasn’t until I began to move toward the unlimited possibilities of my life and recovery, truly desiring to change every day, that the promises began to come true for me. Recovery is what we make it.
I see the biggest failing of Alcoholics Anonymous in the large proportion of recovered AAs who are essentially still the same people who drank. They have just swapped out the habit of drinking for the habit of not drinking. While following a set of directions, failure to dig deep enough to attach meaning to the steps in their lives, and failure to at least ask some of those larger questions has left many in recovery as merely prisoners in self-constructed jails without bars (pun intended). Their cellmate is a disease of addiction that is merely sleeping. Unless they change from the person who drank or used daily into a person who stays sober under all circumstances, they will know nothing but fear that their sleeping disease will awaken at any moment and devour them.
In recent decades, a couple of new developments have found their way into the mainstream of AA, the Big Book Step Study (BBSS) and the AWOL (Alcoholic Way of Life). A BBSS is a closed Big Book meeting with stringent guidelines regarding who may speak. The AWOL is a closed Twelve and Twelve meeting to which the participants commit for the duration, which is eight to nine months. The group works through the Twelve Steps under the guidance of an experienced facilitator. The original intent of the BBSS and AWOL was to reinforce the fundamentals of the AA program in response to concerns that the original message was becoming dilute. Those choosing to participate in this work generally praise the concept; whether consistent with their level of motivation or as a result of it, they tend to have high-end recoveries. While the BBSS is a sanctioned meeting format, AWOLs are considered to be outside AA.
Another positive development in terms of meetings are the groups formed in dedication to the Eleventh Step, often featuring a group meditation. Not to praise sweet Jesus, but rather to enhance the development of spirituality, these meetings can offer a weekly dose of nutrients for the developing belief system. Nowhere were the AA founders more ahead of the curve than with the endorsement of meditation in the Twelve and Twelve. In the subsequent decades, meditation has been proven to have a range of benefits enhancing recovery. Not only has basic meditation demonstrated health benefits such as increased immunity and decreased anxiety, but ‘dynamic’ or ‘active’ meditation is a remarkable instrument of transformation. The modification and even elimination of negative emotions, character defects and addictive behaviors is a veritable steroid injection to step work.
I entered recovery in a time of transition. About 25 years ago, there seemed to be a changing of the guard. The old-timers of my early sobriety had been newcomers when the original, early day AAs were old-timers. As I approach my own ‘old timer-hood’, this represents the maturing of a third generation. When I came in, it was “Sit down, shut up and listen.” I was told to do math in the form of calculating my ear to mouth ratio. Crusty old timers occasionally took verbal aim at my knee caps, the theory being that humility enemas had benefit. Then came a softer, more sensitive and more politically correct AA. For a time, discussion groups threatened group therapy providers as a free alternative. Depending on the day, a meeting might seem more like a chick flick than a speaker discussion group. As AA entered its sixth and seventh decade, purists and hard-liners feared recovery had gone soft. Looking back, this swinging of the proverbial pendulum is typical of organizations and cultures; AA is both. Whether a reflection of the times or a response to its own needs, AA’s trends do not so much reflect instability, but rather the overall stability of the Fellowship. It is not on life-support, it’s just growing up!
So, what next? Will the pendulum swing back the other way? Or in some new direction? I sometimes imagine a new AA. With a progressive and open-minded spirit of inquiry, this upgraded fellowship embraces all the progress of the past 80 years in the areas of psychology, science, medicine… AA Version 2.0 is retooled with a broadly accessible ideal of spirituality, and gives coherent step-by-step instructions in the process of change. The attraction of a life and recovery of your dreams, in which people stop struggling and actually step into the greatness of which they were always capable, would literally suck the suffering, addicted masses into the vortex of a life of redemption.
Then I woke up.
But I wonder… Did Bill W. think that way? And did Dr. Bob say, “Keep it simple”? Perhaps. And perhaps that’s why we have something so wonderful, 80 years later. While the time is perfect for something new, different and… more… to come along and raise the bar of what’s possible in recovery, we need AA to stay solid. We need it to continue to do what it has always done—to be the rock, the flagship.
When I was new, my first sponsor was sponsored by a man that was sponsored by a man that Bill W. sponsored. I say this to emphasize that we can all trace our lineage back to the two founders. My first sponsor gave me something that seems to be lacking these days—an education. More than instruction on the steps and basics of the program, this included principles of etiquette and a code of ethics. Regarding meetings: arrive on time or early, but not late. If late, enter the room with minimal disruption and don’t speak. Speak only once per meeting; do not double dip to respond to something. Do not respond to antagonism or provocation. Stay on topic. If on a commitment, share the time. Regarding conduct: offer opinions only if asked. Respect boundaries. Don’t interrupt. No relationships with people in their first year. These lessons made my recovery stronger, and I don’t hear about these things anymore. They gave me a sense of reverence that I just don’t see anymore.
