Other Factors

By Steven B.

A man clutches his chest. He’s having a heart attack.  He collapses and his heart stops. His wife calls 911. A highly trained team of paramedics arrive and start lifesaving procedures. They administer pharmaceuticals synthesized by chemists and tested with the scientific method. They use equipment developed by scientists and engineers. He is rushed to a hospital and met by a medical team who continue to work on the patient. They are able to restore a heartbeat and blood pressure. He’s stabilized and transferred to the Intensive Care Unit. The lead physician goes to talk to the wife and tells her that her husband has been stabilized and has survived his heart attack. She says, “Oh, thank God”. Perhaps God was responsible for this man’s survival, but might there have been other factors involved?

From Chapter Five of the Big Book:

b. that probably no human power could have relieved our alcoholism

c. That God could and would if He were sought.

Perhaps God is responsible for sobriety in people, but might there be other factors involved?

It’s been my opinion that religion or spirituality has little to do with sobriety. It can have some marginal benefits like thinking, “I can sneak a drink past my spouse but I can’t sneak one past God” — if you really believe you have a 24/7 monitor. But for the most part I think other factors are involved.

First and foremost of the other factors is the Fellowship. To understand the benefit of fellowship it helps to understand the concept of Rat Park. The Rat Park experiments were done many years ago by Bruce K. Alexander and colleagues. Basically they showed that rats who were living in small cages with nothing to do were prone to drug use and rats that were in “Rat Park”, a large cage with other rats and an enriched environment, were much less likely to use alcohol or other drugs.  (Use your search engine of choice if you wish more details of Rat Park.)

Many alcoholics have devolved into a very small cage. They’ve lost friends, family, jobs, etc. AA may just give them the opening to reintegrate back into a worthwhile life. The importance of acceptance into a group with people who have been there is inestimable. Many freethinkers will suppress their disagreements with the group and go along because they don’t want to risk rejection. I know. I was one of them. It often seemed that AA dogma functioned more to filter people out rather than to draw them into the Fellowship. I think many an atheist or agnostic in AA can identify as belonging to a group of rejects within a group of rejects.

If all goes well as your recovery progresses, you enlarge and enrich your cage and lose the desire to sabotage the good life you’ve built for yourself. At some point you may not need the Fellowship of AA. I think it’s a myth that leaving AA makes relapse inevitable. You have several options: You can stay in AA and keep your opinions to yourself. You can stay in AA and challenge the dogma, hoping to help other non-believers get sober. You can limit yourself to We Agnostic type meetings. Or you can leave AA. There are other alternate forms of Recovery such as SMART, Secular Organizations for Sobriety, or LifeRing. Find your own path. After all, Dr. Bob’s program was different from Bill W’s. To thine own self be true.

Another very important factor is accountability. Just maintaining sobriety in order not to let the group down is important. Accountability also comes in other forms, such as commitments. Just being responsible to make coffee or handle literature can be important. Being a secretary can keep you coming back week after week. Also being accountable to a sponsor or to sponsees adds a personal touch that discourages people from failing. After the irresponsibility of active drinking, relearning responsibility is essential.

three-stepsThe Steps can be useful. In my view they can be reduced from 12 to 3.

  • Don’t drink (AA Step 1)
  • Don’t be a jerk* (AA Steps 2-11)
  • Help other alcoholics (AA Step 12)

AA Steps 2-11 do give you a method for self-improvement through religious and secular routes. The alternate Steps you see in AA agnostic literature emphasize the secular route and diminish the importance of the religious route. The Steps stress the value of confession, which was important in the Oxford Group philosophy of salvation. Atonement can help people feel better about themselves. In my view though, the Steps are a mixed bag. Dwelling on past wrongs and character defects can be detrimental. Approach the Steps with caution. Don’t feel obligated to work them. A more direct route to self-improvement is with cognitive behavioral therapy.

These factors are within the program of Alcoholics Anonymous. There are other factors outside of the program that help sobriety. One of the most important is the legal system. I’ve met many sober people who started their stays in AA on a court card. One man I know had no intention of getting sober until a judge told him he couldn’t drink for a year. After 7 or 8 months of sobriety he decided he liked it and was staying. He now has 18 years.

