I agree, it ain’t broke. What I think instead is that it was never whole in the first place. So can we please fix it now?
I’m just going to look at one issue. There’s too much to try and tackle it all at once.
Let’s start by presenting an argument by Jeannie Young which I came across at trans4mind.com. She writes about women but most of it, and certainly the whole principle of her argument, applies to me as well (she is associated with another program, Women for Sobriety, but for now we just want to look at her argument as it pertains to AA, not at her program):
Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) has helped millions of people recover from alcoholism. For many women, however, AA may not be the best choice when it comes to the difficult task of quitting drinking. The main reason it may not be the best choice is this: AA is based on the philosophy that self-centeredness is the root of alcoholism. In other words, AA’s approach is to instill humility and minimize egotism in its members. While this method may have been appropriate for white males in the 1940’s when AA was founded, it does not meet the very different needs of women today. Here’s why:
- Women who have a problem with alcohol oftentimes suffer from feelings of guilt and low self-esteem.
- Women already judge and berate themselves mercilessly.
- What women need to recover is to develop a sense of competency in themselves and rebuild their feelings of self-worth.
- Quitting drinking requires overcoming dependencies, forgetting the past and planning for the future.
- Self-empowerment, not humility, leads to sobriety.
I have always had issues with the ego-deflation theory. I grew up with a flattened ego. OK, I gained some ego while drinking, but I mostly stopped throwing my weight around when it wasn’t fueled by alcohol anymore. OK, I have control issues, I got those from being overly-controlled as a child. An important thing to look at, because it has nothing to do with ego – what drives it is irrational fear. If I don’t go around trying to control the world around me, of course the world will fall apart without me holding it together, but way worse than the world falling apart – I’m afraid I will not earn my parents’ approval for being the A+ controller they raised me to be. For me, it’s all about fear, not about a big ego.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we could get by without all this adult child psychobabble? AA doesn’t like stuff like that. AA likes to talk about “the Solution.” But what my argument above indicates is that here we are trying like all get-out to break down my ego when it was already broken down practically beyond repair. So take a person full of fear and try to break down an ego that isn’t there? “The Solution” is just dandy, but not if it’s the wrong solution to a misidentified problem.
The people who made up early AA were mostly (or had been) well-educated, high salaried Type A personalities who wielded at least some power in their community, in some cases a lot. I imagine they were well suited to having their egos taken down a peg or two. If the program in its early version worked for them, it is because it was made for them. And there are still people in AA like that, of course.
Some of these, and I would include Bill Wilson here, never really got their egos taken down, though they did start to put them to better use. Bill changed quite a bit after he had been sober a decade or two, but basically what Bill did was to move from being a stock broker to being the de facto leader of a worldwide organization. If anything, he moved to a position with more opportunity and encouragement to throw his ego around, not less. And I think he did. Even if he gave God all the credit. I have recently listened at length to a couple of his talks, one from the early ‘50s, one from the late ‘60s. I didn’t come away doubting for a minute that he loved to hear himself talk. Same thing strikes me listening to another Type A’er, Clancy I.
Maybe this sounds like I’m having it in for Bill. I’m not really, he was just another drunk, but I do have it in for the saint, the myth, the legend messenger from god who, while he at one time said it is about principles, not personalities, is getting hoisted upon a higher and higher pedestal built of Big Books, and it does the program damage.
By three years sober Bill Wilson, like many of us three years sober, thought he knew everything, and he decided to write a book about it. He had his brilliant moments, such as the beginning of the chapter “More about Alcoholism,” but much of the rest is counterproductive to helping many alcoholics. As most of us have, Bill got wiser as he put a decade or two sober behind him. But he did keep struggling with many things.
In the Berkeley Fellowship, we had a guy come in in the early ‘90s who was very likable, mid-40s, well-spoken, well-mannered, obviously intelligent, educated, friendly, helpful . . . I have really nothing but good to say about him. When he came in it was obvious he had tanked pretty badly, but he recovered fairly quickly. At around six months he had gotten his realtor’s license. After another six months, he was back to making six figures. He was in a different league than me. I could be envious, but I’d rather say that ego isn’t necessarily a bad thing, even for people that have a lot of it, if they otherwise have good personality traits.
I know I’m mixing ego with confidence here, though they’re not the same thing. A person who has genuine confidence, believes in themselves, and is likely to have high self-esteem, is not likely to ever have to flee into addiction to cope with life. So even for our friend here, ego and self-esteem are likely to have been mixed up. What they have in common, though, is a relative absence of those certain kinds of fear which can make a person incapable of ordinary human interaction.
