By Russ H.
The vast majority of AA members have heard How It Works read aloud at the beginning of meetings. It is such a common practice that many of us have passively committed this six hundred and thirty word tract to memory simply by repeated exposure. Taken verbatim from the eponymous Chapter Five of the book Alcoholics Anonymous, it is regarded by many to be the definitive summary of the AA program of recovery. In it we find certain assertions expressed in remarkably unequivocal axiomatic language. Among them is the famous declaration:
If you have decided you want what we have and are willing to go to any length to get it – then you are ready to take certain steps. (Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 58)
This statement is followed closely by a list of the 12 Steps in their familiar abbreviated form.
It is not uncommon for this sentence to be paraphrased by AA members today in ways that convey a similar, but far less specific, imperative. One often repeated variant is:
If you want what we have you will do what we did.
Sober alcoholics have been known to use this directive to justify all sorts of requirements for new comers to AA. Some of them are generally accepted as beneficial. For example, attend ninety meetings in ninety days, get a sponsor, read the big book and get a service commitment. Others can be more intrusive and are sometimes problematic for the new person. AA sponsors have been known to impose dress codes, demand attendance at specific meetings, insist on daily phone calls, require recitation of prayers, invoke “no dating” rules and much more.
We don’t all follow exactly the footsteps of those who came before us as we find our way to recovery from addiction. Yet our journey is the same as theirs. What did they have that we want? What did they do that we also have done? What really are the core elements that constitute the program of Alcoholics Anonymous? When we undertake to carry the message of recovery to alcoholics is there a general description of what all of us have and what all of us did to get it?
What we have that others may want is sobriety – genuine and lasting recovery from alcoholism and drug addiction. The nature of sobriety was eloquently expressed by Bill W. over 75 years ago:
And we have ceased fighting anything or anyone – even alcohol. For by this time sanity will have returned. We will seldom be interested in liquor. If tempted, we recoil from it as from a hot flame. We react sanely and normally, and we will find that this has happened automatically. We will see that our new attitude toward liquor has been given us without any thought or effort on our part. (Alcoholics Anonymous, pp. 84 – 85)
Being sober is not something that we do. It something we receive. As a result, it is what we are.
I am not sober because of the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. In fact, I did not become genuinely interested in the 12 Steps until I had been clean and sober for a couple of years. I have embraced and practiced the 12 Steps to the best of my ability – but it was after the fact of my sobriety. Nonetheless, I do believe I am sober because I did what our predecessors in AA have been doing since the 1930s. Rather than looking to the first 164 pages of the big book for some immutable prescriptive recipe for how to achieve recovery from alcoholism in AA, let’s simply take them to be what they are: a written account of how the earliest AA members understood and explained their astonishing experiences of recovery from alcoholism. They seem to be encouraging us to adopt such a perspective by including the following:
Our book is meant to be suggestive only. We realize we know only a little. (Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 164)
What do we find when we take a step back and ask ourselves: “What did they do?” This is an important question is because it requires us to separate what actually took place from their proffered explanations of how and why it happened.
Initially by the tireless, almost obsessive, effort of Bill W and other early AA members they found each other. Their realization that recovery from alcoholism is more readily achieved and sustained when it takes place within a group of other recovering alcoholics was brilliant. It gave birth to the establishment of AA meetings from which emerged the worldwide fellowship of AA that we know today. Arguably, our AA fellowship itself is the single most important and influential gift that the AA founders left for us. We are spared the need to troll hospitals, bars, skid rows and institutions in order to find the company of other alcoholics. Meetings also grant us the implicit assurance that alcoholics we do find are there because they have a desire to stop drinking.
Having found one another they shared their experiences. The importance of our personal stories and the benefit of sharing those stories with each other cannot be overstated. Far more space is devoted to these stories in the big book than is given to the first eleven chapters. The emphasis we now place on exchanging our own histories – engaging in the time honored ritual of oral traditions practiced for millennia by human beings everywhere – is another brilliant element of the AA program. We share our experience, strength and hope with each other as we relate what it was like, what happened and what it’s like now. Through talking and listening we forge bonds from the raw materials of honesty, tenderness, trust, compassion and respect just as those bonds have been forged between countless alcoholics in AA since the beginning.
