Content Warning; Mentions of self-harm, suicide, and alcohol abuse
This is a column about abstinence based twelve step recovery, finding small moments of beauty, and getting over your ex.
This week’s column continues on from our last instalment’s interview with my sponsor Freddie. Here he is describing each of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous in detail and giving insight into his personal experiences with them. This is Freddie in his own words:
…I started reading AA literature and it was challenging. It asked,
‘Who was I to say that there was no power greater than myself?’. If I say there’s no evidence to say a higher power does exist, where’s my evidence that it doesn’t exist? It was this framing that really… hit me. I realized that my whole life, I’d been trying to control everything. I’d been trying to control what I thought about God or the meaning of life. I used to think there was no meaning. I believed in chaos theory. The idea of random explosions of chemicals and events, and that’s just all life is. Nothing has a rhyme or reason. If you try to make sense of it, you’re never going to, so why bother? And I realized when I was reading the book, when those concepts came up, that there’s no evidence to suggest it’s real. But equally, there’s no evidence to suggest it’s not real. It was then that I came to understand that being somewhere in the middle is okay as well.
Not knowing something is fine.
I had been obsessive my whole life about trying to know it all when it came to spirituality. But Step One is about admitting that you know nothing. One of my mantras has become ‘What if I’m wrong or I don’t know?’.
We admitted we were powerless over alcohol— that our lives had become unmanageable.
So, you break down the big words. what does powerless mean and what even is alcohol? We deal with the body, the mind, and then the spirit (or our life goals or our aspirations).
Body, mind, and spirit.
The big book, which is like the AA textbook. If you’re going to learn maths, you’ll get a maths book. If you’re going to learn how to do the Twelve Steps, you’ll get the big book of Alcoholics Anonymous.
What it suggests is this: If you’re an alcoholic of our variety, what happens when you drink is that you crave more alcohol.
What alcohol is supposed to do is make you feel good after one or two drinks and that’s it. And when you’re satisfied you just stop drinking because you don’t want to get too drunk, you don’t want to feel dizzy, you don’t want to feel sick. That’s what alcohol’s intended purpose is. But there are side effects, unwanted side effects, abnormal reactions to it. And that’s what I had.
When I drank alcohol, two or three drinks, I wouldn’t want to stop drinking. I would actually crave more.
It’s like if drinking water made you thirstier for more water.
The more alcohol I had, the more I wanted it. And it was like this itch I just could never scratch. And every time I drank or would immediately stop drinking, like, say, I was at a wedding, and I had to do photos so I couldn’t get any more drinks while I was waiting for an hour for the photos to be taken.
It was just like torture.
Let’s say, if on a Sunday I was with my partner, and she said ‘oh, you can have two beers here, but we’ve got to go home to do the chores for the day.’ I remember being so angry because I’d have already of had the two drinks.
Why would I stop?
It’s Sunday. Why do I want to stop now? I’m not even at the feeling yet. And she would look at me as if to say ‘what feeling? What are you talking about?’. But I needed to get there. I needed to get to something. And that was how I’m powerless in my body over alcohol.
That’s why I can never safely drink alcohol because I’ll never know how much I’m going to drink.
That’s where the mind comes into play. I think about all the bad things I did under the influence of alcohol:
cheating on my partner,
rocking up to work drunk,
getting into fights,
All these things I used to do when I was drunk. A normal person would see that and stop drinking. Logic dictates that I’m not going to drink anymore because that’s what happens when I drink.
So, I’ll just stop now. I’ll just not drink anymore.
But for me. At certain times, I may have had those thoughts,
‘Oh. It’s probably going to be bad if I drink on a school night or drink too much or drink around this girl or do these things.’ But I would always have it pushed aside for some insanely trivial idea. Which would be…
‘it’s someone’s birthday’.
Or ‘it’s my birthday’.
Or ‘I’ve had a really tough week’.
Or ‘it’s Wednesday’.
‘It’s hump day’.
‘I just…need to have a drink tonight’.
And that’s the mind, you know, my mind will never be capable of being not obsessed or being normal with alcohol.
