“Do not confuse motion and progress. A rocking horse keeps moving but does not make any progress.” —Alfred A. Montapert
Around the time I landed my office job, a friend introduced me to Alcoholics Anonymous. I recognized I was having trouble controlling my drinking, and after we talked he emailed me a link to the online version of The Big Book, which spells out the group’s process and includes a slew of stories about those who have recovered from their own drinking problems under the guidance of “The Program.” “You don’t have to agree with the book,” he wrote, “but just read it. It’ll help.” As we continued to talk I found out about the extent of his lows, how deep into drugs he had been, and figured that if he could remove himself from that terrifying world through this book, it was worth a shot.
Almost immediately I recognized what I was dealing with in The Big Book. It spoke to how I was making decisions to only drink wine or beer rather than liquor in an attempt to regulate my drinking habits, how I was experiencing searing mood-swings, and how I did not understand what all of it meant. Apparently there was a united front of people who were struggling with the same issues, and it felt good just to know I was not alone.
A year later, when I turned up in detox, I returned to the text, eventually reading the entire book. I immersed myself in The Program’s “12 steps” and the stories of how others, like me, had overcome their drinking. The text spoke to me, and I could identify with it, but it still did not fully resonate with me. I recognized I had not been living life well, but The Program’s insistence that I turn my life over to a Higher Power in lieu of my mistakes seemed drastic.
Unwilling to wave my white flag and surrender control to some god-character, life continued on the same track in the years that followed my suicide attempt. I drowned my depression and remained neglectful of personal well-being under the guise of having fun and maintaining a sociable lifestyle. Five years after I was introduced to the notion that there are others in the same position as me I once again found myself alone, confused, and scared. My drinking had gotten out of hand and thoughts of killing myself had again crept up on me. I returned to A.A.
I found a local sober house where I could drop in, just to get out of my head, and there I sat in on the first meeting that I could. An obvious newcomer, eyes still nervously focused on the floor, I heard a few people speaking about me, even though they were not speaking directly to me. “Your best thinking got you here,” they said, and reluctantly I agreed. I returned to The Big Book, followed the instruction to “keep coming back,” and did my best to suspend disbelief, putting aside my preconceived notions about the need to find a Higher Power of my own to make sobriety work. The support I needed was there, and each group meeting I attended introduced me to new faces who had all used this method to find a better life. My best thinking got me here, but I was told that the profound wisdom of The Program would help me move forward.
“Lack of power, that was our dilemma,” read The Big Book. “We had to find a power by which we could live, and it had to be a Power greater than ourselves.” Everyone I met had gone through this struggle, apparently, and each inviting face spoke to the power of admitting powerlessness. The first of the infamous 12 Steps requires that members “admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.” When I balked at such a notion I was asked if I had more or less power over my life when I was drinking? Less, obviously, that was why I was there in the first place. I did not want to agree, but I was in no position to argue the evidence.
Each contention I had was greeted with a well-placed bit of catchphrase gospel. Sure, The Big Book speaks about “God,” but if I had to, think of “God” only as a call for Good Orderly Direction. The “vital spiritual experience” I required to move forward wasn’t really something that had to be seen to be believed, but believed to be seen. Even after taking on a sponsor and accepting that I might not have had the power over my life that I thought I did, I still couldn’t reconcile my lack of understanding of this Higher Power. The third and fourth steps read, “[We] came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity,” and “[We] made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.” I was asked if I felt I was the most powerful thing in the universe? Of course not. As such, if I could simply open my life to accommodate something greater than myself as being more powerful, I was miles ahead of where I had been prior to entering A.A. When I first heard this I sarcastically thought back to my childhood fascination with professional wrestling and Hulk Hogan’s twenty-four inch pythons, though I decided it was best I did not verbally submit to Hulkamania for fear I was mocking the process.
A.A. members explained that I could accept “reality,” “nature,” “the cosmos,” or “the universe” as my entirely subjective Higher Power. It wasn’t important to define what I believed in at first, it was only necessary that I believe (which reminded me of The X-Files‘ extraterrestrial-seeking “I Want to Believe” tagline). As The Big Book continued, “As soon as we admitted the possible existence of 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.” However, if I was not quite ready to pursue the 12 Steps, I was promised that by following a few (more) simple exercises every day that I would remain sober. These (auxiliary) steps required that I ask a power greater than myself to help keep me sober, whether I believed in it or not; that I physically attend an A.A. meeting; that I read The Big Book; that I talk to another alcoholic; and that I thank a power greater than myself for keeping me sober at the end of the day.
