I like to group the 12 Steps into three sections so I can think about them in a different way. Steps 1 through 3 are the entering steps. In these steps, we admit that we’re an addict and don’t want to live this way anymore. Our way made us addicts. Here we announce that we are looking for another way to live. Steps 4 through 7 are about internal transformation. They require taking action to change your personal internal makeup. Steps 4 and 5 are where the “miracle” starts to happen. Step 4 is a big wall for many people to climb over. They don’t mind getting clean and sober, but having to change on a spiritual level is a hard one to handle; sometimes we learn that our opinions of the world and how we deal with it emotionally are completely wrong. This is usually a scary step to take, which is why the word fearless comes up quickly. Steps 8 through 12 are about external transformation. Once you’ve become aware of your internal problems, it’s time to go out into the world and be your new self. Your new ideas will be put into play when you encounter people from your past, as you deal with people in your present, and as you take initiative to reach out to and help others.
Step 1: Admitting What All Your Friends Already Know
We admitted we were powerless over alcohol— that our lives had become unmanageable.
Unmanageable was my magic word. That’s the word I heard at my first meeting that made me feel like I belonged there.
My life could’ve gotten much worse. Relative to many other people I’ve met, I have what’s often called a “high bottom.” When I bottomed out, it was much less traumatic than other addicts’ experiences were. But you don’t have to lose every single thing you care about to be an alcoholic; it’s that you can’t handle what you still have.
I lived in a house. I had a hot girlfriend. I had cable. I had shoes. These were all things, that, according to my logic, alcoholics don’t have. Alcoholics live in the park, or in a cardboard box. Alcoholics are alone in the world. Alcoholics don’t get to watch The Sopranos every Sunday night. When I passed out in my Pumas every night, no one stole them off my feet. But my life was far from manageable.
The house I lived in was a condemnable property by any inspector’s standards. The house was a notorious punk house in Oakland, full of kids barely into their twenties. They got drunk and high on a regular basis, but this is a vestige of youth that you either quit while you’re young or you become an addict if you don’t die. If you are the Old Guy In The Punk House, move out. You have a substance abuse problem.
I’m not sure why my girlfriend was with me, other than she had a thing for fuckups. Her other boyfriends had been
69drunks or unemployable freaks, and I fit both of those descriptions. Over the years, I dated women with alcoholic fathers and many other addicts. Because they were overcompensatingly beautiful, I felt that this made me look to the outsider like I was a guy with it all.
The cable I had was stolen. I stole it from my upstairs neighbors, who had stolen it in the first place. I didn’t get all the channels. I only got up to forty channels. I didn’t feel that it was my place to complain, however. Many nights that I thought I was “writing” I merely had my computer on while getting wasted to the sounds of HBO movies.
My shoes were fucked up. They were little more than leather slippers. It wasn’t that I couldn’t afford another pair. But spending even $40 on shoes may have precluded me from buying two fifths of my favorite whiskey.
Don’t get me wrong—I lost a lot of things I wanted in my life because I was a drunk. I had dropped out of school, saying it was too hard to work my way through, when in reality I prioritized going out every night over studying. Many good women I dated broke it off with me when they realized how much I drank. There were many manuscripts started but few completed, making it impossible for me to get a second book published. Club bookers and promoters knew that I could be a hassle to deal with, either because of my temper or my unreliability, which cost me many gigs. There were jobs that I performed really well but was let go from, and while it was never explicitly stated that it was because of my drinking, I can only assume that that was the “no reason” that I got let go, or not
70promoted. But I didn’t see the glass as half-empty. No, it was definitely half-full—half-full of whiskey. I kept finding things I had that proved I wasn’t an alcoholic.
The word unmanageable made perfect sense to me. Every little task in my life felt like a trial of Hercules. Paying bills on time, making it to the unemployment office by 4 p.m., everything seemed really complicated. I couldn’t manage anything in my life. As I looked around the room full of people, when they said “unmanageable,” I thought that word fit better than any other word to describe my life.
This sounds a bit strong at first. Powerless? I don’t think so! I’m not one of those winos who drank himself out of his mind and his home! But many were the nights I tried not to drink “too much,” that I swore to stop before I blacked out, or thought I would stick to beer and not touch the whiskey, and it all went to shit. When I started drinking, I didn’t stop until I ran out of access to alcohol, by lack of money, lack of charm, or lack of consciousness. That’s powerless over alcohol.
There’s this old joke around the drug scene where someone says, “I hate cocaine. Got any?” With cigarettes, coke, crack, and heroin, the powerless principle plays more into effect than with other substances. But it happens as well with booze, pot, coffee, and sugar. It’s a joke when someone eats too many cookies, but the principle remains. We are people who can’t control ourselves around certain things. If you’re drinking, eating, or smoking more than you really want to, it has power over you.
Step 2: Give Sanity a Chance
Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
Sanity is madness put to good uses.
—George Santayana, Little Essays
Steps 2 and 3 are the most treacherous for the atheist. These are going to take a lot of patience with yourself and the outside world.
Sanity When I first saw Step 2 on the wall, I thought, What do you mean, “restore”? Do I have to admit that I’m insane now? Well, you are insane, most likely. But calm down. The word doesn’t mean as much as you may think it does.
Our society has really stigmatized the word insane. We think of padded walls, straightjackets, and Napoleon hats. We think of the movie Sybil. We think of people wandering the streets muttering to themselves. But we shouldn’t think of insanity as such an extreme.
Being sane means you have a sound mind and make rational decisions. Making rational decisions implies that you are working with a proper set of priorities. There isn’t an addict out there who has a proper set of priorities. Welcome to insanity.