While I have faith that our fellowship is strong, I believe we all need to be responsible for its preservation. We need to ask ourselves, “What am I doing for AA, today?” The experienced members must interpret the program in as pure a form as possible, translating into current context where necessary. And new members need to be reminded that they are part of something vast, powerful and extraordinary, and that the day will come when they will be responsible for its highest interest. These new members need to be aware of this, and assume responsibility when their time comes. As Alcoholics Anonymous celebrates its birthday, a true milestone, it should serve as a reminder that alcoholism and diseases of addiction have been doing push-ups in the parking lot for the last 80 years. While I believe some of the hardest work lies yet ahead, I know that our best days are ahead as well.
- Alcoholics Anonymous World Services: Alcoholics Anonymous, Fourth Edition. (New York: Alcoholics Anonymous Publishing, Inc., 2001), 568.
Behind the fundamental goal of recovery, being addiction-free, there is another objective. Whether we call it the profound personality change spoken of in the traditional Twelve Step model, or the personal transformation of a more contemporary approach, we strive to become a different and better person. The thoughts, feelings and behaviors of the person that used drugs and alcohol just won’t work in an addiction-free life. Growth and change are essential.
Sometimes trampled under the rallying cries of “keep it simple”, “avoid projecting”, and “one day at a time”, is the idea of thinking ahead. The concept is nearly taboo. A limiting idea has arisen: FUTURE is a dirty word.
Positive change is not likely to happen at random. Great recovery is not an accident, but rather the result of some very deliberate and challenging work. A program with multiple components is required. Meetings, sponsorship, book knowledge, fellowship, and very importantly, a spiritual belief system are all part of how we get and stay sober. A mindful approach would suggest being aware of that intention, positive change. Envisioning where this transformation is going is practical and necessary.
My personal approach is to become an upgraded version of myself. I work on this daily, and openly invite change and the unexpected into my life. If every day is the same, I’ll be the same too. Vital in this process is a vision for the life and recovery I want. To work my recovery this way, I had to come to terms with that dirty word, future.
Like it or not, the future is coming.
In early recovery, one of the best ways of handling the stress and newness of sobriety is staying in the present moment. However, as we progress, rigid day-at-a-time living can have limitations. That mindful and intuitive program may be sacrificed in favor of a stationary routine, risking stagnation or worse—a backslide or even relapse. Remember how much we hated boredom! That fine line between playing it safe and pushing ourselves, actually doing the work, can become lost in well-meaning adherence to an inflexible rule that may no longer serve us.
Now, consider the conventional concept of time, past moving into the present, moving on to the future. We rarely ponder that this is how our lives and reality are structured, and we come to have a very fixed relationship with time. We remember the past. As each moment unfolds, we can intentionally act in the present to influence the future yet to come. However, we cannot act in the present to influence the past; nor can we ‘remember’ the future. Or… can we?
I’ve come to understand that as my reality and future potential unfold, there are limitless possibilities of what might occur in my life. In fact, I have amazing choices of how my life can be, as well as how my recovery can be. The only actual limitations are those I set myself.
It’s helpful to understand the hazards of the future, especially in early recovery. Too often, the future is associated with feelings of anxiety. If something went horribly wrong in the past, we dwell on the possibility that it will happen again. This prays upon our fears, and our minds make this feel as real as if it were actually happening in our world at the present moment. Is it? No! By predicting a future based on memories of the past, we can actually change our physical state to feelings of agitation and discomfort. Anxiety—the bodily sensations like pounding heart, upset stomach, sweaty palms, tremors and even a useless adrenaline rush (the body’s emergency response)—is merely the product of thoughts, feelings and negative emotions. A list of things over which we are powerless need not include anxiety… We have a choice!
If our thoughts have that much power over our physical state in such a negative manner, why can’t we seize the opportunity to use that in a positive way? With a little practice, this loophole of our minds’ control of our bodies can work for us instead of against us. I use my vision process toward this end.
