By John F.
In many groups, AA groups or otherwise, the vocal minority often trumps and drowns out the more passive majority, particularly when a good portion of that majority is comprised of folks whose serenity has brought them to the point described on page 84 of the Big Book, where they “have ceased fighting anything or anyone — even alcohol.” These days, the fundamentalist members, the back-to-basics tribe, that constitute the vocal minority within AA tend to preach that going to meetings and not drinking are simply insufficient for quality sobriety. The fellowship and sobriety are good things, they agree, but the twelve steps lead to god, and god trumps sobriety. As the White Paper, written in 2010 by a forty-year AA member in defense of excluding agnostic/atheist groups from Alcoholics Anonymous, states on page 9:
The twelfth step points to only one “result” from working the steps: a “spiritual awakening”. It does not say, “Having gotten sober as a result of these steps–”. Sobriety is not the name of the game, God is.
Prior to proclaiming that the name of the AA game is god, not sobriety, the White Paper author states on page 2, “I would rather hear about serving beer at meetings than diminishing God’s central role.” For those of us who have attended more than a handful of AA meetings, we know that the zeal for god and cheerleading “the steps” often seem paramount to the real goal: sobriety. How many times have we heard a sober alcoholic pejoratively referred to as a “dry drunk” only because that person is sober without using AA and the steps?
The tail, much too often, is wagging the dog.
The irony of that cognitive dissonance is highlighted when one considers that god seemed to be on a whirlwind vacation during the drinking/drugging phase of every addict’s life. If an ambulance drove by a man suffering a heart attack, we would expect the medics in that ambulance to assist the victim – even if he were grossly obese and trying to light an unfiltered cigarette while eating a stick of butter in the midst of his heart attack. Our expectations for an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-benevolent “god,” apparently pale in comparison to our expectations for human beings charged with the duty to help others in need. Expectations for a supreme being were often quite modest until we joined the program. Then we were read “How It Works” at the beginning of virtually every AA meeting we attended (shortly after those same meetings are started with a prayer); and we were admonished that “no human power could have relieved our alcoholism,” but “God could and would if He were sought.” Those statements beg the question: why even attend AA meetings with all that useless human power unable to help us manage our addictions?
The twelve steps do not, in fact, promise sobriety to anyone. They do, however, predict a “spiritual awakening.” “Spiritual” is one of those words that much of the time seems one thing to the speaker and quite another to the listener. It reminds me of a teenager using the word “sick” to describe a rap concert or final exam. The concert was wonderful; the test was horrible; and both were “sick.”
Even if one approaches the twelve steps with a non-mystical mindset, I’m not so sure they accomplish the goal of restoring addicts to sanity. Before making that argument, I need to say this: I’m a huge proponent of the principles underlying the steps. It’s hard to be against honesty, acceptance, forgiveness, humility, tolerance, living in the present, or school bus safety – and I’m a believer in all! That being said, a critical examination of the steps draws into question their utility when embraced literally. Let’s look at the steps, beginning with step one, which defines our problem. Due to an adverse reaction, unique to alcohol addicts, we lose control over our consumption once we ingest alcohol. Our craving for alcohol increases in proportion to the quantity we consume, and we are unable to moderate our drinking despite the plethora of adverse consequences accruing in our life. In sum, we are damned if we drink.
However, once separated from our favorite beverage/drug, we remain damned because of what Dr. Silkworth famously labeled “an obsession of the mind” in The Doctor’s Opinion. In other words, even after time and detoxification, we find ourselves obsessing about how we can continue to drink – but somehow without the horrible consequences. The obsession might morph into a preoccupation with discovering another mood-altering substance that doesn’t have the same nasty consequences as our original drug of choice. We hope, we plan, we obsess – and we are miserable because we crave chemical euphoria. In all honesty, who in this world wouldn’t want chemically-induced nirvana if they could have it without adverse consequences? That obsession of the mind is what step two implicitly considers insanity. If we are powerless over alcohol once we ingest it, and we are powerless over our obsession to attain chemical euphoria when not using, we are caught between Scylla and Charybdis: damned if we use and goddamn miserable if we don’t. Step two purports to solve this dilemma in the form of a higher power that will restore us to sanity – or more specifically, extinguish our obsession of the mind. Let’s examine this for a moment, and I don’t believe it matters if the higher power is mystical in nature (a supreme being) or non-mystical (one’s AA home group, for instance).
