“Reconsidering Alcoholics Anonymous” is the fourteenth part of a project called Terminally Unique. It features what was originally the seventh chapter from a piece I published in 2013 called Believed to Be Seen. To gain a better sense of what this broader series is, I suggest starting from the beginning with the introduction titled “A New Pair of Glasses.” For those of you continuing on through, here is “Reconsidering Alcoholics Anonymous”…
“Some might say that even if you don’t need God, you do need faith.” —Rogers & McMillin
When I was a kid my dad would often take speaking engagements, filling in at various churches throughout the city we lived in. The thing I most took away from those all-but-forgotten Sundays is how they helped me learn to interact and relate to other people. At an early age I began to develop something of a social survival technique, which remained a crutch for many years.
Having been a judgmental and cruel little monster myself, many, if not most, kids of elementary-school age would appear to be judgmental and cruel little monsters. They might seem like outstanding young mini-citizens on the surface (especially if they are your kids), but when an outsider arrives on the scene, threatening the core of the pack, the transformation is almost instant. I am not sure at what age kids make the leap from an accepting, welcoming, and generally open-minded species, but once it happens the change is frightening. Especially when you are the outsider. No matter where we attended church, or how frequently we returned, I was constantly reminded of this in Sunday School. The groups were usually made up of kids like me, who approached it as a weekly chore, infrequently sprinkled with a minority of those genuinely interested in learning about The Bible. No matter which side I tried playing to I rarely felt like I connected with kids my age at the churches we visited, and after awhile it seemed useless to keep trying. You can play the Nice Young Man card countless times with elderly congregation members, but dimples don’t sway other kids. I showed up, played the New Kid role, and disappeared.
There are so many pieces to each of the puzzles of our lives it is tough to really identify which of the crudely stamped moments ends up affecting us the most. Typically it is not a single piece but the connection between them that begins to add up, and as the picture starts to take shape, each of the smaller pieces slowly reveal their significance. From the time when my parents were first married to when I was born, they moved a half-dozen times across two countries. This bouncing-around act, though largely done out of necessity, only evolved further in my life. I have moved around 30 times. That is one piece. The Sunday School thing might be one, too. When I was in the fourth grade I lost my best friend in a car accident; certainly that would seem a prominent piece. Shifting interests from athletics and popularity to underachievement in school, another piece. And maybe even a lack of hard-wired identity due to an unsure nationalistic allegiance, leaving me feeling a foreigner in both my native and adopted countries, another. So many pieces have been added over the years but when combined the larger picture identifying how I tend to relate to other people depicts something of a social-chameleon, capable of blending in with many while sincerely relating to few. Or at least that is how I have felt for much of my life.
My family moved after I finished elementary school, wiping the slate clean of friends and acquaintances as I entered junior high. I later pursued on-the-job training in high school, distancing myself from the people I attended classes with. After high school, we took a big leap as a family and moved from Canada to the United States. After settling somewhat, I moved to Iowa to attend college, then when I could no longer afford college I moved back (then back again the following year). I planted some roots in Minneapolis after graduating, but moved around the city’s suburbs, also frequently changing jobs. Later, I returned to Canada, where I only stayed for six months before returning to the U.S. Much of my mental health, and physical health for that matter, has revolved around simply being in the presence of other people, but for so long I have closed myself off (intentionally or not), and distanced myself from developing relationships. People do better when they are around other people, and I am one of those people. “There are many ways to destroy a person,” writes Lisa Guenther in The New York Times. “But the simplest and most devastating might be solitary confinement.” Even inmates in prisons need other people, and they are locked up with those perceived as the worst among us.
Over time I became complacent with my seclusion, only reinforcing it through secretive behavior influenced by binge-drinking. The drive to both suffocate and facilitate this inflated a sense of loneliness that remains a sore spot for me, but the last time I began to really bottom out I was overcome by a sense of shame. I recognized that suicide appeared as viable an option as it has ever been, but I knew I did not have it in me to go through with it. I was lost. I tried connecting with local mental health agencies only to be forwarded to voicemail, and reached out to a few close friends to simply say “I don’t know what to do.” On the recommendation of friends to simply get out of my apartment so I could try to get out of my head I landed at a drop-in sober house. I kept coming back not because I felt A.A. was going to miraculously save me, but because it was there for me when I had nowhere else to turn. And – statistics be damned – it helped.
