One Bite at a Time



Recovering alcoholics are famous for theatrical displays that amount to pole-vaulting over mouse droppings. It’s an entertaining but otherwise pointless spectacle. While staying sober can require tremendous amounts of courage and commitment, most of what it takes is reminiscent of a quote frequently cited in self-help literature:

“The only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time.”

Showing up in the present moment and limiting my focus to what is within reach can be difficult, but it provides two crucial pieces of the solution. First, it is the only way to actually move forward, and second, it gives me something to do, thereby displacing tendencies and habits that are not so constructive – like worry, negative self-talk, destructive knee-jerk reactions, or boredom.

Looking back on my early sobriety, I realize that, even though I was intensely focused on a ridiculously earnest probing of deeply meaningful principles of recovery, the main thing I was accomplishing was simply that I was filling up empty blocks of time. Abstaining from alcohol created a big void, not just related to the time I had spent actually drinking, but even more, having to do with the way my life had become like something out of a Kafka story.

I couldn’t begin to imagine what it would be like to live without existential angst.

Even in remission, alcoholism can feel like a black hole of despair. My chronic restlessness and free-floating feelings of discontent threaten to become a vicious circle, leading to choices that exacerbate the problem, which in turn increases the likelihood of still more bad choices.

The awareness that recovery isn’t accomplished overnight is a familiar idea that is reinforced by many of the AA slogans. What is not so commonly appreciated is how much more accessible and sustainable recovery can be if it is viewed as a series of fresh, new, and adventurous options rather than as a grim ordeal mainly characterized by grinding toil and painful indignities.

My experience has been that, as if I were leisurely enjoying an exotic and sumptuous meal one savory mouthful at a time, taking interest in what each moment has to offer makes recovery not only quite doable; it is a refreshingly welcome alternative to my usual fare. It becomes something I want to do rather than being merely a burdensome obligation.

I went to my first meeting with great apprehension. I was afraid that I would be judged or that I would have to submit to an oppressive regimen. Like many other alcoholics who have come to the decision that they needed to quit drinking, I believed that sobriety would be dreary, boring, and constrictive.

Instead, what I found was a lot of laughter, a relaxed social space, people whom I could relate to, and a sense that most of them were there because they wanted to be. They told me that the decision to quit drinking was completely up to me, but that if quitting was something I wanted to do, they would help me with that.

The main question I had at the time was “What’s the difference between me and an actual alcoholic?” I was seeking confirmation of my belief that I wasn’t an alcoholic. What I found instead was deep resonance with the stories of other alcoholics.

I was told that the unaided and unalloyed exercise of the will is insufficient to solve the problem of alcoholism and that abstinence requires something besides moral fortitude. It is as if there is a switch inside me that needs to be turned off, but that switch is frustratingly out of reach.

Alcoholism is maniacally driven by an insatiable, existential thirst – for a sense of connection with transpersonal realities, for experiences that would give life meaning, for joy, or for freedom. Drinking becomes a desperate effort to quench that existential thirst. Sobriety has to be a tangible and attractive alternative.

Many AA members claim that the only hope for alcoholics is a higher power. It’s not a far-fetched argument. Since the urge to drink seems to be more powerful than my ability to resist, it’s quite natural to conclude that I just need to find something that can overpower whatever it is in me that insanely chooses to drink.

And yet while drinking is a bully idea, ultimately, the best defense against a bully is not in being constantly protected by a bigger bully, but is instead in changing the dynamics of the encounter. Whatever it is that is going to keep me sober has to come from within me.

I don’t have direct access to the motherboard of my brain; however, it turns out that reprogramming its circuitry is quite simple. Neural pathways are enduringly altered by making behavioral changes and changes in my environment. As one of AA’s sayings has it, “It is easier to live my way into right thinking than to think my way into right living.”

It’s a slow process, but the good news is that, with enough patience, anyone can achieve the kind of neutrality with regard to alcohol that is described in the Big Book (pp. 84-85). It is simply the cumulative result of a series of bite-sized actions.

But what might those actions be? How do I know I am on the right track?

AA isn’t big on exploring the science of addiction, thus its general approach can feel like a blunt instrument. Nonetheless, somewhere along the way, AA stumbled onto a profound scientific truth that would become the main ingredient of its success.

The secret behind AA’s effectiveness is not God, not the Steps, and not spiritual transformations.

