Two people

This is the first article submitted for The Practical Book and posted on AA Agnostica for feedback (comments) from you, our readers.

It has many of the qualities we are looking for in these submissions. First, the “tool” used in recovery – in this case identification with other alcoholics – is clearly presented. Second, it is a an essay in that it refers to some relevant background information and research, the thoughts of historian Ernie Kurtz. Finally, it is also a story based on personal experience. All of the these are woven together comfortably and the result is a very compelling article.

By Thomas B.

I was pretty sure I knew what AA was all about before I went to my first meeting. I had seen old B&W films about AA on TV. AA consisted of a bunch of old men, who had been on skid row, and who talked about God a lot.

I was 29 years-old when I went to my first AA meeting on the Upper Westside of New York City on October 19, 1972. The product of a Jesuit education, I was proud to be a skeptical agnostic. In addition, I had flunked out of two liberal arts graduate school programs, largely due to daily drinking to excess.

Sure enough, the speaker at the Beginners Meeting and the three speakers at the following open speaker meeting were old men, who had been on the Bowery and talked about God a lot. No way did I identify with any of them.

Nevertheless, I didn’t drink, and I kept going to meetings. I wanted to get my wife back, who had moved out of our apartment, following another ugly, drunken scene at the beginning of my last week of drinking. I had known for several years that I was an alcoholic. I finally accepted that drinking not only made my life unmanageable, it also made my life unbearable.

The first person I identified with was Stanley S. Stancage. Stanley was a large Russian Jew with hands the size of catcher’s mitts. He was a chronic relapser, who often drank again and got violent. Whenever he drank, he ended up in the emergency room after battling cops and in jail.

Stanley led a beginner’s meeting my third week of being sober. He was ninety days sober again after another horrid relapse. His qualification was rife with F-bombs, as he gesticulated his huge hands all about himself. He quoted Nietzsche, Baudelaire, Shakespeare, even Marx. I thought to myself, “Fuck, if this asshole can get sober, maybe I can too.”

He was the first person with whom I identified. Finally, I could relate to someone. To a great extent I owe my subsequent years of longtime recovery to Stanley. It saddens me, even to this day, that a couple of years later he died from chug-a-lugging a quart of 100-proof vodka. I will be forever grateful for him.

* * *

About six-months later, I decided to get drunk again. I had plenty of reasons — I hadn’t gotten my wife back. My car had been impounded. I didn’t have a job. I had just turned 30 years-old, which was way over the hill, according to the youthful arrogance of my hippie generation at the time.

However, I had the coffee commitment at the New York City Young People’s meeting. What would they think of me if I didn’t show up? So, I went and made the coffee. I also stayed for the meeting, since part of the commitment was cleaning up afterwards. My intention was to get royally hammered later that night and during the wee-hours of the following morning. This was my favorite time to get drunk by myself, listening to oldies but goodies and literally crying in my beer over lost loves from my past.

Elevator Tom, a vibrant, successful young man from Queens, qualified at the meeting. His lead was scintillating, full of the hope and joy and gratitude that is the natural product of not drinking, going to meetings, and helping others. Despite my dark state of mind, I identified with him and experienced again H O P E — Hearing Other Peoples Experience. I had what I often experienced at an AA meeting, an Attitude Adjustment! The result was I stayed sober for another day and did not follow-through on my intention to get wasted.

* * *

These are just two of numerous such instances of identification that I experienced during my first year of recovery. All throughout the ensuing years of longterm recovery, they are typical of what I always experience in AA, because I don’t drink, and I go to meetings.

Plus, whenever I help a newcomer, I hear again my story. But, I also hear and identify with their story. I thereby re-experience the gift of my story — both the horror of the former dark life drinking and the hope to stay sober one more day at a time. Through mutual identification with each other, we both are enabled to experience the gift of a “daily reprieve”.

* * *

I am utterly convinced that AA works because of identification. We alcoholics identify with each other, both in our shared malady as well as through our continued recovery together. Essentially, the healing we experience in AA is due to our ability to deeply identify with each other.

Ernie Kurtz, the foremost historian of AA’s rapid growth and evolution in the 20th Century agrees. On page 61 of his seminal academic history of AA, Not God, he writes:

The antidote for the deep symptom of denial was identification marked by open and undemanding narration infused with profound honesty about personal weakness. The process of identification was offered without any demand for reciprocity or for anything else.