Many people will stay sober from fear of losing their jobs or licenses. Some will stay sober to avert a divorce. I know of people who have lost their children and got sober to regain custody.

Health problems can also help people get sober. Fear of the pain of pancreatitis can be a strong incentive not to drink. Two people I know are on liver transplant lists for cirrhosis; if they drink they are off the list.

Recovery is a mystery to me. I admit I only know a little. Most people come into recovery with a mixture of a desire to live a better life and a fear of negative consequences of continued alcoholic drinking. In a sense many people come to AA without regard for the Third Tradition. Their initial goal is not to stop, but rather to enjoy “moderate drinking”. And then, with the Fellowship of AA, they learn they can have a great life without alcohol.

* Idea stolen from comedian Jim Jeffries. He joked that the Bible doesn’t need 10 commandments. It just needs one: Don’t be a jerk. (Although he used a word other than jerk.)


About the Author, Steve B.

Steve has been in recovery since 1990. Presently retired and living the good life in sunny southern California, he has a particular interest in the neuroscience of addiction and how this affects treatment programs. He is also interested in the neuroscience of religious beliefs and non-critical thinking. In May 2013 he wrote an article posted on AA Agnostica: God and Diet Pills, and in January 2016, he wrote an article for AA Beyond Belief titled, Why I Stopped Going to AA and Why I Feel Guilty About It , and he participated in our podcast Talking Smart with Steve.

Today, Steve is a certified SMART Facilitator and runs a weekly meeting. He’s the webmaster of the local SMART website, OC SMART and blogs at the Sunday Irvine Meeting Blog. Another one of his passions is comics, from the Golden Age to contemporary off the shelf.

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Ed ORajiv BJoe CJeb BJon S Recent comment authors

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Ed O

Try this experiment: Stand on a street corner (I was a street-person — though I prefer the term “Urban Wanderer” — for 10 years) with an open bottle of booze and ask god to help you not drink.  Ha! // Then get a fellow sober alcoholic and stand with him or her on that same street corner with that same open bottle.  I’ll give you odds whatever crazy, invented deity will be no help at all, while two alcoholics will start talkin’ so friggin’ much they’ll forget they even have an open bottle. // Very few, if any, ever got to god… Read more »

Rajiv B

Thanks Steven for this wonderful article, and also Jeb Barrett for your comment on the Appendix II: Spiritual Experience. But are you all aware that STEP 12 in the original 1939 Big Book was “Having had a *spiritual experience* as the result of these steps, we…”? In the 2nd printing of the 1941/42 Big Book the Step 12 was changed to say *spiritual awakening*. That’s why the Big Book since then carries the garbled version of Step 12, and the Appendix II. Otherwise the spiritual experience had already been defined on page 27 as a psychological experience of “huge emotional displacements… Read more »

Joe C

Great essay Steve; I’ll be sharing it often.

Jeb B

Wonderful personal sharing puf experience, strength and hope. The tendency to “hide behind the Big Book,” which is someone else’s story, rather than sharing our own experience is even warned against in Working With Others. Since the 12 Steps as Bill tried to summarize the process of what people were doing hides the actual cognitive-behavioral process he somehow put together on pages 60 through 88, it was important for me to set least try to follow that “course of action” to achieve the results described in several places, including The Doctor’s Opinion and Appendix II: Spiritual Experience. The latter, of… Read more »

Jon S
Jon S

Hi again Steve. I really enjoy your writing and your blog. I don’t know if you’d be interested but I’m sure the host of Alcoholism Recovery Radio would be interested in a pod cast interview. No worries if not but I’ve done a few with him and would be happy to put you in touch. I’ve also blogged on alternatives to AA (without wanting to criticise the fellowship that got me sober in the first place) and would be keen to exchange ideas and feedback. My email is on my blog essay: “Leaving AA Staying Sober” http://jonsleeper.wordpress.com