And then we talk about the spirit, how our life is unmanageable. My entire life, I’d been going about things my own way.
The analogy in the Big Book is that you’re an actor on stage, and you’re the tree at the back of the play.
But because you’re such a control freak, you’re standing there and you’re telling the director how he should be coaching the actors. You’re telling the dance troupe how they should be dancing; you’re telling the lighting guy how he should be rigging it. You’re telling the ticketing people that they should be giving out tickets in a different way, or they’re giving out the wrong colour wristbands.
You’re trying to arrange everything, and by doing that, you’re producing all this resentment and anger towards you, and your life isn’t turning out how you want it to. And you ask yourself:
‘Well, how is my life not turning out how I want it to if I am the one in control?’
I had this spiritual maladjustment to life.
I was never fully able to adjust to things properly in my life and to live normally. Or to enjoy things on my own self will.
That’s the reason my life was unmanageable. That’s how I’m powerless over alcohol.
Step One suggests that, because of that, you must be completely abstinent from alcohol. You can never safely tell how you’re going to drink alcohol. And because of this you have got to live by a different set of principles. Whether it be AA’s principles, whether it be Taoism’s principles, whether it be any sort of principles. You find you must live by different ones, because the ones you come up with are going to keep leading you back to a drink, keep leading you back to that point where you’re sad enough, depressed enough, happy enough, or whatever it is– enough to think that alcohol is a good idea.
Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
So first, it’s about coming to believe. It’s not writing something on the walls and sprawling and shouting,
or anything like that… It’s admitting to yourself that you may be willing to believe, or you could believe one day in a power greater than yourself. And then breaking it down to what actually is a power greater than us. What is above human power? Getting into the nitty gritty of it. In AA there is no theological need for anything. You don’t have to be Christian, Buddhist, Muslim. There’s no central doctrine of any theology at all.
30% of AA is made up of Atheists, completely Atheistic members.
So then, how do you come to believe in a power greater than yourself? And I think coming to believe comes from a lot of the second part of the step, which is about sanity, restoring us to sanity.
So first you’ve got to be convinced that you’re insane. What’s the definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over and over and over and over and over again and expecting a different result. So, do I drink alcohol over and over and expect it to go differently?
I’ve done it my whole life. I keep thinking that until I get close to prison, until I get close to mental institutions, until I get close to suicide attempts. That’s what drives me there. The insane thought that one day I’ll be able to control my drinking or drink like a normal person when all the evidence in my entire life suggests that that is not the case.
So, I need a power greater than myself to restore me to that sanity, because I can’t do it alone, because I’ve tried to do it alone and I have been beaten into a state of helplessness by my own actions.
It’s not about someone in AA telling me I must do these things. It’s about me being willing and wanting to do them.
You begin to conceptualise what something in your life that could restore you to sanity would look like. What would that look like in Step Two? You really come up with it yourself. You work with your sponsor, you go to meetings, you hear about it, you watch YouTube videos. You sort of find your own path.
Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of our higher power as we understood it.
Step Three is just sort of understanding what all the steps are and what they’re asking you to do and then saying to yourself,
‘do I think this is the solution for me personally in my addiction?’,
‘ Do I believe that these twelve steps are going to be the thing that helps me with that?’ Step One and Two is about prepping us for this step.
Sometimes Step Three can be quick. It’s just being like,
‘yeah, I’m ready, I’m ready to start tackling the next steps’. Three is turning our will over to it.
‘I’m making a commitment to this.’
That’s really Step Three. It’s being committed to completely throwing yourself into these steps and into this AA thing that everyone talks about.
Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
I work with guys from rehabs, guys in prisons, guys who are sixty to seventy years old. In its most basic form, Step Four is telling another human being your entire life story.
Every single skeleton in the closet, everything you’re ashamed of, everything you’ve never told anyone in your entire life.
Think priest confessional. But to the nth degree.
We look at things that cause us to drink really heavily. What are the feelings that make us drink the most? And in AA, we suggest the three are: resentment, fear, and selfishness (or self-centeredness in the form of our relationship history).
So, they’re really the three things we go through.
In the resentment inventory we look at everyone we think has mistreated us. We write all their names down.
