Journey Through AA’s First Three Steps (Part One)
In this series, we are attempting to look at the illness of alcoholism and its nature, in the manner that the Big Book presents it. I am going to highlight what I think are the important points of each step. We are going to be looking at it from two different angles. The first, is how I instruct newcomers and help them learn, and the second is my personal experience on how I went through the steps. Later on, we will be getting in to some of the mechanics of steps 4-11. But for now, I am going to show how I would present the steps to “Joe Newcomer”.
When I sponsor a new man, I begin on the title page and take them through the entire Big Book. When it says write something, we write it. When it says do something, we do it..etc. Obviously, I can’t transcribe that here, but I am going to attempt to highlight what I think are pertinent points on each step.
I will attempt to paint a very broad picture of the general content and an overview of how the program was taught to me. I am, obviously for time’s sake, going to leave many things out, and jump around a little, but again, this is just intended to be a broad representation of my experience.
The Circle and Triangle, Title Page, and “Any Lengths”
The first thing that I do after all the formalities have been completed, (getting to know them, their story, knowing that the newcomer is ready to go through with this..etc), is I sit down with them and try to explain what the illness of alcoholism is, and the program of Alcoholics Anonymous as the solution.
As an introduction, I usually briefly touch on the Three Legacies of the Program. Recovery, Unity, and Service. I have the newcomer draw the Circle and Triangle on the title page of his Big Book, explaining what each of these Legacies mean, and how important it is to put together a “complete program”. It is obviously something that I will expound on at a later time, but I like for him to get a feel for what the Circle and Triangle symbolize and how it encompasses the depth and weight of the program.
I briefly explain the Legacy of Unity (in a general sense) as going to meetings, talking to other AA’s, calling them on the phone, going to conventions or round-ups, being known and accessible in the homegroup etc…
I outline the Legacy of Recovery as specifically working through the twelve steps of AA, and that I should be able to ask him at any time what step he is on, and he should be able to provide an exact answer. (i.e. “I’m on the second page of my fear inventory on the fourth step.”)
I also speak on the Third Legacy, Service. While he may not be able to sponsor someone at this moment, carrying the message will play a vital role in his recovery. I talk about the importance of service and how he can still reach out to the newcomer even though he is brand new. I explain the sponsor-sponsee relationship, I give an overview the importance of carrying the message, and service work in general.
I explain to him that the triangle is an equilateral triangle, meaning that all three sides are equal and very important. I explain the “balance” and how we will be using the Circle and Triangle to gauge his program and progress as he moves through the work. I also talk about my experience with only working 2 sides of the triangle, and how working 66% or 33% of the program is unlikely to produce 100% results.
Following this topic of “results”, I usually show him the Promises. However, I refer to them as the “results” of the work, not a carrot I’m waving in front of him. After I am convinced he is a real alcoholic, and wants to (at least at this moment) go through with the work, I have him write “I am willing to go to any lengths to have victory of alcohol” on the title page, and sign it.
“Remember it was agreed at the beginning we would go to any lengths for victory over alcohol.” Page 76 Big Book
While we are on the title page, I turn his attention to the first promise the Big Book has to offer.
“Alcoholics Anonymous: How Many Thousands of Men and Women have Recovered from Alcoholism” Big Book Title Page
I point out that since the first edition, first book off the press, the founders provide a wonderful and amazing promise! That we indeed, CAN recover from alcoholism. While in meetings I just say “I’m Rob, I’m an alcoholic,” it is here where I bring his attention to the fact that I am a recovered alcoholic.
“His attention should be drawn to you as a person who has recovered” Working With Others Big Book Page 90
I describe what my life is like, and give him a feel of what it is like to have the obsession and desire to drink completely removed, and the peace and serenity that come along with living in a recovered state. I explain to him that, through taking the actions in this book, I have recovered from a “seemingly hopeless state of mind and body.”
After this, we usually go through the Forwards, which I won’t go in to here. But I point out the change of tone between the first and second forwards, and the third and fourth.
I explain that in the first two Forwards, they use the word “We” and that this is a “We” program, not an “individual program.” To be part of that “We”, him and I are going to have to walk shoulder to shoulder on this common journey and “path” that is clearly laid out for us, as stated in the Forward to the First Edition.
I begin to explain that alcoholism is a three fold illness 1) physical, 2) mental, and 3) spiritual, and that the Book will expound on these three components.
We take a look at the first step.
Step 1: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable.
We start out with the first clause. Now what exactly does it mean to be powerless over alcohol? I start out by bringing his attention to the physical aspect of being powerless over alcohol…
1) Physical Allergy and the Phenomenon of Craving
As we begin the Dr.’s Opinion, we begin to look at this physical piece of our illness and why we are different physically.
“We believe, and so suggested a few years ago, that the action of alcohol on these chronic alcoholics is a manifestation of an allergy; that the phenomenon of craving is limited to this class and never occurs in the average temperate drinker.” Big Book Dr.’s Opinion
I point out to him that Dr. Silkworth refers to the “action of alcohol” on us alcoholics, as an “allergy”. Now what exactly does he mean by that?
I tell him that the word “allergy” means a “heightened susceptibility” or an “abnormal reaction” to a substance. I give him examples of my own experience outlining how when I drank, it lit something inside of me that made me want more. It doesn’t seem to do that with my Dad, or Grandma, or my non-alcoholic friends. Therefore, I have a “heightened susceptibility” to alcohol. My favorite drink was…..the next one! LOL.
