The language of the heart

The language of the heart

March 30, 2023

By Andy F

Categories: AA literature

AA conference approved publication

I attended meetings for quite a few years when someone introduced me to “The Language of the Heart,” an AA conference-approved publication. In the early 90s, it wasn’t well known in the London fellowship. Someone suggested I ignore the rest of the book and focus on reading Part Three. There, I found thirteen articles written by Bill W (the co-founder of AA). They were all published in the AA “Grapevine” magazine.

I read all thirteen articles in one sitting. The content made a significant impact on me. I read them before I got serious about the twelve steps. I relapsed in AA for a long time and still suffered from anxiety and depression. Bill’s honesty and remarkable insight into his problems were always a source of great inspiration and hope. We both suffered from similar issues.

To a great extent, it was through identifying with Bill’s experiences in recovery that I eventually accepted that alcoholism is a mental, physical, and spiritual illness. Bill didn’t try to convince anyone in AA how well he was. In that sense, his honesty was a great power of example. Bill’s writings in The Grapevine helped me, an agnostic, believe that alcoholism is a spiritual illness.

A new meeting in central London

I was so impressed with Part Three of the book that I set up a meeting focused only on the thirteen Grapevine articles. A few of us got together and started a group called “The Language of the Heart group discussion.” At group conscience, we decided to read one of Bill’s thirteen articles weekly. Following the reading, we opened the meeting for general sharing. We did this in rotation over thirteen weeks. When we finished, we would return to the beginning and start again.

Like many new meetings, in its early days, it struggled. We were lucky to have a core group of about ten members. The meeting was held at 5 pm every Sunday at the convent of St. Vincent de Paul in Blandford Street. The venue was only a stone’s throw away from Oxford Street. Around the corner was the Hinde Street Methodist church. To this day, Hinde Street is home to one of the oldest AA meetings in London. This church has lunchtime and evening meetings every day of the week.

Bob, the cowboy from Texas

One Sunday, a tall, lean man came to our meeting. He was wearing a Stetson hat and cowboy boots. His name was Bob, and he was from Texas. We found out that he came from an independently wealthy oil family. Bob enjoyed donating money to good causes. He belonged to a Language of the Heart group in Dallas and was curious to check out its London counterpart.

This wealthy cowboy liked our meeting and wanted it to flourish. He ordered 25 “Language of the Heart” copies and donated them to our fledgling group. Now, everyone could follow Bill’s Grapevine articles. Thanks again, Bob! It wasn’t long before the word got out, and more and more people started to attend. Pretty soon, there weren’t enough copies to go around.

The next frontier: emotional sobriety

One of Bill’s thirteen articles is called “The Next Frontier: Emotional Sobriety.” In it, Bill describes his horrendous battle with depression. His struggles were similar to my own. The only difference was that he never relapsed. I, on the other hand, kept slipping and sliding for over a decade in AA. I was always inspired by Bill’s stoic resilience when describing his suffering in sobriety.

He never picked up the first drink, no matter how bad things got. At least I had the luxury of anti-depressants. In his day, there was no such medication for depression. He sought alternative treatments, finding relief in Niacin and LSD therapy. (Click the link and see the section “Alternative cures and spiritualism”)

I hope that this blog will be of interest to my fellow alcoholics who also suffer from depression. I want to offer a personal interpretation of Bill’s article. He wrote it in 1958 when he was 24 years sober. In it, he describes his battle with depression and his eventual release from it.

Fragile mental health

I could completely identify with Bill’s fragile mental health. Reading his article was a game-changer in my recovery. When I was in enough pain, I went through the twelve steps. Seemingly, Bill overcame depression by practicing selfless service to others. Could they work for an agnostic? Knowing I was an unbeliever, my sponsor reassured me that step three was merely a decision to proceed with the rest of the steps.

A more than adequate substitute for God, and indeed a power greater than me, was Good Orderly Direction (an acronym for God). In the Big Book of AA, I learned about the two core symptoms of alcoholism: selfishness and self-centeredness. (BB p.62). Bill also describes this as “the bondage of self.” (BB p 63) 

Years of therapy did little to overcome the darkness of my untreated alcoholism. Let’s face it; “Constant thought of others” (BB p. 20) is not an intervention modern psychology practices as an effective agent for positive change. Sometime after completing the first nine steps, I was able to come off anti-depressant medication. I could only achieve this significant step forward when I began putting Bill’s idea of service to others into practice.

