The phrase “terminally unique” is one that comes up regularly in the recovery community. A definition for it which rings as most true for me also refers terminal uniqueness as “personal exceptionalism,” calling it a “false belief that your experiences with substance abuse are unlike those of anyone else.” Recognizing how widespread this experience is among alcoholics, A.A. members are regular to promote the phrase “contempt prior to investigation” in support of encouraging those who are newly sober to cast aside knee-jerk reactions about concepts or group “suggestions,” ultimately in support of finding common ground, and a better path forward, with and among other group members. This is hugely important because of just how toxic that “personal exceptionalism” can be as it relates to getting and staying sober–again, it’s like rugged individualism on steroids. And I know, because it’s built into my own operating system. It’s helpful to keep “terminal unqiueness” in mind when looking back at my thoughts a decade ago because damn near the entire project is a product of me saying, “I know this stuff works for other people, but I’m not other people.”
Call back to a previous line about not having a drinking problem, but having a “thinking problem”… there’s something deeper at play among alcoholics, a predisposition to harbor perfectionism’s tendency for all or nothing thinking under an all encompassing umbrella of rigid non-conformity. For those trying to get sober, there’s a tendency to think no one else drinks in quite the same way as they do, or feels or thinks quite the same way they do, or that there’s anything that can help them in the way they need to be helped. I’ll add to the picture a propensity for bad faith, and manufacturing malicious intent for individuals and institutions which are outwardly in place to aid those who seek help. The “terminal” aspect of this comes into play because of how incestuous the drive toward isolation is that’s associated with it; a mechanism of self-alienation that can only end one way: poorly—I’m different, which leads to self-exclusion from others, which leads to isolation, which incubates more twisted thinking.
This explanation adds context for everything that will follow, but another key component I think is worth spelling out is what A.A. actually is. Alcoholics Anonymous breaks down to a few simple concepts: The beginnings of A.A. are founded by two men, Bill Wilson and Bob Smith (often referred to as “Dr. Bob”) in the mid-1930s. A.A. “meetings” are peer-led groups which individuals seeking sobriety from alcohol can attend if they want help from other people who are dealing with the same struggle. By principle, A.A. meetings are free, though donations are suggested to help cover expenses. (It’s typical for individuals to donate a dollar per meeting.) A.A. meetings can take various formats, be it group discussions where participants are encouraged to speak or “share” about a particular recovery-related topic, book meetings where group members read from and discuss passages from A.A.-approved literature, or “speaker meetings,” which feature a longer-form presentation from a member of the group who presents a history of what life was like when they were drinking, what led them to A.A., and what their life has been like since seeking sobriety. Meetings rely upon on A.A.-approved literature, which primarily includes the book called Alcoholics Anonymous, first published in 1939 and more commonly known as “The Big Book,” and a supplemental book first published in 1953 called Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. New members are encouraged to find a “home group,” which is a group they attend regularly and contribute “service work” to. Service work can take the form of making coffee or setting up and taking down chairs at meetings, among a wide range of other supporting roles.
As a member of A.A.—keeping in mind that it’s individuals themselves and not the group who decide whether they are an A.A. member—individuals are encouraged to “work” the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. The steps are as follows:
- We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
- Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
- Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
- Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
- Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
- Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
- Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
- Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
- Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
- Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
- Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
- Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
“Working the steps” is slang for engaging in a series of exercises to be completed under the guidance of a “sponsor.” A sponsor is essentially a recovery mentor; someone who has worked the steps themselves, under the guidance of their own sponsor. If you have a sponsor, you might be referred to as a “sponsee,” and if you are also working the steps and attending meetings, some refer to that as “working the program.” Sponsors are typically self-selected under the pretense that “they have something you want,” so as to best align a right match between a sponsor and sponsee. It’s formal language aligned with what’s essentially a break-up, but sponsors and sponsees can both be “fired” if there isn’t a good fit. While the Twelve Steps are standardized in their print form, working the steps involves many creative liberties, with a general consensus being for sponsors to take sponsees through the Twelve Steps the way they were shown by their own sponsor. Step work is generally similar, though variation does exist due to the room for personalization created through this process.
The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, which are guidelines members are encouraged to subscribe to, are commonly read aloud at the beginning of meetings. The Twelve Traditions are:
- Our common welfare should come first; personal recovery depends upon A.A. unity.
