An Erstwhile Underearner Discovers The Real Meaning Of Recovery

When I first got into D.A. in January of 1995, with $20,000 in credit card debt from a self-employment fiasco and a college degree, I had already cut up my credit cards and cancelled my credit lines. I was writing down my income and expenses (although I had no spending plan), and I thought I had a handle on the whole debting thing. In fact, if you had asked me straight out, I would have said I wasn't really a debtor. I was the one they talk about in the Twelve Steps of Debtors Anonymous pamphlet: I came to D.A. "loftily seeking a new perspective on money." I thought I had it all figured out. How hard could it be? I didn't need all that spiritual crap. I thought I'd pay off my debts in two years and leave all you losers behind. I lurked on the fringes of D.A. like a feral cat, hungry for something, but I didn't know what. I had very little awareness of who I was. I didn't want you to know me. I didn't want to know myself. At that stage in my recovery, the idea of admitting my powerlessness over debt, finding a relationship with a higher power, and surrendering my will and my life to its care—the first three Steps—was totally inconceivable. This is the story of my odyssey into 12-Step recovery.

Step 1: What am I powerless over?

I understood Step 1 intellectually, but not emotionally. Intellectually, I was willing to admit I was powerless, but I wasn't sure exactly over what, considering I didn't really think debting was my problem. I certainly had no emotional concept of what it meant to admit powerlessness, because I was out of touch with every emotion except anger. Rather than truly admit I was defeated, I spent a lot of effort trying to find a label that I felt would adequately describe my unique style of debting. In my early days in D.A., I heard people identify themselves as a variety of things—compulsive debtors, self-debtors, shopaholics, chargeaholics, overspenders, visionaries, underearners, money addicts, committed to prosperity…. I felt many of the labels described me. When I heard the word self-debtor, I was like, Yes! Another way to focus everything back on me. And Visionary! I loved the whole idea of visions, prosperity, abundance—seductive words to one who had lived in deprivation for so long. Now I know that I had no understanding of the cunning disease of debting and how it permeated every aspect of my life. After working the Twelve Steps multiple times, I gradually came to realize my debting disease manifests every time I assume that I am so special I can have whatever I want, whenever I want it, without having to earn it or pay for it. Now I really get that I am powerless over debt.

Step 2: Money was my higher power.

Of all the labels I heard at meetings, I was especially enamored with underearner. That label seemed to sum up my life as a wannabe artist. At last I thought I had identified my particular form of the debting disease. More money was the answer. I'd always suspected that money would solve my problems, but once I identified myself as an underearner, I was convinced that earning more money was the solution I'd been searching for. I thought that I was a debtor because I was an underearner. That implied, of course, that if I just earned more money, I wouldn't be a debtor anymore. After a while, I figured out that no matter how much money I had in the bank, I still approached life like a debtor—in other words, self-centered, demanding, vague, and resentful. Clearly, it wasn't about the money.

I've since come to believe that money has as much power over me as I choose to give it. Coming to believe in a higher power bigger than money was a long and painful process. I struggled for months, asking all the metaphysical questions D.A.s ask when working Step 2: Is there a God? What is God? Is God a he or a she or an it? Is it something inside me or something external? Can I talk to God like a friend, or is God an impersonal force more like the ocean or the wind? Do I have free will? Or is everything already planned? Is it possible to know the answers to these questions? What if I never find out the answers? Is this all just some colossal joke? I spent a long time distracting myself with endless questions. Finally I moved past the questions to realize that I would never know the answers, simply because I am human, with a human's limited perception and understanding of spiritual matters. What was important was that I kept asking the questions, because that is how I moved closer to a higher power I could trust. So, simplistic as it sounds, God or whatever I choose to call it is whatever I need it to be. And when it seems too small, I trade it in for a new, bigger, shinier higher power, one that challenges me to keep moving ever closer. Trusting God is not easy for me. I work every day to maintain that spiritual connection. Only a spiritual connection to a power greater than myself can restore me to sanity.