How blind faith in a god-figure that I did not honestly believe in was going to cure an already curious “illness which only a spiritual experience will conquer,” I did not have the slightest, but for a while I tried it, asking my newly christened Flying Monkey Ninja God (which I initially envisioned as a wily spider monkey with throwing stars; though I still cannot explain why any sort of god might actually need throwing stars) to help me abstain in the morning, and thanking it for a job well done at the end of the day. I went to meetings, I read the book, I spoke with other alcoholics, and I followed directions. I still did not understand how spirituality could be the only lasting reprieve from addiction, and, despite my best efforts, my skepticism eventually returned. I could not overlook The Program’s many puzzling inconsistencies and my focus became critical.
While Alcoholics Anonymous was founded by “Bill W.” (Bill Wilson) and “Dr. Bob” (Bob Smith), it was Wilson who initially served as the catalyst for the movement’s expansion. In the mid-1930s Wilson, himself a drinker hopelessly lost in his addiction, was introduced to the concept of actualized sobriety through a friend, Ebby Thacher, himself a reformed problem drinker and member of the Oxford Group (a controversial fundamentalist sect of Christianity). It was under Thacher’s guidance that Wilson first sought sobriety, although it initially failed to stick.
Eventually hospitalized for his drinking, which had become a regular occurrence by this point, Wilson found himself under the care of Dr. William Duncan Silkworth, whose prescribed treatment included a medicative procedure known as the Belladonna Cure. Administered to detoxing patients, the process used a mixture of ingredients including such plants as the atropa belladonna (also referred to ominously as the “deadly nightshade”) and hyoscyamus niger. The psychoactive properties of these deliriants typically induced visual hallucinations, and in Wilson’s case, led to what he described as a transformative “hot flash” experience which granted him a new-found spiritual direction. Renewed by this miraculous epiphany, he returned to the Oxford Group to spread his message of hope, but failed to convert others under his recently accepted platform of sobriety. Undeterred, Wilson remained firmly invested in the Oxford Group’s theological beliefs (such as surrendering one’s future to God’s direction, promoting the necessity to share sins with other Christians, and offering restitution to those one has previously wronged), and later met “Dr. Bob,” himself a member of the Oxford Group, who also found solace in pursuing a spiritual solution to remedy his hopeless drinking.
Throughout his life Wilson remained an enthusiast of spiritual pursuits. In his later years he became intrigued by the paranormal and claimed to have been visited by spirits. Wilson valued Ouija Boards as viable mediums in summoning unknown entities, and he took to a practice called “automatic writing” where he would allow spirits to speak through him, guiding a pen in his hand to spell out a message on a piece of paper. Despite this personal fanaticism, Wilson recognized that for A.A. to thrive membership would have to allow for a broader “spiritual” claim rather than relying on a non-secular prerequisite.
While Wilson was set on the inclusion of a broader audience to expand his developing fellowship, Smith’s rhetoric continued to speak specifically of a Christian deity, referring in The Big Book to a “heavenly father” and ultimately drawing theological boundaries by writing, “If you think you are an atheist, an agnostic, a skeptic, or have any other form of intellectual pride which keeps you from accepting what is in this book, I feel sorry for you.” However, it is within this ever-shifting definition of Higher Power that the accommodation of generalities and the brash insistence on “ask[ing] God’s forgiveness” begin to contradict one another. While advocates of The Program speak to Wilson’s inclusive vocabulary of simply believing in something, The Big Book refers to that “something” as a “supreme being” and “creator,” demanding that “thy will be done” in spreading “the good news.” Furthermore, A.A. piggybacks on the Oxford Group’s ideology by promoting the necessity for members to confess “to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs,” so as to absolve members of their various sins or “character defects.” “We alcoholics are undisciplined. So we let God discipline us.” Ceremonially closing each A.A. meeting with the ritualistic chanting of the Lord’s Prayer only further emphasizes The Program’s religious overtones.
