By Steve K.
An important part of the literature of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) that offers hope to those seeking recovery from addiction is the passage in relation to Step Nine, commonly referred to as the ‘Promises’. (1)
There are Twelve promises relating to Step Nine. Twelve being a favourite number in relation to AA principles (12 Steps, 12 Traditions, 12 Concepts). ‘The number twelve carries religious, mythological and magical symbolism, generally representing perfection, entirety, or cosmic order in traditions since antiquity.’ Wikipedia
When I first started attending AA meetings as a young man I was given hope that recovery from addiction to alcohol was possible. I listened to the powerful stories of others who had recovered from the slavery of addiction and transformed their lives. I started to believe that radical change was possible for me too. However, the obsession with alcohol was still with me and due to co-occurring difficulties with severe depression and anxiety living a sober life was not an easy choice. I was deeply troubled mentally and emotionally and feared that the hope that AA offered was a false hope for me.
I was still in denial of my addiction to a degree and continued to self-medicate my mental and emotional distress intermittently with alcohol and other drugs. Recovery doesn’t work that way and I failed to grasp the message that it’s the ‘first drink that gets you drunk’. I also failed to fully realise that self-medicating mental and emotional health problems aggravates and prolongs them.
Eventually, the realisation came that I needed to face my underlying difficulties and life on its terms. I understood that I could not drink alcohol or misuse other drugs under any circumstances. Slowly, the obsession with alcohol began to leave me and I commenced the long journey towards emotional sobriety. For me, this has been a very slow process over time and I’m still committed to my mental, emotional, and spiritual growth and development with the help of others and recovery principles.
Along the way, through this quite often difficult journey, I’ve considered the Step Nine ‘Promises’ outlined in chapter 6 (‘Into Action’) in Alcoholics Anonymous. For a long time, I viewed the ‘Promises’ as the suggestion of some sort of nirvana resulting from recovery. I thought they were unobtainable for me at least. This was partly due to my unrealistic interpretation of them.
As I’ve matured in recovery and developed my mental, emotional, and spiritual resilience and balance, I’ve begun to see that AA’s Promises are being realised in my life. My interpretation of these Promises is more realistic than earlier in my recovery. My life has also developed, becoming more meaningful to me and hopefully of use to others. I’m engaged in life and my community and have an increased sense of purpose.
The 12 Promises of AA and my experience and understanding of them are outlined as follows:
1. We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness.
My interpretation of this first and most important promise is that we will find freedom from our addiction and its associated suffering. I suffered from a mental obsession with alcohol and other drugs and the insanity that would justify picking up that first drink/drug for many years. I was also enslaved by self-centred, negative thinking that was very defensive, angry, and self-pitying. Depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts were a constant and my life and mental outlook was very limited.
Today, I live a life free from active addiction. I don’t think about drinking or misusing substances and I’m happy to be sober. I’m very grateful to be free of a mental obsession I suffered for decades. My negative thinking has lessened over time and today I practice a more positive, accepting, and grateful outlook. I’m less self-centred, less defensive, less fearful, and do my best to avoid anger, resentment, and self-pity. Consequently, I’m more content with life. This doesn’t mean I’m always happy and serene and at times I do experience ‘negative’ feelings. I’m human and am impacted by life and its adversities and my emotions fluctuate accordingly. However, I’m more emotionally and mentally balanced than I’ve ever been and have an inner resilience that prevents extremes.
2. We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it.
I have mixed feelings in relation to my past. I realise that living in regret is pointless and not that helpful, but it doesn’t prevent me wishing that things had been different at times. I’ve had to live with some long-term consequences of my past behaviour that have made life hard and caused me suffering. I’ve also caused others to suffer too. If I could go back, I would do things differently, but that’s not going to happen.
It is best if I accept and learn lessons from my past, and to a large degree I feel I have done so. I can now use this learning in a positive way to live a good life and help others along the way. In certain respects, my past is my greatest asset. My experiences have helped me develop more empathy and compassion for people than would have been otherwise, I suspect.
I don’t mind sharing my past if it will be of benefit to others, but don’t want to live there. I understand my past and have looked at it enough and now prefer to focus on the present and make responsible plans/goals for my future. Hopefully, the lessens from my past will prevent me making the same mistakes again and point me in the right direction in the future.
3. We will comprehend the word serenity.
In the ‘Doctor’s Opinion’ (introductory chapter in the main text of AA, aka the Big Book) the alcoholic is described as ‘restless, irritable and discontented’ (2) unless they can change their mental and emotional state with alcohol. This description is an understatement in my case as I was often filled with anxiety, anger, resentment, self-pity, and similar distressing emotions unless I could self-medicate with alcohol or other drugs. The ‘sense of ease and comfort’ from taking a drink would be short lived and I’d often sober up to face ‘the hideous Four Horsemen – Terror, Bewilderment, Frustration, Despair’ described in chapter 11 of the Big Book (3).
Increasingly, over time in recovery, I can now experience a relatively calm and untroubled state of mind. The word serenity was foreign to me, but I can now appreciate regular periods of equanimity and feel comfortable ‘in my own skin’. AA also promises a sense of meaning and purpose in life, which is true for me, and I often feel that this increases my sense of contentment. However, as I’ve previously mentioned, my emotional and mental state fluctuates and I’m far from serene at all times. The third promise only suggests ‘understanding’ the word serenity, not being permanently untroubled.
4. We will know peace.
During active addiction my life was anything but peaceful. It was full of drama and chaos. My relationships were always fractious and full of conflict. I was almost constantly involved with the police and the court system and permanently fearful of the consequences of my drunken and drug taking behaviour.
Today my life is mostly peaceful and drama free. My sense of spirituality, encouraged and developed by recovery principles, contributes to my inner sense of peace too. I enjoy physical exercise and activities such as hiking in nature which bring about feelings of serenity. My relationships are increasingly harmonious and my service to others often creates feelings of contentment.
