A few days before Christmas, I spoke at the Paseo Group’s Alkathon in Kansas City, Missouri. I wasn’t terribly prepared for my talk, but I arrived about half an hour early which gave me time to jot down a few ideas on a napkin. Using the napkin as a guide, I talked about the language of recovery, the action I took and continue to take in recovery, and my thoughts about the steps and AA literature. I also outlined my experience of getting and staying sober:
- Getting honest
- Getting well
- Making amends
- Seeking peace
- Helping others
John S: Good morning.
Audience: Good morning.
John S: I’m John, I’m an alcoholic.
John S: And it’s great to be here. I spoke at the Paseo Alkathon, I think it was back in the ’90s, and you were meeting in a little house off of the Paseo. I think it was off Flora or something.
Audience: That would have been Brooklyn.
John S: Okay. There you go.
Audience: In the ’90s.
Audience: Can’t remember. I can’t recall.
Audience: I didn’t either, but I staggered in here for a time.
John S: And then I don’t think I spoke at another one until we had got this group started. So I think this is the fifth year in a row that I’ve spoken here. Thank you. And I love that, and I have a lot of respect for this group. One of the times I came here to speak, I was reading the archives that… In the old… Across the street, and I was reading about the history of this group, and I remember reading about how this group started in 1947, it was called Kansas City Interracial, and it was the first time that black people and white people ever met together in Alcoholics Anonymous in Kansas City. And so I consider this to be the first truly inclusive AA Group in Kansas City. And I think back to what that must have been like, and what that meeting was like. And I almost like to transport myself back in time so I could talk to those people and understand what it felt like to be at that meeting. But then there was another story, and I was reminded of it because when you guys were saying the Lord’s Prayer, I had to run away and hide somewhere, and I went in that room where your archives are now. And there’s another story about… Oh, what’s his name? The fellow who found… That wanted the Big Book.
John S: Frank, he wanted the Big Book, and there wasn’t one around. And I found that really interesting, too. Because I have heard that back in the old days, that the Big Book really wasn’t so easy to come by. And anyway, this guy got the book, but it reminded me of, I thought about him a few weeks ago, I went to the archives that group one, the Missouri, Western Missouri archives, and I found in there, a letter that somebody from Missouri wrote to GSO, and this was back in the ’40s. I think it must have been before group one because he wanted to know if there was an AA meeting in Missouri. And GSO wrote back and said, “no, there aren’t any, but here’s… ” They shipped him a Big Book. And they said, “Pay us if you can, and if you can’t, that’s okay.” And the Big Book was actually kind of pricey back then in that money. But I thought that was really interesting. Back at that time, that book was pretty important and finding other alcoholics that wanted to recover wasn’t always so easy. So where we’re at today, there’s a lot to be grateful for. It’s those people that came before us that made this possible.
John S: The Paseo group, for sure, one of the strongest groups in Kansas City when it comes to service. I never had anything to do with service and Alcoholics Anonymous until we started our group We Agnostics. And when I went to the district, I went to the area. I’d see all those people from the Paseo group. And I said, “That’s what I want my group We Agnostics to be like.” We’re not quite there yet.
John S: But I’m inspired by some of the younger members of our group. I’m kind of getting tired of having the business meetings and all that kind of stuff, but as I get tired and hang back, I’m watching the younger people step up. And one of them came to me and she said, “John, I think we’d like to have a business meeting in January and maybe even talk about having a GSR.” I said “Wow, the last time we asked if anyone wanted to be in GSR, nobody was interested. Last time we asked if anybody wanted to treasure, nobody was interested.” So it looks like the group is beginning to grow up, and is ready to take responsibility for itself. And so I’m really happy to see that occur.
John S: So anyway, I always wish that I would have prepared something before I came here, but it always turns out well anyway.
John S: I did write down some words on a napkin of some things I wanted to talk about: Experience, language, action, how the steps are descriptive, not prescriptive. And I’m going to start though, by the formula that they give us in AA, which is basically what it was like, what happened, what it’s like now. So I’ve been sober for 31 years.
Audience: Oh very good.
