I had been in AA for about 15 years when I first heard the expression ‘emotional sobriety.’ It immediately caught my attention. Could this expression suggest that emotional sobriety and physical sobriety were not the same thing?
I had struggled with physical abstinence from alcohol for a long time after coming to AA. My pattern of relapse was plain to see. If I couldn’t even get physical sobriety, how was I going to find emotional sobriety?!
The next frontier: Emotional sobriety
One day, a friend in the fellowship introduced me to an AA book. I had never seen it before. The book is called “The Language of the Heart.” It is AA conference-approved literature. Despite this, it rarely reaches the literature table at AA meetings. Only a small number of people in AA know about it—those who do acknowledge its value.
My friend suggested I skip the rest of the book and go straight to Part Three. Here, I found thirteen articles written by Bill W, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. These first appeared in print between 1957 and 1968. The articles originally appeared in the AA monthly magazine “The Grapevine.” Later, these articles were collated and re-published in “The Language of the Heart.” It first appeared in print in 1988
The Language of the Heart – Part Three – Table of contents
The Greatest Gift of All – December 1957
The Next Frontier: Emotional Sobriety – January 1958
Take Step Eleven – June 1958
The Language of the Heart – AA Today
God as we understand Him – April 1961
Humility for Today – June 1961
This Matter of Honesty – August 1961
This Matter of Fear – January 1962
What Is Acceptance – March 1962
Where Will Power Comes In – May 1962
Spiritual Experiences – July 1962
The Bill W. – Carl Jung Letters – January 1963
Dr. Jung – Dr. Silkworth and AA – January 1968
A complete revelation
After so many years of relapse, I finally got serious about the AA program. I got a sponsor and began taking suggestions. One of them was to study the AA literature. Part three was so interesting that I quickly read all thirteen articles. My identification with Bill was uncanny. Here was a message from Bill that I was ready to hear.
They all spoke directly to my alcoholism. My suffering as an untreated drunk helped me to accept that, just maybe, Bill was right. Perhaps I was suffering from a spiritual illness. I could see myself on every page. Bill had a natural talent as a writer. He was very skilled in describing the problems that alcoholics need to address if they expected to achieve emotional as well as physical sobriety.
The beauty of Bill’s writings is that they always offer the alcoholic tangible solutions. They are all spiritual. Part three helped me to admit that I was a real alcoholic. Both drunk and sober, I had been very ill, especially mentally and spiritually. His articles were a total game-changer. I began to see all of my other dependencies as part of the spiritual sickness that Bill describes.
I had always been very cynical about much of the material I had read in the AA literature. All this began to change with Bill’s writings in The Language of the Heart.
The article that changed my life
Bill’s article came as a surprising but welcome shock. I realized that Bill and I were very similar. His struggles with depression and unhealthy dependencies in recovery were identical to my own. Let him share his experiences at 24 years of sobriety in AA.
The Next Frontier: Emotional Sobriety by Bill Wilson
Copyright © AA Grapevine, Inc, January 1958
“I think that many oldsters who have put our AA “booze cure” to severe but successful tests still find they often lack emotional sobriety. Perhaps they will be the spearhead for the next major development in AA—the development of much more real maturity and balance (which is to say, humility) in our relations with ourselves, our fellows, and God.
Those adolescent urges that so many of us have for top approval, perfect security, and perfect romance—urges quite appropriate to age seventeen—prove to be an impossible way of life when we are at age forty-seven or fifty-seven.
Since AA began, I’ve taken immense wallops in all these areas because I failed to grow emotionally and spiritually. My God, how painful it is to keep demanding the impossible, and how very painful to discover finally that all along we have had the cart before the horse! Then comes the final agony of seeing how awfully wrong we have been but still finding ourselves unable to get off the emotional merry-go-round.
How to translate a right mental conviction into a right emotional result, and so into easy, happy, and good living—well, that’s not only the neurotic’s problem, it’s the problem of life itself for all of us who have got to the point of real willingness to hew to right principles in all our affairs.
