I Had to Learn the First Step
By the end of my drinking at age 32 I didn’t look too bad – at least on the outside. I had a lovely wife and two kids, we owned a nice house and I drove a nice car.
But on the inside I was a complete mess. I was unable to hold down a job and even getting casual work was increasingly difficult. The house and car was provided by a mountain of debt and by my wife working two jobs. My biggest problems were inside my head: self hatred, acute self consciousness, fear, shame and continuous dread of impending calamity.
Once upon a time these problems wouldn’t have bothered me. If I began to worry about them I’d just take a drink and magically they would disappear. But eventually I reached the stage where alcohol provided very little relief from the pain and fear. The magic escape hatch had closed.
It was so different to the early days of my drinking. I think I was a pretty ordinary sort of kid, not a lot of confidence but reasonably bright and friendly. Then I found alcohol. With alcohol, I had boundless confidence. I became loud, jovial and found everything and everyone great fun. I was what some people describe as a plateau drinker. I didn’t need to wipe myself out each time I drank. I just needed enough to get on a high and then I’d coast along on that till I went to bed. For several years there were few problems apart from hangovers. The first problem that emerged was I became dependent on alcohol to get me to sleep at night. If I didn’t have a drink last thing at night it was difficult to sleep. I would toss and turn and feel terribly uncomfortable. A little nightcap always worked its magic.
The next problem to occur was the shakes. This started as just a slight tremor in the mornings. But then someone noticed it and said, “Gee, you must have been on the grog last night.” I was terribly embarrassed by the remark and from then on tried hard to stop my hands shaking. The trouble is, the harder you try to stop them shaking, the worse they shake. If I had to sign something in front of people, my hands would go completely out of control and I couldn’t even hold the pen. By age 26 this had became a serious impediment to normal life. It was really freaky.
I was studying biochemistry at the time and I came up with a great explanation for the problem: it was because I smoked too much. It was all due to the nicotine. I worked out this marvellous set of equations of how nicotinamide dinucleotide phosphate reacted with this and that and reduced the level of adenosine triphosphate and…blah blah blah. It made me feel much more comfortable. I never showed the set of equations to anyone else because, deep down, I knew it was nonsense. At a semi-conscious level I knew alcohol was responsible for my problems but that was an idea that I kept the lid on very firmly. The idea that cigarettes were the cause of the madness in my life was much less threatening.
I remember one time I went to work and there was a young English secretary who was leaving and returning to England. She needed to have a reference signed and there was no one else in the office that day who could sign it except me. As soon as I walked in the door she shoved the reference and a pen under my nose. I quickly made an excuse, “I have to make an urgent phone call first,” and dashed upstairs to my office. Every now and then she’d call out, “Can you sign it now?” I made some fake phone calls and tried to sound busy. I paced up and down in a state of absolute panic. What was going on? How was it that a sensible fellow like me was reduced to a shivering, nervous wreck? This woman was leaving the country. I would never see her again. What was I so scared of? It was crazy.
Finally I had to face the truth: the only way I could sign the reference was if I could get a drink. How could I do that? She was sitting near the office entrance. So, with the resourcefulness of the alcoholic, I climbed out my office window, shinnied down a drainpipe to the ground, crawled along under the windows on my hands and knees, and climbed over the back fence. Then I dashed up to the pub and ordered a schooner of beer.
The barman plonked it down in front of me. I just stared at it. You see, by this time I was in such a state I realised I was shaking too hard to pick it up. I put both hands around it and gingerly tried lifting it. Bbbzzzzzz, it began vibrating all over the place. I thought, “Maybe I can sort of lean down and suck enough up to calm me down. That would look too stupid. Are there any straws? No.” There was nothing else for it but to turn around and try to walk nonchalantly out.
I raced into the bottle shop and bought a half bottle of whisky in a plain, brown paper bag. I ran across the road to some public toilets and hurried into one of the stalls. Damn! Every stall door had a window in it, to discourage perverts apparently. It certainly discouraged me as I was terrified someone could see me guzzling the whisky. By this stage my heart was pounding, eyes bulging and I could hardly breathe. A man being chased by a pack of howling wolves could not have been in a more extreme panic.