- For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority—a loving God as He may express Himself in our group conscience. Our leaders are but trusted servants; they do not govern.
- The only requirement for A.A. membership is a desire to stop drinking.
- Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or A.A. as a whole.
- Each group has but one primary purpose—to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers.
- An A.A. group ought never endorse, finance, or lend the A.A. name to any related facility or outside enterprise, lest problems of money, property, and prestige divert us from our primary purpose.
- Every A.A. group ought to be fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions.
- Alcoholics Anonymous should remain forever non-professional, but our service centers may employ special workers.
- A.A., as such, ought never be organized; but we may create service boards or committees directly responsible to those they serve.
- Alcoholics Anonymous has no opinion on outside issues; hence the A.A. name ought never be drawn into public controversy.
- Our public relations policy is based on attraction rather than promotion; we need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio, and films.
- Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.
It’s important to spell all of this out here to give a baseline for the sort of language that’s used in meetings and all throughout the text since these are the guiding principles which underlie the entire program of A.A. It’s also important to spell them out here because this entire project revolves around my own biases, both those for and those against the steps and traditions.
Since being introduced to A.A in 2007 I’ve held various misgivings about Alcoholics Anonymous that kept me from participating in it; I felt I was too smart for it, I needed something more complex, I was different than those who called themselves members, it lacked an unspecific somethingness, yada yada yada, the list goes on and on. But primarily, as discussed in great detail in the last chapter, throughout my first couple attempts at getting sober with A.A. I was primarily turned off by its spiritual component and wanted nothing to do with that.
By its own account, A.A. evolved out precursors such as the Washingtonian movement, which dates back to the 1840s, and traditions of the Oxford Group, “a nondenominational Christian movement popular in the U.S. and Europe in the early 20th century.” Add to it the early influence of famed psychoanalyst Carl Jung, who argued that “only a spiritual experience” would cure individuals of alcoholism, and it’s no wonder that A.A. developed as it did. That said, this alignment with spirituality of any kind can be a tricky concept to reconcile with for those without a pre-existing connection to it, let alone those who are also struggling with addiction. Even by Bill Wilson’s own account, when he was first introduced to the principles that would later guide A.A. by his friend Ebby Thacher, he experienced a looming sense of religious conversion, recalling that “The first effect it had on me was to deepen my dilemma.” I believe I now have a better understanding of what value such principles are to offer, but the higher power concept is no less problematic for me to this day. And regardless of whether my terminally unique perspective is leading the charge with that or not, it’s not the only issue I take with A.A. The paradoxes baked into the foundation of Alcoholics Anonymous serve as important to the organization’s sustainability while they also create an environment ripe with contradiction and other problematic elements.
Now, personal paradox is something I constantly wrestle with, and will probably deal with until the day I die. One angle on that goes back a couple chapters to the paradox of the person who has learned the trick without dedicating themselves to the life of a magician. As I mentioned, when I published Believed to Be Seen in early 2013 I had about six months sober. But that’s hardly where the buck stopped in terms of the fire fueled by my imposter syndrome. Take for instance that in 2014 I got certified as a personal trainer, despite never having been able to consistently take care of my own physical health. I didn’t have much of a personal exercise regimen, my relationship with nutrition could described as complicated, to be generous, and I definitely didn’t have a background in important areas such as kinesthesiology. But I thought I could still help bring something to others despite never having been able to deliver it for myself. While I did get certified, I never got as far as working full-time as a personal trainer, instead floundering in various low-paying auxiliary roles at a gym and personal fitness studio until the period of time where I relapsed. The point there is, paradoxes have been plentiful in my life, and there’s been ample self-judgement which accompanied the recognition that my actions regularly fail to align with my intentions, goals, or desired outcomes. Seeing this in myself, I think there’s a good chance that my own judgement of these personal paradoxes, compounded by the terminal uniqueness of my belief system, has left me increasingly sensitive when I see contradictions around me. That has certainly been true of my view of A.A.
I’m not bothered by the Christian-roots of A.A., the religious connotation of the program’s guidelines, or the “higher power” language, so much as the contradictions at play throughout the program. As explained at length in the “Surrender” chapter, this has historically kept me out of A.A. and away from 12-step, but even when actively attempting to let go of my apprehension, it was still difficult to reconcile the most grating parts of an approach which claims that it’s critical to resign oneself to a higher power, and that “[turning] his own will and his own life over to the care of whatever God he thinks there is” is necessary to sustain recovery, without being honest about the loaded nature of the terms “spirituality,” “higher power,” and particularly “God.”
