When someone mentioned freedom at my first 12 step meeting, I wasn’t feeling it—it felt more like I was trapped. I didn’t know it was just what I needed. But I’d been gone a long time, and my life was in a shambles. I felt conspicuous and unprepared for human contact as I faced the strange new terms for survival that were explained to me. It made listening difficult and eye-to-eye contact unnerving. However, I knew I couldn’t run away and hide without being sucked back into the bottle if I raised it to my lips again. It might not spit me out the next time. The specter of alcohol was a gun to my head, forcing me to do things that were contrary to my thinking. So I kept going to meetings.
I had to face life sober, and it was something I hadn’t foreseen. The old-timers insisted everything had to change except my name, and the fear of this widespread Unknown was daunting. I had to believe in something that was hard to believe in. Although it was a painfully slow process, I listened closely to them at meetings, and eventually they helped me to want to believe.
However, the regulars spoke in a language I couldn’t comprehend, full of obscure clichés, monotonous one-liners and amusing anecdotes that aspired to be funny. They weren’t—it took awhile for my funny bone to stop smoking and my sense of humor to return. Simple suggestions were offered that were woefully insufficient. It was clear they didn’t know how complex my problems were, or how important I was. I knew they meant well and were trying to help me, but I suspected they had been on the sauce too long. Naturally, I’d have to figure it out for myself. Maybe I could come back and help them someday?
Many alcoholics with similar mindsets preceded me to this last house on the block, convinced they were different, too. Most had vanished from the group’s memory, or made spotty appearances after lengthy absences. Each time they returned a little more damaged. The admission of powerlessness was a formidable fight to the finish for many. Paradoxically, in order to win, I had to surrender—a concept not easy to compute, and a taste too bitter for many.
My mental and emotional states had been in steady decline for years. I suffered from depression and PTSD due to a tragic accident I witnessed as a fourteen-year old boy. My grandfather was killed when a tractor rolled over on him on the very day my life-long dream of becoming a farmer would briefly come true. I was just a kid. The greatest day of my life slipped into a nightmare in twenty short minutes, and I dropped into a deep, emotional chasm I might never escape.
Consequently, I was one of those who suffered from grave emotional disorders when I arrived. Feelings resurfaced from years before that I thought I evaded, but they quietly crawled around inside me for over a couple of decades, sedated. I thought I mentally processed and buried the pain years ago, but I was wrong. It was back.
I was also in the early stages of a hasty divorce that stunned me and my ego. Collectively, they weren’t optimal conditions to begin recovery, but I was fortunate to have the capacity to be honest enough to know what the next first drink would set in motion.
Still, if there were any requirements imposed on me when I first began my journey, I couldn’t have stayed. I would have been one more anonymous casualty added to a grim statistic. All I could do was not drink and keep coming back. I was in a painful fog that would take time to clear up. My ability to be honest, open-minded and willing was lacking, and I couldn’t automatically become obedient to the motley group I had just met, trusting they knew what was best for me. There were so many voices and so many suggestions—it was information overload.
I was closed-minded, rebellious and afraid, not to mention scatterbrained, yet still was given the freedom to grow at my own pace—to attend meetings and learn the language. I listened to the war stories that helped me identify, and the recovery stories that gave me the vital ingredient I was missing– hope. It kept me coming back on those days that felt like a tightrope walk through Hell.
Though they wanted to help me avoid them, I learned best by making mistakes, all the while steadied by the support they offered. I learned how to Keep It Simple by not keeping it simple, and how to live A Day at a Time by not living a day at a time. I learned how to Let Go and Let God by not letting go and not letting God. Grasping what wouldn’t work was useful despite the occasional harsh experience. Discomfort, frustration and pain were the fare for my passage into a new way of life. Slowly, I saw how those simple tools could be utilized for my benefit. A considerable amount of Quality Miserable Time was necessary before I got it, but it was a lesson well-learned. Laughter finally returned.
There was just as much skepticism before I applied the twelve steps to my life, but that wasn’t unusual either. I have yet to meet anyone who couldn’t wait to get started, and no one I know wished there were fifteen or twenty of them, either. But when I realized knowledge wouldn’t bring me the desired effect, and no future inspirational lecture would be enlightening enough, I had to find something else. All of the mental and emotional upheaval I experienced embodied the perfect backdrop for something spiritual to occur in my life, and it changed me at the very nature of my being. The seeds had been planted all along; I just had to get ready and willing. I think it’s a God-thing.
Everything took longer than necessary—I couldn’t connect the dots in the beginning. And there were a lot of dots, and so much to learn. Although it was a long process, I kept coming back and grew spiritually and healed mentally and emotionally. It happened because I continued to practice the steps, attended meetings and stayed close to my Higher Power. My sponsor called it my sobriety insurance policy. I’m grateful he didn’t expect me to get everything right when I first showed up. Some days my mind had a mind of its own. Buoyed by my surrender and willingness, the grace of God saw me through. I was given the gift of time.
The only way I could believe in something new was to have an actual, personal experience that uprooted my old beliefs. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t un-think anything I believed in. Those fixed conceptions had to be replaced by something better that was also legitimate, and could only be produced by the results of the actions that were suggested to me.
I can’t make someone’s mistakes for them, or substitute what they need to experience with my wisdom that was forged from the school of hard knocks. I have to check my ego at the door. I am not unique—I can’t forget my old ideas had to be pried away from me, too. I can only show others what I did to stay sober. I afford newcomers the same time and freedom I was given while I wait, a phone call or a cup of coffee away, with patience and support. They have to get it themselves so it can become part of their own experience.
My pain, my growth, my wisdom, my surrender and my sense of wonder had to become as much a part of me as the heart beating in my chest, and the face I looked at in the mirror. It was my sober experience.
I strive to help maintain an environment where the miracle of recovery can take place. I share my experience, strength and hope, and offer help and understanding. As broken as I was when I arrived, the love and acceptance I was given allowed me the freedom I needed to get another chance at life in a brand new world. I continue to pass it on to the best of my ability.