Editor’s note: Spring has arrived in Europe. The idea of house cleaning is closely tied to taking inventory. First, I need to get a sense of the situation as it is. It takes courage to take that close look. To endure the confrontation with my old character. My old ways have developed over a lifetime. I don’t shut the door on the past: in Alcoholics Anonymous I learn to engage with it. My actions, past and present, affect the quality of my mind. How can I continue what I decided in Step Three when it comes to Step Four? How do I practice courage in the day that I am in? In this month’s issue, fellows share their experiences, strength and hope with personal tragedies, relationships and Céline Dion’s wisdom.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) offers the following as a contemporary definition of courage:
- a. n., That quality of mind which shows itself in facing danger without fear or shrinking; bravery, boldness, valour.
This description provides a sufficient account of the quality of mind I need to gain when approaching the Step Four inventory.
On p. 63 in Alcoholics Anonymous, I am instructed to “[launch] out on a course of vigorous action” and subsequently warned that my actions will “have little permanent effect unless at once followed by a strenuous effort to face, and to be rid of, the things in [myself] which had been blocking [me].”
Note that it does not instruct me to pathologize, analyze, criticize, judge, or grapple with the things that come up in my inventory. The operative words are “face” and “be rid of”. Facing things and promptly discarding them takes Courage.
Courage is not something I muster by pulling myself up by my bootstraps (or whatever). To borrow OED’s phrasing, Courage is shown to me in a thorough application of Steps One to Three. When I accept there is a problem, that there is a Solution to said problem, and trust that this Solution can and will restore me to sanity enough to turn my will and my life over to “It”, then I am provided with the Courage necessary to get down to “causes and conditions”. (Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 64)
In closing, I offer the words of Celine Dion (bet you didn’t see that coming…):
Don’t you dare fail me now
I need you to keep away the doubts
I’m staring in the face of something new
You’re all I got to hold on to
Don’t you dare fail me now
In allowing myself to “stare in the face of something new”, the permanent effect promised in Step Three has now moved within reach.
– Adam K.
Last November I celebrated fifteen years of sobriety. At the same time, a horrible act of violence against a close family member shook the foundation of my sobriety and darkness crept back into my life. I’ve learned in AA that we get as much in life as we can handle. I also knew that I had to seek for a bigger higher power as the God of my Understanding became too small for this, with the harm done to my dearest one. God works in mysterious ways as soon as we are willing to let God take the wheel.
I knew that I had to let God take care of this situation as it was too much for me to handle. My security was wildly affected. But I could not remain in rage or self-pity, prayers and meditation helped me out of the darkness and showed me the light. It happened that a few weeks after the horrible event I was chosen to be part of a committee in AA. I threw myself into the commitment, trying to change everything at once for the better without thinking about the fact that the team who had already done the service did their best.
Haughty and arrogant, I wanted to show them how it should be done better. I had no love left for them, just the hard work for the purpose of the committee. I was the storm, trampling over the feelings of others. And they fought back. One person, in particular, started to become my personal enemy. I threw all my hate and injustice in this life on her and invited her unconsciously to live in my mind. And there she was, every single second. I would wake up in the middle of the night having the strongest arguments with her. I was the one explaining to her with wise words that she is nothing and my ideas would be – of course – the better ones.
I felt in the right, I was even running around complaining to others about how awful I was treated and how they flocked together against me. I found allies against her. This fight I could win. This is something I could control. With the same tools, I had always used. Manipulation, self-pity and enough arrogance not to be harmed in the battle, regardless of the losses. I even prayed for the death of this person. At the same time, I was pretending to walk with grace through tragic events.
Unconsciously I used the situation to gain control of life again. Instead of relying on my Higher Power. One awakening happened when a sponsee called me, the sun was shining after weeks of grayness, and she read to me the Third Step. I realized I behaved exactly like the actor who runs the whole show. My intention on this day was to do the step with her, instead, she was doing it with me. I even had a moment of love for this person, but my god-workshop was not at the end here. I had to learn more. I had to – once again – take a fearless inventory. I had to list the reasons for my resentments and look at how this affected me. This time most of the problems were all in my imagination and not real. I’ve heard this on a speaker tape, “I am not threatened with a knife, but someone holds a picture of a knife in front of me.”
The third column showed me how her behavior affected me, my ambition, my pride, my personal relations and my self-esteem. My ego-centric and self-centered perspective troubled me. I couldn’t sleep, my focus was on the faults of this person. And I reacted with rage, dishonesty, intolerance and arrogance mostly in my head. This is insanity! My God became smaller and smaller, I knew this, but each action she took as she was fighting back, drove me into rage and self-righteousness. I know that love and tolerance is our code. Each day we can pick up the key of willingness. To stop the madness of the disease. The twelve steps are a finely tuned composition and I must apply all of the steps to my problems to see the divine wisdom and love in my life.