John S: I’ve been sober and a member of Alcoholics Anonymous much longer than I was drinking. When I got here, my last drink, I was 25 years old, and what was going on in my life is I’d gotten arrested for drunk driving for the third time, and I lost my job, and I just… I was defeated. I had been thinking that I was… I needed help since I was about 19. So from the ages of 19 to 25, I was drinking alcoholically, but I really couldn’t admit it. I think my problem was I just figured that I was too young, but after that third DWI, and being confronted by my employer about my drinking and the many times that they tried to convince me to get help and so forth, that was it for me. And so I made it to my first AA meeting, it was just a couple of weeks before my 26th birthday. And I went to the Downtown Nooners Group. And I remember walking into the room and the first thing I saw on the wall were the 12 Steps and the 12 traditions.
John S: And that first step, when I read it, it probably isn’t how I would have put it in my language, but it really was an ideal description of how I felt. It was a poetic description, I guess. I was powerless over alcohol, and my life had become unmanageable. There was no doubt when I read those words, that rang true. And then the tradition, the third tradition, that the only requirement for membership is the desire to stop drinking, gave me hope that that was where I needed to be. Because I got myself to the point where it was so bad for me, I even stopped debating whether or not I was an alcoholic. All I knew was I wanted to fucking stop drinking, excuse the language. And that was everything to me, to see that there.
John S: The worst thing that could have happened is if somebody would have said, “Oh, you’re too young, you don’t really qualify.” That would have been awful. So I was welcomed into the fellowship, and I went to the Downtown Nooners Group for quite a while, and then I went to P3, where I went to meetings for 25 years. And I was always active, actively involved with AA, by going on 12 step calls, and taking meetings, book places, and sponsoring people, and all of that. And I worked the steps through the Big Book with a sponsor, reading it, underlining it, highlighting it, all of that, knowing it really well. And then, working the steps with a sponsor, too.
John S: I also learned how to… I also learned the language in AA, you kind of pick that up, too. And that served me really well because there was a point where I was… Well, put it this way, I realized that I really didn’t believe in God, and so I could still talk the AA talk, and everybody was happy with that. But it got to a point where I couldn’t do it anymore. And so I started speaking in my own way, and I was very comfortable with this idea that the steps are words, they weren’t my words, but they were written by people who were describing an experience that they had. And I had the same experience, but I would describe it differently. And I see these steps in the program of Alcoholics Anonymous as a very practical thing. I focus more on what I do, and less on what I believe. And what I do is the same thing as anybody who might believe that there’s a power that’s greater than them, that helps them do it.
John S: So, I kind of wrote down… I’ve written the steps in my own language lots of times, but this time I just put down a few words on a napkin. Sometimes they add up to 12, sometimes they don’t. But this time, I put down the… This is what I wrote: Defeat, hope, decision, get honest, get well, make amends, maintain, seek peace and help others. That’s basically what I like to do. I guess going into it is… I was talking to somebody just last week about the mystery of what it is that gets us to a point to admit that we’re powerless over alcohol, and other people never get there. And it seems like it doesn’t matter how bad things get, some people just never get to that point. And I don’t know if they’ll ever figure that out, and maybe there really isn’t an answer for it.
John S: But all I and my friend knew, who were talking about it was that we both had this experience where we were just convinced that if we were going to live, we had to stop drinking. And furthermore, we were convinced that we couldn’t stop drinking. That’s a bad situation to be in, and what are you going to do but reach out for help? And I knew to go to Alcoholics Anonymous because that’s what I read about in the papers. As a kid, I would read on Dear Abby, back then you had paper newspapers you’d read, and I’d read the Dear Abby. And any time someone had a drinking problem, she’d always say, “Go to Alcoholics Anonymous.” So I always knew that was the thing to do, plus it’s in the movies and everything. That was where you would go. And I don’t truly know if there was anything else, anyway. So I knew to go there.
John S: And so I went, and immediately, upon getting to that meeting, and seeing other people who described their drinking and it being like mine, and just looking at them and seeing that they weren’t going through that life today, I immediately had a sense of hope that if they could do it, I could do it. And I made a decision right then and there, that I needed to go to these meetings, and I needed to figure out what they were doing, and I needed to stay sober. So that was basically the three steps right there, making that decision to stay sober. And so I was going to that group, the Downtown Nooners Group, and it was a mixed group, men and women, and they were very good to me. Most of them were older than me, I was very young at the time, and they… Somebody there recommended that I go to P3, and it was an all men’s group.
