Regular readers will know I am pretty committed to the anonymity piece when it comes to AA -- for all the reasons I've discussed here over time.
So when I started writing Mr. SponsorPants the name was not just an attempt to be maybe a little cute, and show I wasn't going to take myself too seriously, it was also a deliberate construct so that I could address AA very specifically but still retain my personal anonymity. And, as other people and events have entered my writing, I have purposely blurred specific details -- dates, places, even genders -- at the cost of some really clumsy sentence construction I fear -- so that there would be no way someone reading might be able to go, "Hmmm... I bet he's talking about so-and-so."
People in my life who know me and know I write this blog -- both in AA and not -- have sometimes observed that I'm a little over-the-top with some of that. And I have considered that while they're likely not far off (though you're always on pretty safe ground when you suggest I'm over the top on anything -- hardly need to be a psychic to make THAT call) I was comfortable doing what was right for me.
This morning, though -- all morning, in fact -- I've felt a little >ping< in the back of my mind that I was being disingenuous not sharing something on the blog today. It felt less than honest with my regular readers to not mark this occasion.
So while it bends, in only a tiny way I hope, my commitment to anonymity online by being quite so specific, I would like to share with gratitude, amazement and near disbelief that today -- this day -- marks 25 years of being clean and sober and honest about it.
March 1, 1988 is my sobriety date. (A friend last night at dinner wished me the cheery sentiment, "Many happy returns of the day!" While I knew what they meant I had to laugh and observe, "God, I hope not. I think I want to turn 25 years sober just once -- I know I can keep moving forward but I'm not sure I've got it in me to do it all over again.")
So I mark this day -- and share it's acknowledgement with whomever is reading -- with a feeling of profound gratitude, and maybe the right-sized amount of humility too. Because I assure you, there is no way I got here without the love and support and wisdom and charity and experience of so many people I know -- and let's face it, many people I've never met. That is the overwhelming beauty which, after a while in AA you begin to perceive. This whole vast, life-saving (life transforming) enterprise is built completely upon the foundation of one alcoholic helping another. That's all. That's all it took at the beginning -- from Ebby to Bill, and then from Bill to Bob -- and that's all it takes today -- among each of us in any given moment on any given day -- to create a tidal wave of healing and miracles.
To be working my own program in AA, and thus to be a part of helping someone else to work theirs, makes me -- makes all of us -- not just links in a chain; maybe the better image is loops in a net. A huge net which caught me in freefall 25 years ago, and continues to save me today.
Dear AA, all of you -- all of us -- thank you for my life. I make a shoddy job of it sometimes, and I am certainly prone to being more than a little sensitive when things don't go my way, but truly, deep down, there is not one single day where I don't know what a gift I've been given, and am grateful for it. Under the occasional tantrums and bouts of self pity there is always now a bright and beating connection to a Power Greater than Myself; and through that, all of you.
Today I am 25 years clean and sober. I know I owe it to the Grace of God and to every single loop in the net -- to every single one of you.
I have issues with AA and its philosophy as it stands now. Nothing unique, same issues that people who have issues with AA have. But I've always had a deep respect for the teaching of Dr. Bob, Bill W, Joe Hawk, etc. To me they taught the 'real' AA and not the tweeked version seen at most AA meetings these days. They taught the program, not the human interpretation bs and I was lucky enough to learn the program from someone who is an old-timer, if you will.
There are many recovery related blogs who claim to be 12 step but are so far from the real 12 step essence that I've read only a few posts and moved on until I found Mr. SponsorPants. You were the voice of reason to me. My immediate response to your posts was one of understanding and gratitude that you seemed to speak my language.
And then you vanished. Not a word. Gone. I thought the worst.
Then the worst thing happened. My [sibling], a single parent, a loving member of our family passed away unexpectedly. I replay, in my head, all the things they are missing, or have missed, since dieing.
I'm just now emerging from the fog and yesterday again, I thought of you and if perhaps something tragic had happened to you and if your family is feeling the same way I feel. So I checked Mr. SponsorPants and viola, there you are...
I was happy to see you back until I found your first post, post disappearance. I can't tell you the anger I felt and still do. Are you kidding me? My bullshit detector is still in overdrive. You wrote everyday without fail and if you missed a day you'd post remotely or give an explanation. You answered emails promptly and then nothing and your reason is you just didn't check. I don't believe you and what is more disturbing is all the AA enablers commenting without once saying, BULLSHIT.
