Not drinking wasn’t enough. Getting a sponsor made his program really take off
I took what I hope is to be my last drink on the fifth anniversary of my young wife’s death, in the early morning hours of December 10, 1988. That last drink, from a pitcher of beer that didn’t even belong to me, was immediately followed by my third drunk-driving arrest. Later that same morning, after my release from jail, I was to experience the beginning of a spiritual release of far greater importance. I knew my life was spiraling out of control and I felt absolutely helpless to stop it.
I was at a bottom, or what I was later to hear described as the “jumping-off place,” and I wished for the end. Too big of a coward I suppose to really take my own life, I couldn’t imagine living another day the way I had been living; yet I didn’t know what to do differently. I literally sat at the turning point on my family room sofa feeling hopelessly defeated. In utter despair I called out to a God that I hadn’t consciously attempted to contact in many years. With tears streaming down my face I said simply, “God, you’ve got to help me.” That was the beginning.
About 10 minutes later the telephone rang. It was a woman whom I knew in Alcoholics Anonymous who had been watching me from a distance and she asked me if I was ready to go to a meeting. I choked out a feeble, “Yes” and the next night she took me to my first meeting. I have not had a drink since. I lost contact with her shortly afterward and I don’t know if she is aware that she saved my life, but I will be forever grateful to her for carrying the message to me. I am also truly grateful that I fell into a group of very active members of Alcoholics Anonymous. They were men and women who “walked their talk.” They calmed and reassured me by saying simply, “Just come go with us and do what we do.” I was in so much pain that I did just that.
Now, two decades later, I still sometimes wonder at the seeming miracle of it all. As so many of us have, I’ve seen untold countless numbers of men and women come to us who do not stay or who struggle for years to achieve any lasting measure of sobriety. I often wonder what made the difference for me as I do not believe in a capricious God who would arbitrarily deem to save one person while allowing another to die in the alcoholic pit. The only conclusion I have come to is that, for whatever reasons, I’ve taken actions consistent with recovery and, by God’s grace, I’ve been able to somehow tap into this “Power greater than ourselves.”
There was never any doubt in my mind that I had hit an emotional bottom when I cried out for help. I was in some of the worst mental and emotional turmoil I had ever experienced and I desperately wanted to stop hurting. Admittedly, I knew that my life was in the toilet but, due to the delusional thinking of the alcoholic, and as strange as it may sound to some, I had not yet identified alcohol as the source of the problem. I thought all of my difficulties were either bad luck or environmental. I really was convinced that anyone with my problems would drink. So, I didn’t see how Alcoholics Anonymous was going to help. But, I also knew I had a couple of court dates coming up and I needed to stay out of jail long enough to wade through some of the current legal issues and maybe going to AA for awhile and not drinking couldn’t hurt.
“Crushed by a self-imposed crisis” that I could not postpone or evade, I was driven under the lash of alcoholism into Alcoholics Anonymous and it was there that I discovered the fatal nature of my situation. It was a small group composed mostly of older men that I attended for my first meeting and these kind souls took turns telling me their stories and I felt welcome.
I identified with them. They were talking about themselves, but they were telling my story and I found hope in that. Here were men who spoke my language. They had been where I had been (and a few other places), done what I’d done (and then some), and had felt what I felt. When they described the anger, the loneliness, and the despair I knew that either these guys were on the level or they had been following me around writing stuff down. They described me perfectly. What’s more, they now claimed to be happy about not drinking! What a concept that was for me. I really couldn’t understand how anyone could be happy about not drinking but, then again, I wanted what they had and I was immediately willing to go to any lengths to get it.
That was the beginning of my surrender. Maybe these guys were saying things to me about meetings, and “Big Books,” and sponsors but I just couldn’t hear it yet. What I heard was “Try not to drink tonight and come back tomorrow. Can you do that?” I hastened to assure them that I could indeed do that as, you know, because alcohol wasn’t really that much of a problem for me anyway, you understand …
I’m kind of glad that it worked out that way as the next day when I really wanted to drink, I just didn’t. I “white-knuckled” it that day, and the next, and then the one after that, and I just kept “not drinking” and going to the meetings. Before I knew it I had a week of sobriety that I had never really intended to get and the butterflies started leaving my stomach, the shakes and the sweats were diminishing. I could read a complete sentence and know what I had just read. Within a couple of weeks more of my mental faculties had snapped back, I could usually carry on a coherent conversation (usually, but not always), and I started to hear more. That’s when I remember hearing about the importance of getting a sponsor and trying to do “90 meetings in 90 days.” At that point I didn’t really know what I had gotten myself into but I knew that it was so much better than what I had before that I didn’t want to lose it. In frightened desperation I grabbed the guy who had chaired the first meeting I attended and asked him to be my sponsor.
