In a way, we are all the people we have ever been. I am my five year old self, and my fifteen year old self, and my twenty five year old self, as well as the man I am today, at sixty-eight years old. We are, to some extent, the sum of our experiences. We can benefit from all our experiences, or be damaged by them.
I have had a great many bad experiences. My mom broke my skull at age five, and gave me lifelong migraine headaches and small seizures. She punched my eyes in at age six and gave me lifelong vision problems. She crushed my abdominal organs at age seven and gave me lifelong internal troubles. Others raped and tortured me as a child and gave me lifelong nightmares and flashbacks.
I tried the alcoholic solution that the Big Book describes of “blotting out the consciousness of my intolerable situation” with alcohol, but it wouldn’t go away. I developed a rigid, judgmental, and nasty personality, and my troubles didn’t go away. I took pain killing, opiate drugs, and the pain didn’t go away. I took tranquilizing “benzo” drugs, and the anxiety didn’t go away. I blamed all this on the past. “If you had my problems” I said, “You’d drink too!” So my troubles, I thought, had been made by other people, bad people.
The problem with this belief was this: If my troubles were made by other people, then they wouldn’t go away until the bad people changed. The bad people had no desire to change. Then I was trapped. However, if I could change, then there was hope.
A.A. taught me that the second half of my life didn’t have to be lived under the tyranny of the first half. What was wrong with me was that I drank and drugged, and lived my life under the set of rules that were developed by people who were no good for me: It is better to abuse others than to be abused. Victory goes to the most vicious, wield power over others so that you can be safe. Lie, cheat, and steal to get ahead. Anything goes, and nothing is ever my fault, because this is where I’m coming from.
A.A. teaches us to live by spiritual principles. In 1937 Dr. Bob Smith wrote a prescription for alcoholics: 1) Trust God. 2) Clean House. 3) Help Others. This was a whole new way of life for me. The Big Book teaches honesty, openness, and willingness. It teaches love and service.
I don’t have to be just a result of my past experiences, a helpless victim of evil. Now that I am sober, I have choices about how to live. The third step of A.A. tells me that I need a daily decision to turn my will and my life over to the care of God, as I understand God. So, daily and hourly, I ask, “What does God want me to do about whatever is right in front of me, right now.” It is never to act out of loyalty to my ancestors, it is to act out of loyalty to God, and to do the right thing, right now.
There’s one thing about the past that’s clearly true: it does not change. It does not have to change me. I no longer have to be a result of the past. A.A. is a program of positive change. By taking the Twelve Steps, God, A.A., and I cause a change in me, and a change in my future. I become a cause of the future, instead of a result of the past.
John MacDougall is the Spiritual Care Coordinator at The Retreat.
His book, “Being Sober and Becoming Happy” is available from Amazon.com.