The Fellowship and the Program


By the time I made it to my first meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous, 35 years ago, I had fully conceded to my innermost self (quit lying to myself) that I am powerless over alcohol if I am ever stupid enough to pick up even one drink; and the book I bought called this the First Step in recovery. It had only taken 20 years of trying to prove otherwise, but whenever I started, all bets were off. What I had thought of as my best friend, my primary solution to everything, had become my worst enemy, and I knew it!

The fellowship, the understanding and acceptance, the honesty I found there, told me I was in the right place. I knew well the phenomenon of craving set in motion by that first drink, and had lived two and half years with obsessive thoughts about drinking and not drinking.

On the morning after my last drunk in 1978, I said to the universe or whatever might hear me, “Take away the bottle, take away the craving, and make me open to whatever help I need.” Until I did that, I had no idea that I could do what I was about to do, not drink that one day, repeating it over and over, a day at a time, exercising a kind willpower I had before never employed. However, that willingness or desire had been fueled by the inner pain and shame I felt when I looked honestly at myself, what I had done, not done and what I had become. And, I heard others say, “Willingness is the key.”

I left that meeting with what I call “a gift of hope”, hope that life could mean something at last. This was Step Two – a hope and trust that I could learn to use a set of tools in this fellowship to relieve my obsession about alcohol. It was a relief to find out that I wasn’t crazy, like I had thought, I was simply alcoholic! These men and women helped me realize that I suffered from a “seemingly hopeless state of mind and body.” Leaving that meeting, book in hand, I thought differently.

For many if not most, the whole journey of recovery starts with this fellowship, where we find people who seem to truly understand because they have been through many of the same things we have, but have together come out on the other side with a new way of living and a supportive community. For me, the supportive, welcoming, accepting and encouraging community continues to be the most important aspect of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Today I hear the men and women I sponsor and spend time with talking about how the fellowship has helped them to connect not only with themselves, but also with others, filling voids they hadn’t even recognized before they found them here being somehow satisfied. I finally found a group of people who gave me permission to not drink!

When I look at the origins and continuing history of Alcoholics Anonymous, I realize that it came about because men and women found a place where they could finally be honest about themselves, their lives, what was working for them and what was not working. Sharing experience, strength and hope, the founders developed a set of tools that almost anyone can apply to his or her life so they never have to give in to the temptation to fix whatever is going on inside or outside with a return to drinking, drugs, or anything else we know would also take away our freedom.

I repeatedly hear others say things that have helped shape my thinking today: “Nothing’s so bad that a drink won’t make worse.” “This too shall pass.” “Let go and let go and let go. . .” All of those simple truths continue to replace the “stinkin’ thinkin’” of my past. Learning a new way of thinking, as well as doing, is what the fellowship and the program of steps help me to do.

Medical, psychological and religious professionals continue to help us, as they did the founders, in addressing underlying problems, causes and conditions, as we grow together on the “road of happy recovery.”

Like that song of the 1950’s “Love and marriage go together like a horse and carriage,” the fellowship and program of Alcoholics Anonymous go together, “You can’t have one without the other.” Or, so it has been with me.

Even though I still hear people reading “Probably no human power could relieve our alcoholism,” I know for a fact that I could never have accomplished what I have without the men and women who came before me and who are coming along with me today. This is the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous. Although I’ve never been very good at honestly connecting with others, I have learned in the mutual sharing of experience, strength and hope that I never have to be alone again or go through anything—anything—alone.  We encourage one another daily, doing together what we can’t do alone.

The fellowship of meetings, sponsorship, etc. continue to remind me of my own story of “what it was like, what happened and what it is like now,” my continuing First Step. When I read on page 88 that “We alcoholics are undisciplined,” I fully understood that my running and denial had kept me from learning from mistakes, poor and thoughtless decisions. However, the process Bill outlined on pages 60 through 88 provides a way to transform everything for the better, a way to finally learn from my experience as well as others’. As I continue to identify with character weaknesses and strengths we hold in common, I experience more of my inner voice.

I know for a fact that Evolution gave us brains to use! However, I needed to learn how to take the right kind of action, which Bill describes in the Forward to Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions: “A.A.’s Twelve Steps are a set of principles, spiritual in their nature, which if practiced as a way of life can expel the obsession to drink and make the sufferer happily and usefully whole.” (He also clarified in Step Twelve of that same text, “At this point we begin to practice all Twelve Steps on a daily basis, so that we and those around can find emotional sobriety.”) That is the program of Alcoholics Anonymous.

The Program and the Fellowship, the message of recovery, connection with my innermost self and with others, gives me a life far beyond my wildest dreams. A.A. has given me both a sense of purpose, to carry my message of recovery (how it works for me), plus the ability to accept full responsibility for my past, present and future. That is empowering—the Program and the Fellowship, working together.

