Pass It On

Key Note Address:
54th Annual General Service Conference of Alcoholics Anonymous Great Britain

My name is Matt, and I am an alcoholic.

It’s a great thrill for me to be here in York with you all participating in the collective group conscience of AA once again. If you had told me seventeen years ago that today I would be sober, having the time of my life, and playing a small part in the wonderful fellowship that is AA Great Britain, I simply could not, and would not, have believed you.

The theme for this year’s Conference is “Pass it On”. Many of you may recognise this as the title of the book about Bill W.’s story and how the AA message reached the world. I feel that these three simple words are just as relevant today as not only do they succinctly describe Bill’s story but they also perfectly describe my own recovery story and I’m sure that of many other members here as well.

The passing of AA’s programme of recovery, as outlined in our Big Book, from one alcoholic to another, has been instrumental in saving my life and helping me to maintain an enjoyable sobriety. How this came about can perhaps be best communicated by simply sharing my own experience, and describing what it was like, what happened, and what it is like now.

First of all, I needed to become willing to receive AA’s message before I could even think about being a link in AA’s chain of recovery as, obviously, I can’t pass on something that I haven’t got. This tedious process was assisted by a copious amount of alcohol and much self-inflicted suffering. Although, my love of drinking and low pain tolerance meant this preparation did not take very long.

The first time I got drunk, I experienced an amazing sense of ease and comfort. Drinking alcohol made it possible to be a part of life at last. I could now dance, talk to girls, have fun and relax; I absolutely loved it. Unknowingly, I also set off an allergic physical reaction. This unquenchable craving drove me, once everyone else had stopped drinking, to liberate a bottle of cooking brandy and drink it all, by myself, hidden in the pantry. Despite the ensuing head-spins and nauseating side effects (which I considered a small price to pay) I instantly forged an obsession with alcohol. I drank as often as I could, and as much as I could. This was to be my pattern of drinking, more or less, for the next several years. What seemed to start out so innocently though, would ultimately turn into a living nightmare.

I will spare you the gory details. Suffice to say that, at 25 years of age, the rampaging alcoholic mental obsession and physical allergy had taken its toll and destroyed my life. Just before leaving my fifth rehabilitation unit, a frightening realisation dawned that I was going to drink again, whether I wanted to or not. It didn’t matter how much I had learned in rehab, or how well I filled out my relapse prevention workbook, or how colourful my “trauma egg” was. Soon enough, the pain and suffering of life without alcohol would drive me so insane that I would repeat that desperate experiment of the first drink, hoping that this time it would be different. But I knew then that it was never going to be different. I had lost the ability to control and enjoy my drinking. The party was over. There was nothing left, save for the phenomenon of craving and drunken madness; drink driving, gambling, drugs, physical violence, suicide, and oblivion. Alcoholic death and destruction loomed, and there was nothing neither I nor anyone else could do about it. I had tried all kinds of medication, all kinds of mental therapies and emotional counselling. I even resided in a Buddhist monastery for a while and spoke with the local priest. My mum did everything she could, as well as my friends. But nothing had worked. I finally accepted that I was a hopeless alcoholic and that it was only a matter of time before I drank, and for me to drink again was to die.

Devastated, and aware of the seriousness of my condition, I reluctantly returned to AA. It was not the first time, as I had been to many AA meetings before. Doctors had told me about AA, I had seen AA members visiting the rehabs, I had read pamphlets, and I had phoned the 24-hour helpline numerous times (at all hours of the night), but I never seriously thought it applied to me. This time though, my mind was slightly more open to at least the possibility of giving AA a try. Even so, for a defiant, grandiose and spiritually hostile alcoholic like myself, asking for the necessary help in AA was not an easy thing to do.

As I sat anxiously trembling in one of the Saturday night meetings in Sydney, Australia, I heard an AA member share their experience, strength and hope, in such a way that I was able to identify with the problem and be inspired by the solution. Here was an alcoholic who drank like me, felt like me, thought like me and suffered like me, yet had found a way out and had recovered from alcoholism. His own example was proof that it worked. He was an electrician from London and was now travelling the world. He was dating girls, keeping fit and having fun. And he was sober! He shared precisely how he recovered and said that if I wanted what he had, all I had to do was do what he did. When he approached me after the meeting, there was nothing left to do except ask him to be my sponsor. And just like that, he had passed it on, and I had accepted it.

