Clarifying Abstinence

Though I’ve already written extensively about abstinence in DA, I still feel some additional clarification is needed because I continue to find people confused about this issue. Sometimes, we need to hear an idea multiple times in slightly different ways to have it sink in.

Debtor’s Anonymous Definition of Abstinence

In DA, the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop debting. If you aren’t incurring new unsecured debt, you are considered abstinent (or solvent, though, to me, the word “solvent” implies that I have no outstanding debt so I prefer the word “abstinent”). Note that in DA, abstinence doesn’t mean that you have no debt. In fact, if you are not able to pay down your debt and it is still incurring interest, as long as you are not incurring NEW unsecured debt, you are abstinent. According to DA:

We practice abstinence by not incurring compulsive, unsecured debt one day at a time. (Unsecured debt is any debt that is not backed up by some form of collateral, such as a car, house, etc.)

How to Stay Abstinent

While many have been able to maintain abstinence in DA using the tools as they are, some of us need more explicit directions and instructions for how to do so. For instance, before H.O.W.:

  1. It was too easy for me justify a compulsive purchase
  2. I had no accountability to another person and would fool myself too often about money
  3. I would move money around from category to category until, inevitably, I ran out of money to move around and debted

H.O.W. Definition of Abstinence

H.O.W. adds the following additional components as the way to maintain abstinence.

  1. We never, ever spend any money without first committing it to a sponsor.
  2. For some of us (like me), the obsession that comes over me when I want to buy something is almost physically painful. The pause of having to commit it may be enough to keep me from spending it. Or my sponsor may suggest waiting. Waiting is painful, but compulsively spending is worse for me. So I need this added suggestion of always committing my spending.

    In order to faciliate this. we call in our spending daily to a sponsor. We state the previous day’s planned and actual spending and the current day’s planned spending. We also tell a sponsor if unexpected spending comes up during the day that cannot wait until the next day.

    There is nothing fuzzy about this. It is absolute … well, sort of.

  3. Does Intention Matter?
  4. I love the high bottom of the H.O.W. Abstinence definition. If I deliberately refuse to call in my spending in an act of defiance, in DA H.O.W., that is considered a break of abstinence. As far as I’m concerned, better to be stopped at that point, than debting before I see there is a problem!

    But what if I am new to program and in my rushing around, am at the gas pump and realize, as I am pumping the gas, that I forgot to commit it? Is that a break of abstinence? Well, if I then willfully refuse to call my sponsor to tell her (maybe because I’m embarrassed or because I’m annoyed at having to do so or any of a million justifications), then, yes, I would consider that a break. It has to do with willingness and humility.

    But if this same person calls instantly, as soon as she realizes it, then no, I wouldn’t say so. On page 60 of the Big Book, it states,

    No one among us has been able to maintain anything like perfect adherence to these principles. We are not saints. The point is, that we are willing to grow along spiritual lines. The principles we have set down are guides to progress. We claim spiritual progress rather than spiritual perfection.

    We are going to make mistakes in a money program. It’s inevitable. Some may disagree with me on this point of abstinence, but this is my opinion. We are not here to beat each other up, but to support each others’ recovery. If someone didn’t intend to deceive, then I don’t feel it is a slip.

  5. About That $5 Overage
  6. In DA H.O.W., if you are spending committed money and it turns out to be up to $5 over, you do not have to call it in. I find this one very slippery and so ensure there are clean boundaries around it.

    If you are at the grocery store with a full cart and did your best to guesstimate the amount and it’s $4.95 over, yes, I can see that. But this $5 overage isn’t free money to just spend at will. For instance, you don’t go to a store and buy something you didn’t commit that is $3. And you don’t use that $5 overage multiple times in a day.

    However, if the grocery bill is $5.01 over, then, yes, you do need to call it in. Why, you say? Well, it’s that honesty and humility thing again. If I can get away with one cent, I will, as a severe addict, end up debting. I push the limit. But there has to be a wall. And it’s $5.

Other H.O.W. Components

Abstinence, in DA H.O.W. also means that you:

  1. Do reading and writing daily
  2. Call one other DA member daily
  3. Go to one DA meeting a week (preferably a DA H.O.W. meeting to show support)

Other Overall DA Considerations for Debting

In DA, some people think that if you pay a bill late or return a library book late so there is a fine, that is a break of abstinence.

Again, I think it has to do with intention. If you have your bills sitting on your desk and just don’t feel like paying them on time, that is quite a different story from a bill you accidentally threw out without realizing it.

As for library books, I know parents with young children who take out so many books so often that they simply cannot keep track of them. In this case, they have a fund for late library books and use that money for it. It is not the parents’ fault if the children don’t give them back on time. And yes, you may think that the kids should have to pay, but that is an entirely different discussion!

Encouragement is Key

On these issues, DA members may disagree. As you know, I do not speak for DA. I’m just a member recovering one day at a time. We have all beaten ourselves up enough for our imperfections. My belief is that rigor is essential, but mistakes happen. It is what the addict does about the mistake that shows whether the commitment to recovery is sincere. And a sincere commitment to recovery, in my opinion, needs to be encouraged.

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