Think about it. When you’ve gambled the rent money, or you’ve spent it on cocaine. When you have some kind of system for drinking that never works, but always ends up with
72you in full blackout mode, and you insist on using the system or tweaking it. You’ve had jobs that allow you to stay out late at bars. You’ve had jobs that needed you to stay up all night. You’ve had jobs that required isolation. You’ve gotten all these jobs to enable your usage. You’ve passed up better jobs and opportunities that you knew wouldn’t allow you to get high, drunk, or stoned during work. Have you ever applied for a job that has regular drug testing? On the note of drug testing, if you’ve ever used some method to cheat a drug test, you’re an addict. If you’ve ever brought in someone else’s urine, swallowed weird concoctions that supposedly clean your bloodstream, or used any devices bought from the back pages of High Times magazine, you’re an addict. If you can’t go without cocaine and marijuana when you know you’re going to be tested and your job depends on it, you’re an addict. Normal people who aren’t allowed to smoke pot by their jobs don’t smoke pot. If you like getting high better than getting your paycheck, you’re an addict. Your romantic relationships have priorities that were set by your usage. Your partners have been codependent enablers. Your partners have been other addicts. Your partners have been the children of addicts. Your partners have fled in terror when they found out how much you used, but you blamed them for “not being able to take your intensity.” Maybe you’re good on that first date to the bar, but when you have to go on later dates, you can’t stand how boring they are.
Your friendships revolve around your usage. Your best friends are the guys from the bar. There’s a guy in your posse that you don’t like, but you tolerate him since he always has the coke.When your normal friends settle down and “get boring,” you never see them anymore; you don’t understand why they can’t come out to the bar just because they have a kid or two. Do you have a friend whose favorite drink you know but a name you can’t remember?
As you can see, your life has been prioritized around your drug and alcohol use, whether it was professionally, romantically, or socially. This is why these things are unsatisfying to you, and you use them as an excuse or a reason to get high.
If this is at all familiar to you, trust me: it’s insane behavior.
Step 3: Surrender—It’s Not Just a Cool Cheap Trick Song
Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
Whether it’s called The Will of God, Fate, Destiny, Karma, or whatever else, there are aspects of the universe that are beyond our control. People of various religions make their will known to their supreme beings, and they have accepted they will not always get what they want. People pray, meditate, make sacrifices . . . but it’s all the same. They are making their desires
74into a specific statement. They know exactly what they want out of life, and exactly what they are grateful for. This abandonment of control to a Higher Power is what most religions call faith. Faith is a powerful human attribute. While I may not believe that it’s a deistic being that makes faith work, I do believe that faith has a positive effect on our lives. Faith has a power we may never understand. There is the feeling of being in a crowd that all believe the same thing, whether it’s a crowd at a church, a political protest, or a rock concert. Being a part of that group dynamic is a great feeling.
Why is it easier for a sports team to win at home than away? Does it have to do with the 50,000 people exerting their will simultaneously on the game? Perhaps. All religions of the world have two things in common: they’re based on stories, and there’s an extent to which these stories are believed as truths. Every religion has stories as part of its core; you’re told stories that are used as a basis for the doctrines and tenets of the religion. Without those stories, there wouldn’t be a reason to believe anything you heard. But the story is presented as a sort of proof that the religion has validity. Your belief in the stories, in the religion, and the existence of the cosmic structure portrayed therein is also faith. Outside of religion, stories can still have a healing effect. Storytelling predates written language and religion. Humans love stories. Humans want to believe in ideas and heroes. This is what gives us hope and strength to live our lives. Whether it’s the Epic of Gilgamesh or the Star Wars movies, we love to
75watch, read, or hear about those like us who face an unbeatable foe and somehow emerge the victor.
There’s no scientific proof of my next opinion, but listen up, because I’m right anyway: The stories we tell each other have real healing power. That’s why there are stories in church, in kindergarten, and in 12-Step meetings. On a base level of development, humans get a lot of spiritual and emotional healing from storytelling. We need stories to heal our nonphysical selves and give us direction in which to grow. If you’re wondering what could ever possibly take the pain away, what would quell the depression, or what would relieve the anxiety once you quit using, trust me, it’s the stories.
What I’m getting at is that religions can work if you really believe with all your heart and mind that they do. But if you have a bit of doubt, it won’t work. I’m not saying religions work for the reasons the practicers say they do, I’m saying by faith and group consciousness, people have the power to change themselves and push their reality in a different direction.
Let me put it this way: The difference between the Bible and a Magic Eightball is that four hundred years ago, you would’ve been burned at the stake for owning the Magic Eightball. It would have been considered black magick at the time, because people would have believed it really worked. I think that now, if someone truly believed in that toy, and used it every single time with consistency, it would have an overall positive effect on his or her life. I’m not saying it does work; I’m saying it can work. Got me?
Own Power, Outer Power, and Line of Control
Here’s another way I think of the cosmic structure: with a trinity of Own Power, Outer Power, and the Line of Control.
Your Own Power is what is within your control. Are you going to a meeting today? Are you going to bet on a football game? Are you going to send a résumé to that company?
Outer Power is every part of life that is outside of your control. You can bet on the football game, but you can’t determine the outcome. You can call that number, but you don’t know if you’ll get a date. You can buy the stock, but you have no effect on its performance.
The Line of Control is what separates these two powers. It’s an ever-moving boundary. Say you find $100 on the street when you are flat broke; the Line of Control moves immediately. You may now control what meal you buy next, but you can’t control how well it’s cooked.
Acknowledgment of the Line of Control brings me a lot of inner peace in my life. I see what lies on which side of the line and strive to only concern myself with what is within my own power. It’s easier to see that I can expand the area of my Own Power.
77Every time I spend my money wisely, use my time wisely, and treat those near me with compassion and respect, I broaden the area of my Own Power.