 In a 2002 article, Kurtz further notes:

The secret of Alcoholics Anonymous, the thing that makes AA work, is identification. As Marty Mann is reputed to have said to her fellow sanitarium inmate on returning to Blythwood from her visit to the Wilson home in Brooklyn Heights for her first AA meeting: “Grennie, we arent alone any more”.

I am ever so grateful that I am always able to also “not be alone any more” simply by going to an AA meeting, where I can readily identify with the experience, strength and hope of other alcoholics.

24 Responses

  1. eoin mac says:

    I landed in my first AA meeting in Belfast in July 1997. I couldn’t stop drinking, was hurting everyone around me and feared I was losing my mind. I got identification and hope at that very first AA meeting, my terrible sense of isolation and uniqueness was shattered. I was told to stay away from the first drink and keep coming back. In time other suggestions were made like get a sponsor, do the steps, get a god into your life. I tried to follow these suggestions as best as I could as I was finding that not drinking in AA was becoming more unbearable than my drinking… the unmanageable life!

    I learned to love the old AAs who looked after me, listened and shared their innermost selves with me that I might discover myself. However I have never been able to attain a concept of god despite incessant prayers and reading spiritual books and after the death of my sponsor after 11 years by suicide I simply stopped trying. I am comfortable today with my atheism and my programme, which having formally taken the 12 steps years ago has been refined into trying to be honest, trying not to practise my defects, doing for others, seeking inner quietness and passing the message on to other suffering alcoholics. Without meaning to I know that other more religious AA members feel threatened by my attendance and sharing at meetings and I have been confronted and verbally attacked at meetings. I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t hurt by these attacks by believers (who claim theirs is a god of love!), but I need AA for my sobriety and also to repay the debt of gratitude for those members who helped save my life. As an Irish atheists comedian once said “may your god go with you!”

  2. annalia says:

    What I Needed – Not What I Wanted

    You may hear in AA that God gives you what you need not what you want. If you want to believe that, I have no quarrel with it. I do not happen to believe it. I do believe that in the long run things worked out for me, but those first years were incredibly painful. The times when I was suicidal were frequent, and if I had not had 3 children and a drunk husband, I might well have committed suicide.

    My first year in AA there were only the 3 sober women in town, 2 of whom had a business phone, and the 3rd an unlisted # she did not want to give out. She finally did let me have her phone number, but not long after I started a 5th step with her, she made an unwanted pass at me, and I left her apartment quickly and never went back.

    One thing I have learned from this unpleasant experience, is that if someone intends to drink again or commit suicide, there are no right words that any one could have said that would have stopped me or anyone else. And if I were determined not to do either, there is nothing anyone could have said to make me do it. We simply do not have that much power. I have a few times been told, “You are going to make me drink again!” I just reply, “If I had that much power, I would make you stay sober, instead!”

    Ann M.

  3. annalia says:


    “Our primary purpose is to stay sober and to help other alcoholics to achieve sobriety.” Sponsorship is one of the ways I do this.

    When I went to my first meeting, I had not had a really close friend in years. I had a few acquaintances, but no one with whom I could share my aspirations, my struggles, my fears. I asked 3 women ( the only ones in town that were sober) for a phone number, but all has reasons not to share it. A lot of us pick badly sometimes. My 1st sponsor came on to me inappropriately. (One of the 3).

    Sometimes some of us simply cannot believe that we are worthy of someone’s friendship or attention. That was true in my case. When a 4th sober woman moved into the area, I was too discouraged to ask her. She finally asked me if I wanted to talk and asked me if I needed a sponsor, and when I agreed I did, asked me if I wanted her to be my sponsor. Sometimes someone will realize, as she did, that we are too scared to ask.

    If we do get a sponsor that is not working out for us, we can get another one. Some of us have several sponsors, some have none. The danger in having several is that I may go from one to another until I figure out how to get the answer I want. Some of us need a sponsor who tells us when to get up, when to brush our teeth, when to eat and what, when to speak at meetings, etc. Others just need someone to talk to. My needs were somewhere closer to needing “do this”. She put me into treatment when I was 14 months sober, and close to suicide.

    As we stay sober, our needs probably will change. A sponsor that was perfect for me at first, may no longer be what I want or need. Sponsors are human, and may go through times when they cannot help us at all. My sponsor gave me a great gift, when she told me that my needs would change, and not to worry if I found I needed someone else as a sponsor.

    There are no hard rules that “must” be followed, as you can see. People in the program may tell you what you “have” to do, but all of what you hear is someone’s opinion. (As is this writing on sponsorship.) I was told “women sponsor women and men sponsor men”. Yet, I successfully sponsored a gay man. Beware of those who put down hard and fast rules that you “have to follow.”