Step 3: Surrender is the path to serenity.

In a short time, I became disenchanted with the whole visions thing. It wasn't working, and I couldn't figure out why. Didn't God want me to be happy, joyous, and free? Of course, like a true debtor, the only thing that would make me happy was getting my way. Someone suggested I get a sponsor and start working the Steps. I gathered my courage and asked the wrong person to be my sponsor, which of course turned out to be the right person, although you wouldn't have known it at the time. By the time I finished Step 3, my life was falling apart. I tore my life apart by working the Steps. It had to be done, but I didn't know that then. All I could see was my life crumbling around me. I thought there should be a sign over the meeting door warning debtors that if they work the Steps, things will change. And change is not always painless. I quit my job because it was "not a good fit" and thus began a downward spiral of temp jobs punctuated by periods of unemployment. My relationship unraveled, which meant I had to move. I slept on couches and lived out of my car. I kept going to D.A. meetings, and I didn't debt, but I came close. I felt angry and disappointed because my dreams of becoming a famous wealthy artist seemed further away than ever. I lost all sense of self, and finally moved back to my hometown in defeat. I blamed God. It was a type of surrender, maybe, but not a willing surrender. I was still too attached to the payoffs for not surrendering to totally surrender to my higher power. I had to understand that placing anything but God in the center of my life always leads me away from my recovery and places me at risk of debting. I began to see that I was receiving many satisfying payoffs for stubbornly choosing self-will: sympathy, attention, and pity were just a few. Every time I work Step 3, I let go of a few more payoffs. Every day I make a decision to surrender everything to the higher power, I feel more able to handle life on life's terms.

Steps 4 and 5: Honesty and an end to isolation.

Back in the hometown in 1997, I found D.A. and began ingratiating myself into the local D.A. community. I became a GSR and attended my first D.A. World Service Conference in 1999. That experience launched my recovery to a new level. I met D.A.s from all over the country and the world, D.A.s who lived full and meaningful lives without debting. I was inspired to work the Steps again. I began to recognize how my attitudes and beliefs were driving my behaviors. Even though I wasn't debting, I responded to people and situations like a debtor. Behind the actual act of incurring unsecured debt was an attitude that affected every part of my life, what amounted to a total life philosophy, an approach to life that was rooted in self-obsession and fear. I was appalled to realize that even though I had not debted since 1994, I was still acting out my debting disease in other ways. My Fourth Steps revealed some of my limiting attitudes and beliefs:

--I realized that I expected to get everything for nothing; I expected to have it all—life, love, work, business meetings, everything—my way, without paying for it, earning it, or contributing my fair share. I had to force myself to arrive early to meetings, to lead when asked, to stay late to put away chairs, to be the intergroup rep, to say yes to service.

--I learned that I had a fear of taking responsibility for myself, which manifested as an unwillingness to show up for jobs, especially jobs I didn't like or thought I was too good for. I couldn't see myself as a "worker among workers." To retrain my thinking, I started doing service when no one was watching, replacing meeting clocks that mysteriously disappeared, picking up paper towels in restrooms, and downloading and printing copies of the Ways & Means to give out free to newcomers.

--I began to see how I used other peoples' time, money, energy, and possessions, while contributing as little as possible of my own. In my inventory, I chronicled all the times I'd lived with partners and used their stereos, dishes, sheets, furniture, and towels without offering anything of my own because I thought there would never be enough if I gave away what little I had. I was almost 50 before I bought my own television and stereo. My inventory showed me that my whole life I'd been "playing house," too scared to create my own.

--I learned that I was compulsively keeping my life small so it would be "manageable." Fewer zeros were easier to keep track of, fewer things could go wrong. Fewer resources meant the choices were crystal clear: survival mode was the only option. Keeping things small helped me maintain an illusion of control, so I wouldn't have to be afraid.

--I learned I was relying on my recordkeeping to save me, forgetting that the source of my wholeness and well-being is found in my connection to the higher power, which is found through working the Twelve Steps. I thought that if I just had the right spending plan, the right earning plan, or the perfect pressure relief group, that finally I would be safe. I forgot that D.A. is a spiritual program, not a financial management program.