Your reasons are you reasons Mr. SP. It's none of anyone's business why you did what you did and explained it away the way you did but know this, I can no longer read your posts (cause I've tried) with the same respect and sense of understanding that I used to. I really thought you were better than all that. What a shame...
I'm very sorry for your family's loss. In a life full of hard things and a world full of frightening headlines the unexpected death of a close family member -- one who leaves behind children -- especially a single parent... is true tragedy and something that forever changes the people involved.
There have been a few emails which have come my way that expressed similar anger and disappointment over my unannounced blogging absence. The reason that I have printed yours here (with, as always, any identifying details edited or blurred to the best of my ability) is the same reason I print any email, ultimately: To serve as the starting point in a discussion of solutions to things many of us face as we get and stay sober -- and to offer whatever I can from my experience which might help.
And, in much of what you say, you are right. It was self involved and lazy and careless of me. Whether it's the mark of being an alcoholic (which smacks of both accurate explanation and rather slick excuse) or just the kind of man I can be, this is definitely not the first time in my life where I have been casual in my regard for others and caused people hurt -- and though I'd hope it will be the last I fear that is an unlikely thing. As I said before, would that I had a more dramatic reason than the feeble truth I must own. I can say that within me my ego and my self-esteem see-saw sickeningly back and forth around this. Although I've experienced powerful and humbling feedback while writing this blog in both the comments section and in emails -- feedback which I have been moved and incredibly grateful for -- it honest-to-god did not occur to me, as I ran out of momentum and then procrastinated about putting fingers to keyboard again, that my absence would be hurtful to anyone in the way some people have expressed that it has.
Certainly as an alcoholic people-pleaser who, when he got sober, was able to view having low self esteem as progress from having no self esteem, the idea that anyone, anywhere, is upset with me can push some buttons. The inward-darkness: Guilt (I did something bad. Again.) Shame. (Thus I am a bad and permanently damaged person.) And the outward, lashing-out darkness: Defensiveness: (It's you not me!) and Anger: (Fuck you!) All of which is deeply disingenuous and none of which serves us or is true.
I am inching slowly towards something grandiose and egotistical with each paragraph and that's not why I posted your email.
Among my sponsors over the years I have had two who, while they were clean and sober, struggled mightily with sexual addiction, sometimes succumbing to that aspect of the ism and creating terrible collateral damage in their lives and the lives of their families and partners. I have also had two sponsors who were afflicted with terrible eating disorders and damaged their health from that disease well into their sobriety, and who, while acting out in that regard were able to give me some good guidance in working the 12 Steps but were not completely reliable or honest about some things as they struggled. I myself, as I wrote... oh, somewhere in here... "borrowed" from not one but TWO AA treasuries in my sobriety. (Amends have been made, for the record. Deeply humbling public amends of both the practical and spiritual kind.) In short, for great reasons or petty, with good explanations or poor ones, people will let you down. Most don't mean to, but most do. I assure you, I am not, as you say "better than all that..." I (and anyone who works the 12 Steps), have made amazing progress in every area of my life -- and you can trust me with a lot -- but I guarantee I will continue to fuck it up royally; though now I like to think only occasionally. What I can guarantee is I'm not alone in that. People are messy and sober alcoholics in AA are far from exempt.
In my humble opinion, to use the foibles and failures of others in sobriety as a means to quarrel with AA is not too far from wondering if a vial of antibiotics is no good because the doctor who prescribed them committed Medicare fraud.
AA's 12 Steps embody a plan of acting on spiritual principles which have worked in many ways for many people and cultures since perhaps man first became self aware. Owning and admitting a problem, asking for help, being willing to follow direction, looking within, identifying one's own part in problems, working on improving the elements in one's nature which do not serve, admitting wrong doing and making restitution, seeking an elevated mind through elevated thought and meditation... AA didn't invent -- and never claimed to invent -- any of this. As you know, what Bill and Dr. Bob did (you've got me on Joe Hawk, I have no clue who he is, though he's got a hella cooler name than I do) is practically (or Divinely) luck into laying out a plan of action along those spiritual lines which spoke to alcoholics in a way other methods previously perhaps did not. The immediate result of which was the ability to refrain from drinking and the larger result of which was a spiritual experience -- or, if you prefer, a profound internal (often gradual) transformation.
