For me that's not about stuffing, or denying, or even that great old alcoholic standby: silent scorn.
It's about pausing. It's about not letting other people's actions determine my actions.
It's about breathing and understanding that someone else's spiritual sickness does not have to activate my own.
Dear Mr. SponsorPants,
Thank you for your blog. I have read it compulsively since I stumbled over you and it has helped me a lot.
I am [around six months sober] and I am an atheist. And I have a very specific and personal favor to ask you. I am very serious about getting through the 12 Steps. I completely buy the whole Psychic Upheaval idea but not the Spiritual Experience in the way most people in my meetings mean it.
But since I am serious about my Steps I need help with the 3rd Step. I read the email you answered a while ago about making a group your higher power and that made a lot of sense to me. [Surrendering to AA's sober experience and letting that be kind of your higher power.] But even though I don't pray I want something to say when I "do" my 3rd Step. You've written all those prayers and letters to and from God and stuff. Can you please write a non God "prayer" for me to say?
Newly Sober Atheist
Dear Newly Sober Atheist,
First, thank you for all the kind words you said in your email, and I apologize for editing down your heartfelt letter, but I wanted to focus on the crux of your request, with enough context so that it made sense to other readers.
Most importantly, CONGRATULATIONS on your sobriety. If you take working the 12 Steps seriously (as you clearly do), you'll have a strong foundation, experience relief from active alcoholism and have a powerful transformative experience. I have seen it time and again, I know this is true.
In the book "Alcoholics Anonymous" (AA's Big Book) when it discusses the 3rd Step Prayer (and for the new kids, the 3rd Step is: "Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him") it says very clearly that the wording is quite optional, and that the key factor in taking this step is to really mean it in your heart. And over the years I have found that worrying about if you "really mean something" can drive you crazy - just assume that if you're worried about really meaning it then at some level you probably really mean it. But I respect wanting to take an action to make "taking your 3rd Step" real. So... you asked, and though I feel somewhat inadequate to the task... here goes.
The 3rd Step Prayer for Atheists
(or The Non-Prayer 3rd Step)
I commit myself to a set of principles, for my ongoing sobriety and my growth.
I am now open to accepting whatever life brings me, as I know that through living by AA's principles of love, tolerance, service and sobriety, every day is a chance to do and be better for myself and towards others.
I will continually turn away from self obsession and self involvement, and rather, in a healthy and balanced way, focus on how I can be of service to whomever I meet, wherever I am and however I can.
I affirm that walking this sober path of service will transform what appear to be difficulties into opportunities;
opportunities to help others, to embrace humility and to try to bring a little harmony to my corner of the world. In so doing I demonstrate to others and myself that this is a real and vital commitment, and a way of living which will ensure my sobriety and my ongoing growth out of addiction and into a rich new way of being.
May I live this commitment today and every day.
I hope that is helpful, Newly Sober Atheist. I won't try and sell you on any form of spirituality whatsoever in this email reply, as I know from what you've written that plenty of people are doing that to you and it's really not very helpful. I respect that. Let me offer you three final things:
1. AA says at every point in the literature that it is God/Higher Power as you understand them. Some will say that the 3rd Step is very clearly that you turn your will and life over to God. So, no God, no 3rd Step. I would suggest that if how you understand god is that there isn't one, well, that's how you understand them. I might further suggest you lay that on a couple of the most ardent proselytizers you encounter as a way of getting a little breathing space. Remember, they really are only trying to help, even though from what you wrote it feels a lot more like condescension or a sales pitch.
2. What I wrote above was a lot harder to come up with than I thought. I tried to capture the essence of what we are saying when we make that prayer, but I fear still there may be more focus on self than is healthy for an alcoholic. Many AA's have prayed even though we didn't believe. I have continued to pray through long (long) stretches when I did not have any faith whatsoever, and the act of praying was still helpful to me. The body of your email was so passionate and sincere that I had to offer the above to you, but my strong suggestion -- without sliding into "selling you" on anything -- is that you try prayer anyway, and just table the question of belief for a little while.
