The twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous are a road map to discovering and sustaining a spiritual way of life that is consistent with a design for living that I always yearned for but never felt I was good enough. Once I surrendered to the fact that I have a true allergy to drugs and alcohol, that one is one too many and one more is never enough, I finally stopped self-medicating.
And what I was left with was an overwhelming amount of anxiety, fear, anger, grief, shame and self-doubt. My booze had become my solution to these inner storms, and I no longer had that temporary relief. Now what?
Being in the church basements of AA, I was told I had to find a power greater than myself to reclaim any sense of emotional sanity. But how? In response to this question I heard “Get a Higher Power” and “Let Go, Let God.” Rhetoric is nice; yet, a practical application for the internal firestorm was essential in order for me to prevent yet another relapse.
That practical application turned out to be the first 103 pages of Alcoholics Anonymous’s Big Book. In these pages are clear-cut and specific instructions on how to have a personal relationship with a higher power. Since the word “God” brings up childhood misconceptions and prejudices within me, I learned, I use the word Spirit to point toward the experience, the glimpse, or the faint touch, of this power greater than I.
The chapters in the Big Book titled the Doctor’s Opinion, Bill’s Story, and There is a Solution outline the problem of alcoholism specifically. There is a Solution, More About Alcoholism, and We Agnostics detail the solution to that problem. How it Works, Into Action, and Working with Others give exact instructions on how to practice and live the 12 steps in daily life. I thought my problem was drinking and drugs. They actually were my solution. My problem was my broken mind. But that is a topic for another post.
The Big Book is a “basic text” for how to have a spiritual experience. I thought I had to spend years in solitude in the caves of the Himalayans to be good enough, to be worthy enough, of a personal connection to Spirit. I am not sure what conditioning manifested that misbelief. But it ran deep within me. Unraveling it took perseverance and patience.
Exactly what is a spiritual experience according to the Big Book? It really is not complicated. In fact, the concept – and the experience – are very simple. not always easy to live or lean into, but certainly not difficult notions to understand. Dr. Carl Jung actually gave AA the words, concepts, and fundamental understanding of what a spiritual experience actually consists of when he had a hard core alcoholic as a patient. From page 27 of the 3rd edition of the Big Book:
“Here and there, once in awhile, alcoholics have had what are called vital spiritual experiences. To me these occurrences are phenomena. They appear to be in the nature of huge emotional displacements and rearrangements. Ideas, emotions, and attitudes which were once the guiding forces of these men are suddenly cast to one side, and a completely new set of conceptions and motives begin to dominate them.”
In other words, the way I once was, is replaced by a new way of feeling, perceiving, thinking, and being in the world.
Spiritual transformation is not something that happens just because I want it. I must take action. What action? The clear-cut directions found in the twelve steps in the Big Book. This aspect of the spiritual experience was a little frustrating for me at first. I grew up with the pull-yourself-up-from-the-boot-straps and do-it-yourself mentality. Fierce independence and lone ranger living suited me well. Pretending to be ok when I wasn’t and not allowing myself to be vulnerable enough to be real were the norm. The Velveteen Rabbit and I shared much in common. Yet I longed for a different way of being. I was so exhausted from trying to be who I wasn’t , please everyone, and look good. I longed for a different internal environment. This emotional rearrangement was not something I could manufacture on my own. I needed the instructions found in the first 103 pages of AA’s Big Book, someone to walk me through those instructions, and the actions necessary to make the steps practical in my life.
Once I made the commitment to do the 12 steps as outlined, I knew I needed the help of someone who had done it before me. Otherwise it would be just more lone ranger style which at this point I was convinced did not work. I found someone that I respected. His long term sobriety was attractive but more importantly I could see that he lived his life in a very authentic way. The way he approached his relationships, even the difficult ones, his work, his self-care, how he spent his free time and his seemingly natural ability to help others compelled me to ask him to read the Big Book with me. The journey began.
As my sponsor and I read the Big Book we talked about who I was and who I wanted to be. I always knew in my mind’s eye the person I wanted to be yet I could never quite reach her or sustain those qualities of being. For example, the anger and hurt I held toward my Dad was relentless. I absolutely wanted to be rid of it yet I could not find a way to sustain freedom from it. I could “be nice” and “let go” for a little bit but the ick always came back. Like mold. It returned again and again.
As I progressed through the steps I began to see that I started having a different reaction to life. I usually didn’t notice this until it was in the rear view mirror but I could see subtle shifts start to occur. I had more of an ability to not react, not engage the drama, and keep quiet when I usually would shoot from the mouth. There was some level of self-regulation going on that surprised me. Something was at work that I could not explain. People around me noticed the changes in my reaction to life and frequently commented on it. I began to slowly let equanimity seep into my bones.
In the fourth step I saw my part in all the resentments, hurt, & anger that I was hanging onto. I also saw that being a victim to you relieved me of the responsibility for my behavior. This was eye opening. In steps six and seven it was clear that my need to fit in and to be liked drowned out my longing to be real – to authentically be me. I sold my soul to get you to like me and now that had become objectionable to me.
I began to release the self-centeredness and the crippling shame that was weighing down my ability to heal. Step nine gave me the instructions on how to appropriately clean up the wrecked relationships of my past and make it right with the people I had hurt. Including my Dad. After my amends to my Father all the decades of anger, hurt, and fear simply vanished. Absolutely gone. Zilcho. I cannot tell you how it happened. I can, however, attest to the fact that I had a spiritual experience regarding my relationship with Father. The ideas, motives, and feelings I once had were replaced by a kinder, gentler, more accepting and loving presence. This new way of being completely changed my relationship with my Dad. I had many tremendous years of showing up for him and being the daughter I had always wanted to be. And in return I got that same love and connection I had always sought from him. I finally felt his love for me and he felt mine for him. Genuinely and unconditionally. All of my relationships followed in the same way. My need to control you or a situation completely fizzled out. I now enjoyed peace and serenity in my inner world and with my external world as well. I deeply experienced how intricately the two are connected.
Having had a spiritual experience as a result of following the directions explained in the first 103 pages of the Big Book I was now standing on new spiritual ground. I had a new sense of peace and ease enter my life, and I was afraid of losing it. How would I keep this precious peace I had just acquired? Step twelve is where we give this gift of experiencing a spiritual experience away so others might have it too. As it turns out, that is how we keep it. In order to have it, I must give it away. Pass it on. Being of service in all areas of my life, not just the halls of AA, has proved to be the cornerstone of joy and happiness.
Through the 12 steps I have replaced my impersonal, unconnected, fearful, and rule-making idea of God with a higher power that is personal, loving, kind, gentle, compassionate, patient, and essentially all the things that are good and right with our species. For me, this is a Spirit that works through and among us in every moment. My job is to be aware and tap into it. This is a very practical relationship for me. Like with any relationship that I want intimacy, I must dedicate time, energy, depth of being, and vulnerability. I have to show up fully. Faith, willingness, and humility are what the Big Book states are essential in this relationship. I am grateful perfection is not required because I do not live the spiritual principles I have learned perfectly; however, I have always found my way back to them, rather quickly, so the suffering for myself and others is snuffed out.