Step Twelve

Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of working these steps, we carried the message to other compulsive eaters and practiced these principles in all our affairs.


I did a double-take when I first noticed that it said "as the result" and not "as a result." That says to me, This is what the steps are FOR, this is the intended outcome of working the steps.

If I went around proclaiming that I had had a spiritual awakening, many people who know me well would demand a recount. But most (I tentatively include a couple of ex-wives here) would agree that I have undergone a profound personality change, a radical shift in my view of the world and my place in it. Here, using 1950’s gender pronouns, is how the AA 12 & 12 puts it:

"When a man or a woman has a spiritual awakening, the most important meaning of it is that he has now become able to do, feel and believe that which he could not do before on his unaided strength and resources alone. He has been granted a gift which amounts to a new state of consciousness and being. He has been set on a path which tells him he is really going somewhere, that life is not a dead end, not something to be endured or mastered. In a very real sense he has been transformed, because he has laid hold of a source of strength which, in one way or another, he had hitherto denied himself. He finds himself in possession of a degree of honesty, tolerance, unselfishness, peace of mind, and love of which he had thought himself quite incapable. What he has received is a free gift, and yet usually, at least in some small part, he has made himself ready to receive it."

Not to mention the ability to stay abstinent ­ for some of us that is as miraculous as walking on the water.

The AA Big Book, written very early in the game, plunges into the "carry the message" part of the step from the very first sentence. Indeed, the chapter devoted to Step Twelve is entitled "Working with Others" and pretty much talks about that from beginning to end. The four chapters following that one have a lot to say about how we "practice these principles in all our affairs" though they seldom mention that phrase again.

The first paragraphs of "Working with Others," quoted in full below, make clear that carrying the message to others is very much something we do for OURSELVES as well as for them.

"Practical experience shows that nothing will so much insure immunity from drinking as intensive work with other alcoholics [overeaters]. It works when other activities fail. This is our twelfth suggestion: Carry this message to other alcoholics [overeaters] ! You can help when no one else can. You can secure their confidence when others fail. Remember they are very ill.

"Life will take on new meaning. To watch people recover, to see them help others, to watch loneliness vanish, to see a fellowship grow up about you, to have a host of friends -- this is an experience you must not miss. We know you will not want to miss it. Frequent contact with newcomers and with each other is the bright spot of our lives."

The first sentence of this chapter states what twelve-steppers have come to see as a fundamental truth. A story often told in AA recounts how Bill Wilson, sober for some months and alone in a strange town, having failed in a business venture, felt his sobriety slipping away. The tinkling glasses and the happy crowd in the bar down the hall were calling to him. Something inside told him that he needed to share his story with another alcoholic. A few phone calls to numbers on a church directory in the hotel lobby led him to Dr. Bob, one of the town drunks. Bill stayed sober, Dr. Bob got sober, and their meeting was the beginning of AA and thus of the Twelve Step programs. No wonder the story has a luminous quality for us. Had Bill gone down to the hotel bar for a few drinks that day, some millions of lives would have played out differently over these almost seventy years.

A spiritual side-product of this attitude is the humility that comes from saying "I am telling this to you to save my own ass," rather than the prideful feeling of handing out charity to the needy.

Newcomers are surprised when the group tells them "We need you," or when a sponsor thanks them for the phone call. I suspect the medical missionary and the pro bono lawyer who takes on a difficult case without expectation of payment, are also motivated by the intangible benefit that comes to them by serving others. But in the Twelve Step programs, the motivation is pretty up-front. Service is characterized as a life-and-death proposition, not as something "nice" we do. Early in the Big Book we read "Our very lives, as ex-problem drinkers, depend upon our constant thought of others and how we may help meet their needs."

That word "constant" still gives me the uncomfortable feeling that a lot may be required of me. On a personal note, I spent some hours this afternoon with an addict in withdrawal who was lucid after a night of hallucinations and terrified to sleep again for fear of the demons and snakes, and I feel almost too drained to write and am worried what will become of him, and I am watching a brown recluse bite on my arm to see what will become of IT (I’m fairly immune to them). And yet when I returned home and my cat ran out to put his feet up on me like a puppy, and I saw the screech owl nesting in his box I built and one of the neighbor kids walking down the drive, it was heaven on earth. The connection between the visit with the addict and the heaven-on-earth feeling is not lost on me.

When we were about to leave for Israel ­ I had spent my first ten years in program in Hawai’i and it felt like extended family ­ I expressed fear about how I would make it if there turned out not to be any AA or OA where we would live in Israel. My friend Noa said "Sponsor the way you’ve been sponsored and a community will grow up around you." And I found AA weak, OA strong in the region of Israel where we lived, and I did as Noa had told me and that community did grow up around me. I stood in line at the pay phone in the immigrant hostel every morning to call sponsorees who could not call in their food to me. One year and two years later I was hearing fifth steps a LOT. My wife Nancy became the traditions sponsor for a new NA group in Tel-Aviv, and it blossomed into a vibrant fellowship. We had a weekly house meeting for AA/OA/NA that took on its own personality as house meetings will.

