ALTHOUGH I gave myself all kinds of rather complicated reasons, I never really drank for any purpose except to produce a different frame of mind.
Simple enough, and yet hard to understand. Nonetheless, about all that lay behind my alcoholism was that single aim: to find a frame of mind more pleasant and bearable than the troubled mental state I would otherwise endure.
My sponsor called it "getting that million-dollar feeling." One friend said that drinking "was the quickest way out of Chicago." Another believed that when he drank "the women seemed younger, prettier and friendlier."
For all three, nothing really changed except their own frame of mind. While all believed later that they had expected a great deal from drinking, the truth is that they had demanded very little. They had wanted only to think differently for a while about conditions that were otherwise distressing. Is that really too much to ask? Not really, and I think it's a measure of John Barleycorn's perfidy that he couldn't grant even this much without exacting a terrible price in humiliation and suffering.
But there is a lesson in all of this. I discovered a long time ago that most of the self-destroying practices of drinking could be turned to good advantage in AA. Liabilities can become assets. We drank a day at a time, for example, and we stay sober the same way. We used to put alcohol ahead of everything; now we put AA first. So it is with this desire to get instant happiness. That can come just as it did in drinking, only now we don't have to face the bitter aftermath. But we must be willing to keep our demands as modest as those of former days. We must seek a new frame of mind without insisting on an immediate change of conditions.
"Easier said than done" might be the bitter retort of one who is facing some trying circumstances in his own life. It's easy enough to talk about such things as serenity and peace of mind, but how do you go about getting them when the whole world is in a shambles at your feet? Fine to talk about serenity at AA meetings, but on the way out we resume thinking of such problems as heavy debts, poor health, nagging wives and overbearing employers. Our chances of establishing a better frame of mind would be much better, many think, if our general circumstances improved.
But to believe that a congenial frame of mind is contingent on other matters is to miss the whole point of the thing. After all, we didn't expect alcohol to remove our oppressive debts or reform a tyrannical boss. At best, we sought temporary relief, and many times we thought we had made a good bargain. We didn't ask that our prison walls be torn down; we wanted only a set of blinders so we couldn't see them for the time being.
Likewise with sober living. We would prefer to make a beginning in better circumstances, but we always have to start where we are--which with some AAs has been jail, a run-down rooming house, or skid row. Knowing that this outside world may be wretched and hostile, we refuse to let it affect us. We tune it out. We may be in jail, but the jail doesn't have to be in us. We may still be in skid row, but we don't have to keep skid-row thoughts. We can, if we choose, temporarily ignore most of our environment.
If this sounds like escapism, it is. But it is a form of escapism that will work wonders. It will someday permit the alcoholic to change the things from which he now prefers to escape, though his best route for the time being is simply to concentrate on getting a better frame of mind. At the proper time, he'll then learn how to deal with the reality around him. Besides, what chance do we have of changing conditions if we cling to the same old depressed mental state?
By the way, there is also some evidence that a wretched frame of mind doesn't necessarily disappear if outer conditions change. We read occasionally of people who strike it rich in contests, for example, only to sink back into deeper misery a short time later. We also read of people who destroy themselves after winning fame and wealth. Lacking was the state of mind that Emmet Fox described as "habitually cheerful and happy, neither unduly elated by seeming good fortune nor unduly depressed by temporary adversity."
One of my friends found that frame of mind in prison. This was a horrible place where men sometimes mutilated one another and many convicts delighted in tormenting certain others. But through following the Twelve Steps he found a way to keep his own mind out of those cross currents of hate and jealousy, so that when the gates finally opened for him, it was but a simple matter to keep up this habit of cultivating a pleasant frame of mind. This was also an excellent guarantee that he would be able to meet the terms of his parole; hence, in his case, the new state of mind kept him from returning to the conditions that he had once supposed to be the chief cause of his misery.
I also think a great deal of the methods followed by AA's cofounder Bill W. during his first year or two of sobriety. "I was not too well at the time," he wrote, "and was plagued by waves of self-pity and resentment. This sometimes nearly drove me back to drink, but I soon found that when all other measures failed, work with another alcoholic would save the day. Many times I have gone to my old hospital in despair. On talking to a man there, I would be amazingly lifted up and set on my feet. It is a design for living that works in rough going."
Nothing had changed except Bill's way of looking at things, and even that was largely a temporary change, perhaps for that day only. But it is only today's thinking we have to keep in line. For that matter, which of us ever worried about tomorrow's liquor if he was well supplied today? So why should we demand that AA give us a perfect world stretching out into the future when our whole past lives have consisted of compartmentalizing our difficulties?
Another friend worked at keeping a good state of mind in the same way that some people work at weight-lifting or voice development. He was a determined man who desired absolute personal freedom. Apart from sobriety, one of his reasons for desiring control over his own thinking was the freedom it gave him. He felt that if he permitted the remarks and attitudes of other people to upset him, he was giving them control over his life. He stoutly refused to concede this right to others, so he neither craved approval nor feared disapproval.
Any AA member who desires it can begin changing his frame of mind today, regardless of outer circumstances. We deceive ourselves if we think that our happiness is at the mercy of something further on down the road, of having our ship come in. We can choose to feel better right away if we begin seeking a new outlook for its own sake. How we do it depends on each individual, but it can be done. The world's gloomiest person could have a better disposition today if he only thought he could.
We already have the past working in our favor. All we have to do now is find ways of raising our spirits without uncorking a jug.
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