My previously jaded position on Alcoholics Anonymous notwithstanding, when this breaking point hit, I had to put my feelings to the side for my own betterment. And the greatest immediate benefit of “working The Program” for me had little to do with step-by-step procedures, but actually just came in the companionship of other people who were dealing with problems similar to mine. As daunting as recovery is for those who are deep into addiction, it is only exacerbated that much further when wrapped in the context of loneliness. The basic idea of facilitating interaction is extremely valuable. Because of this, I take issue with such positions as Rational Recovery’s, which “does not recommend or suggest that [those in recovery] join 12-step groups, support groups, or get counseling, treatment, or other long-term therapy.” When I found myself in the deepest pit of despair, despite recognizing my own irrational thinking as being irrational, I was not in much of a position to turn things around on my own. I needed the help of others. And A.A. was there for me, as it is for countless others every day, serving as a readily available, cost-effective outlet for those who need it. And when you are in need of support and there is no alternative to turn to, it is hard to argue against the value of simply being in a room of other human beings when you feel so fundamentally inhuman. As the literature jokes, “When you have to go into your head, don’t go alone.”
There are plenty of negative aspects to Alcoholics Anonymous, and many people have actually had their lives hurt by those championing the very program through which they sought personal healing. It is hard to deny the cult-like similarities, and the historical legal twisting has ensured its position in the country, regardless of how statistically beneficial it might really be. In A.A., self-esteem and personal accountability are suppressed, and the prevailing concept that members should not think for themselves because it was their own thinking that drove them to despair is wildly misguided. And above all, A.A. sermonizes the “insanity” of alcoholism, without appearing to consider that at the time The Big Book was written, homemade Prohibition-era alcohol was often poisonous, known to cause death, blindness, and delirium. To drink it, you had to have a little crazy in you.
Alluding to the insanity of its members only to then prompt insane people to take a “searching and fearless moral inventory” of themselves is fundamentally contradictory, which is not to mention how unreasonable it is to ask desperate and broken people to instill blind faith in whatever power they conjure up as being something greater than themselves in the first place. As comedian Doug Stanhope says in one of his bits, “I’m a drunk. I can’t even make up a good excuse for why I pissed in the sock drawer last night. This is probably not a good time for me to be creating omnipotent deities.” The guilt and scare tactics of condemning sobriety found through alternative means as meaningless, and perpetuating the “dry drunk” myth is harmful and twisted: No, you’re not on the right track and ready to move on with your life, you’re only in denial of how truly perverse the depths of your disease are! You’re “constitutionally incapable of being honest” with yourself! Why fight and bicker and threaten in order to convince people of a program’s value if it is also deeply powerful and wise? Yes, it has its issues, but Alcoholics Anonymous has value, too.
At times it is important, and necessary, to be alone, but not when byproducts of seclusion include misplaced blame, artificially fabricated feelings of self-righteousness, or a delusional perspective on why friendship, or basic human interaction, fail to matter. When this happens the ego becomes a person’s worst enemy, and that is precisely what happened to me. I have not devalued friendship because my inherited blueprint for human relationships was so vague, but because I allowed excuses to dictate whether or not I would let myself be a friend to others. I have not moved all over the country because I was not accepted for who I was, but because I rejected the notion that whatever I found was good enough. The cyclical nature of friendship, or avoiding friendship, is such that it tends to lend itself as something of a self-fulfilling prophecy: Others are only likely to make the same effort that you do. And because I did not perceive that others were making the effort to be there for me, I did not feel obligated to make an attempt myself.
The effect other people have on us is palpable, revealing how simple interaction and community is vital to not only the human experience, but how basic social circles might impact our levels of happiness. “A 2002 study conducted at the University of Illinois by [Edward] Diener and [Martin] Seligman found that the most salient characteristics shared by the 10% of students with the highest levels of happiness and the fewest signs of depression were their strong ties to friends and family and commitment to spending time with them.” Practicing forgiveness (of self and others) and managing anger increases one’s ability to find more meaningful friendships. The way we treat others bears reflection of how we feel about ourselves. At its root-level, A.A. seeks to connect people in a fashion that breeds these sorts of positive relationships.
Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi uses the term “flow” when characterizing a state which captures our complete engagement: some are able to find flow deep in the midst of an engaging sermon, while others find it by competing in their favorite sport, playing a video game, or drinking (a simpler path toward finding lucid “focus” might not exist). Because of flow, or rather because of philosophical flow, it is easy to become trapped by complacent perspective without even realizing it. When a certain way of looking at the world has consumed the mind for a lengthy period of time it becomes terribly difficult to imagine that any other way could bear value. The basics behind the idea communicated when A.A. members tell newcomers to “take the cotton from your ears and put it in your mouth” speaks to this, confronting self-validating thinking with theological resistance.