Your issues -- the "usual issues" -- with AA -- or perhaps it is more accurate to say with the people in AA -- though I understand them, I do not embrace them. I respect them, and your hurt and your anger, but the 12 Steps are not vulnerable to what may or may not be happening in Meetings. They are deceptively simple but pretty bullet proof (if almost a hundred years of addicts can't break 'em I think we're good). Nor are they a fragile, ephemeral plan for spiritual awakening, as their principles and suggested actions can even be viewed through a completely non-spiritual lens and still offer practical healing and help. (I was moved to write this once in response to that line of discussion.)
You and your family have suffered a terrible loss and my experience with the death of loved ones -- even when it is somewhat expected -- is that it is a gradual process cycling through those famous stages many times. You may think it is more bullshit on my part but I am sensitive to that in your email and in what I'm trying to express here.
But I find this whole "AA in the good old days was the real AA and what we have today is some watered down 'human interpretation' thing" to be utter crap. Yes, there are a ton of 12 Step Meetings which are filled with pounds of nonsense. Rooms held hostage to people playing the victim or the expert. Rooms where someone's special bias or ignorance colors the format and the sharing. But I suspect, knowing alcoholics, that there were as many, if not maybe more, "back in the day" as there are today. Of course we have no way of knowing, but I offer for anyone's consideration that the reason the 12 Traditions ever came into being was because back in those "good old days" the AA meetings all over the country were fragmented, prejudiced things making up their own rules, excluding whomever they didn't like or believe, getting off track (what we call our Primary Purpose today)... Yet while there may be that metric ton of sloppy anarchic nonsense out there in 12 Step rooms there is also, without doubt, proven by the ongoing recovery of many thousands of people, some wonderous and powerful healing going on.
Meetings, and sharing, have evolved as people's understanding of addiction and psychology and the impact of family of origin and biology and mental illness... and... and... and ... has evolved. Yes, the Program is in the Book. I stick pretty damn close to the Big Book when it comes to charting my service and my sobriety (and thus my life). But if you believe nothing else I've ever written or write here now, if you call bullshit then fair enough, be that as it may, I urge you to try and view the nonsense -- what you perceive as dilution -- in meetings with some compassion. Foolish people, yes, but at least coming together in an attempt to get better and maybe help others. That is perhaps not such a bad place for someone with anger in their gut and raw grief in their heart to hang out for a while.
Both my experience and my observation is that an AA meeting can offer, inter-mingled with the patience-trying foolishness, solutions or comfort we didn't know we needed. Be disappointed in me, in AA, in whatever, but I hope you don't sit in that disappointment alone. 12 Step meetings, therapy, grief support groups ... most alcoholics, when deeply hurt, withdraw. I hope you don't do that.
Nothing here is meant or said with disrespectful intent, C. I've re-written this maybe five times now. I keep combing through it looking for my ego, anger, defensiveness, passive/aggressive phrases... it's too long an essay for a blog, probably, and still I smell my ego all over the damn thing.
But after writing as much Mr. SponsorPants as I have -- even with the break (ooops! I think there's that passive/aggression again) -- I've learned that eventually, if I was moved to write it, to let it stand and let it go and maybe someone out there will get something from it, and if not, well, all this writing kept my hands off the bag of chips in the cupboard which has been calling to me since I got home from work.
For what it's worth, whether you think it's bullshit or not, I'm grateful you wrote, C.
Humility is nothing else but a right judgement of ourselves.
-- William Law
Pride makes us artificial and humility makes us real.
-- Thomas Merton
There is something in humility which strangely exalts the heart.
-- Saint Augustine
True humility is contentment.
-- Henri Frederic Amiel
Life is a long lesson in humility.
-- James M. Barrie
When considering myself, qualities I have, etc., -- hopefully along the course of self-examination and not self-obsession -- sometimes my assessments are off, and it is low self esteem at work (perhaps fueled by fear and alcoholism, but certainly able to do a number on me without any assistance from those two delightful companions).
But sometimes it's not low self esteem.
Sometimes I'm just being realistic.
From the book "Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions", pg. 67:
"Else why would we consume such great amounts of time wishing for what we have not, rather than working for it, or angrily looking for attributes we shall never have, instead of adjusting to the fact, and accepting it." (italics mine)
I can try to achieve anything, try to be anything, and if I keep my sobriety first and work to keep some kind of spiritual connection going I'll get a wonderful result -- but that doesn't mean I am guaranteed the specific result I wish to achieve.
Sobriety, AA, the 12 Steps, et al, are not white witchcraft or The Secret or any tool in which I can fashion the Universe -- or myself -- into exactly what I think it/I should have/be.
I seek, I try, I live in the process -- and when I'm really on my AA game I gracefully accept the result, and ultimately myself.