John S: And I thought that was kind of weird to go to an all men’s group, but it turned out to be a really good thing for me because, at that particular time, there were a lot of guys my age, a lot of us were in our 20s were going to that group, and we were all getting sober together. And so I had this connection with these other people that were like me, and we didn’t see each other just during the meetings, but we went out together to movies. All kinds of different things that we would do together. They were just friends. And that was really important to me, I think, and my sobriety, because my drinking was characterized by really not having friends. Or rather, just being isolated from other people. Though I was a bar drinker, I was alone when I was drinking. So that part of Alcoholics Anonymous was really critical, I think, for my recovery, was just that, having friends and learning how to have fun and do things without getting messed up, so that was a huge deal.
John S: So, I went to that group, like I say, for 25 years, and I kind of break up my sobriety in decades, when I look back at it because you go through different periods of time. And I think that that first 10 years of my sobriety, AA was pretty much my life. In other words, the friends I ran with were in AA, pretty much everybody I was in contact with was in AA. I was going to many, many, many AA meetings.
John S: It was really what my life was at the time. And then after that 10 year period, my father died unexpectedly, and my mother had already died many years earlier. And it was a situation that whatever happened when he died, I took stock of where I was in my life, and I wasn’t satisfied that just as a person, I didn’t achieve any of the things that I wanted to achieve.
John S: So, I was like 35-years-old, and I hadn’t gotten married, or done all these other things that I thought that people should do. So I started doing things with my life that I couldn’t do when I was drinking. I went to school and I ended up graduating to get a degree. And then I went to another school and I ended up graduating, getting another degree.
John S: And I was able to get a better job, buy a house, have relationships, eventually get married. During this period of time when I was doing that, I was living more of my life outside of AA, than I was the first 10 years, but AA was still what grounded me. And though I wasn’t going to as many meetings, I was still going to meetings. And that was what was grounding me. And then after I got married, I resumed my normal meeting schedule again. And this is when my whole thing shifted with my perception of Alcoholics Anonymous and the program and everything in the language.
John S: It really started changing during that second 10 years. I’d stopped praying, I was really, without even thinking about it, kind of giving up on this idea about God. I was never a religious person and even in my early days in AA, I just thought that there… I was rationalizing it all. But it got to the point where I just couldn’t even rationalize it anymore. So, there was a steady degradation of me not really believing what I was saying anymore.
John S: So, I would sit in these meetings, and they would read something from the daily reflections or whatever. And it’s always a very God-centered reading, and I could always find a way of saying what needed to be said that would make everybody’s heads bob-up and down with “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.”
John S: And so anyway, finally, I decided after reading some books, I decided, “Yeah, I’m an atheist,” and it scared the hell out of me because I thought I wasn’t going to be able to do AA. But the funny thing is that there have been atheists in AA since the very beginning. In fact, talking about language, the steps, when they were written, there was an atheist by the name of Jim Burwell, who suggested a power greater than yourself, that higher power to substitute for God, and some of the steps, because he felt like, “We need to temper it down just a little bit.” When the steps were first written, they were much more directive than they are now. They’re now written in a more descriptive way. So, in other words, the steps aren’t telling us what we should do, but they’re explaining what they experienced and what they did.
John S: And that’s the way that I was taught to carry this message, is just let you know what I’ve experienced and what I do. I’m not here to tell anybody what they need to do. So anyway, so that… Yeah, there’s always been atheists around. In fact, they’ve always had these groups, these agnostic groups since 1975.
John S: And I never knew about it, I never knew they had these things, but I found out about it on the internet. Now that we can go online and Google things, you can find out anything. And so, I found out they’d had these groups, and so I thought I would start one in Kansas City. And so I, in 2014, went up to my friend, Jim, and who was also an atheist at P3. And I said, “Would you like to start an AA group for agnostics and atheists?” And he says “Yeah, let’s do it.”
John S: So we did and the group really took off pretty quickly. I was surprised. I didn’t tell anybody at P3 that we were leaving. That I was leaving on and doing it, I just disappeared. And we went off and started this other group. And I didn’t really want… In fact, I didn’t really want anyone from P3 to follow me over there.
