By Patricia K.
I have been sober for a while. I got sober before the development of AA meetings for atheists, agnostics and freethinkers.
Even though I do not believe in a god, I stayed in mainstream AA and edited the language and the literature so it fit with my understanding of the world. Five years ago, I was invited to my first agnostic meeting of Alcoholic Anonymous and I found a safe place where I no longer needed to edit. As a result, my experience and beliefs about recovery are a mix of mainstream Christian AA and secular AA.
I am glad of that. I learned a great deal in mainstream AA that has stood me well. I was supported and encouraged in my recovery by people who would not step foot in a meeting for agnostics and atheists. I am, and will remain, grateful to them and their lessons.
These are some facts of my life: I was separated from my mother as a baby, raised in an alcoholic home and sexually abused as a child. This is not self-pity. These are the facts.
As a result I was full of shame, hurt, pain, sadness and anger. I grew up painfully shy and insecure. When I was 12 years old, I found a solution to all my troubles with alcohol and other drugs… However that solution eventually turned on me. What had stopped me from killing myself then almost cost me my life. I came into recovery physically sick and emotionally wounded. I had what psychologists describe as a “failure to thrive” syndrome. I was unemployable, homeless and physically and mentally sick.
I needed to change. I needed to heal. For me the twelve steps were a way to change. To become a different person, one that did not need to hide from life in a bottle or a pill.
I know that the wording of the 12 steps and their Christian origins are a stumbling block if not a downright deterrent for many people. I struggled with them as well. However I was afraid I was going to die and so I had to find a way forward. Luckily I was introduced to the idea that the steps actually represent some simple concepts, some basic principles to live by. Perhaps if I could incorporate those principles I could experience, as it states in Appendix II of the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, “a personality change sufficient to bring about recovery”.
Searching the Internet you will find many versions of the principles of the 12 steps. The one that I use is below along with a short interpretation of each of them from my perspective. This is not meant to suggest there is only one way to interpret the steps. I offer it to you as a jumping off point for your own reflection.
I had to admit that I had problem. That is as simple as it gets.
Hearing the stories of others in 12 step meetings I began to think that if this deal could work for them, maybe it could get me out of the hell I was in.
Faith is defined as confidence or trust in something or someone unseen. My faith that this would work for me was shaky to say the least but I just committed to trying it.
Courage is acting in spite of fear. I was very fearful of this step but I had decided to try. I found it to be enlightening. It was much more than a list of all the things I had done wrong in my life. It helped me to understand who I was, and how my experiences to that point were affecting me.
Now that I had a better idea of who I was it was time to let others in. This was a chance to be real with the world.
The person that came into the program was a person who needed to use alcohol and other drugs in order to stay sane. I needed to change, to become a different person. I was forced into willingness.
When I was getting sober I was advised to use a dictionary to make sure what I thought I knew was true. I found that humility is defined as knowing my place in the world. I came to understand that I have many wonderful qualities, as well some characteristics which cause harm to me and others. Suddenly I realized that I could relax. I realized that being human meant that I was flawed and so was everyone else on this planet. Back to step 6 and the willingness and trying to change.
How does making a list of people I had harmed show love? Simple. It demonstrates empathy and compassion for others in recognizing how I may have harmed them.
This step suggests that we make amends to those we have harmed. Once again it is about me accepting that I had harmed others. Sometimes I was received well, other time I was told to go to hell. I was taught that this step was not about mending relationships but if they were mended, it is a bonus. The purpose of the step work is for me to alleviate some of the shame and guilt that drove me to drink.
Recovery work is hard. Sometimes it would be so much easier to say fuck it rather than look at my actions. And sometimes I do just that. However, I know that I want to live in a state of contentment and in order to do that I have to try and be right with my fellow humans.
For me this step simply means that I should always try to have empathy for the world I live in and the beings I share it with. And to try to act from a place of compassion for myself and others.
I know that not everyone believes as I do, but I believe that the program of AA saved my life. I feel an immense sense of duty to try to make sure that the rooms of AA are an inclusive and healthy place for all who need them. However, I do not believe that this is altruism. This is very much a selfish act. I want to feel good about myself. Being of service in and outside of the fellowship helps me do that.
The next question is, how does a person “work” the steps. Well for me, I try to incorporate the principles of the steps in my daily life. The practice of doing this relies heavily on the principle of the 10th step, Discipline. I have to practise (meaning I do not always succeed) at being honest with myself and others. I have to be willing to look at myself in all situations and judge my behaviour and my underlying motives. I have to accept other people’s humanness.
And I fail and I try and I fail and I try.
There may be many readers who do not believe they need to change in order to stay sober. There may be many that believe they do not need to “work the steps”. I have no argument with this or take no exception to this approach.
But I needed to find a real “personality change”. Because I am an alcoholic my system just does not handle alcohol the way others can. I cannot take the first drink or snort or smoke or…. Because I will always want more. The sense of ease and comfort that comes from drinking and using is just so enticing for me that if I start I cannot stop. Therefore I needed to find another way to find ease and comfort and I have mostly succeeded.
This is my interpretation of the steps and each person will likely view the principles differently.
As a result of trying to practise these principles in my life, I am sober and have been since Nov 9, 1986.
More importantly I am sober and relatively happy. My life is far from perfect. I do not handle money well and I struggle with personal relationships. In other words, I have troubles in my life like everyone else but I no longer am tormented by my past. I have gained an education and I achieved a degree of success in a career; I don’t own a house but have a nice place to live. I am healthy; I don’t own a car which is great because I walk a great deal which helps keep me in shape. I have discovered my creativity. Nothing I have ever created will likely hang in a gallery but I find peace in doing that work. I discovered a love of nature and with a limited budget spend as much time as I can outdoors pursuing outdoor activities.
My life now is rich and I am sober and able to enjoy it.