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

Ways to Socialize Soberly

I’m going to make a fool of myself.  I’ll feel out of place.  People will see how anxious I am.  If I don’t say much, people won’t know how boring I am.

 

These are the things that I would tell myself when I thought of social situations involving more than just a couple people.  If you can relate to this, then welcome to the world of social anxiety.  And, yes, it can be a huge burden and, yes, there are ways to overcome it.

 

Amazingly, it has taken me a lifetime to come to terms with my own social anxiety.  Many people shield themselves behind friends in social situations. Others become wall flowers.  Still others avoid socializing at all costs and, sadly, live a very lonely life.  For me, I discovered a cheat for social anxiety in my junior year of high school.  And that was alcohol. Unfortunately, when we continually use any coping behavior, we never address the issue—we only hide from it.  Soon I was drinking whenever I socialized…and then when I was alone as well.

 

The fact that nearly all people experience social anxiety should be an assuring thought to anyone.  But it wasn’t for me.  When I looked around at parties, I saw everyone else appearing so relaxed and so confident with others.  Why couldn’t I be like that?  Then I discovered pre-party drinking and embraced the magic of alcohol.  When I drank, I became the person I wanted to meet.  The more I relied on this social crutch, the more weight I put on it.

 

Dinner parties with guests sitting around a dining room table gave me the greatest social jitters.  In these situations, people could too easily see just how much I was drinking. I felt that I had to limit my drinking which reduced the effectiveness of my coping behavior.  Eventually, all my decisions about social situations boiled down to this:  If I couldn’t drink freely, I wouldn’t attend.

 

That crutch, however, became as heavy as a boat anchor, and it plunged me into the abyss of alcoholism. From the clarity of recovery, I clearly see that social anxiety was one of the most powerful forces that drove my drinking. I had a living problem and a drinking solution.  Now, in my tenth year of sobriety, I still push myself to more frequently attend social gatherings. It’s amazing how confronting our problems reduces their power over us.  Does social anxiety still haunt me?  For the most part, no.

 

But that old phantom returned this week.  I have a fairly big dinner party I promised my girlfriend that I would attend with her this coming weekend.  These situations are my Achilles heal.  With the invitation came a rush of anxious thoughts and a tightening in my stomach.  Yes, I have made progress with social anxiety in my recovery, but I’m still not immune to it.

 

This time I finally decided to seek out the advice of professionals.  This time I would take a different approach. This time I decided to confront my social anxiety head on, armed with new techniques rather than just ignoring the issue.

 

In his wonderful article “7 Techniques for Overcoming Social Phobia,” therapist Mark Tyrrell provides easy to implement ways of relieving social anxiety.

Here are his suggestions:

  1. Prepare to relax

Tyrrell says worrying is self-programming.  When we worry about an upcoming social situation, we are projecting ourselves into that situation and seeing ourselves failing once again.  Little wonder we experience anxiety when we are actually in that social setting.  Instead, he recommends that we take a warm bath or sit in a comfortable chair and visualize ourselves in that situation looking relaxed and confident.  Repeatedly doing this will create positive associations with socializing.

 

  1. Seek out social situations

The more we avoid something the more we send the message to the unconscious mind that it is dangerous and should be avoided.  This is true of socializing.  The solution is to actively put ourselves in social situations both in our imaginations (visualizations) and in person.   Soon, Tyrrell says, our conscious minds will begin to see socializing as safe and normal for us—even something to look forward to.

  1. Look at your surroundings

Oftentimes, when we are socializing, it is like we are walking around with a mirror in front of us, continually viewing how anxious we imagine ourselves looking and telling ourselves negative messages like “I’m boring.”  Tyrrell recommends moving our focus outward to the people in the room and to the room itself.  Notice the color of the walls, the room décor, and what other people are wearing.  After all, social situations are about focusing our attention away from ourselves.

 

  1. Ask questions

Tyrrell says that social phobia is all about worrying what other people think of us.  So shift the focus to other people by asking them questions that go beyond “yes” and “no” answers.  Google “Forty Fun Icebreakers.”

 

  1. Switch off your imagination

Imagination is one of our greatest assets but not when it comes to imagining what people are thinking of us.  When we find ourselves trying to mind read, we need to shut it down.  Yes, we can influence what others think of us, but we can’t control it, so why try, Tyrrell says.