John S: I was ready for a clean break. And what happened was, we were finding people coming to our meeting that would not go to AA otherwise. Because now… Like when I first went to AA, I didn’t know anything about it. I didn’t know they had 12 Steps. I didn’t know that God was mentioned anywhere. I didn’t know any of that stuff. But now, before you even go to an AA meeting, you Google it, and you research it, and you see all this stuff, and there’s all kinds of really wrong information and negative stuff out there too. So there are people that are just turned off and won’t go because they might think it’s a religious thing. So anyway, they’d come… Those people would come to our group. Those people would come, and also people who might have had a bad experience in AA previously. So it was kind of an interesting mix. And now, what I’m seeing, is the group has kind of evolved a lot. I’m seeing… From my perspective, younger people, 30s, 40s is kind of young for me. Some in their 20s. And these are people who have never been to an AA meeting, other than ours. So… And our meeting is a little bit different in that there’s no opening and closing prayer, and we don’t read how it works and things like that. And… So there’s not… And most of us are atheists or agnostics. So there’s not talk about God or anything.
John S: And this is the only AA that these people know. And now, some of them though did come to the Paseo Group. A group of them came out here [chuckle] and they had a great time, by the way. They loved it. [chuckle] They loved it, so… But anyway, something I’ve learned about these people, is I misjudged them originally. I thought that they were going to be, oh, not receptive to old ideas, religious language, things like that. But what I’m finding out is that they’re not as stand-off-ish or off-put by that, as you might think. They don’t really view themselves in any particular belief system or whatever. They just, for whatever reason, they just don’t see that it’s pertinent to how they want to describe their recovery. So most of our meetings are a topic meeting, where the chair of the meeting will do a lead for like 15 minutes, or whatever. And then, the meeting, it goes on around that. Sometimes we’ll use literature, outside literature, but not very often. For whatever reason, they just prefer topic meetings. We did start a step meeting this last year which was… It started off really popular and we started it off because, actually, the younger people were asking for it. But it was kind of funny, they were asking for it, but they’re not coming to those meetings. [chuckle]
John S: So they will not go. But I’m going. And so, what we do is… And we don’t read AA literature, but we read the Steps from a secular perspective. And speaking of the AA literature, and I don’t want to be controversial, but I did bring out The Big Book to that meeting because I wanted to somehow when we started that step meeting, I wanted to incorporate the history of Alcoholics Anonymous with, you know so that people could have some sort of an idea about how all this started and… But unfortunately, that didn’t go over real well. A lot of people just did really have a hard time relating to the book, so I just had to stop messing with that. So I don’t know. I know that The Big Book is revered, and it should be because it was an important piece of literature, but I just wish sometimes that we could say, “Hey, thank you Bill, and Bob, and everybody back then, for putting all this down. But we can write too. And we have our own words and our own way of writing.” And it would seem to me that if AA, in the year 2020, would put out something that is more up-to-date, that it would make the headlines, and maybe we might see our membership spike. I don’t know, but it’s really hard. I remember even back in 1988, I’m not trying to trash the book or anything, but even in 1988, when I went to the library trying to read up on alcoholism and I saw The Big Book, the AA book, and I thought, “Wow, this is really old.” [chuckle] And that was back then. But anyway…
John S: But it’s still got value. In fact, I was thinking about something from The Big Book when I was thinking about what I was going to say today, and there’s one little paragraph in there, that my sponsor did beat into my head, that I do have committed to memory. And it did do me some good. And that paragraph is, “Selfishness, self-centeredness. That, we think, is the root of our trouble. Driven by 100 forms of fear, self-seeking, self-delusion, self-pity, we step on the toes of our fellows and they retaliate. Seemingly without provocation, but invariably we found that at some time in the past we made decisions based on self which later placed us in a position to be hurt.” I’ve got it memorized. [chuckle] I have for a long time. I had a tough time with that, in the beginning. My sponsor kept telling me about the self-centeredness, and how I was self-centered, and I really took it in a judgmental way. But when… The thing about the Steps is that, what we learn about ourselves, it’s a fact-finding mission, it’s not judgmental… It’s not like, “I’m a bad-person mission. I need to figure out how bad I am.” It’s a fact-finding mission.