The day I stopped drinking was October 21, 2015. In recovery circles this is what’s referred to as my “sober date.” And that time around, I did my absolute best to let my reservations go. At the time I lived by a facility called The Center for Spiritual Living and began attending its “spiritual” services as a way to see if I was missing out on something. I revisited churches of various denominations with friends. I began reading about Buddhism and followed the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions‘ guidance, which suggested, “There is a direct linkage among self-examination, meditation, and prayer. Taken separately, these practices can bring much relief and benefit. But when they are logically related and interwoven, the result is an unshakable foundation for life.” Yet as the years went on, I was never fully able to shake a deeper feeling of disingenuousness arising out of being a person who’s told to pray even though I don’t know, or particularly care about, what I’m praying to. I also struggled to reconcile how A.A. disregards individual spiritual context (which for many includes histories ripe with religious trauma) under the pretense of humility. This bit by comedian Doug Stanhope comes to mind,
“There’s a chapter to the agnostic in the Big Book, their Bible, and you go ‘oh, oh, chapter to the agnostic, this will teach you how to use this program as a reasonable grown-up adult human being. No, they don’t do that. No, the chapter to the agnostic tells you how to stop being agnostic and start
believing in a little bit of God, you stubborn little fella. You gotta believe in Him. And it tells you ‘if you don’t already have a god, make up your own,’ and you go, ‘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 that I will lay my life down before for the rest [of my life].”
That chapter, called “We Agnostics,” has the potential to be something really powerful, inclusive, and welcoming, but the reality isn’t far from how Stanhope paints it. One particular passage continues to stand out to me, which reads, “Much to our relief, we discovered we did not need to consider another’s conception of God. Our own conception, however inadequate, was sufficient to make the approach and to effect a contact with Him. As soon as we admitted the possible existence of a Creative Intelligence, a Spirit of the Universe underlying the totality of things, we began to be possessed of a new sense of power and direction, provided we took other simple steps. We found that God does not make too hard terms with those who seek Him. To us, the Realm of Spirit is broad, roomy, all inclusive; never exclusive or forbidding to those who earnestly seek. It is open, we believe, to all men. When, therefore, we speak to you of God, we mean your own conception of God. This applies, too, to other spiritual expressions which you find in this book. Do not let any prejudice you may have against spiritual terms deter you from honestly asking yourself what they mean to you.” So, in other words, start believing in a little bit of God, you stubborn little fella… and if you can’t do that, it’s because your own prejudice is getting the way of recovery. I’ve repeatedly heard members use sayings like, “we don’t ask you to believe in God, we just ask you to admit that you’re not God,” but it also takes a significant level dialectical thinking and creative use of interpretation to make leaps from where the A.A. founders were coming to merely infer that alcoholics would benefit from learning that the world doesn’t revolve around them. The Big Book and A.A. are full of this kind of stuff, and for anyone looking to dig deeper, a book like Charles Bufe’s Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure? does well to explore its contradictions. (Also, spoiler alert: A.A. is not a cult.)
Yet for as much as I successfully contorted myself from a philosophical perspective to reconcile with the language of A.A.’s literature, A.A.’s biggest problem isn’t found there, but in its members. I don’t want to come off like I’m throwing shade or scapegoating though, so allow me to explain… One of the best parts about A.A., at least from an organizational perspective, is that no one person can speak for either Alcoholics Anonymous or the 12 Steps. A.A.’s traditions do a really good job of effectively outlining this principle in noting that A.A. groups shouldn’t use A.A.’s name for anything but the group itself, that A.A. as a group doesn’t claim to have an opinion on anything but itself, and that if you’re going to publicly speak on behalf of A.A., that doing so should be done anonymously. The downside of no one specifically being able to speak for A.A. is that such a degree of ambiguity allows room for anyone and everyone willing to stray from this suggestion to then speak for A.A. and the 12 Steps. Think about the curious case of step work I just outlined. There is no definitive way to work the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, but instead it works as a creative game of telephone, interpreted and passed down from one person to the next, often without significant oversight as to what’s happening. I’ve heard horror stories about this kind of thing, where sponsees have been misguided, manipulated, and even abused, in large part due to the power imbalance between those newly sober and their sponsors, and the room for interpretation provided to sponsors by way of A.A.’s open-ended language.
