The Underground Railroad
By bob k.
My father Maury was of the World War II generation. Luckily for me, his military service did not take him outside of Canada, as many who crossed the ocean did not come back. Dad spent most of 1943-1945 in Western Canada running physical education classes for airmen, learning how to drink, and defending Saskatchewan. In 1961, at the age of thirty-six, he joined Alcoholics Anonymous. The old-timers of that era were World War I guys, Bill Wilson’s age or older.
Thirty years later, Maury’s oldest son (that would be me) came to AA. In 1991 people were already complaining about the watering down of AA, about how soft it had become. “Things were entirely different in the olden days,” we were told. One meeting in the east-end of Toronto was known for its particularly tough talk. It even had a tough-sounding name, “The Gravel Pit.”
At the Pit, the regulars prided themselves in their strict adherence to “the rules,” rules that don’t actually exist. They had a total disregard for the rules of civil behavior, strictures that do actually exist. The Gravel Pit elite spoke proudly of the “two-by-four” treatment, as in smacking some newcomer in the face with a verbal piece of lumber. These “bringers of truth,” as they viewed themselves, would humiliate anyone naïve enough to pose what they considered to be a dumb question. If the question wasn’t dumb, the neophyte was berated for not taking it to his sponsor.
Do you even have a sponsor?
The sponsor-thumping AA elite put on quite a show for the amusement of themselves and each other. Unfortunately, I cannot name a single person who benefited from the harshly delivered “truth.” Dozens took their humiliation, slunk away, and were never seen again.
In theory, the Twelve Steps are about ego deflation, but the professed step-takers showed not the slightest evidence of being deflated. The efforts to bring ego-reduction were always outwardly directed. “Sit down and STFU” was alive and well among the truth-tellers of East Toronto.
According to the two-by-four wielders, their sort of tough talk had been the standard protocol back in the vaunted era when success rates were one hundred percent, or even higher.
In late 1991, I asked my father a question. As someone with a 1961 sobriety date, he would seem qualified to pass a judgment on the mythical era when men were men and AA was delivered via smacks upside the head.
Was AA really so different in the old days?
His response is something that has come to mind many times in the intervening years. There were preachers then, and there are preachers now. My sponsor never raised his voice to me, not once.
Were he alive today, my late father would be 95 years old and sober 59 years. He accepted drug addicts in Alcoholics Anonymous as the new reality. Why expend energy fighting a battle that’s already over?
Folks with low self-esteem can fall into the habit of chasing an upward spike in perceived self-worth through less than noble means. Putting down others might make me feel better about myself, at least for a while. The highest levels of professed spirituality do not seem to stop Big Book thumpers from looking down on the vast, unwashed masses within AA – meeting makers, quoters of the Twelve and Twelve, readers of the dreaded Living Sober, etc.
Those with true God-connection mock atheists and agnostics for their belligerent denial. Freethinkers push back by ridiculing the religious for their lack of logic and science. Big Book Thumpers put down non-thumpers for a lack of diligence in their adherence to the sacred text, and are themselves belittled for having a sacred text. On and on it goes.
From time to time, folks from diverse camps might unite in shared loathing for self-admitted drug addicts. Once more, the self-esteem booster rockets are fueled by the vilification of our fellows.
An Enormous Difference
It’s difficult to convey exactly how different from one another an addict and an alcoholic are. In one of the feistiest essays ever to appear on this website, the legendary Bobby Beach may have expressed it best:
From the perspective of the “Singleness of Purpose” fundamentalist, drug addicts will bring about the ruination of AA. There is no way of making an AA member of a non-alcoholic drug addict, don’t you know!
Let’s take your average drunk whose fun drinking began to produce serious consequences, then spiraled completely out-of-control. In spite of all of this, the alcoholic was plagued with an obsession to get more liquor. How could our guy possibly relate to some pariah whose fun drugging began to produce serious consequences, then spiraled completely out-of-control. In spite of all of this, the addict was plagued with an obsession to get more drugs.
See the enormous difference?
The two things are as different from each other as night and day, or spirituality and religion, right?
Those who strongly object to druggies and even the dually-addicted seeking help in Alcoholics Anonymous are quick to pose a question:
Why don’t drug addicts go to the various drug fellowships where they can be helped by those of their own kind?
There is an underlying implication – that such alternatives are readily available, and that the real reason drug addicts come to AA is to make grumpy “singleness of purpose” fundamentalists even grumpier. In the early 1990s, Metropolitan Toronto had a population of over three million souls (pardon the term). In the eastern third of the city, there were two weekly meetings of Narcotics Anonymous. The numbers for CA, CMA, DAA, AAA and HA were zero.