5. No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others.
In certain respects, I’ve had to live with the consequences of my active addiction years. A significant criminal record, chronic health difficulties, damaged relationships, poor work record and therefore opportunities, and financial limitations. As a result of these disadvantages, I have, at times, particularly earlier in my recovery, felt life was meaningless. As my recovery has progressed, I’ve increasingly felt purpose and meaning in my life. I’m now able to share my experience, strength, and hope with others in a helpful, unselfish, and compassionate way. The maturity of my mental, emotional, and spiritual life has developed a degree of eldership that others can appreciate.
6. The feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear.
In the past I’ve often been a burden to others and society. Today, I’m often engaged in useful activities that benefit others and the wider community. I live a more rounded life and have hobbies, interests, friendships, and projects (like my blog/website) that feel useful. During my recovery I’ve extensively engaged in voluntary work outside of the addiction field that has contributed to society in a positive sense and help me growth as a person in the process.
I’ve experienced a lot of self-pity in addiction and recovery if I’m being honest. However, more recently, I’ve begun to focus upon the gifts in life and to practice gratitude for all that I’m given. The spiritual practice of being and demonstrating gratitude is a great antidote to feeling sorry for oneself and general unhappiness.
7. We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows.
Addiction and often the environment and experiences that help to create it tend to cause selfish and self-centred behaviour. Those suffering from addiction are not all the same in relation to character, but addiction and suffering inevitably lead to over self-involvement, which in turn often leads to selfish concern for ones needs and wants at the expense of others.
The main goal of recovery from a 12-Step perspective is to escape neurotic self-involvement and to develop a healthy, unselfish interest in helping others. Regardless of whether we suffer from low self-esteem or egotism, which both result in self-centred thinking, we need to seek freedom from the prison of self.
Since the very beginning of my recovery I’ve engaged in some sort of voluntary service to others. I consider this type of activity as spirituality in action. Most religious or spiritual traditions regard service to others as a key spiritual practice and means of self-development. It is a fundamental method used to reduce self-involvement and to develop virtue and character. I am now involved with a couple of communities where I seek to be of help to others, and as previously mentioned find satisfaction, meaning, and purpose in this unselfish way of living.
8. Self-seeking will slip away.
There is an important distinction to make between selfishness and self-care. Selfishness is unhealthy, whereas self-care is healthy. In doing the right thing, I have to consider how meeting my own needs and wants may impact upon others. I no longer just consider myself at the expense of others, which I define as selfish or self-seeking behaviour. Other people’s needs and welfare are important too and I try to give equal consideration to both. However, I should not harm myself for other’s benefit and wants if I can help it. This is appropriate self-care. Taking care of myself enables me to be there for others in the long run. In effect, it’s often a balancing act where I consider whose is the greater need or harm, and then make decisions accordingly.
9. Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change.
For me, this promise is related to all the previous promises and the changes I’ve already described. I have a less self-centred outlook. I practice gratitude rather than self-pity. I am more willing to be of service to others. I avoid anger rather blame others and justify rage. I practice self-care and appropriate boundaries, as opposed to selfishness, self-harm, or people pleasing. I have an openness towards spirituality and practice humility, rather than a closed mind and a tendency towards arrogance. And, most importantly, I have obtained freedom from the mental obsession with alcohol and other drugs.
10. Fear of people and economic insecurity will leave us.
I’ve always struggled with fear and especially insecurity relating to myself. Being overly self-conscious and insecure was a big factor in relation to my past addiction. My behaviour under the influence of mind-altering substances compounded my feelings of shame. Living a sober life has in itself helped me feel more confident and self-accepting. This in turn has had a beneficial effect upon how I relate to others and eased my social anxiety. I’m not as socially awkward as I used to be and generally feel fairly comfortable with most people. My social skills have certainly improved in recovery. I still have some way to go, though, regarding intimacy.
I do still have thoughts/fears of economic insecurity. The current economic climate doesn’t help matters. However, past experiences have shown me that I’ll always cope and somehow be provided for. This realisation and my financially responsible nature help me not worry too much about the future. I’m ok today, my needs are met, and I have faith and the inner resources to manage whatever comes my way.
11. We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us.
I have tended to avoid difficult situations, feelings, and life in my past. I think addiction is symptomatic of this type of behaviour. If I didn’t know how to deal with something I’d avoid or sabotage it. The maturing process in sobriety has taught me to face and deal with life’s problems using my innate resources, healthy thinking and coping strategies.
In terms of 12 Step recovery, Step 3 also comes to mind. When in doubt, or if I’m struggling with a situation, I pause, step back and make efforts to process the problem. I don’t rush or panic in the same way anymore and wait to work out a solution. I seek to be quiet, take time out and meditate and let the way forward appear. I seek guidance from trusted friends and a sponsor before making important decisions. My higher power often works through the wisdom and kindness of people. I listen to my conscience and seek the courage to follow that small, quiet voice within.
12. We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.
In relation to the archetype of God, I’ve developed my own sense of this fundamental power and universal idea. My relationship with spirituality has developed over time and as I’ve aged has become increasingly more important to me. My belief is not a dualistic one and I don’t relate to supernatural concepts. My relationship with spirituality and spiritual communities has helped me change, grow, lead a healthy and sober existence, experience gratitude, and feel good about my life. It has done for me what I could not do on my own. My sense of spirituality is mostly practical, involves self-development, the practice of virtue, and includes helping other people. ‘Faith without works is dead’ as the religiously inspired saying goes.
- Alcoholics Anonymous, pp 83-84, 3rd edition. AA World Services, Inc.
- Ibid, p xxvi.
- Ibid, p 151.