While I didn’t connect with a sponsor who I particularly aligned with in the Flying Monkey Ninja God phase of my recovery journey, when I got sober in 2015 I was introduced to a very special person who became my sponsor. I love this guy to this day and consider his family an extension of my own. He walked me through the 12 Steps, and did so with a tremendous amount of love, care, and compassion. I couldn’t have asked for a better mentor through that process, and parallel to our relationship developing I also connected with a group of men who were sound in their sobriety and provided a support network unlike any I’d ever had before. I do recognize, however, that to find a set of circumstances as I did is a rare event, and the luck I had in stumbling onto such genuine and fitting support is hardly guaranteed for anyone else seeking recovery in A.A.
Looking back though, my first couple years weren’t purely rainbows and unicorns in terms of my renewed dedication to sobriety. When I got sober I began keeping a journal and as part of this project I went back and read through everything I’d written from that moment through to the present (I’ll add, what a cringe-inducing exercise that was, by the way). As David Carr writes in “Me and My Girls,” “When memory is called to answer, it often answers back with deception,” and it was revealing to be reminded of how difficult a time I had as I moved out of my first year of sobriety and was introduced to the inner-mechanics of A.A.
I now look back on my time in A.A. as a broadly positive, life-enriching period. But in going back over those old journals, before my second year of sobriety was complete I’d written extensively to myself about how tired I was becoming of the whole process. The self-reflection fatigue of it all was draining; despite being free from the obsession over drinking, sitting in groups several times a week waxing on and on about a thing we’re supposedly no longer obsessed about began to wear on me. My recovery battery was also being drained by a newly found pressure to take on A.A.-based responsibilities under the pretense of giving back to the group by way of “service work.”
As its traditions state, A.A. “ought never be organized; but we may create service boards or committees directly responsible to those they serve.” And good lord, does A.A. ever have its service boards and committees. I’m going to get some of the language incorrect because it’s been a while since I was wrapped up in it, but I ended up on a steering committee for my home group, which included various small responsibilities. At one point I was also made something like alternate-service board member, or something along those lines, which added loose duties surrounding my home group’s relationship with Intergroup… Intergroup, by the way, is where broader group interests are essentially reconciled with individual groups, where information is exchanged to and reconciled for a “group conscious,” sent upstream in a long chain of command that flows to A.A.’s General Service Board. What on Earth is all this I’m talking about? Well, there exists a load of organizational definitions and alphabet-soup that I have little interest in getting into here, but the point of bringing this up is just to recognize that A.A. is only ever as much or as little of an organization as you want it to be. If you want A.A. to be a renegade group of likeminded individuals who meet in someone’s living room and loosely follow anything resembling a traditional meeting structure, that can be A.A. But if you want to go in the opposite direction, that can also be your experience. One memory I have of feeling burned out on all this came after unintentionally attending an A.A. meeting that focused on its 12 Concepts for World Service, which is a whole other book written by Bill Wilson in 1962, recognized as “an interpretation of A.A.’s world service structure as it emerged through A.A.’s early history and experience.” This all speaks to another of A.A.’s paradoxes and how its suggestions play out in practice. A.A. isn’t “organized,” per se, but is instead a multi-tiered internationally operated group with over two million members, which isn’t even to mention its literary branch, Alcoholics Anonymous World Services Inc., but also isn’t “organized.” That burnout is what helped nudge me toward leaving A.A.
To be upfront though, I don’t know that I “left,” so much as I just stopped going to meetings; it wasn’t so much of a dramatic departure as a non-ceremonious fading away. In 2018, under the guidance of my sponsor, and several other A.A. members who I knew who were working as therapists and social workers, I made the decision to pursue my master’s to become a therapist, myself. I’d served as a sponsor for a couple guys by that point, which was, generally speaking, a positive experience, and wasn’t satisfied with the trajectory of my own career, so I thought the move would direct me toward a greater level of professional satisfaction. I took the GRE, considered which programs would be available to me, applied, and was accepted to graduate school later that year. As I neared the end of my second semester, I left the job where I’d been working for about three and a half years to then work overnight shifts as a “Recovery Assistant” (which is just a fancy label for someone who does data entry, security checks, and makes sure patients are in their assigned beds throughout the night) at an in-patient treatment facility. I thought the position would help me gain experience working with those in a clinical setting while also being entry-level enough such that I could continue working on my studies while I was on the clock. This, as much as anything, provided that “nudge” I just mentioned though.