It struck me later, what about that first AA who received a promotion and transfer from Akron to Tucson or Oklahoma City? Did they turn down the promotion because there was no program there? No, they went there and sought out the drunks and a fellowship grew up around them. OA spread the same way.

My early days in AA and OA were full of hands-on service. Service was Flobird’s long suit, and her sponsorees lived and breathed service. My sponsor Harry Lake and the Malia Group (local AA) were no different, and my close friends Johnnie and Noa were no different. My first OA sponsor Debbie K was close to Flobird ­ I last saw Flobird in Debbie’s house ­ and she took it for granted that I would protect my abstinence by getting into active OA service. When I moved to the other end of the island in my first year of abstinence, about all that kept me going was to sponsor half a dozen people by phone. I still wonder what the people thought who bought my answering machine at a yard sale ­ the tape was full of "The green beans looked wilted so I am substituting squash," "I’m going out to dinner with Brad so I’ll be having a chef salad instead of the chicken and eggplant..." What’s with these people, a food fetish? Maybe not too far from the truth.

What did "service" look like? Tom C and I responded to a help call to AA Central Office and drove out to find an old Swede living on a boat. He was naked and had soiled himself and thrown up all over and was barely coherent. Tom washed him from the waist down and I washed him from the waist up, we dressed him and took him to Kaiser Hospital emergency to wait for them to clear him for Salvation Army Detox. Now it always took Detox a couple of hours to get a car down there to pick the person up, and that’s when you lost them ­ they’d get thirsty and walk. Well Yannis was sitting there in his wheelchair, having been declared stable enough to survive detox, and he began to get vocal and go into high anguish mode. Tom as always was wearing shorts with big pockets. He said, "Yannis, let’s go outside and get some air" and wheeled him out onto the lanai. Once out there and out of sight of the ER staff, Tom produced what was left of Yannis’s pint of vodka ­ he’d stashed it in his shorts just in case ­ and gave it to him. Yannis drank it greedily and sat there blissfully until the car came to take him to Detox. Often we knew the Detox run was going to be a revolving-door proposition and the drunks would hit the street running the next morning, but WE stayed sober.

A quick story I probably shouldn’t even tell you, about Harry L. and the local crowd. Kids, don’t try this trick at home. Harry was a strong Big Book follower. The Big Book says in several places that we favor hospitalizing the drunk for a period. Now there was an alcoholic that everyone had given up on, and one time Harry and they guys heard him talking a LITTLE differently, as if he might really be ready this time. They thought he should be hospitalized and took him to one of the emergency rooms, and the ER staff laughed at them. They had seen this guy a hundred times and there was no way they were going to waste their time with him. So Harry and the guys took the drunk out and ran over his leg with a car and brought him back to the ER! You’ll take him NOW. And they did. I never did hear the rest of the story about whether the drunk sobered up, or even survived, but it was one of many stories Harry would tell on himself and laugh contagiously.


Step Twelve in the AA 12 & 12 attempts to restore the balance among the several part of Step Twelve. A lot of space is devoted to what might be called "practicing these principles in all our affairs." Two brief quotes from the first paragraph capture the essence of the chapter:

"The joy of living is the theme of A. A.’s Twelfth Step, and action is its key word."

"When the Twelfth Step is seen in its full implication, it is really talking about the kind of love that has no price tag on it."

I can’t remember any phrase coming out of Flobird’s mouth or repeated by others, more frequently than "love without a price tag." It would be an apt epitaph for many of the people who went before me, and not all of them were in program.

This same chapter talks a lot about what it means to take the 12-step principles we practice in program, and carry them into our work and family lives. It is a lifetime endeavor and one we’ll fail at often enough, but miracles seem to come out of it.

My relations with my grown children do not involve the feelings and interactions you would expect between kids and a father who abandoned them when they were half-grown. In my first years in program I was tortured by guilt over leaving my kids, and my best friend Johnnie was in a similar position with his son and daughter. I watched ­ happy for Johnnie and sad for myself ­ as Johnnie’s son and daughter began to reach out to him and the healing began to take place. I knew it could not happen between me and my four kids. But over the years the impossible has happened ­ not because I was so skillful in rebuilding the relationship, as in fact I was not, but because they saw I WANTED to make it right in my clumsy way and that was enough for them to go on.

