Let Me Think for Myself!

By Harold B.
Punta Gorda, Florida
Copyright © A.A. Grapevine, Inc. (December, 1989)

I am mad!  Isn’t that a helluva way to start, particularly when I want to say something and have somebody listen?  All my life I have heard, “If you want to make a point, be calm, be reasonable, be fair.”  I think I am being all of those things, but the depth of my feelings sometimes gives my communications a bit of an edge.  I have been waiting at least ten years to say what’s coming, and I am not calm.

I first turned up in AA before World War II.  We were different then, because among other things our worlds were different.  There have been immense changes – in me, in AA, in the society we inhabit.  This has taken place over a substantial period of time, and while things are changing it is easy not to be aware of differences developing.  However, they go on happening whether or not they are noticed.

During my twenty-year drinking career, and before my alcoholism set in, I never felt that I belonged anywhere.  Then Silky (Dr. Silkworth) sent me to AA.  Now at least I had a chance.  The drunks didn’t tell me about authority.  They told me about booze and why I couldn’t drink it.  No moralizing, no threats, just the facts.  Then it was up to me.  I had been handed so much b.s. over the years that I would not and could not accept anything that I was not allowed to think through myself, Faith was not a concept that I could embrace, then or now.

Prior to my experience with AA I had always been the subject of forces beyond my own understanding or control.  Now I had the opportunity to learn how to run my own life.  This was pretty heady stuff, and I didn’t know if I could handle it.  I was right, I couldn’t.  For seven years I kept getting struck drunk, but I didn’t die and kept coming back.

People talked about themselves, their experiences, ideas, and results.  They did not preach to me.  I was not told that I was naughty, or stupid, or vicious.  The message seemed to be that I was a common, garden-variety drunk, and that I could get better if I wanted to.  To accomplish this I’d have to make some changes.  There was no magic here, but there was hope.  For the first time in my life I could be in charge of my own destiny.

In the early sixties, it became obvious to me that I didn’t believe in “God as I understand Him.”  I was an agnostic and didn’t know what I believed.  However, I had been off the booze for about fifteen years, and had developed some confidence in my own thoughts and feelings.  It was very hard for me to sit quietly at meetings while I tried to dope out who and what I was and why I was there.  After a while I began to know who I am, and why I am still here after forty sober years.

By now I had been associated with AA, in one way or another, for over twenty years.  The last two thirds of that time had been without booze.  I was wonderboy, going to meetings, being a sponsor, starting groups, speaking anywhere at the drop of a hat.  All of this was fine.  I was sober, though considered a little strange but respected for my longtime sobriety.  What was going on I did not know, but something was missing.  I was running in place and not really getting anywhere.  Very slowly it began to dawn on me that I was a phony.  I was about as real as a six dollar bill, and the problem wasn’t AA, but me.  In my desperate need to be accepted I was performing like a trained seal.  I had been around long enough to know the “party line.”  Meanwhile I had learned to think, and what I thought did not always agree with what was the accepted AA way.  It took me some time to catch on that AA was no more static than I was, and we had both been evolving over time.  Our paths were, and had been, diverging.  While the goals remained the same, neither AA nor I were what we had been twenty years before.  Of course that was as it should be, because stasis is unnatural in living organisms.  The only things that don’t change are dead, and I don’t want either AA or me in that condition.

I feel very fortunate that I’m not a newcomer today.  I believe that if I showed up today – scared, guilty, crazy, arrogant, and confused – and was told the terrifying things I hear some new people being “indoctrinated” with, I would probably stumble out to the corner saloon.  I’d be sure that AA was just another step on this loser’s path to destruction.  Why bother?  I was truly hopeless, nothing had ever worked, nothing could ever work for me.  The hell with it!

Because too often in recent years, I have heard AA members assailing new members with their version of the program.  These self-appointed wunderkinder are to be found flailing at their victims, who look both stunned and terrified.  They are told that they must “get right with God,” get a sponsor, repeat the Serenity Prayer sixty-three times a day, take the Fourth Step, take the Fifth Step, confide their every thought to a sponsor, and on and on ad nauseum.  Otherwise, they are told, they will get drunk.  Don’t these people know that to some of us this sermonizing is a death sentence?  Is this how people should be greeted at “the last house on the block” Maybe I have lost touch with the real world.

