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.