Honesty, open-mindedness, willingness
H.O.W. – an acronym for honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness
Not long after coming to AA, the alcoholic mental fog began to clear. I kept hearing people at meetings sharing about something called the H.O.W. of the program. I was soon told that H.O.W. is an acronym for Honesty, Open-mindedness, and Willingness. Members at meetings were saying that it was impossible to stay sober without these three principles.
The warped logic of untreated alcoholism
I couldn’t see what honesty, open-mindedness, or willingness had to do with not drinking. In my sick mind, I believed that all that was required was to not drink and go to meetings. That seemed like a normal therapeutic solution. I saw the slogan on the wall of every AA meeting: “Keep it simple.” I thought this meant don’t drink and go to meetings. I wasn’t interested in the program or any suggestions.
The H.O.W. of the program seemed like some kind of gimmick thought up by alcoholics. They were just trying to be clever! The idea of honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness seemed completely irrelevant to not drinking.
In my mind, AA was some kind of amateur pop-psychology. Worse yet, God and a higher power were mentioned in six of the twelve steps. Not only was it designed by drunks. It was designed by born-again Christian drunks!
The opposite of H.O.W.
For a long time in sobriety, I was the exact opposite of H.O.W. In hindsight, I was 100% dishonest, closed-minded and willful. This was true in every area of my life. Romance as well as finance! As frightened as I was, I was also too arrogant to ask for help. Perhaps that’s what arrogance in recovery is; a defence mechanism against the fear of change.
The Dry Drunk
For over a decade, I suffered from what in AA is known as a dry drunk. This syndrome has also been called untreated alcoholism. No two dry drunks are the same. A dry drunk will make the alcoholic’s most glaring defects of character even worse. Without surrendering to the program, these defects can drive alcoholics to relapse.
Resentment, blame, and self-pity made staying sober impossible. Later on, I learned that self-pity is in itself resentment. My alcoholic thinking would convince me, that my life was over and there was nothing to be grateful for. I remember being taken aside by an AA old-timer. He said that this was “stinking thinking,” a common symptom of untreated alcoholism.
“A body badly burned by alcohol does not recover overnight, nor do twisted thinking and depression vanish in a twinkling.”
Big Book “The Family Afterward” p.133
In this quote, Bill W, the author of The Big Book, offers a description that fits me perfectly. What he described in that one sentence was an accurate definition of my untreated alcoholism.
Not surprisingly, I was unable to stay sober in the way that I was thinking and living. My very best ideas were the cause of one relapse after another.
“Once more; the alcoholic at certain times has no effective mental defense against the first drink”
Big Book “More About Alcoholism” p.43
It took many years to find out the causes of my anxiety, depression, and negative thinking. I was amazed that it took so long to discover the truth. It turned out, that the root cause of my misery in sobriety was dishonesty, closed-mindedness, and willfulness. Based on my “old ideas,” I was completely unable to internalize the H.O.W. of the program.
“Some of us have tried to hold onto our old ideas and the result was nil until we let go absolutely.”
(Big Book “Chapter Five” p. 58)
When I was a street drunk, dishonesty, closed-mindedness, and willfulness helped me to survive. With that mindset, I was able to drink with impunity. In recovery, these shortcomings made it impossible to stay sober.
The Big Book declares:
The following statement can be found in Appendix 2. It is entitled “Spiritual Experience.” It can be found on p.568 of the 4th edition of The Big Book.
“Willingness, honesty, and open-mindedness are the essentials of recovery. But these are indispensable”
Through a disrupted early education, I had no idea what the word “indispensable” even meant. I had to look it up. I discovered that indispensable means “essential.” I was then shocked to discover that “essential” is defined as “absolutely necessary” in the dictionary. That put a very different spin on my attitude to honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness.
AA: – an acronym for Attitude Adjustment
What an ego-deflating process it was! I had to admit that my best alcoholic thinking and attitudes were entirely twisted by a complete inability to be honest with myself! I had to let go of the idea that the Big Book was some kind of amateur self-help book. If I were to recover, it would become necessary to stop rejecting everything in the Big Book.
This was especially true regarding my prejudice against God and religion. I had to stop judging what I saw as outdated Christian principles. AA continues to help millions of alcoholics get happily sober. My dishonesty, closed-mindedness, and willfulness kept me relapsing in AA for more than a decade.
I had to reconsider my attitude to the twelve steps and the H.O.W. of the program. This humbling moment came not through any personal virtue
“We saw that we had to reconsider or die”
12&12 Step Two, p.30
An ego collapse
Although painful at the time, I will be eternally grateful for the ego collapse that I eventually experienced. It was the beginning of a solid recovery. I began to realize how dishonest I had been. My very best thinking had become a potentially fatal liability.
The three principles never came easily. I had to gradually internalize them. It was like learning a new language. The first glimpse of self-honesty came from my sponsor. David would not listen to my constant stream of blame, resentment, and self-pity. As much as I didn’t like it at the time, he always told me the truth.
Instead of listening to my self-centred need to keep sharing about my problems; he gave me some suggested actions. David’s refusal to listen was his way of addressing my untreated alcoholism. This somewhat tough approach to sponsorship was exactly what I needed to begin getting more honest. The honesty, in this case, was learning how to live in the solution and not the problem.
Much to my surprise, the solution turned out to be a gradual spiritual awakening. As an agnostic, I was relieved to discover that a spiritual awakening need not be dependent on a God awakening. Honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness turned out to be the cornerstone of this transformative “psychic change.” (Big Book “The Doctor’s Opinion” p. XX1X) When applied to the work of the twelve steps, the three principles have led to happy and contented sobriety.
What are Honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness?
When I was a newcomer, I wouldn’t have known the truth about anything if I fell over it. I was completely closed-minded about the twelve steps. My attitude was that I was going to do recovery my way or no way. Through regular relapse, I had to abandon this type of thinking. It became important to listen to other alcoholics share their experiences at AA meetings. How could I apply the three principles to staying sober? When I got the Gift Of Desperation (an acronym for GOD) and became teachable, the H.O.W. of the program became strikingly simple.
Honesty = An honest admission that I was powerless over alcohol. That I was unable to manage my life successfully drunk or sober.
Open-mindedness = Becoming teachable to the suggestions of a sponsor.
Willingness = to stop running the show of my life on self-will. To surrender daily and become willing to follow Good Orderly Direction. (another acronym for GOD)
What is your view about honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness? Do you think that it’s possible to get well without them? Have you come to believe that the H.O.W. of the program is “absolutely necessary” to recover from the alcoholic illness?