For me, it was around this time where I began retreating from Alcoholics Anonymous. Having a general malaise surrounding the non-organized organizational aspect of the group and an increasingly strong awareness of the overlap between the recovery community and treatment industry, the lines started to become blurry for me. The blurrier they became, the harder it was to remain engaged, and I quickly began to rediscover a distrust of the system as a whole based on specific problematic examples which started to sour both my professional experience and personal connection to A.A. Quoting the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions:
Tradition Three: “This Tradition is packed with meaning. For A.A. is really saying to every serious drinker, ‘You are an A.A. member if you say so. You can declare yourself in; nobody can keep you out. No matter who you are, no matter how low you’ve gone, no matter how grave your emotional complications—even your crimes—we still can’t deny you A.A. We don’t want to keep you out. We aren’t a bit afraid you’ll harm us, never mind how twisted or violent you may be. We just want to be sure that you get the same great chance for sobriety that we’ve had. So you’re an A.A. member the minute you declare yourself.”
Tradition One: “Our common welfare should come first; personal recovery depends upon A.A. unity.”
Tradition Three: “The only requirement for A.A. membership is a desire to stop drinking.”
In the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, the book relates a scenario where an atheist alcoholic had offended certain group members, which they refer to as “blasphemy,” by being heavy-handed in conversation with others about how the program would be better off without its “God nonsense.” Certain members wanted to kick him out, which was one situation that eventually led to the formation of the third Tradition, because the group could have jeopardized the man’s sobriety (before, notes the text, he eventually came around to the Gideon Bible, which inspired him to refrain from drinking from that point forward). Somewhere between “our common welfare should come first” and “no matter how twisted or violent you may be” resides another contradiction, but sadly it’s found in a level of abuse far more twisted than a belligerent salesman trying to share his viewpoints at a meeting. This is the sort of thing I’m thinking about when I say that A.A.’s biggest problem is found in its members.
I previously referred to “the overlap between the recovery community and treatment industry,” and what I meant by that was that many who work in the treatment field are also individuals who are in some form of recovery from their own addictions. In the following chapter I’ll go into much greater detail about how the treatment industry came to be, but to summarize: It was developed on the back of A.A., endorsed, embraced, and amplified by politically powerful A.A. members, and continues to largely revolve around 12 Step facilitation and A.A. principles. “Wounded healer” is a term coined by Carl Jung to communicate an idea that a helper is compelled to treat other sufferers because the helper is, themself, “wounded.” I was/am a wounded healer, and this isn’t a phenomenon isolated to the treatment industry; a 2018 study of over 6,000 social workers revealed that over 50% of respondents “reported mental health problems” “during their social work career.” So, I don’t use the term as a pejorative here (as I might have in the past), but only to recognize that people who help others with behavioral and mental health problems regularly have and do need help themselves. I don’t think it’s too bold of a statement to suggest that this is the norm, and not the exception, in the addiction treatment industry.
While A.A.’s eighth Tradition states that its own organization should remain “non-professional,” it adds that “our service centers may employ special workers.” Think about how business works, generally speaking, just about any and everywhere; it’s not what you know, but who you know, right? If you ever want to get a job, or get promoted, it’s fairly common that these sort of decisions aren’t made purely on the merits of an individual, but are influenced by myriad other factors including reasons of a social, organizational, or political nature. I’m relating the obvious by saying an individual’s personal values and associations often end up influencing their professional success, which is just one way someone with a mediocre resume ends up landing a position they’re not qualified for. But when professional actions are influenced by a principle that “twisted” individuals should essentially be given a slide, what develops is something far more sinister. Specifically, that it can create an atmosphere of complacency relating to abuses of all types, including those of a sexual nature.
