The Simplicity of The Twelve Steps- Step Twelve (Service)
Life is confusing. We don’t get a lot of answers. Each one of us was unceremoniously dropped on this big blue spinning rock without a handbook or any tangible idea of what in the hell we are doing here or what we are supposed to do. Existential angst; it is inherently painful. As God does not see fit to send either syllabi or progress reports we also don’t ever really know how we’re doing. It’s all guesswork. And this brings me to the term “grateful alcoholic.”
In the early days of my recovery, I would hear old-timers call themselves that and find myself utterly dumbstruck by the term. “Grateful alcoholic,” I thought, “who in the hell would be grateful to be an alcoholic?!” Step Twelve was the path to a firm understanding of this term and the implementation of it into my own life. Step Twelve provided me the answer to my existential angst: a primary purpose. Step Twelve answers the question, “Why am I here and what should I be doing?”
I have a wife. She is my best friend. We have been together for a decade and a half and I adore her more with each passing day. I think that I am a pretty good husband. But how would I really know? I don’t know exactly what a good husband is. And so my marriage is peppered with doubt. I have two little girls, 5 and 8. I am a stay at home daddy. I am bananas about these two little miracles and my every wish is to give them all that they need. I think that I am a pretty good daddy. But I don’t really know exactly what a good daddy is. So my fathering is peppered with uncertainty. This is true of my clients, my friends, my extended family, etc. But in Alcoholics Anonymous, I know. I know exactly what a good sponsor is and what a good sponsor does. I have a basic text which lays the path out for me plain as day. I can sit in front of a newcomer, with the book open, and not a shred of ambiguity and positively proclaim, “If you do this work, honestly and thoroughly, as it is laid out in this book and then turn around and carry this message to others, you will recover and stay recovered.” That’s a piece of truth I can tangibly hold in my hand. That’s what being an alcoholic brought me and I do not believe that there was any way here without the illness. And so I am grateful to be an alcoholic. How many people do you know who have a primary purpose? It is a magnificent gift which allows me to be far more effective and competent in my confusing, doubt-filled existence. The primary purpose is what it is all about. And without its employment, long term recovery is all but impossible.
Chapter Seven wastes no time in dictating the absolute necessity of employing this step in our process of maintenance and growth:
“Practical experience shows that nothing will so much insure immunity from drinking as intensive work with other alcoholics. It works when other activities fail. This is our twelfth suggestion: Carry this message to other alcoholics! You can help when no one else can. You can secure their confidence when others fail. Remember they are very ill.”
There are very few exclamation points in The Big Book. When one of them shows up, it is a clear message to listen closely and understand that this is a critical piece of the equation. Carrying the message to others who suffer as we had is, by far, the number one way to see to it that we never have to pick a drink up again. It works when other activities fail. So, when meetings fail and calling your sponsor fails and reading the literature fails and writing gratitude lists fails and prayer fails and meditation fails- working with another alcoholic won’t. Going back to “Our real purpose” on page 77, here it is. Maximum service to God and the people about us is the prime task of this whole deal. Without engaging this work, our recovery will surely be built on shifting sands.
Following this firm directive, in the next paragraph, we get the twelfth step promises which will show the other key reason to carry this message to alcoholics in need:
“Life will take on new meaning. To watch people recover, to see them help others, to watch loneliness vanish, to see a fellowship grow up about you, to have a host of friends – this is an experience you must not miss. We know you will not want to miss it. Frequent contact with newcomers and with each other is the bright spot of our lives.”
The message here is that the second best reason to take other A.A. members through the steps, in addition to keeping yourself alive and sober, is because it is the greatest friggin’ feeling in the world. I will advocate to this point all day long. On a personal note, I have lived my entire life, including my twenty years in recovery, with intense anxiety. Certainly sobriety and medication have made it livable, but it is always there… except when I am doing step work with another alcoholic. Then it goes away. For the exact amount of time I am sitting with The Big Book open in my lap, leading a prospect to a spiritual awakening is the exact amount of time that I am unable to locate even a minute bit of angst inside my mind and heart. I never feel closer to the human being God put me on this earth to be than when I am doing this work. It is the bright spot of my life.