Speaking to non-believers, A.A. makes an empathetic plea through The Big Book‘s “We Agnostics” chapter, acknowledging the struggles faced by those skeptical of surrendering to something they don’t understand. “We read wordy books and indulge in windy arguments, thinking we believe this universe needs no God to explain it. Were our contentions true, it would follow that life originated out of nothing, means nothing, and proceeds nowhere.” Aside from confusing agnosticism with atheism, the chapter twists addiction into a struggle over undetermined faith. “When we became alcoholics, crushed by a self-imposed crisis we could not postpone or evade, we had to fearlessly face the proposition that either God is everything or else He is nothing. God either is, or He isn’t. What was our choice to be?” Focus on this sort of self-righteousness was what soured me to A.A., and this same issue remains the very problem that has driven countless others away from what is still touted as America’s primary source of reprieve from alcohol addiction. As I dug deeper into what The Program appeared to stand for, my discontent continued to swell.
While I come from a Christian family, neither that perspective nor any other religion has particularly endeared itself to me. I haven’t been able to claim myself an atheist however, as I feel like doing so would reflect a personal conclusion that I fully understand the delicate intricacies of the universe, and that my understanding then wholly abandons even the most remote chance that there could be a god of any type at its helm. I can’t pretend to act as if I know whether there is a god, and this mammoth question is something that I’ll likely continue to internally debate for years to come. But to accept an entirely new philosophy that declared that I recognized a god of any sort simply because I needed an out from my addiction to alcohol was not something I could fundamentally invest myself in.
While modern discoveries are inching us closer to answers regarding such fundamental questions as whether or not there could be a god, the theoretical is not likely to be solved any time soon. Any understanding of quantum mechanics that I might have is comparable to an infant’s grasp of the fundamentals of air traffic control – which is to say, none at all – but physicists the likes of Stephen Hawking suggest it is conceivable that literally nothing could have actually caused The Big Bang, and that prior to that very moment, time as we understand it simply did not exist. Even attempting to fully digest such a rudimentary idea as this is hard for me to do.
Additional theories suggest that time might not exist inside of black holes, let alone an infinitesimally small infinitesimally dense black hole as one that might have been the source of The Big Bang. This would leave no possibility for a “creator” to even exist, as there would be no time for that creator to have existed. But still, how could the vastness of everything that is known seemingly appear out of nothing? Foundation-rattling as such a theory might be, I cannot begin to challenge the value of any argument for or against such ideas as they are so far out of my wheelhouse that I do not even know where to begin. (Cut to a toddler coordinating the simultaneous landing of a couple dozen commercial airliners at once.)
I do not understand how the universe was once smaller than a single proton, or what evidence of String Theory might suggest in terms of what reality really is, let alone how relatively meager man-made creations such as the impossibly intricate Antikythera mechanism might have been developed a couple thousand years ago. Nor can I completely wrap my head around how such complex ancient monuments as those of Pumapunku in Bolivia, Göbekli Tepe in Turkey, or the Great Pyramid of Giza were built. In such cases I barely know where to begin. And recognizing that the oldest person in the world is but a couple billion seconds old while the Earth itself is about four and a half billion years old, it would seem slightly presumptuous to say with any certainty that God is or God is not, that God is everything or He is nothing.
Albert Hofmann, best known for his discoveries surrounding L.S.D., who himself only lived some 3.2 billion seconds (give or take), once used the example of a cathedral in questioning the absence of a god. To paraphrase, if all of the many individual inanimate parts of a cathedral were spread out on the ground, would it be possible for those pieces to assemble themselves into a cathedral? Even given an infinite amount of time it would seem unlikely that this would happen. Compare this example to how exponentially elaborate a self-reproducing cell is and consider the mind-blowing intelligence that would seem involved somewhere within the creation of such a thing. The understanding of a “higher power,” a “creator,” a “supreme being,” or even “intelligent design” is something very much worth pursuing, and future discoveries are bound to elaborate on the reality of various god-scenarios. This fails to make sense for me within the context of Alcoholics Anonymous because such possibility of a Higher Power is limited by the caveat that the “Spirit of the Universe” is to even be of a human’s limited imagination. I tried, but it is beyond me to force this sort of understanding, regardless of whether members of a substance recovery program are continually prodding for an answer with the belligerent consistency of a child in the backseat of a cross-country road trip: do you believe yet, do you believe yet, do you believe yet…?