Either way, we are instructed by the second step to put our faith, our hope, and our trust in that higher power for the express purpose of restoring ourselves to sanity. By this point, we have been away from booze long enough that it is no longer the “physical allergy,” eloquently described in The Doctor’s Opinion, that will cause us to drink; it is the “obsession of the mind” that will cause us to pick up and thereby trigger the physical allergy, the compulsivity. If step one defines the problem (lack of power), then step two defines the solution (more power). Step three tells us to embrace the solution (“turn our will and our lives over to the care of God”), and steps four through nine instruct us how to harness our higher power. If we could work a perfect step four and do a “searching and fearless moral inventory” so that we completely appreciated our fears, our resentments, and the harms we have caused to ourselves and others, we would then be ready to confess the same during a fifth step and next start in the direction of steps eight and nine. Again, if we could work those two steps perfectly and make amends to any and all whom we have harmed, we would arrive at the promised land promised by “The Promises.” If we continued to take personal inventory (step 10), prayed only for god’s will (step 11), and then, because of our predicted spiritual awakening, carried a message of hope to the suffering alcoholic (step 12), we would have completed all twelve steps, and, presumably, our obsession to use again (our insanity) would be forever removed, and we would be restored to sanity.
I have had obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) since I was a young kid, and undoubtedly, drinking initially helped me find present moment consciousness that my brain had tremendous difficulty finding without chemical assistance. However, even if I could do a perfect step four and five in Obsessive Compulsive Anonymous (yes, there really is such a twelve step group!), be rigorous about steps six and seven, make a perfectly comprehensive list of people I have harmed per step eight, make amends via step nine so that the folks I had harmed felt like they had won the lottery, and then work steps ten through twelve flawlessly, here is what I believe would happen. I’d still double-check the door as much as ever to make sure it’s locked; I’d double-check the knobs on the gas stove as much as ever to make sure the gas was off; and my OCD would continue much like before. In other words, my obsessive thinking due to my OCD – much like my obsession of the mind from alcoholism – doesn’t lend itself well to a cure based on a searching moral inventory or turning my life and will over to god or prayer or making restitution or even helping others. All of those things might add depth, reward, and purpose to one’s life, but they won’t arrest my OCD or my alcoholism.
In short, the twelve steps themselves are not a panacea or silver bullet for treating obsessional disorders such as addiction or OCD.
The most effective way to manage a chronic disease like OCD, I have learned, is to employ a technique called exposure and response suppression/prevention. That’s just a fancy way of saying when I have the obsession to engage in a certain behavior (double-checking the door lock or stove burners, for example), I cannot engage in the behavior because it will quickly become compulsively repetitive and have negative consequences. With time, the obsessions fade substantially, although there is always something akin to a pilot light that remains on. I believe the obsession to drink is strikingly similar. With time, it fades substantially but never entirely. It becomes manageable (suppressible and passing), and life improves radically as a result. The twelve steps (half of which reference a higher power or god) help some people find god and some find sobriety and some find both. And that’s grand! For those of us who enjoy the fellowship and our sobriety without religious adherence to the steps or a belief in a god, that’s equally grand.
In George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm, the pigs proclaimed that all the farm animals were equal, but the pigs were “more equal.” Too often, a vocal cluster of back-to-basics fundamentalists posing as the high priests of AA and quoting the Big Book as though it were divinely-promulgated scripture, send the message to the newcomer than all routes to sobriety are equal, but their evangelical, god-based approach is more equal. And by doing so, the primary purpose of Alcoholics Anonymous – namely, to help the suffering alcoholic – is undermined.
Too often in the name of god.
I have heard AA evangelicals piously preach that “all any alcoholic will ever need to know is written in the first 164 pages of the Big Book.” With that in mind, I’m reminded of this statement by AA founder Bill Wilson on page 164, written seventy-five years ago: “Our book is meant to be suggestive only. We realize we know only a little.”
John F, a native of Green Bay, Wisconsin, is new to recovery and began regularly attending AA meetings this year in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area where he resides with his teenage son, Shane, and their dog, Scout. He has been a trial attorney practicing the area of white collar and criminal defense for over 20 years. John has also been a law school instructor in Minnesota. He loves being a parent, traveling, fishing, reading/writing, the Green Bay Packers, and making new friends in recovery. An agnostic and skeptic by nature, John is inclined to question any organization that would allow him as a member, even one as wonderful as Alcoholics Anonymous.