“The Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous were first published in the so-called ‘long form’ in the Grapevine of May 1946.” 1 Each Alcoholics Anonymous group ought to be a spiritual entity having but one primary purpose – to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers. “Or, as Bill paraphrased it with an old saying, ‘Shoemaker, stick to thy last!” 2 “…better do one thing supremely well than many badly.” 3
The only thing that I had done supremely well before I came into the fellowship of A.A was to make a complete mess of my life. Alcohol had started off as fun. It changed the way I felt and I believed that it gave me the confidence to face a life I was ill-equipped to deal with. Over the years I progressed into uncontrollable drinking, eventually drinking against my will. I did many things badly, and did many bad things, but no matter how severe were the consequences of my drinking, I had no mental defence against picking up the first drink.
The way that the message was shared to me began the moment I arrived at the Tuesday night meeting of what was to become my home group. One of the women put out her hand to shake mine, introduced herself, found me a seat, a cup of tea, briefly explained that all I need to do was listen for the similarities. Then the meeting began.
As I listened, I identified. Their stories described how their lives had been, how they were now, and they all said what they had done to recover. Repeatedly I heard the words Twelve Steps, Sponsor, Big Book. At that time all I knew that if this is what these people had done to recover then I was willing to do it too.
A little later on in recovery I realised that it wasn’t by chance that the message was shared in this way, as I read in the Big Book “Our stories disclose in a general way what we used to be like, what happened, and what we are like now.” 4 The group’s shares were “…based foursquare on the single purpose of A.A.” 5 The focus was how to receive the gift of sobriety, and I was immensely grateful – after all, I had enough drinking stories and tales of woe of my own. I needed to hear and be shown precisely how to recover from alcoholism. I heard the phrase ‘spiritual awakening’, which to me seemed to imply belief in God, perhaps even religion, but I was assured that this was not the case. I didn’t need to worry about anything other than following the suggestions and working through the steps. In Comes of Age Bill Wilson describes a twelfth-step encounter: “Finally, he saw that I wasn’t attempting to change his religious views, that I wanted him to find the grace in his own religion that would aid his recovery.” Just like that man, “my sponsor sold me one idea, and that was sobriety” 7 we are asked to believe in a power greater than ourselves and that can be anything we choose. It is a spiritual program, not a religious one. I put my faith in my sponsor and my home group, and through the wisdom shared by those who knew better than me, I came to believe in a loving God who I am learning to trust more and more each day.
As a newcomer I didn’t think that I had anything to contribute until I had worked through all Twelve Steps. It was suggested that i complete Steps Four and Five before I share, how else would I be able to carry the message? It was straightforward – get into service! When I had arrived at my first meeting, the chairs had been set out, tea and coffee were available, scrolls of the Twelve Steps and the Twelve Traditions were hung up, and AA literature was on display. I remember being struck by how organised everything was. As much as I thought I appreciated the provision of a structured, safe and welcoming sanctuary I would have taken it for granted if it had been left to me.
I was given a service position, (sweeping up), and very quickly I felt that I belonged. There were clear guidelines to follow, based on spiritual principles and consistency, and I was eager to do my best. I learned that how the group operates is key to the sharing of the message, and I felt grateful to be part of a group in which all service positions are filled and all jobs are done without confusion or conflict.6
How our group works is decided in Group Conscience. (Tradition 2 reminds us that “For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority – a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.”) No matter how different our own personal concerns, we are all bound together by one common responsibility…to carry the message to the suffering alcoholic. By doing service willingly and well I am helping the group fulfil its primary purpose, and it is no longer ‘all about me’.
As I made progress and broadened my reading of AA literature, the depth and weight of the message carried to me increased. The reasons behind the traditions became clearer, as I read that “In late 1945 a good A.A. friend suggested that all this mass of experience might be codified into a set of principles which could offer tested solutions to all our problems of living and working together and of relating our society to the world outside.” 8 This paralleled what was happening in my own life. By following the principles and learning to work with others within the group, I felt more able to deal with life outside the group. My life was immeasurably more wonderful than it had ever been.
When the time came for me to share, I was full of anxiety. It was pointed out to me that if, at my first meeting, no-one had shared, I would not have the recovery I was enjoying now. That phrase pricked my conscience – how dare I not share! I had a responsibility to pass on my story, to reach out to the still suffering alcoholic and give back the gifts that had been given freely to me. My self-centredness, personal opinions, politics, or what I did for a living did not matter. “The unique ability of each A.A to identify himself with, and bring recovery to, the newcomer in no way depends upon his learning, eloquence, or on any special individual skills. The only thing that matters is that he is an alcoholic who has found a key to sobriety.” 9 Sharing the message also helps to keep me humble and is an expression of gratitude for the life I have today. If something I say helps a newcomer then I have given back just a little of what has been given to me. I share because I believe that “It is the great paradox of A.A that we know we can seldom keep the precious gift of sobriety unless we give it away.” 10
1 Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age page 203
2 Pass it On page 318
3 Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions page 150
4 Big Book page 58
5 Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions page 153
6 AA Service Handbook Section 5-1
7 Pass It On page 318
8 Comes of Age page 203
9 Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions page 150-151
10 Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions page 151