Don’t Fix It If It Ain’t Broke

By  life-j 

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.

Young continues:

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.

Artwork

Featured Image:  Be Gentle, oil, 1976, by life-j

Audio Story

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 lenr.secularsobriety@gmail.com 

Print Friendly

Comment

  1. RonB April 11, 2017 at 1:38 am - Reply

    If I may, I’d like to give my thoughts on your article, which I find extremely motivational with respect to stimulating the mind. I’d like to start with the writings about women from trans4mind. The comment that ‘self-centeredness is the root of alcoholism’ appears to be ideological. I tend towards altruism being ideological too, because it seems to me that the one of the greatest joys a person can experience is in giving to others. The pleasure of giving a gift is greater than that of the recipient. Self-centeredness, or learning to love one’s self, is important as it increases the capacity to love and provides substantial personal inner strength to allow us to overcome adversities such as alcoholic addiction. In master / slave issues, humility is the way of the latter, the subservient, but those with a ‘master’ mindset are far more capable of helping themselves and others. Of the five bulleted points, all relate to males and females, the last one being very important.
    It is difficult to look to the past for reasons relating to problems, the change in society and its norms, the magnification of situations judged by today’s norms, the fact that a child has nothing to make comparison with, and the cognitive abilities of a child tend to make doing so more justifying than reasoning. Learn from the past but live now and plan for the future. Despite childhood indoctrination, of which socialization and religion may be prominent, as an adult we can only find true self by challenging such beliefs we think are our own. Being afraid needs rationalization, which if found to be ‘living for your parents’, undoubtedly may lead to a conflicted mind, with alcohol an escape route. I can assure you that at age three you would have held no fears and been pure and loving, we all were once. We learn fear, we learn our boundaries as a child, our prison. Yet challenging these boundaries is important, even if we agree with some and become politically correct with some we disagree with but prefer not to be ostracized, or even jailed. It was good, got broken, and now needs fixing, primarily by you but fortunately there are others who will enjoy helping you. Of course, the psychiatrist is the shoulder on one arm, and the hand for $$$$$ on the other arm. AA people give help without requiring reward, that is its essence.
    What Bill said and did, and why, is a matter of the past, something to learn from. A different era with different social values.
    Some children are driven by parents, society etc., when they are at a vulnerable age, but drive must be found from within at adult age. I was beaten physically and mentally as a child, but not afterwards. Self-empowerment is very important, but don’t expect it to grow on trees. Look to who you are, why you exist, believe in yourself.
    Spirituality, to me, is connection with nature, everything, not AA in the slightest, and I reflect the 12 steps whilst recognizing some very good aspects, such as letting go of resentments, they only hurt you. Such spirituality does help me, I know who I really am, not the façade.
     
    AA beyond belief, Agnostica, Atheist etc., are all good starts, they are growing whilst AA is declining in a religious sense. I believe there is a path here that can embrace the two million people you write of, but it will take time.

  2. Pat N. April 10, 2017 at 1:13 am - Reply

    Thanks so much, life-j. Your insightful/honest essay rang many of my bells. I had always seen myself as a failure as a person, as a man, and as a Christian (RC). That’s one reason alcohol “worked” at first-it made me feel OK. Until it didn’t. And that’s why the Steps never really clicked with me. Aside from their supernaturalism, they didn’t make me feel any better.

    Thanks to the PEOPLE of AA, and their support,  example,  and practical ideas, I’ve become honest enough to ditch religion altogether, and am now a much better person and man. I find the BB, especially the original Steps, useless and full of baloney, besides being shoddily written.

    I hope that WFS, LifeRing, SMART Recovery, and any other healthy, secular sobriety fellowships expand more rapidly, and in the meanwhile, will do what I can to increase our secular movement inside AA. Thanks for your leadership and good example.

  3. Bill P. April 9, 2017 at 3:51 pm - Reply

    P.S. I want to add that I also believe, Life-j. that the help from the “higher power” must come from  inside the alcoholic and from warm, caring, supportive, non critical, non ego deflating friends in recovery, not from judgmental AA “experts”. The struggle should be within. The solution consist in the maturing and empowerment of the cognitive areas of the brain and increasing control over the more primitive areas. Ego deflation from without is counterproductive. If one prays then, for believers, let God be the judge (for it is so written). And one should grow to forgive oneself.

