Three Ways to Help Turn the Page to Long-term Sobriety
On October 10, I celebrated three years of continuous sobriety, a journey that has taken me from the inside of a jail cell to a level of freedom from alcoholism I never dreamt imaginable. Along the way, I’ve gained a guide to life in the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous – ones that filled a lifelong void in direction. In sobriety, I’ve found not only peace but purpose, not only help but helpfulness, and not only brotherhood but manhood. I’ve grown up more in each of the last three years than in the previous 32 combined.
As is always the case, the first year was by far the most difficult. Like so many ragged rookies before me, the best I could do was suit up, show up, and shut up. It was an exhausting, grueling daily grind: the weight of still-fresh shame, guilt and remorse were nearly unbearable. The initially incredible burden gradually lessened in proportion to my slowly replenishing self-esteem as, one day at a time, I proved to myself that I wasn’t worthless.
As I got a sponsor and began working the Steps, I entered the notorious pink cloud phase of recovery. Just a short while ago I had been, in my own diseased mind, helplessly dependent on alcohol – a lost cause that simply could not stop drinking to literally save his life. Mere months later, I had found a solution that, miraculously, not only lifted my seemingly unbreakable obsession with alcohol, but also had begun to provide me with a sanity that, even in my pre-addiction days, was never realized.
I knew that I had a long way to go, but I had – with 100% certainty – found the road upon which to travel. The result was a joyousness born from the relief of wholly unexpected salvation. And why shouldn’t I be enthralled? Life was getting better, fast. My marriage, career and personal relationships were all reaching unprecedented levels of contentedness, and my physical health was improving along with my mental state.
But clouds, of course, dissipate. And when pretty pink ones start to clear, the weather can get a bit ugly.
For me, that meant more than a touch of the terrible twos. The Steps had been worked, the meetings made, the commitments kept. Many of the program’s Promises had begun to materialize. But where I found myself was in a strange, potentially dangerous place between the evaporation of pink-cloud enthusiasm and the more sustainable safe haven of emotional maturity – the sort truly accrued only through long-term sobriety.
Progress seemed to slow – a natural let-down given the enormity of effort and (at least for me) relatively immediate rewards of early sobriety. My obsession to drink was gone, but what remained were many of my more stubborn character defects: Anger, pride, fear, impatience, self-righteousness.
My physical sobriety, as it tends to do, had far outpaced my mental sobriety. Though my primary objective coming into AA had been achieved, I was left with the conundrum of being too cured to try to drink straight, but too diseased to really think straight. Something had to give.
To those who, like me, have tangled with sobriety’s terrible twos: There are two choices, and they are dry-drunkenness and progress. Here are three ways to choose the latter.
Start Sponsoring Newcomers
When I was about 18 months sober – and just a few months removed from my first venture through the 12 Steps – my sponsor told me that the next step was for me to start sponsoring newcomers. Given that I still considered myself a little wet behind the ears, this was a revolutionarily concept indeed. Now, three years sober and with a sponsee who just celebrated 90 days, I am truly grateful for the seemingly premature shove in the back which, at the time, felt more like a kick in the backside.
In early sobriety, we build basic self esteem by the simple practice of taking the next right action. I did so, as I believe many of us did, in a bit of a daze. For me, early sobriety required a sort of arduous autopilot – a repetitive, almost robotic rhythm that, through effort and execution, proved to a doubtful self that I wasn’t a useless, altogether bad person. Work. AA meeting. Gym. Home. Repeat. At least consciously, more of me was running away from a drink than toward a sustainable sobriety. That first six or nine months were a blur, a fuzzy memory despite the fact that, as I write this, it was just a couple of years ago.