That’s when my recovery really began as, up until that point, I had simply been “not drinking” and I was so dry I was a fire hazard. I was stark raving sober. My new sponsor got me busy reading our basic text and then he launched me out into the Twelve Steps and that is what ultimately produced the essential psychic change; the spiritual awakening. It seems that I had to stay sober so that I could work the steps and then I didn’t have to drink. That’s the way that it worked for me and somewhere in the process I got happy about not drinking!
I made my initial attempts at surrendering by simply becoming willing to take directions first from the old-timers, and then from my sponsor and the members of my new home group. Later, I expounded upon that by doing a Third Step and I have found that I’ve needed to continue practicing the principle of this surrender. Over the years I’ve learned and re-learned, sometimes painfully, the lessons of this necessity. My way can hurt a lot. God’s way is usually much easier. One way that I’ve described it is that my willingness to work this program has always been in direct proportion to the flame under my butt. When the flame is high the needed willingness is there; but when the flame goes down sometimes my willingness diminishes. If I ease up in the program of action I usually regret the consequences.
I was able to test this principle when, with about three months of sobriety, I was offered the chance to go into treatment. I didn’t think I needed to go as I was already doing well in AA. My sponsor and some of the old-timers thought differently. So, reluctantly, I agreed. While I was there one of the counselors said that the odds were that very few of us would stay sober. Something “clicked” inside of me and I remember thinking to myself that, somehow, I would be one that would make it. In that moment I became willing to do all of the things that the others refused to do. In other words, I became willing to go to “any lengths” to stay sober.
I believe what Bill wrote in our book when he said that “What we really have is a daily reprieve contingent on the maintenance of our spiritual condition. Every day is a day when we must carry the vision of God’s will into all of our activities.” I must continue to treat my dis-ease and constantly be on guard for those attitudes and ideas that might distract me from my primary purpose. Like relapse, recovery is a process; it’s not an event. I have to continue to take actions to move forward into recovery or else I will move backward into relapse. If I stay in relapse long enough then I will drink and then the drink itself becomes the evidence of the slip.
The analogy that works for me is that of a salmon swimming upstream. That fish has to take actions and exercise muscles in order to move up river to spawn. In order for the salmon to fail all he has to do is stop trying to go forward and the raging torrent around him will quickly push him back out to sea. I think of my recovery in the same way. I hit Alcoholics Anonymous with 33 years of negative programming, low self-esteem, a head full of wrong ideas, and the disease of alcoholism all pushing at me like a strong current. Likewise, I must take actions and exercise spiritual muscles in order to move forward against all of that. If I fail to do so, my disease will push me back out into active alcoholism. I don’t have to deliberately court disaster, all I have to do is stop trying to go forward in a process of recovery; my disease will do the rest.
A sponsor is indispensable in determining right actions to take. I’ve been sober for a good while now and I still find it helpful to have a sponsor because he is more emotionally detached from my problems than I am, he can therefore see more clearly into them, and he can give me suggestions on the best way to approach solving them. I still need that. I also still need to actively carry the message to other alcoholics as this is “a design for living that works in the rough going” and “Practical experience shows that nothing will so much ensure immunity from drinking as intensive work with other alcoholics. It works when other activities fail.”
By the time I pick up my twenty-year medallion, my sponsor will already have received his fiftieth sobriety cake. He and I both agree that even after all this time it is of critical importance to stay active in service. It enhances our recoveries and we know that it’s harder to hit a moving target!
“Dry and on Fire”. www.aagrapevine.org. 2011. https://www.aagrapevine.org/magazine/2011/mar/dry-and-fire. 5 Apr 2021