Hundreds of names.
And then we look at what is it that they’ve specifically done that’s made us so annoyed, angry, or sad. What makes us feel like we’ve just been treated unfairly? What keeps rattling around in our head? And then we want to look at what this affects in ourselves. What is it affecting within my psyche? And we break those down. And then lastly, what were my actions regarding this specific resentment, this feeling of mistreatment that I myself played a part in?
By doing this and looking at every single resentment we have, we can view events in our lives from a different perspective.
Shift the thinking on it.
One of the biggest resentments I had was with my ex-partner. When she left suddenly in the night… Why did she leave so suddenly? Why didn’t she coddle me? Why didn’t she let the breakup be more? Why didn’t she love me? Why did she leave? All these things ran around my head, and by the time I got to the fourth part of this, I looked at it from a different perspective.
I found that through all of this—my part to play was I wasn’t letting her go— I wasn’t letting her live her full, loving, caring life to be with a partner who would treat her better.
She came out as a gay woman, and that never would have happened if she stayed with me.
I should be grateful that the person I love is now out there exploring her sexuality, being the person, she really wanted to be.
But it wasn’t until I did this inventory of resentment that I was able to see it from that perspective.
So that’s resentment inventory, we want to look at all resentments and change the perspective on them.
And then fear. So, fear is my driving force, self-centred fear. I am afraid that I won’t get something I want, or I’ll lose something I have. And they’re my two motivations for everything I’ve ever done in life.
But what are my fears actually? What am I afraid of?
We do this in multiple parts again. So, for example if I’m afraid of not being loved by someone I love, what behaviours do I start exhibiting?
Well, I call more. I text more. I try and overexert how great of a partner I am or could be. And that’s how I act. And then what we dig into what would be the right action to do instead in that circumstance?
In our example I could have been more caring or understanding or grateful for the time I’m given with this person without being overbearing or commandeering. Respecting their autonomy and space.
Again, we go down the list and examine every one of our fears. So, whenever these fears pop up, I remember that I can look back on my list and be like, well, this is how I should act instead.
And then the last one is sex or relationship inventory. You look at every single sexual or romantic encounter you’ve had, and you want to look at it honestly.
You don’t talk about the moves and how good you were, nothing like that.
You want to look at them all honestly and be like, where in this relationship, this one-night stand, this fling – whatever it is – Where was I selfish in it? Where was I dishonest? There are about ten to fourteen questions you’ve got to answer for every single one. Because a lot of the time, our sex life leads us down the path of a lot of sad feelings, guilt, shame, remorse, resentment. All these things happen because of it.
So, what are my patterns of behaviour in my sex life that I can shift? What can I change?
And that’s Step Four. You really want to get all that on paper. And once you’ve written all that down, you’ve basically got your life story in front of you, and you’ve got every example or reason why your life isn’t going the way you want it to, essentially.
And it’s extremely hard. Most people stop coming to AA, or they give up on that step, because it is just one of the most difficult things most people have done in their lives.
Admitted to our higher power, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
You take everything you’ve written down and you look at it and you admit it to yourself, ‘this is what I’ve done. This is how I’ve made these resentments happen. This is how I act in fear and how I want to act. This is why my sex life, and my relationships are all gone to hell.’
We admitted to ourselves.
Then we admitted to a high power. Whatever the thing is that we’ve discovered within Step Two and Three; that we believe in, whatever it may look like, we admit it to that. And then we admit it to another human being. So that usually, nine times out of ten is your sponsor. Sometimes it’s a priest or, like a spiritual adviser, or it could be a psychologist. Whatever you’re comfortable with. It doesn’t really matter, as long as you’re getting it out to someone. Literally sharing your entire life story, every nook and cranny of everything, leaving nothing behind. The deepest, darkest you’ve got, admitting that to someone else. And that’s Step Five.
And once you do that… ‘Light as a feather’ are words that have been used to describe the feeling.