My inventory also revealed to me how my relationship with my parents played an ongoing role in my underearning behaviors. In my family, money equaled love. As long as I was needy and helpless, my parents would express their love for me by giving me money. They wanted me to be safe, because they loved me, and I wanted to feel safe and loved so I accepted their gifts, but the gifts came with both strings and consequences. I felt manipulated and misunderstood, but I also learned to practice self-deceit.

I believe at the core of my debting disease is the attitude that I am special. So special I believe I am exempt from the rules and that I deserve to have everything I want, right now. Or on any given day, so special I deserve to have nothing, not even space on the planet. To me, the essence of my debting behavior is to both undervalue and overvalue my place in the world. Right size was a foreign concept. Either way, my attitudes and behaviors were the manifestation of an ego that was immature, self-centered, unreasonable, irresponsible, and probably supremely annoying. Now I know money is money, and love is love. Only a power greater than me could remove my shortcomings and transform me into something useful.

Steps 6 & 7: Willingness to be transformed.

For a long time I was sad to realize that I held up my "failure" to succeed as an artist as a badge of honor to get attention and ego strokes for my valiant suffering. And further, I spent my energy on dreaming, wanting, and visioning and never got around to the doing. In other words, I didn't work at my craft. It was safer to dream and complain than to take action and risk change. The fear that my art wasn't good enough kept me from improving, thereby creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. As long as I thought money was both the problem and the solution, I kept the spiritual door closed. I had no faith that a Higher Power could be the answer. After all, I asked God for money, and I was given just enough to scrape by. I asked God to let me earn doing something I loved and was presented with crummy jobs that deadened my spirit. God had not proven to be trustworthy in the earning department. As long as I focused on what I wasn't getting from life, I couldn't think about what I could give, thereby closing myself off from the Sunlight of the Spirit. When I finally saw all the payoffs I received for not surrendering my earning, my money, and my debting to the care of God, I realized that I wanted to change. I was tired of trying to force life to conform to my demands. I wanted relief from the pain and fear. In Step 6, I became willing to change, and in Step 7 I asked God to change me, and I believe I have been changed. Steps 6 and 7 are the transformation steps. Every time I work these steps, I feel like I am changed on a molecular level. I believe God is changing me to the extent I am willing to be changed, shaping me into an instrument that can be of service to God and to my fellows.

Steps 8 & 9: The gifts and promises of recovery.

With the grace of God, I have managed to whittle my list of financial amends down to two transgressions I committed many years ago. When the time is right, I will make these amends. I no longer regret the past, whereas I used to shun it. The harms I've done others and the harms I've done myself are all part of my path, the path that brought me here. Making amends is something I do for me, so I can forgive myself for not being perfect. Self-forgiveness is a necessary step in achieving humility. Thanks to the Steps, I have largely set aside my anxieties over my imperfections. Whenever I feel myself slipping into self-judgment, I ask God to relieve me of the bondage of self; it's my ego that says it is not acceptable to be imperfect. I'm positive God does not judge me as harshly as I judge myself. As a result of working Step 9, the promises have come true for me: I have clarity, faith, and a new-found hope. My life is satisfyingly rich, filled with meaning and purpose. God has done for me what I could not do for myself.

Step 10: A new way of living.

In 2003, about three months after I paid off my last debt, a job in a completely new field came along. I applied for it and got it. On the same day, coincidentally, I moved into my own apartment for the first time in 25 years. I was terrified that life would obliterate me for daring to change, for trying to be self-sufficient, for trying to be big. I white-knuckled my way through those early days, praying to God for guidance and mercy, learning to be the primary adult care-giver in my own life. Slowly I began to settle into a life I could love, with gentle guidance from my Higher Power and the support of the D.A. community. The job paid adequately, and I enjoyed the work. And I had all those things that adults who take responsibility for themselves seem to have: recognition, self-respect, savings, benefits, and a 401K. In the spirit of Step 10, I live as mindfully and carefully as I can, one day at a time, to avoid creating situations that I'll have to make amends for later. As of this writing, I am going to graduate school the slow but sane way, paying cash one course at a time. Imagining what comes next both exhilarates and terrifies me, yet another chance to surrender my will and my life to the care of the higher power.

