Dear Fellow Travelers,
Step Twelve Essay
"Practical experience shows that NOTHING will so much insure immunity from compulsive overeating as intensive work with other compulsive overeaters. It works when other activities fail. This is our twelfth suggestion: Carry this message to other compulsive overeaters!" (AABB, page 89, adapted to compulsive overeating)
The capitalization in the above paragraph is mine and if there was a way to make it look even louder, I would do so. I have learned many things in my time in this program, but none have been truer than this concept of helping ourselves by helping others. So many of us have used one tool after another in failed attempts to get or maintain abstinence yet here in this simple paragraph was the key to our recovery. Those who have followed this series of essays know that the Big Book has been my primary source of direction and my essay on this step will be no exception. The Big Book lays out in no uncertain terms exactly what is expected of me if I wish to remain abstinent. This will run counter to much of what is passed around at meetings about what 12 step work is and I apologize if I step on any toes, as that is not my purpose. However, there is nothing I feel stronger about than the text in the chapter called "Working With Others" and it is definitely not for the squeamish!
Before I go into the list of what is expected of us or discuss some of the Big Book's advice on how to work with others, I want to talk a little about how this whole thing got started. Bill W. had learned about the concept of working with others from the old Oxford groups. He took after it with a vengeance. He brought scores of drunks home in an effort to get them sober. It was disastrous. Time after time, after dragging some poor wayward sot into his home, he'd believe he was finally getting through to them only to have them turn around and get drunk again. He became frustrated and depressed over his lack of success with these alcoholics. He was ready to give it up as a failed experiment and he was venting this to his wife one day and told her that he tried everything he knew and it just didn't seem to work. It was she who pointed out to him that it HAD worked, because HE had stayed sober!
This single thought has grown into the largest and most successful group of self-help organizations in the world. Millions of people have found recovery as a result of following the 12 steps that eventually grew out of that conversation. But as with most thoughts, it had little value until it was shared with someone else. Bill W. took this message to another suffering alcoholic who became known simply as Dr. Bob and told him he thought he had hit on something that really works, that by trying to help others they can help themselves! They in turn sought out another alcoholic who had been committed to a hospital ward and this then became the 3rd member of AA. He was certainly on to something all right! There has been no turning back since that day.
Those early members of AA did not wait for drunks to come to them. They went out and looked for them. Bill W. did not call Dr. Bob and ask him if he was ready, he went to see Bob to save his own hide. Despite what is plainly written about the twelfth step and most people having a general understanding of what it means to work with others, how often do we hear someone mumbling that the sponsee must be willing before they work with them? Or how often do we hear the conventional wisdom that to sponsor someone, we must wait to be asked? How did we decide that we must wait for others to get well enough and strong enough all on their own and then reach out to US for help instead of the other way around? And how often do we hear talk about needing "balance" in our lives as a reason not to help others? Or even more absurd, how often have we heard someone state that they are no longer available to work with others because they need to take time out for their OWN recovery? The most common event that can be observed after such a statement is relapse, for recovery IS working with others.
So is going to meetings and sharing our experiences with others all we need to do? Is meeting with your sponsee once a week enough? Can we really sit back and feel content that we are doing twelve step work if this is how much effort we put into it? Read these words from the Big Book and let your conscience be your guide, but it is my experience that my abstinence is directly related to the amount of effort I am willing to put into working this twelfth step.
"Helping others is the foundation stone of your recovery. A kindly act once in a while isn't enough. You have to act the Good Samaritan every day, if need be. It may mean the loss of many nights' sleep, great interference with your pleasures, interruptions to your business. It may mean sharing your money, your food, and your home; counseling frantic spouses and relatives, innumerable trips to stores, restaurants, sanitariums, hospitals, and asylums. Your telephone may jangle at any time of the day or night. Your spouse may sometimes say they are neglected. Someone may smash the dishes in your home, or steal your food. You may have to fight with them if they are violent. Sometimes you will have to call a doctor and administer sedatives under his direction. Another time you may have to send for the police or an ambulance. Occasionally you will have to meet such conditions." (AABB, page 97. adapted to compulsive overeating)
If I say that abstinence really is the most important thing in my life, then I have to live it. I don't believe in turning down, ever, any request for help with compulsive overeating. I don't pass on service work. I leave it up to my HP to keep the balance for me and have found it true that my HP never gives me any more than I can actually handle.
