In beginner meetings where I got sober one of the rituals to start the meeting was to read a list of “tools” and have someone speak very briefly on each one. The list included: Meetings, sponsorship, literature, service and working the steps. Later in my recovery I learned to add one more that is to this day one of the lifesavers of my sobriety and a favorite tool for honesty and personal growth. That tool is: The answering machine.
Yes, it may seem odd but here’s how answering machines helped me in every stage of recovery:
In the very beginning I was told to get phone numbers and call other women in recovery. I dutifully got a long list of numbers but like many newcomers found it hard to pick up the phone to make the call. When my courage allowed me to actually dial the number there were many, many times that I’d hang up as soon as I heard a human voice answer. I was just too unsure, shy or embarrassed to make conversation. Luckily, I had a sponsor who understood. This was before Caller-ID but I think she knew who was calling and hanging up on her all the time. She suggested to me one day that each morning I should call her home phone—while she was at work—and leave a message on her answering machine. She said to me, “Leave me a message on the machine telling me how you are, what meeting you’re going to that day, and what you are worried about”.
She assured me that only she heard the messages so I could cry, yell, swear whatever I needed to say was OK.
That practice taught me to make calls and to practice telling the truth out loud. It was a way to make contact with another person and to learn the habit of saying how I really felt; kind of like making notes in a digital diary.
Sometimes my sponsor would call me back, sometimes not. If my messages said, “I need to talk” she’d call me, otherwise she’d comment on things I said when I saw her at meetings. After a few months of that I began to occasionally call her at night when she was home and we’d have a live two-way talk. The answering machine had helped me to break through my fear and to learn the habit of calling another sober woman.
As my recovery progressed I made friends with other women in the program. We were all busy with jobs and kids and service and going to lots of meetings so we too began to call each others machines and leave “Here’s what’s going on” messages. When one of us had a crisis, a break up, a bad day at work or a fear about a character defect that just popped up we’d dial each other and blather it into the machines.
When I began, along with my network of sober women, to do a 4th and 5th steps the answer machines served another purpose. Sometimes in that inventory process I’d have a memory or insight or some old piece of guilt or regret would rise to the surface and threaten to swallow me. I’d be stricken with shame of admitting and fear of not telling if I didn’t get it out of me fast. On those nights I’d call a friend’s answering machine and say: “I just need to say this out loud…” and then admit to something scary or shameful. Or I’d call to ask for help that I wasn’t quite ready to hear and leaving a message let me take the first step of admitting but would buy me some hours or days time to process what the amend or adjustment to my behavior might need to be.
Later still, when I became a sponsor, I invited those who called me to use my machine the same way. I made sure when I got married, in year ten of my sobriety, that the new answering machine in our home was the kind with separate mailboxes so that calls to me were private and messages discreet.
Today I know I would not be sober with out this tool. I still, many years later, call my sponsor just to talk to her machine. My messages usually begin, “I’m just making a program call and need to get this out.” Then I launch into my, “He said, she did, I said, I feel…” and pour out the details and worries of my situation or trouble. More often now these messages are also about the good things and the gratitude or the enjoyment of seeing myself in the process of change. Recently I called a sober friend who was vacationing to leave the message that I had just run into a woman I had struggled with for years. I couldn’t wait to report that we’d had a nice visit, laughed together and hugged when we parted. It was one of those moments when you know the program is working and the person you were is well in the past.
At other times my recovering friends and I use each other’s machines to handle situations with difficult people, places and things, even alcohol. On my way to a work-related event where booze is going to be plentiful I make a call to say, “Hey this meeting is going to be in a club and I just need to say I’ll be having a Coke.” It’s now been many years since I’ve wanted or even thought about taking a drink but the answering machine makes it possible to put myself on notice-- and on the record --that I am still careful.
No, an answering machine doesn’t take the place of a long two-way phone chat or sitting leisurely over coffee with a sponsor or a sober friend, but it fills the gap in-between those pleasures. And for newcomers this bit of digital technology may make all the difference and it can make learning the habit of making phone calls a little easier on the road to recovery.