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

Five stress factors that can lead to relapse

I remember the scenes from old TV shows and movies where the husband comes home from work and makes a beeline for the booze in one of those elegant crystal glass decanters.  Oh, that wonderful vicarious feeling of the first drink as it melts away the stress of the day.

 

This became my routine, too, as I would rush home from work and head directly for the bottle of Smirnoff vodka that I kept chilled in the freezer.

 

As I look back to those days when alcohol worked its magic, I can see how it was my go-to stress reliever.  I didn’t look within for the source of my stress.  That would have violated my personal creed: Only the unexamined life is worth living.  All I knew was alcohol rounded the edges of my stress and allowed me to stuff it away.

 

What I failed to understand was this avoidance pattern only intensified my stress and anxiety. What I resisted persisted.  So the cycle would begin again after the next day of work.  On and on.  Finally, I couldn’t drink enough to silence the strident voices of my stress.

 

Sober now for more than a decade, I have revamped my personal creed to Sophocles’ original: Only the examined life is worth living.  In those 10 years, I have immersed myself in the Big Book as well as other psychological and spiritual literature. By looking within rather than away, I have finally gotten to know who I am.

 

But it’s still one day at a time. Stressors are still a part of the sober life. And I am very aware that if I don’t surface the issues in my life that cause stress, that I am very likely to relapse.

 

One of the books that has been a tremendous help to me is The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-free Living, by Dr. Amit Sood.   It’s turned up the stage lighting on what creates stress in my life and how to cope with it.  When we are able to name the source of our stress, we can tame it.  This knowledge may save you from a relapse as well.

 

According to Sood, stress has two internal and three external components.  The internal ones are fighting life and fighting change.

 

Although I recited the Serenity Prayer out loud in hundreds of AA meetings, it wasn’t until a few years ago that I recognized its stress-reducing power.  To “accept the things I cannot change” is an approach to life that has great efficacy in disarming one of the internal stressors: fighting life.  When I can accept life as it is rather than how I think it should be, I immediately reduce my stress level.  I no longer judge my daily experiences as good or bad.  They are all lessons that my Higher Power engages me in for my ultimate good.

The second internal stressor is fighting change. There is a powerful Frederica Matthews-Green quote that says, “Everyone wants to be transformed but nobody wants to change.”  That was me until a few years ago.  Although I had made a drastic change in my life by giving up alcohol, I was unaware of the beliefs I held onto that caused me stress and suffering. During my morning prayer and meditation, I now often ask my Higher Power for “the courage to change the things I can.”  I’ve also discovered that relationships provide a mirror for me to see what I need to change.

 

The three external stressors are the unpredictability of others, a lack of control, and a lack of power.

 

In my drinking days (and still to a much lesser extent), I created movies in my head in which I would play out different scenarios for situations involving unpredictable people.  Rarely did these movies sync with the actual situation.  Instead, they created expectations and then stress when things didn’t work out as I envisioned.  I now “accept the things I cannot change,” knowing that people will be endlessly unpredictable. And isn’t that what makes them fascinating?

 

The second external stressor is lack of control.  That was a huge one for me.  I would stress myself out by constantly trying to control the outside world so that I could be more comfortable in it.  The desire is understandable.  Humans have an aversion to pain.  Yet, control is an illusion.  In honesty, I can’t even control my own thoughts let alone another person.  Giving up my attempts to control others has significantly reduced my stress levels.

 

Power is the last of the external stressors and is the most elusive of the five. I don’t know of anyone who has tasted power who doesn’t crave more of it.  As much as we chase it, we can’t ever seem to hold on to it for long. When we try to seize it, we become like terrorists to others.  People then don’t follow us out of love but out of fear. Honor the moments of your life that you have power.  It is a gift from your Higher Power to be used lovingly.

 

What is common to relieving each of the five stressors is acceptance.  It is a potent antidote to stress.  And it’s central to the Serenity Prayer.  When practicing acceptance, I savor each of its  three flavors: acceptance of others, self-acceptance, and acceptance of the situation.  Life is the highest spiritual path, and I can avoid so many of the stressors by “accepting the things I cannot change.”

 

We Make Our Own Misery

Sometimes a simple question can change you.   In answering it, my life was transformed.  It was like seeing my world with a new pair of glasses.

For me the most radical changes that occurred in my stepwork was the 4th Step: “made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”

It forced me to stare unblinkingly at the suffering my own diseased thinking had caused me and all those involved in my life.