You see the world differently. You can see how you’ve created a lot of the pain in your own life. And the reason behind Step Four and Five really is because the thinking we used to have, is the thinking that got us to want to drink to solve our problems. I’m feeling sad, I’ll drink, I’m feeling angry, I’ll drink. Blah, blah, blah, I’ll drink. But doing this, it helps us shift our entire mindset. It changes all the synapses in our brain. It changes our whole outlook on life, everything. So, we no longer start thinking that a drink is a good idea because we can start to see how we can act differently.
Were entirely ready to have a higher power remove all these defects of character.
So, you’ve seen the patterns:
- You’ve seen the patterns in your resentments that led them to be caused by you.
- You’ve seen the patterns in your fear that’s made you act out in insane, deplorable ways.
- You’ve seen your sex inventory that has ruined your relationships.
Where are the patterns of behaviour here? For me, personally, I’m a big people pleaser and I’m really afraid of hurting or letting down women.
So, a lot of the time I’ll get into relationships or flings with women I don’t necessarily really have feelings for, because I want them to know that they can be loved by someone. And this it’s just this people pleasing behaviour.
It produces ambivalence, it produces all these horrible things.
And Six is about identifying those in Step Five and Four, identifying what these patterns of behaviour are, these defects of our character, and having the willingness or the want to have our higher power remove them from us.
Things we thought were the best qualities we had.
You might think yourself super intelligent, but actually find that you’re arrogant and mean to people. And then you start to think about how to remove that defect. These sorts of things. That’s why you want to identify them in Step Four and Five, and then you want to be willing to have them removed.
Humbly asked them to remove our shortcomings.
You’ve seen how and why these behaviours are disagreeable and you don’t want them in your life. Seven is the action of it. So literally every morning, what I do is; I have a sheet of paper next to my bed and I look at these defects or these patterns of behaviour I’ve done throughout my life that have led me astray, that have led to these feelings of discontentment, sadness, all this, and I want them removed and I ask, ‘how can these be brought in line? How can I stop people pleasing all day? How can I stop being so distant and sad? How can I do that day to day?’
I’ll stop everything before I begin the day and be like, all right, this is what I want to try and achieve today. To be a better person and not have these character defects pop up.
Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.
We’ve made this moral inventory of resentments, our fears, our sex inventory. We look at it all and we go, where in these circumstances, have I caused someone harm?
Have I stolen from them?
Have I led them on?
Have I cheated on them?
All the bad stuff we’ve done within these resentments.
So, at one stage, I was feeling resentful towards my ex-girlfriend, feeling like: ‘how could you do this?’ After doing the moral inventory of Step Four, I started to realize that there were things I needed to apologize for.
We talk about keeping our side of the street clean.
Sure, there’s some stuff she did wrong as well, which maybe one day she might apologize to me for, but that’s none of my business.
It’s absolutely none of my business.
My business is what I did wrong.
And so, we make a list. So, from that big list of moral inventory we have, we start writing down people’s names.
And some of them didn’t make the moral inventory list.
We don’t feel resentment towards them. We don’t feel fear of them. We just know we did something wrong in that regard. So, we just make a list of it, and we start looking at where we’ve gone astray and done the wrong thing and became willing to make amends to them all. So, I’m willing to amend that behaviour or amend that circumstance, that took away their peace.
Sorry is part one of that. Part two is about making up for what you’ve taken away from them.
Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
You start talking with your sponsor and you might have a conversation like:
‘Alright, I want to make amends to this person.’
‘Cool. Have they told you to never talk to them again? Or made it clear they don’t want you in their life?’
‘All right, well, you can’t make amends to them now because that’s the boundary they’ve put into place. What we could do is write a big letter, exactly what you would say, and leave that in a draw. And if in ten or twenty years’ time if you ever become friends again. You can give it to them then.’
But we go out to all the people of our past, every single one, and we make direct amends.
‘Hey, I stole this money from this store’ – I had a mate who used to be a bartender and nicked a bunch of money out of the till. He went back to that bar, and he paid back thousands of dollars. Thousands, because that’s how much he’d stolen over the years.
And we do it with every single circumstance of our lives.
I’m sorry for being distant to my sister. I was a bit of a black sheep of the family, and I never spoke to my family, particularly my sister.
So, I apologised and asked her: ‘I want to be a better brother. How do I amend that behaviour?’
