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April 1994

Working Incognito

When people learn that they are suffering from an incurable, progressive disease, they are said to follow a pattern of denial, anger, fear, and acceptance. I know that's what happened to me.

Following a court-ordered drug and alcohol evaluation, I was diagnosed as having severe alcoholism requiring in-patient treatment. I went through the evaluation report line by line, denying or explaining away everything that it said. I was able to get a recommendation for out-patient treatment and AA meetings.

Then I was shown the Twelve Steps and I said that I would not go. I didn't believe in God. Besides, only the First Step mentioned alcohol. It had to be religion of some sort. I was assured that it was not. I could choose my own Higher Power. "Like what?" I asked. "Anything. It could be AA, it could be a book, it could be an ashtray! Anything you want."

Somehow I avoided both treatment and AA for several years. Drinking continued to destroy my life. Every symptom was quickly rationalized. I had to buy another six-pack if last night's had only two left. When breaking yet another promise to drink only soda, my response was, "Someone offered to buy me a drink. What was I supposed to do? Say no?"

As my disease progressed, I became convinced that I had lost my mind. I could play a role in order to cope with work or family but I felt dead inside. Eventually, I concluded that I must have a multiple personality. My sober me could only remember what I did sober and my drunk me could only remember what I did drunk. That would explain those long blackouts.

Then I began a new job. I was fascinated by a coworker who was under house arrest. She wore an ankle-bracelet monitor. At lunchtime, I noticed that she always had two books with her. An avid reader myself, I thumbed through her meditation book occasionally.

I asked her where she got the book. "At an AA meeting," she told me. "You go to those?" I was astounded. "You probably have to go, right?"

"Actually, I like them. Would you like to go to one with me? Here, I'll give you a meeting list and I'll circle the meetings I like to go to. Maybe I'll see you there."

My first meeting was a large open speaker meeting. My friend wasn't there, but after walking through the coffee line, casually looking for her, I couldn't just put down the coffee and leave. I took a seat and listened to the lead tell her story. It felt like my story. The details were different but the symptoms were the same.

I decided to research this program and the next day I went to the library. I typed "Alcoholics Anonymous" into the computer directory. It came up as a title. "Someone actually wrote a whole book about these people?" I thought. I went home and read the Big Book. There I learned that alcoholism is a disease of the mind, body, and spirit. "Maybe I should give this a try," I said to myself.

A couple of weeks later, at a beginners meeting, I introduced myself. "I'm Sue. I'm an alcoholic." I had not only slipped out of denial, I had an identity. I began to enjoy meetings and the opportunity to explore this newfound sense of self.

Four months later found me back with the bottle. I had entered the anger phase. It wasn't fair. Why should I be an alcoholic? A lifetime without booze! Besides, I didn't get sober just to go to AA meetings. I was fortunate that I entered into fear rather quickly. I could drink but I couldn't get drunk. The old feeling returned that I was shattering inside into many people. I went back to meetings a much different person. I not only had a desire to stop drinking, I had a desire for that glimpse of a real self.

I began to listen carefully whenever I heard about relapses. I attended a lot of meetings and made a commitment to do so by accepting a service position.

One day our group was informed of the death of one of our members. His sponsor told us what had happened. He had gone out drinking one night and died the next morning. He had literally drunk himself to death. Clearly, just going to meetings wasn't enough. I was told that the alcoholic will drink again if she does not change. I had to change. I became willing to go to any lengths.

I had accepted my disease on the physical and mental levels but not on the spiritual level. I understood the concept of a God but I wasn't close to a Higher Power as I understood him. My prayers began, "Dear God, Higher Power, Great Spirit, or whatever the hell you want to be called. . ." I was stuck on Steps Two and Three. I wanted to move forward but I couldn't define my Higher Power.

At a Step meeting one night, the discussion was on the Third Step. I'm sure a lot of wonderful things were said but what I chose to hear was one man describing this Step as simply doing the next right thing as it came up. I knew I could do that.

By applying that principle as consistently as possible, I almost automatically decreased the amount of projecting into the future I had been doing. I was too concentrated on the present for that. I also stopped philosophizing and complicating my Higher Power. My prayers became a simple formula. I began with the Serenity Prayer, threw in a "thy will not mine be done," and finished with a gratitude list.

I was amazed at the things I was grateful for: those painful situations that served to show me my character defects; the ability to accept and share my pain with others; the opportunities to do things I was afraid to do which gave me strength and confidence. Service made me feel useful. Twelfth Step work taught me to accept my past. This may be my greatest asset.

I realized that the many coincidences in my life seemed to be directed. I finally came to believe that a Power greater than myself could restore me to sanity. I had only to stop fighting and practice the rest of AA's program as enthusiastically as I could.

So how do I define my Higher Power now? I don't. My Higher Power works incognito, defying definition and requiring faith. Having faith has unlocked the barriers to the complete acceptance of my disease. Now I can dedicate myself to its treatment, the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.

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