And I would have no qualms about doing it again
Trigger Warning: Alcoholism and addiction
Disclaimer: I did not strictly adhere to the 12 steps
When I discovered my boyfriend had got his ex-girlfriend pregnant behind my back, I did not out him as a cheater straight away. I listened for several weeks as I was told I had to keep his secret, or I was preventing him from becoming a better person. While trying (and failing) to deal with my own very uncomplicated feelings on the subject, it was not until much later that I realised some feelings are combustible. They cannot easily be contained. If I had only realised that then, it would have more than likely gone a lot easier for me than it did.
Let us re-write my opening. When I discovered my boyfriend had got his ex-girlfriend pregnant behind my back, I did not out him straight away. I drank an entire bottle of wine first, then messaged the ex-girlfriend on Facebook telling her the truth. How I ended up feeling so guilty about my actions (or reactions) that I sought shelter from the storm within Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is beyond me, but that was exactly what I did. AA helped me in a few unexpected ways, many of them unrelated to alcohol.
Utilising my interpretation of the 12 steps, which will probably be seen as blasphemy by devotees of the programme, here are the 12 ways AA focused my mind, and in some instances shifted my thinking.
If the first step was admitting I was powerless over alcohol — and that my life had become unmanageable, then with hindsight, I was unconvinced I was powerless over alcohol. I was, however, powerless over my own mind, other people, and motivated by fear in almost all my actions, and my reactions. Fear of losing my mind and never recovering, fear of losing my relationship, fear of losing my job, fear of losing my home, fear of never having enough income to survive on a basic human level.
When I went to that first AA meeting, I was lost. I was fragile. I needed protection from my own mind, which was full of intrusive thoughts. I had always been more of a binge drinker than a daily drinker but there was no doubt in my mind that a spree killer was still a killer. Not drinking every day did not mean I was not an alcoholic. At this point, it never occurred to me to ask a question that now seems obvious to me. Would I have outed my now ex-boyfriend as a cheater had I been sober? The answer to this is likely yes. It may have taken me longer, however. At the time, because he was still in my life, gaslighting me, I had lost the ability to see things as they were.
Did AA help with that? No. AA taught me not to concern myself with people, places, and things. “I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment” [P417, AA Big Book, Acceptance was the answer]. The truth was that my life was unmanageable, and I was a problem drinker. Sticking with AA felt like the smart choice to me.
The second step is about believing that a power greater than myself can restore me to sanity. What I liked about AA meetings was their simplicity. There was no grandstanding, no ego. When people share, they are doing it in the spirit of humility, not showboating, glorifying their past actions, or competing with others for the most gruesome drinking story. Anyone who attends a British AA meeting (I accept meetings in other countries may differ) would be able to confirm that nobody really reacts to the shares besides expressing understated, quiet, gratitude. There is no crosstalk in AA, and it is not a discussion. If you are not sharing, you are there to listen and reflect. It is not about you.
I found the low-key nature of the shares interesting. I shared only once — with my ex-boyfriend story. I felt that sharing garnered silent respect from the regular attendees, particularly the women, who I found to be a powerful subgroup in AA possibly due to the desire to avoid “13 steppers”. The 13th Step is a colloquial term for when a 12-Step old-timer hits on a group newcomer with less than a year of sobriety. For a variety of valid reasons, it is frowned upon. It is essentially someone in a position of power trying to take advantage of someone who is more vulnerable. I never surrendered to a higher power during my time in AA, but I did accept that there was a power to making the time and space to heal my broken mind.
The third step is about turning your will over to the care of God as you understand him. I never subscribed to this notion. I was not a believer. One thing I quickly realised though was that a lot of people in AA are not religious. I saw this step as being based around the idea of taking care of yourself by accepting that sometimes you need to look outside of yourself for help and/or support. While at AA I heard the term “dry drunk” for the first time, and it really resonated with me. Nobody at AA wants to be a dry drunk. This is where a person is sober but is still exhibiting the same actions and attitudes that they did while drinking. In essence, they never changed the underlying mindset.
While I often went back and forth on a lot of AA ideas, I did find them interesting. If I were to regain control over my life, and myself, I could not be the same person as before minus the alcohol. I needed to understand why I was unhappy, and I saw this step as being about trusting in the process, even if I thought some of the language and ideology was too dogmatic at times.