Now that I've ranted a bit about how important this step is and how essential it is that we really put an effort into it, let's examine the directions given us on exactly how we are to go about carrying this message. Space doesn't allow me to discuss all the suggestions, so I've chosen to highlight those that I find of most importance, but I recommend reading the entire chapter carefully to fully understand the process. The following excepts, in quotation marks, can be found in Chapter 7 of the Big Book and I've adapted them to compulsive overeating.
"Don't start out as an evangelist or reformer." The quickest way we can alienate someone is to begin by preaching at them.
"When you discover a prospect for OA or for sponsorship, find out all you can about them." This is one of the few areas were the BB says that knowledge IS useful! Asking questions about them is also a great way to let them know you care and have an interest in them as a person.
"If they do not want to stop overeating, don't waste time trying to persuade them." No amount of cheerleading can create a willingness to quit eating compulsively. Pushing it may ruin a chance to be helpful in the future.
"If there is any indication that they want to stop, have a good talk with the person most interested in them - usually their spouse. Get an idea of their behavior, their problems, their background, the seriousness of his condition, and their religious leanings. It can be amazing how different the perspectives can be between the compulsive overeater and those who are closest to them.
"Sometimes it is wise to wait till he goes on a binge." This may seem harsh, but reality is often the quickest way out of denial. This concept is brought out in an early chapter of the BB where is suggests that if you are unsure if you are a real compulsive overeater or not, to step up to a buffet and begin eating, then try to stop suddenly.
"Don't deal with them when they are in the middle of a binge. Wait for the end of the spree." Maybe you remember times someone tried to interrupt YOUR eating? : )
"If they do not want to see you, never force yourself upon them. You might place this book or other OA literature where they can see it." We try not to create defensiveness that will close them off from hearing what they need to hear.
"Call on him while he is still jittery. He may be more receptive when depressed." This is the source for my earlier rant. We do not wait for them to get well and stable first.
"See the person alone, if possible." This refers to them not having family members present as you want them speaking to you with as much honesty as possible. This is sometimes difficult for them when what they are saying may have direct bearing on those listening in. Your speaking to family members is important, but should be done separately.
"At first engage in general conversation. After a while, turn the talk to some phase of overeating. Tell them enough about your eating habits, binges, symptoms, and experiences to encourage them to speak of themselves." Small talk will help put them at ease and having you speak of your difficulties with food first will make them feel safer about sharing their own story.
"If they wish to talk, let them do so." It is important that we be attuned to the change in dynamics of our conversation, that we are aware when the focus changes from our own story to that of the person we are working with.
"If they are in a serious mood dwell on the troubles food has caused you, being careful not to moralize or lecture. If their mood is light, tell humorous stories of your escapades. Get them to tell some of theirs." Humor can go a long way to making them feel less threatened and to minimize their shame.
"When he sees you know all about the bingeing game, commence to describe yourself as a compulsive overeater." We find it best not to dwell on the disease concept until we have gained some trust.
"Show them, from your own experience, how the queer mental condition surrounding that first compulsive bite prevents normal functioning of the will power. They will probably be able to share the many instances of failed diets and resolutions.
"Continue to speak of compulsive overeating as an illness, a fatal malady." Always speak of how it will kill YOU if you return to it, not how it will kill them. Let them make their own inferences.
"If the person be agnostic or atheist, make it emphatic that they do not have to agree with your conception of God. They can choose any conception they like." Many find it helpful in dealing with agnostics or atheists to use the term "Higher Power" instead of God.
"If they think they can do the job in some other way, or prefers some other spiritual approach, encourage them to follow their own conscience." We all know what it feels like when someone tries to say their way is the only way.
"We are careful never to show intolerance or hatred of certain foods or of obesity." Although it might be tempting to rail against the days when you were overweight, you may offend the person you are talking to by doing so. It is maybe better to focus on the misery you felt when you were overweight rather than the weight itself.
"Do not be discouraged if your prospect does not respond at once. Search out another compulsive overeater and try again." Which of course, is the key to the whole thing. We keep trying. If everyone we work with fails to get abstinent, that is of no importance to us. Our success lies in our efforts, not our results.
OA has several pamphlets out that are helpful in learning how to help a sponsee work through the steps, but the most useful sources of information are the Big Book, the OA 12x12 and the AA 12x12. No one method works for everybody. Flexibility is sometimes quite appropriate. I have only one true test to determine if I was successful in working with someone - and that is if I was able to convince them that they need to work with still others. I don't have the ability to get anybody abstinent or to control their recovery. Only my HP does. But what I do have control over is my willingness to follow the OA motto.
"ALWAYS TO EXTEND THE HAND AND HEART OF OA TO ALL WHO SHARE MY COMPULSION, FOR THIS I AM RESPONSIBLE."