In A.A.’s 2014 Membership Survey, 62% of respondents were men, 89% of respondents were white, and “the average age of members [was] 50 years.” Yes, individuals of all gender identities and ethnic backgrounds attend A.A. groups, and yes, many A.A. groups are even tailored to specific populations (LGBTQ, agnostic, atheist, and other secular groups do exist), but for the most part if you’re stepping into an A.A. meeting you’re bound to mostly be surrounded by older white men. This is really important when recognizing the professional landscape that has evolved out of A.A., because of how those power dynamics continue to impact and influence the treatment process and its inner workings.
One of the horror stories I heard at the first treatment center I worked at revolved around a mobile assessor (which is someone who travels to do on-site assessments of people, to judge acuity in determining which level of care is clinically appropriate for them) had allegedly been fired due to repeat instances of sexual misconduct while in the field. It’s an all too common problem which lands at the intersection between a culture philosophically tolerant of “twisted or violent” individuals working with those in vulnerable populations. That said, this problem is hardly one exclusive to A.A., or the treatment industry, and speaks to a much larger issue when discussing power dynamics, accountability, and sexual misconduct (Refuge Recovery, a popular Buddhist-aligned recovery group and program, was shaken to its core several years ago as another example, leaving its membership to splinter after allegations of rape and assault were made against its founder), but that specific case was particularly unsettling because I knew the person in question as someone who attended meetings at my own home group.
I’m not trying to paint a tilted portrait casting all A.A. groups into question, or to even suggest that they should be considered as suspect until proven otherwise. But my experience does lead me to question the standards of safety that are provided to any group members based on interpretations of the aforementioned principles outlined in A.A.’s formal Traditions. I’ll also add that my perspective on my own home group and this situation had also been influenced by my time serving on its steering committee, due to questions that came up surrounding female safety at meetings related to a completely different individual. This is getting deep in the weeds, but in the waning months of my service term I worked with other committee members to research and determine what options could be proposed as it related to various concerns brought up about a specific member. That group member had reportedly made reference to bearing a legally concealed firearm as a means of intimidation when conflict arose at another group’s meeting. Additional allegations followed that he had made advances toward several newly sober females who had attended our group. This latter allegation is something commonly referred to as “thirteenth-stepping,” and Wikipedia refers to it as “a pejorative term for A.A. members approaching new members for dates.” I’ll add that the word “dates” is a generous phrase in that sentence, based on how problematic this actually is, but the fact there’s a whole article about it on A.A.’s own Wiki page should speak to how prevailing and widespread the issue is. Upon gathering information and taking it back to the group for a vote on how to address both matters, we failed to find group consensus on how to proceed on either account, instead only ever inciting what became a hostile shouting match among meeting members. Some of the same guys who were in the group of men that welcomed and supported me in my time of desperation and great need as I first got sober were present, active, and vocal in that very meeting, sharing opinions I wish I’d never learned about.
It’s hard to follow all of this up by making an argument that despite its problems, A.A. is a net-positive, but in my opinion it is. Ten years ago I figured that by attempting to debunk “silly recovery myths that I was neglecting my own personal growth,” but these are not just silly recovery myths and this isn’t just about my own personal growth; they’re big problems and they’re real problems and they affect a lot of people and there’s no magic wand available to easily or swiftly fix any of them. Could it be a better system and do I hope that with time it continues to evolve into one? A thousand times yes. But I do believe the current system is better than what existed before it, where those struggling with addiction were subject to some pretty heinous treatment in the name of restorative therapy? Again, yes. Also, if A.A. were to be shuttered completely at this point in time, there isn’t exactly a superior system just waiting in the wings to replace it for those in need of some form of support or assistance at just about any time of day regardless of where you live.
If my expectation is that a book written nearly a century ago based in part on the teachings of a religious fundamentalist sect should somehow also speak to progressive values aligned with today’s modern era, is it The Big Book that’s wrong or my expectations of it? I’ll say the same of the Traditions and even the issues I’ve had with the organizational function that guides A.A. Think about public forums or anything resembling local governance, for that matter; it’s not like other areas of life are utopian melting pots where ideas are smoothly received and constructively worked through. That’s why the Traditions were written in the first place, actually, because as the reach of groups spread a whole other set of problems began to develop beside the one of drinking that first drove its members to seek it out in the first place. If you’ll envision something like a PTA meeting, then imagine all those people are recovered alcoholics, with some attendees significantly less recovered than others. In that scenario, do you think there might be some conflict? Do you think it might be difficult to figure out a system that nurtures an expansion of reach to promote its principles to as many people as possible while simultaneously steering clear of conflicts? Without question! As the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions relates, “Everywhere there arose threatening questions of membership, money, personal relations, public relations, management of groups, clubs, and scores of other perplexities. It was out of this vast welter of explosive experience that A.A.’s Twelve Traditions took form.”