If there is any validity to the claim that everything we need to know about what it takes to stay sober is contained within the first 164 pages of the Big Book, most of it would be found in one sentence: “We absolutely insist on enjoying life” (p. 132) – a strikingly strong imperative, especially when it is contrasted to the Twelve Steps being introduced as suggestions.

It turns out that the insistence on enjoyment is the most scientifically sound item in AA’s toolbox. Alcoholism hijacks the brain’s pleasure center and overrides my most sensible objections, my most treasured values, and my deepest commitments. Craving the effects produced by alcohol is physiologically embedded in the alcoholic brain. Even in recovery, the most powerful biological forces within me absolutely demand that I get some satisfaction and GET IT NOW.

Thus science backs up the Big Book’s advocacy of an enjoyable life. While making enjoyment a stand-out imperative may not have actually been a conscious decision on the part of its authors, the fact is that if I don’t end up with a life that, in general, is more attractive than drinking, I’m on very shaky ground.

I have seen many who have failed, even though they have taken quite seriously the words from “How It Works” that most AA groups read at the beginning of every meeting and have earnestly endeavored to “thoroughly follow our path”. Either the whole program is a lie or “thoroughly” doesn’t mean what they thought it means.

Maybe no one told them the part about enjoying life.

Disciplined and morally upright people can have trouble staying sober; whereas, lazy, immoral, and dishonest individuals who never really worked the steps and don’t take the program seriously can put together years of sobriety – if they have joy in their lives. It’s not fair, but it is true.

I have to admit that, even though levity was a big part of what attracted me to AA in the first place, I used to hate the way cheerfulness was equated with quality sobriety. Being told to lighten up, as I was repeatedly, felt like being poked with a stick. I have since come to understand that if having someone tell me to get over myself aggravates me, they just might have a point.

The perspective that most sets me up for relapse tells me that my problems are insurmountable. Life becomes tragic. And inevitably, I begin taking myself way too seriously. While achieving long term sobriety involves dismantling the thought patterns that produce my dismal outlook, in the meantime, being able to lighten up and perhaps even laugh at myself provides crucial relief.

Hardly a frivolous pursuit, a joyful engagement of life can produce what Abraham Maslow called “peak experiences”, naturally occurring elevated mental states that are accompanied by phenomena like a renewed sense of purpose, awakened compassion, feelings of being at one with the universe, reduction of the ego’s influence, freedom from fear, emotional healing, enhanced creativity, and a radical reintegration of the self. Peak experiences are like spiritual awakenings but don’t necessarily involve belief in anything supernatural.

Peak experiences tend to be overrated though. I have made all of my very worst decisions in moments of great inspiration. Even the Big Book admits that the price of excessive reliance on inspiration is paid “in all sorts of absurd actions and ideas” (p. 87). The longer I’ve been around, the less interested I am in fleeting moments of cosmic awareness associated with peak experiences, and the more interested I’ve become in real growth.

Consonant with a broader understanding of Maslow, particularly with regard to his “hierarchy of needs”, satisfaction of basic needs has freed me to ascend to greater satisfactions. My focus has slowly shifted from getting to giving, and consequently, is less about momentary upward spikes and more about a steady climb. In the parlance of AA, my “spiritual awakening of the educational variety” is ongoing.

When I was first presented with the idea of sobriety, I sensed I had found people who knew about the black hole inside me. I was no longer alone. I wanted the connection I felt then more than I wanted what happened when I drank. I have since learned that in-depth identification with other recovering alcoholics produces immediate, physical changes in the brain. White-light epiphanies might be more dramatic, but the uplifting and personally transformative power of empathy is far more reliable.

These days, I often find myself on the giving end of the empathy experience and am able to offer as well as receive unconditional love. There is probably nothing that can challenge the twisted logic of alcoholism as thoroughly as unconditional love. And since many alcoholics have alienated everyone who ever loved them, love – especially unconditional love – is a scarce resource.

I’ve heard that Sigmund Freud once said that happiness is grounded in the ability to love and to work.  It turns out that he never actually said it, but it does ring true. Having something to give and knowing that my efforts matter might be as good as it gets.

Obviously, there is more to building a rewarding life in recovery than chasing whatever it is that pleases me or than giving myself regular pep talks. I have come to agree with the Big Book on at least one point. Since alcohol is “cunning, baffling, [and] powerful”, it’s not a bad idea to be “fearless and thorough from the very start” (pp. 58-59).