With that insight, I was able to rebuild my life, not from my own blueprint but from the one my Higher Power drafted for my life.  This rebuilt engine has powered me through the best years of my life.  Just recently I celebrated 10 years of sobriety thanks to God and AA.

As I cast my mind back to the first few months of my sobriety, images appear that are as clear as yesterday.  One of those images involved the step work my sponsor guided me through.

My 4th Step was fraught with illusion, but I still see clearly my sponsor and me sitting in his apartment going over my 4th Step Inventory sheet.  I had no problem coming up with people I resented.  I came up with six people and many situations that had caused me resentment.

Sponsor:  You did a good job filling out all the columns of the sheet.   It’s real thorough.  All except for the last column.  There’s nothing written for any of these people.

RJ:   You mean the column about “Where Was I to Blame”?

Sponsor: That’s it.

RJ:  A stock form doesn’t work for everybody.  That column doesn’t apply for me.

Sponsor: Why?

RJ:  Because these are the people who pissed ME off.   Why should I blame myself for their bad behavior?

Sponsor:  You have here that you resent your boss because you think she is incompetent?

RJ: Yes

Sponsor:  Did you talk to her about it?

RJ:  No, I didn’t think I should have to.  I did talk about her to my colleagues who I trusted.

Sponsor:  So you bad-mouthed her behind her back?

RJ:  Well, I guess. Yeah.

Sponsor:  Could it be that one or two of them told her what you said?

RJ:  Maybe.  That’s possible.

Sponsor:   If you didn’t like the way she led, why didn’t you just find another job?

RJ: What?

Sponsor:  Yeah, maybe you would have found a job with a boss you could get along with.

I was struck silent.  New light dawned.

Bill W. talks about the insanity of our thinking when we were in our cups.

I sat dumbfounded in my chair.   I had been miserable for three years working under that woman.  Why the hell didn’t I think of that solution?  I could have just applied for another job!  It would have been that easy.  Instead, I remained in that job suffering and causing my colleagues to suffer because of my own issues with my boss.

Although this would seem to be a minor revelation to non-addicts, it was like the heavens opened and God spoke to me a colossal truth.

Aware of the magnitude of the moment, my sponsor turned to page 133 of the BB and read: “We made our own misery.”

New light was cast into the corners of my life.  I thanked my sponsor for this revelation and set off determined to re-examine my 4th Step Inventory and to find the part I played in my own misery for each resentment.

That moment changed my life.  In fact, it is one of the most important shifts I have made in my 10 years of sobriety.  It rewired my brain and changed the way I respond to life.

It is incredibly liberating to take responsibility, even if my part is only 1 percent, for the people and events in my life that have caused me to feel resentment.  As long as I blame others for the wrongs I perceive they have done to me, I do not have to change.  But to grow, I must change.  The snake that cannot shed its skin will die.  And I will die if I do not follow this Big Book truth:  that any disturbance I feel is because there is something wrong with me—something that needs to change.

Thank God for this lesson!

The Transformational Power of Relationships

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In the previous blog I mentioned that painful experiences will repeat themselves until we drill down to the root of the problem.  Even after our 12-Step work, one of the common categories of pain that we alcoholics and addicts still experience is relationships.  Jacquelyn Small, author of Becoming Naturally Therapeutic, says, “The alcoholic is terribly deficient in the area of intimate relationships—a deficiency that is both a cause and an effect of his drinking” (63).

Both the Big Book and the 12 x 12 say that relationships bring us continuous and recurring trouble.   Why is this?  As alcoholics and addicts, we became masters at avoiding life’s essential pain.  Pain is the greatest catalyst for change. Yet, when we continually used alcohol or drugs to numb us from pain, we cheated ourselves of the spiritual and emotional power of pain to spur our growth.  Maturity is the product of facing pain, not avoiding it.

Relationship experts like Guy Finley say that our interactions with life and with others cannot be any deeper or satisfying than the understanding we have of ourselves.  I remember a fellow AA asking a sponsee who said he wanted to kill himself, “Why would you want to kill someone you don’t even know?” We laughed at this, but the truth stung each of us.  Remember all the times we used isolation to keep us feeling safe?  Unfortunately, it isolated us from understanding who we are. And if we don’t understand ourselves, how are we to understand others? It’s little wonder we are ill-equipped to sustain long-lasting relationships.