John S: So I learned how to look at my behaviors without, I guess, attaching some sort of bad feeling about myself because I engage in these behaviors. So in other words, I can do selfish things, and I did selfish things, and I still do, it doesn’t necessarily make me, on the whole, as a selfish person, or a bad person. But I think addiction, the very nature of it, and alcoholism when we’re sick and in our disease, just the very nature of it forces a person in that situation to be self-centered, because you gotta do anything you can do to get that next drink. And I know I certainly did, I did some really bad things, without thinking about who I was hurting, who I was conning. Do you know? And that’s definitely selfish behavior there, but it was a behavior that was driven from a physical need for another drink. But that didn’t… And then that behavior, from my addiction, spilled over into other areas of my life. I had to cover up for my drinking, I had to hide it from people. Do you know? So my whole world revolved around me and thinking about me, and my problems, and how I was going to hide my problems or get out of the situation. That was my life. So it makes sense to me that that behavior would follow me after I stopped drinking. So it really took a lot of effort to unlearn that behavior, and the only way that I could was to figure out why I react to life the way I do anyway.
John S: And that’s what the Inventory Steps did for me. Again, when I first started doing it, like most of us, I really had a hard time with it. I had cried, I’d get depressed, I’d put it away, but once I actually started doing it, what you find is you’re looking at the facts of what happened in your life, and how you reacted to it, and why you reacted that way. And it’s not a big deal, but what I did is I went through that, I definitely saw a pattern going on with me, and the pattern that I saw with me, was a very insecure person, all my life. I grew up in a household where I didn’t know what was going to happen from one day to the next. And I was growing up in this army family, we moved around all over the place, and you never knew where you were going to go. There was violence, and yelling, and screaming, there was just a lot of chaos around me. And not to put the blame on that, but that insecurity just kind of drove me throughout my life, I guess, just trying to find some sense of peace, I guess. And maybe I was looking for it in a bottle, I don’t know. I do know that the feeling that the alcohol gave me was a feeling of relief, initially. So… But what I was actually doing was kind of numbing me down. But yeah, that’s what it was, it was a fact-finding mission of what it was that drove me.
John S: And after I did that… And you look at the whole big picture of my life… As I looked at the whole big picture of my life, and I looked at all these people that I resented, and so forth. Along with that came some understanding, not only of myself but of the other people. Primarily my parents, and people that I may have hurt even. And I knew right then and there what I needed to do, what kind of amends I needed to make, and that kind of thing. And so, it almost was a natural process from there. Those Inventory Steps were really big for me, to push me on. It really was just a natural thing. But after doing that, it’s just a matter of maintaining it. It’s just like I write down here, it’s like, “You make your amends, you maintain, and you seek peace.” That “Seek peace” to me is Step 11. As an atheist, you think, “How the heck are you going to do Step 11? It’s a lot of God stuff written in there.” But when I look at the Steps, I’m looking at what I’m actually seeking and doing, what am I wanting out of it. And when I read Step 11, what I see that I’m really seeking, is peace of mind or serenity. For me, the Serenity Prayer is a perfect replacement for Step 11.
John S: In fact, that’s what I used for a long time, was that. Now I’m becoming a little bit more interested in meditation. I’m not really good at it, but I’m understanding now that there’s a lot of value in it. And so, meditation is a form of prayer too, but it’s something that they’re finding some real value to, scientifically, that there is actually some value in meditating and training your brain. I know the periods of time that I did meditate, on a regular basis, the benefit that I got from it was this whole learning to let go of things because in meditation you become aware of your thoughts because I think that when I was initially trying to meditate, I thought that my goal was not to have thoughts. But all I could do is know that the thoughts were happening, but I learned how not to latch on to them, so I could just watch my thoughts float by. And doing that while I meditate, helped remind me to do that during my regular workday. That if I had a feeling or a thought, I didn’t have to hang on to it, but I could watch it drift away like a leaf on a stream, or a cloud in the sky, and just not hang on to it. But it takes real practice and effort to do that on a regular basis.
