A ‘Long, Slow’ DA Recovery Brings Prosperity And Joy
I walked into my first DA meeting in 1990 at St. Bart’s Church in Manhattan on a Saturday in July. A week before, I had bought what I professed to be my last credit card purchase-- a new $40 wristwatch on a department store account. I reasoned that, once I had joined DA, “they” wouldn’t let me use my credit cards anymore. And since I didn’t have enough money to buy a new watch, and needed one, I figured I’d better squeeze this last one in.
A few months earlier, I had read a financial self-help book that tactfully suggested that if one chronically owed more than 10 percent of one’s total income “you might want to check out Debtors Anonymous.” There I was in New York City, supporting my wife and infant son on an annual salary of $23K, more than $34K in debt without the income to keep up with even minimal payments: defaulted on two student loans, bank credit cards all maxed out, department store cards maxed out, behind on gas card payments, two months behind on my rent, behind on all my utilities, in debt to my shrink, in debt to my parents, and maxed out on borrowing from friends and family. We were reduced to digging around the crevices of the couch for loose change. Collection agencies were aggressively calling at home and at work—my stomach turned every time the phone rang.
Trying DA seemed like a good idea, but 12-Step programs made me nervous with all that God talk. This lifelong atheist had a hard time with that, but I was pretty desperate and didn’t have anywhere else to turn. I was lucky; I had bottomed out. But it took me three months to finally show up. From the moment I started listening to others share, I knew I was in the right place. I attended six meetings, as suggested, and I listened. At my fifth meeting, I shared about my desperate situation—I barely had enough money for a subway token to work the next day. Several people shoved notes toward me with their phone numbers. One woman had attached a subway token, saying that someone had done that for her when she first came in, and she was passing it along. After the meeting, I went to a phone booth to call my wife and about two bucks worth of quarters came tinkling into the coin return.
Not long after, I asked a man and a woman to do a pressure relief meeting for me. I’ll never forget that night, attending New York’s largest meeting in a pouring rain, the room packed with debtors, and the sweet cleansing after-the-rain feeling as we left the meeting for mine. They helped me work out an emergency spending plan (I recall filling only about half a page with categories at that time), and they helped me work out an action plan to contact all my creditors. I worked out payment plans with my utilities and landlord, and I informed the others that I was unable to pay anything at that time but would contact them every three months to update them on my situation—a moratorium. (I needed to take care of myself before taking care of them.) And they urged me to cut up all my credit cards and commit to not incurring any further unsecured debt, one day at a time, no matter what. Of course I thought I had to debt because of my dire circumstances. But that watch became my final credit card purchase, and I started to stay current on paying my bills—even when it was scary to do so.
I also realized that I needed to separate financially from my wife. I went into that DA meeting thinking that “we” had a problem with debt. I walked out of the meeting realizing that I was a compulsive debtor and that I didn’t need to do her inventory. Since she didn’t earn an income, she became a category in my spending plan—and I let go of what she did with that money. As she had always balanced the checkbook, I explained to her that I needed to take it on myself so I could be responsible for my own recovery. And I took responsibility for paying all our bills.
Not long before I read about DA, I had read about prosperity consciousness in a number of self-help books, which helped me begin to become aware of how I tended to live my life in deprivation. So I tried pushing myself at the department store on “Wednesday sale night” by spending a bit more on designer shirts or underwear instead of always going for the cheapo brands. (Every Wednesday seemed like the absolute LAST CHANCE to take advantage of these great deals.) The new behavior was exhilarating, but there was one big problem. I didn’t “spend” anything; I just went deeper into debt. While I practiced what seemed to me like a healthy new behavior, I dug a deeper and deeper hole. I would not and could not let go of my own money to buy these things.
There was a meeting I attended after about a year in DA when I suddenly realized that everything I was wearing, from my underwear to that watch, from my shoes to my briefcase, had been purchased with credit cards and hadn’t been paid for. After about another year of not incurring new unsecured debt one day at a time, I attended the same meeting with the sudden realization—and great satisfaction-- that everything on me had been paid for in cash. It became clear to me that abundance and prosperity could only come to me if I did not debt one day at a time.
After I joined DA, I conscientiously started practicing the Tools. I used to love the old opening of the DA Tools that said “action is the magic word.” I can isolate and procrastinate and get nowhere, or I can keep taking actions that move me forward. When I found that I wasn’t practicing one of the Tools, I would make an effort to shift my focus to it. Early on, I started keeping my numbers to the penny. Even today, when I make a purchase, I literally go into a blackout and have no recollection of what I’ve just spent if I don’t make a note of it. Record-keeping provides for me a kind of spiritual discipline in which I create a consciousness about my spending that never existed before.