3. If that's not palatable, okay. I know you are taking deeply to heart every other suggestion AA makes, so it is not really a question of willingness for you. All I will do in conclusion is echo the idea set out in the Big Book in "Bill's Story," in the "Chapter to the Agnostics," in many of the personal stories in the back of the book and in the Appendix titled "Spiritual Experience" (and in much of what I've written here over the years): We don't know everything there is to know about the world around us. Keep an open mind. There is clearly -- even from a solely scientific perspective, rather than a spiritual one -- far more to the Universe, and thus our existence, than we can perceive with our limited intellects and puny five senses. Maybe reflect on that when considering the Big Questions.
And please, keep coming back. By your own admission you feel better after you leave a meeting than when you walked into it. Keep coming back, don't pick up the first drink, and continue to believe in AA's sober experience as a path to keeping your balance and sobriety through life's ups and downs (and twists, turns, switchbacks and loop-de-loops).
Do that, and if you are capable of being honest with yourself and others, you'll be fine.
I sincerely wish you the best and hope that you have found in this answer something helpful.
Please keep in touch. Regardless of what we call ourselves, believers or agnostics, we are all brothers and sisters in recovery from a deadly disease.
I think about this in relation to Step 7, and how I partner with God (via footwork, I am not passive in any part of my spiritual transformation) to continue to grow and become my best me... ultimately so that I can be of maximum service to whomever I meet.
In other words, begin where you are.
Sometimes in recovery delay can have very serious consequences.
As alcoholics we want the grand gesture, the regal launch, the ceremonial countdown, the press conference, the complete preparation with the guarantee of success before we think we can start -- before we can visualize what starting even looks like.
Working through these things, waiting to make them happen, burns through precious time.
Begin where you are, but begin.
If all you can do is crawl,
One day at a time, if you stay sober you'll be up and dancing eventually.
(Though at first alcoholics tend to complain about the music a bit till they find their rhythm, but that's okay too. It's just a mask for our fear of being judged for how we dance. Stay on the dance floor and that will fall away.)
Mr. Lewis makes a wise observation.*
Just because I know that forgiveness of those who do wrong will help free me from resentment (and that often the jumping off point for that forgiveness is the understanding that the people who do harm are themselves spiritually sick), that knowledge does not necessarily endow me with the ability to forgive.
Sometimes, all good knowledge can do is point the way.
We must still travel the distance and discover how to apply what we have learned.
Sometimes it makes sense to start small.
*Hat tip to Anne Lamott for reminding me of this quote.
Dear Mr. SponsorPants,
I've read almost everything you've written. I think maybe everything. I am trying to start to meditate like Step 11 says. I read a lot of your writing you talk about breathing and meditating. Or breathing. Do you do that and do you do it a certain way when you meditate?
I think there's a really good "hot air" joke at my expense lurking somewhere around the edges of this, but for the moment it lies tantalizingly out of reach.
It's a great question.
First, I don't think there's a "wrong" way to meditate. There are as many kinds of meditations as there are people who want to meditate. Walking meditations, sitting meditations, chanting meditations... and then there are people (and I am one of them) who can see some activities as a form of meditation. The mindful practice of washing the dishes, for example (though I confess that's not one I've done lately), or gardening, or sitting and listening to something (even in an AA meeting) with your whole self... I would urge you to consider that the point is not to do it right, the point is to do it.
And meditation seems, to me, to be about stilling the chaos in our minds by doing one of two things: Thinking of NO thing or thinking of only ONE thing. Whichever you try, one of the best things I've ever heard about meditation was in an AA meeting, and it was the idea that, since our meditation is in large part about seeking a conscious contact with Something Greater than ourselves, we should never be discouraged by those (many) moments in our meditation practice when our mind slips back into the chatter we seek to quiet. We should instead try to remember that the realization of the return of the chatter, and the simple attempt to recapture a more quiet focus, IS the meditation, since it is the essence of the seeking that conscious contact.
Simply put, it's not just when you are able to quiet your mind which is the meditation; the attempt to do so is the essence of the seeking, and thus the most fruitful moments of a meditation practice.
Oh JG, I really wanted to give you a simple answer and refrain from too much pontificating (since if you've read a lot of my writing you've had to wade through a belly full of THAT I wager) and yet I still slid into some meta there. Sorry.
