John’s Recovery: Step Two

AA Step 2:  Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

My Step 2:  Came to the realization I needed to accept guidance from others in order for me to re-focus on the pursuit of my aspirations.

By John B

The completion of Step 1 afforded me a temporary sense of comfort because I had finally gotten honest with myself. I had engaged in the rational assessment of evidence and accepted reality; in my case the acceptance of the necessity to quit drinking. How this newfound honesty came to prevail over my previous denial of truth was due to the persistent mentoring of two sober alcoholics, friends in the fellowship who themselves had wrestled with the uncertainty of recovery, and who now were exhibiting the rewards of sober living.

The literal structure of Step 2 posed a problem for a secular thinker like me because Wilson had chosen to capitalize the word Power, and the message I kept hearing in meetings was that I must find God, a God as defined by revelatory religion. If this was to be my only option I knew it would be virtually impossible for me to integrate myself into the AA community.

Various terms are used to describe folks like me: skeptic, agnostic, secular humanist, even atheist. I choose to call myself non-religious. Somewhat stymied, it seemed to me that without special dispensation, or the discovery of an alternate route, my ship of recovery was facing some strong headwinds. Like all good sponsors in 1984, my sponsor suggested I closely study Chapter 5, How It Works, in the Big Book. I did!

What that chapter did for me was to create doubt. I kept looking for something that fit with the title, but found little. The chapter begins with Wilson’s description of those people who he thinks will probably never be able to get sober, a listing of the twelve steps, followed by this proclamation “Being convinced, we were at Step 3, which is that we decided to turn our will and our life over to God as we understood Him.” (p. 60)

Convinced of what? The rest of the chapter offers a reasonably accurate description of the attributes exhibited by those controlled by untreated alcoholism. Not to worry! At the end of the chapter Mr. Wilson has an offer of salvation: “We hope you are convinced now that God can remove whatever self-will has blocked you off from Him.” (p. 71) My take-away from Chapter 5 was twofold: a good description of untreated alcoholism which I did not need, along with repetitious claims that God will fix me if I can find Him, which I did not want. How It Works was not going to work for this alcoholic. This left me stranded, but I still was feeling good about staying sober one day at a time, and the support of sober friends was helping to keep my commitment to sobriety intact.

As an aside, I can’t help but wonder about those that claim and actually believe that God got them sober and keeps them sober. I hear some variation of this in my home group a majority of the time when someone steps up to receive a sobriety birthday token. If they actually believe these two things, why is it necessary to do anything but pray and wait for sobriety to happen?

Early in recovery I struggled with a dual reality. On the one hand, the support I was getting from my sponsor and a handful of other sober alcoholics was keeping me on track. On the other hand, my skepticism concerning the standard definition of a higher power was unacceptable. The duality wasn’t as strong as a love/hate relationship; more accurately it was a simple confrontation between attraction (the comfort of camaraderie) and repulsion (all the God talk).

Surprisingly, the special dispensation I needed came from Bill Wilson himself. Wilson’s gradual move away from his early rigidity towards a more liberal definition of “higher power” has been well documented on AA Agnostica over the past several months. I first noticed some of that movement on page twenty-seven in the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, published in 1953, fourteen years after the Big Book was printed. Despite some hints in the Big Book where Wilson appears to be allowing some personal autonomy in defining one’s own higher power, and even though he uses several creative, non-religious terms to describe God, his fall-back position in the Big Book is always the God of revelatory religion. For instance, by my count, the word God is used 28 times in the chapter We Agnostics, not counting the capitalized male gender pronouns. I wonder how much agnostic input went into this chapter. Without equivocation Wilson moves away from his rigidity in the 12 and 12. In the chapter on Step 2 he has a hypothetical sponsor tell a hypothetical sponsee “…you can if you wish make AA itself your ‘higher power’”. (p. 27) I bought into this reasoning without reservation in August 1984. Thirty-five years later I am still sober and still active in AA. The friendship and mentorship given to me freely by sober alcoholics filled the role of a power greater than myself.

I made this decision without much thought; I just knew it was working. How this group affiliation stuff works for an alcoholic is explained by Ernest Kurtz in his book, Not God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous when he talks about “…the healing potency of the shared honesty of mutual vulnerability openly acknowledged,” which is exactly what happens within the fellowship of AA. (p. 61)  Fortunately for me, a substantial amount of support also flowed my way from people outside the recovery community. The quality of my relationships – my connections – superseded any need to seek a source of power outside the human community.

