David B – A “Top Gun” AA sponsor
Deceased 15th January 1998
Who was David B?
The history of AA in the UK would only be complete with mentioning David B. In the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, 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 strict sponsorship ethic. Members had to follow their sponsor’s suggestions unconditionally. David’s somewhat draconian approach to recovery was frequently feared and criticized in mainstream AA. He developed a reputation as an AA fundamentalist. Nevertheless, David’s path to recovery was all about taking the prescribed actions. 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 six suggestions were to be performed daily without fail. These were David’s ideas and were consistently associated with his recovery style. He came up with them to help newcomers stay sober. They work quickly and effectively to improve the alcoholics’ mental and emotional well-being soon after putting the alcohol down.
Three months after I arrived at 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. It wasn’t long before he became my sponsor. At the time, I had no idea what a sponsor even was. All I knew was that he sponsored many guys like me. From this, I deduced that David was very much in demand.
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, a luxury that recovering alcoholics could not afford. The truth was that life without the anesthesia of alcohol was very challenging. I wanted to talk about the pain of a life without alcohol. David’s solution was always the same. “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 particularly appreciate taking direction. It wasn’t long before I rebelled and balked at his approach to sponsorship. 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 broken, I attended a step-one meeting in central London. Each week, we read step one 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 days again!
Going back to Chelsea
At this meeting, I received the Gift Of Desperation. (A helpful acronym for GOD) 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. Trying to fix myself with sex, power, and money failed to keep me sober, as did 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. I was sick and tired of being sick and tired.
I just wanted to stop relapsing and begin enjoying 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 everyone, 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 kept slipping and sliding.
“Some of us had tried to hold onto our old ideas, and the result was nil until we let go absolutely.”
An Attitude Adjustment (AA)
Having experienced life with untreated alcoholism, the following quote from the Big Book became my reality. It spoke to my alcoholism, both drunk and sober.
“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.”
When I was ready, that help came from David B. I was willing to do anything to get relief from the “twisted thinking” (BB p 133) of untreated alcoholism. In hindsight, surrendering and becoming teachable 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, lad”? Of course, I was! I had enough of sponsoring myself. If he told me to jump, I would ask how high! Although I 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 my life was still a complete mess. After so many years of sponsoring myself, my life remained unmanageable. The time came when I had to place myself under new management. David would be my new manager if I wanted to survive.
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 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 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; it was his way or the highway.
What I found amazing was that David’s six things helped me more in several weeks than ten years of therapy! How could this be? Why hadn’t therapy worked? An old timer offered me an answer. I was trying to fix a spiritual problem with a psychological solution. Yet, I still had little or no idea what the word ‘spiritual’ even meant. I now know that its meaning is open to personal interpretation.
The step work gradually taught me how to “differentiate the true from the false.” (BB p. XXVIII) The truth began to set me free from “the bondage of self.” (BB p.63)
It turned out that surrendering to David’s guidance was the beginning of a life-giving journey. As an agnostic alcoholic, I am happy to call this transformation a non-God-centered spiritual awakening. It amounts to a complete change of “feeling and outlook.” (8th of the 12 promises). When I practice the two core principles of love and service to others, I receive a life beyond my wildest dreams.
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 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 reassures us that there is a solution.
- We aim to do some AA service every day
- Commit to two weekly meetings – “home groups.” – Pitch in, be helpful, and aim to get two service commitments.
- Phone a couple of newcomers (newer than you) each day. It is especially helpful on the days when we don’t go to a meeting.
- Angry or annoyed at someone?
- Pray for people you resent. You are asking that they receive everything that you would wish for yourself. This creates a positive intention, which helps to let go of the resentment.
- “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 six things
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. He suggested that I pray to the power of AA itself. (Group Of Drunks). Praying for a sober day was 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.
The alcoholic ego
Praying for a sober day is 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 surrender of this type can bring about the much-desired result. We retire at night, happy we didn’t pick up that first drink!
Ego* – In ordinary people, the ego helps them survive and get ahead. 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. It is no longer healthy. 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 helps recovering alcoholics. It’s a powerful tool that allows them to stay sober for one day! Devoting a few minutes daily to this humble act of surrender is better than not doing it. After many years of relapse, this suggestion helped me stay sober despite being an agnostic.
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. David B. still had all the character defects of a reformed drunk. That said, he understood the alcoholic illness. He didn’t hesitate to challenge my dishonesty and self-pity, seeing these character defects as the two significant shortcomings that prevent recovery. For him, it was all about taking action. (The six things) These daily suggestions would interrupt the ranting of the maladapted alcoholic ego. It was at the core of untreated alcoholism.
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 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.” A non-God-centered spiritual awakening is what happened to me. I eventually found a way to a spirituality that works for someone who 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 happy, sober life. It didn’t seem to matter to David whether I believed in God. Carrying the message to the still-suffering alcoholic was what mattered to him.
David passed away on the 15th of January 1998. Unfortunately, I wasn’t there, but at his funeral, I heard that the church was full of AA members. 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)