JEB retired from work as a Licensed Mental Health Professional and Chemical Dependency Counselor. He holds an interdisciplinary Master’s Degree in Guidance and Counseling (psychology, education, sociology and social work) from the University of Montana, plus a Master’s Degree in organ performance from The Juilliard School. He continues to teach and perform as a concert organist. In addition to his commitment to secular, nonreligious 12-Step recovery in the Fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous and suicide prevention, he is an advocate for victims of childhood sexual assault and a spokesman for legislative reform of archaic, predator-friendly, statutes of limitation as the Denver Director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP).

10 Responses

  1. Mark C. says:

    Thank you Jeb!

    Once again, your Story and understanding of the processes of Living Sober that are true for you, ring true for me as well. Near every note of my story I hear in yours.

    And once again, I am given a clearer vision of Baby within the sometimes-pretty-nasty Bathwater that is Our Fellowship.

    And thank you Roger, for continuing to publish top drawer material for those of us who walk other paths than Theistic Supernaturalism.


    • Jeb B. says:

      That has been my mission and message for the last thirty-some years: “Let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater.” Sadly, many simply don’t get what we are saying and discard the great wisdom and treasure of the process early AA’s tried to communicate. However, old ideas die hard in the culture of evangelical literalism. In the 1942 Second Printing of the Big Book, Bill was wise in referring to a “Spiritual Experience,” rather than an awakening. Hence, for those who are willing to think about it, he reinforced the purpose of the book, to help us find the power we need not out there, but deep within. Thanks for your comments!

  2. Laurie says:

    There are significant similarities in our stories Jeb. I had conceded to my ego, intellectual self that I was an alcoholic but kept on drinking till a suicide attempt enabled me to access my innermost self – my true Self, the essential me, what the Big Book calls an unsuspected inner resource. My true Self is my higher and inner power. And we’re in good company in recognising the vital importance of the fellowship in our recovery. In his letter to Bill W., Carl Jung wrote, ‘The only right and legitimate way to such an experience (the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness) is that it happens to you in reality (i.e. not in alcoholic ecstasy) and that it can only happen to you when you walk on a path which leads to a higher understanding. You might be led to that goal by an act of grace or through a personal and honest contact with friends, or through a higher education of the mind beyond the confines of mere rationalism. I see from your letter that Rowland H. has choses the second way …’ That is, contact with compassionate others as in AA.

    • Jeb B. says:

      Thanks also for your thoughts, Laurie. I especially appreciate your quoting the Jung letter, which so cleary expresses what the pragmatic, non-magical process can produce. I have sponsees who call their inner resource “my authentic self or true self.” Also, when I asked a group one evening what they think I call mine, one said, “JEB” (my initials), understanding precisely my message. As a side note, when I say my versions of the 3d and 7th step prayers/declarations to myself, I will often begin with “Love…” since that one word best describes the kind of person I want to be.

  3. Pat N. says:

    Many thanks for sharing. I, too, feel that it was the PEOPLE of AA, the Fellowship, that saved my ass. I know many others have found the literature and the Steps useful, but they’ve had limited appeal to me. But I still find the acceptance, hope, and warmth whenever I go to a meeting or hang out with other soberees. Almost invariably, I hear something new, or newly phrased, at any meeting I attend. And I hope that I occasionally add something to another’s sobriety.

    • Mark C. says:

      In my case as well, Pat. I find very little of the literature to be helpful in my Living Sober.

      Perhaps I’d been around too many religious, theological, historical, philosophical, scientific, psychological, sociological, and literary “blocks” to find much of anything of use in the Big Book. Those “parts” of it that are not making grand metaphysical claims I have found to be more or less descriptive of my experience of the progression of the “malady.”

      All of it is in Nietzsche’s words “All Too Human;” deities, and Supernaturalism need not apply.

  4. Jeb B. says:

    Thanks, Thomas. The power of one day at a time, rather than years or months or forever has been the foundation of my continuing recovery, tapping into that dependable inner resource I ignored for so many year. It works if we work it!

  5. Mary M says:

    Thanks Jeb, powerfully said. It is in each other that we find that incredible connection that reinforces our daily recovery.

    • Mark C. says:

      Indeed! For me as well, it is collection of fellow drunks who are now living sober… that shared space, and those shared stories. A purely horizontal affair. No transcendence is required, nor implied, and certainly not demanded.

  6. Thomas B. says:

    Excellent, Jeb — thanks . . .

    You and I have experienced the same gift of recovery through the program of AA as it has been communicated to us by the people in AA who form our Fellowship. By hearing their experience, strength and hope, we have been enabled to stay sober a day at a time for many years.

    For a couple of years now, ever since I heard it from a member of the Happy Heathens group in Colorado I have been able to identify what for me has been the essence of my recovery in AA — H O P E, Hearing Other People’s Experience staying away from that first drink one day at a time.

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