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Staying Sober

In Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), there are far more people who get sober than there are who stay sober.  Generally, those who do not stay sober can be divided into two groups:

  • Those who want to stay sober, but who seem unable to
  • Those who are not interested in achieving long-term sobriety

Among the group who are without an interest or intent to stay sober, we see several subgroups.  There are those who are in the rooms simply to fulfill a mandated sobriety, e.g., someone who is court-mandated to stay sober for one, three, or six months, and to attend meetings.  Once the mandated period of abstinence expires, so does their commitment to stay sober.  There are also those who are unsure whether or not they are alcoholics, and who, after some time in the rooms, decide – rightly or wrongly – that they are not alcoholics, and stop coming to AA.  There are also those who are uninterested in, or even put off by, the spiritual nature of AA.  

Setting aside the above group, and focusing on those who do want to stay sober, what are some of the tools that can be used to empower them to do so?  It was Dr. Bob, one of AA’s founders, who probably said it best – and most simply – when he wrote on one of his prescription pads, “trust God, clean house, help others.” That being said, there are many who want more specific direction, and some of that will follow here.

Of course the basics include meetings, commitments, sponsorship, Step work, reading AA literature, using the phone, keeping it simple, living one day at a time, prayer and meditation, and seeking a Higher Power.

For many, many years, I attended a meeting every day. That included going to the same meetings regularly, so I could get to know people and people could get to know me.

It also meant getting to meetings early, sitting near the front, paying attention, staying until the end of the meeting, and listening for the similarities. I believe in the old saying, that “we identify ourselves into the rooms and compare ourselves out of the rooms.”

These days, I’m still in at least five meetings each week.

-Jay Westbrook

Being Committed to Recovery

Commitments are a wonderful way to feel like you’re a “part of” something. In early sobriety, greeting may be the most important commitment one can have, simply because it gives others a chance to get to know you, and provides a way for you to get to know others. It’s probably even more important for the shy and withdrawn alcoholic than for the gregarious one, as you can’t hide when you’re putting out your hand and welcoming each person coming through the door. Certainly the “behind the scenes” commitments – set-up, making coffee, washing coffee cups, and clean-up – can be very powerful in helping to build humility.  

For those service commitments beyond the meeting level – H&I, GSR, CSR, Inter-Group, answering phones, etc. – one has to simply explore a little to find what’s a match for your skills, available time, and interest.

The most important personal commitments to sobriety include:

  • My friend Raymond always says, “if you travel to China, you’re probably going to need an interpreter, and that’s really all a sponsor is.”  Sponsors help us understand the Program, take us through the book and the Steps, provide a listening ear and a caring heart, and share their experience, strength and hope.  Eventually, we get to sponsor, and there is little we can do that will greater assure our sobriety than freely giving away that which was freely given to us.
  • Work the Steps, in order, with a sponsor, and your behavior will change.  That’s pretty simple, and there’s not really any reason to complicate it.  The work should be done steadily and consistently.  Twenty minutes of Step work each day will probably get you through the Steps faster than will waiting for the multi-hour blocks of time – that don’t exist for most of us – to do the work.  
  • Read the literature, so that you know what it says. So many of the things you hear at meetings, e.g., “the road gets narrow – this is a selfish Program – you can’t date in your first year – men stick with the men and women with the women” – are just not in the Big Book, and may actually be the exact opposite of what the Book says (as with the first three examples). I wrote an article, published right here, devoted entirely to this issue in November of 2014.
  • Phones are our life-line to one another.  I was told early on, that if I didn’t use the phone when I was okay, that I would never use it when I was in trouble.  I was also hesitant to “bother” sponsors or others with my calls.  Then, a sponsor said, “how do you know I haven’t already poured the drink and am getting ready to throw away my sobriety, when you call and give me a chance to be of service, get me out of my own head, and create the pause that allows me to pour the drink down the drain instead of down my throat?”  I got it.  Sometimes, I’m being of service – not bothering you – when I call you.

Balancing it All

Another tool is to maintain balance. A wheel turns more smoothly when all of the spokes are the same length. Going to 21 meetings each week, but failing to do Step work, is not balance. Spending massive amounts of time with fellow AAs, but almost none with one’s family, is not balance. Like the wheel, for life to run smoothly, there must be balance.

Creating a posse, a group of Fellowship friends with whom you have coffee and do things is essential in overcoming our tendency to isolate and be loners.-Jay WestbrookCreating a posse, a group of Fellowship friends with whom you have coffee and do things is essential in overcoming our tendency to isolate and be loners. Alcoholism and addiction are diseases of loneliness and isolation. Finding a group with whom you can stay sober and share the ups and downs of sobriety, of life, makes it much easier to stay sober for the long haul.

Many alcoholics come into the rooms and get to know most of the people there, and are more than willing to be of service to others. However, reciprocity is one of the keys to long-term sobriety. So, it’s great to get to know others, but essential to let them get to know us. And, it’s great to be of service to others, but so important to allow them to be of service to us – give and take, yin and yang, wax on and wax off – you get it.

It is true, that how we do anything is how we do everything, and that has great implications for staying sober over time. We cannot engage in old behaviors – lying, cheating, stealing, justifying, minimizing, excuse making, manipulating, etc. – and expect to stay sober, for it is precisely those behaviors that will allow us to justify to ourselves, sooner or later, getting loaded.

Leaving Negativity Behind

Finally, it is interesting how many recovering alcoholics and addicts live with a nearly never-ending negative commentary about anything and everything. It’s how they talk to themselves, how they talk about themselves…how they talk about others, about life, about meetings, etc. 

A surprising number of their responses commence with the word “no.” Such negativity corrodes the ability to remain happy, joyous, and free. Over time, it can lead to a sense that “I was actually happier when I was getting loaded,” which can, of course, lead to relapse.  

The solution is to practice a mindfulness, to listen deeply and consistently to both one’s thoughts and one’s words, and when and where they are found to be negative, to replace them with thoughts and words that are kinder and more gentle than necessary. Initially, this may seem very awkward and uncomfortable, but practiced over time, it has the ability to soften, open, and change the person performing the practice, and to increase both the willingness and ability to stay continuously sober.

I hope this article and these tools help you to achieve and/or maintain long-term continuous sobriety.  

Image Courtesy of iStock

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