The fourth step was about making a searching and fearless moral inventory of myself. I do subscribe to the idea that personal accountability is important. Some of the most dangerous people I have ever met have completely lacked insight, including the aforementioned ex-boyfriend. Facing up to a list of your flaws and wrongdoings is not something anyone would choose to do for fun, but it does prevent you from making excuses for your behaviour and blaming others for your actions. This is protective of you and your loved ones because it means you can own your mistakes, reducing your likelihood of making more.
There are a lot of “rules” in AA, whether you choose to describe them that way or not. I prefer to reframe the rules into a language I can understand, that aligns with my own belief system. I know most people in AA would fundamentally disagree with me on this, but I am not seeking approval or validation. I am speaking to my own experience.
The fifth step brings in God again. It is about admitting the exact nature of your wrongs to God. I see this as no different from a religious confession or speaking to a therapist if you have one. I view that as akin to journaling and if you are not a Big Book purist, that could suffice.
The sixth step is about being ready for God to remove all your deficits of character. I find the language of AA somewhat unfortunate, and this step is a good example of that. I reframe this as being less about deficits and more about striving to be better. Someone who is a pagan may choose to hold a ritual, where all the aspects they dislike about themselves are burned. Buddhists may meditate on the traits they may wish to let go of.
The seventh step feels repetitive. It is where you humbly ask “him” to remove your shortcomings. The idea of humility in AA is an interesting one. It is about thinking of yourself less, while not thinking less of yourself. It is about knowing yourself better, then deciding who and what you want to be, as you move forward.
The eighth step is a major one in AA. You make a list of all the people you have harmed and become willing to make amends to them all. This is about readiness to make amends, in preparation for the act itself. It enables you to reflect on what constitutes harm, and consequences. It is not about being self-serving. The thinking is that any price paid in the act of making amends pales into insignificance when compared to what the other person has suffered at your hands.
The ninth step is about making direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others. My ex-boyfriend decided he would force his friendship on me out of his own need to make amends for his wrongdoing. It was harmful to me. Why? Because it was not about me and how I felt, or my needs. It was entirely motivated by what he felt he needed to do to make himself feel better. It was hideous. If I was not his friend, I was a failure. I was not allowed to discuss anything that had happened in case it made him feel bad. Even my feelings about what he had done to me were made to be all about him. My feelings about what he had inflicted upon me affected his self-image, meaning he only ever felt bad about himself, and never for me.
I feel this example illustrates the ninth step well and cannot emphasise enough the need to approach it as not being about you at all. Treat it as part of your recovery, but never force your will on another human being and demand they hear you. Do not perpetuate the same pattern of behaviour in recovery, as when you were drinking.
The tenth step is about continuing to take personal inventory and when you are wrong, promptly admit it. It is worth pointing out here that the notion of inventory and amends in AA are all ways of deconstructing your own resentments to identify and understand them better. This draws in the idea of forgiveness, of yourself and others. I do not, however, see AA as being about accepting responsibility for another person’s harmful actions towards me. I think that part of my problem when I started going to AA was that I was owning the problems of the entire world, as my own. Instead, all I really needed to do was explore my reactions to my problems and identify healthier coping mechanisms.
The eleventh step is about seeking to improve our conscious contact with God as we understand “him”, praying only for knowledge of “his” will for us and the power to carry that out. I see this more broadly. It is about raising your consciousness, having a sense of purpose, believing in yourself and others, moving forward in honesty, while developing insight. AA does not tell you that you must believe in God, or a higher power, to work the programme. It is more about the idea that at some stage during your recovery, you will understand that you need to trust in something or someone outside of yourself to give yourself space and distance to heal.
Finally, the twelfth step is about carrying the message to alcoholics and practicing these principles in all our affairs. In AA, the idea of being of service is mentioned a lot. It could be welcoming newcomers, taking out the trash, tidying up the meeting room, leading a session, or sitting on an intergroup committee. Being of service is not mandatory in AA but many people say it helped them to stay sober. Going to an AA meeting is intimidating. I know I was grateful to those that were working the twelfth step when I crossed that threshold for the first time.
What happened next? I started working long hours with a long commute and stopped going to meetings. After a while, I did start drinking intermittently again, but never like before. The key thing was that over time, the basic principle of understanding why I was picking up that drink was the very reason why I felt able to put it down. Put simply, if I am not drinking alcohol because I enjoy the taste of it, I will not drink it. I drink no more than 1–2 glasses of wine every 3 months or so. Does that make me a failed or relapsed alcoholic? I do not know. Probably, some will see it that way, yes. In my reality, I see that I embarked on an almost 4-year journey that enabled me to explore why I drank and to look at better ways of dealing with adversity. Oh, and I chose not to remain friends with that ex.