Now, as I attempt to guide a fellow recovering alcoholic through the 12 Steps, I am coming to more fully appreciate the notion that sponsorship helps the sponsor as well as the sponsee. I have the privilege of watching a defeated, desperate comrade start to emerge from the depths of our common disease. I see him encounter unmanageability with the same faulty self will-run riot that I so unsuccessfully used in my first few months. I see him dip his toe in the welcoming waters of Alcoholics Anonymous, oftentimes recoiling before eventually wading in a bit further. I see a very smart person start to supplement his intelligence with the wisdom imparted by this time-tested program of recovery.
I see him get a lot of things half-right – which, I am quick to point out, is 50% more right than he was getting things just a few months earlier. And very recently, I see one of the greatest gifts this program provides: a once-lost alcoholic begin to believe that AA does indeed offer the solution to the heretofore unbreakable cycle of binge and remorse, binge and remorse…
And as I lay witness to this painstaking, wonderfully imperfect process, I better understand the turbulence that I myself navigated in those delicate days of my own fledgling sobriety. Through my sponsee, I gain living, breathing, previously unattained insight into exactly how this program works. I also am learning a humbling lesson about the very limited control I have over someone else’s sobriety. Like many new sponsors, I made the mistake of thinking that I was wholly responsible for keeping someone else sober. What I had to learn was that, despite my best-laid plans and best-made pep talks, I simply could not give, by osmosis, the gift of adequate willingness. I cannot infuse another person with the desperation-born enthusiasm needed to voraciously tackle the difficult days ahead; only he, with the help of a Higher Power, can climb the pre-step staircase whose peak is Step One. Sponsorship has brought, for me, a much-needed lesson in powerlessness.
Join a Matt Talbot Retreat Group
Named for a 19th Century Irishman whose faith helped him recover from seemingly hopeless alcoholism, Matt Talbot retreats offer the opportunity for recovering alcoholics to seek a stronger spiritual experience and enhance their sober way of life. Though not officially affiliated with Alcoholics Anonymous, the overwhelming majority of Matt Talbot group members are in recovery from alcohol and/or other addictive substances.
Matt Talbot retreats are typically led by a spiritual leader, such as a pastor or deacon, who himself is usually a recovering alcoholic/addict. This group retreat master presents the entire retreat group with brief lectures and handouts on topics relevant to sobriety, which then set the tone for subsequent smaller group discussions held in breakout rooms. The result is an enlightening and altogether helpful blend of sobriety-based education and spiritual uplift. It is a formula that has kept the Matt Talbot movement alive and thriving for generations.
Aside from scheduled sessions, Matt Talbot retreats provide the opportunity to befriend new recovering alcoholics, expanding one’s circle of sobriety and often leading to lifelong friendships. Matt Talbot retreats embody and encourage the sort of strong, enduring fellowship upon which sound recovery is based.
Most Matt Talbot groups hold weekend-long retreats twice each year. Through my sponsor, I was fortunate enough to attend my first retreat at just seven months sober, and I haven’t missed one since. For me, these semi-annual excursions quickly became a home away from home group, providing a setting among fellow Matt Talbot Group brothers to take a break and dedicate a full weekend solely to sobriety and fellowship.
Serve as Chairperson for an AA Meeting
Coffee commitments are great – they are a wonderful example of early-sobriety self esteem-building. They also instill an appreciation for the fact that AA meetings don’t “just happen” but, rather, come to fruition through the day-in day-out dedication of democratically-appointed caretakers as selected by group conscience. Any commitment is a living reminder that this is, at its core, a program of both service and action.
Chairing a meeting, however, brings an elevated set of responsibilities. The chairperson is charged with continuing the unbroken chain of tradition that links back not only to that specific group’s inception, but the very beginnings of AA as an institution. Sitting in that seat is a heightened honor made humbling by nearly 80 years of history.
I currently serve as chairperson to an open speaker meeting, which I’ve found to be my favorite format. As such, I am charged not only with executing the meetings themselves but also finding a speaker each week. Doing so has led not only to an expanded sober circle but the fortification of already established program relationships. Read more “the fix”…