Progress on the journey of recovery can be measured by looking at three graves that mark the resting places of individuals who are important to the history of Alcoholics Anonymous.
In the first five years of recovery, the focus is on staying sober. In these years an AA member learns how to stop drinking. The focus is on the self, on “me” and “my recovery”. It is a time when we learn that “it’s a selfish program”, and that “My sobriety is the most important thing in my life.” Many members, especially in the Northeast have an opportunity sometime in those first five years to visit Dorset, Vermont and to see the Wilson House—Bill Wilson’s home and to visit his nearby grave. It is a kind of pilgrimage for many AA members to see Bill’s grave and to say thanks.
In the small East Dorset cemetery, Bill’s grave is easy to spot: it is covered with flowers, teddy bears, notes, AA chips and other tokens of gratitude and appreciation. It is fitting that in these years that a new AA member is focused on themselves.
But as the spiritual journey of recovery continues a recovering person continues to grow and moves on from not drinking to learning skills in human relations. These are the years when an AA learns how to be in a relationship, how to get along at work, how to make and be a friend, how to own their part in a relationship.
In these years people remarry or try to repair or improve relationships with their children and make amends which bring family relationships back. In these years one can actually or symbolically, return to East Dorset and visit another important grave. This grave belongs to Lois Wilson, Bill’s wife who was the founder of Al-anon the 12-step program for family members of Alcoholics. AA members who travel beyond not drinking realize in these years that they have to learn how to “live and let live” and how to “detach with love.” This is often harder than not taking a drink.
Lois’s grave that reminds us that this is another level on the spiraling journey of recovery. In years 5 to 10 it’s NOT about me, now it’s about other people. The “Lois years” are the time for amends—not just apologies, and for learning be a human being in relationships and in the world.
If one chooses to continue to travel on the recovery path there is another significant crossroads that comes after 15 or 20 years. While spiritual work has been going on all along, this next stage is about something deeper. It’s about surrender. And surrender— is a part of every faith tradition as far back as the story of Krishna and Arjuna.
A symbol for these years is another grave, and this grave is not in Vermont but rather here in my hometown, Albany, New York. Ebby Thacher is buried in the Albany Rural Cemetery and his grave marks this part of the journey.
Ebby Thacher was the man who carried the message of recovery to Bill Wilson’s Brooklyn kitchen table. While AA history credits Bill and Dr. Bob with the first moment of one drunk helping another that is not wholly true. In fact when Ebby helped Bill to stop drinking that was the occasion of one drunk helping another to recover.
So, why isn’t Ebby credited as a founder of AA? Simply, because Ebby did not remain consistently sober. Ebby moved in and out of sobriety—though always in recovery for the next 30 years. His imperfection was too glaring to be held up as a model.
However, when we visit Ebby’s grave we find not teddy bears or flowers, but many weeds and a few AA chips buried in the dirt. The first time I went to Ebby’s grave it wasn’t easy to find, and I had to dig a little and push away the weeds and there were some chips. Significantly those chips were marked for 20 and 30 and 35 years. I believe it is because people with that amount of time on this journey can appreciate the imperfection that is required to live a long time on any spiritual path.
While Bill Wilson’s years are about “me”, and the Lois years are about other people, the “Ebby years” are about what is bigger than us—a Higher Power or something in this universe that is BIG. Ebby Thacher was a broken, imperfect man who was well used by what is bigger than us—whatever name you might use.
But without Ebby there would be no AA, and no spiritual path to recovery for others to follow. At this later stage of a 12 step program we have to ask if we are willing to be used for Good.