A year ago today I was in an AA Big Book study with my sponsor. We were reading page 31 of the book. I read the sentence “Through every form of self-deception and experimentation, they would try to prove themselves exceptions to the rule, therefore nonalcoholic.” My sponsor asked me if I had been deceiving myself and experimenting in my sobriety by dabbling in gray areas with some things I had told him about. That question rocked my world and caused me to take 21 years off my sobriety date.
This person was the first sponsor I had had in a number of years. Before that, I floundered around managing my best at life, but I didn’t have true emotional sobriety. I really didn’t think it was possible for me. So I flitted in and out of behavioral addictions (mostly in), being consumed by powerful obsessions and compulsions that continued to grow stronger the longer I was clean and sober.
Until one day in August 2019 when I learned what AA was truly about. It had been in front of my face the whole time, on the AA symbol. The AA symbol is a triangle inside of a circle. Each side of the triangle represents one of what’s called the Three Legacies: Unity, Recovery, and Service.
Each legacy corresponds to one aspect of the program. There are three parts of the program; one for each part of the disease of addiction. (I use the words alcoholism and addiction interchangeably.) Alcoholism affects the body, mind, and spirit, and similarly, the legacies that heal alcoholism are Unity, Recovery, and Service, respectively.
This all sounds quite simple and direct, however, this understanding had been hidden in plain sight my entire time in AA – until that August, when an AA member approached me, asking if I wanted to study the Big Book with him. “No,” I told him flat out, wrinkling my nose at the idea. He said, “You don’t understand! This Big Book study will CHANGE YOUR LIFE!” I thought he was a bit crazy. He went on to say that he had rediscovered the steps and the Big Book five years prior and working with others was now the bright spot of his life.
To me, the Big Book was old news; the 12 Steps and AA program hollow and filled with empty promises. It had worked for me with alcohol and drugs, yes, two decades before when I got sober, but I didn’t see how this same program could truly effect results for the nefarious behaviors that had been consuming me for most of my life. But his enthusiasm made me curious.
At our first book study, my friend drew the AA symbol I had seen a million times. Then he explained the Unity side of the triangle. It corresponded with the physical body. Alcoholics have an abnormal physical reaction to alcohol. We can’t control our drinking once we start; the craving for more is activated. Then more and more is needed over time as the disease progresses. The treatment for the physical aspect of alcoholism is, of course, abstinence. This is the most straightforward and simple solution of the three parts of alcoholism.
So how does the AA program help with this? Going to AA meetings, surrounding ourselves with others in recovery, sober social events, and the like, minimizes the chances that we’ll drink, at least for the time that we’re around others in recovery. The legacy of Unity supports the individual alcoholic to not drink, just as Unity helps the entire organization of AA to survive as a whole.
My enthusiastic friend then explained the Recovery side of the triangle. This is at the base, implying that it is the foundation of the entire program. The legacy of Recovery deals with the mental aspect of alcoholism. Alcoholism in the mind manifests as the mental obsession that tells the lie that we don’t have the abnormal reaction to alcohol. As it gains momentum, this obsession outweighs everything else in our mind, crowding out the truth of our condition. This, of course, is insanity, for what person in their right mind with all the consequences alcoholics create would ever take another drink?
The solution is in the 12 Step process; this is the treatment for the diseased thinking. The 12 Steps are found in the first part of the Big Book. This is the program of AA in its original form. The 12 Steps heal the mind from the crippling obsession and insanity around alcohol.
