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““A new life has been given us or, if you prefer, a design for living that really works.”-Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous Page 28.
When most of us come into AA, we have no idea how to handle the basic day-to-day problems that confront us. How do we manage a relationship? How do we live a life of vigorous honesty? How do we handle life’s pain without the buffer that drugs and alcohol provided for us? How do we even stay sober for one whole day? Before, we had a solution. The solution got us into a lot of trouble, but it did work, some of the time. We didn’t have to worry about how to deal with anything, because drugs and alcohol provided the escape we so desperately needed. It no longer was about getting “high”, it was about using as a way of life. Go to work high, meet a date high, talk to people we felt uncomfortable with high. Being high was the solution that caused us so many problems, but it also acted as the (unhealthy) solution to our problems.
So now we decide to get sober. And what are we supposed to do? How do we live life? What’s this new design for living that the Big Book gives us; a way of life that doesn’t allow us to use the buffer? Can living like this even work? Can we even still have fun? How do we handle the emotional ups and downs of sober life like adults?
I won’t lay out the entire 12 steps for you, but I’ll give you a summary, based on a few very insightful sources. Here are six tools that summarize the design for living that the Big Book gives us. And yes, they really do work, if we do our best to work at them.
1. Acceptance is Everything. We have to accept our past, and this is the worst and most difficult part of the process. It doesn’t matter what you said on Facebook two weeks ago that makes you scream in shame. It happened. It’s over, ok? Acceptance. Acceptance that your past was difficult, that you made some terrible decisions, but also that some things happened to you that weren’t your fault. Acceptance that maybe you were abused, or maybe you have a deep seeded resentment that led to your drinking. Accepting people for who they are, and acceptance that you can’t change them by will alone. This doesn’t happen overnight. The Big Book will show you the path forward, and the 4th and 9th step truly are the way towards gaining acceptance of yourself, and others. Only then can you move forward in sobriety.
2. Vulnerability and Honesty are Key. Most of us couldn’t get sober or stay sober because we couldn’t be honest with ourselves or with other people. We had a really hard time telling other people that we needed help, and we had a really hard time telling people the truth-about everything. We wanted to run the entire show, and manipulate everyone so that we could feel in control of everyone and everything, including ourselves. Vulnerability may have gotten us into trouble in our childhood, so we looked down on being vulnerable in our lives. It puts us in a compromised position. It might mean we have to trust someone. That’s why it’s important to find a sponsor or counselor you can trust. One you can divulge your secrets to, and one you can be vulnerable around. If you can’t be vulnerable, humble, and honest, then you can’t recover.
3. Relying on a Higher Power is Crucial. So many of us were atheists or disgruntled Christians when we came into AA. None of us wanted much to do with God, because we felt He had really screwed us over big time. Where was God when we prayed to Him to help us? Where was God when we asked for help when we were being abused as a child? We have so much resentment against God that it’s infuriating to be told that we need to rely on a higher power to change our lives. You don’t need to stress out about this. First of all, a higher power can be anything. It can be the ocean. It can be the AA group. All it means is that you need to stop relying on yourself to fix everything because it isn’t working. Sometimes, it just requires praying for an answer and then getting an answer from a friend. You never know how God works. Meditation and prayer, even if it feels awkward, can be very therapeutic. It helps us to express our thoughts and desires, if nothing else. Start small and then work up. You may be surprised at how your relationship with God will grow over time. Perhaps eventually you’ll become a Born Again Christian or a Buddhist. But you don’t need to be a fundamentalist to be a member of AA. You just need a willingness to believe.
4. Taking a daily inventory and when we mess up, admit it. Nobody was perfect. Jesus was perfect, and not everybody liked him. He was crucified, for goodness sake! So, stop expecting so much from yourself. You’re going to mess up in life. And when you do, make amends the best way you can, and try to move on. Don’t hold it in, don’t keep secrets. Just say you’re sorry, or do what you have to do to make it better, and move on. It’s helpful to make a journal at the end of the day and list what you think you need to work on that day. Then, when you feel ready (but don’t wait too long!), make amends or make it right in whatever way you need to.
5. Secrets keep us sick. Above all, secrets are the enemy. Secrets wear us down. Taking dirty chips, keeping a secret within that we were abused, not admitting to ourselves or to another human being that we are unhappy in our marriage. Remember when you took that Klonopin, just once, and never told anyone about it? Tell someone! So what if you have to take a newcomer chip? Do you really think anyone is judging you? And if they are, who cares? They aren’t worth your time. Burdens and resentments keep us sick; they make us sad; they keep us from growing as individuals. They make us bitter, and when we are bitter, we pass it on to other people, including our children.
6. Keep it light. Enjoy life. As the book says, “We are not a glum lot.” You don’t need to stay in every day and play checkers. Make friends. Go travel. Get a good job that you like. Pick up a hobby. Go out. Go on a date. Try out a new church that you always wanted to go to. Do something fun. Stop being so serious. Yes, take your sobriety seriously and live your life in a way that makes you proud of yourself, but don’t take yourself so seriously. You’re only human. Learn to laugh a little bit. Sobriety is fun; it doesn’t have to be a drag. You deserve to enjoy your life. Just because you made some mistakes doesn’t mean you should punish yourself forever.
The Big Book has many more guidelines for living a full and honest life. It’s a book that could help anyone, and it’s not just for those who struggle with addiction. After all, we all struggle with burdens, and secrets, and obsessions, and we all harbor resentments. We all take life too seriously. But most of all, above everything, remember that you aren’t alone. Stay involved in the AA community, or your church community, or whatever it takes to make you feel a part of a group that cares about you. Don’t try to do sobriety alone. There are many others out there, trying to live the 12-step life, just like you. Stay involved and pick up the phone. Call your sponsor or a good friend and get the help you need. It’s time for you to live the life you deserve, and start living the Big Book design for living that truly works.