David B – A “Top Gun” AA sponsor
Deceased 15th January 1998
Who was David B?
The history of AA in the UK would not be complete without mentioning David B. In the ’70s, ’80s, and 90’s, David became a well-known and somewhat controversial figure. He was the founder member of the “Vision for you” group. They had a reputation for being hierarchical, structured, and highly disciplined. Being the founder member, David was at the top of the “vision” pyramid. He saw his recovery as dependent on carrying what he saw as a pure and undiluted AA message.
These groups thrived on a strong sponsorship ethic. Members were expected to follow their sponsor’s suggestions unconditionally. David’s somewhat draconian approach to recovery was frequently met with criticism from mainstream AA. He developed a reputation as an AA fundamentalist. Nevertheless, David’s approach to recovery was all about taking the actions that he prescribed. If newcomers wanted to feel accepted in the ‘Vision,’ they were expected to get a sponsor promptly.
The first suggestions that newcomers received were “the six things.” These were six daily suggestions that had to be taken without fail. These were David’s ideas and were consistently associated with his style of recovery. He came up with them to help newcomers stay sober. Over the years, I have seen variations of David’s daily suggestions used by groups all over the UK and also in other countries. In Poland, for example, sponsors give newcomers daily actions very similar to David’s six things. They work quickly and effectively to improve the alcoholics’ mental and emotional well-being soon after getting sober.
The Joys of Recovery
In Great Britain, the “Vision for You” groups developed a reputation of being a cult. Negative articles appeared online about David. Besides the “Vision” groups, he also set up a sister group known as “The Joys of Recovery.” They were also very solution focused. Like the ‘Vision,’ the “Joys” frowned on negative sharing at meetings. This was seen as living in the problem rather than focusing on the solution. Whenever he shared at meetings, David’s battle cry was always the same. “Misery is optional,” he would declare. “My recovery since coming to AA has been like a walk in the park.”
I was sponsored by David for about two years. As someone with firsthand experience of his approach to recovery, I would like to share how my life changed in the ‘Vision’ groups. What kind of man was he? Was his brand of AA effective in helping struggling newcomers?
Three months after I arrived in AA, I ended up at one of the meetings in Chelsea that David started. It was the summer of 1984. I was thirty years old. He gave me his phone number, and I soon called him. He invited me to his flat, and it wasn’t long before he became my sponsor. At the time, I had no idea of what a sponsor even was. All I knew was that he sponsored many AA members. From this, I deduced that he was much sought after.
Life without alcohol wasn’t easy. I was frightened, highly unstable, and very lost. I soon discovered that David wasn’t interested in listening to my problems. He saw this as self-indulgent complaining. The truth was that life without alcohol was hard work. I wanted to talk about how much pain I was in without alcohol. David’s solution was always the six things. “Take these suggestions, lad, and you will feel better”!
I didn’t react well to his very directive style of sponsorship. Having had negative experiences with authority figures in childhood, I didn’t like being told what to do. It wasn’t long before I rebelled and balked at his domineering approach. I stopped calling him.
The Last drink
Thirteen years after my first encounter with David, I took my last drink. It was on the 12th of September 1997. Shaking and utterly demoralized, I ended up at a step-one meeting in central London. The first step was read each week from the ‘Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions.’ It began with the following words:
“Who cares to admit complete defeat”?
Despite attending meetings for over a decade, here I was, counting the days again!
Going back to Chelsea
At that step one meeting, I received the Gift Of Desperation. It occurred to me that it might be an idea to go back to Chelsea and reach out to David again. In the preceding thirteen years, I tried everything to get well. But, unfortunately, pursuing sex, power, and money failed to keep me sober; as did years of counseling and therapy. I couldn’t understand why AA was so God-oriented. What did God or higher power have to do with not drinking? I avoided the twelve steps like the plague.
Having experienced the miseries of untreated alcoholism, both drunk and sober, I was ready to take unconditional direction from David. His methods seemed to be working for the alcoholics that he sponsored. Perhaps, if I did as he suggested, they would help me too. However, I was sick and tired of being sick and tired. I just wanted to stop relapsing and begin enjoying and not enduring sobriety. Despite not drinking for most of the time, the mental aspect of the alcoholic illness had progressed since coming to AA. I had become increasingly angry and depressed. I was at war with the whole world, including myself!
When everything else failed, I began to warm to some of Bill Wilson’s ideas in the Big Book. Maybe he was right. Alcoholism was an illness that would only respond to a spiritual solution. I had spent much money on therapy, and the result was nil! I continued to relapse.
