The Letter that Revealed Bill W’s Dependencies

One of the most influential reads in my early recovery was Bill W’s “Emotional Sobriety.”  Published in a 1958 edition of the AA Grapevine, Bill writes about his battles with dependency. This time it is not about dependency on alcohol but dependency on approval, security, and prestige.

These dependencies, as Bill reveals in this letter, created much suffering in his life. “Since AA began, I’ve taken immense wallops in all these areas because of my failure to grow up, emotionally and spiritually,” Bill admits in this powerful letter.

Nearly two decades after the publication of the Big Book, “Emotional Sobriety” allows us again to spend time with the man who Time magazine recognized as one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th Century.

And little wonder.  Empowered by his own wounds, this is a man who led from the front and walked the talk that would save countless millions from the debilitating despair of addiction.  In “Emotional Sobriety,” Bill W. lives the values that he preached in the Big Book: honesty, humility, faith, and service.

In this letter, Bill speaks of the impossible expectations he held for himself and others that led to his severe bouts with depression. Torn between his unconscious “fears, compulsions and phony aspirations” and the spiritual awakening of the 12 Steps, Bill agonized over why the program didn’t work to release him from his own depression.

Finally, according to this letter, his answer came to him one day as he stared at a line from the Prayer of St. Francis:  “It’s better to comfort than to be the comforted.” Suddenly, in an epiphany, Bill realized the problem.

“My basic flaw had always been dependence—almost absolute dependence—on people or circumstances to supply me with prestige, security, and the like.  Failing to get these things according to my perfectionist dreams and specifications, I had fought for them. And when defeat came, so did my depression,” as he says in the letter.

From his spiritual development and the “Grace I could secure in prayer,” Bill found that he would experience little joy unless he could cut away these “fatal dependencies.”

“Plainly, I could not avail myself of God’s love until I was able to offer it back to Him by loving others as He would have me.”  As long as false dependencies gripped him, Bill understood that the glimmer of emotional maturity and adult love would elude him.

In the light of this truth, Bill recognized that emotional stability came from offering love to the drunk stranger on his doorstep while demanding nothing in return.  Expectations, he discovered, are premeditated resentments.

“If we examine every disturbance we have, great or small, we will find at the root of it some unhealthy dependency and its consequent demand. Let us, with God’s help, continually surrender these hobbling demands.”

Only then, he says, can we be set free to live and love.  Only then are we able to Twelfth Step ourselves and others into emotional sobriety.

As Bill confronted his dependencies, his letter encourages us to do the same.  “Emotional Sobriety” is really about clearing away the obstacles that stand in the way of our emotional health, our conscious connection to God, and our service to the still suffering addict.

So you can experience the entirety of this two and a half page letter, I encourage you to locate a copy of “Emotional Sobriety” online.

As a recovering alcoholic myself, I will be forever grateful to God for choosing Bill W. as spokesman for addiction issues.  To me, the Big Book is a masterpiece, not only because it provided the first published pathway for recovery but also provided us with a truly exemplary guide who we meet again in this letter.

May you also find emotional sobriety.

Kind Regards,

RJ Handley

A Fabulous Tool for AA Sponsors and Life Coaches

Change can be daunting for anyone.  Many of us immediately feel anxious just at the mention of the word.  This may be what Frederica Mathewes-Green had in mind with the quote:  “Everybody wants to be transformed, but nobody wants to change.”

Addicts can relate because one reason we drank was that alcohol transformed us—without us having to do any work.   Tragically, this transformation is temporary and becomes increasingly elusive.   Instead, we must do the hard work change requires to experience the transformation—the miracle—the Big Book talks about.

And championing lasting change is a huge part of what we do as sponsors and coaches for the still suffering alcoholic and addict.

One of the most effective tools I have used in my life coaching practice and in sponsoring is motivational interviewing (MI).  This technique acknowledges that all people experience ambivalence to change.  They want to make a change. Yet, at the same time, they don’t want to make a change.

The power of MI is that the techniques empower sponsees/clients to arrive at their own reasons for making beneficial changes.  In a sense, they motivate themselves to change.   This is crucial because addicts frequently come to us harangued by the well-meaning spouse, family member, or friend to “get it together.”  From our own experiences as addicts, we know this only creates resentments, not the desire to change.

But there’s good news.  The fundamental tenet of MI is that we all possess the capacity for positive change. It’s only a matter of activating it.

Although I cannot do MI justice in a short blog, I want to acquaint you will some of it concepts.  These are taken directly from “Chapter 3—Motivational Interviewing as a Counseling Style.” To find the article, Google that title.   It’s published by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (US).

