"Day by day I was throwing up the white flag."
Posted May 08, 2019
It was early spring, and I was sitting in a coffee shop, listening to music on my headphones and writing in my journal. For the last three months, with my sponsor as a guide, I had been working my way through the first of the Twelve Steps: We admitted that we were powerless over our addiction, that our lives had become unmanageable.
My sponsor’s approach to working the Steps was a rigorous old-school method handed down through Narcotics Anonymous for many years. My first task had been to read the first 18 pages of NA’s Basic Text and highlight the key phrases. Then I wrote reflections on each one, documenting how it applied to my life.
To avoid emotional overload, the tradition included a time limit of 30 minutes a day and a maximum of three hours a week. It was a slow, meditative, and deeply personal way to understand the predicament of my addiction.
When I finished my first 18 pages, I reviewed my work with my sponsor. He wasn’t satisfied with its depth, so he asked me to do more. “You can write too little, but you can’t write too much,” he said, repeating the words that had been passed down for decades from one NA sponsor to the next.
Three weeks later, my sponsor had given me the green light to start working on Step One. First I looked up definitions of key words—admitted, were, powerless, addiction, and unmanageable. Then I wrote them down and rewrote the definitions in my own words. Next I documented in detail how each paragraph about Step One in NA’s Basic Text applied to my life.
In the beginning, it seemed like just another homework assignment, a task to get through because my sponsor had made it a condition for continuing to work with him. My brain was still anesthetized by drugs, and my thoughts and words came slowly. I barely remembered the horrible details of my life on drugs; it all felt like someone else’s story.
Somewhere in the process, the emotional dam gave way inside me. I realized that I was holding up a mirror to my own life, with all its humiliations and helplessness. That was me at my father’s wedding, completely loaded and hiding behind sunglasses. My mother really had stood outside my house, holding a birthday cake and pleading for me to open the door while I hid behind it. The guy who couldn’t stop using cocaine long enough to save his blossoming sports broadcasting career? That was me, James Butler.
It was like being on an operating table, and a light bulb clicked on in my head. I was powerless over alcohol and cocaine. My life wasn’t a trainwreck because of bad luck, mean people, a hard-ass boss, or an angry God. My life had become unmanageable because I had used drugs. The world wasn’t such a terrible place after all, but it was governed by cause and effect. My life had gone off the rails because I couldn’t stop putting toxic drugs into my body.
I was an addict, and it was the worst news ever. It meant giving up alcohol and cocaine, and I was still in love with them. Like an abused spouse yearning to return to a violent partner, I wanted them back. The party life was the only way I knew to have fun, and it had given me meaning and purpose for over fifteen years. Now I understood that all that would have to go out the window. Other people would still get to use drugs, and I’d be on the sidelines, with a boring, mediocre life. Yes, it was better to be clean than dead, but all the color was being sucked out of my future.
To complicate matters, I still had cravings, and their unpredictability kept me on edge. Sometimes they disappeared for four or five days, only to return multiple times in a single day. The trigger could be as simple as a beer commercial or the glass of wine I was carrying to a customer. It might be angry or lonely feelings, or the exhaustion of trying to stay sober 24/7. Whatever the cause, I would suddenly feel a seemingly irresistible urge to get high.
Still, some things were different. I was sitting in a coffee shop instead of a bar; I was journaling instead of drinking or trying to buy cocaine. In an hour or so, I would be heading out for a home group meeting. In a few days, I’d see my sponsor and review my Step work with him.
These behaviors were so out of character that I hardly knew myself. Since high school, my goal had been to seek pleasure and avoid pain—at all cost. Even when I wanted to do the right thing, like stay sober for my father’s wedding, I had been powerless to carry out my good intentions or follow a disciplined path.
Now, here I was, sticking with a difficult and painful process that might not even have a happy ending. Instead of denying the reality of my addiction, I was learning tools for managing it. If I had a craving, I took a time-out, said my prayers, and called my sponsor. Then I told on myself to my home group. They took the recurrence of my craving seriously without making me feel like a failure. They also shared their own stories or invited me for a cup of coffee or a meal.
Day by day I was throwing up the white flag of surrender—not to my craving but to a program of recovery. I was learning that I couldn’t save myself, and that I needed support from a community and my Higher Power to stay sober. In retrospect, these acts of surrender seem like a miracle. With my history of emotional and sexual abuse, taking my hands off the wheel of my life seemed like a dangerous step, even an invitation to predators. At the same time, in early recovery, my ego was that of a raging lunatic, and years of truly depraved behavior had left me spiritually depleted.
Yet somehow I was able, again and again, to give up my own agenda and resist my compulsive desires. “Surrender to win,” I had heard in NA, and like millions of other people, I was experiencing these words not as an empty slogan but as a description of a profound spiritual truth. There is an essential connection between humility and opening oneself up to the transforming power that exists in the universe.
Paradoxically, all that I lost in surrender was my own helplessness. In its place, I gained freedom to act out of my true self-interest, even if it was only a day or a minute at a time. Discovering this spiritual power made all the difference in the months ahead when, as it turned out, the challenges of early recovery became harder than ever.
In the NA tradition that my sponsor followed and taught, reading or thinking about the Twelve Steps was not enough. Each Step had to be individually worked through a careful and systematic process.
- Begin each session of Step work asking for help and guidance from a Higher Power.
- Write out the dictionary definition of each key word and concept (for example, “powerlessness”).
- Put each definition in your own words and describe its relevance to your experience of addiction.
- Reflect and journal about your lived experience, as it related to each individual paragraph about the Step in the Basic Text.
- Review your work with a sponsor to make sure the principles of each Step had been understood and that your efforts were accurate, thorough, and personal.
Once I had done all this, there were corrections and revisions to make. Then my task was to apply the Step and to learn how to live it on a daily basis through my thoughts and actions. During the entire process, I shared my experiences with my sponsor and home group, seeking their counsel and feedback.