Emotional Sobriety

Emotional Sobriety: The Next Frontier

"Here we begin to practice all Twelve Steps of the program in our daily lives so that we and those about us may find emotional sobriety.” 

With that simple sentence the 12&12 (Step 12, p. 106) introduces the subject of emotional sobriety, links it to the daily practice of the Steps in all areas of our lives, makes it the ultimate goal of recovery, and extends that goal beyond alcoholics to all those to whom, by such practice, we would carry the message of our spiritual awakening. 

By his own admission, when Bill W. wrote those words (ca. 1952) he was far from being emotionally sober. Neither was anybody else in the program. That’s why he wrote them. In fact, that’s why he wrote the 12&12 (published in 1953). By that time a number of alcoholics had attained double-digit sobriety, and yet they were still struggling with many of the emotions that had beset them when they drank. Their lives had improved, but their emotions had remained unmanageable, undermining what progress they had made. 

Bill himself had spent many of his 18 years sober in a deep state of depression. He desperately wanted the program to bring him release. But it didn’t. This compelled him to reexamine the Steps in greater depth and explore how they could help the alcoholic move beyond physical to a higher level of sobriety that would encompass the whole person. In Step 12,  he comes to identify that as emotional sobriety. 

That issue was not on the table when the Big Book was written in the late 1930s. Understandably, the fledging fellowship was focused almost exclusively on helping drunks to stop drinking. This is reflected in the fact that Step 12 in the Big Book is devoted exclusively to carrying the message, as its title indicates (“Working with Others”). That, the reader is told, is “our twelfth suggestion” (p. 89, italics in the original). But of course, that is only one half of the “suggestion.” The other half is to practice the principles in all our affairs. That, however, is not mentioned at all. The overriding goal was to stop drinking and stay stopped. If you did that, you had recovered. You were sober. That’s the only sense in which recovery and sobriety were understood at the time. You were on the wagon, as the saying went. You were dry, an expression that back then had none of the negative connotations it has accrued today.

Understandably here again, many thought that’s all the program was about: pure and simple abstention. Not surprisingly, that translated itself into people not working the Steps—except for the powerless part of Step 1 and the carrying the message part of Step 12. The 12&12 would come to describe that as two-Stepping (Step 12, p. 113), a bare-minimum approach that is still widely followed today and which is unwittingly fostered by the “Don’t drink and go to meetings” mantra to which the program is unfortunately too often reduced. 

Yet, from the very beginning the Big Book had made it clear that approach would not suffice. “We feel a man is unthinking when he says that sobriety is enough,” we read in Chapter 6 (p. 83), which not incidentally is titled “Into Action.” Earlier, in Chapter 5, it had described it as “an easier, softer way” (p. 58)  which was only bound to fail. Alcoholics had to work the Steps in order to clean house, put their lives in order, and avoid relapsing into active alcoholism. However, none of this work was linked to the goal of achieving emotional sobriety, a phrase which, not having been coined yet, appears nowhere in that book. 

While the 12&12 finally establishes that connection, it unfortunately does not go on to flesh it out and develop the concept. “Emotional sobriety” is mentioned once in the sentence we quoted and is then dropped. There’s a subsequent allusion to it with a single reference to “emotional stability” (p. 116), where stability can be inferred to be synonymous with sobriety, but the parallel is not pursued either. 

The subject is not picked up again until six years later, in 1958, when an article entitled “The Next Frontier: Emotional Sobriety” appears in the AA Grapevine. Largely a reproduction of a letter Bill had written to a close friend who was also suffering from depression, the barely three-page article doesn’t pretend to be a systematic discussion of the concept. In any case, it doesn’t seem to have any lasting impact. It quickly disappears from view and remains buried in the magazine’s archives for thirty years, until it is republished in The Language of the Heart (1988, p. 236), a collection of Bill’s Grapevine writings. 

Another eighteen years elapse before it sees the light of day again in the booklet pictured above (2006), published by the Grapevine and accompanied by the sorts of personal stories typical of that magazine. This generates a number of follow-up stories in various editions of that publication. A second booklet is published five years later: Emotional Sobriety II: The Next Frontier (2011). It too generates additional stories in subsequent issues of the magazine. 

Fast forward another 11 years to 2022 and the issue of emotional sobriety is finally beginning to get some traction, at least in the pages of the Grapevine. That said, it is clear that “the next frontier” in recovery remains little more than what it was when Bill first broached the subject 70 long years ago: an interesting and even intriguing idea, but one that is marginal to the life of the fellowship, and if the rooms are any indication, to that of most of its members. How often does the subject of emotional sobriety come up at our meetings? How many of us really believe that attaining emotional sobriety is the ultimate goal of recovery? How many of us work the Steps and practice their principles in all our affairs with that objective in mind? How many of us even have any idea what that would actually mean?