In terms of the work itself, they now carefully break down the process of properly carrying the message in a manner so specific that it is truly mind-blowing how bastardized the process has become. First, on page 90, they let us know that the only alcoholic worth trying to save is an alcoholic who is actually ready to be saved:
“When you discover a prospect for Alcoholics Anonymous, find out all you can about him. If he does not want to stop drinking, don’t waste time trying to persuade him. You may spoil a later opportunity.”
We don’t proselytize in Alcoholics Anonymous. It is not our job to convince anyone who doesn’t know if they are alcoholic that they are alcoholic nor is it our job to convince those who understand themselves to be alcoholic that they need to stop. Quite the contrary, as soon as we locate that the person in front of us is not ready to cease using and do the work, we are to cast them aside and move on. If we don’t push them now, they may come looking for us down the road when their actual bottom arrives.
Next, on the following page, they broach a situation wherein the man is, in fact, ready to at least investigate our way of life:
“See your man alone, if possible. At first engage in general conversation. After a while, turn the talk to some phase of drinking. Tell him enough about your drinking habits, symptoms, and experiences to encourage him to speak of himself. If he wishes to talk, let him do so. You will thus get a better idea of how you ought to proceed. If he is not communicative, give him a sketch of your drinking career up to the time you quit. But say nothing, for the moment, of how that was accomplished. If he is in a serious mood dwell on the troubles liquor has caused you, being careful not to moralize or lecture. If his mood is light, tell him humorous stories of your escapades. Get him to tell some of his.”
Let’s say that I was out mowing my lawn and my neighbor came walking over to speak with me and asked, “Hey- um- you- uh- go to those A.A. meetings, right?” I answer, “Yes, I do. Why do you ask?” He then states, “Well, uh- I mean, I’m not saying that I need that or anything, it’s just, my drinking has been, like, kind of heavier lately and, I don’t know, I just thought we could talk.” If my next words are, “Oh yeah? Well, what’s been happening? Tell me all about it,” we are going to get nowhere. The main thing we know as alcoholics is that lying, manipulation and deflection are our best tools and we are not going to give up the truth to a person just because they’ve asked. On the other hand, if I was to say, “You know what? Come inside, I’ll brew some coffee and I’ll tell you what brought me to A.A. and you can see if it makes any sense to you. We know that if he is a real alcoholic, he will hear something in my story which allows him to see that we are the same, he will identify into the process, and then he will start talking. It’s sort of like fishing. If you wish to catch some fish, you are not going to go down to the end of the dock and attempt to beat fish over the head with a hammer. You are going to cast your line and wait patiently until they take the bait. We don’t scream to the masses, we whisper to individuals.
Now, on page 94, we come to our sponsorship directives. This is the most important and useful passage in the entire chapter. It breaks down exactly what it is we need to make clear to a person who has asked for out help in advance of starting the work:
“Outline the program of action, explaining how you made a self-appraisal, how you straightened out your past and why you are now endeavoring to be helpful to him. It is important for him to realize that your attempt to pass this on to him plays a vital part in your own recovery. Actually, he may be helping you more than you are helping him. Make it plain he is under no obligation to you, that you hope only that he will try to help other alcoholics when he escapes his own difficulties. Suggest how important it is that he place the welfare of other people ahead of his own. Make it clear that he is not under pressure, that he needn’t see you again if he doesn’t want to. You should not be offended if he wants to call it off, for he has helped you more than you have helped him.”