When I first came in I heard, “This is a simple program for complicated people.  Don’t drink!  You don’t have to, you know.  Go to meetings, listen, and open your mind.”  That kind of good stuff left me with the right to my own personality, warped though it was.  The message was:  Keep it simple.  It works!  Of course I fought these ideas, but I found out over time that they were true.

In recent years I have learned that a few other organizations are forming to try to help drunks like me who insist on doing some of their own thinking.  I wish them all well, indeed, but I hope I don’t have to join them.  I want to remain a member of AA, but I could certainly be a little more comfortable than I’ve been in recent years.

Where are my contemporaries in AA?  Most of them are not at meetings.  Of course time has taken its toll, but there are a substantial number of people I know who are sober, sane, and leading fulfilled and productive lives.  They are not dropouts, they are walkouts.  These guys are sober anywhere from twenty-five years up, and they don’t come around anymore.  I have been in touch with some of them, and they tell me why.

“I don’t have to listen to that bull.”  “Where is the substance?”  “Don’t these people think anymore?”  “Isn’t there a lot of rote repetition of what somebody once said or wrote?”  “You want to know why I don’t come?  Just listen, and you’ll understand.”

When I express my concerns about this kind of thing, I am often exposed to what I refer to as the “marshmallow treatment.”  This usually takes the form of condescending politeness to the poor dope who “just doesn’t understand AA.”  That may be true, but I do have a pretty good track record if the criterion is staying sober.  It might also be important to point out that I am not alone.  There are others out there who are disturbed as I am.  We really want the doors of AA to remain open to anybody with a desire to stop drinking.  We are no longer “the only game in town.”  Let’s not get so hidebound and righteous that we lose the whole purpose of our Fellowship.

3 Responses

  1. John M. says:

    It’s highly invaluable to read the opinions of long standing members of AA. It helps us better understand that there has always been a certain level of dissent in our fellowship. I always believe this keeps things fresh, up to date and progressive. We who live in parliamentary democracies know the value of opposition as central to the health of our free societies and dissent certainly does not imply any kind of disloyalty or betrayal; our opposition parties are qualified as the “loyal opposition.”

    The kind of old timer opinion presented from this particular issue of Grapevine reminds me of Bob Pearson’s closing address to the 1986 General Service Conference. I’m not sure, though, that his remarks represent warnings from the “loyal opposition” in any sense since he served as the General Manager of GSO from 1974-1984 and as Senior Advisor to GSO from 1985 to his retirement. Anyway, here are a couple of excerpts from his comments at the closing brunch of the 1986 General Service Conference:

    Let me offer my thoughts about A.A.’s future. I have no truck with those bleeding deacons who decry every change and view the state of the Fellowship with pessimism and alarm. On the contrary, from my nearly quarter-century’s perspective, I see A.A. as larger, healthier, more dynamic, faster growing, more global, more service-minded, more back-to-basics, and more spiritual — by far — than when I came through the doors of my first meeting in Greenwich, Connecticut, just one year after the famous [July 1960] Long Beach Convention. A.A. has flourished beyond the wildest dreams of founding members, though perhaps not of Bill himself, for he was truly visionary.

    And further into his statement:

    If you were to ask me what is the greatest danger facing A.A. today, I would have to answer: the growing rigidity — the increasing demand for absolute answers to nit-picking questions; pressure for G.S.O. to “enforce” our Traditions; screening alcoholics at closed meetings; prohibiting non-Conference-approved literature, i.e., “banning books;” laying more and more rules on groups and members. And in this trend toward rigidity, we are drifting farther and farther away from our co- founders. Bill, in particular, must be spinning in his grave, for he was perhaps the most permissive person I ever met. One of his favorite sayings was, “Every group has the right to be wrong.” He was maddeningly tolerant of his critics, and he had absolute faith that faults in A.A. were self-correcting.

    The entire body of Bob’s farewell speech can be viewed on a number of websites; one of these is The Hindsfoot Foundation.

  2. Robin R. says:

    Great article which puts into words my exact thoughts, and to think it is from an early member of AA. Why is it that we as AA members continue to complicate the 5th tradition?

  3. Joe C. says:

    Great food for thought for me. None of us are experts, none of know how it is for others or what others should do to stay sober or live life. This article from a guy that goes back to AAs origins reminds me to share my experience and when I think I have expertise, to think again. The wisdom of the ages is always great to reflect on. Great post.

Translate »