I raced back to the pub and down to the basement toilet. It had no lock on the door but I jammed my foot up against it to keep it closed, opened the bottle and glug glug glug…ahh…heavenly relief. Within a minute by heart slowed down. I was able to breathe again, my head stopped spinning and my hands stopped shaking. I was able to get some perspective again. I thought back on the preceding half hour of insanity and was appalled. How could I possibly behave like that? What a shameful despicable thing to have happened – all over being asked to sign something.
Whew, this was no good. I realised I had to do something serious. This sort of thing just had to stop. Then and there I made the decision…I just had to give up smoking.
That was about five or six years before I finally allowed the thought that alcohol was the real problem come fully into my consciousness. During that time the fear of shaking became one of the main obsessions in my life. First thing on waking I would start thinking of who might ask me to sign my name or hand me a cup of tea on a saucer. I had to plan every part of my day around when I could have a drink and mix with people safely. It wasn’t long before I concluded that the only sensible thing to do was get reasonably sozzled first thing in the morning and then it didn’t matter when someone asked me to sign anything. My hands were always steady and up to any task.
So I entered that stage where there was no part of my life that wasn’t affected by alcohol. I spiralled further and further into misery and fear to the point where alcohol dulled the panic but not the pain and shame. I remember the last party I went to as a drunk. I sat in a corner acutely self conscious and uptight. I felt everyone was sneering at me so, to make me feel a little less bad, I mentally sneered at them. “Look at that idiot,” I thought “What a phoney he’d have to be…and get a load of the laugh on that silly bitch. Sheesh, who’d wear a dress like that?” And this was with a roomful of my best friends.
I was lucky to be steered into AA by a friend. I was sure I didn’t need it but he talked me into it saying things like, “Well, of course, you’re much smarter than those people in AA, but you never know, you might pick up a few tips about controlling your drinking.” If he had told me that any benefit I’d get from AA would only come if I stopped drinking, I would never have gone.
But I did go and I was fascinated. Here were all these people who were talking about and laughing about all the things I spent every waking moment trying to hide. They laughed about getting the shakes, about having to hide the grog and having to lie all the time. They told funny stories about stealing money, drinking out of half-empty beer cans with cigarette butts in them and the difficulties of getting rid of all the empties. I had no idea other people experienced these things. I thought it was only me.
I didn’t get sober from my first meeting. It took me well over a year. At first I was a boundary rider. I came in after the meetings started and left the moment they ended. If I mistimed things and got stuck talking to people, I made sure it was only to people who were a week or two sober. Talking to someone with years of sobriety seemed too humiliating.
But slowly I came out of my shell. I overcame my fear of joining a group and even of asking a guy to be my sponsor. That was very hard to do. I was sure he wouldn’t want to be involved with a dill like me. I even rehearsed what to say when he knocked me back: “Yeah, well, I didn’t really want you as a sponsor. I just wanted to see what you’d say.” Finally I plucked up the courage to ask and he said sure, he’d be happy to sponsor me.
So there I was, I had a sponsor, I was getting to lots of meetings, I belonged to a group, I phoned other members and read lots of literature – but I still couldn’t get sober. The longest I could go for was a week or two. I could be sitting at a meeting listening carefully, being a good little AA member, and then the thought would pop into my head: “Mike and Carol are coming for dinner on Friday night…what the hell, I’ll have a drink – just to be sociable. Just the one night…it can’t do any harm. Just one night off from being good.”
Of course, I’d still be drinking on the Sunday night vaguely aware of how stupid I had been. Then on the Monday morning I’d phone my sponsor, wincing from the expectation that he’d finally lose patience with me and hang up in my ear. But he never did. He’d just patiently say, “We find that people who keep busting like this haven’t taken that First Step.”
Geez, he was like a parrot about that First Step. Of course I had done it. It was perfectly straightforward. It was only twelve simple words. How stupid would you have to be to not understand it? I even went round explaining it to people who are new to AA who had less time in AA than I did. I didn’t realise then that there could be a whole different level of understanding that would release me from my obsession with alcohol. And then one day I was sitting in a group session run by a psychologist at a detox centre. I said something along the lines of, “When it comes to alcohol I’m hopelessly weak.” But the psychologist corrected me. “No,” he said, “you’re not weak when it comes to alcohol – you’re incredibly strong. When you want a drink nothing gets in your way, not your wife, not your kids, not your job, not even lack of money. When you want a drink, you get one, no matter what.”