“Our very lives as ex-problem drinkers depend on our constant thought of others and how we may help to meet their needs.”

(BB p. 20)

It is my sincere hope that Bill’s article may be helpful to AA members who continue to struggle with depression.  What I learned from his article continues to underpin how I treat the illness.

Bill’s Grapevine article

With the permission of the AA Grapevine, I offer you the entire article. Despite remaining an unbeliever, I found it incredibly helpful and thought-provoking. More and more, I began to warm to the idea that there was a solution to the mental madness of untreated alcoholism. It is through gradually learning how to apply love and service in my relationships with others. I have never had a problem embracing these two ideals as spiritual principles, and I hope you enjoy Bill’s article as much as I did.

  “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, with our fellows, and with 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 of my failure to grow up, 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 the right mental conviction into the 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 phoney 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 over the years undergone a little spiritual development, 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 was able to 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.

      For my dependency meant demand—a demand for the possession and control of the people and the conditions surrounding me.

      While the 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.

      This seems to be the primary healing circuit: an outgoing love of God’s creation and His people, by means of 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 at 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 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 either elation, grandiosity or depression. I have been given a quiet place in bright sunshine.”

Copyright © AA Grapevine, Inc, January 1958

Although Bill does mention God in this article, he also makes the following statement: “I had over the years undergone a little spiritual development.” It is up to the reader to decide if “spiritual development” depends on a belief in God.

Unhealthy dependencies

In his article, Bill states the following:

“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.”

Could it be that the root cause of my depression lay in unhealthy dependencies? I was addicted not only to alcohol and drugs but also to food, sex, relationships, work, and money. These were also part of my addictive personality. In addition, there were also a host of other dependencies that were less obvious.

I entirely depended on external validation, affirmation, acceptance, and approval to reduce my insecurities. I was a highly manipulative and controlling person, always demanding reassurance and approval. The truth was, I could not give these things to myself. In recovery, I remained a needy and insecure person. Like Bill, AA’s co-founder, I also experienced childhood traumas.

This neediness turned me into a taker and not a giver. The truth was that until I did the twelve steps, I had nothing to give. It was other people’s job to fix and rescue me. Bill writes: “My basic flaw had always been dependence – almost absolute dependence – on people or circumstances to supply me with prestige, security, and the like. There was never enough to satisfy my insatiable yearning for love and attention. Could this be the internal “bankruptcy” (12&12 p 21) that Bill refers to? 

“The primary healing circuit”

The content of Bill’s article shook my worldview. What he was suggesting was very radical. Although I had been on a path of personal development outside of AA, Bill’s ideas differed from anything I had ever learned. If I wanted to feel whole and happy rather than focus on getting my needs met, I had to become interested in how I could become a more useful human being.

Bill’s article helped me to understand that, ultimately, recovery from alcoholism depends on service to others. He convinced me that this was the road to freedom. Bill realized that when service was unconditional, recovery from depression became possible. How could I possibly follow Bill’s lead when I felt so empty? Once again, he offers clear-cut instructions:

“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.

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 twelve steps have set me on a life-changing journey. It is gradually releasing me from the painful “bondage of self.” (BB p 63) If the help I offer is freely given, “regardless of the return,” to me, it becomes the primary healing circuit.” The longer I’m in AA, the more I realize that this is how to successfully treat an illness that Bill called “The spiritual malady.” (BB. P 64) It works when I work it!

Adult love

Until I went through the program with a sponsor, I was still like a demanding child. Drinking from an early age stunted my psychological development. Although a grown man, I was still emotionally immature. The twelve steps are helping me to grow up – better late than never, right!? Today, I better understand Bill’s meaning when he discovered “what adult love really is.”

I remind myself daily that I am “not cured of alcoholism.” Recovery is “contingent on the maintenance of our (my) spiritual condition” (BB p. 85). As an agnostic, I have realized that my spiritual condition depends on the practice of love and service, both in and out of AA. For a self-centered alcoholic, selfless service is a big challenge. One day at a time, I am sure that it will keep me busy for the rest of my sober life. Whenever I focus on helping others and forget about my troubles, I also receive “a quiet place in bright sunshine.”

In fellowship

Andy F

With the support of Danny D

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