I then started to follow suggestions, and sure enough, I soon felt better. Accordingly, my ego also revived (as per usual) and I once again began doing it my way instead. The terror of the last drink faded from memory. I was again on thin ice. A few days later, after I arrived late to yet another meeting, my sponsor pulled me quietly aside and asked why I didn’t arrive early to help set up as previously agreed. I replied, “Yeah, yeah… I know, I know…” to which he quickly responded, “Matt, with all due respect, what exactly do you know?”. I was shocked and offended, but this time there was no fight back. I had to concede that he was right. I was wrong. I knew absolutely nothing about staying sober. I could no longer deceive myself and defend my delusional thinking. And I was desperate. At last, my great ego was defeated. I had finally let someone tell me the truth and hold me accountable, and this proved to be a pivotal moment in my recovery.

My sponsor immediately picked me up and said that if I were to put AA first and make it the central fact of my life, be of service and help others, I could recover and have a wonderful life. I then surrendered to AA and commenced to work the 12 Steps. My sponsor’s experience and practical advice were invaluable throughout, especially with Step 4 where he at first confided his own dark secrets to help shine the light on my hidden self-centered fears, resentments, and defects of character. After Step 5, I learned how to forgive and that feeling of “you don’t understand, my case is different” vanished. I could look the world in the eye. I started to have a spiritual experience that has since expelled the mental obsession and allowed me to be comfortable in my own skin. As a result of the Steps, I found my Higher Power. Deep down I instinctively knew that everything is going to be okay, no matter what. I didn’t need to drink anymore.

Having just recovered from a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body, I felt I owed both my sponsor and AA an enormous debt. When I enquired how I could ever repay the help given to me, my sponsor said: “Matt, just pass it on”. A simple instruction, yet deeply profound. I understand today that to “Pass it On” is essential also for my ongoing sobriety. My sponsor stressed the parts in the Big Book where it says that “strenuous work, one alcoholic with another, was vital to permanent recovery” (page VI) and that if I “failed to perfect and enlarge [my] spiritual life through work and self-sacrifice for others, [I] could not survive the certain trials and low spots ahead” (pages 14-15).

I also began to realise that I was just one of many other active AA’s who are all trying to do the same. It was at my “Home Group” where I commenced my service in unity with my fellow members. Inspired by the enthusiasm of the old-timers who lead by example, laid the foundation, and set the standard, service permitted the practical expression of my inner surrender. Even though I did not want to help anyone initially, I found that the benefits received, such as freedom and peace of mind, motivated me to voluntarily seek continued ego-deflation and humility through service to others.

My first service position was making the tea, coffee and sandwiches, after which I became the literature officer and started to read AA books such as the 12 Steps & 12 Traditions and AA Comes of Age. Following my sponsor’s lead, I was duly elected secretary, followed by group treasurer for two years. The GSR role then introduced me to the wider service structure. At intergroup I had the good fortune to serve on the 24-hour helpline, visit hospitals and institutions (most of which I was an ex-patient of), and participate in exciting public information activities.

After a few years, I also had the privilege of being asked to sponsor others. Through sponsorship, I have experienced the magnificent reality of Alcoholics Anonymous. Passing it on to the still-suffering alcoholic has been the highlight of my recovery. To see others who were just as hopeless as me, ask for help, take the same action and get the same result, is truly awe-inspiring. I understand how, and just like my sponsor before me, my own drinking experience is now one of my greatest assets and can be used to reach other alcoholics in a way that no non-alcoholic ever could. I find this empowering and is something that every AA member, with their own unique story, can tap into.

Upon this foundation, I have commenced to build a useful and rich life. I have done things in sobriety that I never would have thought possible. I quit smoking and stopped gambling. I was accepted back into university where I then graduated with Honours (due in no small part to my new found attitude of “I don’t know, can you please show me?”). I got a job in the industry I studied for and had the opportunity to work abroad professionally in Asia, the US and Europe. A home group member once signed me up for a small fun run, and soon after I began racing in ironman triathlons. My mum is happy to see me, and my sister asks me to babysit her kids. I can sit alone in perfect ease and comfort and even meditate for ten days straight. I have climbed mountains in the Alps and Nepal. I too have experienced many of the joys, and challenges, of relationships.

Certainly though, I have also had periods of misfortune and ill health; depression, panic attacks, and my fair share of heartbreak. Throughout both the difficult times and the good times, a resolute commitment to AA and reliance upon a Higher Power has ensured that at no time have I needed to take a drink.

I have spent the last several years based here in Europe, where I have been fortunate to be part of a great home group in Munich and to serve AA at Intergroup Bavaria and the Continental European Region. To be here today, back in Great Britain as your Conference Chair, is an honour.

As a result of passing on AA’s simple programme of recovery that was passed on to me, I now live an enjoyable life, free from alcohol, and with a sense of peace and usefulness that is indescribably wonderful.

Thank you for the opportunity to be of service. I hope that you have an incredible Conference, and I wish you the very best for this weekend, as we continue to “Pass it On”.

Thank you.

Matt S., Continental European Region
Conference Chair 2019