We talked and she and I agreed that once a week she’d give me a ring, and once a month, we’d do a family dinner at my house.
And that’s what I try and live up to, and that’s the living amend I must be willing to make to address my past behaviour.
And if I can’t see someone in the flesh, like I tried to reach out to my ex-girlfriend by email. and she responded with;
‘Hey, I’m glad you’re getting the help you need. I forgive you for all the things I know you did to me and for all the things I don’t know that you did to me. If you want to make amends or reparations for the harm you have caused me, please never contact me again, starting by not replying to this email.’
And that was that.
So, the letter that I had written –what I wanted to say to her—I can never say to her in person…
But I can try and live the amends with the other relationships I have with women throughout the rest of my life.
Continued to take personal inventory. And when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.
So, you’ve got the fundamentals, right?
Resentments: You’ve got the fundamentals of how you want to react when you’re feeling resentful.
Fear: You want to see how you could act differently when fears pop up.
Sex inventory: You can see how you want to act differently in relationships.
And so basically you want to practice Steps Four, Five, Six, Seven, Eight and Nine on a daily basis. Because we can’t just wait around and then do a big moral inventory once a year. That wouldn’t be useful or practical.
We need to have it constantly being maintained.
That’s how we talk about the steps as being a set of principles to live by. It’s not so much we have a workbook with us, and we just have it on our side at all times of the day just so we can make sure we never go astray.
Step Ten is about working through your day, 24 hours at a time. You just want to practice the principles you put in place by looking at the moral inventory, by looking at the amends you’ve made and saying:
‘I don’t want to do those behaviours again. I don’t want to have these character defects pop up again. ‘
Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with our higher power as we understood them. Praying only for knowledge of their will for us and the power to carry that out.
This step is teaching us the prayer and spirituality aspect. So instead of us saying:
‘hey higher power, I want this!’ or ‘Why did you take this away from me?’
No— that’s not how we pray.
The prayer should go something like:
‘Here is my problem, how should I move forward.’
You know, we give away that power, and once we start doing that in our prayers, it really helps us start to know that it’s not just us running the show.
There is something helping us, and that’s morning meditation.
So, in the morning, we look at Steps Six and Seven. What are the defects? What amends am I going to make today? Or what do I want to achieve today?
And we try to meditate for ten to fifteen minutes every morning on those things. What sort of person do I want to be today? And then at night, there’s about fourteen to eighteen questions in the Big Book. Where was I resentful today? Where was I a bit selfish? Who did I help today? Who could I have helped more? Did I only think about myself today?
All these sorts of different questions.
And so, every night before I go to sleep, I answer those questions and send them off to my sponsor. ‘Was I selfish today? No? Why wasn’t I selfish today?’ Or ‘yes, I was selfish because I did this’ et cetera. These sorts of questions we ask ourselves every night.
Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
What is a spiritual awakening?
There’s lots of different names for it. Psychic change, shift of thinking, shift of perspective, whatever. But once you have it, you know because you think differently and act differently.
Because of that, you want to start finding others who have got the same addiction as you have. And in this case, it’s alcohol. So you go to rehabs, prisons, AA meetings, and you see someone that’s really suffering. Could be someone that’s been there for ten years. It could be someone at their first meeting, and you just say to them,
‘Hey, a year ago (or however long it may be) I remember coming to my first meeting and a guy making me a cup of tea. Do you want to talk about these steps?’
And then you give away the thing you’ve been given, which is how to do Steps One through Eleven. So, you start doing that with someone else, and that’s called sponsorship.
When you start doing that with someone else, it actually starts enlarging your own life.
You start feeling useful, you start feeling joy, you start giving back. So, this thing that’s freely given, there’s no money exchanged in AA or anything like that. It’s just all volunteer work. You volunteer to help someone else.
Your life becomes about helping other people…
If this column has raised issues for you about your own alcohol consumption and you’d like to talk to someone, you can contact AA General Service Office 24 hours a day on (03) 9529 5948. A family member or a friend may be a great option too. We’re never alone even if we feel like we are.
The world is better with you in it.
Editors: David Farr and Eliana Fritz