Do AA's Promises Come True?

By Michael White 07/11/18
After completing the 12 steps, a long-time member of AA shares his experience of the 9th step promises.
We see a man from behind, hands behind head, staring into sunset over field.
We’re grateful for life itself, for sobriety’s staggering, unexpected gifts, and for every step of the path that has led us here.

Russell Brand recently released his own creative interpretation of AA’s Twelve Steps. As a recovering alcoholic myself (since 12/30/1983), I admire how he captures the essence of the program, while still more or less respecting its tradition of anonymity. I’ve decided to respond to Brand’s piece by writing a bit about the Twelve Promises—which are less known outside of AA than the Twelve Steps or Twelve Traditions. We call these the Ninth Step Promises, because they’re linked with the Ninth Step on page 83 of the Big Book. They’re the pot of gold awaiting us—trite as that might seem—and we read them aloud at the ends of meetings. On the eve of 34 years of continuous sobriety, I’m in a good position to comment on these Promises . . . Do they actually come true?

  1. If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are halfway through.

I sobered up in my home town of Columbia, Missouri. I followed suggestions, and spent much of my first year on working with a sponsor. I was poorer then than I’d ever been, living in a halfway house, but it was a happy time. Working on the Eighth and Ninth Steps, I acknowledged the harm I’d done to others, and prepared to make amends. The first one I owed was to Jerry, my former employer, co-owner of a traditional pool hall that still serves the finest cheeseburgers I’ve ever eaten. I’d worked there for two years, during my heaviest drinking. Because of my increasingly disheveled behavior, Jerry had let me go, and we hadn’t spoken since. I still owed him a considerable debt, mostly for booze and food. After writing down all of this, to the best of my recollection, I called Jerry for an appointment. One afternoon, in early 1984, we sat down together over coffee in the back of Booche’s. I took a deep breath, then began to lay my cards on the table. I explained what I thought I owed, apologized for my dishonesty, and asked how I could make restitution. There was a long silence. Something within him—caution or suspicion—visibly melted at my offer. Then he shook his head.

“I don’t want your money,” he said.

“I know,” I said. “But I’d like to pay my debt.”

Jerry left for a moment, and went and spoke quietly with a co-owner in the front. After a minute, he returned and said firmly: “Just your business. We just want your business, Mike.”

I nodded. Jerry had made his decision. We looked each other straight in the eye and shook on it. And I still eat at Booche’s when I’m back in Missouri, and have through all these years. Jerry and I are still friends to this day. And each amend since then has only brought relief and freedom.

  1. We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness.

Early recovery is a little like those movies in which an angel or alien falls to earth, then falls in love with it. Sensations are intense, especially the strange, new feeling of belonging in the rooms. As a result of “our common bond,” AA is like Switzerland: it’s the one place where the differences between people don’t pertain. Some use the word “God”; some don’t. Meetings veer from tears to sidesplitting laughter. There’s a characteristic zaniness (not unlike Russell Brand’s), along with immediate connection. AA is virtually everywhere, and I usually take in a meeting whenever I’m away. As soon as I am settled in my seat, the self’s deceptions drift away like dandelion floaties—along with whatever weight I carried with me into the room.

  1. We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it.

Many of us call ourselves “grateful alcoholics”—which might not be an easy concept to grasp unless you are one. We’re grateful for life itself, for sobriety’s staggering, unexpected gifts, and for every step of the path that has led us here. Shutting the door on the past is not what we’re about. For one thing, it’s our experience, strength, and hope—rather than wisdom or knowledge—that makes us valuable to newcomers.

  1. We will comprehend the word serenity, and we will know peace.

AA is a plan for creating integration out of disintegration. Serenity is simply a by-product. I didn’t know this when I came in, and frankly, I couldn’t have cared less. I just wanted the pain to stop. But once I was actually sober—and trying to face the character issues I’d chronically masked with alcohol—I craved it. I said the Serenity Prayer to myself 50 times a day. Sometimes I still do. The Fourth Promise doesn’t claim we will have peace; only that we will know it.

  1. No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others.

Straight out of treatment in Missouri, I lucked into finding a solid, hard-core sponsor. I did most of my step work sitting in Gene’s Chevy pickup, and everything went as well as could be hoped. But when I got to my Fourth Step inventories, I couldn’t figure out why he seemed so unimpressed with my writing. I was a creative writing major, after all!

But an AA sponsor is not a writing professor, and a sponsor is also nothing like the judges and shrinks and counselors I’d been bullshitting for years. Gene scanned my first inventory with a leathery grimace, then abruptly turned and spat a long stream of tobacco juice through the open window.

At first, it cut me to the quick how easily he saw through me. That night I thought: fine. I’ll show you, and I’ll show AA! I wrote out my darkest secrets (except for one, which I’d carry for 30 years), in rough list form. A couple of days later, at our regular meeting, I showed him my list. By then, my anger had given way to anxiety, and I expected the worst. I sat in silence and tried not to watch as he was reading.