For me, all the Tools help me practice new behaviors. Using the telephone taught me to ask for help-- in communicating with creditors, dealing with panic, and just checking in instead of isolating. I also discovered other things about myself. I had collected some phone numbers from a few women in the rooms, and one day one of them asked me, “Do you ever call any men in the program?” The answer was no; the idea of asking other men for help was very hard for me. She suggested I walk up to three men at the end of each meeting and ask for their phone numbers. I did and have been blessed with the support of incredible male sponsors and program friends every since.
The Tools helped me get my feet on the ground so that I could begin to let in the spirituality of the program. I got myself a sponsor and began working the Steps. When he suggested I do a 90 and 90—that is, attend 90 meetings within 90 days—I did so. It was a deeply spiritual experience for me as I committed myself to our program and began to feel the presence of a Higher Power in my recovery and life. And I read the AA 12 & 12 and the AA Big Book regularly and began underlining the parts that popped out for me.
Through the Steps, I began to shine the light on my past behaviors. I found a pattern in my life of dependence on others, a penchant for seeking something for nothing, and stealing from my parents and my employers. I stole because I never felt like I had enough. I used credit cards because I wasn’t willing to spend my own money on anything. I could only buy things with the “free money” promised through credit cards. And I had to admit, I NEVER really intended to pay any of it back; I always thought some magic would occur that would just take care of it all.
While some people come into DA as “big shot spenders”, I experienced the opposite. I never turned down a free meal and tended to allow others to treat me rather than the other way around. When I stayed in a hotel, I found it difficult to check out without taking the shampoo and soap with me. I eventually began to practice acting different by turning down free things to buy them myself, insisting on paying the restaurant bill when I ate with my parents or brothers (within my spending plan), and resisting “free samples.” I remember attending a professional meeting that promised a free lunch. I literally had to tear myself away to attend a DA meeting instead, buying my own lunch along the way. It was a strange new behavior for me.
I also realized that I had a pattern of underearning. My first job out of college was at McDonalds, flipping burgers. After four years of art school, an acquaintance hired me to do a drawing for her organization and asked me how much I’d charge. I replied “ten bucks.” I had no sense of my earning power—I was literally clueless about asking for what I needed. And I realized that I had equated incurring debt with being “grown up.” I remember coming to the conclusion that people walked into car dealerships and bought cars on credit, so I did the same—but with absolutely no clarity about whether I made enough income to afford the payments. Fortunately, I quit my job at the post office and was able to pay the car off in full with my retirement money. (Retirement? Never gave that any thought.) I quit that job to go back to graduate school, and student loans took me in way over my head. But then I took a job in China for two years where they couldn’t find me. I even found a way to get my department head to support my claim that I shouldn’t be expected to repay yet on my annual salary of $3500 in China (No, that isn’t a missing zero.). When I returned to New York, they found me-- and the final slide began.
After I had kept my numbers for several months and started putting them into spreadsheets, my pressure group looked over my records and announced, “You need to increase your income.” I of course expected them to tell me I needed to spend less and deprive myself more. It really pissed me off. I didn’t think I was capable of earning more —after all, I had a respectable job directing a continuing education program. But they urged me to make a list of ways I could increase my income right away. This led to my doing private tutoring, completing a textbook I was contracted to write in a year (but which I procrastinated on for three), and reviewing new book proposals for an educational publisher.
In the meantime, my creditors weren’t happy with my moratorium, so the harassment increased. Through someone’s suggestion, I asked my creditors-- in writing-- to contact me only by mail. When creditors called anyway, I followed a script: “I understand that you have a procedure to follow. I take full responsibility for this debt, and I have every intention of paying it back in full. However, I am unable to make any payments at this time. I will contact you in three months and let you know if my situation has changed.” No matter what they came back to me with (and often they were pretty abusive), I repeated those lines like a broken record. The invasive phone calls began to decrease and eventually stopped altogether.
After a year and half of a moratorium, as my income slowly increased, I began debt repayment, making small payments according to the percentage each creditor represented of my total debt. Some got as little as a dollar—the largest got $50. Eventually, the total amount of my debt repayment continued to increase, as my income increased, to $350 a month. My creditors, of course, were never satisfied. Three of them took me to court. I negotiated a payment plan in the courtroom with two. In the small miracles typical in this program, my income increased just enough so that I had the money I needed. The third creditor was very kind to me over the phone, so when they told me to sign the forms they were sending me, I dutifully did so and suddenly found myself with a judgment against me which led to my wages getting garnished. (I had forgotten to call someone in program first.) With program support, I called the city marshal and negotiated a payment plan which lifted the order. Later, they froze my bank account the day before Christmas (I had just a few dollars in my pocket.) The day after, I contacted the creditor and negotiated a payment plan that unfroze the account. I was learning to face the “bogeyman” again and again-- situations that I had had no idea how to deal with before coming to DA and had been willing to do anything to avoid. But now I was facing them-- and overcoming them—one day at a time.