The fourth step is the eye-opener. These past months I’ve grown through sorrow, surrender, applying the steps and also through studying spiritual teachers in and outside AA. The biggest teacher of all is this lady in the program and I should be thankful for her. God wants us to be happy, joyous and free! Just for today, I don’t have a made-up person living in my head, just for today I enjoy this wonderful day without being afraid of terrible events. The solution is to let go, and let God!
I spent my late twenties and most of my thirties as a full-blown alcoholic and addict in the clubs of Berlin. Whilst getting “acquainted” with the gay scene through dating, my character defects really blossomed. In the process of losing my self-respect, I found that I could use sex as a currency. I had short passionate affairs with men which I would end promptly as soon as I would feel dissatisfied with myself. I would cheat and lie to you, as well as to myself, and I was surrounded by people who were acting just like I did just so I could normalize my behavior. I soon became unable to take responsibility for my actions whatsoever. I was constantly heartbroken but it was never my fault, so I would drink more and another hellish cycle would start over again. All I could feel was hurt and heartache and I just couldn’t figure out exactly what was wrong. It never occurred to me to check on my drinking or using.
Like Bill says in his story “the mind and body are marvelous mechanisms”, mine endured this incomprehensible demoralization for ten more years until I was able to admit that I didn’t like who I had become and I asked for help in the rooms of AA. I found my sponsor in the second meeting that I attended and because I was DESPERATE to change my life I basically started working the steps immediately. The first Three Steps were a breeze. We met once a week and read and I honestly thought to myself “This is amazing! The only thing I need to do to not pick up is to read from this book and I’m golden!” Before long though we reached step four and I felt like I hit a wall. Since I was a kid I had little or no boundaries, which made it difficult for me to take a fearless moral inventory of myself. All through my life there have been transgressions which I would conveniently “forgive” without really realizing that with each one of them, I became a little more resentful, a little more bitter. But in my head I was still the good guy- I was just misunderstood! And by the time I sat down to write my Step 4, I was sure that I was the victim! I thought that I would tell my story to my sponsor and she would say “Oh, my god, did people really treat you that way?? Oh, your story is absolutely unique. You have every right to drink!” She did not do that.
Instead, she supported me to see my part in each and every one of my resentments. She patiently helped me identify patterns in my behavior and- more importantly- set boundaries as an indication of self-love. I reviewed my story through the eyes of someone who can take responsibility when he is wrong and my story changed. Step 4 was an eye-opener for me. It allowed me to break out of lifelong habits and assume responsibility for my actions.
Halfway through my second year of recovery and after seeing the promises materializing one after the other I met my partner who is also in recovery. We lived in different countries but we had an immediate connection which we nourished with zoom dates, trips back and forth, and four months after our first meeting with a case of covid which confined us in my Berlin bedroom for 2 weeks.
This was the first time I’d actually DATED someone while in recovery and the program definitely was a key factor in helping me develop trust. Like many of us, I had no idea what a healthy relationship was supposed to be like, let alone how to maintain it , and I had to remain connected to my sponsor, my meetings and my fellows to make sure that I wasn’t resorting to old behaviors. Because my partner and I agreed very early on that the best way to show our commitment to our relationship is by showing commitment to our recovery we have been able to navigate through some pretty heavy stuff. This past summer we decided to move in together in Spain where he is from.
The word “decided” isn’t correct though. We both had a pretty solid/sober plan about how and when we would move in together (after being a couple for more than a year, after my Spanish was good enough to get a job, etc) but my sponsor taught me to not spit in the eye of my higher power and assume that what I thought was “the sober thing to do” was my HP’s will for me. At some point, before the planned year was up, it became clear that the road had opened for us to make the move. So we did just that – with a strong sense that we were being guided by our higher powers and not by our self-will.
Leaving my sober family, my friends, my meetings, and my life in Berlin was a very scary thing to do. I didn’t know how my new life would be. I didn’t know if things would work out. I just trusted that as my higher power had taken good care of me in the past, as long as my recovery was my priority I would be ok. Through developing a daily spiritual practice I was able to tap into an enormous source of courage. I may have been scared, but the program has taught me that courage isn’t the absence of fear, but the willingness to live fully, to seize the day, and to take the next step despite the fear.
A couple of weeks ago I celebrated 4 years clean and sober in my new home, with my new family, and sometimes I have to pinch myself to make sure I’m not dreaming.
I never thought that being happy or living such a wholesome life was in the cards for me.
The words of my sponsor often ring in my ear “you should be dead”, but instead, me and my partner are organizing our wedding, I’m embarking on a new career and my life is expanding in ways I’d never have believed possible before getting into recovery.
