Alcoholics Anonymous is never late, sometimes early, and always on time. Its attitudes about the past, the present and the future are founded on experience, pragmatism, and faith. An investigation of A.A.'s attitudes about time and my own personal experiences, drunk and sober, reveals key ideas crucial to real recovery.
So when did A.A. begin? A.A.'s founding is celebrated every year at Founders' weekend in Akron and all over the world on June 10, 1935. That's when Bill W. and Dr. Bob first met and talked at the Sieberling gate house in Akron, Ohio. Usually one's sobriety starts with the day one stopped drinking. We know from a great researcher, Merton M., that Dr. Bob went to a medical convention and drank after that June 10. Arriving back, he finally sobered up on June 17, 1935.
It is important to remember that A.A. was founded not when Bill Wilson got sober with his spiritual experience in Towns Hospital in 1934 … but when Dr. Bob took his last drink. That's the we in the Fellowship.
June 10 is a symbolic date. But you can imagine the uproar if we tried to get June 17 accepted as the official” founding date of A.A. To start with, most of A.A. is unofficial.
One can also argue that A.A. was founded when Bill W. stopped drinking in 1934 … or when he had his spiritual experience in Towns Hospital … or when Ebby T. brought him the Oxford Group "I've got religion" message …
But June 10 is so ingrained in the Fellowship's shared history that it might be best to accept it as evidence of our shared imperfection and move on.
Co-Founder Dr. Bob told a newcomer he wasn't going to drink today and if he wanted to stick around with him maybe he wouldn't drink today. He didn't require a lifetime temperance pledge or any other "tomorrow" promise. He ignored the pigeon's liquid past of binges, blackouts, daily intoxications, and disasters.
Today was the time. And even today was divided into minutes and hours.
The second biggest best-seller after the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book was Twenty-Four Hours a Day by Richmond Walker. This small daily meditation volume started the day every morning for many newcomers. Each of the 365 pages offered a daily A.A. Thought for the Day, Meditation for the Day, and Prayer for the Day; all on one 3 x 5 ½ inch page. The book was "intended for members of Alcoholics Anonymous, as a help in their program of living one day at a time.” Published in 1948, the foreword advised "If we don't take that first drink today, we'll never take it, because it's always today."
The Fellowship is full of pithy sayings, folksy slogans, and wise suggestions about today: "One minute, one hour, one day at a time." "You can start your day over anytime." "The past is a cancelled check, the future a promissory note, but today is cash."
My own experience as an active alcoholic, 15 years of getting drunk, centered not on today but tomorrow. "I won't do this again tomorrow." But tomorrow was always the same only worse. And it never came. I lost many jobs because I was always late or absent. Never on time. Never present. Endless tomorrow resolutions that never began. Back then tomorrow was my favorite day.
Many years later I asked myself what character defects God removed from me in my first year stumbling through the 12 Steps. God didn't remove the pride and lust because I wouldn't let Him but what He removed was the biggest pattern in my drunk career: always late or absent. My first job sober was in a meat factory and I was on time at six in the morning every day. I wouldn't dream of going to an A.A. meeting late. I paid my bills on time. I was present. God got me on time today.
Early in my first months of A.A., an oldtimer gave me the Twenty-Four Hours a Day book and advised me to read it daily. "Put it under your bed; that way you'll start the day off on your knees."
"Why do I have to kneel?"
"Remember all those drunks when you ended up flat in the gutter? You didn't stand up immediately. The first thing you did was get on your knees, grab a helping hand or anything, and pull yourself upright." On your knees is not religious; it's symbolic of the beginning of your sobering up, standing up.
Time starts in A.A. with our sobriety date, our first day sober. Mine is January 25, 1976. Over the years I have enjoyed a few birthday cakes and received some medallions to mark the years, now some 38 sober years. Some A.A. groups give out different colored poker chips to celebrate thirty or ninety days sober. If a newcomer has a desire to drink, they suggest putting the plastic chip in his mouth and when it melts they can take a drink. I've never met a newcomer who said the chip melted.
