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September 1994

One Foot in Front of the Other

In 1986, I looked into the expressionless eyes of a doctor and heard him tell me I had breast cancer and needed an operation immediately. Three weeks later, I sat on the edge of the hospital bed and felt like I was clamped in the jaws of an angry tiger and it was throwing me from side to side like I was a rag doll.

What happened? Why did I feel so bad? What had I done? I had blatantly abused the drugs the doctor prescribed for use after the operation. I thought I could "get away with it." I thought I was going to have a "free ride," given the traumatic nature of the surgery.

I was twenty-four years sober and in deep trouble. The trouble did not start in 1986. It started when I was twenty years sober. I was in my early forties, had a good job, good AA friends, and a good friend in my sponsor. So what happened?

I was an "old-timer" and thought that made me an AA celebrity. I, along with many of my fellow alcoholics, actually believed this. We thought I had some kind of "special and superior knowledge" about staying sober.

There were numerous occasions when the chairperson would close the meeting with "You (me) have been sober twenty years. Why don't you wrap this meeting up for us?" And I would sit up straight, cross my legs, hug my knees, give them that "here comes the wisdom" look, and proceed to "wrap it up." I have no idea what I said but it's a wonder they didn't all gag.

Every once in a while I would catch a glimpse of my behavior or hear myself talking and think, "Something's wrong here."

So when I had to face this serious situation of breast cancer in my life, I was a perfect set up for the self-delusion and the drugs. The next year and a half were the worst days I ever spent in sobriety.

Before I left the hospital, a friend called me from Buffalo and reminded me that she and I had been through some pretty hard times together. And did I remember our slogan? She repeated it for me at least five times: "Just put one foot in front of the other and go to meetings. Ask your Higher Power: no matter what happens, no matter what I think, do, or say, please don't let me take a drink."

Since meetings had always been the bedrock of my program, I went two or three times a day. But that was all I did. I did not discuss how I was feeling. I did not tell anyone I felt like slimy little worms were crawling in the walls of my body, that I was obsessed with taking a drink and scared almost to death.

I was ashamed. I was ashamed of what I had done with the drugs and because I couldn't get my life back together. I really believed I had done this terrible thing to myself and it was up to me to straighten it out. I was facing the "hideous four horsemen--Terror, Bewilderment, Frustration, and Despair," again.

Despite the fact that I was "putting one foot in front of the other," going to meetings and praying, my life was coming; down around me and I could not stop it. First, I lost my job. Second, I used all my money and savings. Third, my dear mother died. And fourth, I was about to be homeless.

Again, my Higher Power sent an AA friend from my past. She called and asked if I would like to come and stay with her in Texas until I got back on my feet. She would be glad to send me the money to get there.

I desperately did not want to go. I wanted things to get better where I was. But this was not a "choice" situation. This was my Higher Power asking me "to go to any length." I said "yes" and before I could change my mind I was zooming down I-40 in my 1979 Chevy Citation that had no air-conditioning, no gas gauge, with the front seat falling through the floorboards. I cried, prayed, and sweated all the way to Texas.

When I crossed the state line between Louisiana and Texas and saw the welcome sign, I thought, "Oh boy! Now I've done it. I'll never get out of here alive." What I didn't know was that I had come there so I could live.

Eleven months later I was carried to the hospital in an ambulance. I had congestive heart failure. I spent ten days in the ICU and six weeks in the regular hospital before I had open heart surgery.

During this time, my Higher Power sent another group of my friends to see me through the ordeal. My sisters, both sober over twenty years, called every day. My "one foot in front of the other" friend called every day to remind me to do just that. And my dear Texas friend came to the hospital every day.

My past hospital experience served me well. This time I did not turn my "will and life" over to the care of doctors, nurses, nurses aides, volunteers, clerks, and maintenance persons. This time I talked AA every day with those friends who called, and turned my "will and life" over to the God I understood.

I had refused all mood-altering drugs, and continued to do so throughout the hospital stay. One day the doctor came into the room and said, "Now look, it is your job to be charming and pleasant and gracious, and it is my job to prescribe the medicine." To which I replied: "Please don't be condescending to me. This is my body and if I live to get out of here I am not taking a drug problem with me."

When I went home I had a real job on my hands. I felt physically pretty much the way I had after the mastectomy, except my mental attitude was different. This time I knew what I had to do and how I was going to do it.

First, I assigned myself "newcomer" status in the program; second, I went to one, then two, then three meetings a day; third, I sat quietly and listened; and fourth, I began working the Steps again. I had a bushel of resentments that I was not even aware of until I began writing a new Fourth Step.

Six months later, my "small inner voice" kept saying, "Go to work. Get a job." I tried not to listen but you know how persistent the "still small voice" can be.

Before I knew it I was teaching junior high school English and reading. I can remember telling a friend after a day when the seventh grade had been particularly monstrous, "You know, I survived acute alcoholism, some ridiculous relationships, a mastectomy, and open heart surgery--but I'm not so sure I will survive the seventh grade." I did and I loved it.

I also realized I needed to work with someone in AA, and that that someone needed to have comparable years of sobriety and the patience and understanding to accept a "newcomer" with twenty-eight years of sobriety.

I was led to the Cajun Conference in Lafayette, Louisiana, about two hours from where I was living. At this conference I saw women with twenty, twenty-five, thirty and thirty-three years of sobriety sponsoring people, attending meetings, working on conference committees, doing service work, and having a great time. This was the AA I had always known and I wanted to be a part of it.

I met someone with twenty-seven years of sobriety and we went through all the Steps together; we worked on my inventory and resentments, and I took two Fifth Steps. This woman listened better than anyone I have ever known.

Slowly, very slowly, the weight of my fears and resentments began to lift. I was beginning to feel the freedom I had given up around my twentieth AA birthday. I no longer had any illusions about the power of the disease of alcoholism in my life. I had a new respect for its destructiveness. I was an active member of AA once again.

When I first got sober there was a guy who used to say, "When you come into AA and stop drinking and work these Steps, you have done the greatest thing you will ever do for yourself. There is nothing you can do to surpass it." He could have added, "And you do it over and over and over. . ."

The other day I said to my Higher Power, "You know, H.P., you asked some pretty tough things of me the last few years. How come?" And this is what I believe the reply was: "Indeed I did. And look what you have. You have yourself again."

In May 1993, I celebrated thirty-one years of sobriety. I do not regret the past, nor do I wish to shut the door on it. What more could I ever want?

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