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Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Perils, Pitfalls & Promise of the "Twelve & Twelve"

A.A. Co-Founder, Bill W.
In a letter dated October 5, 1953, A.A. co-founder and author, Bill W., wrote of the expectations he had for the newly-penned 'Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions'. "At first," he observed, "I was dubious whether anyone would care for it, save oldtimers who had begun to run into life's lumps in areas other than alcohol. But apparently, the book is being used to good effect even upon newcomers." ('Pass It On', at page 356.)

Of course, many in A.A. nowadays hold fast to the notion that the Twelve and Twelve is ruinous to A.A., and/or that its use, particularly its exclusive use, with newcomers is perilous to their prospects of attaining and maintaining sobriety. To my mind, and in my experience, such A.A. "fundamentalists" or "Big Book Thumpers" are right . . . but only partially right. Along with the perils and pitfalls that the Twelve and Twelve can present to overly-reliant newcomers, the book holds great promise and practical spiritual wisdom for the more seasoned alcoholic addict in recovery when he or she is presented with life's inevitable challenges.

In words that have quite literally saved the lives of millions of alcoholic addicts, and in a manner that the reader can use to see if he or she is alcoholic, the 'Big Book' ('Alcoholics Anonymous') clearly sets out the physical and mental aspects of the disease, a spiritual solution to this primarily mental illness, and a process of steps that can (and are) used to effect a spiritual solution to the malady. I know of few, if any, members with long-term sobriety that would start a newcomer off without going through the 'Big Book.' The methodology for working through the 12 Steps is invaluable, particularly the concise directions for getting through Steps 4 through Step Nine (a.s.a.p.) and, thereby, initiating a process of spiritual awakening that promises to arrest and alleviate the effects of the disease. Likewise, I know few (if any) old-timers who do not, or have not, benefited from what is laid out in the Twelve and Twelve.

My experiences with the 'Big Book' and the 'Twelve and Twelve' over several decades have been decidedly mixed, as I suspect the experience of many others probably have been.

In my case, by happenstance and misleading advertising, the first group I joined was a Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions group. (It was announced that February was "membership month" and that the group still had several "openings" which were available. Knowing nothing of A.A. - or recovery, for that matter - and being but a few weeks sober, I thought I had better grab one of those openings before I was shut out.) I stayed with that group, maintaining my sobriety without relapse, for over five years, until I left to help start up another group and, shortly thereafter, to move to another city. In that time, week after week, we would go through the Steps, one after another in relentless fashion.  I remember nothing of what I shared, and now shudderingly marvel that there was anything of value I could have shared!

I learned but little about the true nature of my disease, but much about how to stay sober in that time. Additionally, I read the 'Big Book' cover to cover, as suggested, but little sank in, due not to the message in the book but to the prejudice and contempt I had for all things spiritual or, somehow, 'Godly.' (Not that I wouldn't participate in the Serenity Prayer, Lord's Prayer etc., and not that I didn't read my daily meditations from the 'Twenty Four Hours a Day' book, or 'Daily Reflections' when it came out. I would grudgingly do the little I was told to do, but only that much!)

During that time I was, however, taken through the Steps both by my sponsor and then by a relative "oldtimer" within my group utilizing the 'Big Book.' I listed my resentments and fears, inventoried my sex conduct, made the list, made amends etc., and it was beneficial - to me, my family, and my employer, etc. - yet I failed to grasp the key understanding that my life in sobriety had become and continued to be "unmanageable." (See page 61.) Thus, I was handicapped from the start in my ability to "enlarge" my spiritual being.

Sobering up at age 28 in the late-Eighties, I was one of the younger members of A.A. in my area. I therefore took much false solace in the Twelve and Twelve's description of the younger "alcoholics who still had their health, their families, (and) their jobs," etc. I was mightily relieved to read that I had been "spared that last ten or fifteen years of literal hell (other A.A.s) had gone through." (Little did I know, or suspect, that years of "figurative hell" were to come.) Reading through the rest of that paragraph in the Twelve and Twelve's first chapter, I utterly failed to grasp the meaning or importance of the following question:
"Since Step One requires an admission that our lives have become unmanageable, how could such people as these take this Step?
That is a great question, indeed. For my part, and to myself alone, I saw Step One as: "Admitting that I was powerless over alcohol (and other drugs) and that my life had (potentially) become unmanageable (if I ever drank or drugged again)." Keeping all the parts in brackets to myself, I marched on in sobriety, determined to get "Good Orderly Direction" in my life. For the next five years, I relied on my Twelve and Twelve meeting, my sponsor, and thereafter on the fellowship of AA to stay sober. (This worked for me to the limited extent that I stayed straight, but I adamantly warn off others who would try it this way. I've seen too many fatalities via this route.)

Just shy of 10 years sobriety, having completed a university education and graduate school, with a wife now sober, and with two small girls - one of them named for my first sponsor - I started a job as a newly-minted professional in a new city. The days and weeks were very long, life seemed manageable, and I made a conscious decision to stop attending A.A. in order to spend what little time was left over with my wife and kids.