AA’s twelve suggested steps have been a helpful resource in my pursuit of a path that can get my adopted way of life onto solid ground; however, since secularizing them goes beyond merely ignoring, excising, or neutering the god talk, I have had to work at converting them into down-to-earth, bite-sized principles that can undergird my recovery:

  1. Face reality – Addiction, shame, and escapism form a vicious circle. The solution is increased awareness of the thought patterns, feelings, memories, conflicts, damaged relationships, unfulfilled aspirations, unrealistic expectations, and triggers associated with my addiction. One of the first things I need to do is find a support network that can coax me out of hiding.
  2. Trust the process – Recovery usually calls for more patience than determination. I don’t have to fully understand the process. I just need to recognize that if I am going to get different results, I have to quit doing the things that have been generating the results I’ve been getting.
  3. Move forward – Am I willing do what it takes? What actions will propel me toward a new and more satisfying life? What do I need to let go of? What threatens to pull me backwards?
  4. Embrace a spirit of discovery – Viewing my own thought processes with benign neutrality and with compassionate curiosity loosens the grip of compulsive behaviors, mental obsessions, habitual patterns, judgment, shame, fear, neediness, and despair. Ripples on the surface (e.g. beliefs that don’t make sense in the light of actual evidence, behaviors for which there is no rational explanation, occurrences that seem to come out of nowhere, repetitious events, feeling disproportionately angry or upset, troublingly conflicted priorities, inescapable inferences that dispute my direct perceptions) beg to be probed more deeply.
  5. Connect – The core reality of alcoholism is an aching sense of incompleteness, which sets up a vicious cycle, endlessly exacerbating and compounding the problem. The solution is a connection with people, with life, and with myself.
  6. Divest – While many of my previously adaptive behaviors and beliefs will eventually become dysfunctional and get in the way of the new life I am creating for myself, they might still be a source of security, comfort, and identity. Like a snake that sheds its old skin, abandoning old habits and beliefs leaves me vulnerable, but it is necessary to make way for the new.
  7. Re-form myself – Having radically questioned everything associated with my old worldview, I have set myself up for meaningful change, but the new doesn’t just appear ready-made and complete. And there are no instructions enclosed to guide the assembly. A thorough re-formation of the self is an emergent process. Any prediction of where I will end up is necessarily conditioned by old ideas and thus can’t really lead me to true freedom.
  8. Embrace responsibility – Alcoholic thinking is like throwing a temper tantrum. It is an irrational and self-centered indulgence in the childish fantasy of freedom without responsibility. Avoiding responsibility for the harm I have done undermines any version of the kind of life I want sobriety to lead to, a life that is characterized by integrity, freedom, general good will, inherent dignity, trustworthiness, relative harmony, fundamental fairness, and basic good sense.
  9. Correct wrongs – Making amends has to go beyond assuaging guilt. I need to be proactively involved in the production of good will all around me. I find Gandhi’s instruction to be the change I want to see in the world to be a good guide.
  10. Broaden freedom – Everybody wants freedom – until they actually have it. For most of us, real freedom is scarier than rigorous honesty, than taking responsibility, and than hard work. True recovery faces head-on that existential moment of truth when we face the overwhelming infinity of possibility that comes with freedom. The key to a life without regrets is not to avoid failure but is instead to fully savor each moment for what it is and to find wonder and opportunity in whatever is going on.
  11. Make sane, informed choices – My chances for staying sober are improved by avoiding messes that bad choices create, by being empowered to make good choices, by taking responsibility for those choices, by not being a victim, and by being free from learned helplessness. Having a stake in my own success promotes strength, health, and soundness of mind.
  12. Build a life of joy and satisfaction – Not only are the Twelve Steps merely suggestions, they are meaningless unless they are part of a larger strategy that involves doing everything it takes to build a sustainable lifestyle around being sober.

One of the most neglected yet essential recovery principles is pithily stated in an Al-Anon slogan: “When in doubt, don’t.” I’m a big procrastinator, but my poor impulse control gets me into more trouble than my laziness. Being able to sit on my hands and just wait for the right time can be the difference between effortless success and tortured failure.

When all else fails, I reboot, which allows me to let go of old ideas, refresh my commitment, renew my sense of purpose, and gain a larger perspective.