Utilizing this plan of action, whenever someone approaches me inquiring if I am available to help them, I pretty much say the following:
“It would be an honor to help you. So let me be clear about how this is going to work. We will sit down, right now if you’d like, and go through the first three steps. This will allow you to gather the information explaining what is wrong with you, what the solution is to what is wrong with you, and how to make an affirmative declaration that you are ready to do whatever it takes to bring the solution to light. Then you will make a comprehensive list of what has blocking you from God, we’ll go through that list and come to see what have been the patterns of your failure, you’ll become ready to have these things taken from you and then you will ask to have them removed. After that, you’ll make a list of those whom you’ve harmed and begin the process of making proper amends. At this point, you will spiritually awaken and we will institute the final three steps into your life as a design for living allowing you to maintenance and grow the recovery that you have been granted. I want you to know that this work I will do with you is work that I have done myself and the act of helping you is a necessity to hold onto my own recovery. My hope is that you will turn around and do the same with others that I am doing with you. With that said, it is not my job to tell you what to do or not do, so you get to choose whether or not to follow my direction. Also, if at any point you’d like to discontinue our work, that is absolutely fine- just let me know.”
Now, if those in the program who are unaware of this information would be willing to be honest about their inability to properly serve, while it might cause some inconvenience for the newcomer, at least he would get the message that he needs to look elsewhere for the help he desires. Unfortunately, our fellowship is loaded with thousands who will happily take on the role of sponsor and then, not only fail to deliver the information on page 94, but, in fact, deliver an entirely different package of information- which often sounds something like this:
“Sure, I’ll sponsor you. Here’s my number. Call me everyday. You’ll need to do 90 meetings in 90 days because meeting makers make it. Don’t drink no matter what, but if you’re thinking about drinking, think the thought all the way through, remember your last drink, and call me before you do it. You are not allowed to have sex or make any major decisions for a year. Make sure to avoid people, places and things. Other than that, take what you want and leave the rest and bear in mind, it is a selfish program. At some point down the road, we’ll talk about taking a look at the steps.”
Not one word of that diatribe is true to the original design of our program. It is all based on behavior control which has no history of being an effective road for a true alcoholic to get or stay recovered. Our third step makes it abundantly clear to us that our addiction has brought us to a fork in the road. There are two paths; only two. We can have an alcoholic death or a spiritual awakening. The third option of mitigating our behavior or our circumstances is no longer on the table. That ship has sailed. And to tell a newcomer that such a choice exists is an act of abuse.
On page 96, they speak to us about the prospect who is able to go so far as to ask for the help and begin the process but, in short order, demonstrates an unwillingness to actually do the work necessary for successful completion of the process:
“Do not be discouraged if your prospect does not respond at once. Search out another alcoholic and try again. You are sure to find someone desperate enough to accept with eagerness what you offer. We find it a waste of time to keep chasing a man who cannot or will not work with you. If you leave such a person alone, he may soon become convinced that he cannot recover by himself. To spend too much time on any one situation is to deny some other alcoholic an opportunity to live and be happy.”
Most of them don’t make it. And this is not because of some arbitrary statistic delineating that only so many out of so many will get and stay sober. A.A. is not a lottery. Those who do the work recover, and those who don’t, don’t. The only statistic which matters is the one that tells us that 100% of the people who do the work out of the book, as it’s laid out, with a sponsor, recover from a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body. Unfortunately, the majority won’t follow it all the way through. If you are following the directions in the book, this is not a statement about your competence as a sponsor; it is a statement they have more research to do. Remember, the twelfth step reads, “tried to carry the message.” How, or if, the message is received is really none of our business. I know for myself, that I can only work with so many people at a time. Therefore, I want them all to be people who are really working. To keep spending time with someone who is clearly bullshitting me half the time and constantly making excuses for why they aren’t doing the work is a waste of my time; and theirs- but, far more importantly, it is keeping me from working with someone who is actually ready to face their fears and recover.
On page 98, the book also covers the issue of working with a prospect who is prone to consistently tell you that his family, his job or some other pressing engagement is keeping him from doing his work:
“Burn the idea into the consciousness of every man that he can get well regardless of anyone. The only condition is that he trust in God and clean house.”
