Listen and Learn

I won’t often bust out a Bible verse here, but Proverbs 12:15 is a good one: “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to counsel.”

There is a version of this in AA, which was literally founded when two alcoholics realized that only by working together could either stay sober. In fact, the entire program is about AAs working together to stay sober. The Big Book, written by some of those founders, says “Practical experience shows that nothing will so much insure immunity from drinking as intensive work with other alcoholics.”

I was recently reminded of this, in a way, at an AA meeting. The overall trajectory of my life in recovery is roughly 10 years right in the middle of 12-step world — step work, meetings, service, sponsoring and being sponsored, plus my social and spiritual lives rooted in the fellowship — and then 10 or so years where I kind of drifted off. I would go to meetings here and there, especially when traveling and prone to loneliness, but I didn’t do nearly the work like in those first 10 years.

The story I told myself was that I had a pre-using life, then a using life, then a recovery life, and then just a sober life. And in all those years, I only once came anywhere near drinking. (I’ll tell that story here some day.) My story was that I was safe when it came to drinking or not. I was fine, I liked to tell myself.

But then, two years ago, I pretty much quit my life and started traveling full time, which has led to some stress and loneliness, and recently I found myself in Madrid — and in English-language AA meetings. And there I was talking to a guy who’s been around for a long time, and I told him the above — that I haven’t been around much lately, but I’m fine. And he said, with a sly grin, the following:

“How would you know?”

Meaning, simply, if I was out there on my own, working solely on my own wits and ideas, my own thinking, without seeking input or direction from others, then by what measure would I dependably deem myself “fine”? They also say in AA that anybody who sponsors himself has a fool for a sponsor.

And in truth, even I knew I wasn’t fine. I wasn’t considering a drink or a drug, but I was depressed, anxious, confused, overwhelmed by my professional life, struggling to figure out finances and personal relationships — basically I was a mess, which is why I landed back in AA. I needed to reconnect with what I was doing when I used to be more sane.

And guess what? Working with others goes both ways! What the Big Book was talking about was the 12th Step: carrying the message to other alcoholics, to help them and keep ourselves sober. But what Proverbs was getting at was being on the receiving end of that work. After all, the First Step is “admitted we were powerless over alcohol,” which for me was the same as “We admitted we were not going to figure this out on our own.” Quite the opposite! The thought “I’ve got this” literally kept me drunk and high for years, despite all evidence that it was a nonsense. It was only when I gave up that nonsense and sought the counsel of others that the process of getting sober could start.

And what I remembered in Madrid was that the same is true for all the stuff I was drinking over in the first place — stuff that has not been permanently solved by any stretch. The rest of the 12 Steps, in fact, never mention alcohol again! It’s about living in a way that we would never think to drink again, “a daily reprieve based on the maintenance of our spiritual condition.” And for that, we clearly need to be on both sides of the “people working together” equation.

What I brought to my first meeting was “I can’t stay sober,” and they taught me what to do about that. What I brought the meetings in Madrid was “I’m lonely, sad, depressed, confused, and overwhelmed.” And of course they helped me with all those things! They also had advice on money, career, relationships, and even immigration. And the recovery help they were giving me — the sayings, the suggestions, the shared experience — is the same stuff they were giving me for 10 years when I was in the middle of the program. In one meeting, for example, I found myself saying that I am hearing this incredibly helpful stuff for the 500th time, which apparently is necessary because I forgot the first 499 times I heard it!

And what makes things easy to forget? Not hearing them anymore, for one thing. Going back to what I was doing before, even though it clearly didn’t work. Cutting myself off from the people who were helping me. Not being of service to others. Skipping meetings, and the whole program, because I was “fine.”

I wasn’t fine. I was a mess, 23 years ago when I was drunk and last month when I was in Madrid. A different mess, perhaps, but still a mess. And the solution, in both cases, was to stop being foolish, stop thinking I’ll figure it out, reconnect, and listen to the counsel of others.