Total dependence on God and intensive work with other alcoholics” is the only guarantee of immunity from drinking again.
So how much time does it take to get sober? Or…how much time to go through the Twelve Steps? The first time?
1. Clarence Snyder, Cleveland A.A. Founder, was sponsored by Dr. Bob. Clarence would take the newcomer home with him Friday and when the new man left Monday morning he was on Step 9, going out to make direct amends. That's 8 steps in a weekend.
2. Dr. Bob and Sr. Ignatia set up the first alcoholic ward at St. Thomas Hospital in Akron. The newcomer was sponsored into the hospital and his sponsor was responsible for the bill. Usually he was allowed to stay 5 days and had to finish Step 5. There were few exceptions to the no repeat admissions rule. Sr. Ignatia's favorite saying was "Eternity is now." That really
pinpoints her attitude about time.
3. Our own experience over the past eleven years with Twelve Step Workshops has proven that anyone who is willing, honest and open-minded can go through the 12 Steps in twelve weeks or less, often less.
Working the Steps in ten or twelve weeks with a sponsor and God is not the only way to get sober. As West Virginia archivist I interviewed old Bill H. at the Martins Ferry, Ohio, AA group. They had eight members and the baby in the group had 8 years sober. They met once a week and before the meeting played euchre for 25 cents a game. They didn't read the Traditions, Steps, Promises, and Preamble. No GSR report since they had none. They started with the Serenity Prayer or a minute of silence. If no one had a problem to discuss, they closed with the Lord's Prayer and went back to euchre.
I asked Bill how he worked the Steps. "We didn't ‘work' the Steps, we lived them," he said. How are you going to argue about how the Steps should be worked with someone who died with 44 years sober? And all the other members with 8 years, 30 years, 20 years.
"Listen, we didn't write anything out, we knew what we had done wrong in the past and when the victim showed up we made amends right away," Bill explained. Sounds like "today, now." Those AAs all had sponsors and a God, so the "we" was solid.
4. Nowhere in the Big Book is a time limitation put on the steps.
The only place any time is mentioned is the "one hour" after the Fifth Step to "carefully review[ing] what we have done. Carefully reading the first five proposals (Steps) we ask if we have omitted anything, for we are building an arch through which we shall walk a free man at last." BB p.75
What happens if a drunk doesn't work or "live" the Steps? Well, the Big Book says alcohol was just a "symptom" and until "selfishness, self-centeredness" is removed, we will go back to alcohol. Alcohol is "cunning, baffling and powerful" ( add "patient") and we will drink again. In the "Doctor's Opinion," the opening text in the Big Book, Dr. Silkworth pointed out the powerful mental obsession to drink again as well as the physical craving for another drink that comes after the first drink. To borrow from Yogi Berra, the great New York Yankees catcher, "it's déjà vu all over again!"
We all have a sobriety date. Some have days or months, some have years, today some have 50 years or more of sobriety. But we all count our sobriety one day at a time. Last year an A.A. revealed he had drunk for 4 hours or so but didn't get a new sobriety date. He decided he would keep his original sobriety date. After all it was his. Whatever happened to "we"? Maybe he should write up his new A.A. idea about sobriety dates and send it to the Grapevine for publication around the world. Talk about ego! Wonder what effect that would have on struggling alcoholics. It wouldn't take much time for a newcomer to stretch that four hours into four days or weeks or months or even years. A.A. does not erase a four hour drunk.
While A.A. is a present tense Fellowship, it does not ignore the past or the future. The past is present in the first two Steps. The newcomer looks over his past powerlessness and his unmanageable life. He goes to a lot of speaker meetings and identifies with them. He listens to his sponsor's story and sees himself. He reviews all his past attempts to control his drinking and sees his continuous failures. He realizes his own will power and resolutions, the police, employers, significant others, treatment, counselors and medications at best gave him only a brief interlude before he started drinking again. The process of elimination drags him to the only option, a Higher Power.