There is an internal stubbornness in all of us that remains defiant to change, especially when it stands in contrast to pre-existing beliefs or habits. A beautiful aspect of A.A. is The Program’s focus on the ego and nurturing humility in the pursuit of living better. One of my favorite stories from A.A. that speaks to these clashing priorities came from a woman who explained how determined she was to defend her way of life. She had lost her job and was living in her car with her daughter, yet not only did she continue to drink, but proudly turned down help from others as if she still had things well under control. Speaking to her resistant streak, she said, “I can be on fire and still argue, ‘Don’t call the fire department – I got this covered’.”
The phrase “egomaniac with an inferiority complex” gets thrown around frequently in A.A. meetings, but for those struggling to remove themselves from the center of their universe, the ability to step outside of personal conflict and look to others in building a better self is important. Alcoholics Anonymous does this through the act of service – “sponsorship” – but A.A. hardly invented altruism as a means of self-benefit. Take Confucius who said, “He who wishes to secure the good of others has already secured his own.” This sort of thinking has been a keystone of satisfaction through the ages, which is why sponsoring newcomers is beneficial for those who have established their non-drinking in The Program, no different than how many find volunteer work so personally rewarding. If you can take focus away from your own happiness and direct it toward that of others you are likely to be better off for having done so.
When we consciously and thoughtfully put the needs of someone else ahead of our own, no matter how small the act of selflessness may be, doing so has proven to grant those completing the action a sense of not merely satisfaction, but sincere happiness. Yet when we become trapped in isolated loops of insecurity, the tendency persists to overlook others for the sake of the self; an inclination which is magnified to exponential lengths by addiction. The Big Book manipulates this message at times to serve a greater organizational purpose (“Even if he displays a certain amount of neglect and irresponsibility towards the family, it is well to let him go as far as he likes in helping other alcoholics”), but there are plenty of other sources that speak to the benefit of helping others. Take, for example, what might be my favorite religious parable:
A holy man was having a conversation with the Lord one day and said, ‘Lord, I would like to know what Heaven and Hell are like.’ The Lord led the holy man to two doors. He opened one of the doors and the holy man looked in. In the middle of the room was a large round table. In the middle of the table was a large pot of stew, which smelled delicious and made the holy man’s mouth water. The people sitting around the table were thin and sickly. They appeared to be famished. They were holding spoons with very long handles that were strapped to their arms and each found it possible to reach into the pot of stew and take a spoonful. But because the handle was longer than their arms, they could not get the spoons back into their mouths.
The holy man shuddered at the sight of their misery and suffering. The Lord said, ‘You have seen Hell’. They went to the next room and opened the door. It was exactly the same as the first one. There was the large round table with the large pot of stew which made the holy man’s mouth water. The people were equipped with the same long-handled spoons, but here the people were well nourished and plump, laughing and talking. The holy man said, ‘I don’t understand’. ‘It’s simple,’ said the Lord. ‘It requires but one skill. You see, they have learned to feed each other, while the greedy think only of themselves.
It is a bit of a hackneyed story, but the emphasis on compassion speaks volumes for one of the main lessons to be learned from A.A. Attempting to convey words that accurately represent what individual depression feels like is highly problematic, but one of the benefits of sitting in a room full of other people who are every bit as desperate to find answers as you are, is the ability of presence to relate what words cannot. The shared experience of becoming exposed to other personal realities that are more trying than your own can instill a humility that might otherwise remain obscured. I have gone on drunken tears that lasted weeks, but I have not lost all my teeth because my drinking evolved into smoking crack which evolved into smoking crack while squatting in an abandoned warehouse space because I lost my job and house due to my drug addiction. Some have.
Is everyone in A.A. a recovered expert on alcohol addiction, fully grounded in a healthy lifestyle and capable of nurturing similar growth in the lives of others? Of course not. Yet, while the exact opposite might be true, for so long I approached those who find strength in The Program with a sense of disdain because I could not overlook the aspects of A.A. that I disagree with long enough to uncover those which might be enriching. Rather than recognizing individuality within the recovery process, I felt opening my mind to A.A. would invalidate my progress. It was easier to blow off A.A. because of its religious-leanings, painting the entire swath of members as brainwashed believers of indoctrination, than it was to admit that aspects of its process were beneficial to me. While that might speak for some members of A.A., my own ignorance actually left me playing the role of misguided believer.