Simple and practical advice (experience) about meditation and breathing:
There are tons of guides and suggestions out there -- why not take a poll among people in Meetings you find interesting -- or break the ice with someone you find intimidating by asking about their mediation practice. Or, maybe best of all, ask that person who seems to be at the meeting a lot but is often removed from the group in one way or another what their thoughts are -- then you can maybe both learn something helpful but also (and more importantly perhaps) help someone feel "a part of."
I myself have had long stretches -- years worth -- of a very disciplined and kind of "formal" meditation practice, and also had long stretches -- years worth -- of a much more casual, on-the-fly series of exercises to try and find peace amidst mental turmoil (I use those a LOT at work right now).
And while I feel that, outside of trying to follow a particular religion's specific discipline I want to reiterate that I don't think you can really do meditation "wrong," I also want to point out that in this, as in all things, you'll get a result in proportion to your effort.
In other words, to use an analogy, we can say that, yes, taking a stroll around the block is a form of exercise. It's good for you and it stirs the blood and will increase your respiration a little, but that level of exercise won't get you to the Olympics. To have a powerful physical transformation one needs the regular practice of a rigorous physical exercise routine. I suspect that (for me) the "washing-the-dishes-mindfully-meditation" is the spiritual equivalent of walking around the block. Sure, it's a meditation of sorts, but the result will not be the same as a disciplined -- even challenging -- regular (daily) meditation practice.
Hope some of that was helpful and not just a lot of ... nope. Still can't find a fresh take on the hot air line.
In years past it was pointed out that I put this up on the blog a little late to be of any practical use to people. So here, while travel arrangements might still be in the works, (and thus this would hopefully be more helpful) is "Mr. SponsorPants Annual Sober Holiday Survival Guide":
Holidays, families and alcoholics. A potent combination, be it for feeling gratitude or copping an attitude. As the old joke goes, no one knows how to push your buttons like your family -- after all, they installed them.
With that said, here is some of the best I can offer when it comes to holiday parties, family visits, and this whole wonderful/terrible time of year:
1. Remember, you don't have to go. Yes, yes, maybe you should go. Maybe it's a bad idea for your career, or it would be hurtful or disappointing to someone if you don't go -- those can be compelling reasons to get on a plane or show up at a party -- but you don't have to go. You aren't trapped, and you can change your mind at any time if you need to -- you can turn that car right around on the way to the airport or before you enter the parking structure. If you are a real addict your life is on the line, and though we can be prone to drama and selfish decisions, it's obviously better to stay sober, and after the fact determine if you might have been oversensitive or dramatic (a very real possibility), than to force yourself to go somewhere slippery when you're feeling frightened, resentful and trapped -- and then relapse. Because if you really are an alcoholic then your alcoholism really is trying to kill you -- and you may have taken the holiday off, but it hasn't.
2. Remember, you can leave. In the middle of a sentence, in the middle of a toast, in the middle of the cutting of a cake, you can, without drama, without a scene, excuse yourself and leave. If the occasion or the moment seems to indicate a reason should be offered, just say you suddenly feel ill and step out. It's not even a falsehood, though you may mean emotionally or spiritually ill and others may think the artichoke dip didn't agree with you. In fact, it doesn't matter if people in the moment believe you or not, or if you have to explain a little more later, or make amends after the fact -- it is better to leave quietly and stay sober than remain at an event and relapse -- because if you relapse, they'll most likely wish you had left. As I've said to sponsees, you can leave with a fork halfway to your mouth, if you have to. Which leads me to...
3. Remember, if at all possible, drive yourself and don't give anyone a lift -- not out of selfishness, out of self preservation. If you have to leave because you are freaking out and you think you might not be able to stay sober then you need to leave -- not wait for someone to dither around saying goodbye or getting their coat or finishing that last slice of pie. If you do have someone with you, hopefully you can explain in advance that you might have to leave abruptly -- not that you're planning on it, but that you might need to -- so help them have a Plan B for leaving if they want to stay, or perhaps agree that they're willing to leave on short notice with you. If you're the passenger, be ready to call a cab or walk to the bus stop or at least step outside for some air. Which brings us to...
