If it was just alcohol, I could’ve lived with that. Yes, alcohol did lead me to waking up on the restroom floor of my favorite leather bar with my fly down and my shirt inside out. But hey, who hasn’t been there? However, it was the crystal that made me disappear for days at a time, experiencing symptoms mimicking paranoid schizophrenia. That was what made me notice that I had a problem. That, and testing positive for HIV. This was in 1994, back in the death sentence days. I vowed that I was going to live a healthier life, but here I was, doing hard drugs again.

The person with whom I was on my latest run had the Serenity Prayer written with sharpie on a piece of cardboard, thumb tacked to the wall of his flophouse. He had expressed a desire to get sober, and told me about a meeting he had gone to. But he also told me that the neighbors would peek in on us through the one-way mirror in the bathroom (which would’ve been quite a trick, because the mirror was the door to a medicine cabinet.) Still, when I came down from that run, I thought about Twelve Step meetings and wondered if they were right for me.

I called up some exes I knew were sober and asked where I could find meetings. I went to some of the early Los Angeles CMA meetings, but mostly went to the ubiquitous AA meetings. Continuous sobriety proved elusive until I started working the Steps. After doing so, I stayed sober for nearly four years, and might’ve gone further had I continued to go to meetings or talk with a sponsor after the third year. After months with very few meetings, I was still confident in my ability to maintain abstinence until I was helping some friends move late at night. I suddenly realized they were spending an awful lot of time and energy packing the moving van just so.

Coming back was difficult; there were binges every five or six months. It took years before I could break out of that cycle, requiring extensive step work and going to CMA meetings where I could tell my entire story.

My spirituality has evolved over the years, wandering from militant atheist to irreligious pantheist and back. This has been my biggest stumbling block with the Steps. A sponsor asked me to write down what qualities I wanted in a higher power. I sarcastically put down, “swifter than Mercury, stronger than Hercules, beautiful as Aphrodite and wise as Athena…” This was how they opened old Wonder Woman comics. But my sponsor loved it and declared that she was my new Higher Power. It was a lovely metaphor; it’s hard not to feel safe and protected if you imagine your higher power hugging you wearing bullet-proof bracelets. But all my conceptions of a higher power felt like exactly that: metaphors, poetry, pretty ways to describe the functioning of the world. And this made the steps that mentioned God that much more difficult for me. Thank goodness, at least, the CMA Steps were written without the capital H, “He.” I always felt that, in AA meetings, you were invited to believe in whatever higher power you chose, but here’s a capitalized male pronoun written on a scroll in Old English script to remind you that we really mean the God of Abraham.

What finally clicked for me was realizing that the First Step requires me to be honest. And I honestly do not believe the universe is run by a controlling mind. Accepting that, the rest fell into place. My higher power is the real world. I have faith that the real world is full of wonder, beauty, and successes. Unavoidably, there’s also death and disease (but there’s no need to take that personally.) If I go to a meeting, I can’t expect that the person over there will always stay sober, even if he has years. But I can have faith that I will hear about some people staying sober, and maybe going back to school, or going on a date, or walking through grief with dignity. And, if I choose to keep my eyes open, I’ll see that in the world outside of meetings as well.

The Third Step got much easier for me. If I let something go, does it fall in the hands of a loving God or does it go splat on the floor? It doesn’t matter. I let it go. And if I pick it back up, then I call somebody else and tell them I’m obsessing over things I cannot change until I can let it go again. If my higher power is the real world, the Fifth Step reminds me to share my darkest secrets with the outside world, if it’s the appropriate place like a meeting. I get lots of practical advice by asking the real world for help with my character defects. I hear inspiring stories of others who have made progress with the same problems. And each morning, I remind myself to keep my eyes open to look for the good and inspiring, to think of others before myself, and to try to find and eliminate patterns of behavior that no longer serve me.

I have found these ideas useful when working with sponsees, even those that believe in God. While they may be struggling to identify the nature of their higher power, or wonder why it is a necessary piece for their sobriety, they can always call someone when they catch themselves trying to change something over which they have no control. We can all agree that the most important thing any of us need to know about a higher power is that it’s not you or me.

As of this writing, I have stayed clean and sober for over 12 years. I’m living a life beyond my wildest dreams, with the caveat that I grew up suffering with low self-esteem and didn’t dream much for myself. But here I am, with a lovely home stuffed with my favorite books, a husband that loves me and makes me laugh, living in a pleasant environment surrounded by nature, and finding myself in the warmest, friendliest CMA fellowship I have ever known. Today I’m choosing not to endanger my success, so I will continue to go to meetings, be honest with myself, and work the Steps.