For many years, having wide-ranging recovery options was limited to those residing downtown in major cities. In 2020, the overall circumstances are not so different. The drug fellowships have grown but remain small. Are there CA and CMA meetings in Wichita, Kansas? If so, is there more than one a week? What does the newcomer do the other six nights?
AA secularists face a similar dilemma. How many have access to multiple nonreligious meetings? Outside of the cores of major cities, very few, I’d guess. The all-inclusive NA is the biggest of the drug fellowships, but one can be forgiven for wondering:
If an alcoholic cannot help a drug addict, could a marijuana dependent suburbanite really be capable of leading a down-and-out heroin addict into recovery. The wise words of Mr. Beach notwithstanding, would those two folks not be as unaligned as a crackhead and a boozer?
I’ll try to tread cautiously with this part.
The Godliest of AA’s God folks profess to center their lives around “praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.” Packers’ coach Vince Lombardi told reporters that “winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” The Bigga Booka generously provides a chapter showing agnostics where they went wrong. Page 53 offers the reader a clear choice: “…either God is everything or else He is nothing.” (Please check Box A or Box A.)
Does God, both Manager and Director (yes, capital damn letters!) of the AA traditionalist really send down the fiat to bar AA’s doors to drug addicts?
Let’s journey back to the eastern third of Toronto in the early 1990s. The drug addict seeking recovery had two NA meetings a week within a reasonable commute. Local NA was having only occasional success. Almost no members had over a year of clean time. According to credible sources, people seeking NA recovery were approached to buy drugs in the parking lot.
When these desperate folks appeared at the doors of Alcoholics Anonymous, what were the AAs to do? As there’s certainly almost endless blathering from AA members about their desire to act in accordance with the will of God, a strong case could be made that God’s will is what we’d do, no?
Here’s where the rubber meets the road and theory becomes reality. Would God want us to turn our backs on these folks who are slightly different, or would He (sorry) want us to try to help them as best we could? Once more, turning them away, as the singleness of purpose fundamentalist would have us do, sends them off to face a fate that’s uncertain at best, and fatal at worst.
For the author and for many readers of this essay, God’s will is theoretical at best. God or no God, the humanitarian answer is the same. In many parts of North America, access to recovery alternatives remains quite limited. Leaving aside Chicago, New York, Los Angeles and the downtown cores of other major cities, it remains 1990. Let’s think twice about shooing people off to seek more suited help.
Better options are only better if they are actually available.
The Underground Railroad
I’ve never been a “God’s will” guy, but in recovery I’ve developed a heightened concern for my fellow human beings. If my fellow alcoholics are brothers and sisters, drug addicts are cousins at the very least – stepbrothers and stepsisters, more likely. Of course, many among AA’s membership have been doubly scourged. Some go to AA and NA.
Drug addicts were among those who presented themselves at eastern Toronto AA meetings, even the closed ones, and we coached them what to say.
Introduce yourself as an alcoholic, even if you think you’re lying.
Inside your head, translate the booze problems you’ll be hearing to the drug problems you’ve been experiencing. It’s not so different.
(Sorry, Bobby Beach)
Can an alcoholic help a drug addict?
Skateboard Paul would say yes. Paul wasn’t much of a drinker. He exhibited serious sales skills that were used in his work as a street hustler. Today, he is twenty-seven years sober, owns a construction company, and employs several rehabilitated alcoholics and drug addicts. Paul and some other crackheads who got sober in AA have gone on to found some local CA meetings. Paul remains active in AA and CA.
Mark J. told me one time that he didn’t have much of a stomach for drinking but that he could pop a pill with the best of ‘em. I can remember being a teenager with a stomach poorly suited for a drinker. Through persistence, I overcame that. Mark might have done the same absent his discovery of substances that one can smoke, snort, pop or inject to produce magical transformations. Mark is in his thirtieth year of sobriety. He’s been helpful to both drunks and druggies.
Mark and Paul remain grateful that we smuggled them into AA with our version of the underground railroad. There have been many Marks and many Pauls. I’m pleased we didn’t turn them away. If there’s a God, She’s pleased as well.
For information about the original Underground Railroad, click here: Wikipedia.
Bob has been a regular contributor to AA Agnostica. His interest in AA’s past led to the publication in 2015 of Key Players in AA History. He has other book projects in the works.