His insurance agency was doing well. His marriage had some problems, but don’t most marriages?
He had a circle of friends. He was active in his church. Everything looked good from the outside,
but Dale was angry, frightened and confused, and it was getting worse.
One day Dale was driving across the causeway from Mobile and pulled off to the side
of the road. “Despair was written all over me,” he says. “I realized I had lost touch with God, my family,
my children, everything. I knew I needed help. I prayed to God in my Momma and Daddy’s name.
They were good Christian folks; my Daddy was a Baptist pastor, and I begged for help.
“When I arrived at my office a few minutes later, my secretary handed me a letter from
the day’s mail. My company had just instituted an assistance program for employees with addictions.
“A friend to whom I had confided my feelings a few weeks before had said, ‘Maybe your problem
has something to do with your drinking.’ I had replied, ‘I can stop drinking whenever I want to!’
But another voice inside me said, ‘But I don’t want to.’
“Now, though, I was desperate. So I called the phone number in the letter. They put me in touch
with some people in Mobile, and I entered a 30-day treatment program for alcoholism.”
That was 32 years ago. Dale’s problems didn’t go away immediately, and some key relationships didn’t survive at all. But Dale, now 80, looks back on that day in 1986 as the moment he began healthy, sane living.
“I’ve learned a lot about myself in recovery,” Dale says. “Maybe the most important thing is that I’m not as bad as I thought I was. Yes, I had problems and most of them were of my own doing, but the problem wasn’t me – it was my drinking, and I had discovered a way out of that.
“And that brings me to God. I’ve learned a lot about God in my recovery too. I’ve learned that God is always there, even when I won’t or can’t acknowledge Him. I’ve learned that God always cares and will lift me up if I’m willing to be honest with him and with myself.”
Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) teaches people to depend on a “higher power,” but doesn’t require belief in God. “Some people have been stung by judgmental, narrow religion, and the very word ‘God’ puts them off, so we don’t require belief in God,” Dale says. “A recovering person can imagine his or her higher power in any way that helps. I know one man whose higher power is an oak tree. ‘That tree knows how not to drink, and I don’t!’ he says. For another, the AA group itself is his higher power.”
For Dale, however, it was clear that the God disclosed in Jesus Christ was the higher power who saved him. “I was raised by Christian parents and had never entirely lost my faith (though there was a lot lacking in it during my drinking days), so it was easy for me to see the parallels between Christianity and the 12-Step recovery program I learned in AA. In fact, I think of AA as an expression of Christian faith under another name.”
Today Dale and his wife Mary are active in their church, St. Paul’s Episcopal in Daphne, and are mentors in
Education for Ministry, a four-year program of biblical study and spiritual growth for lay people. Mary is also a member of Al-Anon, a recovery group for loved ones of alcoholics and other addicts; both Dale and Mary say that what they learned in their recovery programs informs and undergirds their Christian faith.
After completing his 30-day treatment program, Dale began attending several AA meetings
each week, further advancing the wisdom and growth he’d gained during his time in
treatment. Many recovering alcoholics continue to attend AA meetings for their entire lives, once a week in many cases, and Dale still goes to meetings frequently – partly because of the honest, cheerful camaraderie he finds there, and partly because hearing other alcoholics tell their stories reminds him of his own story and keeps him honest.
A key part of the AA program is the “searching and fearless moral inventory” called for in Step 4. “That’s a big hurdle for a lot of people,” Dale says, “but it wasn’t for me. It didn’t take me long to see that the morals I’d claimed to have, I didn’t. I was ashamed of some things I had done, and I realized I had to address them. You’ve got to clean out before you can fill up again. When I was so full of myself, I didn’t have room for the truth. I started with my resentments and fears and began writing it all down.
There was a whole lot that needed to come out!”
One doesn’t undertake such a moral inventory alone. Every member of Alcoholics Anonymous has a sponsor, someone with a history of sobriety who can guide the newly recovering person through the challenging steps of recovery. Dale has sponsored a dozen or so new members in AA over the years, and he says that most of those relationships have evolved into mutually supportive friendships. “It has become a kind
of co-sponsorship,” Dale says.
“Sponsoring someone is important because it brings
it back to your attention what you need to remember about your own life and priorities. And living with a member of Al-Anon also helps keep you straight.”
Sponsorship is also important when the recovering person relapses into sick thinking, which can happen even without returning to the bottle. “Bitterness, anger, blaming other people for your problems – those temptations don’t vanish forever just because you start going to AA meetings,” Dale says. “When you realize you’re slipping back into sick thinking,
it’s time to go to a meeting and
call your sponsor!”
What advice would Dale give to someone struggling with an alcohol problem? “First of all, I wouldn’t give any advice unless I was asked for it. Unsolicited advice can do more harm than good. But if someone asks for advice, then that tells me they’re at least concerned about their drinking; and I might suggest an experiment: ‘If you think you may be an alcoholic, try not drinking for 90 days. If you don’t miss drinking, then you’re probably not an alcoholic. But if you find yourself craving it and thinking about it and looking for justifications to drink, then let’s talk again.’
“Then, if that second conversation takes place, I might say, ‘There is a program that can bring you sanity, stability, and more happiness than you now think possible. You may feel shrouded in darkness, but there is a path back to the sunshine, and I’d love to introduce you to it and walk that path with you.’”
Richard H. Schmidt writes our regular column on spirituality.
He is a retired Episcopal priest, author, and editor living in Fairhope
with Pam, his wife of 49 years. His most recent book, published in 2015
and illustrated by Fairhope artist Dean Mosher, is Sages, Saints & Seers, containing one-page biographies of the great spiritual masters of the Hindu, Jewish, Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, and other faith traditions.