 

  1. What do you want?

Our minds need positive instructions.  Tyrrell suggests asking ourselves, “How do I want to feel in these situations?”  He recommends closing our eyes and feeling how we feel when we were in the company of our loved ones.  Now, in social situations, bring those warm feelings with you and make a habit of sending them out to everyone.

 

  1. On being yourself

When we try to present ourselves as perfect, we come off cold and stilted. People who are willing to allow themselves to be a bit of a fool, Tyrrell says, are more socially confident.  People actually connect with us better when we are willing to show ourselves as flawed.  We wouldn’t be human if we weren’t.

 

 

And here is one of my own.  I have a habit of looking away immediately after someone asks me a question.  People can associate that with lying.  So lately I have been standing in front of a mirror and asking myself common questions I would be asked at a party.  I work on keeping eye contact with myself while answering.

 

All people suffer some degree of social anxiety. For alcoholics, we have relied on alcohol to provide us with the social “grease” to help us relax in social situations.  Other people become addicted to their own coping behaviors.  After the 12 Steps, we face the challenge of socializing cleanly. But if we take on this challenge with the same courage as we did our 4th Steps, and we apply these seven techniques, we can overcome our social anxieties.  We then look forward to socializing rather than dreading it. And what a feeling of accomplishment that will be!

The Glories of Gratitude

I first heard the phrase “develop an attitude of gratitude” in an AA meeting I attended in my first year of recovery.   My immediate reaction was “Isn’t that sweet.”  Then I dismissed it as one of those pathetic AA expressions.  Even though alcohol had totally kicked my ass Rodney King style, I was still carrying around with me this false bravado that placed me above gimmicky expressions.

Then, a few days later, I heard my sponsor say that he was “cultivating an attitude of gratitude.”  I stifled a gag and thought, “Hell, they’ve gotten to him to…although I like his word choice better.”

Here I am nine years later cultivating an attitude of gratitude.  What the hell happened to me?  Sobriety.  It works wonders—even on fools like me.  Yep, I’m kinda a gratitude junkie now.  I even got my girlfriend using now.  Before we turn off the lights at night, we take turns saying our gratitude out loud to each other.  I get a body rush of good feelings hearing each other go through the day, honoring the things that our Higher Power had blessed our lives with.

Gratitude softened me to life and strengthened my connection to it.  I was sleeping better and walked through my days with a heightened sense of appreciation.

About a month into it, the control freak in me raised its condemning head.  Alcoholism may really have a genetic link.  I thought of my drunken ancestor staring gloomily into the cavefire growing more and more irritated with his tribal homebuddies.   (In the picture above, my tribal ancestor is on the far left.)

“How long is she going to go on tonight?  That’s her seventh gratitude.  She’s like a gratitude relay runner who never passes the baton.”

With the patience that 10 years of sobriety can bring, I said to her, “You know, it might be better to just keep our gratitude to our top three for the day.” Realizing that I was sabotaging what I had created (What a surprise for an addict!), I decided to soften my comment with, “That way we can…uh…go into a little more depth.”

Fortunately, by the grace of God, I have been blessed with a girlfriend who laughs easily about herself and has taught me to do the same.  Just after the “more depth” comment, we both burst into laughter.  Yes, one of my most enduring gratitudes is for her.

Bill W. spoke of gratitude in the 12 x 12 suggesting a “genuine gratitude for blessings received and a willingness to try for better things tomorrow will be the permanent assets we shall seek.”

Many times Bill W’s name has come up in my gratitude.  It’s like a verbal hug to Bill and to all my fellow travelers who have helped to “relieve me of the bondage of self.”

If you don’t already set a time aside during each day to practice gratitude, consider Bill W’s words.  Consider spending a few minutes in gratitude with your partner before turning the lights out.  Life can become pretty chaotic.  When it does, my girlfriend and I occasionally need to remind ourselves of the commitment we have made to each other by saying, “Let’s do some ‘tude.”

If you’re a single traveler at this point in your life, try writing in a gratitude journal before lights out.  When life grows dark, it will be a great way to realign your thoughts and heighten your awareness of just how blessed your life really is.

Well, night night to you, my fabulous fellow travelers.  May your path be illuminated by the radiance of God’s grace.

