How It Works Without A God
By John B
Can a drunk expect happiness to emerge from recovery?
My answer would have been a resounding YES as I floated out of a 12 step oriented treatment episode on a pink cloud of euphoria in August of 1980. Fast forward four years and I had compiled a history of perpetual relapses. Whatever definition of happiness you choose to use, I had none of it at that point in my life.
I hadn’t just been lounging around church basements for those four years. I had two sponsors helping me with step work, I was trying to extract meaning and purpose from AA literature, and Helen and I were socially engaged with AA and Alanon friends. Alcohol free days and weeks began to roll by again, and even though I was not drinking, fear was palpable. I was starting to feel stranded in a recovery place I had visited many times before. AA camaraderie, friendship, and role modeling were again functioning as palliatives, but as usual the ubiquitous presence of the God of AA was lurking as an impediment to progress. I felt like I was trying to stay sober using two mutually exclusive tools – the needed support vs. the unneeded divine intervention. God had to go!
My frustration with “approved” AA literature intensified and I took the liberty to expand my reading boundaries. Three or four months into sobriety I picked up a book titled, Man’s Search for Meaning. Now, what could be more useful to a recently dried out drunk than to discover some meaning? I bought the book ($2.00 in 1984), and 36 years later it remains my all-time favorite. The author is Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist who survived WW2 in a Nazi internment camp.
In the book he lays out an easy to understand approach for coping with the capriciousness, and even the sometimes cruelty, inherent to the human condition. Frankl helped me to understand the steps from a humanistic perspective, and the book provided me with several eureka moments, some that still affect my life today. I’ll share three.
Surrounded by squalid, inhumane conditions, Frankl was able to extract meaning from his experiences. He observed a few devoted inmates who made serious efforts to comfort others, even at times by giving up their last morsel of food. From this he concluded that men have the power… “To choose one’s attitude, to choose one’s own way.” (p. 75). This was a eureka moment. Big Book be damned – I have the power within me to choose sobriety. I kept reading. Later on Frankl tells us this… “The more one forgets himself – by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love – the more he actualizes himself.” (p. 115). In other words, “self-actualization is possible as a side-effect of self-transcendence.” (p. 115). Eureka! Then finally, if you want to find happiness… “happiness cannot be pursued: it must ensue.” (p. 140).
This all gave me pause. Reading 140 pages of descriptions of how a man adapted to the horrible conditions of living in a Nazi internment camp can motivate some serious thought about the meaning of life. What was going on in my recovery became starkly evident. Those sober alcoholics closest to me were doing precisely what Frankl was talking about: they were helping others, they were choosing how to live, they were satisfied with themselves, they were happy. I had the feeling I was finally on the right path. One day at a time I started to emulate what they were doing so I could get what they had.
That’s how it worked.
One day at a time sobriety continued, but life’s challenges did not magically evaporate. Marital stress and financial pressures made some of those days difficult to navigate. Those were the days when I was grateful for those AA buddies. They didn’t offer solutions to my personal problems, but they provided the personal support which helped me focus on finding solutions, one day at a time. For that I owe a debt of gratitude to AA: if it had not existed, where would I have found people like that? Thank you Mr. Wilson – but I’m going to stay on the people path to sobriety – no need for divine intervention.
Reading widely also continued and I began to create a “philosophy of life” based on mutually beneficial personal relationships. Thirty-six years later the intrinsic value of those human connections alone would create ample contentment; in reality, I almost always get much more back than I give.
Not long after finding Dr. Frankl, I was again browsing around Hyde Brothers Used Books, in Ft. Wayne, In. (check out their website), and stumbled on another psychiatrist whose ideas made sense to me, and supported how I was trying to live my life.
William Glasser became nationally known in 1965 with the release of his book, Reality Therapy. He acquired immediate notoriety due to his rejection of Freudian psychoanalysis and instead stressed one’s own responsibility for their personal mental health. He stated it this way… “People do not act irresponsibly because they are ‘ill’; they are ‘ill’ because they act irresponsibly.” (Reality Therapy, p. xv). Another outlay of $2.00. To me this fit neatly with Frankl’s statements about attitudes, actualization, and happiness, and my humanistic view of the 12 steps.
I’ve been frequently accused of unnecessarily injecting too much “thinking” into my approach to recovery, but I have this old fashioned belief that knowledge is power. Reading the views of these two sober psychiatrists did nothing to impede personal growth, the insistence on reliance on God definitely did.
Glasser’s insistence on personal responsibility actually validated the AA stress on the necessity for me to keep working on me, and simultaneously invalidated the need for help from God. About six years into recovery, I took a few college courses, got some on the job training, and jumped through all the necessary hoops to become an addictions counselor. The two doctors got quoted a lot when I worked as a counselor at the V.A. hospital in Marion, In. I was living my own life and trying to convince others that the best way to live was to take responsibility for yourself and to build quality personal relationships. I got some back-up.
In 1998, Glasser released another book, Choice Theory: A New Psychology of Personal Freedom. Glasser gave a lot of attention to personal responsibility and also to the necessity for solid personal relationships. Depending on the source, the topic of basic human needs can get to be somewhat cluttered. Glasser distilled it down to five: survival, love, power, freedom, and fun. He then adds this observation: “Most of us know nothing about our basic needs. What we know is how we feel, and we always want to feel as good as we can.” (Choice Theory, p. 45).
Alcohol worked for a long time, then it quit. I imagine that sounds familiar to some of you.
Choice Theory argues that the best way to satisfy these basic needs is to make choices that enable us to accurately perceive our own reality by structuring what he refers to as our own “quality world”. It contains the people we want to be with, the things we want the most, and the ideas and beliefs that we live by. (Choice Theory, p. 45). Glasser claims we have the power to control what goes into that quality world, hence we also have the power to control the quality of our own mental health. He was blasted with a lot of criticism from the medical community for the strong emphasis on individual autonomy along with his de-emphasis on the use of pharmaceuticals in treatment.
Personally, I have seen all of the ideas shared above work in my life. One thing is for sure: How it Works will be up to you.
John is an eighty-three year old sober alcoholic with 35 years of continuous sobriety. Married to Helen for 53 years; three kids in their 50’s. Spent 17 years teaching and coaching at the high school level in Indiana and Illinois. Owned and operated a bar and restaurant for 13 years which led to the acceleration of his alcoholism, which led to treatment, and eventually led to a career as an addiction counselor. Retired in 2001 from the Marion, In. V.A. Served as office manager for a major AA intergroup office in N.E. In. for six and a half years. Was an excellent high school and small college basketball player. Still goes to the gym three days a week and shoots 200 three point shots and does some light weight lifting. Passionate about family, recovery, basketball, and the St. Louis Cardinals. Reads 20 to 25 books a year, and three or four quality periodicals on a regular basis; mostly about politics, economics, science, history: about anything going on in the world that strikes his curiosity.