Recovering addicts and alcoholics can learn a lot from reading Alcoholics Anonymous, also known as the Big Book. Chock full of stories related to recovery, this book offers lessons to which addicts and alcoholics from all walks of life can relate. But while the stories in the back of the book may be fascinating, addicts and alcoholics generally use the first 164 pages as their primary guide to achieving sobriety. So far, we’ve provided reading guides for all of the chapters in these pages except for Chapter 11 (“A Vision for You”). We now seek to complete our series by providing some insight into the last chapter of the Big Book.
The first few chapters of the Big Book provided an overview of the alcoholic condition. Starting with a brief prologue (“The Doctor’s Opinion”), the book presented a story of addiction (“Bill’s Story”) before discussing the spiritual nature of the disease (“There Is a Solution”). After sharing a few related stories for added insight (“More About Alcoholism”), the Big Book continued to explain that even those without religious beliefs can achieve spiritual growth (“We Agnostics”). The Big Book then explained the Twelve Steps over the course of two chapters (“How It Works” and “Into Action”) before dedicating an entire chapter to Step Twelve (“Working With Others”). After this, the Big Book provided information to family members (“To Wives” and “The Family Afterward”) as well as the bosses of alcoholics (“To Employers”). Now, “A Vision for You” discusses life in sobriety.
If you’ve been reading the Big Book this long, you should already be pretty adept at understanding its rhetoric. Nonetheless, we hope that our reading guide for “A Vision for You” might still prove useful. It definitely helps to read the chapter in full before starting. But if you’re looking for a collection of the primary lessons offered up by the last chapter of the Big Book, this guide should do just fine.
A Substitute for Alcohol
“A Vision for You” begins by discussing the world in which we lived during our drinking days. It was a dark world, full of isolation and despair. Even worse, this world appeared to grow darker with every drink we took. We tried desperately to control our drinking, yet fell short every time. “A Vision for You” describes the manner in which things grew exceedingly worse as our drinking intensified:
“The less people tolerated us, the more we withdrew from society, from life itself. As we became subjects of King Alcohol, shivering denizens of his mad realm, the chilling vapor that is loneliness settled down. It thickened, ever becoming blacker. Some of us sought out sordid places, hoping to find understanding companionship and approval. Momentarily we did—then would come oblivion and the awful awakening to face the hideous Four Horsemen—Terror, Bewilderment, Frustration, Despair. Unhappy drinkers who read this page will understand!”
Despite the pain we associated with these Horsemen, however, we kept going back. We simply couldn’t keep the cork in the bottle long enough to stay sober for more than a small stretch at a time. Drug users understand this poignant feeling with equally distressing clarity. At some point, the body becomes so wrecked that we simply cannot continue drinking or using drugs. But the moment we begin to feel better, the cravings return with a vengeance. “A Vision for You” notes that many look back on these feelings with bemused hilarity. As painful as they were, we almost find it laughable that we ever thought it acceptable to treat ourselves so horribly. Nonetheless, many in recovery seek some sort of substitute for the rare joy that alcohol brought them. “A Vision for You” tells them where to find it:
“Yes, there is a substitute and it is vastly more than that. It is a fellowship in Alcoholics Anonymous. There you will find release from care, boredom and worry. Your imagination will be fired. Life will mean something at last. The most satisfactory years of your existence lie ahead. Thus we find the fellowship, and so will you.”
In case some might doubt the positive influence of this fellowship, “A Vision for You” provides an example of a man who discovered its power long ago. But this isn’t just any story. This is the story of how AA co-founders Bill W. and Dr. Bob first met each other.
Growth of the Fellowship
The story begins in 1935. Bill, six months sober, came away from a failed business trip with little money and a desire to drink. He decided that the best way to handle his cravings was to call up a clergyman, asking to be put in touch with another alcoholic who needed help. This led him to Bob.