“Some of us had tried to hold onto our old ideas, and the result was nil until we let go absolutely.” (BB “How it works,” p.58)
An Attitude Adjustment (AA)
Now, I had experienced life with untreated alcoholism. Both drunk and sober, the following quote from the Big Book became my reality:
“We were in a position where life was becoming impossible, and if we had passed into the region from which there is no return through human aid, we had but two alternatives: One was to go onto the bitter end, blotting out the consciousness of our intolerable situation as best we could; and the other, to accept spiritual help.”
BB There Is A Solution, p.25
That help came from David B. I was ready to do anything to get relief from the “twisted thinking” (BB “The family afterward,” p 133) of untreated alcoholism. In hindsight, surrendering and becoming teachable to David’s suggestions was my first glimpse of a non-God-centered spiritual awakening.
Good Orderly Direction (GOD)
I approached David after the Pont Street meeting and asked for help. “Are you willing to go to any lengths,” he asked. Of course, I was! I was done sponsoring myself. If he told me to jump, I would simply ask how high! Although I still resented authority, I no longer had the luxury of my former defiance.
I came into AA when I was thirty. Now, at forty-three, I acknowledged that I was powerless over alcohol and after so many years in AA, my life remained unmanageable. The time had come to place myself under new management. If I wanted to survive, David would be my new manager.
The sticker on the mirror
After asking me if I was willing to go to any lengths to get sober, David gave me a sticker to put on my shaving mirror. I had to look at it every morning when I was shaving.
“You are now looking at the problem.”
I was stunned! I had spent thousands of pounds in therapy, blaming my childhood. Now David was telling me that it was me that was the problem.
“Where other people were concerned, we had to drop the word blame from our speech and thought.”
(12 &12 “Step four” p. 47)
I can honestly say that when David gave me that sticker to put on my shaving mirror, I was ready to hear it. I saw it for the truth that it was. It was such a ‘light bulb’ moment that I acknowledged it as another spiritual awakening. On that day, my recovery from alcoholism took off. As an agnostic in AA, the truth itself became a power greater than me. Admitting that it was me and no one else that was the problem was a game changer.
David’s “The six things” versus therapy
Next, David gave me a list of six suggestions. I had to do them every day. Although he was willing to help an agnostic, if I wanted to keep him as a sponsor, I would have to do “the six things.” In the list offered below, I will explain why David was so passionate about taking these actions. He didn’t care whether you believed in God or not, it was his way or the highway.
What I found truly amazing was that these suggested actions helped me more in several weeks than ten years of therapy! How could this be? Why hadn’t therapy worked? An old timer told me I was trying to fix a spiritual problem with a psychological solution. Yet, I still had little or no idea what ‘spiritual’ even meant. I guess the meaning of this word is open to personal interpretation.
The step work I received gradually taught me how to “differentiate the true from the false.” (BB ‘The Doctor’s opinion’ p. XXV111) This truth began setting me free from “the bondage of self.” (BB “How it Works” p.63)
It turned out that surrendering to David’s guidance was the beginning of a life-giving journey. It has guided me towards a beautiful life of love and service in AA. As an agnostic alcoholic, I am happy to call this enormous change of “feeling and outlook” (8th of the 12 promises) a spiritual awakening. The two core principles of love and service in AA have changed my life and given me a life worth living!
David’s “six things”
David’s suggested actions were the first and most effective treatment for the thought-disordered madness of untreated alcoholism.
- Pray on your knees* and ask for a sober day. (See below for an agnostic interpretation)
- Morning: Please keep me sober and look after me today (Group Of Drunks)
- Night: Thank this greater power for keeping you sober
- Morning: Read the“Just for Today” card
- Night: Write a list of things to be grateful for and the gifts you have received since getting clean and sober.
- Phone your sponsor and be willing to follow his suggestions. Your sponsor is there to answer questions and clarify anything you don’t understand. We learn to trust our sponsors first.
- Read the Big Book
- A couple of pages a day, more if you can. This reminds us that there is a solution.
- We aim to do some AA service every day
- Commit to two weekly meetings – “home groups.” – Pitch in and be helpful and aim to get two service commitments
- Phone a couple of newcomers (newer than you) each day. Especially helpful on the days when we don’t go to a meeting
- Angry or annoyed at someone?
- Praying for people that you resent is creating a positive intention. You are asking that they receive everything that you would wish for yourself.
- ‘Help me find the tolerance, pity, and patience I would cheerfully grant a sick friend.’
Frightened or anxious?
- Say the Serenity Prayer over and over until the grip of fear and anxiety leaves you.
*An Agnostic interpretation of the first of David’s six daily suggestions –
Praying for a sober day.