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 connecting power of play

“God enters through the wound.”

Years ago I read this quote attributed to Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology. The words have remained sacred to me, and I have applied their balm to even the most superficial of wounds.

I find it easy to confide in others about the deep wounds life opens. Yet, it’s these small, seemingly insignificant scratches that, for me, cut as deep as glacial ice.  Over time they have carved out my self-image.  These are the ones that I keep secret because I am embarrassed to show them.  But, as I have learned in recovery, it is what I keep secret that makes me suffer.

Today is no different. I have found that I have been living a lie.  It’s another one of those silly scratches that I struggle to reveal because I don’t want others to laugh and say, “Really? Is that what you’re upset about?”

Yet, silently, I am in awe how God enters the wound if we allow ourselves to acknowledge that we have, indeed, been wounded.

Just yesterday I was completing an exercise from the book The Confidence Gap by Russ Harris.  It asked what values and goals I have in four facets of my life:  love, work, health, and play.

All was going great.   I was experiencing a flood of warm, glowing feelings of how much I have grown in my ten years of sobriety and my work as a spiritual life coach.  I was really patting myself on the back.

Yep, I was feeling like the Lebron James of love, the Wayne Gretzky of work, and the Hank Aaron of health.

Then I came to writing my values and goals for play. WTH! Crap!  I felt like I was hit on the head with a bat.  I came to the realization that I am the Pete Rose of play.  I have sabotaged my career as a player, the very thing that used to bring me joy.  I tried to remember the last time I went out on the town with a friend.

I came to the startling realization–a core truth:  The reason I drank was because I believed it was the only way I could feel a connection to others.

WTH! So I am sitting here today bleeding from the epiphany that I know as much about play as Donald Trump knows about public service.  I don’t just suck at playing, I haven’t even put on the uniform for what seems like years.  I have been so busy with my career and my commitments that I’ve forgotten how to engage in play with my friends.  I knew the power of play as a child, but my career and my commitments rob me of my play time.

At least that’s the lie I have been telling myself. The truth is that I find play to be uncomfortable.   It puts me right back into the story I have been writing over the years that I am socially defective.

I think about all the amazing people I have known in the past 20 years of my adult life. Many of those I have worked with.  But I poured myself into my work-a-day world so I went numb to my own needs and to theirs, neglecting the power of play to create the connection we needed between us.

So it grieves me to admit it, but I am suddenly—and consciously—aware that the reason I haven’t been doing fun things with colleagues, friends, and other loved ones is that it surfaces my own inadequacies.

As a child, I played fearlessly. But as I entered adulthood, I just sort of gave up.  I felt—and still do at times—that I am unworthy of play.  For years, I stood on the edge of my circle of friends, envious of the joy and laugher they shared, giving my social shame the power to keep me sidelined.

Is it any wonder that I worshipped the effects of alcohol? That it did for me what I couldn’t do for myself?  Instantly, without doing any work on myself, I could suddenly connect in play with others with just a couple of drinks.

It’s easy to blame my socially-isolated parents who never modeled for me what having friends over looked like. Yet, I promised my sponsor and myself to abandon my victimhood as I did the bottle when I became sober.  I know there are things that happened to me that I am not responsible for but, as an adult, I am responsible for healing them.

God really does enter through the wound. And it’s my commitment, just as it was with my 4th Step, to fearlessly look at myself and surface my character defects that keep creating the wounds.  And, just as before, I will get on my knees and ask God for the same miracle that got me sober.  Surely, if God’s grace could free me from the power of alcohol, then that same grace can free me from the prison of my own social fears.

I acknowledge to myself that play is crucial because it is how we, as human beings, connect. It will take time and courage to tear up the story about my social defectiveness.   In The Confidence Gap, Harris says that our problem is not that we lack social skills, it’s that we become fused with the story that we lack those skills.

Today, I am making a vow to call up a friend and ask him to join me in play. It takes practice to overcome any of our perceived defects.  Harris’ words hearten me in keeping me committed to this crucial project: “The actions of confidence come first; the feelings of confidence come later.”

I thank God that he used the simple exercise in Harris’ book to reveal to me a deep truth about myself that I have been hiding from for years.

God really does enter through the wound—even the scratches—and transmutes the pain into victory.

Recovery Step 13

rjhandley.com

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.