Even then, as we hew away, peace and joy may still elude us. That’s the place so many of us AA oldsters have come to. And it’s a hell of a spot, literally. How shall our unconscious—from which so many of our fears, compulsions, and phony aspirations still stream—be brought into line with what we actually believe, know, and want? How to convince our dumb, raging, and hidden “Mr Hyde” becomes our main task.
I’ve recently come to believe that this can be achieved. I believe so because I begin to see many benighted ones—folks like you and me—commencing to get results. Last autumn [several years back.] depression, having no really rational cause at all, almost took me to the cleaners. I began to be scared that I was in for another long chronic spell. Considering the grief I’ve had with depression, it wasn’t a bright prospect.
I kept asking myself, “Why can’t the Twelve Steps work to release depression?” By the hour, I stared at the St. Francis Prayer…”It’s better to comfort than to be comforted.” Here was the formula, all right. But why didn’t it work?
Suddenly, I realized what the matter was. My basic flaw had always been dependence – almost absolute dependence – on people or circumstances to supply me with prestige, security, and the like. Failing to get these things according to my perfectionist dreams and specifications, I fought for them. And when defeat came, so did my depression.
There wasn’t a chance of making the outgoing love of St. Francis a workable and joyous way of life until these fatal and almost absolute dependencies were cut away.
Because I had undergone a little spiritual development over the years, the absolute quality of these frightful dependencies had never before been so starkly revealed. Reinforced by what Grace I could secure in prayer, I found I had to exert every ounce of will and action to cut off these faulty emotional dependencies upon people, upon AA, indeed, upon any set of circumstances whatsoever.
Then only could I be free to love as Francis had. Emotional and instinctual satisfactions, I saw, were really the extra dividends of having love, offering love, and expressing a love appropriate to each relation of life.
Plainly, I could not avail myself of God’s love until I could offer it back to Him by loving others as He would have me. And I couldn’t possibly do that so long as I was victimized by false dependencies.
While those words “absolute demand” may look like a gimmick, they were the ones that helped to trigger my release into my present degree of stability and quietness of mind, qualities which I am now trying to consolidate by offering love to others regardless of the return to me.
For my dependency meant demand—a demand for the possession and control of the people and the conditions surrounding me.
This seems to be the primary healing circuit: an outgoing love of God’s creation and His people, through which we avail ourselves of His love for us. It is most clear that the current can’t flow until our paralyzing dependencies are broken, and broken at depth. Only then can we possibly have a glimmer of what adult love really is.
Spiritual calculus, you say? Not a bit of it. Watch any AA of six months working with a new Twelfth Step case. If the case says “To the devil with you,” the Twelfth Stepper only smiles and turns to another case. He doesn’t feel frustrated or rejected. If his next case responds, and in turn starts to give love and attention to other alcoholics, yet gives none back to him, the sponsor is happy about it anyway.
He still doesn’t feel rejected; instead, he rejoices that his one-time prospect is sober and happy. And if his next following case turns out in a later time to be his best friend (or romance) then the sponsor is most joyful. But he well knows that his happiness is a by-product—the extra dividend of giving without any demand for a return.
The really stabilizing thing for him was having and offering love to that strange drunk on his doorstep. That was Francis at work, powerful and practical, minus dependency and minus demand.
In the first six months of my own sobriety, I worked hard with many alcoholics. Not a one responded. Yet this work kept me sober. It wasn’t a question of those alcoholics giving me anything. My stability came out of trying to give, not out of demanding that I receive.
Thus I think it can work out with emotional sobriety. If we examine every disturbance we have, great or small, we will find at the root of it some unhealthy dependency and its consequent unhealthy demand. Let us, with God’s help, continually surrender these hobbling demands. Then we can be set free to live and love; we may then be able to Twelfth Step ourselves and others into emotional sobriety.
Of course, I haven’t offered you a really new idea—only a gimmick that has started to unhook several of my own “hexes” at depth. Nowadays, my brain no longer races compulsively in elation, grandiosity, or depression. I have been given a quiet place in bright sunshine.”
Permission to reprint The Grapevine Inc., Copyrighted material in https://aaforagnostics.com/ does not imply affiliation with or endorsement by Alcoholics Anonymous or The Grapevine Inc.
