Chapter 5 “How it works”

February 12, 2023

By Andy F

Categories: AA literature

“Rarely have we seen a person fail….”

AA members around the world read a section of Chapter 5 from the Big Book. It starts with “Rarely have we seen a person fail” (p. 58) and ends with the “three pertinent ideas” on p. 60

This introductory passage from Chapter 5, “How it works,” offers members a comprehensive definition of alcoholism described as a disease. Then, we hear the solution to the illness outlined in the twelve steps.

An agnostic’s reaction to chapter 5

For several months after arriving in AA, my mind was too befogged from years of alcohol abuse to be able to retain much information. When mental clarity returned, I slowly started comprehending the essence and deeper meaning of the reading. Could freedom from alcoholism only be found through a spiritual awakening? Chapter 5 confirmed this was only possible by believing in an omnipotent God.

I was someone who harbored fierce prejudice and resentment regarding the word God. Moreover, I disliked organized religion and people who claimed to be godly under the umbrella of Christianity. Traumatic experiences with an overly religious foster Mother compelled me to turn away from the church. I rejected the existence of a divine deity. In my mind, God and religion came as a package deal.

The Last Chance Saloon

An over-emphasis on the “God” word in AA literature made me bristle with antagonism. It convinced me that the twelve steps were not for me. I attended a Roman Catholic boarding school when I was about eight or nine. While there, we pupils received heavy doses of religious education.

Despite being bewildered by the ‘God’ word, I was so damaged by years of drinking that the fellowship was the only place I felt accepted. I had nowhere else to go. AA seemed like ‘the last chance saloon.’ I was grateful to find a refuge. Initially, I stayed sober on the fellowship of my fellow brothers and sisters in recovery. It was truly remarkable to finally discover the family I craved and never had growing up in foster care.

“Do not be discouraged” – Chapter 5, p. 60

Page 59 of “How it Works” makes a statement hard for an agnostic to digest.

“But there is One who has all power – that one is God. May you find him now!” 

Contrary to Bill’s suggestion to not “be discouraged,” I felt highly deflated and disappointed after hearing this read out at meetings. Then, chapter five of the Big Book introduces the newcomer to the twelve steps. Step five mentions God, and step two requires believing in a “Power greater than ourselves.”

At this point, any enthusiasm to get a sponsor and work through the twelve steps ended abruptly. I tried to stay sober by just going to meetings. Was I successful? Sadly not! I relapsed regularly over the next thirteen years. Worse yet, the periods that I did manage to stay sober were a painful ‘white knuckle’ sobriety.

In the Big Book, Dr Silkworth refers to this as being ‘restless, irritable and discontented. (BB p. XXVIII) Unable to set aside a deep-rooted objection to the “God” word, I continued to suffer from the intrusive thinking that AA regards as untreated alcoholism.

A dry drunk

The more senior members would take me aside and tell me I was a dry drunk. What on earth was a dry drunk!? I did not believe such pathology even existed. “How can you have untreated alcoholism when you’re not drinking,” I thought.

Was this just nonsense thought up by AA, which I secretly believed was a cult? I felt that my problems in recovery resulted from a troubled childhood. The truth was that I remained severely unstable. It was hard work trying to live life on life’s terms. Reality without alcohol was harsh going.

Sponsoring myself

I tried to fix my emptiness through sex, power, money, and therapy. I became addicted to all of these external fixes. A temporary escape from existential pain was better than no relief. None of these things helped me to find lasting peace of mind. What was I to do? I didn’t believe in any God or a Higher Power. After years in AA, I found myself between a rock and a hard place. Addiction to ‘people, places, and things’ drove me deeper into self-loathing.

I had no idea what step one was trying to tell me. The idea that I was powerless over alcohol struck me as an exaggeration. I also didn’t believe that my life was unmanageable. Life without alcohol soon proved how wrong I was! The harder I tried to stay sober based on my “old ideas” (BB p.58), the closer I got to the next drink.

My very best thinking resulted in a merry-go-round of relapse, misery, and failure. I found myself in a black hole of depression from which there was no escape. Waves of resentment and fear were daily companions.

The three pertinent ideas

I listened to the “How it Works” reading a thousand times at meetings. With a suspicious and cynical mind like mine, chapter five of The Big Book struck me as religious nonsense. I sat and stared at the three pertinent ideas on page 60. It gradually dawned on me that I wouldn’t stay sober if I continued this way. Confused, I sat and wondered if I would ever admit that the three proposals applied to me.

a) “We were alcoholic and could not manage our own lives.”

b) “That no human power could relieve our alcoholism.”

c) “That God could and would if he were sought.”

(BB p.60)

Not through any personal virtue, I could no longer deny that my very best thinking ended in one relapse after another. When I did manage to stay dry, I had one emotional rock bottom after another.

There was no option but to admit that my best thinking was a total liability. I could not find any solutions to the “twisted thinking.” (BB p.133) that had accompanied me since childhood. Gradually, I accepted that these problems, compounded by twenty years of drinking, amounted to untreated alcoholism. Taking Bill’s idea that I was “mentally ill” (12 &12 p. 33) was difficult to swallow.

Pertinent idea C (Big Book p.60)

How could I overcome my dilemma of pertinent idea C? – That only “God could and would if he were sought.”

I didn’t discuss my rejection of pertinent idea C with anyone. Having failed at everything else in life, now it seemed like I was an AA failure, too! Almost everything I tried to achieve in recovery would eventually crumble, mainly regarding finance and romance.

The one thing I had yet to investigate was the spiritual solution. Not through any personal virtue did I become more open-minded. Armed with the Gift ODesperation (An acronym for GOD), I had a burning desire to stay sober. The time had come to start letting go of my prejudice towards the God of the church. I gradually realized that a spiritual awakening does not depend on believing in God.

A light bulb moment

I had a light bulb moment while staring at the three pertinent ideas one day. It was electrifying! I suddenly realized that the wording of pertinent idea C was specific. It offered me some serious room to maneuver. 

“The Realm of the Spirit is broad, roomy, all inclusive; never exclusive or forbidding to those who earnestly seek. It is open, we believe, to all men.” 

(BB p. 46)

Pertinent idea C states, “God could and would if he were sought. 

It does not say that God could and would if he were found!

Concerning the Big Book and the twelve steps, Bill concluded that to recover from alcoholism, all the individual must do is to ‘seek‘ a spiritual awakening—step twelve states: “Having had a spiritual awakening” (not necessarily a God awakening). 

If all I had to do was become a seeker, it occurred to me that I could take all the time that I needed. This proposal struck me as genuine and honest. Even if it took the rest of my life, I found the freedom to search for a spirituality that would help me to stay sober.

A seeker begins to seek

I embarked on a journey that involved seeking truth to help me become a whole person. It would mean searching for a way to life through which I would experience peace and love. A way of life that wouldn’t involve depending on any external fixes. For the time being, the challenge involved seeking a spirituality that would not require faith in a monotheistic God.

I felt attracted to Eastern as well as New-Age spirituality. So it was that I became a seeker. I could write a book about all the various schools of philosophy and spiritual disciplines I have been involved with over the years. My first experience was a trip to India. I was intrigued by what all the holy men and gurus had to say about the nature of spirituality.

In the next blog, I will tell you about this aspect of my journey towards step twelve and the hope of a spiritual awakening.

In fellowship

Andy F

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