If You Want What We Have

Sunflower Field

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.

26 Responses

  1. Michelle P says:

    Russ, thanks for a great article. It was my “morning meditation.” I haven’t seen you in years but feel like I was just in a meeting with you. I sometimes feel so alone with my atheist views and afraid to speak up in an AA meeting. Your article helped me feel included and give me food for thought. I hear great things about that Monday meeting. Keep keepin’ on and again thank you.

  2. Pete W. says:

    Great article. A person asked about me about spirituality and I said “If a religion/spirituality works for you, it works. If it doesn’t, there’s secular spirituality, which I define as: ‘Continuously improving one’s nonsuperstitious interdependency with the rest of the universe’; but whatever definition works for a person works.”

  3. Helen L. says:

    Great inclusive perspective! Thank you, Russ.

    And thank you for not throwing the examined life baby out with the religiosity bathwater. The quality of my sobriety is as important to me as my duration of sobriety. Their serenity is what actually attracted me to the AA fellowship in the beginning and it keeps me coming back.

  4. Roger says:

    You are most welcome to comment anytime, Abby.

  5. Abby says:

    I’m not an alcoholic — but I am an atheist and I am a member of another 12-step fellowship that has similar God issues. I just wanted to say thank you for this site and this article in particular. I haven’t commented before because I am not a member of AA, and I apologize if my commenting now is inappropriate, but this site has helped me a lot and I have shared it with other atheists/agnostics/freethinkers in my own fellowship.

  6. Russ H says:


    Any alcoholic who maintains continuous abstinence from alcohol and other intoxicating drugs gets to call themselves sober. Agreed. There is no single story or point of view that sums up “what sobriety is all about.” That was the message I had hoped to convey. My emphasis on self-examination was not intended to define any universal requirement. It is important to me. When someone asks me about recovery from addiction it is one of the aspects that I talk about. The comparison of alcoholism to polio seems specious to me. Different diseases require different treatements and polio and alcoholism have almost nothing in common so far as I can see.

    Russ H

  7. Rob C says:

    Russ, thank you for sharing your experience and insight. After seven months of recovery I had become very frustrated with the spiritual part of the program (I just can’t accept the supernatural aspect) and was questioning whether or not AA was the right path for me. I began searching out alternatives about a month ago, last week I found this site. I am so relieved to find that I am not alone in my beliefs and that it is possible to achieve long lasting, happy sobriety in AA without the spiritual element.

    Your article, in my opinion, should be required reading for every newcomer in AA! Thank you all for helping this alcoholic to stay sober another day, this truly is a wonderful program!!!

  8. Eric T says:

    Thanks Don, for saying what I’ve been thinking for a while now. Not drinking is a big part of not drinking!
    In sobriety, I can engage fully in life; when I drank that’s all I really wanted to do more of – drink. Good to be sober today!

  9. Mark In Texas says:

    Russ, I’m a member of a “secret” FB page comprised of AA’s. The page is set up as a “debate” page, for discussing issues that are relevant to recovery, AA, etc., but are the kinds of topics most people do not bring up in meetings. It has been an interesting experience, and is often inane, but many folks have gotten a much wider view of AA, the many different perspectives found in AA, and many, in fact are becoming more “honest” about where they are with all the “God” business.

    I’ve posted your essay there.

  10. dave b says:

    The Big Book is written in the thought patterns of that late-depression generation. When I read H. L. Mencken, or any other writer of that era, I have to make mental adjustments. Thank you, life.j for your insightful 6 summary points and thank you, Russ for such a great article.

    Dave B

  11. Andy Mc says:

    Russ, “secret” FB… members only, I had to have an invite, think that they have regretted that invite ever since:)

  12. Russ H says:

    Andy –

    You’re welcome. Thanks for the kind words. Secret FB page? That’s intriguing.


  13. Andy Mc says:

    Hi Russ,
    Thank you for contributing to my sobriety and helping me more understand how staying sober works in my life.
    Every week I look forward to the essays put forth, and as usual I have not been let down.
    I share your writings on a local “secret” FB AA page. I always manage to ruffle a few feathers but if only one person questioning the rigid religious aspect of AA reads your articles and finds another day of sobriety I have done my job with your help.
    Thank you again for your contribution.

  14. Thomas B. says:

    Indeed, Russ, a most perceptive and well-written article, which as several have suggested would serve as an excellent introduction and orientation to AA for wAAfts newcomers.

    Plus, it serves as a excellent set-up for an article that is scheduled for posting next week dealing with the human power of “Sponsorship in AA”.

    Serendipitously, one of the members of the Beyond Belief group in Portland, OR, this morning mentioned that he refers to his higher power as a “higher perspective” — when he doesn’t use and shares experience, strength and hope with other alcoholics, he always achieves a higher perspective. Such has been my experience as I continue to recover in my 5th decade of recovery a day at a time . . .

  15. steve b says:

    Russ’s analysis of AA is spot-on. Now, try to get AA fundies to agree with that! It’s unfortunate that the early members attributed their sobriety to a “higher power,” and that that viewpoint has pervaded AA ever since, but it’s good that we have this nonreligious website and a sprinkling of atheist and agnostic meetings. I continue to go to traditional meetings, where the god talk is thick in the air. Sometimes I find it really annoying.

  16. Mark In Texas says:

    Thank you Russ!

    This is a superior essay, to say the least! I don’t think I’ve read a better summary of my “experience” in AA, my path, how I go about being sober, learning to live sober, than this tremendous contribution here.