4. Remember, you can leave and then return. Leaving doesn't have to mean leaving the whole event and going home or back to the hotel or wherever -- go for a walk, get some of that aforementioned air, sit in the car and scream (though the valet may look at you funny) -- and then once you've gotten your equilibrium again go back in -- with an eye on the Exit for Round 2, if you have to.
5. Remember, don't expect Program responses from people who aren't in the Program. There you are, flush with recovery and armed with a whole new language to identify how you feel and communicate it with people. Remember that the family dinner table is not a 12 Step Meeting, and if you start "sharing" rather than talking you may be met with "That's the stupidest thing I've ever heard." Or worse (in my book) patronizing smiles that are the equivalent of a pat on the head and a "isn't that nice, dear." Again: Don't expect people who aren't in a 12 Step Program to act like people in a 12 Step Program. (And what's the set up there? The evil alcoholic node in that sentence? "expect" -- expectations of family are some of the deepest -- and often least conscious -- and most lethal expectations an alcoholic can have. Yes, it's a high bar to clear -- an impossible bar to clear in fact, to have absolutely no expectations of people -- but if you're aware of the mechanism at work it helps keep the resentments from running you ragged.)
6. Remember, for most addicts, maybe = yes. If you think you might drink or use if you visit certain people or places then that's just a prelude to actually doing so. Be sure of yourself. If you're not sure, the stakes are too high to play a people-pleasing game and place yourself at risk.
7. Remember, other people find the holidays difficult and emotionally charged as well -- you're not the only one having a tough time of it -- watch for ego and hyper-sensitivity, and rather than sit in your own upset, see who and how you can help wherever you may be or whomever you may be with. Short answer: Want to feel better? Be of service.
8. Remember, "Please pass the gravy" is not code for "Please, now that you're sober, unload all of your pent up anger and frustration you've been stuffing for the past X years, right here right now, during dinner."
9. Remember, Alcoholics Anonymous suggests when dealing with resentments, we set them on paper. Even for those of us who are learning that we are not doormats it is not necessarily smart to immediately confront a situation head on. In fact, by writing out a quick inventory (and be careful where you leave that paper lying around if you're visiting home, Bucko) and organizing your thoughts and feelings you can then confront something and talk about the actual thing that caused your resentment, rather than get all tripped up talking about your feelings and anger. It's a very different thing to say "Please don't make jokes about my job" instead of "I feel angry when you make jokes about my job." The latter will just create a discussion about your feelings, and that's not what you're trying to do -- you're setting a boundary, not inviting opinions on your emotional sensitivity level. If you write out your resentment you can get clarity in your head before you open your mouth -- I've tried it the other way, to spectacularly poor results, I assure you. And all that is said with a giant IF in front of the idea that it is wise for you to "confront" anyone at all. Most of the time it probably isn't.
10. Remember, it is possible to look like you're listening intently to someone while you are actually saying The Serenity Prayer over and over in your head.
11. Remember, "love and tolerance is our code." If your family, or your boss, or your employees, or whomever, actually could do any better they probably would. For particularly difficult, toxic or challenging people try to consider that it is much worse to be them than to deal with them -- keep at the forefront of your mind that those who trouble us are spiritually sick themselves, and are deserving of our compassion (as difficult as it may be to summon for some) more than our criticism.
12. Remember, you may not have been such a winner yourself on past occasions -- it may take a while for people to "see" who you are today. Be patient, show who you are now rather than tell who you are now, and things will eventually change.
13. Remember, miracles do happen -- damaged relationships heal, wounded parties forgive, shattered families come back together ... it doesn't happen the way we may envision it, or with a clever soundtrack and excellent lighting as in your favorite independent film, but it really does happen.
14. Remember, breathe. Just three deep breaths before speaking can save a life. I am not exaggerating.
15. Remember, it is not your family's job to understand alcoholism or Alcoholics Anonymous -- it's yours.
16. Remember, it's not your job to diagnose everyone in your family with your magical new sober powers, nor is it your job to whip out your spiritual took kit and try to fix anyone around you. AA is a program of attraction, not promotion. When in doubt, keep your mouth shut. If you're being an example you don't have to explain, and if you find yourself doing a lot or explaining you're probably doing a poor job of being an example.