It may seem paradoxical that the very thing that creates pain—relationships—is the doorway out of our pain.   Finley says that relationships are literally a mirror.  In them we can see how we are playing in the world.  Relationships can rid us of the blind spots that have sabotaged all of our relationships. “Until we are conscious of [our issues],” Finley says, “they control our actions and reactions.” So self-awareness through relationships provides the best chance we have to grow and develop.

I encourage all of us to seek out relationships with others.  Let us use that same transformational desperation that brought us to the rooms of AA to decommission the defenses that we have employed to build walls between ourselves and others.  Let us be intrepid in our desire to connect with others on a deeper level.  And let us dare to remain vulnerable to ourselves and others even when it comes at a terrible cost to our pride.

In the next blog, I will provide more wisdom from relationship experts

 

Recurring Painful Experiences

 

One of the greatest spiritual truths I have learned after the 12 Steps is that we will repeatedly experience the same painful situations until we drill down to the root of the problem.

If you are like me, you know that we often see the small stuff we need to work on, yet we remain blind to the big stuff.

Even after eight years of AA, I had not come to terms with my unhappiness with life. I was unaware that my greatest battle was with life itself. Like some Roman gladiator armed with a mace, I swung at life believing I could stand unscathed from its inevitable pain.

Only after learning the futility of trying to control life and learning instead to surrender to it did I finally grasp the Big Book principle of accepting “life on life’s terms.” How foolish I felt not practicing this truth after my 12-step work with my sponsor and then with my sponsees. And I missed the essence of the Serenity Prayer that I had been dutifully reciting with my fellow AAs for years at the opening of meetings. “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change” is ultimately about accepting life as it is.

I realized that I had still been investing my time and energy in an attempt to fix all the externals in my life—my wife, my home, my colleagues, my friends—so that I could feel more comfortable with my everyday life. I failed to understand that the only way I was going to experience true happiness was “to have the courage to change the things I can.” What can I change? Not other people, but only myself. But how? By asking God to allow me to see the things within myself that needed to be changed.

With the same courage it took to complete my 4th Step years ago, I plunged into a “searching and fearless” inventory of all my thoughts and behaviors that repeatedly sabotaged my relationships with other people.

God is a wonderful teacher who won’t allow us to go on to the next lesson in life without learning from the lesson at hand. When we don’t learn the lesson, God keeps offering it in a different context. The entire cast of characters changes, but the same pain keeps recurring. Only when I stopped and looked deeply within to the core of each problem did I experience transcendence from the problem and the pain associated with it. In the next blog, I will focus on why relationships are so crucial for our spiritual growth and why they are so difficult for us AAs.

My Story

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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.

Recovery Step 13

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As you know from My Story, I owe my life to AA.  Its fellowship was like a loving hand that lifted me out of the deep trench I had dug with my blackout drinking.  Because of AA, I now have 10 years of sobriety.

To me, the Big Book is an inspired masterpiece.  Yet, Bill W. never intended it to be the last word on spirituality and personal growth.  Nearly two decades after the publication of the Big Book, Bill W. wrote the letter “Emotional Sobriety,” published in the AA Grapevine.  In it he says, “Since AA began, I’ve taken immense wallops…because of my failure to grow up emotionally and spiritually.” It’s clear that Bill W. realized that the Big Book did not hold all the answers to overcoming our malady.

As with the tornado metaphor in the Big Book, Bill W. understood we can never clean up the ravages of our character defects if we remain unaware of the psychological issues that continue to wreak havoc in our relationship with ourselves, with others, and with God—even after working the 12 Steps.  He foresaw the need for a spiritual psychology to carry us beyond the “spiritual awakening” mentioned in the 12th Step. In response, we now have writers like Eckhart Tolle, Deepak Chopra, and Ram Dass whose words are like an inspired friend walking beside us, informing us of the empowerment of self-discovery.

The Big Book awakened us from the big sleep of our addiction.  Now, in recovery and attuned to consciousness, we continue on the path of spiritual and personal growth.  In my journey down my own path, I have read widely from the works of spiritual sages.  With their encouraging presence, I have turned to face my own dysfunctional thoughts and behavior patterns that created seeming insurmountable obstacles to my own happiness and potential.  Through this blog, I will be honored to share some of the insights and lessons I have learned that will help you to experience more moments of bliss on this earth.