    I’ll do my little part in seeing this gem gets passed around.

    Bravo for you, and all the rest of us.


  17. Tommy H says:

    Thanks, Russ, well done.

  18. Don S. says:

    Well, we know it’s even simpler than that. We don’t have to examine ourselves to stay sober.

    Many report that it is helpful, but not to stay sober. The only thing that keeps you sober is not drinking. Self-examination may make some people more comfortable sober, but it doesn’t keep them sober, even if they think it does.

    And what if it did? Well, that would be a crime against humanity. Imagine if 7 year olds had to do 4th steps to get the polio vaccine? We would rebel at such a vicious meritocracy. Yet in AA, this slides right under our noses. Even among atheists.

    It seems staying sober is too simple. We need a replacement activity, a positive project to make us feel like we’re doing something to deserve the negative project of not drinking. In this way, the 12 Steps are very effective for certain psychological types, but it’s a ruse.

    The idea that various activities keep us sober maybe a useful fiction, but it’s still a fiction.

  19. Lon Mc. says:

    For many of my earlier years in AA my deep innermost self-honesty wrestled with what I regarded as the not-believable religious concepts of virtually all of my new found friends in AA. Attempts to deal with a higher power in ways they recommended was a bumpy ride for me. As others have suggested in this thread, I believe that I would have had a less risky and more comfortable introduction to AA had I been given Russ H’s contribution to read a few decades before it was written. Well done, Russ! Thanks.

  20. Joe C. says:

    Dittoing those who have come (and read) before me, identifying is a more pleasant experience than comparing. When I am looking for glaring contradiction I never leave unsatisfied. But feeding my righteous indignation gets old after banging my head against a wall. Feeding my need for community is a much calmer buzz than taking a “How dare they?!?” position.

    I really liked the idea that I am sober instead of I got sober or did sober. I was saying in a meeting last week, as we discussed obsession, “Obsession isn’t what I do; it’s who I am.” The job for me is manage my sails so that I work with obsession, not get blown around or capsized by it. Sober is who I am in a similar sense. Sober is not what I do or was done to me. Sobriety is neither an asset nor a handicap, it’s just a condition of life. If I get too careless with it or rigid about it, I become a victim of circumstances again.

    Enough from me – it’s nice to spend my Sunday coffee with you all.

  21. Dan L says:

    Thank you Russ for this thoughtful essay. I really enjoy AA Agnostica when I see my proto-thoughts clearly expressed in writing by those people who are obviously further along than myself. I remember being nonplussed when in very early sobriety I heard a wise older member say, “I can’t figure out why they call it ‘How It Works’ when it isn’t how it works.” He went on to explain that he thought it was what a group of people in the early stages of awakening thought they had done without realising the full truth of it.

    After all nobody seems to be able to pin down what brings about that flash of insight that so many people talk about having before being able to proceed into sobriety. I think that some never get it and do indeed follow the steps …and that it is easy to attribute such a break through to divine intervention if you believe in god or such supernatural things. However I am not one of those people and my realisation was that there was something wrong with me and that if I didn’t change it I was going to die. I then proceeded to try and use the AA program to learn what those changes were and how to effect them in myself. I learned that interaction with others both as a teacher and a student and most of all as an honest fellow sufferer seemed to be critical. I really don’t put much emphasis on the steps but I see them as stages and as good talking points to guide discussion. The same with the book which I frequently equate to a horoscope, that is, a jumble of good ideas in a disorganised pile divided into arbitrary segments, many of which are useful and others simply filler. Seeing it taken and treated as scripture is… well… the same thing as seeing scripture taken and treated as Scripture.
    Thank You,

  22. life-j says:

    AA recovery in 6 easy steps.

    Find other alcoholics who are leading sober lives.
    Join them in the sharing of personal stories of alcoholism and drug addiction.
    Stop drinking and using drugs.
    Adopt genuine self-examination as a way of life.
    Follow whatever path is most consistent with your own beliefs.
    Carry your message of recovery to other alcoholics.

    Yes, nothing more is needed, really.

    THIS IS what the founders did, they didn’t do the 12 steps, those didn’t exist until Bill wrote them after 4 years of experimentation.

    Anyway, thanks Russ for putting it together so nice and clear.

  23. larry k says:

    Russ, thanks for your work. It is a great article about our common ground. It needs to be remembered day after day.

  24. Christopher G says:

    Thanks, Russ, for this. I’m thinking this will be a great piece to read at our meeting should a newcomer show up. Or at least a hand out. Great answer to “What is AA?”

  25. Mike says:

    Outstanding! This may be the best post I have ever read. It describes the path to recovery that makes the most sense to me. As a lifelong loner, I thought that I never needed to belong to any group. But when I lost my two most valuable support groups (I didn’t recognize them as such at the time) I came to realize the value of being with others who have shared your experiences and values. And no god was involved in any of it.
    Thank you, Russ.

  26. John M. says:

    Hi Russ,

    Thank you for this very thoughtful reflection on the process of recovery. It was so obvious to me as I read your essay, the care you took in distinguishing between the common as well as the diverse kinds of experiences open to everyone.

    These common and varied experiences unify us in our journey without there being a uniform way of getting to where we all want to be.

    Something like this piece (or exactly yours) should make up any new preface of future editions of the Big Book. In the meantime, I would not hesitate to recommend to a newcomer, wishing to read AA literature, this essay as an introduction to the reading of the Big Book.

    A most comprehensive and sensitive essay!

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