17. Remember, AA is a "design for living" -- and what that means in the real world is that other people's behavior does not dictate my behavior -- you can't make me yell or behave badly, only I can make me do that. I am not a doormat, but I don't have to go to every fight I'm invited to, either. A smile and shrug is an excellent strategy for quietly deflecting things.
18. And finally, remember, bring your Higher Power with you -- you're not going in their alone.
Why 18 and not a nice round number like 20? Dunno -- I only have 18 I guess.
Happy holidays to all, and while whatever you celebrate and whomever you celebrate it with can make for a wonderful/terrible day, it is also just another 24 hours, and one minute at a time, this too shall pass.
From the comments section earlier this week:
I was wondering... I want to get sober but for many reasons treatment is not an option right now. I drink so heavily (every hour or two I need a some or I start feeling sick) that I'm afraid I may have a seizure if I quit cold turkey or too fast. Do you know if there's any way I can safely detox on my own? Do you have any tips for that?
You are right. You likely will have a seizure and/or suffer other dangerous, potentially life-threatening symptoms if, as you describe, you drink every hour or two and you cold-turkey it on your own. (A level of alcohol intake which is perfectly plausible to someone like me, by the way.)
All I can offer you are these few thoughts:
With that level of alcohol intake you must have a medically supervised detox. Your life is at stake. So whatever "many reasons" there may be right now, what you are saying is that those reasons are more important than you continuing to live. Your imminent death is second to whatever reasons are preventing you from seeking out some sort of medically supervised detox.
I urge you to consider that no matter what those reasons are, they are not more important than your life.
Also, please consider that because you are drinking as much as you are your ability to assess how important those reasons are may be badly out of whack.
If the "reasons" are primarily financial, then perhaps this link will help:
That is the web site for the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.
On their site you will see, on the top left, in purple, a "Get Help" clickable section tab. Within it are ways to find local resources, and good advice (including, which might be right for you, the suggestion to go to a hospital emergency room). I have very little direct experience with the NCADD, just one good interaction when I was very, very newly sober, but they might be a way to find a low or no-cost medically supervised detox if the barrier to treatment is a financial one.
And if the barrier is not financial... then whatever other reasons you may have which prevent you from seeking a treatment facility where you can be safely detoxed are illusions: Ego, fear, pride, alcoholism -- and/or the chemically altered state of your brain -- working in concert to prevent you from making a healthy decision.
Alcohol in the body of an alcoholic triggers the phenomenon of craving, which keeps us drinking. Thus it is very, very long odds for a real alcoholic to be able, on their own, to wean themselves off of alcohol. It is also very dangerous for someone who is drinking to try and use any other medications -- or drugs in general -- on their own, to buffer or blunt the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. To speak plainly, bong hits and valium in your own living room is not a safe or smart detox plan. (Never mind that it's a bit like, as they used to say when I got sober, changing deck chairs on the Titanic.)
You know you are in trouble and you know you need help. That is clear from the fact that you asked the question you did.
But I'm afraid this is the bottom line: "Safely" and "detox on your own" do not line up together. To safely detox from intense alcohol intake you need some kind of medical supervision. It doesn't have to be some grand, weeks long in-patient thing, but for the initial period of separation you need some hands on help.
God will have a hand in this if you ask for spiritual guidance, but to paraphrase what the Big Book says, God filled this world with Doctors and medical practitioners for us to use.
So use them.
Good luck, and please, do not delay.
You did a great job outlining a difficult situation, and it sounds to me like you have a good head on your shoulders. An alcoholic head, sure, or meetings might not click for you the way they do, but a good one none-the-less.
You already have your answer, C -- and you know it. And while I do not think God gives us "lessons" like some pinch lipped prarie school marm, I do believe that we are presented with situations which are actually opportunities to do what we need to so we can grow as we're meant to. So this: "My sponsor has offered to ask one of his friends to speak with him, but I think I have to do it myself" positively shouts to me that the Little Voice inside we all strive to tune in to is, in this case, being received loud and clear by you.
I have some specific suggestions (of course!) and some things you might want to consider (don't I always!).