One step closer to the answers that set me free
Like Bill, I suffered from crippling depression in recovery. I was barely able to function. The medication prescribed helped to alleviate my symptoms. My heart went out to Bill. There were no antidepressants available in his day. I do not doubt they would have also helped him if they had been available in his day. Instead, he tried various other treatments to treat his depression. Eventually, Bill began to see a connection between depression and all his unhealthy dependencies.
Could it be that my depression was also due to my compulsive/obsessive need to fix myself from the outside in? On top of my alcohol addiction, I was addicted to food, work, money, sex, and codependent relationships. I was also addicted to control. My chronic insecurity made me want to have complete control over people, places, and things. All these dependencies made life unmanageable.
The thought struck me that maybe all these unhealthy dependencies were because I never grew up psychologically or emotionally. I never became a mature adult. Deep down, I was still a lost and needy child, always looking for validation and approval. That was an undeniable fact!
An inner spiritual emptiness
Now, Bill was suggesting something radical, which was incredibly challenging for me, an agnostic. He indicated that there was more to his psychological and emotional immaturity. Bill couldn’t progress spiritually until he overcame all the other unhealthy dependencies. He freely admits that these were the chief causes of his depression. I knew that this is what happened to me too!
Bill came upon the idea of what the solution to his depression may be. He found his way toward emotional sobriety. He had to start letting go of all his unhealthy dependencies. The way forward was offering unconditional love and service to others. He began putting these ideas into practice. Bill then began to experience contentment and serenity.
The prayer of St. Francis of Assisi
Bill and I were on the same page regarding the recovery journey. I was afflicted with all these other addictions. He found his answers in the St Francis Prayer.
………” Grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood, as to understand; to be loved, as to love; for it is in giving that we receive.”
I suddenly realized that in my pursuit of sex, power, and money, I had always been a taker and not a giver. I needed all these external fixes to medicate the emptiness within.
External solutions to an internal problem
It was undoubtedly true that for a long time in AA, sex, power, and money were my higher powers. Moreover, therapy didn’t fix me either; quite the opposite. Therapy was all about me. There was no giving, only taking; it was all about receiving help from the therapist.
Like all my other dependencies, I clung to these therapists as if my life depended on them. It was the therapist’s job to rescue me. Ultimately, therapy made me even more miserable and self-obsessed.
It just reinforced my need to see myself as a victim. I became even more depressed and unhappy. That’s what keeping the focus on myself always did! I came to realize that, as with everything and everyone else, I was using the therapist to fix me.
As an alcoholic, I never did anything for anyone unless there was something in it for me. Slowly, I agreed with Bill. Selfishness and self-centeredness were at the very root of my suffering as an alcoholic. (Page 62 Big Book – paraphrased) These defects were at the core of my character. They drove me to what Bill described as “spiritual bankruptcy” (12&12 p.107)
The twelve steps to freedom
The twelve steps began to help me address the things in my character that made any type of healthy love impossible. I had to start letting go of the constant demands and expectations I placed on others. Eventually, they brought me to my knees stone-cold sober.
I am still an agnostic and don’t believe in the traditional idea of God. However, I have discovered that practicing love and service to others are the solutions to my inner emptiness.
Bill found out that if love was going to heal him, it had to be unconditional. He realized that he would not find emotional sobriety in any other way. The twelve steps are a mechanism for personal transformation leading to a spiritual awakening. These steps were powerful enough to fill my inner void from the inside out. I no longer need the anti-depressants that I was on for more than twenty years.
As Bill puts it in his fantastic article from the Language of the Heart:
“This seems to be the primary healing circuit: an outgoing love………”
He also states at the top of page 20 in the Big Book.
“Our lives as ex-problem drinkers depend on our constant thought of others and how we may help meet their needs.”
(BB p. 20)
My first sponsor, David B, once said, ‘There is only one way to be truly happy in this world. This is to bring happiness to others.’
Do you agree with Bill W’s prescription to treat the emotional and spiritual illness of alcoholism?