I got sober in Kyiv, Ukraine, using a Big Book study CD, a 1920s dictionary, and the book Alcoholics Anonymous. Meetings were thin on the ground in Kyiv, and there were often few or no members around.
I’d been given the CD by a fellow member (FM) who had just arrived home from getting sober in the States. His sponsor (SP) and another guy (AG) ran Big Book workshops, and recorded them.
At about seven months sober, I was struggling a bit (probably because of undiagnosed Reactive Hypoglycaemia), and thus shared during a meeting.
Afterwards, FM and I went for coffee. He was a classic AA fundamentalist, and had gotten sober in the US Bible Belt, so was very pro god! He asked me how I’d worked the steps, and I told him I had used the Twelve & Twelve. He informed me that the program wasn’t in the Twelve & Twelve, but in the Big Book. He whipped out his pocket version, as any diligent AA fundamentalist would, and briefly took me through it, showing me all the key parts, and then gave me the CD. I then bought a dictionary that had been written just after the Great War; I was good to go.
I worked my way through the Steps SP and AG’s Big Book way; they became my vicarious sponsors. Even after having gone through the Steps, I continued listening to the CD; I must have done so every day for at least a year.
These guys really seemed to know what they were talking about, and I hung on every word. They were AA fundamentalists, and preached strict adherence to the Big Book, Steps and Traditions (yet, happily deviated when it suited them). I put them on a pedestal, and assumed that AA the world over was just like SP and AG were. I became resentful and envious that I didn’t have the same opportunities that most AA members appeared to have.
Then the ‘unbelievable’ happened (at the time something I no doubt labelled as a ‘god thing’): SP was coming to Kyiv to do a workshop. I was so excited, and couldn’t wait to tell him about my miraculous recovery, and how he and AG had helped me get sober. My mind conjured up images of them retelling my ‘amazing’ story at their next workshop, and that too being recorded. As the event approached, however, my excitement soon started to erode.
The workshop was being promoted through Ukrainian AA by FM, and his sponsees. They literally ran an advertising campaign, and had posters professionally made up which essentially read, “SP …, 22 years sober. He’s got the solution you need! Don’t miss out – your life depends on it!” (or words to that effect). When members spoke of the event, it was as though god himself were finally coming to Kyiv (if you knew anything about Ukrainian history, you’d know that he had been absent for quite a while).
Although I cringed at the promotion, I reminded myself that it was FM, and not SP who was doing it. FM and I hadn’t had much to do with each other since our coffee date, as we didn’t get on.
As the event approached, Ukrainian AA started to buzz. There was the usual last-minute panic, as Ukraine is notorious for things going wrong at the last hurdle. On the morning of the event it was chaotic. FM had obviously not turned it over to his higher power, because he was really stressed. He and his sponsees were running around like headless chickens. I actually feel for him now. At the time I’d felt smug about just how flustered he was. He’d always, I believed, seen me as inferior.
Finally, the workshop began. Prior to entering the room, SP removed his shoes, and walked barefoot (well, in socks) up to the stage. He was introduced as if he were some famous evangelical preacher attending a mass healing of sick and suffering disciples. I looked at my friend, the least judgmental person I knew, who gave me a look which said, “Are you kidding me?” I was gutted!
SP didn’t seem anything like the guy on the CD. He really did behave like an evangelical preacher, but he seemed to have an uncanny knack of preaching without preaching. I suspect that outside of AA he actually was a pastor or something.
He informed us that he took his shoes off before a meeting because he believed that he was on holy ground (reminiscent of Moses’ burning bush incident); and asked us to invite god into the meeting during a moment of silence. He told us how much of a sinner he had been, and how a white light experience in jail had saved him. Credit to him, he didn’t once mention Jesus, although the workshop was tinged throughout with the Christian theme of faith, hope and charity. He even had us doing group meditations on love and forgiveness (which had everything to with the god of his understanding, not AA), and had wanted to close each session with the Lord’s Prayer.
Throughout the workshop SP would cry crocodile tears, and place his hand on his heart, seemingly sincerely, and talk of his experiences with god. I cringed. I also had a decision to make: did I do what I had essentially gone there for, and tell SP, my vicarious mentor, my story and thank him? I held off.
During one of the breaks, however, I bumped into him in the washroom. I introduced myself, out of awkwardness (two English-speaking nationals in a foreign country), and I told him my story, and thanked him. He said just said thank you, that he’d tell AG, and walked off. I followed him in silence back to hall. I hadn’t expected much of a fanfare, but I had hoped for some recognition. After all, I had achieved what he and FM had without a sponsor or a support network (both of which they’d had in abundance).
This was almost the final straw. Upon reflection, I had desperately wanted to salvage the situation, as everything I had believed up until the workshop was starting to look like BS. This was the first time, I’d really started to doubt AA, and it rocked my world – a world I had tried so hard to find security and certainty in.
The actual final straw came, however, at the end of the workshop with SP doing a Big Book signing. For anybody reading this who is unfamiliar with AA, this is the antithesis of what AA is supposed to be about. Nobody is anybody in AA, and yet there was ‘Billy SP Graham’ blessing the masses with his signature and sobriety date.
I became really resentful, not so much at SP, but simply to avoid my feelings of disappointment, fear and insecurity. I’d invested a lot of time and effort in getting sober, and the foundation of my belief system had just taken quite a knock. One thing that did, however, breed some resentment towards SP was the fact that he didn’t once attend any of our meetings. I never understood that: he came all that way to carry the message, and didn’t touch base with his supposed kin.
What I had originally thought of as an unbelievable opportunity, turned out to be one of the first nails in my AA coffin. After that experience, I was unable to trust what other members said at meetings. Whenever anybody shared, or spoke from the podium, I had to take everything with a pinch of salt, and yet give everybody the benefit of the doubt. At least that’s what I told myself. Truth be told, I never gave anybody the benefit of the doubt, and just listened skeptically. Unfortunately, such an approach doesn’t work so well in a ‘we program,’ and I unknowingly took my first tentative steps to leaving AA – six years before I actually left.
SP wasn’t the only one to dash my hopes. As a fallible human being, I inevitably put my faith in others too. It transpired that one guy whom I and others really respected, and who was a very close friend of mine (and one-time sponsor), emotionally and violently abused his wife and children. I couldn’t believe it. He was one of the nicest people I’d met, and would do practically anything for any member or for the fellowship, yet behind closed doors he was the absolute opposite of what he projected in AA. This isn’t to say that I label everybody as untrustworthy, but that I simply choose to be skeptical of them.
Despite my disenchantment, I have learned a very valuable lesson from my experiences: expectations propagate the seeds of disappointment. It’s not SP’s (or my former friend’s) fault that I feel the way I do. I was the one who put him on a pedestal, and I was the one who put my faith in a fallible human being.
Oddly enough, I owe SP thanks of a different sort. Although the circumstances surrounding my disappointment impacted me quite negatively at the time, it made my transition from member to apostate a lot easier: when one is skeptical of fellow members of a tightly knit group, their supposed arguments for not leaving, carry a lot less weight!