Me on the other hand – I’d been brushing teeth and showering with some regularity for quite some time by the time I was a year sober, but I hadn’t really even gotten any new clothes yet. I’m one of the other kind of alcoholic. With respect to my intelligence, I’m sure I could have been making six figures too, but I didn’t have it together, I didn’t have the ego or the confidence for it. Some people are driven, I never was. In fact, I wasn’t just not driven, I was actually held back by low self-esteem and general fear of just about everything. Certainly in no shape to go about selling real estate. I didn’t have the upbeat personality it would take. It was beaten down before it could rise.
I’m not going on about my awful childhood out of idle self-pity. I’m quite well over that. The point is that while some of us alcoholics indeed have big egos that would do well with a bit of deflation, there are many – in my estimation actually a majority – that need the opposite: Empowerment.
And AA fails us entirely with that. In some ways, AA can make it worse, as Young points out above. I need to take a moral inventory? Admit my shortcomings? I had them yelled at me since I could talk. Still, good to admit them of course, but then what? How well does it really help someone with low self-esteem to look at their shortcomings?
Of course while pondering these things I grew emotionally in AA. After a decade or more of hanging around AA not really ever getting what I needed other than – and this is, of course, big in itself – support to not drink – I started gaining some self-esteem. I started being able to hold my own in an ordinary human conversation. I gained further self-esteem from the feeling that I was helping others in whichever ways I could. My material life shaped up somewhat, though barely to middle-class standards. But it all happened way slower than it seems it ought to have with better tools. There must be better tools than what we have.
For an alcoholic of my kind, things pretty much can’t help but improve if you go to AA a lot and try to do the right thing. Though I had too many bad things happen to me early in life, I am, after all, no lower than the lower middle of the spectrum. So though I can’t speak for those who were viciously abused throughout their childhoods, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if they feel so beaten down that it only feels like AA is beating them down further.
There are alcoholics so downtrodden from their early life that it’s hard to see how the AA philosophy can make it anything but worse. Of course, they don’t stick around. They can’t stand the boys whistling in the dark, the “happy, joyous, and free” yakking. They know it will never apply to them (and whether that is indeed true or not is of little consequence if they “leave before the miracle happens”) and until we make some changes to the program there are many who we will not be able to help much, if at all.
Many have recovered and carved out a life for themselves from within AA in spite of the odds. There is a lot of help from other AA members, but the success we see is often achieved only because of the help from such members – and more in spite of “the program” than because of it.
Does giving yourself up to a higher power work for you? The main component of AA’s program is spirituality. Specifically, they believe that in order to recover, one must surrender one’s will to a higher power. WFS, on the other hand, does not encourage reliance on a higher power or something outside yourself. Women for Sobriety believes that your power must come from within.
If it isn’t about ego, maybe it also isn’t about my will versus God’s will either?
No, that’s one of Bill’s most outstanding false dichotomies. I’m not trying to play God, that’s something Bill came up with reflecting on his own grandiosity and that of his Type A fellows. In most cases it’s not about will at all, mine or God’s, but about something else, often fear.
We’ve got two million people staying sober together in a great fellowship of mutual support, but working an awful program – and 10 or 20 million who came to a few meetings, but couldn’t handle the cognitive dissonance – and 10 or 20 million more who know about AA but won’t even try it. I no longer wonder why, I see so many reasons, I can’t keep track of them all.
We need to get away from the ego deflation idea, the petitionable, interventionist higher power, and the Big Book worship. Certainly, we need to try to bring this program into the new century. I think the secular AA movement has a lot to offer here. Whether we succeed, or whether AA will fall apart or wind up as an obscure religious sect of no great relevance to society, or even recovery, remains to be seen. There are other programs that make more sense than AA, but they are small.
I see AA as holding a lot of responsibility at this point. If there had been a lot of readily accessible alternatives we could merrily continue on our path, and tell people to go somewhere else if they don’t like AA, but the fact that AA has worked so hard and successfully to attain a near monopoly on recovery in spite of helping so relatively few of those who at one time or another walk through our doors, I think gives AA a great responsibility to fix recovery.
Just imagine what two million people could do together if we had a program that made sense.
About the Author, life-j
life-j got sober in Oakland in 1988. He moved to a Northern California coastal mountain village in 2002 and helped wake up the sleepy AA fellowship there. He’s been involved in service work of every kind all along, but now thinks the most important work is to help atheists and agnostics feel safe and welcome in AA. Events in the fellowship conspired to make him become way more radicalized than he ever wanted to be, and he finds it difficult to settle back down to focus on his own program again, for better or for worse. He’s spent parts of his life as a building contractor, part as a technical translator, and has dabbled a bit in artwork and writing. life-j is now semi-retired on a five-acre homestead together with his sweetie, and his dogs, chickens, and gardens.
Featured Image: Be Gentle, oil, 1976, by life-j
The audio version of this story was recorded by Len R. from Jasper, Georiga. Len is interested in starting a secular AA meeting in his area. If you would like tojoin him, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org