As soon as he makes a Third Step decision about God, he is urged by the Big Book to begin a Fourth Step "at once."
Though our decision [in the Third Step] was a vital and crucial step, it could have little permanent effect unless at once followed by a strenuous effort to face, and to be rid of, the things in ourselves which had been blocking us .... Therefore, we started …. Step Four.
It is a spiritual autopsy. The newcomer confronts his past. If they aren't "ready" to write out their fearless, moral inventory, I usually suggest the first word to be written down is "procrastination," the time thief.
If that doesn't work, then another look at Step Three is in order. A general principle in putting the Steps into action is that when one is having real difficulty with a Step go back to the previous Step for spiritual strength.
A good Step Four written inventory reveals a large batch of angers (resentments), fears and sexual misdeeds with all the attendant harm done to others and oneself. One's conscience immediately brings up shame and guilt which is good. Have you ever met a shameless or guiltless person? You're looking at a psychopath or serial killer or someone so scarred they have lost their humanity. No conscience exists there. The shame can be accepted as proof of our imperfection and the guilt can be repaired with amends and the rest of the Steps relying on the graces of one's God.
That is how the horrible past is changed into our chief asset. The Steps create for us a new past. Secrets with all their fears and angers are shared with a sponsor and God and healed. You can see that at speaker meetings, when the room erupts in laughter at the past disasters. Outsiders are shocked at the Fellowship's humor about such terrible past events.
When a recovered alcoholic shares his story with a newcomer, the pigeon identifies with the sponsor's past. The newcomer knows that this sober alcoholic knows his own story and is attracted to the sponsor's present sobriety. He wants to know how the A.A. member got his sobriety. Hope is born and a bond of trust comes about. Sponsorship through the Steps usually begins because the suffering alcoholic wants a new healed past with the removal of all drinking.
Thus A.A.'s attitude about the past is positive: "We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it." (Big Book p.83) Living today and having gained a new healed past, the A.A. pigeon arrives at Step Ten and reads the "Twelve Promises" on Big Book pages 83 and 84.
At the end of that paragraph, the Big Book asks: "Are these extravagant promises?" The Big Book answers "We think not." I usually answer "Yes." Promises about the future. A.A. does not promise the newcomer his marriage will not end in divorce; that he will shortly be promoted run his employer's multi-million dollar company; that his new BMW will be delivered tomorrow. Nor does A.A. promise him he will be divorced, fired, or walk to work every day.
A.A. is very careful about future times. It does say the alcoholic will have a "daily reprieve contingent on the maintenance of our spiritual condition." (Big Book p.85)
Steps Ten, Eleven and Twelve are often called the "maintenance" Steps. I call them the Progress Steps. In early A.A. members would ask Bill W. when they were going to have a "spiritual experience" like Bill had in Towns Hospital. His reply was Appendix II in the Big Book. The spiritual awakening of the Twelfth Step can be a lightning bolt or a slower transformation over some months. The result is the same.
In my early sobriety I wouldn't dream of showing up "late" for an A.A. meeting. But eventually I came to understand you are never "late" for A.A.
In my drunk career, time was always my enemy. My time then was always tomorrow or the ancient past of failures. Always late or absent. Procrastination was a virtue.
Now it's totally different: "See to it your relationship with Him (your God) is right, and great events will come to pass for you and countless others." (Big Book p.164) Now I have a very long list of "great events" promised for the future that are now present history.
My time now is a daily reprieve. I have numerous prayers. I listen to my God in meditation. I leave it to the reader to find the resentment prayer, the Step prayers, the morning and evening prayers, the guidance through doubt and anxiety, the intuition gift, and much more that will keep you spiritually fit and sober.
God, the Big Book Steps, sponsors and the Fellowship gave me a new good life. I wouldn't change anything in the Big Book. Well, maybe I would like to add three words on the title page:
"to be continued"
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