As far as the spirituality angle is concerned, with time I came to approach the concept of a “higher power” as that of people working together. That’s the best I could ever make of it. Anything outside my own individual power that supports my recovery is broadly included in this, but anecdotally speaking I look at it this way: Having moved apartments and houses as many times as I have, I know what it’s like to move furniture. And if I’m moving furniture, I can usually do it on my own… I can balance a sofa on my head, will it through a doorway, and struggle to inch it along, but it’s a hell of a lot easier for two people to work on that problem together. That’s my power versus a higher power in a nutshell. Is that overly simplistic? Yes, of course it is. Does it matter when dealing with the practical question of how to get and remain sober? Not really. A.A. isn’t confined to a book or a set of suggestions, but it creates a platform for which one alcoholic can talk to another in a time of need. When two people are on an equal playing field, and there aren’t conflicting intentions, that can be a meaningful and transformative experience. That can be a higher power in action.
Depending on how much coffee I’ve had for the day I fluctuate somewhere between agnosticism and atheism, but over the past several years one of the biggest changes I’ve experienced relating to the concept of God is to not take it as a personal affront every time someone espouses a belief system that’s diametrically opposed to my own. I’m not perfect with this and far too often I still take things personally that have nothing to actually do with me, but I’m also far better at maintaining this perspective now than I was a decade ago. The same can be said even when it comes to some of A.A. literature’s most archaic passages. Again from the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions,
“Nearly every sound human being experiences, at some time in life, a compelling desire to find a mate of the opposite sex with whom the fullest possible union can be made—spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical. This mighty urge is the root of great human accomplishments, a creative energy that deeply influences our lives. God fashioned us that way.”
“Every normal person wants, for example, to eat, to reproduce, to be somebody in the society of his fellows. And he wishes to be reasonably safe and secure as he tries to attain these things. Indeed, God made him that way.”
Ten years ago I’m looking at these sorts of excerpts in repulsion, and weaponizing them against the entire system of recovery as a whole. Now, I’d like to think my approach is slightly less rigid. I disagree with the premise of these quotes with every inch of my being, but that doesn’t mean I don’t also continue to stand behind the part of A.A.’s Preamble (which is read at the beginning of each meeting) which says, “Our primary purpose is to stay sober and help other alcoholics to achieve sobriety.” A line stood out to me from a book I read a couple years back titled, In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong, where its author Amin Maalouf writes, “It does seem to be that the influence of religion on people is often exaggerated, while the influence of people on religion is neglected.” Religion was created by people, but people have taken religion and fashioned it in many ways which fail to reconcile with its core purpose. Likewise, A.A. was created by people, but people have taken A.A. and fashioned it in many ways which fail to reconcile with its own core purpose. The problems that have arisen from this erosion of its core value are far more widespread than what I’ve explained here, and I’ll point to a website called The Orange Papers for anyone looking to make a much more detailed and nuanced argument against A.A., as it’s the largest archive of evidence and documentation against the organization and its members that I’m aware of. But the thing is, A.A. is also still where the most recovery is. A.A. is still available just about everywhere in America, in some form, every day of the week for anyone who needs it, for no cost. (And with online meetings, the same holds true in the virtual space for anyone anywhere with an Internet connection.) For all the bad, there is good, too. For all of my own criticisms and biases, without Alcoholics Anonymous I’m not sure I’d even be alive today. It’s particularly true within the context of recovery that you’re going to find what you’re looking for, and despite my significant reservations, if I’m someone looking to get sober, A.A. is as good of a place to start as any. I scapegoated it a decade ago and I did so to the detriment of my own well being. When looking for differences between me and other people I saw in the groups, I found them. And in times when that was all I was able to focus on, that’s where a sense of my own “uniqueness” truly became terminal.
[The track opening and closing the episode is called “styles.”]