It’s almost midnight on a Friday night, and I’m trying to read C.S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity for the 10th time (never seem to make it past chapter 5, and philosophy was one of my majors in college) when I sense a flash from the iPhone carefully balanced on the armrest of my chair. (Yes, it’s become my electronic limb, and I suffer phantom vibrations in its absence. No, really, I do. I feel vibrations in my upper left quadriceps even when the little black box isn’t in my pants pocket.) Anyway, the screen signals a private message sent on Facebook. Yippee!!! Where I’m at in my personal biography (note that I didn’t say, “At my age”), any message sent shortly before or after midnight rarely heralds good news.
This one doesn’t disappoint. The message is riddled from start to finish with F-Bombs targeting me and everyone associated with a particular program of recovery, especially people with double-digit sobriety. The message is from a man who used to frequent some of the same meetings I still frequent and which he, obviously, doesn’t anymore. He begins by saying he’d read one of my recent blog posts about recovery and, to summarize, wants me to know how very “full of shit” we all are, that the people around the tables who criticized him for taking his prescribed medications nearly killed him (and many others) with their “bullshit, AA-PhD advice.”
He admits early on in our exchange that he’s drinking (at that very moment) and enjoying it. But tonight, even that doesn’t diminish his credibility with me. I know, for a fact, he has a truly valid and potentially lethal gripe. He further confesses he’s on a personal mission to destroy AA and everything associated with it so the expletive, expletive, expletives in the rooms that damn near killed him can’t harm anyone else.
My first instinct is to “de-friend” him or simply block his messages. Instead, I decide to see if I’ve grown up enough to respond in a way that will calm him down without becoming incensed myself. I begin by reminding him that I don’t represent AA or any other program of recovery, that I represent only my personal experience, and that my experience has always been to ignore people who’s advice is contrary to what’s in the book Alcoholics Anonymous (a.k.a. Big Book). There, it clearly states that we are not doctors or spiritual leaders:
Alcoholics Anonymous is not a religious organization. Neither does A.A. take any particular medical point of view, though we cooperate widely with the men of medicine as well as with the men of religion.
Alcoholics Anonymous, Second Edition Foreword
God has abundantly supplied this world with fine doctors, psychologists, and practitioners of various kinds. Do not hesitate to take your health problems to such persons. … Try to remember that though God has wrought miracles among us, we should never belittle a good doctor or psychiatrist. Their services are often indispensable in treating a newcomer and in following his case afterward.
Alcoholics Anonymous, 133
No one, no matter their length of sobriety, should be telling anyone in the context of recovery what to do regarding their medications, especially not a man who is clinically diagnosed with severe depression.
Unfortunately, my friend isn’t having any of it. His F-Bomb-ridden diatribe goes on for some time, until the only thing left for me to do is invite him to join me at a meeting over the weekend to see if he can’t navigate a different path within the rooms that have saved my life and done so much to make the lives of so many others worth living. The invitation—fortunately or unfortunately—ends our exchange.
The following morning, while I’m scanning some of the recovery blogs I check out when time permits, I come across a disturbing post titled, I Quit, which includes the opening sentence, “Not sobriety. AA. I’m an AA drop-out” (novodkaformama.wordpress.com). Apparently the author is at odds with her sponsor over the 8th and 9th steps. She admits she refuses to acknowledge the need to make any amends beyond the living amends she is making to her husband, her kids, her family, and her friends. Her sponsor feels she’s unwilling to go to any lengths for her sobriety because she isn’t willing to extend the list (I presume). Why this means the end of her relationship with her sponsor and why the termination of her relationship with her sponsor means she has to drop out of AA isn’t entirely clear. But again, it doesn’t matter. I know from experience that it happens … all too often.
Clearly, she is working the 9th step with those “to whom [she is] willing to make amends” (Alcoholics Anonymous, 76). As time passes and her recovery deepens, her willingness may extend to more people, places, and institutions … or not. Either way, allowing people to drop out or slip away because they don’t conform to “our way” of practicing the steps is absolutely contrary to the solution as I’ve learned it … from the Big Book: “Our book is meant to be suggestive only. We realize we know only a little” (164).
Sponsorship is clearly serious, and often risky, business. I’ve been taught from Day #1 that all I have is my own experience, strength, and hope as it relates to my recovery. I sponsor eight men with varying lengths of sobriety, from one who clearly is not yet sober to another who has nearly as much time sober as I do … and all points in between. Do I refuse to sponsor the man who continues to show up drunk after brief periods of sobriety? No. I continue to work Step 1 with him because he continues to show a desire to stop drinking, the only requirement for membership in our program. Thank God I learned that from the people who continued to work with me during the seven-plus years I bounced in and out of the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous with little more than a desire to stop drinking and oftentimes less than a day of sobriety. Had those patient, loving, and tolerant souls written me off because I “didn’t get it” or “do it” their way right away, you’d be reading a different blogger right now.
Every Sunday before our home group meeting, the men I sponsor and I gather to set up the meeting and then discuss the steps and traditions. Our meeting-before-the-meeting often includes discussions (but only in the context of the steps and traditions) that might be described as spiritual, medical, psychological, political, financial, marital, and as often as not, controversial. I‘ve had medical, legal, and financial problems in my day; I’ve also walked through divorce once as an untreated alcoholic and once as a recovering alcoholic. Nonetheless, I would never play doctor, lawyer, or financial planner with any one of these men, and the closest thing I provide to advice regarding marriage or divorce is the phone number of the counselor or the lawyer I used when I found myself in similar circumstances. That doesn’t mean we don’t talk at length about what I went through or what they’re currently going through on a daily basis; it does mean, however, that our discussions are framed by the steps and how the steps guided me and may guide them through their decisions and their actions.
The suggestions I share with the men I sponsor, like the suggestions I receive from my own sponsor, are never construed as proscriptions, much less ultimatums. In the end, we all make our own decisions on how to behave just as we make a choice every day on whether or not to drink. One can only hope that by working Step 11, both the advice we give and the actions we take are humbly and divinely guided by a power greater than ourselves.