About a year later, my young son tripped and fell on some very rough sidewalk in front of the department store that had garnished my wages. He required stitches on his chin and my wife responded by calling a lawyer, which really made me squirm. However, my time in the rooms helped me to let go and not meddle with her stuff (I reached a place of clarity realizing that department stores have insurance and a procedure to follow in such circumstances.) Her action led to a judgment in which my son received a sum equal to the amount I had owed in unsecured debt to that store, which sat locked in a bank account until he was college age.
With the actions I took from my pressure relief meetings, I slowly increased my income, and one—the publisher’s reviews—led to a job offer from that publisher, doubling my original salary. At first, they offered me $45K, but I spoke with my sponsor, asked for $50K and got it. For me, this alone was a miracle, as I had always imagined I was incapable of earning any more than $35K—a self-imposed ceiling. As a matter of fact, I thought if I made $35K, I’d have it made (which was insane). In addition, the job included extensive travel which had always been a dream of mine. At the same time, my textbook got published and started bringing in a steady $10K a year in royalties.
After a couple of years, I came to realize that I had developed experience and skills that were attractive to other companies and I explored some options. But I realized that I wanted to stay where I was, so I decided to ask for a raise. With my $35K mental block, it brought up a lot of fear and I had to share at meetings and use the telephone to turn it over in order to calm the feelings. My sponsor encouraged me to take the action even if I felt the fear. After about three months, I book ended with him that I was ready. As he suggested, I left my office by taking baby steps toward my boss’s office. I literally watched my feet taking the steps as I walked down the hall. I asked, even though I felt like my voice was shaking, and my boss agreed.
Over time, I came to refer to “God” in my recovery and continue to do so today. I do so without being in the least bit religious. I feel like God has a plan for me and that my job is to show up and let it happen. And I’ve made prayer a regular part of my life, always ending with “Thy will, not mine, be done.” If I’m not willing to NOT have what I pray for, then I know I’m doing something wrong. For me, the Steps are central to applying spiritual principles in my life for my own recovery. I’ve learned that it’s important for me to make amends for my own benefit. One day, after several years in program, I found myself stealing a magazine from my dentist’s office with my young son by my side (it had an article on debt and I felt entitled). That really made me feel ashamed, and when I got home I immediately called my sponsor. He suggested I go back to my dentist and tell him, and that I make a donation of $10 toward a patient who could use it. My dentist thought I was nuts (I don’t know what church you’re going to, but you can keep the magazine.) I returned it and gave $10 to his receptionist. It was a rigorous honesty I had to “practice” for my own recovery.
I also learned about gift giving. At first, I had to spend a lot less on gifts in order to stay within my spending plan. So I learned to give and let go. Because I never thought I had enough, receiving gifts had also always been problematic for me. Through the program, I’ve learned to believe that I always have enough. And I’ve learned that I can provide for myself instead of expecting others to fill that hole for me. I also learned over time—as someone who was accustomed to deprivation-- how to spend more money on gifts for myself and my immediate family. One action my pressure relief group gave me was to go to Tiffany’s and get my wife a gift for up to $250. I took my young son with me, who whined the whole time about how bored he was. The store made me uncomfortable, but I looked till I found a couple of potential gold pieces. When I couldn’t make a decision, I asked for my son’s opinion. He stopped whining just long enough to point at one. When I asked why, he answered with childlike wisdom, “Because it’s unique.” He was right-- she loved it. Around gifts, I’ve learned to spend appropriately, give, and let go.
After a number of years in DA, I found myself with a vision to buy a car and buy a house in the Hudson River valley. (Until then, I could only imagine one vision: to not incur any new unsecured debt no matter what). I had gone for 12 years in New York without a car—not because New Yorkers don’t drive, but because I didn’t think I could afford one. Also, I had so much shame about my debts that it was difficult to go through the process. My pressure relief group helped me take baby steps toward buying one and I ended up buying a car that was much nicer than I had ever allowed myself to have in the past.
In the early nineties, our landlord had left the country and allowed our small building to fall into disrepair. (One night my wife and I were horrified to feel cockroaches running across us in bed.) I didn’t think buying a house would ever be possible for me because of the moratorium I had taken on debt repayment. But my pressure relief group encouraged me to take actions anyway. The new car allowed my wife and I to drive out of the city and start looking. We soon found the “perfect” house, but thanks to the program I was able to see that the price was above my spending plan—and therefore not perfect at all. Despite feeling discouraged by all the crappy houses that were listed at our price range, we continued to look. After about a year, we found a beautiful 1929 house that we both fell in love with. When I called the mortgage guy, I decided to be honest, rather than hide in the shame. I warned him that I had defaulted on my loans in 1990, so he checked my history. In a few minutes he got back on the phone and exclaimed, “Your credit rating is excellent!”