Slowly, a new chemical and physiological equilibrium has become the new normal. My brain’s interface with reality has become more complex, poised, and stable. What I’m most thirsty for now is not alcohol, but is instead a rich blend of enlivening and fulfilling experiences. Not every morsel along the way has been delicious, but the totality has comprised a more or less balanced and complete diet, which has brought greater satisfaction than drinking ever provided.

When JHG first arrived in the rooms, he was surprised by the refreshingly inclusive, diverse, and spacious approach that is communicated in the Preamble and the third tradition. The claim that the essence of the solution is “honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness” was reassuring. What most struck him about the stories he heard was the unabashed candor, the liberation from shame, and the not having to hide. His early impressions and experiences launched him on a path that was well within the AA mainstream yet was also about imagining new possibilities. Though the detractors along the way have been annoying, his salient experiences have been in-depth identification and many timely encounters with individual AA members who embodied true freedom, courage, and unconditional love.

13 Responses

  1. Bruce C says:

    Really appreciate the common sense approach to recovery this article conveys & the absence of any dogma whatsoever. How refreshing!

  2. Michael S. says:

    Thank you for this. Can anyone direct me to secular/atheist programs in the US? Specifically in the central Virginia area. I think one of the biggest keys to recovery is filling that “VOID OF TIME” with like-minded individuals offering encouragement and support.

  3. Beth says:

    Awesome article. It could replace the whole first 164 pages.

  4. wisewebwoman says:

    So refreshing! Thanks for this. I’ve had moments of such joy in sobriety that I didn’t know existed. “The Magic” as one dear AA friend (Roger S. RIP) put it. The intense moments of gratitude and awareness. Greater than any addictive high.

  5. Thomas B. says:

    JHG, What a delightful, informative and fascinating read, making lemonade of recovery out of the lemons of orthodox AA. Thank you !~!~!

    I especially resonate with your pointing out the most important dictum, direction, instruction — whatever — in the Big Book as far as I’m concerned, “We absolutely insist on enjoying life.” That’s what longterm recovery has yielded for me.

    When drinking and drugging I was one of those who literally cried in his beer while sucking on a Thai stick. One of the vows I made in early recovery was to match tear for tear a hundred fold with tears of gratitude and joy for every tear of depression and despair I shed while actively using. Despite all the downs in recovery, lost jobs, relationships, houses, etc., I can on balance say that my life in recovery has yielded me to be immeasurably more grateful and joyous than down and depressed.

  6. I have seen many who have failed, even though they have taken quite seriously the words from ‘How It Works’ that most AA groups read at the beginning of every meeting and have earnestly endeavored to ‘thoroughly follow our path’. Either the whole program is a lie or ‘thoroughly’ doesn’t mean what they thought it means.

    Spot on! “Our path” or our “design for living” is not a uniformed paint-by-numbers process. Our recovery is as individual as our thumb print. I believe that there is no liberty without responsibility. This theme plays out in several phases as AA (or any recovery) life. This essay is a fine example of taking responsibility for recovery and the freedom that comes from it.

    At the risk of sounding too much like a cheer-leader, I’ll stop there. Thank you.

  7. Terry says:

    Hi John,
    Thoroughly enjoyed reading this. Thanks for letting me know you had written this article. I can almost hear your voice as I read it.
    Thank you,
    “If you’re not having fun you’re not doing it right” is my motto and I stole it.

  8. Rajiv B. says:

    Thanks for quoting the sentence given on BB page 132. The best part I liked about the sentence “We absolutely insist on enjoying life” is that it is right in the center of the page, with 16 lines on the top and 16 lines below it, and 2 words to its left and 2 words to its right.
    Also, Jimmy K, who had been an AA member before he started NA in 1953, terms “recovery” in NA’s Just For Today reading as “living and enjoying life without the use of drugs”.

  9. Mark in Texas says:

    Standing ovation JHG. Thank you! Rational clarity shines like the sun in this work.


  10. Bob c says:

    Wow that was fantastic.

  11. Chris G says:

    What a wonderful and refreshing expansion on the common “One Day at a Time” slogan we have all heard, and used, ad nauseum.

    One phrase really struck me: “[AA’s] general approach can feel like a blunt instrument.” How true that was for me – I was bludgeoned into sobriety by conventional AA. And I was about to dump it, though hopefully not by drinking, when I found AA Agnostica and the secular movement in general.

    And I love your interpretation of the steps. How sane they make it seem…

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