The big book is conspicuously circumspect about specifically suggesting that alcoholics make the decision to not drink or use drugs. Surely, to achieve and sustain sobriety the single most elementary and essential action we take is to abstain entirely from alcohol and other drugs. One might think this would be sufficiently important to warrant inclusion in the 12 Steps. It is not there. It is tempting to suppose its absence reflects real wisdom on the part of the architects of AA. A certain degree of finesse is essential when dealing with active alcoholics. Enticing them to adopt a program of recovery that declares up front and in print that one must stop drinking might well be a fatally flawed strategy. Nevertheless, if we are guided by the simple question “what did they do?” we have to agree that every sober alcoholic has stopped drinking and using drugs.
From the viewpoint of AA’s founders, a critical issue is whether stopping drinking is a volitional act or a gift – something that they did or something that happened to them? This is a profoundly important distinction. It is not ours to decide which the case was for them. They unambiguously declared that sobriety derives from maintaining spiritual fitness:
We have not even sworn off. Instead, the problem has been removed. It does not exist for us. We are neither cocky nor are we afraid. That is our experience. That is how we react so long as we keep in fit spiritual condition. (Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 85)
This is what was true for them. So we can conclude that based on their own backgrounds, experiences and personal beliefs they came to believe they understood what had happened.
The big book does go into great detail regarding AA members experiencing an intervening evolution of awareness both of themselves and of their higher power. If we are to fully examine what they did, we must give direct attention to their account of the 12 Steps. This can be – perhaps should be – undertaken objectively. We ought not to be surprised to discover that some of what they did is not what we have done. Or, if we are still in the beginning stages, that some of what they did involves doing or believing things that we cannot do or do not believe.
Most of us are probably able to agree, as the 12 Steps clearly tell us, that it is desirable and important that we: acknowledge who and what we are, believe it is possible for us to become and remain sober people, look for and rely upon help from outside ourselves, examine past actions and motives, understand that what we say and do may have greater or lesser merit, seek to speak and act in ways that have greatest merit, acknowledge our shortcomings, make retribution for harm done to others whenever possible and open our minds and hearts to great things we have not yet considered or felt. If we do these things (whether or not we do them specifically as prescribed in the 12 Steps) then, like the early members of AA, we have undertaken to lead a self-examined life.
The final step in what they did was to carry the message of recovery to the alcoholic who still suffered. With all of this in mind we may now be in position to follow in the footsteps of the early AA members. All that is required is that we know what we have, are aware of what we did and are willing to carry our message to other alcoholics who are still suffering. If we do this then we will be able with integrity to tell others if you want we have, we will be happy to tell you what we did. This is very much different from trying to tell someone what the people who wrote the big book did. That was their story. They told their stories with conviction because they lived them and believed them. It was the truth and it changed the world. If we are to do what they did then we must also tell our stories with equal conviction. We must tell the truth, not of what happened to someone else, but of what happened to us. If we do that the world will continue to be changed.
I am an alcoholic and drug addict who has achieved sobriety and sustained it for a long time. If you want that – to be a clean and sober person – it is available to you. You may or may not want to do what I did. If you do:
Find other alcoholics who are leading sober lives. One good place to find us in in AA meetings everywhere. When we are at our best, we have no agenda. If you find us at less than our best do not be discouraged. On our good days we accept each other even when someone else is having a bad day. On our bad days others (usually) return the favor. That in itself is a wonderful gift. The only requirement for membership in AA is the desire to stop drinking. The entire AA program of recovery is voluntary. You do not have to do, say, think or believe anything that is not consistent with your own true self. If someone tells you differently it is perfectly okay to shift your attention to someone else.