Step 11: Connection to a spiritual source.

The D.A. World Service Conference Convocation is a profound example of how God, the ultimate authority, manifests in the group conscience. It was my privilege to serve D.A. as a trustee. Learning how our organization operates helped me become responsible for my own recovery. When it was time to rotate off the General Service Board, I was delighted to be able to pass the baton of service on to others, so they could have the opportunity to serve D.A. Through giving service, I've learned that God is the path to all that I desire. Instead of focusing on what I lack, I practice gratitude for the gifts I've been given. I've also learned there are many paths to God. My first sponsor used to describe three kinds of prayer. I was trapped in the first two kinds of prayer for years: Help me, God and F— you, God. That's the best I could do, mired in my anger and self-obsession. Gradually my prayers shifted to a third kind of prayer, Thank you, God. Gratitude inspires me to be a good steward of my own life. Gratitude leads me to Step 12.

Step 12: Carrying the message into the world.

I sometimes hear D.A.s talk about working the Steps as if the outcome will be wealth, fame, and the achievement of their heart's desire. I have learned that the result of working the Steps is a spiritual awakening. In the beginning, that didn't seem like much reward for all the pain and tears. But now I recognize this spiritual awakening as D.A.'s most precious gift to me, because it is the spiritual connection to my higher power that allows me to live without debting, one day at a time. I need the D.A. program much more than it needs me. Our common welfare comes first. I'm ok with being anonymous. No one needs to know who I am. For me, it is crucial that I focus my attention on what I can give to life rather than what I can get from it. Remembering that anonymity is a spiritual principle helps me stay out of self-seeking.

Twelve-Step recovery is full of paradoxes: we admit powerlessness to gain true power, we surrender to gain alignment with God's will. Another paradox I've learned is that if I want to keep what I've been given, I must give it away. I love my life now. I don't want to lose it. If D.A. does not survive and thrive, my recovery is at risk. Purely out of a desire to keep what I've been given, I try to focus on being of service in all areas of my life, inside and outside D.A. I have done and continue to do service for D.A. at all levels: personal, meeting, intergroup, and world service. Service has been vital to my recovery. Service connected me to God and to my fellows. Considering that my personal recovery depends on the survival of D.A., I always say "yes" to service. I work the Steps with just about anyone who asks, and when we finish Step 12, I cut them loose to go out and do the same with others. I also try to focus on being of service outside of D.A. I don't focus on the job, or the paycheck, or the benefits, or even the earning. I focus on being of service. God can do more with me when I am willing to be of service.

In summary, here's what I've learned: (1) It doesn't matter how much money I earn, I will always be a debtor. Sooner or later, if I don't earn, I will eventually debt. After I blow through my savings, retirement funds, home equity line of credit, inheritance, windfall, whatever—if I don't earn, I will debt. It is simple as that. Therefore, I consider underearning to be a symptom of my debting disease, not the cause of it. I underearn because I am a debtor. (2) The only vision worth pursuing is the vision to know and do God's will. Placing any other vision in the center of my life disconnects me from my spiritual source. (3) The greatest gift of working the Steps is the spiritual awakening. I now have a solid faith in a higher power I can trust. At last I have an antidote to my doubt and fear.

Thanks to D.A.'s Twelve Steps, no matter what happens in my life, the spiritual source of my well-being and serenity is always available to me should I choose to connect to it. Because of this spiritual awakening, I am not the same person I was when I first came to D.A. seeking a new perspective on money. Through working the Twelve Steps, I found that new perspective and so much more. I have been remade into something I believe God finds more useful. Now I can genuinely say my true vision is to "live usefully and walk humbly under the grace of God."


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