In Alcoholics Anonymous Turns 80 Part 1, I provided a historical overview and pondered how AA founder Bill Wilson would view the recovery landscape of today. It’s reasonable that the AA founder, a man who devoted much time and energy to thinking of ways to help the alcoholic, would appreciate today’s self-help culture while recognizing that the addiction problem has intensified. He’d likely dwell on how to better help both the newcomer and those established in recovery who still struggle.
I began recovery in Alcoholics Anonymous almost 25 years ago. I am in awe of this amazing phenomenon, and I believe it’s no less than a modern miracle in our culture. It gave me a new lease on life, and makes it possible for me to say that the biggest problem in my life today is that we still collectively struggle. I love AA, which has done something truly remarkable in terms of altering lives and maximizing human potential. It’s an example of creation in the highest sense.
For all the reasons stated above, what I’m about to unpack is going to sound harsh and less than grateful. Nothing could be farther from the truth. It is out of gratitude and a sense of duty that I raise some difficult, even uncomfortable ideas. In Part 1, I pointed out that the problem is becoming extraordinary; the phenomenon of the contemporary polysubstance abuser would be almost enough to ‘scare straight’ the old-time proverbial ‘garden-variety drunk’. Extraordinary problems require extraordinary solutions, and addiction is the smallpox epidemic of our time. I’m not an old-timer bitching about how AA has changed. In fact, this is where Big Book thumpers, hard-liners and the generally faint of heart should stop reading (not really, but if I tell you to, you won’t!), because this is jumping to editorial mode.
From a social and cultural standpoint, the time of AA’s formation, the 1930s, has far more in common with the Civil War era than it does with this modern age we live in. Nowhere is this more evident than in Alcoholics Anonymous, the Big Book of AA. In the time of the Civil War, and decades that followed, the rockstars of the day were not actors, athletes, musicians or celebrities. The people who commanded the respect and admiration of the masses were great writers and speakers. The Big Book, and to a lesser degree the Twelve and Twelve, reflect this. Unfortunately, the writing style of the books simply isn’t in keeping with our fast-paced, short attention span cultural context. It’s like a horse and buggy on an Interstate. In short, people are having more and more difficulty understanding the message of Alcoholics Anonymous.
In medicine 80 years ago, a common cold could kill you; today they can reimplant a severed limb and give you a new heart, liver or kidney. 80 years ago, physics said that everything was either matter or energy. Now it says that everything is both, and is connected at the most fundamental level. 80 years ago, neuroscience said memories were stored in specific locations in the brain, that the brain could not change, and that you had a finite amount of brain cells. Today, neuroscience says memories are everywhere in the brain, and you can absolutely change your brain. 80 years ago, biology said we were products of heredity; today biology says our environment and thoughts change our genes. 80 years ago, psychology said, “Ya, ve must analyse ze problem (sic).” Today it says we can choose to live in the solution. And 80 years ago, Alcoholics Anonymous said go to meetings, ask for help, and just don’t drink; today, Alcoholics Anonymous still says go to meetings, ask for help, and just don’t drink.
In fairness, those are simplistic overviews, and the substance of AA’s message is, of course, that it is not enough to merely stop drinking. However, AA has failed to become the promised vehicle of change for many.
We might do well to examine how well some of the Traditions are serving us. For example, if Alcoholics Anonymous is going to rely on attraction (as opposed to promotion), something has to give. Alcoholics and addicts, by their very nature, are too cool for school, especially when they’re new. This doesn’t go away overnight. People have to stick around long enough to get past their own inherent obstacles before they can begin to realize their potential. Somehow, there’s always an overweight AA dinosaur, dressed in the height of Wal-Mart fashion, standing at the podium saying, “Come along with us.” I’m not drinking that Kool-Aid, why would a newcomer? Not attractive. I’m not advocating shameless promotion! But how about more mindful attraction? Role models are powerful, whether positive or negative. We need to carefully consider who we choose as ‘poster children.’
AA fails to warn us of the risks versus benefits of the suggested program of recovery. We are compelled to step out of our comfort zone. Ask any newcomer how they feel about steps four, five, eight and nine. Shock and dismay—“I have to do that?!?” And to get something more out of it than merely being able to say they did it, it’s not enough to merely follow the directions. Understanding the nature of the discomfort, being warned of how it will feel, and being made aware of the rewards of facing fears would likely yield better results than asking for a display of blind faith. I have to leave my comfort zone to step into my greatness, but remind me about that greatness again please?
