Are “The Promises” for Real?

Most people enter an addiction treatment program for one reason and one reason only. They have suffered painful consequences related to their addiction and they want the agony to stop. Oftentimes they don’t even have a desire to be clean and sober; what they really want is to learn how to “drink like a gentleman,” so to speak. In other words, they want to “be normal,” meaning they want to drink, use drugs, be sexual, gamble, etc., without experiencing serious consequences. They want to engage in pleasurable, potentially addictive behaviors without destroying their romantic relationships, hurting their children, straining their friendships, getting in fights, creating financial chaos, struggling at work or in school, or going to jail. These are all perfectly valid reasons for entering recovery. However, many addicts who start out with these limited goals find themselves gaining much more. Max, who just celebrated his nine-year sobriety anniversary, says: “I went into treatment as a way to stay out of jail, keep my job, and not lose my family. I’d been arrested three times, and absolutely everyone was done with me. I had no interest in sobriety, but my lawyer suggested that if I ‘voluntarily’ spent 30 days in treatment and then went to AA and NA meetings the judge might cut me some slack, my work might not fire me, and my wife might give me one last chance.” Max got none of what he sought. The judge sentenced him to 90 days, he lost his job, and his wife took the kids back to her hometown and filed for divorce. Yet he continued with recovery. “In treatment I just felt better than I’d felt in a long, long time. Not because I wasn’t using, but because I was finally telling the truth about what I was doing to myself and the people around me. I felt such relief that somehow I became willing to face the consequences without picking up again. I walked through jail, unemployment, and a divorce completely sober, thanks to treatment and aftercare. Now, years later, I realize that The Promises were coming true for me as soon as I started telling the truth.”

The Promises portion of the AA Big Book reads:

If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are halfway through. We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness. We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace. No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others. That feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear. We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows. Self-seeking will slip away. Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change. Fear of people and economic insecurity will leave us. We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us. We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.

Are these extravagant promises? We think not. They are being fulfilled among us, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. They will always materialize if we work for them.[i]

Max continues: “The part of The Promises that has meant the most to me is the line, ‘Our whole attitude and outlook on life will change.’ That’s what hit me right away. My hopelessness, depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem started to go away as soon as I started working a program. That’s what kept me in recovery and convinced me to listen to the people with lots of sobriety and really great lives. When they said, ‘Get a commitment,’ I got one. When they said, ‘Get a sponsor,” I got one. And when my sponsor said, ‘It’s time to start working the steps,” I did it. And my life got better every time I took their advice. I didn’t even have to be enthusiastic; I just had to do the work, even if I was sometimes reluctant.” Max’s experience is amazingly common. Most people who enter recovery are only interested in stopping the immediate pain. What they get is so much more. As long as an addict does the work of recovery—being honest, participating, and working the steps—that person will experience The Promises. Some promises come to pass right away, others take time, but they do come true. Always, if the addict does the work.

[i] Alcoholics Anonymous, Third Edition, pages 83 – 84. Similar language appears in the “big books” of all 12-step programs, no matter the addiction.
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