Join them in the sharing of personal stories of alcoholism and drug addiction. Our stories all share a common arc. I drank and used drugs. I became addicted, by which I mean I found myself unable to choose not to drink or use drugs. My addiction slowly caused my life to unravel and drove me to a place of deep despair. I walked into my first AA meeting and met others who said they were alcoholics too. They told me their stories and, even more remarkable, they shared with me the realities of their lives today. I learned from them what life is like when people like me give up alcohol and drugs. I also discovered what it is like to speak frankly and without embarrassment about who I really am, what I have really done, how I really feel. They listened to me as I revealed anger, fear and shame and they didn’t turn away. I became, for the first time in my life, a member of a community of people who did not require anything of me other than my own willingness to belong. It was the fellowship and love from these people that changed my life.
Stop drinking and using drugs. No alcoholic has ever achieved sobriety without doing this! It is not simply a decision that we make. If it were there would be no need for AA. I believe that my ability to stop drinking and using was a direct consequence of the desire that welled up in me to have what my new sober friends had – a life free from alcohol and drugs – more than I had ever wanted anything in my life. I came to believe – not in God or spirituality – but simply that it really was possible for me to be a sober man. They looked right at me with the unmistakable demeanor of people who are telling the truth and said “All you have to do, for now, is come to lots of these meetings and not drink or use drugs in between. If you do that you may discover the desire to drink and use will vanish at some point. ” That is what I did and that is what happened
Adopt genuine self-examination as a way of life. For me this is where the 12 Steps have been relevant. Who have I been and who am I now? This is not an easy task and it is not one that can be carried out by introspection alone. The principles of honest self-appraisal, confession to oneself and another, humility, restitution, forgiveness, kindness, compassion and altruism embodied by the AA program are neither new nor unique. They have been revered for millennia by people everywhere. They are worth pursuing and embracing.
Follow whatever path is most consistent with your own beliefs. This is simply a restatement of the principle emblazoned on AA birthday chips around the world: Unto thine own self be true. The full meaning of this declaration is more evident when given in its original context:
This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Hamlet Act 1, Scene 3
Carry your message of recovery to other alcoholics. Tell your own story. If you think you know why your story unfolded the way it has then include your explanations. There is no obligation to carry someone else’s message. Bill W. carried his message. Dr. Bob carried a similar but not identical message. The big book proclaims a collective understanding from the founding members of AA. Your sponsor, if you have one, has their own story. You have a story too. Quite likely, if you have elected to be a long term member of AA, your story will align significantly with general AA points of view and philosophies. It also quite likely that some of your understanding of your own life and your recovery from addiction will be different from what is believed by other recovered people. It is important to ourselves, to each other and, especially, to new members of AA that we express the rich diversity within our various points of view.
That is the message I carry to alcoholics who want to know what this all means to me. In some ways it is quite different from the message found in the first 164 pages of the big book. Yet it is also essentially the same. Our AA stories really do share a common arc – not just the “what it was like” parts but also the “what happened” and “what it’s like now” parts. The way we understand and explain the events and outcomes in our stories is often remarkably different. When we make a conscious effort to focus on the way we actually experienced the events and outcomes in our stories we often find that, in spite of details that may by very different, the psychological and emotional content of those experiences are very much alike.
I drank gin and used methamphetamine. You may have been exclusively a wine drinker. I do not believe in the existence of supernatural phenomena and neither pray nor meditate. You may believe in God and pray and meditate daily. I was a sober man long before I really paid any attention to the 12 Steps at all. Your sobriety may have resulted directly from “having had a spiritual awakening as a result of [the 12 Steps].” Differences, profound and trivial, exist between all of us. Despite such differences, we will probably concur that for any alcoholic who wants to stop drinking there is very likely a way for them to do that.
May it always be so!
Russ has written a number of articles for AA Agnostica. He co-authored Two new agnostic meetings (July, 2013) and wrote several pieces about the recent convention in Santa Monica. His most recent article was Agnostic AA Meetings Gaining Momentum (November, 2014).
Russ has been a sober member of AA for 19 years and lives in the East San Francisco Bay area of California. He is one of the original members of the first agnostic AA meeting in Contra Costa County which meets on Monday evenings in Lafayette, CA.