“A Vision for You” notes that Bob obsessed over anonymity during this first meeting. He feared that he might lose business if anyone found out about his drinking. It did not occur to him that most people could probably tell from his previous behaviors that he was a drunk. After another spree, however, Bob decided to come clean with his loved ones. Ages before the Twelve Steps existed, Bob’s first move was to make amends. This helped, but both of AA’s co-founders would experience difficulties in pursuing years. Eventually, Bill and Bob decided to seek a new prospect together. They called up a hospital, and the nurse put them in touch with a lawyer named Bill D. Little did they know they had just found AA’s third member.
Over the next three days, this new prospect unwittingly began working the Twelve Steps. He began with Step One, accepting that he couldn’t drink normally. The next day, he took Step Two by admitting that a Higher Power should be able to help him. On day three, the new member gave his life over to something greater than himself. All of this happened just one month after Bill W. first met Dr. Bob. Within thirty days, two desperate alcoholics forged the beginnings of a fellowship.
After acquiring a fourth member, Bill W. had to leave town for a while. But “A Vision for You” describes the miracle that occurred over the next few months. The three men he left behind found that when they helped others, they helped themselves. As a result of this approach to sobriety, their numbers grew. It took a year and a half to acquire seven more members. They held regular meetings, inviting any and all newcomers once per week. As this fellowship paved the way for AA as it exists today, spouses met in the adjoining rooms of these get-togethers, planting the first seeds of Al-Anon. By 1939, the first AA group numbered between sixty and eighty alcoholics per meeting. Today, estimated membership worldwide ranks at about two million. What began as a small fellowship grew into a movement.
Fulfilling AA’s Vision for You
While the preceding story is remarkable, one might wonder how it applies to our personal recovery. “A Vision for You” explains just some of the ways in which the power of fellowship can change our lives:
“But life among Alcoholics Anonymous is more than attending gatherings and visiting hospitals. Cleaning up old scrapes, helping to settle family differences, explaining the disinherited son to his irate parents, lending money and securing jobs for each other, when justified—these are everyday occurrences. No one is too discredited or has sunk too low to be welcomed cordially—if he means business. Social distinctions, petty rivalries and jealousies—these are laughed out of countenance. Being wrecked in the same vessel, being restored and united under one God, with hearts and minds attuned to the welfare of others, the things which matter so much to some people no longer signify much to them.”
In other words, the unity of AA changes our entire outlook on others and our interactions with them. More importantly, the principles of recovery wield the potential to change our outlook on ourselves. We see ourselves as part of something greater, something beyond our control yet ever pervasive in our lives. As part of the fellowship, we are at once friends, family, patients and healers. We give what we receive, and then we give a little more. “A Vision for You” doesn’t relate the story of Bill’s encounter with Bob in order to make Bill sound like a hero. Instead, the Big Book tells us this story in order to remind us that it only takes one person to make a difference.
“A Vision for You” concludes by telling us how we may achieve AA’s vision through a combination of prayer and good will:
“God will constantly disclose more to you and to us. Ask Him in your morning meditation what you can do each day for the man who is still sick. The answers will come, if your own house is in order. But obviously you cannot transmit something you haven’t got. See to it that your relationship with Him is right, and great events will come to pass for you and countless others. This is the Great Fact for us.
Abandon yourself to God as you understand God. Admit your faults to Him and to your fellows. Clear away the wreckage of your past. Give freely of what you find and join us. We shall be with you in the Fellowship of the Spirit, and you will surely meet some of us as you trudge the Road of Happy Destiny.”
To put this a little more simply, we must do three things if we wish to succeed in recovery. We must trust God (Steps 1-3), clean house (Steps 4-10) and help others (Steps 11-12). As long as we continue to practice these fundamentals, the spiritual lifestyle described in “A Vision for You” should be ours for the taking. If only we could all embrace these principles, we might one day forge a better vision for the world at large. For now, however, it will suffice to focus on our own spiritual growth. As human beings, the best we can do is to act righteously and hope for the best. Do this, and Bill’s vision for AA just might become your personal reality.