    Ann M.

  4. Bill P. says:

    Let me add another comment about a person I “identified” with. When I was in a rehab many years ago we all went out to a Speaker’s Meeting and there I witnessed a presentation by a young woman which has never left my memory. It was not so much what she said. It was her whole style, her appearance, one of nearly incandescent happiness. It was so evident that something had changed her life, had restored her true nature. I can’t recall whether she even mentioned the term “God”. But I thought to myself that Something had done that, perhaps the Group, something she had found in AA. I thought to myself, “I hope some day that I could be as happy as she seems to be!”

  5. Phil G says:

    Nice article. Short, well written, and easy to read.

    Desperation got me to my first meeting. Identification is the only reason I came back to my second meeting. If it had only been the ‘program’, there wouldn’t have been a third.

  6. Brent P. says:

    The last thing AA needs in another anecdotal history book. AA is the confusing mess that it is because so much of what forms the basis of our discussions is opinion, conjecture and speculation.
    How about some science? Some non speculative, empirical evidentiary statements about addiction/alcoholism.
    Lets stop with all the self diagnosis.
    What about concurrent disorders?
    What about doctors?
    If we are to be effectively treating the stuff that drives us to drink we need to ensure that we are managing the stuff we can and should be managing, while getting professional care for the things we are not equipped to diagnose or prescribe for.
    AA is becoming dangerous because far too many people with no business at all advising on the value or harm in a number of practices, including telling every one of our secrets to somebody we know no better than we do a colleague at work, don’t see that as wrong.
    For a time AA was criticized for being a cult. It’s defense was, in the absence of concrete evidence we’ve determined XYZ to be healthy practices while ABC are “diseases, indications of insanity”. Well that concrete evidence exists so by not adopting it and continuing to rely on the anecdotal AA is indeed becoming more and more a faith healing cult.
    Repeating what has already been done seems pointless and an indication that there is no inspired new direction.
    I think this whole “practical book” needs a rethink.
    Best of luck with the project.

    • Denis K says:

      Brent, you have some very good points and insights. Would you consider involving yourself with our proposed book and assisting to broaden the narrative?

    • Bill P. says:

      I think that Brent P. has a good point. Although some “anecdotal” accounts might helpful, if they seem to add to what has already been said somewhere else (actually a vast archive now) it would be good to have some articles which referred to and summarized in some accessible way what researchers have found. What about brain physiology, the way alcohol or other addictive substances change neuron receptors, the latest developments in drugs to reverse the effects of overdoses, the neurochemistry of tolerance, seizures, panic attacks, the reliability or efficacy of statistical data (or lack thereof), genetic aspects, personality characteristics, cultural influences, multiple causes of addiction? The empirical material is there and rapidly accumulating. Can someone summarize it for non professionals like us?

  7. anthony s says:

    Just like Ernie Kurtz I too thought I knew what AA was all about. In fact I would mock AA on occasion saying AA was for losers an crybabies. (Very mature, right?)

    And after a relapse a divorce and 15 years of hard drinking and drugs I found the rooms of AA.

    And I was able to “identify” with other people now my sober friends in the rooms… Found laughter in sobriety and in life. Trying not to take life too seriously.

    I enjoyed Ernie’s story very much and I know I am no longer alone… but rather deeply connected forever!

  8. Bill P. says:

    Very fine comment. My own experience with AA did not involve as many persons who continued drinking while attending meetings, except for one fellow who never seemed to achieve sobriety but was not drunk at meetings and seemed to be merely making a joke of himself. I don’t know what happened to him. Eventually I avoided him. I’m a little sensitive to the term “asshole” since my employer called me that (perhaps accurately) even before he learned that I had a drinking problem. After 27 years of sobriety I’ve lost any craving for alcohol and focus now on heart and prostate issues.

  9. Kit G says:

    Thanks, Thomas. If I can’t find anyone to identify with completely I usually hear it in a collective way. I’m not exactly like anyone but I’m exactly like everyone, if you get my meaning. Keep coming back and pay attention usually leads to some growth.

  10. Murray M says:

    Powerful, insightful and inspiring. I am just past 90 days and everything you wrote echoes true. I look forward to more notes from you.

  11. Bob H says:

    As a whole I do not like “First Person” stories. The majority seem to be written by people who turn violent or ugly after drinking.