An amazing thing for me is that for every difficult or overwhelming suggestion I’ve taken on in this program, I would eventually find the faith to show up and let the good in-- and my income would increase at just the right time. Shortly after closing on the house, I was promoted to an executive position with a corner office and a six figure salary. The promotion scared the heck out of me and there were numerous times when I had to shut my door and use the telephone just to keep my sanity. But the program has taught me to put one foot in front of the other, and to recognize that panic is deadly. Using the telephone and the Steps helps me overcome panic and keep moving forward, so that’s what I do.
The Twelfth Step—carrying the message and doing service-- has been a key part of recovery for me. I’ve volunteered to be secretary, treasurer, literature chair, and meeting chair for the various meetings I’ve attended—not because I wanted to help out, but because I was selfish and wanted to recover. At one point, I heard that someone was needed to publish the New York Intergroup newsletter, which had been falling behind in its publication, and I attended the monthly Intergroup meeting and volunteered. Two years later, hearing that someone was needed as special events coordinator, I volunteered. Taking on this kind of service was scary for me, as I never saw myself as an “organized person.” But it led to reviving New York Share-A-Day, an annual event for about 200 participants, which I chaired for two years in a row. I had to work with conflicting personalities and practice the Steps and Traditions (including dealing with a near fist fight at the event!)
After about 13 years, having paid off all my debts but the student loans, I started to get harassing phone calls again. My pressure group agreed that it was time for me to work toward closing that final debt. I tried to negotiate with the collection agency to shave off the substantial interest it had accrued, but they wouldn’t give in-- and this really pissed me off. But my pressure relief group put it in perspective for me: “Do you think you don’t owe that money?” My disease still wanted something for nothing. Fourteen years after my first meeting, I paid what I owed and have had no unsecured debt to repay since. Thank God for a long, slow recovery. My goal in DA was never to repay my debts; repayment is the natural result of not debting one day at a time and taking care of myself by increasing my own prosperity and abundance. In order to do that, I had to have the patience and faith to put my creditors last-- at the very bottom of my spending plan. That was a very scary concept to grasp early on, but it really works—in God’s time, not mine.
After a few years in that executive position at my company, I found myself with a new vision: I wanted to write a blockbuster international course. I brought it up in my pressure relief meeting but had no idea how I could make a shift from administration. After a few years, an opportunity came along that would allow me to co-author a flagship course for the company. When my boss told me I’d have to do it without a royalty (because I was a salaried employee), I turned it down. They agreed to give me a small royalty and I gave up my executive position, quickly moving from daily anxiety to creative work that brought me nothing but enjoyment. The course was published after about four and half years and has been a great success. I do extensive international travel promoting it, participating in professional conferences, and providing training workshops. This last year, the course brought in almost $10 million for the company, greatly increasing my income. And the course still hasn’t hit its peak.
About two years ago, it became clear it was time to replace my car. I could feel myself procrastinating and I had to get closer to the program to move ahead. We finally bought one last year (after my Higher Power hit me over the head a few times with the repair bills for the old one) and I was able to pay for it in full—something I never could have imagined earlier. And my son was accepted to a college which offered a small scholarship. For the past two years, I have paid the remaining $26K of his tuition without having to take out any loans.
Over the next year, I will be working toward revising the course I co-authored. As the company changed the terms of our agreement by not letting me write any longer on company time, I’m working with my pressure relief group to negotiate a new royalty. I have reached a place of peace knowing that whether they agree to raise it or not, I will be writing as an independent author—not as an employee. So either way, I’ll be fine. It’s not about the money; it’s about what I’m willing to do. And recently I’ve become aware of a new vision—to leave the company and have my own business as a writing and editorial house for publishers. I had always looked at DA business owners as strange aliens I would never understand, but suddenly I find myself thinking it’s time to get me to a BDA meeting.
Last year, I began a new level of service as a DA Trustee. As usual, I face doubts about my ability to perform the service, but I try to show up and put one foot in front of the other. I also know that service always brings me to a new place in my recovery. After a year, I can still see how much I don’t know. But I can also see how much I’ve learned and grown. And I know that this is only the beginning. One thing I’m certain of is that DA is my fellowship for life. I don’t see myself reaching a place where I don’t need the program. As a matter of fact, I sincerely believe that if I were to disconnect from DA, the long slide would begin all over again. Every day, I am grateful for the miraculous gifts I’ve received by working this program one day at a time.