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 aren’t 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.