On the other side of that fear is the freedom we could only dream about while living under the jackboot of addiction. Going through that fear, not around it is the only way to that freedom. But it is SO worth it. Inspiration motivates better than fear of consequences.
Then, while I’m compelled to do some uncomfortable, even painful things, the advantages and benefits are tightly reined in. I’m allowed a sense of ‘new freedom’, but should not be too free because I’m… powerless! The idea is that personal powerlessness and humility (a carrot on a stick to be sought after for its own sake), are paramount. I’m not disputing my or anyone’s powerlessness; my true desire is to be and remain humble in my heart and mind. What I strive to keep in mind is that I have some powerful tools which I received as gifts of recovery. The challenge becomes integrating powerlessness and humility while growing into my true human potential. Here’s an analogy… By the time the black belt martial arts expert acquires the power to kill with his hands, he has (hopefully) acquired wisdom not to. If the steps of recovery give me wings to fly, I feel compelled to use them, not sit on the ground humbly and powerlessly staring up at the sky. I have the option of rejecting limits.
I need to find balance—sustainability—in all the elements of my recovery. While the steps start with an admission, my recovery really started with a decision. On my first day, I made a decision with more intensity, focus, clarity and energy than any other decision I’ve ever made. I decided that recovery was the right thing for me. Everything else has grown from that, things I would have never dreamt were possible. Meetings, sponsorship (both having and being one), working the steps, recovery knowledge base, contact and identification with others, i.e. sense of community are an overview of those elements I need to balance.
The obstacles were that my fears, doubts and insecurities were continually reinforced far more than my dreams, goals and aspirations. When I was new, I questioned and analyzed, and I was repeatedly told not to. I asked questions, and floated ideas about the things I encountered and observed while genuinely doing the work of early recovery. The response was not warm. “Keep coming,” I was told disingenuously. Keep it simple. I was laughed at, even mocked for thinking a little differently. But I kept coming, and responded by questioning that reaction I got. Should I be true to the integrity of my personal concept of recovery, a higher power, and objectives in sobriety in the face of adversity, or lower my head and follow the crowd, taking the path of least resistance? The answer was that my real obstacle was not the fear, lack, limitation or judgment of others; my real obstacle was my judgment of myself.
Is there anything simple about alcoholism? Um… HELL NO! Keeping it simple was not really an option. I took them seriously when they said contempt prior to investigation is a bar to information 1 , and would keep me from progress. I finally realized that most of the time, when people said keep it simple, what they really meant was don’t threaten my old ideas with your new ideas—I’m very happy right here in my comfort zone. Which brings us back to the fact that no one ever explained the benefits of leaving the comfort zone. The problem with staying in a nice, predictable comfort zone is that nothing changes there, and I need to be willing to continue changing every day, constantly raising the bar of what is possible for me personally, and in recovery in general.
It wasn’t until I began to move toward the unlimited possibilities of my life and recovery, truly desiring to change every day, that the promises began to come true for me. Recovery is what we make it.
I see the biggest failing of Alcoholics Anonymous in the large proportion of recovered AAs who are essentially still the same people who drank. They have just swapped out the habit of drinking for the habit of not drinking. While following a set of directions, failure to dig deep enough to attach meaning to the steps in their lives, and failure to at least ask some of those larger questions has left many in recovery as merely prisoners in self-constructed jails without bars (pun intended). Their cellmate is a disease of addiction that is merely sleeping. Unless they change from the person who drank or used daily into a person who stays sober under all circumstances, they will know nothing but fear that their sleeping disease will awaken at any moment and devour them.
In recent decades, a couple of new developments have found their way into the mainstream of AA, the Big Book Step Study (BBSS) and the AWOL (Alcoholic Way of Life). A BBSS is a closed Big Book meeting with stringent guidelines regarding who may speak. The AWOL is a closed Twelve and Twelve meeting to which the participants commit for the duration, which is eight to nine months. The group works through the Twelve Steps under the guidance of an experienced facilitator. The original intent of the BBSS and AWOL was to reinforce the fundamentals of the AA program in response to concerns that the original message was becoming dilute. Those choosing to participate in this work generally praise the concept; whether consistent with their level of motivation or as a result of it, they tend to have high-end recoveries. While the BBSS is a sanctioned meeting format, AWOLs are considered to be outside AA.
