First days of sobriety

First days of sobriety

May 14, 2024

By Andy F

Categories: Untreated Alcoholism

A welcome break

Dear Friends

I hope you are all well and happy. This blog will be the last one I write for a while. For health reasons, I have decided to take a break and travel. I need to rejuvenate my mind and body and will be heading into the beauty of nature.

I wanted to leave a message of hope for newcomers to AA, especially those who struggle with a belief in God—those too who may be suffering from co-existing mental health issues and personality disorders. 

Besides a 17-year addiction to alcohol and drugs, I also suffered from fragile mental health. On top of my alcoholism, I was also diagnosed with BPD (Borderline personality disorder). Bill W, the co-founder of AA, also suffered from fragile mental health after getting sober. In that sense, he was a source of great hope and encouragement. 

Bill first got sober on December 11th, 1934. Here is a short piece he wrote about his early days in recovery.

Bill’s testimony

“In my early years of sobriety, I was full of pride, thinking that A.A. was the only source of treatment for a good and happy life. It certainly was the basic ingredient for my sobriety, and even today, with over twelve years in the program, I am very involved in meetings, sponsorship, and service. During the first four years of my recovery, I found it necessary to seek professional help since my emotional health was extremely poor. There are those folks too, who have found sobriety and happiness in other organizations. A.A. taught me that I had a choice: to go to any lengths to enhance my sobriety. A.A. may not be a cure-all for everything, but it is the centre of my sober living.”

“As Bill Sees It”- p. 285. © Copyright 1990 – Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc.

Some striking similarities

When I first got sober on May 15th, 1984, I fell apart mentally and emotionally. Until I came to AA, alcohol was quite literally the glue that held me together. Initially, I couldn’t handle sobriety. As an agnostic newcomer, I’m not sure I would have lasted in the fellowship. There was too much emphasis on God and a higher power. 

To a great extent, Bill’s frank writings about his struggles kept me coming back. His experience became a source of hope. Bill became my guide and role model.

 “Bill had a sister, Dorothy, who was four years younger than he. Bill’s otherwise happy childhood in rural Vermont was shattered when, at the age of 11, his parents divorced. This trauma was accompanied by feelings of abandonment when his father moved to British Columbia and his Mother to Boston, where she studied osteopathic medicine and was one of the first women to receive a degree from Harvard University. It was around this time that Bill experienced the first of a series of depressions that he faced throughout his life.”

I was also abandoned by my Mother in my early life and raised in foster care. Today, I don’t blame anyone that I became a drunk. No one ever forced alcohol down my throat. That said, I made some negative choices about how to cope with the problems I developed in my early life. These emotional wounds were still very much alive when I first walked through the doors of AA. 

First days of sobriety

Not everyone finds early recovery traumatic, but I certainly did. This blog may be helpful for those AAs who don’t believe in God or feel very broken and lost when they first get sober. Bill describes the type of alcoholic I was when I first came into recovery.

There are those, too, who suffer from grave emotional and mental disorders, but many of them do recover if they have the capacity to be honest.”

BB “How it works” p. 58

Like Bill, I also suffered from crippling depression for many years after putting down the drink. I had to be on medication for depression and anxiety for 25 years after going to my first meeting.

Bill’s depression also lasted for many years. He got sober in 1934 and wrote the article about his eventual release from it in 1958. In his day, there were no antidepressants. I am sure he would have got the help he needed if medication was as freely available then as it is today. 

Sadly, the religious fundamentalists tell members who are on prescribed medication for depression and anxiety that they are “handing their will and life over to the care of meds, rather than God.” (An extreme fundamentalist understanding of the implications of Step three) 

This conference-approved AA pamphlet is a must-read for those members who are on prescribed medication:

Grave emotional and mental disorders

Most AA members agree that after getting sober, alcoholics have to work the twelve steps to get well. I am not trying to dispute this. The truth is that some of us are too sick to benefit from the steps in early recovery. What about those of us with grave emotional and mental disorders? I was in the fellowship for over a decade before being ready to benefit from AA’s suggested program. 