All that made sense to me. But it was the third legacy that blew my mind and totally shifted my view of AA permanently. This legacy is Service, and it deals with the spirit. First, what is the manifestation of alcoholism in the spirit? In AA, we call it the spiritual malady. Malady means illness. How are alcoholics spiritually sick? This shows up in a few different ways. Generally, this can be described as emotional unmanageability, when we can’t control our emotions or feel overwhelmed by them. (Of course, this is also the human condition, but for alcoholics, it leads back to a drink, which ultimately leads to death.) This emotional unmanageability shows up as being overly reactive to situations, emotional highs and lows, being full of resentment, self-pity, and fear. The other way the spiritual malady shows up is in low self-esteem, negative self-talk, unworthiness, and feeling less than. In all of these ways, we are disconnected from our higher power when we are overwhelmed by negative emotion or feel like a piece of shit about ourselves. So how do alcoholics use Service to heal the spiritual malady? By working with other alcoholics and taking them through the 12 Steps as outlined in the Big Book.
Connecting 12th Step work with healing my spirit was totally mind-blowing to me. I had never heard, since coming to AA in 1993, the disease and program explained in this way. And it was there hidden in plain sight in the AA symbol that I had seen countless times before. This explained why I had mediocre recovery; general dis-ease in my sober life. I had barely worked with others. So I was not working the full program.
Although I never met this man again to continue the book study, he shared his sponsor’s YouTube videos of him going through the book. I started following these videos and studying along. I soon found my first person to take through the process.
Months later, I moved from Bali to Thailand. It was February 2020, and Covid was just ramping up. In March, the global shutdown started. I dove into working with other alcoholics by offering to do the Big Book study with as many people as I could.
Meanwhile, I was continuing to watch the YouTube videos on my own. But I saw the videos stopped before the whole study had been done. Now that I was taking a number of people through the process, I couldn’t just stop partway. I reached out and introduced myself to my friend’s sponsor, and asked when he would have more videos up. He assured me more videos were on the way, but said that the magic happens in live one-on-one sessions. I asked if he could take me through the rest of the study and step process.
Shortly thereafter, we had our first meeting. My first question to my new sponsor was asking about the instances in the past where I questioned if I should change my sobriety date. I had done psychedelic plant medicine twice. I did a health detox and took an herbal tincture with alcohol and got a huge buzz. Those instances along with numerous other smaller compromises (or experiments, as it says on Page 31) made me question my sobriety date. My sponsor said he wouldn’t tell me what to do, but he gave me things to consider. Ultimately, it was my own personal decision. I felt relieved he didn’t tell me that I had to change it.
May 18, 2020, was the day that I read that magical sentence on Page 31. As the realization hit that I had indeed been experimenting and been in denial, it took my breath away. I felt like the foundation of my world was crumbling. My ego had identified with my sobriety date of February 1, 1999, so strongly and for so long, that letting go of the date felt like a small death. It was an overwhelmingly intense spiritual experience. I will never forget that day. I emerged with the willingness to do whatever it took to recover. And that solid level of commitment followed me into the deep shadow work that is the 12 step process.
Soon after that experience, I started the 4th step inventory while I continued to work with more and more people. This passion originated from somewhere deep inside me, from god, or desperation, or both, I don’t know. It didn’t really matter. My resentment list, by the time I was totally done, totaled 263 people, principles, and institutions. I had 45 fears on my fear inventory. And my sex inventory…I won’t say here, but I can tell you I was fearless and thorough with the entire process.
Today has been a year since that day last May, and I am pages away from finishing the Big Book study that started almost 2 years ago. The journey has been incredible, and like nothing I could have ever predicted or even imagined. I have truly had what the steps guarantee: “A spiritual awakening as the result of these steps.” I am so grateful for the day that providence knocked on my door, in the form of a boring-ass Big Book study, and for my friend’s enthusiasm that convinced me to try it. Had I not started the process, I can’t imagine where I would be today, and wouldn’t want to.
I am pretty much free from addiction today – all addiction – for the first time in my life. I have truly been rocketed into the fourth dimension of existence and all of the many promises in the Big Book have come true. And the best is yet to come.
Whether you’re consumed by addiction to alcohol, drugs, sex, food, sugar, gambling, nicotine, shopping – whatever your poison – freedom is waiting. Please send me a message if you are ready to live your best life free from addiction. I’m happy to take you through this life-changing process.
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