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Friday, April 22, 2011

From "Grave Mental and Emotional Disorders" to "Emotional Sobriety"

One of Bill W.'s most self-revelatory writings, a letter he wrote to a close friend who also suffered from bouts of depression, was published in the January 1958 issue of the Grapevine under the title "Emotional Sobriety: The Next Frontier." It's also published at page 236 in "The Language of the Heart," and is essential reading if you or anyone you know suffers, as I have done, from what Winston Churchill called "the black dog" of periodic depression.

In it, Bill notes that "many oldsters who have put our 'booze cure' to severe but successful tests still find that they often lack emotional sobriety. Perhaps," he suggests, "they will be the spearhead for the next major development in AA - the development of much more real maturity and balance (which is to say humility) in our relations with ourselves, with our fellows, and with God."

He continues:
"Those adolescent urges that so many of us have for top approval, perfect security, and perfect romance - urges quite appropriate to age seventeen - prove to be an impossible way of life when we are at age forty-seven or fifty-seven."

"Since AA began, I've taken immense wallops in all these areas because of my failure to grow up, emotionally and spiritually. God, how painful it is to keep demanding the impossible, and how very painful to discover, finally, that all along we have had the cart before the horse! Then comes the final agony of seeing how awfully wrong we have been, but still finding ourselves unable to get off the emotional merry-go-round."

"How to translate a right mental conviction into a right emotional result, and so into easy, happy, and good living - well, that's not only the neurotic's problem, it's the problem of life itself for all of us who have got to the point of real willingness to hew to the right principles in all our affairs."
"My basic flaw," Bill confesses, "had always been dependence - almost absoulute 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."

Our stories, "before and after," we repeatedly hear in the "How It Works" reading, makes clear the idea that "we were alcoholic and could not manage our own lives." I have found that my dependence on being able to manage my life so that I received what I thought I needed as far as security, love and social standing with my fellows turned out, as it did for Bill, to end in crushing disappointments and the very real, grave and life-threatening onset of depression. However, when I have truly surrendered the management of life to the source that already controls it - surrendered life to life itself - I have found that my dependencies and my depression recede, and that I have those precious commodities I need to sustain me, the experience of a loving God-consciousness and the serenity of emotional sobriety.

This is not to say that the alcoholic addict who suffers or suspects he or she may suffer from depression should not see a medical professional. Quite the contrary. AA has "no opinion" on that issue, as is noted in "The A.A, Member and Other Medications," pamphlet. However, it must also be noted that our experience (as set out in the pamphlet) is that if a person requires medication and is not taking that medication, this may prevent him or her from having the spiritual awakening that is necessary to arrest his or her active addiction.

That being said, Bill notes that he found the beginning of a solution to his grave emotional problem with depression in realizing he could not be both dependent on others and reliant upon God to meet his true needs:
"Plainly," he observes, "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. And I couldn't possibly do that so long as I was victimized by false dependencies."

"For my dependency meant demand - a demand for the possession and control of the people and the conditions surrounding me."
In my instance, the problem and the results were the same. With the aid of appropriate medication (carefully prescribed and monitored by my doctor), and the admixture of the "self-examination, meditation and prayer," that was similarly recommended to me, I can truly let go of my dependency for people to conform with my ideas of how life should be 'managed,' and accede to the way that God manages life - all of life - and always has.

Of course, as it is recognized, I first had to be honest and willing to face the reality of how I had I subtly tried to manage life myself. This was the honesty and humility I needed to cope with depresssion - a "grave mental and emotional disorder" which can be overcome if I manifest my God-given capacity to be honest with myself.


  1. As a fellow "manager" of life, I appreciate your post on emotional sobriety and thank you for grounding it in your own experience of depression. I believe that true emotional sobriety comes not just in the achievement of "happy, joyous, and free" feelings, but in navigating ALL of our feelings with the sort of honesty and humility that you seem to display. Bravo!

  2. A valuble part was left out in you overview.Bill said "I had to exert every ounce of will and action to cut off these faulty emotional dependencies upon people, upon A A, upon any set of circustances whatever."

    Bill never did find the balance he looked for and kept self medicating with lust and smoking until he died. So the new frontier never got started and is an outside issue according the the tradtions.

    My view is nobody ever including Bill himself looked at his genetic make up. His mom suffered from life long depression and his an alcholic. Medical attention and AA would having given him the balance he never found in my opinion, istead of swithing addictions and self medicating.

    Michael A in Kansas