By any measure, the problem the Big Book first brought up in 1939 remains with us today. For most people, it appears, AA is still all about not drinking. There’s an underlying assumption that everything else follows automatically from that. The assumption is not altogether wrong. Everything else does follow from that: Step 1 is the first step. But it doesn’t follow automatically. Not drinking and going to meetings will not bring us everything AA has to offer. It will not result in a full and meaningful recovery. We have to work the program. 

That of course has become a cliché. Everybody pays lip service to it. Few follow through, however. The truth is that two-Stepping works pretty well for a lot of us. We stop drinking and go to meetings. If we do that long enough, our lives generally do get better. We recover many of the things we lost when we drank. We regain a sense of normalcy. We become confident again. Then it’s back to business as usual. We do what we were doing before, except that, not having the bottle dragging us down, we do it better. We may even become more successful than ever. If that’s what we wanted all along, why bother with the rest of the Steps?  

Obviously, it doesn’t work out that way for everyone. Two-Steppers tend to relapse, chronically sometimes. They may go through dozens of rehabs and spend years in and out of the rooms. Some never make it. Some die. In Step 1, the 12&12 calls those prospects to our attention when explaining that we need to hit bottom. Only then will we be motivated enough to work the rest of the Steps, we're told (p. 24). Yet there will always be many who won’t hit bottom and therefore cannot heed the call. There are those too who eventually do hit bottom and manage to stay sober for a while, but by that time they have done so much damage to their bodies and neglected their health for so long, that they soon succumb to one disease or another. If we’ve been in the rooms long enough, we're familiar with their stories, many sad, some tragic.

However, it would be a mistake to think that the problem the Big Book and later the 12&12 raise is limited to the issue of two-Stepping. Bill never saw AA as being exclusively about not drinking. He had worked the program. Still, there was something wrong with his recovery, as eventually became all too obvious given his inability to overcome his chronic depression after so many years sober. In his Grapevine piece he identified the problem as a lack of the emotional sobriety he had written about in Step 12. He describes how an unbearable worsening of his condition had forced him to go back and, in effect, rework Steps 10 and 11. He combined an inventory of his depression with prayer and meditation and identified the character defects that lay behind it. The result was a new spiritual awakening and with it the relief that had eluded him for so long. 

The answer had been in Step 12 all along. He thought he had worked the principles in all his affairs, but evidently, he hadn’t. He hadn’t worked them on his depression and the situations, relationships, and character defects associated with it. When he did, it lifted. 

Even if we are not two-Steppers, even if working the program is not just a platitude for us, even if we do take it seriously and put in all the effort that is needed, even then that may not be enough. That was certainly my case. Like so many others, I worked the program and made considerable progress. Yet 12 years into sobriety, it all came crashing down. It took a new spiritual awakening on the heels of an even lower bottom and a deeper and longer depression to crawl my way back to recovery.

I discovered then that I had worked for the wrong things, worked the program toward the wrong ends. I had gotten sober and, after a 6-month hiatus, had returned to the business of living as I had understood it when I drank. I did better and was more successful. But it was still the wrong business. I had not developed the new manner of living the Big Book talks about. I didn’t consciously and intentionally practice the principles in all my affairs because I had no idea what those principles were. Though I had remained emotionally troubled, I had not worked toward emotional sobriety because, even if had read that sentence in the 12&12, it had not registered. It had no effect. As for Bill’s article, I didn’t come upon it until after I had already gone back to re-examine the Steps and find out what had gone wrong with my recovery. 

Our work needs clear goals and direction. The Big Book and the 12&12 tell us that everything we do in Steps 1 through 11 is directed to the goal of experiencing a spiritual awakening. That we’ve had such an awakening is the message we carry to alcoholics. If we’ve had it, we will be motivated to practice the principles in all our affairs on a daily basis starting with Step 12. Practicing them is how we continue to change and to grow, as our defects of character recede and our strengths or virtues increase. We do all of this so that we and those around us may find emotional sobriety. That’s the ultimate goal. 

Emotions are the engine of action. Most of the things we do in life that have any moral significance or value we do under the influence of one or another emotion. If our emotions are right, we tend to do right; if wrong, wrong. Right emotion is essential to right action. The quality of our lives is therefore to a very great extent a function of the quality of our emotions. Hence, so is the quality of our recovery. That’s why achieving emotional sobriety is of the essence. That’s why it’s the ultimate goal. 

All these ideas are explored at length in the two volumes of PTP published so far. This and the posts that follow are intended to supplement those discussions. First, we discuss the understanding of emotions we find in the Big Book and the 12&12 and the concept of emotional sobriety that we have  derived from it and from Bill’s article in the Grapevine. Next, we move to a discussion of the main emotions treated in those two texts: how they arise, how they go defective, and how we can correct those defects and achieve emotional sobriety through the practice of the principles in the 12 Steps. What those principles are is discussed in some detail under Practice These on this site. 

[Image: Cover of original edition of Emotional Sobriety: The Next Frontier. For text of Bill W.'s article there, click on link or see PTP4, Appendix 5, pp. 437–439. For an audio of this post, please click on link.]

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