That hit me like a bolt from the blue. It was true. My desire for a drink was an irresistible force. It satisfied something deep inside me. I wasn’t weak when it came to alcohol, only when it came to not having alcohol. Alcohol was so important to me I really had no sincere desire to go without it. How could I have not seen this before? How could I have missed such an obvious fact? The next day the group met again and the psychologist started talking about how alcoholics can’t use willpower to overcome their alcoholism. He said alkies are like marathon runners. When a marathon runner is near the end of the race every nerve in his body is screaming out to stop. But willpower (which is actually just the ability to concentrate) can keep him going by focusing on the finishing line. Alkies can do the same – for a while at least. When every nerve in their body is screaming out for a drink, they can concentrate on the need to stay sober. But marathon runners can’t run for ever. Eventually their concentration falters and they collapse in a heap.
This psychologist said to me that it’s the same with alcoholics. The moment they lose concentration the ever-present, deep-seated will to drink is there ready to do its work. Suddenly, I could see this was true. I couldn’t stop myself drinking. That’s what powerless means. It didn’t matter how many promises I made, how hard I gritted my teeth or clenched my fists. I couldn’t do it. Simple as that. It had me beaten. The First Step had finally got through to me. I realised it was true at a whole new level of understanding.
That was 28 years ago and the obsession with alcohol hasn’t come back in all that time. There have been a few times when I felt like a drink and two occasions when I felt quite strongly that I wanted a drink but the desire lasted only a minute or so and then faded away. I haven’t had any desire to drink at all in the last ten or twelve years. There is lots of beer and wine in my refrigerator at home for friends and relatives. There is lots of liquor at work for clients. None of it holds any attraction for me. They’re like my wife’s cosmetics – they barely register in my awareness because they don’t have any interest for me.
The psychologist could see that the First Step had hit me, that I had had a sudden and deep realisation. “So,” he said, “what are you going to do now?”
“Well,” I said, “umm…well, I’ll….err…” I was stumped. I didn’t know what to do. What could I do? If I was powerless there was nothing I could do was there?
“It’s actually pretty simple,” he said, “You just do the next eleven Steps. There is no way you can change yourself directly at the deep level that’s needed. All you can do is follow a program and let it bring about the changes in you.”
So that’s what I’ve done ever since. If there is a Steps Olympics, I’m afraid I won’t be winning any gold medals. I have made many, many mistakes. I have misunderstood just about everything about them at one time or another. Even now I get new understandings about the Steps that show me again how I had got it wrong before. I have tried to intellectualize the Steps and I have been lazy and inconsistent in doing them. But that’s okay. They still work on me. They still bring about changes.
I’ve been sober 28 years and I still go to Steps meetings and learn about them – even from people who are new in the program. Often people who are new to AA have fresh insights that add to my understanding. Most of all it’s a matter of practising. No one expects you to be a perfect tennis player the first time you pick up a racquet. You have to practise. You have to make thousands of mistakes but year after year, you get closer to Wimbledon – provided you keep at it. I have found it’s the same with the Steps. It seems you can’t just do them once and forget them. It’s a constant process. The moment you stop doing them, you stop getting the benefits.
And the benefits have been many. I was a sad, frightened, lonely miserable person. My life was going down the toilet. I was a hopeless father and husband, totally irresponsible with money, an unreliable worker and a worthless friend. I stayed at home as much as I could or skulked around the streets worried about whom I might run into and what lies I would need to tell them. My whole life had turned into a lie because I was so ashamed of everything about myself.
Slowly, the Steps did their work on me. I fell in love with my wife and children again. I began earning money and even created a successful business. People could rely on me. I turned up on time and stopped running away from problems and discomforts. I turned and faced the world and did the things that were needed.
I used to hate the idea of stopping drinking because it seemed all the fun in life would disappear. But it was the misery that disappeared. Laughter, fun and joy came back into my life. I enjoyed the thrill of doing scary things stone-cold sober. I experienced the contentment that I belong in the world. I’m a valued person who brings value to others.