This guy is in the wrong. What he is doing is absolutely not good AA -- bad for you -- and terrible for him Ultimately the harm he does himself in this is far greater -- but there's no fool like an old fool. In no way am I minimizing your uncomfortability or what is clearly a level of attention that has mixed and murky motives, but it's worth reminding ourselves that people can be chatty and social on the outside and very lonely inside. While it's possible for any person to be blind to their real motives, alcoholics are especially skilled at "hiding a bad motive under a good one" as it says in the 12&12 -- and quite often hiding them from ourselves, first. Life is rarely a Lifetime movie, and one sorry, besotted old fool does not a full-on stalker/predator make. (Yes, I know it could make one. But that doesn't mean it will make one.)
So if you try and bring some compassion to bear in how you view him and what he's doing -- and this is NOT an excuse for him, merely something to consider -- seeing these actions as born of loneliness and fear might help you in speaking up to him and drawing some boundaries. I understand fear because I have dealt with it so much -- thus, when I need to deal with someone who at first makes me uncomfortable, if I can identify what about their behavior is driven by their fear, it makes approaching them a little easier, as they go from kind of scary-bad to a little sorry-sad.
I don't see any error on your part when it comes to him having your phone number or you not being quick to return his gift. Dear God, girl, you're a walking miracle, in the beginning of your sobriety, going to meetings and trying to build a foundation in recovery! A little foot dragging on something that would be difficult for anyone to handle is completely natural.
But... now you are clear in what you need to do. You need to return the gift and tell him that the level of attention he is showing you is not okay with you.
The time for the dragging of the feet is over.
So you bring the jewelery to the meeting and tell him you need to speak to him. No more dithering about when you're going to do it or how to meet him. Part of the problem is he's around more than you want. Meeting him is hardly the issue.
You return the gift and you say "Thank you, but I cannot and I will not accept this gift. It is too much and I am not at all comfortable keeping it." Rehearse it a couple of times so you can say it with some force. Gentle force, but force. No err or um between the words and no apology in your tone. When he tries to insist you keep it just play the broken record and repeat it until he "gets" it. And if he doesn't, then set the gift on a chair or table and let it go. If it becomes a game of "I won't take it so you have to keep it" just opt out, and set it down.
And now comes the leap of faith. One of the best things I learned in AA was that the truth will protect you.
So tell him the truth.
"I'm not comfortable with the amount of attention you're giving me. All the texts, all the waiting for me after meetings -- it's starting to affect my comfortability in the rooms. I know the hand of AA will always be there for me, but as far as 12th step work goes, I need it to be a woman's hand for right now."
Yes, you feel anxiety over saying this, but it will be fantastic for you if you take a deep breath and do it.
You don't have to do it alone. Ask your sponsor to be there, as quiet support, if you like -- or some other gal in the rooms. Ask them to let you be the one talking, you're not asking them to speak for you, just to be there -- or nearby even -- as moral support.
And, as they told me when facing a scary situation, bring God with you. God will give you the words and handle this interaction if you invite God into it. Remember, this guy has a Higher Power too. He may be embarrassed or angry or confused. He might feel this way or that. None of that is your problem. This is your opportunity, not your lesson and not your problem: To speak up for yourself in an environment which it is safe to do so and with ready support at hand.
Just because AA's can be a huggy group doesn't mean you are required to hug everyone -- or anyone. Just hold up one hand when someone comes in to give you a hug and say "wait. I'm in a handshaking place today."
If some people are offended or give you flack, that's on them. Most people will not. And you can hug some and not others.
Claim your Home Group, claim your meeting, as yours. (Not yours exclusively, obviously, but yours for sure.)
There will be some anxiety. Some awkwardness at times for a bit, too.
But your sobriety, your life, is more important than his -- or anyone's -- feelings.
You can do this with grace and do this well. It's the right thing for you to do, and his unwanted attention has in some ways made him a great spiritual teacher for you.
C., if you can stay sober for as many days as you have then there is nothing in this you can't handle. You don't have to rely on your own power -- just rely on your Higher Power and all will go as it should.
Faith. Courage -- I know it's a lot easier for me to rattle these things off than it is to look someone in the eye and say them, but you can do it.
Good luck, and please, by all means, let me know how it goes.