Who Needs a Higher Power?

Self-reliance and the Twelve Steps

By Jeff Jay, author of Navigating Grace: A Solo Voyage of Survival and Redemption

It didn’t take a genius to realize I had an alcohol and drug problem. I’d shown up at an urban hospital with a bleeding ulcer, a bleeding colon and transient neuropathy of the legs. At the ripe old age of 26, I was crippled by my disease and unable to make rational choices. In fact, it was only a last-minute family intervention that saved me from suicide.

The first night in the hospital was horrible. There was a frail old alcoholic in the bed next to me who was delirious and I think he may have died in the middle of the night. A few hours after lights out, a squad of nurses and doctors ran into the room and started working on him furiously. I kept my head turned away with my eyes closed. It sounded like gruesome things were happening and sometime later things went quiet and they wheeled him out. I never saw the old man again.

The next day I had a visit from the head doctor on the ward, Dr. William Keating, who had decades of experience in alcohol and drug treatment. I was a punk kid sitting on the side of the bed, shaking and sweating and feeling terrible. I was wearing a blue hospital gown that tied up in the back ineffectively. Dr. Keating strode into the room with authority, a big, powerful black man with a white coat, a stethoscope and a clipboard. It was like God himself coming in to take charge. He pulled up a chair and got right up in my face and called out like he was trying to wake the dead. And maybe he did.

“Boy!” he said.

I almost jumped out of my skin.

“Boy,” he said, “you’ve got a disease. You’re not responsible for what you’ve done.”

“Great,” I said to myself.

“But you’re responsible for what you do now.”

“Damn,” I said to myself.

“Your disease is incurable,” he said, “the most we’re going to be able to do is put it in remission. We’re going to give you a program to follow: 12 Steps. You follow that program and the disease will stay in remission. You stop following that program and the disease is going to kick you in the ass again.”

Then he stood up and walked out.

I didn’t know what he was talking about. I didn’t know anything about alcoholism or AA or anything else, but I was suddenly alert in the daze of detox, and I tried to ponder his statements. As the hours and days went by, Dr. Keating’s brief prognosis and prescription echoed in my mind, like operating instructions for a new life.

I still think of him as a giant, but when I saw the good doctor again some days later, I was surprised to find out he wasn’t a big man with a booming voice. Rather, he was an older gentleman, short and slight, who moved with energy and purpose. He had a deep reservoir of what he called “hog trough philosophy,” a collection of home-spun stories that he poured out in lectures to the assembled patients. I loved his common sense approach and I hung onto his words, convinced he had a solution that just might work. In the months that followed, everything Dr. Keating said proved right.

I spent 10 days detoxing in that hospital, and then I was transferred to a 28-day residential treatment program an hour away. I was in better physical shape when I arrived, and I came willingly. But within a day or two I was off on an emotional roller coaster, pleading to leave treatment every chance I got. I was glad to be there one minute and anxious to leave the next. The staff would get me calmed down and then I’d want to leave again. Somehow, I kept agreeing to give it one more day and ultimately got past the worst of the mood swings. But my brain still spun at an alarming rate, churning out thoughts that were pure sabotage. Food helped, along with physical exercise, which led to the gift of sleep.

I brought my shallow grandiosity into the group therapy sessions, either telling war stories of cross-country binges or needlessly complicating the basic concepts of recovery. Part of me wanted to take the simple wisdom to heart, but my pride was too great and my stake in intellectual fashion was too deep. I couldn’t imagine the smart set subscribing to slogans like “Easy Does It” or “Let Go and Let God,” and I wasn’t buying it, either. I’m sure the counselors saw me racing straight for a relapse, but I was glad to entertain the other patients with my stories. Only rarely did I catch sight of my insanity, my loneliness and my fear, and I had no more idea what to do with those things than I would a newborn baby.

Most of the lectures were boring, so I was delighted when Dr. Keating came down as a guest lecturer to give a talk. What a slight little man this giant was! He talked about keeping things simple and taking the small actions necessary to get things done.

“Do you want to go downtown?” he asked.

“Then get off the couch, check the bus schedule, walk to the corner, get on the downtown bus, put the fare in the box, take a seat and ride.”

He looked around the room to see if we got the point.

“But you have to get off the couch!” he said, pounding the podium.

“Do you want to recover?” he asked.

“Get off the couch, check the meeting schedule, go to the meeting and listen to other alcoholics who have stopped drinking. And do what they tell you to do.”

His “hog trough philosophy” was very attractive to me. Although he was a physician, he challenged us to reject people who merely studied addiction academically and instead advised us to follow people who’d conquered it personally.

“Do you want to learn how to skin a mule from somebody who read about it in a book?” he asked. “Or do you want to learn from a muleskinner?”

Bill Keating wasn’t in recovery from any addiction himself, but like many doctors of that era, he had great faith in 12 Step programs. He knew there was nothing in medicine to cure the insanity of addiction, but he saw that somehow alcoholics were able to help each other in the structure of the meetings. This leaderless group was straight forward, selfless and free. What could be better? Dr. Keating’s effectiveness was grounded in his ability to persuade us to put our swollen brains on the shelf and follow the program.

It wasn’t like me to follow the directions, in those days. I was proud, stubborn, and determined to get my own way. For an addict, this mindset is often fatal, or at least a first-class ticket to relapse. But for some reason, I began following the directions, and listening more deeply. New ideas were starting to form, and I wondered if the old cliché could be true: “Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” Could the Twelve Steps really give me a fresh start?

I hit a crisis in treatment when the realities of addiction ran up against my self-reliant philosophy. I realized I couldn’t make it on my own, so I couldn’t pretend to be my own higher power. In my addiction, I acted like the prince of the realm, but I began to see that I was enslaved by my own pride and pig-headedness. Something had to give.

Dr. Keating wasn’t a preacher, and he didn’t try to sell anyone on religion, but he was a great advocate of doing the next right thing. His philosophy of treatment—and life—was action oriented and focused on solutions. I was stuck at Step Two. I could admit I was an alcoholic, but I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea of belief in a higher power. I’d rejected God years ago, but I had nothing to replace him with, except myself. As the desire to drink came over me again, I could see the looming chaos, and I was afraid to leave treatment. I knew I couldn’t stop myself. I needed help.

The desperation that followed was excruciating. I had no solution and it was obvious I was going to drink again. I needed to find an answer, but I didn’t know how to begin. The program suggested prayer, but I wasn’t enthusiastic about the idea. As one particularly long night wore on, I became frantic with despair. I knew I was going to drink again, as soon as I got out of treatment. I needed help, and I couldn’t let my jaundiced brain stop me from trying what the old-timers had suggested. I cried out to the God I didn’t think I believed in, and poured out my heart. As I surrendered fully, a rapturous experience unfolded, and I knew I could stay sober.

Soon, I had a new confidence that wasn’t based on pride or selfishness. The Twelve Steps all made perfect sense, and I could begin to see my way through the fog. I was determined to get myself to meetings and follow the steps they laid out for me. It had worked for countless others, and I knew it could work for me. It truly was the first day of the rest of my life.

Jeff Jay headshotJeff Jay is a writer and counselor who lives in Grosse Pointe Farms, MI. He is a certified addiction specialist, popular speaker and consultant, and co-author with Debra Jay of the best-selling book
Love First. His work has appeared on CNN, The Jane Pauley Show, PBS, Forbes Online, and in numerous professional journals. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota, and has served as president of the Terry McGovern Foundation and as a trustee for several clinical and professional organizations.
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