John S: I look at meditation just like working out, and I’m just as bad at working out as I am with meditation. [laughter] But when I do go to the gym and work out and run, and all that, I feel great, I love it, and it just makes you want to do it again, and again, and again. And that’s the same thing with meditation. I had that experience with meditation. But when you stop doing it, you forget about what benefits you were getting from it. So for me, it’s just a… It’s a constant battle, but I’m beginning to see again that the meditation is probably something I do want to incorporate. I was initially going to say, “No, it’s not for me.” And just not even look at it. But I think the more I listened to other people talk about it, the more value that I’d see in it. And then, of course, helping others. That’s the core, I think, of what we do here. We probably start doing it from the day we walk in. I know that when I walked in that first meeting, I was probably helping the people that were already there because I reminded them of who they were at one time, but there is a tremendous amount of… Oh, I don’t know.
John S: I’ll tell you this. The best thing that I ever did in my life was to help start an AA group. Because I get to have this experience of watching people benefit from something that I in some small way helped get going. And I’m watching these people get sober, and get their lives together, and make friends, and more than that… Now, as I said, I’m watching them love and care for the group. And it’s just a beautiful experience. It’s the best experience I’ve ever had. And that’s service and that is helping them, but it’s also something I was doing for me, is… That’s another funny thing, I was talking about someone today. You know how they would say, “This is a selfish program.” I hear people nowadays saying that they hate that saying that, “It’s a selfish program.” because it’s not a selfish program, because we’re always giving and all this kind of stuff. But what they’re really trying to say, as I understood it, when people told me that it’s a selfish program is that “Yeah, it’s an altruistic program, we’re doing things for other people, we’re not really expecting anything in return. But ultimately, we’re doing it for our own… To save our own butts, we’re doing this because this is how we stay sober.”
John S: I heard somebody in here before I started speaking, he was talking about amends and he says, “That person doesn’t have to forgive you. That, you know… You’re doing that to clean your side of the street.” And that’s the truth. I mean that’s what these Steps are. We are really doing, everything that we do in AA, we’re doing for ourselves. Before I even got to my first AA meeting, the woman who was confronting me with my drinking, she told me, “Get help but do it for yourself. Stop drinking and do it for yourself.” And I don’t know why she said that, but I guess she was telling me, “Don’t do it for your father, don’t do it to try to get your job back, don’t do it for this or that. But just do it for yourself.”
John S: And ultimately, that’s really what I was doing. I was doing it because I couldn’t live otherwise. But… Yeah, there’s all kinds of different ways to be of service. John here is the DCM for our district, which is a way to serve. I go to Area 39, and I’m the chair of the Archives Committee. I don’t do a very good job, I don’t think I’ve done anything since I’ve been the chair of the Archives Committee, but I go, and I sit in the meetings, and I do what I do. But the thing that I got out of that though, is just being around other alcoholics that aren’t in my group. For me, it’s important to feel connected to the rest of AA as a whole.
John S: Especially, when I go to this Agnostic Group and I don’t really go to other meetings. To be honest with you, I have a really hard time with AA meetings in general, and I’m just very uncomfortable sometimes, but I’m not at my group. But when I go to the Area Assembly in Sedalia, I don’t… I’m not uncomfortable at all because there, no one’s talking about the… They’re just talking about how to do something, how to get something done. Do you know? They’re talking about practical action and doing things. They’re not talking about… There no one’s telling me to pray or anything like that, it’s just… It’s a lot nicer for me. So for me, that’s really important, to stay involved with that. I think that I don’t care to ever have another service position, ever again, believe me, when it comes to district or area, but I will always go to the Area Assembly, I think, as long as I can, just so that I can be around these people from other parts of the state. I’m getting a lot out of it. It’s a lot of fun for me to meet somebody who’s very different from me, but then also, to find out what we have in common. And I honestly believe that what we have in common, it’s far, far more than any difference that we have, and that’s true if I go to the Area Assembly or any place else. So I hope I haven’t pissed anybody off by anything I said. [chuckle]
John S: Everything I said.
John S: But I want to tell you this. AA is my home. AA is what raised me. Like I say, I’ve been here most of my life now. The principles that I’ve learned in Alcoholics Anonymous are how I live my life. Any time I have a problem, this is what I lean on. When I’m not comfortable… I’m comfortable in AA. I’m comfortable here. You know, when you guys do your thing and I can go to the other room, but anyway thank you. Glad to be here.
Audience: Thank you…