Another positive development in terms of meetings are the groups formed in dedication to the Eleventh Step, often featuring a group meditation. Not to praise sweet Jesus, but rather to enhance the development of spirituality, these meetings can offer a weekly dose of nutrients for the developing belief system. Nowhere were the AA founders more ahead of the curve than with the endorsement of meditation in the Twelve and Twelve. In the subsequent decades, meditation has been proven to have a range of benefits enhancing recovery. Not only has basic meditation demonstrated health benefits such as increased immunity and decreased anxiety, but ‘dynamic’ or ‘active’ meditation is a remarkable instrument of transformation. The modification and even elimination of negative emotions, character defects and addictive behaviors is a veritable steroid injection to step work.
I entered recovery in a time of transition. About 25 years ago, there seemed to be a changing of the guard. The old-timers of my early sobriety had been newcomers when the original, early day AAs were old-timers. As I approach my own ‘old timer-hood’, this represents the maturing of a third generation. When I came in, it was “Sit down, shut up and listen.” I was told to do math in the form of calculating my ear to mouth ratio. Crusty old timers occasionally took verbal aim at my knee caps, the theory being that humility enemas had benefit. Then came a softer, more sensitive and more politically correct AA. For a time, discussion groups threatened group therapy providers as a free alternative. Depending on the day, a meeting might seem more like a chick flick than a speaker discussion group. As AA entered its sixth and seventh decade, purists and hard-liners feared recovery had gone soft. Looking back, this swinging of the proverbial pendulum is typical of organizations and cultures; AA is both. Whether a reflection of the times or a response to its own needs, AA’s trends do not so much reflect instability, but rather the overall stability of the Fellowship. It is not on life-support, it’s just growing up!
So, what next? Will the pendulum swing back the other way? Or in some new direction? I sometimes imagine a new AA. With a progressive and open-minded spirit of inquiry, this upgraded fellowship embraces all the progress of the past 80 years in the areas of psychology, science, medicine… AA Version 2.0 is retooled with a broadly accessible ideal of spirituality, and gives coherent step-by-step instructions in the process of change. The attraction of a life and recovery of your dreams, in which people stop struggling and actually step into the greatness of which they were always capable, would literally suck the suffering, addicted masses into the vortex of a life of redemption.
Then I woke up.
But I wonder… Did Bill W. think that way? And did Dr. Bob say, “Keep it simple”? Perhaps. And perhaps that’s why we have something so wonderful, 80 years later. While the time is perfect for something new, different and… more… to come along and raise the bar of what’s possible in recovery, we need AA to stay solid. We need it to continue to do what it has always done—to be the rock, the flagship.
When I was new, my first sponsor was sponsored by a man that was sponsored by a man that Bill W. sponsored. I say this to emphasize that we can all trace our lineage back to the two founders. My first sponsor gave me something that seems to be lacking these days—an education. More than instruction on the steps and basics of the program, this included principles of etiquette and a code of ethics. Regarding meetings: arrive on time or early, but not late. If late, enter the room with minimal disruption and don’t speak. Speak only once per meeting; do not double dip to respond to something. Do not respond to antagonism or provocation. Stay on topic. If on a commitment, share the time. Regarding conduct: offer opinions only if asked. Respect boundaries. Don’t interrupt. No relationships with people in their first year. These lessons made my recovery stronger, and I don’t hear about these things anymore. They gave me a sense of reverence that I just don’t see anymore.
While I have faith that our fellowship is strong, I believe we all need to be responsible for its preservation. We need to ask ourselves, “What am I doing for AA, today?” The experienced members must interpret the program in as pure a form as possible, translating into current context where necessary. And new members need to be reminded that they are part of something vast, powerful and extraordinary, and that the day will come when they will be responsible for its highest interest. These new members need to be aware of this, and assume responsibility when their time comes. As Alcoholics Anonymous celebrates its birthday, a true milestone, it should serve as a reminder that alcoholism and diseases of addiction have been doing push-ups in the parking lot for the last 80 years. While I believe some of the hardest work lies yet ahead, I know that our best days are ahead as well.
- Alcoholics Anonymous World Services: Alcoholics Anonymous, Fourth Edition. (New York: Alcoholics Anonymous Publishing, Inc., 2001), 568.