Chapter 5 “How it works”
“Rarely have we seen a person fail….”
A section of Chapter 5 from the Big Book is read at the beginning of AA meetings worldwide. 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 are presented with 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. It gave me the idea that freedom from alcoholism could be found through a spiritual awakening. Chapter 5 confirmed that this could only be achieved by believing in an omnipotent God.
I was someone who harboured 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-saturation of the “God” word in AA literature made me bristle with antagonism. It convinced me that the twelve steps were not for me. I went to a Roman Catholic boarding school when I was about eight or nine. Whilst 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 find 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 that was hard for me 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 dispirited after hearing this read out at meetings. Then, chapter five of the Big Book introduces the newcomer to the twelve steps. Five of the steps mention God, and step two requires a belief 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, this is referred to by Dr Silkworth as being ‘restless, irritable and discontented. (Big Book “The doctor’s opinion” p. XXV111) 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 suffer from untreated alcoholism when you’re not drinking,” I thought. This was just nonsense thought up by AA, which I secretly believed was a cult.
I was convinced 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 tough going.
I tried to fix my emptiness through sex, power, money and therapy. I became addicted to all of them. 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 really 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. Ch. 5 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
At meetings, I had listened to the “How it works” reading a thousand times. 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. In a state of complete confusion and bewilderment, 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.”
Big Book Chapter 5 “How it works” p. 72 First edition
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 very best thinking was a total liability. No solutions could be found from the “twisted thinking.” (BB “The family afterward” p.133) that had accompanied me since childhood. Gradually, I accepted that these problems, compounded by twenty years of drinking, amounted to untreated alcoholism. Accepting Bill’s idea that I was “mentally ill” (12 &12 Step two – p. 33) was difficult to swallow.
Pertinent idea C
Now I was confronted with an impossible dilemma. If it was confirmed that only “God could and would if he were sought,” I was really in trouble.
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. This was especially true in the areas of finance and romance.
The one thing I hadn’t investigated was the spiritual solution. Not through any personal virtue, I became more open-minded. Armed with the Gift Of Desperation (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. This resulted in the gradual realisation that a spiritual awakening need not depend on a belief in God.
A light bulb moment
One day, whilst staring at the three pertinent ideas, I had a light bulb moment. It was electrifying! I suddenly realized that the wording of pertinent idea C was specific. It offered me some serious room to manoeuvre. (…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.) Big Book “We agnostics” p. 59 – First edition)
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!
With regard to the Big Book and the twelve steps, Bill obviously 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 struck me as genuine and honest. Even if it took the rest of my life, I was suddenly given the freedom to search for a spirituality that would help me to stay sober.
A spiritual seeker from my first drink
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I became a spiritual ‘seeker’ on the day I turned to alcohol as a solution to my problems. Through alcohol, I was searching for a feeling of wholeness. Since childhood, there was always a deep emptiness and loneliness. Any sense of connection with myself and others was missing.
It became clear that my mistake was seeking a sense of wholeness through alcohol. People were sharing in meetings that recovery was an inside job. I was now faced with the challenge of seeking wholeness from the inside out and not from the outside in. The only solution I had never explored was spirituality.
This admission set me on a path of discovery. What could spirituality come to mean to someone who didn’t believe in a supreme being? Thus began a long, winding and fascinating journey towards a non-God-centered spiritual awakening. After many years in the program, despite the ‘God’ word, in pertinent idea C, I accepted all three
One relapse after another convinced me beyond any shadow of a doubt:
a) I was an alcoholic that could not manage his own life, either drunk or sober.
b) I could no longer deny that staying sober on my own human power was impossible.
c) As long as I continued to seek, I had as much chance to recover as everyone else in AA.
Never say never
Perhaps one day, if I stayed open-minded about spirituality, I may even come to believe in God. My job was to embark on that journey and not worry about arriving at the destination.
These days, I understand the concept of the “daily reprieve.” (BB “Into action” p.85 4th. edition) Freedom from the thought-disordered madness of untreated alcoholism comes from carrying the message of recovery to the still-suffering alcoholic. Twenty-five years of sobriety as an agnostic in AA has taught me a fundamental lesson. The spiritual power of the twelve steps is life-changing for spiritual seekers as much as it is for those that have found God.
An agnostic begins to seek a spiritual way of life
I embarked on a journey that involved seeking a truth that would help me to become a whole person. Someone who sought to experience peace and love without having to depend on any external fixes. For the time being, the challenge involved seeking a spirituality that would not require faith in a monotheistic God.
Some people refer to this as new-age spirituality. I don’t know about that, but I could write a book about all the various schools of philosophy and spiritual development I have attended over the years. The first one of these 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.
With support from Danny D