The religious angle of A.A. never worked for me, but what I learned about myself in the process of lowering my defenses was that my concept of what God was, or what a god might be, was very limited, and largely tied to that of a Christian deity. My idea of God had been smeared by religious fundamentalists, and had little to do with the cosmic forces that seem to connect us. I had to question my own notions of what a higher power could be, and in that process I was introduced to various new faces of God that stand far outside of religious dogma. A.A. did not change my opinion – or make a believer of me – but it helped me remember that simply because I did not believe in something did not mean that it could not be true.
The Big Book mentions “an unsuspected inner resource” that some refer to as God. Others refer to this as their “authentic self.” I have taken to calling it my Inner Jillian Michaels, which I summon at the gym to help silence my addictive voice when I need a motivational boost. Hulkamania by any other name… One of the tendencies when exploring spirituality is to completely remove the self from the equation, but it is important to not forget there is a “higher” self within all of us. Through this process it was important for me to remember everyone has a different life history which has led them to their separate perspective of reality. And regardless of whether I practice any of its variations or not, for most of the people living on Earth today that reality is driven by the spiritual device of religion.
Religion is one of the key contributors to an individual’s general happiness (as The Daily Show‘s Jon Stewart jokes, “It’s given people hope in a world torn apart by religion”). While surrounding yourself with others who hold a similar belief system is instinctive and leads to sheltered perspectives, doing so also boosts individual psyches, supporting the filters through which life is interpreted. While stepping outside of oneself serves a purpose in personal evolution, playing to individual strengths during the treatment process can lend those in recovery some much needed inspiration. This is another reason the self-matching process has as much impact on the success of treatment as it does: Those who find power through religion (or “spirituality”) are more likely to benefit from the 12 Step process than those who are not interested in pursuing such avenues.
While Bill Wilson toyed with religious conversion throughout his contributions to The Big Book, often blurring distinction between building a support network and ideological recruiting (“Nothing will help the man who is off on a spiritual tangent so much as the wife who adopts a sane spiritual program”), there is something to be said about the power of faith in the healing process. Biographical accounts explain how Wilson was not pushing his spirituality with underhanded intentions, but that he really did believe he was chosen by God for the special mission of saving the world’s alcoholics. While The Big Book doesn’t explicitly go out of its way to represent a particular faith or denomination, it still embodies a religious program at its core; Wilson went so far as to purposefully develop 12 Steps to reflect Jesus’ 12 apostles. But missionary intention does not entirely undermine the change spirituality can have on people.
The foundation for alcohol treatment is reconditioning. Where individual cues or triggers once led to the action of drinking, and routine was rewarded by the onset of alcohol’s obvious effects, reconditioning focuses on changing personal behaviors to reconfigure the reward system. Instead of drinking, addictive urges are met by new actions, confronted by communal support or alternative personal activities to help promote change in the construction of new habits. Using binge-eating and drinking as coping mechanisms has warped my reward system. Having a bad day? A reward should be in order to help survive. A good day? A reward because I have earned it. And more times than not that reward has been destructive rather than productive. To borrow a phrase, we are all walking bundles of habit, and when cravings or urges are no longer fed by reactions offering complacent reinforcement, those habits slowly begin to change. But there still remains a missing element in the recovery equation, leading to a distinction between those who only experience lasting sobriety until struck with severe stress (a death in the family or divorce) and those whose abstinence is not similarly compromised. As irrational as it might seem, this discrepancy actually does relate to the unknown god factor.
In 2005 a collective of scientists attempted to explore the nature of this rather unquantifiable factor through research that examined the correlation between spirituality and long-term sobriety. As explained in his book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Charles Duhigg writes, “It wasn’t God that mattered, the researchers figured out. It was just belief itself that made a difference. Once people learned how to believe in something, that skill started spilling over to other parts of their lives until they started believing they could change. Belief was the ingredient that made a reworked habit loop into a permanent behavior.” It is not the willingness to explore a higher power that necessarily helps people get sober in A.A., but the ability to look beyond preconceived notions and recognize that the capacity to change does actually exist. As smug as I thought my short-lived sponsor was being when he told me that sobriety through a higher power was not something that had to be seen to be believed, but believed to be seen, he was not far off the mark.
Reconditioning behavior is vital to the development of healthier habits, but a fresh perspective is what is needed to create a lasting effect in recovery. Believing that you can live without relapsing into harmful tendencies is the difference between lasting change and succumbing to circumstance. It is not the fault of A.A. members for breeding continued reliance on a system they see hope in; they are excited about the new way of life they discovered, and are limited beyond their understanding of cause and effect that has led to their new outlook. It took me years to see that. Reconditioning alone does not lead to long term change but it can provide clarity to bring about understanding of who it is we really want to be. From there it becomes easier to recognize something more powerful than the self of yesterday to rely on for future stability: the self of today.