I struggled to get and remain sober in AA for a few months. There are some key elements in what ultimately succeeded:
I got a job. It was not a skilled job, an interesting job, or a job that contributed in any way to the development of a career. But it kept me out of trouble during the day, gave me something to think about other than myself, gave me an opportunity to practise the principle of service, put money in my pocket, secured the necessities of life, gave me a place in society, and positioned me as a giver not a taker. For seven hours a day, I was too busy to think about my emotional dramas, and I had respite from myself.
I placed action above emotion. I felt truly awful a lot of the time but made the decision under the guidance of the people around me to stick to my job, my other obligations, the daily actions of the programme, the process of the steps, attendance at meetings, fellowship with others, and service in AA, regardless of how I felt or what my opinion was on whether any of these particular actions were good for me: the examples around me in AA established that these were right, and I wasn't going to question them. I was told that if my arse fell off, I should pick it up and take it to an AA meeting. This is great advice: feeling bloody awful is not a sign to stop taking the right action but a sign to step up the right action. The best self-care was not to run away and lick my wounds but to go to an AA meeting and put out chairs.
My modus operandi throughout my life before AA was as follows: I was the centre of my own dramatic narrative, in which I played the leading role of hero and victim, misunderstood, out of place, and irreparably damaged by, yes, a cruel, cruel world. Now, the world was indeed unpleasant in certain ways, but on top of actual suffering I built a fantasy world of character, plot, and even theme music. I was most comfortable when I was lost inside my dramatic narrative, and when I was placed in a situation where I was not the centre of attention, I would act out: tears, hysterical outbursts, attention-seeking, vocalised suicidal ideation, self-harm, placing myself in dangerous situations, deliberate damage to physical objects, overt or covert accusations, theatrical gloom, emotional vomiting, endless talking about the dramatic narrative, and a complete resistance to any suggestion that there was another way to look at things. I was expert at recruiting people into my narrative, first as heroes but ultimately as villains, as no one was able to rescue me in the manner that I saw fit, and anyone who sought to dismantle my fantasy world became the enemy and, in my perception, a contributor to the growing evil of my life. Here is an illustration of how and why this began to change: in my first few weeks and months in AA, I would have panic attacks and run out of AA meetings. For a while, people would follow me to see if I was OK. Eventually, they gave up and left me to it. Once I had demonstrated to myself a few times that this was no longer going to work, the panic attacks, which had previously seemed involuntary, stopped spontaneously. Behind the apparent automatic behaviour was subconscious calculation. This was how AA helped me: genuine assistance was provided at the same time that people around me refused to indulge my unhelpful behaviour.
To become sponsorable, the following were necessary:
(1) I had to be willing to supplant my sponsor's perception of my situation for my own, without resistance.
(2) I had to be willing to take actions my sponsor suggested, without resistance.
Another issue I had in early recovery was mixed messages and mixed approaches. I was extremely unwell, mentally ill in fact, when I got sober. Many very well-meaning people suggested therapy. I followed their advice, and within a few sessions became persistently preoccupied with the sorry events of my childhood, convinced I could not start to have a positive experience of my life until these sorry events had been processed, believing that my modes of thinking and behaviour were so intrinsic to who I was that I could not be expected to change, and hyperaware of the tangled ball of painful perceptions and memories in my mind, which I believed meant that I could not be happy today or indeed ever until this was resolved, but unclear if, when, and how the therapeutic process I was engaged in could ever achieve this. I quickly acquired the perception of myself as so utterly damaged and broken that I would never be happy, and even more angry at my childhood and the figures that populated my narrative about it. As if this wasn't bad enough, the ideas in the therapy directly contradicted what was being taught to me in AA about how to live cheerfully, usefully, and kindly in the here and now. You cannot live in the day and talk about your past at the same time. The AA steps do look at the past, but only briefly and in a controlled way, to examine where my moral failings lay, and to provide the basis for forgiveness of others for their wrongs towards me. This is quite different from the therapy I was the subject of, which was psychotherapy largely consisting in me telling the therapist my thoughts about my feelings without any critical distance being introduced or without my beliefs, perceptions, and attitudes being challenged. When I stopped the therapy and started applying AA's approach of learning to live cheerfully, usefully, and kindly in the day, hope returned, and I started to get well. Over the 12 years that followed, I tried a couple of times to resume therapy to handle the residue left over from my childhood, but my experience in each case was that, although the therapy provided some temporary emotional relief, it did not contribute at all to the changes in perception of my past and myself that ultimately proved the road to wellness. The tools of the programme that did resolve these problems were as follows:
(1) Recognising that others are unwell
(2) Recognising that that everyone is dealt some good cards and some bad cards
(3) Recognising that what is past is literally no longer there
(4) Recognising my own infinite worth as a human being and that this applies equally to others
(5) Recognising that inferring who I am from what happens to me is flawed thinking
(6) Dropping the whole value system underpinning my interpretation of and interaction with the world
(8) Making amends
(9) Guarding my thoughts and preventing negativity from gaining a foothold
(10) Actively seeking and developing a relationship with God
(11) Seeking to implement that relationship by working for God by serving others
(12) Remaining in the now
A key principle of the programme is letting go of old ideas. The Big Book suggests that we have to be willing to let go of our old ideas, and that the result is nil until we let go absolutely. I have learned to beware also of new old ideas. When I was new in AA, I went to too many different types of meeting and spoke at depth with too many people. The result was a soup of inconsistent ideas and belief systems, and my attempts to reconcile these ideas produced half-hearted action in all directions, dissipating my efforts, and putting the brakes on all lines of attack, as I was not fully committed to any particular approach. Once I adopted one particular approach to AA and decided to disregard the rest, the task was simpler, my mind was clearer, and I started to make very rapid progress. What this did mean, though, was that, to make progress, I had to be willing to have my sponsor challenge any idea I presented without resistance from me. The ideas I presented were old ideas from before AA but also new ideas from other people in AA or other domains (religion, spirituality, self-help, therapy, etc.) which were incompatible with what my sponsor was suggesting. For a while, until I was trained out of it, I would play my sponsor off against these other ideas and challenge what my sponsor was saying. Fortunately, I was trained out of this swiftly, as he said that he was merely offering me a package deal. I could take the package deal or leave it but he was not going to justify the package deal: he was simply offering me what he had been shown and what had worked for him. There was also no point in me trying to follow another spiritual or therapeutic process whilst trying to learn and adopt the programme, because it's impossible to create the space required by letting go of old ideas if, as I'm pouring out bad old ideas from one side of the jug, someone else is pouring bad or at least incompatible new ideas into the other.
To sum up, I had to let go of old, bad ideas, be wary of new and bad or incompatible ideas, adopt the programme of action wholeheartedly, and adopt a very simple approach to life: get on with what is in front of me, trust God, and disregard my own perceptions, beliefs, and thinking.