And with practice, that acceptance equals deep gratitude and self love -- which is a life saving act, as untreated addiction is an unstoppable, progressive slide into self loathing and ultimately spiritual and literal violence against oneself.
When it comes to certain things about myself, seeing without drama, without self-pity or longing, what I am not -- and what I will likely never be -- is not an exercise in negativity, it is acceptance of reality -- and if one is so inclined, of God's will as well.
And if you read this and it feels like I'm talking about excuses, or "giving up" or not setting and achieving goals, then either I wasn't clear or you're missing the point.
If you cannot accept help with an open heart, then the sad truth is that you probably cannot give help with an open heart.
However we judge ourselves when we ask for or receive help, it is very likely we consciously (or unconsciously) attach that same judgment to those we are helping.
Perhaps the best way to address this is to practice asking for help, since that is often the harder and more humbling thing to do -- that, and pray for a more open heart.
(I suspect -- though it may be just a fancy on my part -- it is this prayer which God is most glad to answer.)
If you're prone to skin cancer, it is (obviously) dangerous to go out in the sun without protection. While certainly you try to limit exposure in any case, the point is not to keep unprotected exposure to a small ("reasonable") amount of time; the point is to protect yourself as best you can in every exposure.
The same is true for me of my expectations. In any alcoholic, sober or not, expectations are very often resentments in the making. As a drinker, with a somewhat tenuous grasp of reality, my expectations were wildly unreasonable most of the time. They didn't look that way in my head, but once I started discussing them with a sponsor and writing them out in an inventory format, that became embarrassingly evident.
So it was logical to assume that what I needed to do was try to have reasonable expectations, and this would bring me more peace and free me from some of the terrible resentments I carried around.
And it does.
But having "reasonable" expectations is like, in the above example, being prone to skin cancer and only trying to limit my amount of unprotected exposure to the sun. Arguably, limiting exposure is better than not, but limiting the exposure -- only being in the sun a "reasonable" amount of time -- does not fully prevent potentially serious damage because of my predisposition to skin cancer.
Alcoholics are predisposed to resentment.
That's the way I had to think about it to get the idea that while having reasonable expectations is certainly harm reduction, it's not really the goal I'm aiming for.
The goal is to protect myself from the resentments which can spring from any expectation, reasonable or un.
Now, it's probably impossible for me to move through the world with absolutely no expectations whatsoever. Setting an impossible goal for myself is eventually just an exercise in futility and frustration.
So the best case is to use the spiritual toolkit -- the "medicine" (yes, there's a good "resentment block" joke in there somewhere, and you could take it all the way to some of us being so sensitive that we need block that's got the highest RPF possible) -- to treat against the resentments developing before they come along.
How the hell do I do that?
In other words, which tools seem best suited to accomplish this?
I'm doing the best I can.
You're doing the best you can.
Some days that means neither of us are doing very well -- but if we could do any better, we would.
Watch your expectations and take your medicine.
What you DO:
zoo keeper, cop, nurse, diplomat, janitor, masseur, tennis pro, court reporter, agronomist, teacher, rolfer, taxi driver...
you get the idea.
What makes you WHO YOU ARE:
Telling the truth regardless of the situation/lying to avoid consequences
Being a good listener/being a bad listener
avoiding responsibility/stepping up
being open to new things/being shut down
you get the idea.
What I DO, as in, how I make my way in the world, is not what makes me who I am.
HOW I BEHAVE is what makes me who I am.
Lots of great people and worthwhile institutions try to show alcoholics and addicts how to move through the world, how to conduct ourselves... how to behave.
For me (and, I think its safe to say, countless others) it wasn't until I came to AA and journeyed through the 12 Steps that I found a message which could penetrate my sick, self-centered fog and help me amend myself -- help me learn how to be someone who is the same person regardless of where I am or who I'm with -- help me line up the person that I think I am with the person that I actually am.
The freedom -- and the power -- which results from that journey is that other people's behavior does not dictate my behavior -- I do.
The healthy people around me can inspire me, but when I encounter spiritual sickness in others it no longer bullies me or impacts me like it used to.
And thus, other people do not define who I am -- only I can, now.
This freedom, this power, this journey, is available to anyone who wants it, and who is willing to do what AA suggests. (Of course, wanting it and being willing to do what is required are two very different things.)
Sometimes it seems like the world tries to tell me that what I do is who I am.
When I go to an AA meeting, I get it all sorted out again, and I remember the truth.
I remember who I am.
art by Eugenio Recuenco