Motivational interviewing is a counseling style based on the following concepts:

  • “Ambivalence about substance use (and change) is normal and constitutes an important motivational obstacle in recovery.”
  • “Ambivalence can be resolved by working with your client’s intrinsic motivations and values.”
  • “The alliance between you and your client is a collaborative partnership to which you each bring important expertise.”
  • “An empathetic, supportive, yet directive, counseling style provides conditions under which change can occur. (Direct argument and aggressive confrontation may tend to increase client defensiveness and reduce the likelihood of behavioral change.)”

The primary task for those of you who want to use the MI approach is to help the sponsee/client to recognize how life might be better and then for him or her to choose the ways to make that happen.

When using the MI approach, keep these five general principles from the chapter in mind:

  • “Express empathy through reflective listening.” Because we have survived the same shipwreck of addiction, we have the capacity to be empathetic.
  • “Develop discrepancy between clients’ goals or values and their current behavior.” Your role is to help focus your sponsee’s attention on how current behavior differs from his or her own ideal or desired behavior.
  • “Avoid argument and direct confrontation.  The goal is to ‘walk’ with clients (accompany clients through treatment), not ‘drag’ them along (direct clients’ treatment).”
  • “Adjust to client resistance rather than opposing it directly.  Resistance is a signal that the client views the situation differently. This requires you to understand your client’s perspective and proceed from there.”
  • “Support self-efficacy and optimism. Clients must ultimately come to believe that change is their responsibility and that long-term success begins with a single step forward. The AA motto, “one day at a time,” may help clients focus and embark on the immediate and small changes that they believe are feasible.”

This blog is meant only to be an introduction to the Motivational Interviewing approach.  By seeing some of its key concepts, my hope is that you may become interested in reading more about MI.  By doing so, you will significantly increase your effectiveness as a sponsor/coach when addressing the often sensitive issue of change for the still suffering of this world.  May God bless your work!

Living Life in Disguise

I was amazed to recently learn just how many men struggle to connect with other men.   When asked to answer the question, “What don’t you want other people to know about you?” a surprising number of the 24 men I had joined for a weekend training stated that they had difficulty creating deep and lasting friendships with other men.

I must admit that I was one of those men. And I was also one of those men who felt a tremendous sense of relief to be reminded that I was not alone in this struggle.

It’s been just over a week since I attended what’s called the New Warriors Training Adventure hosted by the ManKind Project, an international nonprofit that seeks to empower men to become more self-aware, and in the process become more emotionally mature and more skilled in relationships at home, at work, and at play.

During that weekend, one of the most transformative of my life, I realized at a deeper level that I can survive but never thrive without connection.

I remember the show Cheers with its theme song saying, “You wanna be where you can see, our troubles are all the same. You wanna be where everybody knows your name.”  I felt a temporary connection with Sam Malone and company while watching, but it also left me feeling hollow in the absence of those connections in my real life.

It wasn’t until I entered the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous ten years ago that I began to witness the power of connection. Yes, our troubles were all the same, and we learned from the old timers in the group that you can’t save your ass and save your face at the same time.

Facing death by alcohol has the power of waking a man up to living life by honesty.

Like with my experience with AA, the ManKind Project has helped me realize that I have a choice: I can live life fully by allowing others to really see me as I am or I can live life partially by pretending to be who I am not.

I admire the spiritual teacher Ram Dass. He said as a challenge to those who live their life playing a role rather than themselves, “Are we always going to meet on the stage? Don’t we ever take off the costumes?”

When asked why he cherished working with people who were on their deathbeds, Ram Dass said that imminent death had a way of removing the mask of who we pretend to be to reveal the beauty of who we are.

Many of us don’t want to remove the costume because we have invested a lifetime in creating it. Others may believe that living the illusion is more exciting than living the reality of who we are.

I was moved recently by learning the top regrets of people who are in hospice care. In the top five was the regret of not allowing others to truly know them, to experience the truth of who they are.

I’ve learned that it’s an impossibility to live our lives with any deep connection if we hide from others who we really are. We need to “get down from the stage so that we live out, not act out our lives,” says Joyce Block in her book Family Myths.

We must dare to be vulnerable if we dare to connect. In our early days together, my girlfriend expressed her frustration with trying to read me.  She said I was often opaque to her.  She asked, “So RJ, you don’t like small talk and you don’t like being emotionally intimate.  How do people connect with you?”  Ouch.

But I ask you that same question. How are men or women going to connect to you?  Are they going to connect superficially to the actor? Or are you willing to take the risk of removing your costume and descending the stage into your genuine self?

Help another person out by sharing in the comments what you have done to shed your costume.

The Ultimate Addiction

The ultimate addiction may be to our thoughts.

