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Stepping into a Vocation

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After thirty years in OA, I’m still deeply grateful that I’ve been able to keep off more than 150 pounds (68 kg). A critical part of my success has been working the Twelve Steps of OA.

When I first joined OA, I was able to quickly work Steps One through Seven. Then came the feared Steps Eight and Nine. Because I had been self-absorbed for most of my life, my Eighth Step list had about seventy-five items on it, and I felt intimidated and overwhelmed.

Here’s the backstory: I endured a very difficult childhood by deciding that the only way for me to survive was by getting my needs met first and at any cost. I gave little thought to how my behavior might affect others. It didn’t matter if I ate your food, lied to your face, or did something illegal so long as I didn’t get caught.

Through this Twelve Step program, however, I realized that if I was going to make amends, then I’d first have to change my worldview from a “me” focus to a “we” focus. My sponsor agreed and warned that if I didn’t stick with it, then I would most likely overeat again. I made that commitment, and for almost thirty years, I’ve been living that choice, one day at a time. Every day, as I work on the “me-we” balance, I consciously consider other people in my actions. My effort is not perfect, but I continue to make progress.

The most difficult item on my amends list was to my grandmother. I was raised by her and my mom, but my mother struggled with depression and couldn’t keep a job, and the three of us lived together on public assistance in a dangerous neighborhood.

As an overweight white kid, I was bullied and beaten up. I remember getting a concussion after being hit in the head with a baseball bat. I also remember a kid, who had just gotten out of reform school for stabbing another kid to death, came after me one day. He got me in a headlock and was hitting me in the face. When my grandmother heard me screaming and crying, she came out with her cane and started hitting the kid until he released me. She was always there to protect me.

When I was twelve, my mother told me one morning that something was wrong with my grandmother. She couldn’t move or speak normally. My mother didn’t know what was wrong, but she didn’t want to call 911. In truth, she hoped it would pass, but it didn’t. Unfortunately, my mother waited several days until I insisted she call for help. Sadly, we learned my grandmother had had a stroke, and because we had waited so long, she would never speak or move again. My mother fell into a deep depression, became suicidal, and overdosed on sleeping pills. She didn’t die, but she lost custody of me and went to a psychiatric hospital. I ended up living in a foster home.

I went to my grandmother’s nursing home and saw her in a wheelchair, unable to speak or move. All she could do was look at me. The rest of her life, she had to stay in this nursing home for people who were financially destitute. Back then, it was a very scary place for a 13-year-old boy. I never went back to see her again, and a year later, she died alone.

So when I was doing my Eighth Step, I thought back on my grandmother. I thought how much it would it have meant to her if I had made regular visits. I could have just held her hand and told her I loved her. Instead, she died alone. Though I couldn’t undo this, I wanted to do something to make amends to the woman who had helped and protected me.

I decided to help other people protect their loved ones from the scourge of stroke. I learned that most strokes can be treated with medication within the first few hours, but most people still don’t call 911 in time, because they don’t know how to spot a stroke. So for my Ninth Step, I started a public health campaign to teach people how to spot strokes: If you think someone is having a stroke, ask them to smile. If their smile droops, call 911. Ask them to put both of their arms out straight. If one slowly drifts down, call 911. If their speech is slurred, call 911. I encourage everyone to go online and learn more about stroke prevention.

Half of my professional life is now focused on this service, and I have been able to teach thousands. This all came from OA’s Ninth Step. Somewhere, I hope my grandmother is smiling.

— Alan S.

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