The prevailing thought within A.A. is that the unanswerable has been solved, and it is a certainty that a Higher Power does exist, and this Higher Power (of your understanding) is not merely indifferent to humans, but that It will ensure unique personal sobriety and subsequent reprieve from “insanity” on a case-by-case basis, only once Its existence is recognized. It would seem insufficient to neglect the idea that a Higher Power of any sort is actually something that lands far outside the most distant reaches of human understanding, but despite this, it is instead believed that a “heavenly” deity does exist, wielding selective concern for the physical well-being of each individual of a rapidly-swelling species based on whether or not they formally announce His existence. All this because of the spiritual hubris of a few reformed drunks who wrote a book, saying it was so? “If God can solve the age-old riddle of alcoholism, He can solve your problems too.” A God that struggled even a single nanosecond regarding the understanding of the side-effects of a chemical solution that God Himself created does not exactly command the sort of respect that would otherwise seem appropriate for something explicitly deemed a “higher power” in the first place.
Members of The Program respond to this sort of inquiry by explaining that those who neglected to take the next step did so because of their inability to recognize the extent of their sickness. Such unfortunates were in denial. But to accuse a person of being in denial of a problem suggests they don’t recognize there is a problem, and are instead ambivalent concerning the true depths of their despair, portraying them in the light of Steve Urkel’s “did I do that” sort of fraudulent ignorance. Making such simplistic generalizations when someone’s physical well-being is at stake promotes the glorification of absurd life-threatening superstition.
Alcoholics Anonymous has crafted a recovery paradigm that discourages constructive input that might question the basis behind the principles millions have used to try to quit drinking. Because of this, many members of The Program become protective of the prevailing beliefs, defending contrary suggestion with an arsenal of pre-packaged condescension: Stop your stinkin’ thinkin’; just let it be; easy does it; leave well enough alone; get out of your own way… don’t you see we’re trying to help you? “[Alcohol] finally beat us into a state of reasonableness,” reads The Big Book, suggesting that not only are inquisitive minds in denial, but they are also unreasonable.
It is easy to forget just how low someone is when they bottom out from addiction. If a person is taking it upon themselves to seek support for substance abuse, they are likely resigned to hopeless desperation, plagued by severe depression, and are potentially even frightened by confounding bouts of suicidal thought. Bill Wilson understood this and prepared his message accordingly. “If the book is read the moment the patient is able, while acutely depressed, realization of his condition may come to him.” Balancing the rhetoric is a constant stream of fail-safe terminology that helps divert any confused newcomer’s cynicism, suggesting that “no one among us has been able to maintain anything like perfect adherence to these principles,” and that there aren’t any “rules” in A.A., merely suggestions. “If anyone who is showing inability to control his drinking can do the right-about-face and drink like a gentleman, our hats are off to him. Heaven knows, we have tried hard enough and long enough to drink like other people!” How very reasonable.
All newcomers are welcome to find their own path if they do not comply with the suggestions of The Program, with disclaimers frequently tossed around regarding how they might not be ready to quit yet, or haven’t lost enough yet, or haven’t done enough damage to their loved ones yet. We haven’t ever seen anyone get sober without A.A., but you’re more than welcome to try! It is true, working within the fellowship of The Program is (usually) optional, and the pursuit of wellness through its 12 Steps are (usually) done by choice. But the promised result of walking away from A.A. – the only program that works, as its members are quick to remind – and exploring recovery without expanding one’s spiritual life is guaranteed hopelessness. “Step over to the nearest barroom and try some controlled drinking. Try to drink and stop abruptly. Try it more than once. It will not take long for you to decide, if you are honest with yourself about it.”
The suggestions of Alcoholics Anonymous are optional; follow them or suffer for the rest of your life. If fear mongering somehow does not work, it is back to the slogan therapy. Don’t forget what they say about “contempt prior to investigation.” Don’t think of it as blind faith, think of it as expectations of things hoped for, but not yet seen. Just think of how your personal will has gotten you into all this trouble in the first place. Remember the lengths you went to in order to secure alcohol for yourself – doesn’t it make sense that you should go to the same lengths to now seek sobriety? All of this confusion is just your ego getting in the way of your recovery. Try taking the cotton out of your ears and putting it in your mouth for a while. “Anything is better than the way [we] were.”