The plain truth is that the fundamentalist will tell you that you get well by doing the steps. Although this is true for most alcoholics, it is not immediately true for all of us. Many members, including myself, had to avail themselves of outside professional help before they got stable enough to go through the program.

I can already hear furor in the ranks of the religious fundamentalists. In their opinion, it is almost blasphemous to accept the idea that some alcoholics need outside professional help. They seem to cling to the notion that what appears to be working for them must work for everyone. 

Splinter groups that practice a particular brand of religious fundamentalism will tell you that members who declare that they have alcoholism can only get sober with God’s help. If they managed to stay sober by availing themselves of outside professional help, they could not have been real alcoholics in the first place.

The miracle of the twelve steps

With the help of meds and good agnostic-friendly sponsorship, I got well enough to do the steps. They took my recovery to a new level—so much so that I was eventually able to come off my meds, but not before I was ready. The day came when, with the program’s help, I became mentally strong enough to face myself squarely. The fruit of the step work has been nothing short of spectacular.

The truth I learned about myself in steps four and five has freed me from blame, anger, and resentment. To heal the mental and emotional wounds that condemned me to drink is one of the great gifts of the program. The other gift is even more magnificent. The twelve steps gave me the greatest gift of all: the gift of my true self.

Bill W – my hero and mentor

Unquestionably, Bill’s honesty about his fragile mental health in early recovery gave me the hope and encouragement to persevere with the program. Later on, when I admitted that I still lacked emotional sobriety, Bill came to my rescue again. He gave me another fantastic gift with a testimony called ‘The Next Frontier: Emotional Sobriety.’ 

Bill’s article slowly spiritualized my recovery in a very tangible way. Despite remaining agnostic, I was able to separate spirituality from a belief in God. Both are entirely valid but by no means dependent on each other. 

I encourage you to read Bill’s article. It is available by clicking the above link. In short, Bill discovered the cause of his depression. By his own admission, his spiritual malady was rooted in many unhealthy dependencies on people, places, and things. 

Bill was very addicted to fixing himself from the outside in. These external dependencies all worked for a while. Because they were all temporary, sooner or later, they would fail him. When they stopped working, he would become depressed.

 “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.”

The Next Frontier: Emotional Sobriety – Copyright © AA Grapevine, Inc, January 1958

The primary healing circuit

Although Bill does mention God several times in his article, what immediately struck me as an agnostic was that he finally found the solution to the riddle of untreated alcoholism. 

The answer was simple, if not easy—unconditional service offered freely to those who need it.

 “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.

The fact that Bill mentions God in his article didn’t bother me in the slightest. The primary healing circuit is unconditional love itself. As an agnostic who always struggled with the idea of God, it occurred to me that the type of love that Bill was alluding to was God!

If this love was unconditional, I suddenly felt more comfortable with the idea that God was not a judgemental, monotheistic supreme being in the sky but love itself. The religious scriptures themselves allude to the fact that God is love.

 “God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.”

1 John 4:16

The idea of unconditional love

Is it possible for an alcoholic to love unconditionally? Recently, I have come to believe that it is. It is through daily surrender and humility, the promise of step seven, that unconditional love becomes accessible to alcoholics.

The maladapted alcoholic ego, reduced by the rest of the steps, teaches us how to live and love. By remaining teachable, I have come to believe that we ascend to a higher level of consciousness. More and more, love and service to others become the fruit of all our hard work on the twelve steps. 

The great paradox of the program is that working with others heals the brokenness within me. Whenever I sponsor members, I become whole and self-fulfilled. Bill called it “the primary healing circuit.”

Once again, Bill came through for me in his remarkable article about emotional sobriety. Here was a man who for years suffered from crippling depression, and now after much suffering and soul searching, he finally found “a quiet place in bright sunshine.”

The Next Frontier: Emotional SobrietyCopyright © AA Grapevine, Inc, January 1958

Thanks for sharing your experience, strength, and hope, Bill!

In fellowship,

Andy F

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