I have left jobs well done in the past twenty, thirty years, and have left in a way that people remember me well and sometimes even wish I were still there. Little anecdotes come to mind, things that showed me I was living on a different footing. My boss Felix, owner of a construction company of which I was the #2 person, told me one day, "Okay, we’re going into this room, and I’m going to say something, and all you have to do is say Yes, that’s right." I was scared to cross my boss but said, "Okay, IF you tell them the truth." And Felix turned on his heel and stalked away. But he didn’t fire me, and the next time something important hung on getting the truth, he knew I was the one who could be trusted.

Usually when a person leaves a company, their access to money and information is quickly cut off. Six months after leaving Felix and doing my own contracting, I ran into him and he asked me to take on a job I’d purposely overbid (because we didn’t want it) and we’d gotten anyway. "Just get the supplies at such-and-such lumber company, your name is still on our account." Knowing the kind of person I was before program, it warmed me to think Felix had not even thought about taking my name off a charge account even though we had parted after a dispute.

I have failed badly at marriage over and over, and about all I have to say for myself there is that I know it was MY failure and this coming May it will be twenty years since I last handcuffed somebody to me in that manner. This is something I do not do well, and I do not want to waste time trying to convince myself and others that I was RIGHT. My sweet grandmother, in the nursing home, said generously "Hon, you just made a couple of bad choices." I said, "Hon, THEY made a couple of bad choices."


Some other points in the literature and comments about them:

In the AA 12 & 12 there is this line, in the middle of a discourse on how happy and successful AA marriages usually are (!) "It is only where ‘boy meets girl on AA campus,’ and love follows at first sight, that difficulties may develop." This is patently true. Does that mean it shouldn’t happen? Program folklore in the US has followed the rest of the country in discouraging sex and relationships (this is not so in program in some other countries).

The good sponsors I got sober, abstinent with, did not feel that way. They told me something like this: "You’ve been withdrawing from the world and now you’re coming back into it. Go try anything you’re big enough to try, and when you get your ass kicked we’ll hug you when you cry." So I may be the poster child for "boy meets girl on AA campus." I did get my ass kicked, and they did hug me when I cried, and there were sublime moments one of which produced my beloved son Seth. I would not take any of it back for the world. Each time I tried to be less selfish, more honest, and the results have been mixed. One of my worst disappointments happened less than a year ago, and I would not undo a minute of that love affair if I could.

There is another passage in the AA Big Book "Working with Others" chapter I would like to cite at length because it illustrates the AA attitude toward avoiding temptation and is at odds with the way many OA groups deal with it:

"Assuming we are spiritually fit, we can do all sorts of things alcoholics are not supposed to do. People have said we must not go where liquor is served; we must not have it in our homes; we must shun friends who drink; we must avoid moving pictures which show drinking scenes; we must not go into bars; our friends must hide their bottles if we go to their houses; we mustn't think or be reminded about alcohol at all.

"We meet these conditions every day. An alcoholic who cannot meet them, still has an alcoholic mind; there is something the matter with his spiritual status."

Mention of specific alcoholic beverages, even by brand, accompanied by "...and I felt the warm glow flowing all the way out to my fingers and toes..." is commonplace in AA meetings and usually draws the laughter of identification. In OA, mention of specific foods is controversial and in some quarters forbidden. My take on it is that OA too often lacks the sense of life-and-death that always lies just beneath the surface in AA and NA. Not enough time or space here to talk a lot about why it’s that way, but to the extent we lack that consciousness as overeaters, it is our defect.

Time for questions. I am afraid this piece has been more disjointed than the others were ­ if it contains some nuggets I will be pleased. Coherence is out of the question.


1. Do you have that same ambivalence about service that I have? Fussy about being bothered, afraid this call is going to change my plans for the whole day... and then the feeling of being whole and useful when it’s over?

2. Do you hesitate about sponsoring because you don’t think you have enough to offer?

3. If you’re the one calling for help, asking someone to sponsor you, are you reluctant because you’re afraid you’ll bother them? Would you almost die before you’d ask for help?

4. How do you feel about this notion that overeaters need to be protected from the mention of specific foods?

5. Where are you with "boy meets girl (or boy meets boy, or girl meets girl) on OA campus?" Do you tend more toward the "get back into life" philosophy, or the more conservative one?

6. Looks like several questions but really it’s one: Are you more likely to be one of the spiritual nuts in recovery, trusting God so much that everyday people think you’re irresponsible? Or at the other extreme, do you try to make for lost time in getting professional/financial security for yourself and your family back on track and let spiritual development suffer? Or do you have pretty good balance in these areas?

7. Has the promise of Joy of Living come true for you?

8. Have you found a fellowship that eluded you before?

9. Have you been able to carry the principles of the program into your family and work life?

10. If you were one of those people who only knew being above others or being below them, are you now enjoying being an equal among equals?

Step Eleven

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