I have come to realize that there are many powers that exist outside the realm of human control, even outside the limits of human understanding, that have a direct impact on the quality of my life. Reason and common sense have taught me that my only viable option is to conform to the dictates of those powers. AA helped me to come to that conclusion. Early on I heard the acronym HALT – if you expect to stay sober, don’t let yourself get too hungry, too angry, too lonely, or too tired. This simple statement reminded me in understandable terms of four areas of the human existence that demand reasoned attention. In other words, I need to ingest proper nutrients, engage in emotional self-control, invest in quality personal relationships, and after fighting the law of gravity all day get some rest. I don’t need a degree in nutrition science, a degree in psychology, or a need to understand how Isaac Newton was able to figure out how particles in the universe are attracted to one another. For anyone to ignore these dictates is to invite a lower quality of life. For an alcoholic the risks are magnified exponentially. The camaraderie of AA was enabling me to do what I had not been able to accomplish on my own. Mr. Kurtz explained it perfectly.

A reordering and refocusing of my personal aspirations was in the embryonic stage. A new life was about to begin.

For a PDF of all his Steps, click here: John’s Recovery: The 12 Steps.

John is an eighty-three year old sober alcoholic with 35 years of continuous sobriety. Married to Helen for 53 years; three kids in their 50’s. Spent 17 years teaching and coaching at the high school level in Indiana and Illinois. Owned and operated a bar and restaurant for 13 years which led to the acceleration of his alcoholism, which led to treatment, and eventually led to a career as an addiction counselor. Retired in 2001 from the Marion, In. V.A. Served as office manager for a major AA intergroup office in N.E. In. for six and a half years. Was an excellent high school and small college basketball player. Still goes to the gym three days a week and shoots 200 three point shots and does some light weight lifting. Passionate about family, recovery, basketball, and the St. Louis Cardinals. Reads 20 to 25 books a year, and three or four quality periodicals on a regular basis; mostly about politics, economics, science, history: about anything going on in the world that strikes his curiosity.

“There are many versions of the 12-Step program of recovery. In fact, there are about as many versions as there are alcoholics in AA who use the program to get sober and to maintain their sobriety.”

The Little Book


11 Responses

  1. Oz e sober says:

    A very refreshing post. I feel utterly buoyed up by his share. I don’t need to be the all-singing, all-dancing saviour of the universe – just another recovering alcoholic.

    • John B. says:

      Oz – Hey Oz, you buoyed me up just for noticing the post. I really like the implication in your comment – we all need to resist the temptation to take ourselves too seriously. Thanks for participating. John B.

  2. Richard K. says:

    Loves this!!! So true!!! A program of attraction!!! Seeing people living sober!!! Treatment!!! No cure!!! AA!!!

    • John B. says:

      Richard – For some time in early recovery I used to laugh at the AA principle that it was a “program of attraction not promotion.” It finally dawned on me that it was my attraction to those ex-drunks that was keeping me sober. They didn’t have to promote anything, the benefits of sobriety were obvious to anyone open-minded enough to take a look. I finally got there. Thanks for participating. John B.

  3. Dick S. says:

    Upon attending my first AA meeting I found that my life was controlled by a Power greater than myself, namely alcohol. By avoiding that Power for the last 31 plus years I have lived a happy and productive life.

    • John B. says:

      Dick – Unlike you I tortured myself for another 4 years after I knew alcohol was wrecking my life. Too arrogant to admit it! But, like you, as the sober decades slide by, the dividends of sobriety continue to pile up. Thanks for participating. John B.

  4. John L. says:

    You are an inspiration. I’m a new octogenarian, and only go to the gym once a week. Did this morning — calisthenics and light weight lifting. As always, feel better. I’ll try for three.

    • John B. says:

      John – It’s great to hear from another guy who is fighting the onslaught of old age; I know I’m going to lose, but I’m going down fighting. Maybe I’ll be able to take “him” into double overtime. Keep on trucking’!! John B.

  5. John M. says:

    Dear John,

    So nice to see AA Agnostica posting your personal step journey. I always enjoy your interpretations and reflections.

    • John B. says:

      John – Thanks for the positive response. I believe an aggregate wisdom is created by the telling of our personal stories. There is a huge pool of wisdom for me to tap into if I am willing to listen.

  6. Larry G. says:

    Good stuff!!

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