I try to let him give examples of his own experience and tell him about the “phenomenon of craving”. I show him that it manifests in this way: Once I started to drink, I kept wanting more and more. After the 6th drink I wanted the 7th more than I wanted the 2nd after the first. It was like a snowball rolling downhill. When I drank, it produced a “phenomenon of craving” to where I wanted more, the more I drank. The craving was never satisfied, only intensified.
Sure, at times, I could semi-control it, but not every time. Towards the end of my drinking, I was completely unable to control it at all.
We try to talk about how, physically, alcohol lights something up in us that makes us want more of it, that we don’t get with Pepsi for example. It makes us feel alive and instantly changes our perception of reality, making it even more appealing to drink.
“Men and women drink essentially because they like the effect produced by alcohol. The sensation is so elusive that, while they admit it is injurious, they cannot after a time differentiate the true from the false.” Big Book Dr.’s Opinion
I focus on this statement and turn his attention to, if you boil it down to brass tax people drink because they like the effect produced by alcohol. It is not the outer conditions, or because my parents divorced, or because I was neglected, or whatever. Sure, some of those things might have exashorbated the problem of drinking but, At its simplest form, it is because I LIKE THE EFFECT PRODUCED BY ALCOHOL. ( and it does something for me in the physical sense that it doesn’t do to the average temperate drinker).
After I believe he completely gets the physical piece of his illness, I begin to move to the mental obsession, while we are discussing the Dr.’s Opinion, I will hit this paragraph.
2) Mental Obsession
“The sensation is so elusive that, while they admit it is injurious, they cannot after a time differentiate the true from the false. To them, their alcoholic life seems the only normal one. They are restless, irritable and discontented, unless they can again experience the sense of ease and comfort which comes at once by taking a few drinks-drinks which they see others taking with impunity.” Big Book Dr.’s Opinion
I talk about my inability to differentiate between the true and false, using every form of self-justification, victimization, and rationalization for what I perceived were my life conditions. I used this false perception of reality to create a mental condition that was conducive to my drinking. I talk about how my life seemed like it was the only normal one, I used to say “I have Irish heritage, I’m a drunk, and that’s just the way it is”
I talk about the mental obsession as an inescapable mental condition to where drinking and the thought of alcohol were always on my mind, and how I was driven back to a drink time after time.
I highlight restless, irritable, and discontent. Usually fluctuating my voice to emphasize the torture of untreated alcholism. How I could never relax, my mind was always racing, I was pissed off at everybody and I would just lie awake at night sad, depressed and discontent. I talk about when I was in that horrible condition, I thought: “I can’t live like this”.
This mental state of dis-ease, would lead me back to drinking. After taking some drinks I would “experience the ease and comfort which came at once”
When I would be locked up in that noisesome, restless, mindset…after taking a few drinks….aaaahhhhhhhhhh…….My heart stopped beating as fast, my lung fuction improved, I could take long deep breaths and relax….ahhhhhhh…..My perception of reality instantly changed with a few drinks, I felt a sense that my mind had quieted, and I could handle my life.
It is here were I bring in the mental component to being powerless over alcohol. I point out that I have lost the “power of choice” in drink:
“The fact is that most alcoholics, for reasons yet obscure, have lost the power of choice in drink. Our so-called will power becomes practically nonexistent. We are unable, at certain times, to bring into our consciousness with sufficient force the memory of the suffering and humiliation of even a week or a month ago. We are without defense against the first drink.” Big Book page 24
What does it mean to have “lost the power of choice” in drink?
It says right there that our “will power” becomes “practically non-existent”. So no matter how much will power you try to put in to this, a mental state will occur, at some point, that will keep leading you back to alcohol. It says “we are unable,” and then the key words “at certain times” to “bring in to our consciousness” a defense against the first drink.
I explain to him that sometimes, we CAN, provide a mental defense. But there are “certain times” where were we can’t bring in to our mind, “with sufficient force,” the pain that alcohol has caused us. In these mental blank spots, the alcoholic is virtually defenseless, a mental condition is created where the alcoholic is going to drink, no bones about it.
I speak of how everybody usually knows somebody like “Uncle Joe”. They say “Uncle Joe was a bad alcoholic for 20 years, and then one day he just quit cold turkey, no AA, nothing, just decided to quit”
I point out to him that in several places in the Big Book, it talks about alcoholics of “our type”, and the “real alcoholic.” They even lay an example of the progression of our illness with four different examples, in the chapter To Wives.
The Big Book was written for the alcoholic who has shown “the utter inability” to “leave it alone”. “Uncle Joe” seems to have the power and ability to do that. The power that I, as the “real alcoholic”, don’t have.
Looking at the first step and being powerless over alcohol I explain, it doesn’t say that you can’t drink. It says that if you remain in a state of untreated alcoholism and dis-ease, you WILL drink again, and no cognitive defense will stop that.
Having lost the power of choice in drink, means that, If I remain sick, the time and place will come, where I will drink again.
To sum it up I usually state: “So the first clause of the first step means this: That when I drink alcohol I can not, every time, control the amount I am going to take. And mentally, if I remain untreated, a mental condition will arise where I will return to drinking, no matter what the consequences.”
Basically, I am powerless to control it when it is in my body, and powerless from keeping from putting it in my body. (without a Higher Power)
In the next installment, we will be talking about the spiritual malady, and its inter-connectedness with the mental obsession. We will talk about this problem, rooted in the spiritual malady, creates an environment for the mental obsession to arise, which causes us to drink, setting forth the “physical allergy” and the “phenomenon of craving.”
(Next Installment: Unmanagability, The Spiritual Malady, “Lack of Power” and Step 2)
“For we have been not only mentally and physically ill, we have been spiritually sick. When the spiritual malady is overcome, we straighten out mentally and physically.” Big Book Page 64