Gene showed no emotion. Not one flicker. After a minute, he rolled down the window, spat, and then drawled: “that it?” Then he just smiled through his ravaged face. Suddenly, I saw that neither of us was better nor worse than the other. In all the years since then, whenever I serve as a sponsor, Gene is my template.

  1. That feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear.
  2. We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows.
  3. Self-seeking will slip away.

Here are some suggestions: 90 meetings in 90 days; find a sponsor; join a home group; get a service position; read and meditate and pray; work the steps; and help others. Here are some results: we stay sober; character defects lose their hold; self-centeredness no longer defines us; we don’t feel useless anymore, because we aren’t; and the Promises come true.

  1. Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change.
  2. Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us.

One of Gene’s favorite sayings was: “sober up a horse thief, and what have you got? A sober horse thief!” Then he’d guffaw. I loved him for that, even though I didn’t really get his humor at the time . . . But it does seem impossible at first for an alcoholic to change enough, through such simple and wholesome means, to make much of a difference in our lives. What practicing alcoholics need—not only to survive but to flourish—is a complete and profound psychic transformation. Lucky for us, that’s exactly what the Twelve Steps are designed to do for us, and not only once but every day, as long as we live in the solution.

  1. We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us.
  2. We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.

We typically finish upbeat, but I’m ending with two tragic losses. The first was that of Tom McAfee, my undergraduate poetry professor at the University of Missouri. Tom was a brilliant, charismatic writer—and late-stage alcoholic—who died in 1982, at the age of 54. I’d been Tom’s bartender and best friend at the old downtown hotel where he lived much of his life, and also later at Booche’s. Tom was always shaky and frail, but overnight, his health tanked. It took weeks before a couple of us were able to move him to the hospital, and then it was revealed that he had lung cancer. I looked after Tom as best I could through this whole period. But his terror and delirium at the end—as he lay dying of cancer while going through alcoholic seizures—was more than I could bear. One afternoon on a three-day bender, I stumbled into the hotel bar. Someone remarked to me that Tom had died. When had I last seen him? I couldn’t quite remember. That’s when my drinking began in earnest. I’d failed my friend when he needed me most. I couldn’t forgive myself.

The second loss was that of Jackie, my first wife. (Although we didn’t formally marry for many years.) In 1988, Jackie and I were both midway through our PhD’s at the University of Utah, when she discovered the lump. We both took leave, and went back to Missouri for surgeries, reconstruction, and many rounds of chemotherapy and radiotherapy. We kept our hopes up, and after a year the cancer seemed to be in remission. I went back to resume my studies at Utah. Jackie, slightly ahead of me, was back at it, and managed to land a great job at the University of Texas. She was happily teaching there the following year when the cancer came back. I took leave again, and moved to Austin. Shortly afterward, I proposed—and a few days later, we got married at the courthouse. It was exquisite. And through the next year and a half, I never left her side. Jackie endured treatments first in Austin, and then back home in Missouri, where our strategy shifted from cure to comfort. Paradoxically, in the weeks leading to her final struggle in 1991, there were many hours of intense joy. Spontaneous, childish, connected-at-the-hip gleefulness . . . Often, the exact same thought appeared simultaneously in both minds. It was the deepest intimacy I’ve ever known.

Jackie’s last words were: “I love you.”

As devastating as it was to see such a beautiful soul taken before she’d hit her stride, her death was triumphant, too. Even through her worst days, death never got the best of her.

I went back to Utah, finished my PhD in 1993, and started my professional life—steady then, resolved.

Just after the founding of AA in 1939, many sober alcoholics were sent into battle in WW2. As related in the Big Book, this was AA’s “first major test.” Would they stay sober far from their meetings? Against all expectations, they did. They had fewer lapses “than A.A.’s safe at home did . . . Whether in Alaska or on the Salerno beachhead, their dependence upon a Higher Power worked.” I had a related revelation after Jackie died. I realized that I could go through anything sober. That now I was spiritually fit enough to show up for “life on life’s terms.”

Along with the Promises, there’s a playful call-and-response that we include. It seems to be a rhetorical question: “Are these extravagant promises?”

And the entire group answers: “We think not!”

And on that note, the reading concludes: “They are being fulfilled among us—sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. They will always materialize if we work for them.”

There’s usually then a closing prayer. And after that, we fold our chairs, and return to the lives that AA has given us.

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Michael White received his PhD from the University of Utah and teaches at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. His four prize-winning poetry collections are The IslandPalma CathedralRe-entry, and Vermeer in Hell. His writing has appeared in The Paris ReviewThe New RepublicThe Kenyon ReviewThe Iowa Review, the Best American Poetry, and many other magazines and anthologies. His memoir, Travels in Vermeer, was longlisted for the 2015 National Book Award. You can view his website, here.