The Twelve Promises, also referred to as the Ninth Step Promises, are an interesting part of AA culture. They are not technically published as a list, but rather as a paragraph on pages 83-84 of the AA Big Book. Yet many have taken them and published them in list form on occasion, referring to them as promises that will be fulfilled not only through our work on Step Nine, but through our efforts to maintain a proper recovery program in general. And to some extent, this view is not inaccurate. In fact, many have experienced glimpses of the First Promise long before they were anywhere close to beginning the Ninth Step.
We wish to explore this view of the Twelve Promises, naturally beginning with the First Promise and moving forward over time. Since we did not begin this in January, the first few will be relatively close together before we begin focusing upon one promise each month. If you choose to review the paragraph in question, you may count only eleven. This is because one promise is often split into two, allowing those who review the promises to maintain AA’s focus on the number 12; however, please note that the First Promise is not affected by this split. We will let you know when we get there.
As we explore the First Promise, please remember one important thing—the Twelve Promises cannot be forced. They will be fulfilled in our lives, but it is not within our power to decide when this will happen. That said, our faith in recovery will be cemented when we are able to at least recognize that the promises have come true in our lives. For this reason, it is important that we learn a bit more about their meaning and how to see when they have come to fruition.
Fulfilling the First Promise
The First Promise states:
“We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness.”
While this is one that will definitely cement itself once we’ve begun making our amends and letting go of resentments, many will begin to feel it within their first few months of recovery. To some extent, we may even feel it within our first few days. The new happiness may take a bit longer, but freedom will be much more immediate.
This may sound confusing, but it becomes simplified once you learn to view freedom and happiness as somewhat separate concepts. They certainly amplify one another, and to some extent may even be reliant upon each other, but that is not to say that they are the exact same thing. Freedom from the shackles of alcoholism and drug addiction is not always accompanied by the full acceptance of the happiness we can gain from sobriety. To truly gain an appreciation for these things, we have to stay in recovery for a while and start to see our lives make a change for the better.
Below, we will naturally explore each of these ideas on its own. But before doing that, allow us to reassure you that the First Promise is almost definitely coming to fruition long before you gain the ability to recognize it. The second you make a choice to enter recovery, you are ensuring this promise in your life. Those who have failed in their relapse prevention or have suffered an emotional disturbance that they could not overcome have often discovered this to be the case. They “went back out” only to find that they were less happy and even more dissatisfied with their substance abuse than ever before. Only upon losing their new freedom and new happiness did they realize that the First Promise had previously been coming true.
For this reason, allow us to give you a word of caution before continuing. While the First Promise will likely be achieved without much effort, you must still cultivate it. You must feel gratitude for the gift that sobriety has given you, or else you will risk losing it. Not everyone who went back out was able to return to the fold. Some simply gave into the stubbornness of their addiction, while others literally did not survive the trip. The two gifts we intend to describe below are among the greatest gifts you will ever be given. Do not take them for granted.
The Concept of New Freedom
Naturally, the logical assumption is that this part of the First Promise indicates freedom from the bondage of addiction. We learn in the Big Book that the two major elements of the addiction disease are physical cravings and mental obsession. But at some point after we have gone through the detoxification process, the physical cravings should cease. Over time in recovery, the mental obsession will begin to take hold less often as well. At this point, we will definitely have acquired a new freedom.
But we get freedom from more than that as well. We also gain freedom from the character defects that previously ran our lives. No more must we resort to selfishness in all things. As we meet sponsors and begin doing service work, we will learn to be there for others in the same way that others have been there for us. This will grant us mental, emotional and spiritual freedom on top of everything else. And we’ll get these freedoms in other ways as well.
Again, this will be more pronounced in Step Nine, when we start making amends and letting go of resentments. But we may let go of some resentments upon completing Step Five as well. After Step Two and Step Three, we should also gain some freedom from self-will. At this point, we can begin living spiritually. We can embrace the Second Tradition and the First Concept, which will enforce the idea that we do not need to constantly seek control anymore. We will be a part of the world and of our social network, rather than falsely feeling as if we are carrying the weight of the world on our shoulders.
But with this freedom will come great responsibility. We may wish to enjoy our new freedom by treating ourselves occasionally. Doing things sober will be a bit like doing them drunk or stoned used to be when our addiction first started—a new thrill that we can’t wait to try. But our whole life is not based around enjoyment. Even functional alcoholics should know that they were cognitively impaired while using. If we truly wish to perform at our best, we should use our newfound freedom to explore new obligations, new methods of finding purpose. Otherwise, we may never truly achieve the happiness mentioned in the First Promise.
The Concept of New Happiness
Note that the First Promise signifies the onset of a “new” happiness. This is not necessarily to say that we have never been happy before, although it may certainly feel that way for some of us who suffered great anger and depression in addiction. When we focus upon this part of the First Promise, we should focus primarily on the ability to let go of our character defects. Some may have revolved around harming or manipulating others, resulting in possible guilt or remorse that we will not overcome until we have put our best foot forward in Step Nine. Others of us suffered great self-pity and self-loathing. Whether we hid behind pride or simply succumbed to our negative thinking, we should enjoy that we now have before us a program of recovery that may help us to overcome our personal flaws.
The First Promise is preceded by a very important sentence:
“If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are half way through.”
Whether you apply this to Step Nine or to Step Six (in which we focus upon character defects), you will find that it greatly applies to the “happiness” portion of the First Promise. And the best part of the First Promise is that, for some of us, it never stops. We are never truly done working on our character defects, and life will be full of moments after which we have to make more amends. Each potential setback leads to another chance for potential growth.
In similar fashion, every end is a beginning. Some may not believe in the First Promise because they have met people with as many as thirty years of sobriety who did not appear happy. But these sullen individuals are the reason we must nurture the First Promise and keep it in our hearts. We must do what we can to remember that we are better off than we once were. Happiness will not always be unbroken, but accepting loss and overcoming grief can be done in a much healthier fashion when we are not stuffing our feelings down inside of ourselves and covering them up with drugs and alcohol. The happiness we gain after overcoming sadness in a healthy way will most certainly be a new happiness in comparison to the synthetic euphoria we once used to hide our true feelings. Many recovering addicts and alcoholics have found themselves thankful for this fact, and we must always strive to approach our losses with a similar attitude if we wish to keep the benefits of the First Promise intact.
Remember that, to some extent, happiness is a choice. We cannot control every outcome in our lives, but we do have some control over our reactions to things. If we choose to nurture our happiness, then the First Promise will have truly been granted. If we choose to steep ourselves in misery, then the First Promise may never come to fruition. The choice is yours. It should not be a difficult one.