Everybody is aware of that voice in the head. You know, the one that urges you to action, the one that you argue with, the one that criticizes you, the one that narrates the movies you make in your head.

A friend of mine joked that the only difference between the people he sees on the streets arguing with themselves and himself was that he didn’t make public the dialogs he creates in his head. I laughed a little uneasily about this, and I was reminded of a passage from Eckhart Tolle’s The New Earth in which he makes the same observation as my friend.

One of the things that non-addicts get grumpy about is hearing addicts in recovery say time and again that everyone would benefit from reading the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. As a recovering alcoholic, I was guilty of this in my early recovery.

Yet, as I read more and more spiritual psychology, the more I learn about the voice. Tolle makes a cogent point that we are all addicts…addicts to our own thinking.   Part of it, particularly for those who love drama (and we all do to a degree), is that creating these mental movies is like the rush of crack.  There is a release of hormones and an adrenaline rush that is…well…addictive.

The majority of us have come to believe that the voice is ourselves speaking to ourselves. What psychologists say is that the voice is really a collection of voices from parents, caretakers, and people who were influential in our lives back as early as childhood.  We have internalized these voices into a composite voice that is constantly chattering away in our heads.

Because it is so familiar, we consider it to be one that “has our back,” that is looking out for our best interest, that is like a best friend. We sometimes forget that this voice is the one that drags us over the coals for the blunders we have made.

If we have the courage to really step back and listen to this voice as if it is someone we are sitting down with having coffee, we would begin to notice that frequently it is a very critical voice. It cruelly takes us to task about who we are and what we do.

Can we really call this voice a friend? Friends love us, support us, and say encouraging words. They remind us of our strengths.  Does the voice really “have our back”?  In my experience, no.  Why do I listen then?  Because I always have.

That is the addiction.

One of the most life-changing realizations I have made during my years reading books on recovery, spirituality, and spiritual psychology—and the one that was so tough for me to grasp—was simply this: we are not our thoughts, we are not our behaviors, and we are not the roles we play. These are things we do. They are not who we are.

But there is a part of us that is at the core of our being. It is that part of us that has remained the same from the time were in diapers, from the time we were children, from the time we were in middle school and high school, and throughout the entire span of our adult lives.   In spiritual terms, this is the soul.

The soul has a voice. It is often called the “small voice” within us.  The reason it is small is because we have allowed the cacophony of voices of our social conditioning to dominate it.

The soul-voice is the one that is who we really are. It is our essence.  And it truly is our most loving friend.

In order to hear it, we must no longer identify ourselves with the critical voice. We must step back from it, again recognizing it as the composite voice of our parents and caretakers.  Experts call this taking the “witness-observer” position.

Being able to assume this position will dramatically change the way that you respond to life and all the people who make up your life.

With practice it becomes easier to dispel the noise of the critical voice and to hear the small voice within. Just take a few moments every day to sit in stillness.  Visualize stepping back away from the critical voice you are hearing like backing away from another person.  Remain still and listen.  See if you can’t begin to hear the loving and compassionate of your small inner voice.

It is there, and it is the voice of self-compassion, love, and acceptance.

It is the voice of your true Self.

I would love to hear your personal experiences doing this. Your comments are welcome!

My Story

rjhandley.com

It was nearly 10 years ago that a Big Book quote came true for me: “Someday the [alcoholic] will be unable to imagine life with alcohol or without it.  Then he will know loneliness such as few do” (BB 152).

It may have seemed to others that my life was like a Lexus, but inside I was really a rusted out AMC Pacer.  I was on the brink of bankruptcy after my business partner lost all our working capital in the stock market. My reaction was to descend deeper into abyss of my drinking.

I was literally a fall down drunk. Despite tearing my rotator cuff and then later breaking seven ribs in two drunken falls, I was too prideful to seek out AA for the help I desperately needed.  Although I knew I was an alcoholic, I could not tolerate the stigma of being labeled one.

With my wife set on leaving me, my friends having abandoned me, and my credit card debt reaching $60,000, I lived a life of loneliness and despair that few non-alcoholics experience.  In agony, I finally reached out to my alcoholic sister who encouraged me to attend an AA meeting.  It is through AA and the grace of God that I got sober and remain so after 10 years.

So this blog is really my way of giving back to a program that literally saved my life.  Like many of you, the 12 Steps were my portal into a spiritual awakening.   Sponsorship keeps me involved in the program, but I continue to hunger for more inspired texts like the Big Book to nourish my spiritual growth.   I have read many, and a year and a half ago I went back to school to become a Spiritual Life Coach.  Through this blog, I hope that I can share some of the spiritual truths that have brought a wonderful sense of joy and contentedness to my life.