“God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.”
One night while I was in graduate school, I awoke near midnight, having fallen into bed in a drunken state and passed out. On awaking, I sensed an extraordinary darkness surrounding me. Then I heard God speaking – he was very clear: “You are an alcoholic and you need help.”
I won’t detail my drinking history; it is sufficient to say that I had developed a habit of drinking a lot while managing to keep it a secret from most people. My close friend and housemate simply scoffed when I told her I was an alcoholic. She refused to believe it. And probably I wouldn’t have believed it either if God had not intervened.
I started the next day to follow up on God’s instructions to get help. I knew just where to go: Alcoholics Anonymous. I had already become acquainted with the 12-step program through Overeaters Anonymous (OA), so it was no great leap for me to turn to AA. On the bus to school the next day I saw my OA friend Terry, and since the seat next to her happened to be free, I joined her. Knowing that she was also in AA, I wasted no time in telling her what had happened—that I now knew I was an alcoholic. Terry told me how glad she was that I had got this truth for myself and I immediately started crying. I believe that was because, in telling my truth to my friend, I was fully accepting it for myself. I could almost hear the gears mesh into place within me.
That was in 1988. In the 28 years since, I have never been far from AA, and never once needed to take another drink. Not only did I get sober, I began to get real and to come out of a lifetime of isolation. The most important thing I learned from those daily 7am meetings I attended for years was the importance of community. I never knew I needed other people, except peripherally. I was fine with my relationship with God, which I had begun consciously in 1972. But God knew that, of course, no relationship with him is complete without the horizontal connections with others. I did have Christian friends – some very close ones over the years – but I didn’t connect to the idea that I am a part of the larger community until AA.
I had to learn about being in fellowship and solidarity with others who were vastly different from me. In meetings I met and listened to all sorts of folks – truly a cross-section of society – suits and homeless people, lawyers and illiterates, mentally ill and handicapped folks, people who were just barely keeping themselves together, and others who were serene and wise. There were people who swore until the air turned blue, people who smoked, people who hardly said a word and others who couldn’t stop talking about themselves. No one is exempt from alcoholism, and God wanted me to see them – truly see them – as a part of my community, to whom I belonged. I often felt like a misfit; I couldn’t begin to compete with some of their stories. But before long, I began to experience joy in this fellowship, often greater than any I had experienced at church. I began to wonder what we at church are missing, and why we have such a hard time really finding community.
My recovery was in one sense easy: I lost my desire to drink immediately while I watched others stumble through the “revolving doors” of AA, never able to get significant sober time. I learned how wonderful and effective the 12 steps are to those who actually put them into practice, and I savored the promises that are read every meeting, a treasured excerpt from the Big Book of AA. One of these is: “We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it.” That is a huge hope for many, including myself, weighed down by guilt and remorse and regret; how can we not regret the past? But it is true. It comes with acceptance of things as they are, and in God’s control. I had to accept myself as an alcoholic – God had told me I was, after all – and to accept others where they were on their journey.
My recovery is in one sense complete. I don’t drink, or wish to. I’m indifferent to booze wherever I encounter it. Others can drink in my presence and I’m fine with that. (Of course I’d prefer they not get drunk!) But on the other hand, “recovery” means a great deal more than just abstaining from drinking…or drugs, compulsive overeating, sex addition, or you name it. Recovery involves seeing myself as a flawed human being yet beloved by God and fully accepted by him. It means being humble, in the full awareness that things could have been so much different, and worse, if I hadn’t stopped those destructive behaviors. It means a growing realization that, as the Big Book of AA says, “God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.” And that is the great gift of AA to Christians who are alcoholics: we really get it that we are helpless without God’s intervention and ongoing support. So many people who never “hit bottom” with a sense of their own helplessness are unable to grasp God’s wonderful presence, a very real and present help, in times of trouble.
One of AA’s strong precepts is the crucial importance of reaching out to others, to share with them the experience, strength and hope we find in AA. Without that reaching out, which may include taking others through the steps, or just listening and praying with another, we say we can’t expect to stay sober ourselves. Our Christian faith is supposed to be like that; we get it, not only for ourselves, but to bring to whoever is around us who needs it.
I am, obviously, a super fan – a “12” if you will – of AA. My Christian walk has grown much stronger and deeper since that dark night in 1988 – perhaps preparing me for another word from God in 2005: “You could go and live in Rwanda.”