I only have gratitude for somehow making it into the rooms of AA and for being desperate enough to ask for help. Because somehow, in the process, I managed to develop a spiritual practice and way of life that allows me to be brave enough to live life on life’s terms— a life beyond my wildest dreams.
– Christo T.
They told me that I only had ‘today’. They told me that I didn’t have to live in the past – or project into the future. They asked me if I could manage to just ‘keep it in the day’ and suggested that, if I was able to, I might feel a little bit better. Boy, did I want to feel better! I was going crazy about the past, about yesterday and all those other days. What I had said, what I had done. I was frantic about how I could force life to work for me in the days and weeks ahead. I was looking into a tunnel of despair.
Someone handed me the “Just for Today” card and stressed that I did NOT have to act on all the suggestions each day. I could take it piecemeal and it might even be better if I didn’t add to my stress by a daily attempt at perfection.
I am fairly well educated, yet I did not know that it was not necessary to ‘tackle my whole life problem at once’. I believed I had a lot to prove (being both superior and inferior to the rest of you) and lived my life that way. Now, this piece of grey card was telling me I could relax a bit? Really? What about…? And…? Not to mention…? I rather liked the idea that I could just compartmentalise my life into 12-hour segments. I did not believe it, but it sounded good. So much of my life was appalling. Having permission to take a short break was just what I needed.
And then! And then, I’m told that it is down to ME whether I will be ‘happy’ or not. No, that cannot be right. It was always them; never me. I was perfectly happy before you came along and created all this havoc. They said ‘try, what have you got to lose’. Against my ‘better judgement’ I put my toe into this ‘happy’ business. I was stunned: little, teeny happy moments appeared in my day.
I come from the school of ‘if you’d only do it my way, we’ll all be better off’. For pity’s sake, I was 40 years old, I had worked hard to be a credit to my school. I somehow had completely overlooked the fact that other people had a valid (are you sure?) point of view that held equal weight with my own. Fit myself? Accommodate? Share? TAKE MY LUCK!?! This has got to be madness. Ok, I’ll try it. And…I’m wrong again. More importantly, I’m feeling better and less stressed.
The next paragraph I really took to. I enjoy learning (just as long as there are no exams), although I can also be quite lazy. I had this new book, full of stuff about ME and people like me. My brain was not working too well and I found it hard to retain anything. Eventually, the fog cleared, and I have been studying the Big Book for a very long time. I have never stopped and expected to continue. I need to keep studying because, like the Mic Mac Indian (pg. 494), ‘the Bugalademujs’ keep ‘fooling around with my Big Book’. New things keep appearing.
A dyed-in-the wool sceptic, the idea of exercising my soul left me completely cold. My ego would not allow it. Why should I do anything for anybody, whether I want to or not? I expected, at least, a brass band to celebrate any kindness I deign to offer. There should be hallelujahs from the housetops. Not tell anyone? How else will I get the strokes I need? And, yet, when I tried this out, there was such a nice, quiet satisfaction. I had a special secret. I hurt people; people hurt me. Mostly not deliberately. Life is life. Controlling those tantrums helped me to respect myself a bit more. Doing what was suggested helped me accept myself – warts and all.
Agreeable. How boring can you get? I wanted to be the centre of attention – exciting, stimulating. I also did not want you to notice me. I just want to be my normal selfish, disruptive, egotistic self. Totally superior, yet utterly inferior. What I could do is dress becomingly; I like clothes. OK, I won’t criticise – out loud, or find fault – out loud. I will only think how I could improve you and the way you do things. Self-restraint was not my forte. No one will ever know. But I knew what was in my mind. After a while, I found that keeping it all under wraps was poisoning me. I had to let go before I drove myself back to the bottle.
I could not entertain the idea that I could have what you have. I was a bad, evil woman – hopeless. A comfortable, achievable programme for living was way beyond the likes of me. No. I could never be decent enough for something that good to happen to me. They told me that if I did the simple things they did each day, it was possible. I sooo wanted to believe them. They said ‘try, what have you got to lose’. I tried. It has worked for quite a while – I live in peace. I do not hate myself anymore.
Today I give myself time to hear the messages meant for me. I try to understand myself. Each paragraph of this little grey card has become a tool of recovery. I trust. I know that whatever happens (just for today) I am safe and secure. I know that although fear is an aspect of the human condition, I no longer have to live my life intimidated by it. I can see the world beyond the end of my nose and not run away.
I have kept coming back – day after day. I am grateful that I’ve been given the time to grow up and practice the lessons in the Just for Today card and all the other lessons that our literature has offered me.
– Helen S.
Editor’s note: The last story was previously published in SHARE Magazine, a monthly publication of Alcoholics Anonymous (GB).