Little did I know that the five years after that fateful decision would be an at-first slow descent into madness, a madness in which I finally lost marriage, family, career, house and my mind. Just as the oldtimers had warned me, all those things that I had put in front of my sobriety I had lost. Beaten by life and this disease, obsessing over escape from a painful and seemingly hopeless life via the bottle, I was brought back to A.A. and to a wise and loving sponsor who took me back through the Steps. The 'Big Book' was read and explained to me. Re-doing the Steps with a new understanding, I experienced the spiritual release that is available through our program of action. My mind was opened, and with the help of several spiritual mentors, day-by-day I began - with several epiphanies along the way - to grow spiritually.

Interestingly, not only had the import and significance of the 'Big Book' - its application to my life and circumstances - soared, but the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions had also become inextricably important to my growth in spirit and consciousness. With fifteen years clean and sober - most of it being "stark, raving sobriety" - I had become one of those whom Bill so mildly puts it "had begun to run into life's lumps in areas other than alcohol."

There are, indeed, perils and pitfalls along the way if one ignores the 'Big Book' in favour, grudgingly, of the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, as I did. Some seem to avoid the mistakes that are so often made. I did not. But having survived these perils and pitfalls, I know that the Twelve and Twelve, holds much promise for further growth, written as it is for those who have already completed the 12 Steps as outlined in the 'Big Book' of Alcoholics Anonymous.

My closest spiritual mentor, a profoundly dedicated man with 35 years of sobriety at the time, often stressed that having taken the Steps and having recovered from the hopeless state of alcoholism - wet or dry - it is imperative that one incorporates Step Three, Step Seven and Step Eleven into one's daily life; relying on Step Ten where we screw up, and utilizing Step Twelve in carrying the message where we can. It is here, and in this process, that the experience of Bill's years of sobriety, as set out in the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, becomes so important. Indeed, I find it is needlessly hard, if not impossible, to practice these Steps without the various spiritual nuggets of wisdom he shares there.

Consider, as examples, the following passages from the essays on Steps Three, Seven and Eleven:
  • "Our whole problem had been the misuse of willpower. We had tried to bombard our problems with it instead of attempting to bring it into agreement with God's intention for us. To make this increasingly possible is the purpose of A.A.'s Twelve Steps, and Step Three opens the door."

    "Once we have come into agreement with these ideas, it is really easy to begin the practice of Step Three. In all times of emotional disturbance or indecision, we can pause, ask for quiet, and in the stillness simply say: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference. Thy will, not mine, be done."" (Step Three, pp. 40-41. Emphasis added.)
  • "For us, the process of gaining a new perspective was unbelievably painful. . . . It was only at the end of a long road, marked by successive defeats and humiliations, and the final crushing of our self-sufficiency, that we began to feel humility as something more than a condition of grovelling despair. . . . The admission of powerlessness over alcohol . . . is but the barest beginning. To get completely away from our aversion to the idea of being humble, to gain a vision of humility as the avenue to true freedom of the human spirit, to be willing to work for humility as some thing to be desired for itself, takes most of us a long, long time."

    "We saw that we needn't always be bludgeoned and beaten into humility. It could come quite as much from our voluntary reaching for it as it could from unremitting suffering. A great turning point in our lives came when we sought for humility as something we really wanted, rather than as something we must have. It marked the time when we could see the full implication of Step Seven: "Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings."" (Step Seven, pp. 72-73, 75.)
  • "There is a direct linkage among self-examination, meditation and prayer. Taken separately, these practices bring much relief and benefit. But when they are logically related and interwoven, the result is an unshakeable foundation for life. Now and then we may be granted a glimpse of that ultimate reality which is God's Kingdom." (Step Eleven, p. 98.)
 As it says in 'Pass It On' (at page 352):
"If (the) 'Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions' is a small volume in terms of length, it is large in its depth and content. Whereas the Big Book, written in 1938, radiates Bill's joy and gratitude at having finally found a way to stay sober, the 'Twelve and Twelve' reflects an entirely different mood. In 1951 and 1952, when Bill wrote the second book, he was suffering almost constant depression and was forced to confront the emotional and spiritual demons that remain "stranded" in the alcoholic psyche when the high tide of active alcoholism recedes. The 'Twelve and Twelve' provides a highly practical and profoundly spiritual prescription to exercise those demons."
Thus, in my experience there are indeed grave perils and deep pitfalls that can be (as they were for me) life-threatening if one overly (or solely) relies on the Twelve and Twelve without reference and reliance on the 'Big Book' of Alcoholics Anonymous. That being said, there is great promise to alleviate the residual suffering of "the alcoholic psyche" after, but not before, "the high tide of active alcoholism recedes."

The spiritual path that is so meticulously laid out and explained in the two volumes, if walked day-by-day, promises us a new perspective on life and what it means to be sober, indeed it offers us "a gift that amounts to a new state of consciousness and being." (Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, page 107.)

It is exceedingly difficult and painful, in my experience, to sober up and remain sober without a firm foundation in the 'Big Book.' It is equally difficult and even more painful, I have found, to remain mentally and emotionally sober without a firm foundation in the Twelve and Twelve.

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