It doesn’t say to suggest or offer this idea. Burn the idea into the consciousness; that’s pretty weighty language. The message that whatever the prospect puts in front of his sobriety will surely be lost is being driven home with such intensity as a result of the experiences our pioneers had in the years before this book was written. The Big Book is not a theoretical book; it is an experiential book. They are not telling you what they think; they are telling you what they have watched. In those first five years, they had obviously seen many alcoholics give some exterior element of their lives priority over the step work and fall as a result of that choice. Their hope is that, in instituting these warnings, our road to salvation might have fewer potholes than many of theirs.
Shifting back, for a moment, to the above paragraph speaking to behavior control, we get a passage on page 100 (continuing onto 101) regarding the fallacy of people, places and things posing a danger to alcoholics:
“Assuming we are spiritually fit, we can do all sorts of things alcoholics are not supposed to do. People have said we must not go where liquor is served; we must not have it in our homes; we must shun friends who drink; we must avoid moving pictures which show drinking scenes; we must not go into bars; our friends must hide their bottles if we go to their houses; we mustn’t think or be reminded about alcohol at all. Our experience shows that this is not necessarily so. We meet these conditions every day. An alcoholic who cannot meet them, still has an alcoholic mind; there is something the matter with his spiritual status.”
Previous to awakening, the idea of avoiding certain temptations makes sense as you are still essentially running on will power. But once recovered, which I think we now see is meant to happen very rapidly, these things ought to be no impediment whatsoever. If a guy calls me and tells me that he was at a concert the night before and found himself staring at the beer taps and drooling and hypothesizes that going to the club was clearly a mistake, I will let him know that the problem isn’t the club; the problem is that he isn’t spiritually fit. And the message of The Big Book is not, and has never been, that if you are not spiritually fit, you should be extra cautious where you go or who you spend time with. The message of The Big Book is that if you’re not spiritually fit, than get spiritually fit.
Farther down the page, they hit this point yet again:
“In our belief any scheme of combating alcoholism which proposes to shield the sick man from temptation is doomed to failure. If the alcoholic tries to shield himself he may succeed for a time, but he usually winds up with a bigger explosion than ever. We have tried these methods. These attempts to do the impossible have always failed.”
With the parameters for successful twelfth step work firmly in place and the five spiritual directives implemented and understood, I will have the prospect turn back to page 25 and read the first two paragraphs:
“There is a solution. Almost none of us liked the self-searching, the leveling of our pride, the confession of shortcomings which the process requires for its successful consummation. But we saw that it really worked in others, and we had come to believe in the hopelessness and futility of life as we had been living it. When, therefore, we were approached by those in whom the problem had been solved, there was nothing left for us but to pick up the simple kit of spiritual tools laid at our feet. We have found much of heaven and we have been rocketed into a fourth dimension of existence of which we had not even dreamed.
The great fact is just this, and nothing less: That we have had deep and effective spiritual experiences which have revolutionized our whole attitude toward life, toward our fellows and toward God’s universe. The central fact of our lives today is the absolute certainty that our Creator has entered into our hearts and lives in a way which is indeed miraculous. He has commenced to accomplish those things for us which we could never do by ourselves.”
I will remind them that the first time we saw this page, these words composed a promise of what will be available to us if we successfully work these steps. And let’s face it, a pretty remarkable promise at that. Perhaps even a promise that is difficult to wrap your brain around; or even believe in. Problem solved? Rocketed into the fourth dimension? Deep spiritual experiences? Revolutionized our entire existence? Wow. I’m not sure I believed such a thing was possible. I wanted it to be. And on the off chance that it might be possible, I was willing to take a run at the work.
The reason I bring the prospect back to these words is so they can see that these two paragraphs no longer constitute a promise for the future. These words are now a description of them. It is at this point that The Big Book moves beyond being something they’ve read and becomes something they are living. The words on the title page, “The Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism,” have now become descriptors of a lineage of which they are now a part.