Embracing the principles of the 12 Steps endears individuals to a belief system because it creates something new to project effort toward – it follows an adage spread by many A.A. members that you cannot very well replace something with nothing, conveniently filling the role as that “something.” But the reason for the debate of spiritual necessity within the realm of substance abuse treatment is not to simply argue whether or not there is a god. Nor is it to question whether chemically unstable individuals should be placing their recovery in the hands of a self-contrived Higher Power in the first place. The examination of Bill Wilson’s personal history or the fundamentalist roots of A.A. is not to strip the program of any perceived sincerity, or condemn the group for using predatorial indoctrination through the manipulation of “spiritual” beliefs and baseless facts. No, the reason for bringing the back-story to light is to recognize that through the insistence of spiritual development, Alcoholics Anonymous creates a false dilemma, challenging those seeking recovery to confuse their immediate intent. “The main thing is that he be willing to believe in a Power greater than himself and that he live by spiritual principles.” Shouldn’t abstinence from alcohol be the main thing that anyone seeking sobriety remain concerned with, and not a philosophical conundrum disguised as deviant spiritual neglect?
The confusion of personal motivation which results from getting caught up in this sort of ideological warfare might remain the most imposing emotional roadblock within the alcohol recovery process in America because of how closely that process is tied to A.A. It was this sort of persistent wheel-spinning that I allowed to prevent me from maintaining focus on my personal recovery. Getting caught up in this sort of philosophical debate is easy. So is succumbing to rational instincts and blowing off the entire A.A. process as a bait-and-switch brainwashing cult set in motion by a man who presented himself as anything but a shining beacon of mental stability. But if leveraged recognition of a Higher Power gets in the way of finding recovery, it should not be the end of the world to shrug off the 12 Steps and still move forward, leaving others to pursue their own Flying Monkey Ninja Gods in the context of spiritual development as they see fit. By getting caught up in god though, I completely lost the plot.
I scoffed at concepts I considered absurd without making room in my life for the reality that A.A. groups and messages might not all be the same, and there might be some members who have similar reservations as my own. One of the great ironies of maintaining an “anonymous” program is that because no one speaks directly for A.A., everyone can speak for A.A. That makes it easier to cast broad, self-satisfying generalizations about the organization’s members, writing them all off as smug, moronic robots who cannot even see the paradox of suggesting they know what god might be despite struggling themselves to get over the “cunning, baffling, and powerful” nature of a liquid.
This sort of mindset overlooks the tremendous variance among people and groups within the A.A. bubble, and dismisses the sensible, intelligent, and self-directed members whose lives have been profoundly affected in a positive way by The Program. I did not realize that while some members rely strictly on their Christian faith, others insist on maintaining ambiguity in terms of their Higher Power. There are A.A. groups that are understanding and supportive of differing world views, and there are those that aren’t as accommodating. A.A. members are not recovery experts, but merely other people who are looking for answers themselves. Few individuals keep showing up to A.A. because they think they have solved the universe; they show up because their lives are broken due to their addictions, and they are looking for a way to transition into a healthier lifestyle. Dismissing the lot because of The Big Book’s emphasis on false hope trivializes the individual feelings and histories of those who find healing through the process. And for years I kept running into a wall because I didn’t bother to even consider this.
Begrudgingly admitting there might be real value in some of those seemingly transparent platitudes is embarrassing, and it is easy to read cult-motivation into the larger directive of A.A. But the reality is that for many, going to a handful of meetings every day is better than getting fall-down drunk and hating themselves for it. In my case, I did not realize that by only focusing on debunking silly recovery myths that I was neglecting my own personal growth. I was stuck in a confused state of healing purgatory where I knew the basic ideas but kept getting in my own way, arguing with spiritually-guided members of a spiritual program about why they find power in spirituality out of some sort of misguided pride. It was only once I abandoned the resentment that surrounded Alcoholics Anonymous however, that I was able to make any progress in my own recovery and actually move on.