David insisted that all his sponsees, believers and non-believers get on their knees in the morning and pray for a sober day. I was told to pray to the power of AA itself. (Group Of Drunks) This action is a powerful demonstration of surrender. It is step one in action. The opening line of the first step in the twelve steps and twelve traditions reads: “Who cares to admit complete defeat?”
Getting on your knees and praying for a sober day is that admission of “complete defeat.” (12&12 Step one) It is likely to be an alcoholic’s first experience of humble surrender. Let’s face it, alcoholics know very little about the healing and life-giving virtue of humility.
Praying for a sober day is a demonstration of an intention, as well as an honest communication with your true self. The authentic self is listening to every word. This action reduces the power of the alcoholic ego.* A demonstration of the surrender of this type can bring about the much-desired result. We retire at night without finding it necessary to pick up the first drink!
Ego* – In ordinary people, the ego is considered a beneficial aspect of the personality. It is “the most central part of the mind which mediates with one’s surroundings; the consciousness of one’s own identity.” Wiktionary
In the alcoholic, the ego has become maladapted and no longer a healthy part of the personality. Its agenda is the pursuit of instant gratification that frequently leads to self-destruction.
Any experienced AA member will tell you that the alcoholic ego is the malignant tumor of untreated alcoholism. It balks at getting on its knees before anyone or anything. Whatever the alcoholic ego doesn’t like doing is good for us. It’s a powerful tool to stay sober for one day! Devoting a few minutes daily to this honest act of surrender is far better than not doing it. After many years of relapse, this suggestion helped me stay sober despite being an agnostic.
“Meszuge” my current sponsor
My current sponsor is Witek, also known as ‘Meszuge.’ Like David B, he also takes agnostics through the twelve steps. Over the years, he has sponsored many men and women. He is from Poland and is loved and respected by many AA members in that country. Witek also believes that getting on your knees and asking for a sober day works.
This is how Witek explained it to me: Since the dawn of civilization, kneeling has symbolized a demonstration of defeat in front of a more powerful enemy. In this case, the enemy is King Alcohol. In his mind, this humble act of surrender works whether or not you believe in God.
Witek was himself an agnostic when he first got sober. He now considers himself a spiritual seeker, devoting his life to helping alcoholics through AA’s program of action. Although he may not as yet have found God and made God his own, he remains open-minded. Like me, Witek is entirely in line with pertinent idea C on page 60 of the Big Book
“God could and would if he were sought”
Let us be clear. Here Bill uses the word ‘sought,’ not found!
David gave the impression of being a gentleman from the British upper classes. He spoke the Queen’s English softly and eloquently. However, I soon learned not to be fooled by his genteel persona. He had been an officer in the British army. David was someone who was able to command supreme authority. It’s not a coincidence that his sponsees called him “The Captain.”
David was no saint. At times he was complex and contentious, having all the character defects of a reformed drunk with a big ego. That said, David understood the alcoholic illness. He didn’t hesitate to challenge my dishonesty and self-pity. He saw these defects of character as the two major shortcomings that prevented alcoholics from getting well. His belief was that recovery was all about taking action. (The six things) This would interrupt the ranting of the maladapted alcoholic ego at the core of untreated alcoholism.
As a sponsor, he had no time for listening to his sponsees whine about emotional pain. He saw an over-concentration on feelings as dangerous, a luxury that alcoholics simply couldn’t afford. Having been addicted to therapy for many years, initially, it wasn’t easy adjusting to David’s confrontational style of sponsorship.
Undying gratitude to David
My recovery journey took off with David. I will always be grateful to him for this: Despite being a practicing Catholic, David never demanded that I believe in God. As long as I made “AA itself” my ‘higher power’ (12&12 “Step two” p 27), he was happy.
David was wise and experienced enough to know that if I continued with the rest of the steps, I would have a spiritual awakening sooner or later. Step twelve states, “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps.” This is precisely what happened to me. I eventually found a way to a spirituality that works for someone that doesn’t believe in the traditional idea of a monotheistic God.
In recovery, I developed a keen interest in New Age spirituality. Since then, my ideas about spirituality have grown. They have guided me to a sober life that is well worth living. It didn’t seem to matter to David whether I believed in God. Carrying the message to the still-suffering alcoholic was what really mattered to him.
David passed away on the 15th of January 1998. Unfortunately, I wasn’t there, but I heard that the church was packed with AA members at his funeral. They came to pay their last respects. If I had the opportunity to meet him again, I would grab him by the hands, look him straight in the eyes and thank him from the bottom of my heart for saving my life.
Rest in peace, David
With the support of Danny D (also a former sponsee of David)