I spent considerable time giving serious thought to my vision for my life and recovery. The goals, defining characteristics, even how I will think, feel and act are very clear in my mind. Completely setting aside the ‘how’ for the moment, I worked on the what. This is creativity in its truest and highest sense; as AA’s Eleventh Step refers to it, “constructive imagination.” In fact, I became so clear and specific on so many aspects of my “upgrade” that I moved beyond mere visualization. In the same fashion that anxiety changes the bodily state, my mental rehearsal of my future self begins to change my present physical self. Because my body doesn’t know the difference between thoughts that result from my external environment and the thoughts I generate myself, my physiology (all my bodily processes) starts to become the physiology of the upgraded version I’m imagining. I’m getting actual benefits ahead of any experience in the real world.
In my addicted way of being, I lived by cause and effect. The world around me dictated what happened inside me. The only way I knew to control my internal state was through drugs and alcohol. As I physically transform into that upgraded version of myself, my external environment will transform to reflect my new inner state. No longer living as a victim of cause and effect, I’m now literally causing an effect. As I draw different experiences, relationships and opportunities into my life, I move toward the future of my choosing; I actually draw that possible version of the future to me.
It’s helpful to keep some principles in mind in this process. I’m not in charge. Something greater than me is. It’s okay to want a better life, and it’s even okay to have specific ideas about how that might look, but I have to keep it right. Also, this is more than just the power of positive thinking. My thoughts and actual feelings have to be absolutely aligned. I can’t just have a thin layer of positive attitude whitewashed over a quivering mass of fears, doubts and insecurities. So I need to have a belief system that supports this, and I have to be committed in a substantial way. Finally, I have to be completely open and flexible to “the how” part of this, because it’s going to happen in ways I could never anticipate.
As I connect to an amazing future, I am now doing the extraordinary. Where I pointed out that we can’t remember the future, I am in fact becoming someone with the thoughts and physical body of someone who has had some future experience prior to that experience actually happening. In a sense, I am ‘premembering’ the future. As my new life unfolds, my valuable insight and experience from the past will guide my thinking and choices, and my gratitude for this will further alter my perception of the past. Since my perception is my reality, I am effectively altering the past. Most importantly, I need no longer fear a predictable future based on a known past. Thus liberated, I have absolute freedom to live more fully in the precious present moment.
In the recovery world, progress is often compared to peeling away the layers of an onion to continually discover deeper and more profound truth about myself. I want to keep upgrading, constantly moving in the direction of becoming a different and better version of myself. The underlying principle is that change is perpetual, and that the onion will always have more layers.
So, I achieved the life and recovery of my dreams. Recovery will always have challenges, but the physical sobriety so many struggle with is effortless for me. I literally became a different person. While that should be tremendously liberating, it comes with a completely different set of problems. It’s impossible to escape the realization that we’re all in this together, connected at the most fundamental level. It’s pointless to be all set when so many are not; the itch in the middle of my brain persists. Why then, if the means to succeed are available, do people fail in recovery?
Perhaps it’s because we have perception that there will always be another layer of the onion, and with it, a certain security in remaining as that old version of ourselves. After all, in any support community we can find acceptance and validation. That includes a supportive acceptance of my failures, mistakes and setbacks along the way. And since that kind of validation feels good, there can be a certain comfort in perpetually peeling an onion that goes on forever. If the people, places and things in my reality no longer send a message that the old version of me doesn’t work, and on the contrary, give me a signal that I’m doing okay, where’s the incentive to keep crossing the river of change? Can I just float in the middle?
Many in recovery float along, staying a meeting or two, a sponsor conversation, or a few prayers and meditations ahead of an addictive illness they have failed to deal with definitively. They swapped out old bad habits for better new habits—going to meetings and not picking up no matter what—but they’re the same people they were previously. Their thoughts, their feelings, and who they are at depth have not changed.
What are we afraid of? The middle of the onion is the sweetest, most delicious part, so it can’t be that. The realizations of goals and dreams along with the peace, serenity and freedom that come with that aren’t the problem. The problem is that everybody at the meetings told us that we’re okay the way we are so many times that we’re terrified of letting go of that old version of ourselves. At some level, we realize that our old thoughts, feelings and behaviors won’t work with the new version of ourselves. We can’t take our old self into a new life. In fact, we can’t even create a new life as the old self.
It always comes back to fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of change and fear of hard work always trump fear of repeating the past. The work of recovery is as much about the releasing of the old self as changing into a new self. It dredges up all the bad endings, burned bridges, regret of bad decisions made and roads not taken. There is no energy to build a future when it’s all being sucked away by the past, that old version of reality.
The solution is to just let go. Release the ball and chain of who, what and how you were. In the middle of that onion is something more amazing than most of us could ever dream. We’re perfectly capable of realizing this, but only after becoming completely willing to break with the past, the old version of ourselves, can we step into our greatness, the true potential of what we can be in recovery.