Honesty, open-mindedness, willingness
H.O.W. – an acronym for honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness
Not long after coming to A.A., the alcoholic fog began to clear. I kept hearing people at meetings sharing about something called the H.O.W. of the program. Buddies in the fellowship told me that H.O.W. is an acronym for Honesty, Open-mindedness, and Willingness. They said these three principles were the only way to get well.
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 abstain from alcohol and go to meetings. That, I felt, was the only thing necessary to recover. I saw the slogan on the wall of every A.A. meeting: “Keep it simple.” I thought that keeping it simple meant not drinking and going to meetings. I wasn’t interested in the program or any suggestions.
The H.O.W. of the program seemed like some gimmick thought up by alcoholics. They were trying to be clever! The idea of honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness struck me as entirely irrelevant to overcoming alcohol addiction. In my mind, A.A. was some amateur pop psychology. Worse yet, five of the twelve steps mentioned God, and one step, a higher power. Not only was it designed by drunks, but 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 mindset was how I went through life. Small wonder that all of my relationships with women were so unsuccessful. Despite being consumed with fear, I was too arrogant to ask for help. Perhaps that’s what arrogance in recovery is: a defense 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 drive alcoholics to some very self-defeating behaviors. Ultimately, they lead 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 the “twisted thinking” of untreated alcoholism.
“A body badly burned by alcohol does not recover overnight, nor do twisted thinking and depression vanish in a twinkling.”
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 description of 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 depression, anxiety, 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 utterly 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:
Found on p.568 of the 4th edition of The Big Book, the following statement appears in Appendix 2. It is entitled “Spiritual Experience.”
“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 and discover that indispensable means “essential.” I was then shocked to learn 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 over the years, as a practicing drunk, my best thinking had become warped by a complete inability to be honest with myself! I had to let go of the idea that the Big Book was some amateur self-help book. If I were to recover, it would become necessary to stop rejecting everything in A.A.’s basic text.
My difficulty with the Big Book was especially apparent in my prejudice against God and religion. I had to stop judging what I saw as outdated Christian principles. A.A. continues to help millions of alcoholics. My dishonesty, closed-mindedness, and willfulness kept me relapsing in A.A. for over a decade. I had to reconsider my attitude to the program’s twelve steps and H.O.W. This humbling moment did not come through any personal virtue.
“We saw that we had to reconsider or die.”
An ego collapse
Although painful at the time, I will be eternally grateful for the ego collapse I experienced after thirteen years in AA. It was the beginning of a solid recovery. I began to realize how much denial I had been in. My very best thinking had become a potentially fatal liability.
Internalizing the three principles took work and patience. Gradually, I began to change. 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-centered need to share my problems, he gave me some suggested actions. David’s refusal to listen to my steady stream of negativity was his way of addressing my untreated alcoholism. This somewhat challenging approach to sponsorship was what I needed to begin getting more honest. For an alcoholic like me, honesty has been about learning how to live in the solution and not the problem. I had to face the unflattering truth that most of what was happening between my ears was nonsense.
Much to my surprise, the solution was 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 became the cornerstone of this transformative “psychic change.” (BB p. XX1X) When applied to the work of the twelve steps, the three principles have guided me to happy and contented sobriety.
What are Honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness?
As a newcomer, I wouldn’t have known the truth about anything if I fell over it. I was utterly closed-minded about the twelve steps. My attitude was that I would do recovery my way or not. Through regular relapse, I had to abandon this type of thinking.
It became essential to listen to other alcoholics share their experiences at A.A. meetings. How could I apply the three principles to staying sober? When I got the Gift Of Desperation (an acronym for G.O.D.) 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 couldn’t manage my life successfully, drunk or sober.
Open-mindedness: – A readiness to be teachable to the suggestions of a sponsor.
Willingness: – This has involved a daily surrender. Moreover, I have enough humility not to run my life on self-will. “We constantly remind ourselves that we are no longer running the show.” (B.B. p 87) To surrender daily and become willing to follow Good Orderly Direction. (another acronym for G.O.D.)
What is your view about honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness? Is it 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 alcoholism? If you don’t believe in God, can honesty, open-mindedness, and willingness become adequate powers greater than ourselves? Of course, they can. Why? Because they do for us what we could not do for ourselves.