    I was never like that. I am an introvert who liked the confidence alcohol gave me. I could never stop at that. I carried on drinking to oblivion.

    To keep reading stories of people who smash up bars, beat their wives, end up in jail, etc. leads me to doubt my own alcoholism but a normal person does not spend $50 to $60 EVERY day on alcohol.

    There should be more articles written in the Third Person to illustrate the different kinds of behaviour associated with alcoholism.

    • Chris G says:

      Bob, I agree that so many stories are like watching “reality” TV – all blood and guts. I’m also an introvert, never been in a fight, never totaled a car, house or a bar. I once went to a group where there were several of us like that – we declared ourselves the “cellar dwellers club”. Trouble is, our stories tend to be boring. “I drank myself to sleep every night for 15 years” is hardly exciting. I can’t really see what difference the narrative person makes, we’re just dull drunks.

      • bob k says:

        There are some pretty tame stories told by speakers at AA meetings every day. Lots of us have never been arrested, institutionalized, etc. We just quietly reached a point of demoralization.

        I sometimes say as a speaker, that if I’d have known I’d someday be in AA telling my tale of woe, I’d have driven at least one pickup truck through the front of one closed liquor store.

    • Dave J says:

      Here’s the litmus test for alcoholism. Nobody EVER asks themselves, ” I wonder if I’m alcoholic?” Nobody except an alcoholic. I’ve got 42 years and I was with a buddy last night at a gratitude meeting who has 38. He asked me if I ever read the Big Book . I answered “Yeah about 40 years ago, but it was painful.” I then asked him if he’d read it. His reply ” Hell no! I tried, but I thought it was a bunch of horse shit ” So we concluded that all AA is and ever was is a smile and a hand shake. Most of the rest is filler. Replacing it’s goofy religious pretensions with the latest medical and scientific nonsense may be a needed step forward, but I hope no one actually believes this is anything other than magic.

  12. Pat N. says:

    Good article, Thomas. It’s the simple fellowship of honest people that works, in my opinion. My first-meeting reaction was “My God, these people know!” Not some set of theological/philosophical theories, but what it was to vomit in strange bathrooms, to feel totally alone among others, and to despise myself at a core level. And they’d been able to stop! I didn’t think I cold do it, but I was certainly going to try. And they stuck with me, because they identified with my struggles.

    • daniel says:

      Where would we be without Ebby, if he had not taken the action to call and go and see Bill, I might not be here today. Bill related and indentified with Ebby and paid attention when Ebby said choose a God of your own conception.He is credited with introducing Bill Wilson to the principles that AA would soon develop,such as,”one alcoholic talking to another” and the need of a physic change. Cheers Daniel

  13. Tommy H says:

    Spot on.

  14. jack says:

    This is the key for my sobriety! Attending meetings where others shared my alcoholic experiences and understood my illness opened the doors to sobriety for me. I just could not get the God bit! I worked the steps in a secular fashion and kept quiet about my religious doubts! Currently, I feel that I owe the agnostic newcomer the idea that he/she can stay sober in AA without believing in God! Therefore, I share my experience at meetings without being defensive when confronted by the religious majority! This all boiled down to “one drunk talking to another” for me! I have been continually sober since May 1, 1970! I am willing to sponsor newcomers who have difficulty with the “sect” aspect of AA! Thankfully, AA can continue to grow and help all alcoholics regardless of race or religious backgrounds!

  15. Steve K says:

    Great article Thomas! Identification is a fundamental of how we recover in AA. It’s how our fellowship began with Bill W sharing his experience, strength and hope with Dr Bob. No lecturing or preaching, just getting real with each other.

  16. bob k says:

    When one probes AA’s big book, beneath the religiosity lies the psychology. I liked hearing Chris’s tales of identification from years ago. AA started with identification.

    From P. 180

    “The question which might naturally come into your mind would be: ‘What did the man do or say that was different from what others had done or said?’ It must be remembered that I had read a great deal and talked to everyone who knew, or thought they knew anything about the subject of alcoholism. But this was a man who had experienced many years of frightful drinking, who had had most all the drunkard’s experiences known to man, but who had been cured by the very means I had been trying to employ, that is to say the spiritual approach. He gave me information about the subject of alcoholism which was undoubtedly helpful. Of far more importance was the fact that he was the first living human with whom I had ever talked, who knew what he was talking about in regard to alcoholism from actual experience. In other words, he talked my language. He knew all the answers, and certainly not because he had picked them up in his reading.”

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