     

    Bill

    • life-j April 10, 2017 at 9:55 am Reply

      Bill, it seems to me that we will remain in the quagmire so long as we use the term “higher power” in any of its forms, at all. We will get dragged down toward the supernatural, religious interpretations, will have to consider whether our particular higher power is inside or outside (really should be outside – if it’s bigger than me it can not be contained within me), responds to prayer or not, is interventionist or not, but most of all, in accordance with AA principles, it seems that it must be something separate from myself. If it isn’t somehow otherworldly it doesn’t really cut it as a higher power the way AA presents it.

      I know there are spots where it is presented as “an unsuspected inner ressource”, this is after Bill has been back-pedaling for a bit on the issue, but I just can’t see why at this point we don’t cut the idea loose altogether.

      Maybe I have some unsuspected inner ressource, why would I want or need to call that a power greater or higher than myself, rather than just call it what it is, except for AA show and tell?

      Bottom line for recovery is: A lot needs to change, and statistically speaking there is a high likelihood that I will need help doing that for a successful outcome, too high a likelihood to where it is sensible to not ask for and accept help to the extent I can get it.

      For persons living in a religious universe it makes sense for them to call on their (from my viewpoint imaginary) god for this help, but for people living in the real universe this help is going to come from real people, and for people like me who at one time were real shy and had been brought up to that I had to be self reliant (very different than being ego driven to want to be self reliant) I think it is actually a real important move to reach out to other people – to join the human race, and to not remain in the bubble of having to succeed or fail by my own ressources. Accept that I’m not a failure if I need to and do ask for help.

      I’m a failure if I need help and am so messed up emotionally that I’m not able to ask for it. But still not any sort of “grand, ultimate failure” – which is the image I left home with – only the sort of ordinary human, frail failure which it in most cases is not too, too late to correct.

      No higher power needed, only other people who are willing to help, and we find those in AA. This may be seen as the main “pledge” on joining AA: Am I willing to ask for help, and am I willing to, down the road, stick around and give it?

  4. Dan L April 9, 2017 at 3:15 pm - Reply

    Thanks for another great essay.  I love these things.  One of the repeated statements I have a very big problem with is the insistence that “it ain’t broke”.  The people who say this are the ones who used AA to become abstinent and stay that way.  I will say nothing about the level of recovery because I do not know how to judge another.  The people who say this are the first ones to point out “Rarely have we seen a person fail…” one of the classic victim blaming statements of all time.  Then some of them claim it is 100% effective if done the way they have done it in the face of all the evidence and the fact that they cannot articulate in any meaningful way what they actually did.  I really believe that no two individuals are capable of doing the exact same thing between their ears so this talk of conformity is bogus.  I am pretty sure the urge to “belong” makes many say that was what worked.

    A friend introduced me to MFS (the male version of WFS) and I brought in my friends as well.  The MFS program is very similar in some ways to AA without the fixation on the past and “defects” and god.  It can be worked by itself but I find it is easy to mix into AA.  I have been accused of polluting AA with this stuff and I am proud of it.

    The idea that the Big Book is inerrant and provides “precise” instructions on how to recover is completely bankrupt.  I have been able to use AA successfully (so far) by changing me a lot and changing AA to the extent required to make it give me what I want.  Is that egotistical?  I think I am worth a healthy recovery without sacrificing the essential parts of my being.

    Thanks again

    • life-j April 9, 2017 at 8:10 pm Reply

      Dan, thanks, you know, it probably does work exactly as prescribed if you are able to leave your brain at the door, do as you are told, and become a god drone. Not the kind of life I would want for myself or anyone I associate with to any great extent, but they probably are right, those who follow their path don’t fail. Now there are of course many who are not able to follow their path, including the mentally ill, and aren’t we all, and frankly I don’t think I can help being a non-believer any more than I could have helped being gay or something in that area. Of course both were an ornery personal choice in 1939, or a mental illness, not an inherent part of a person’s personal make-up.

      • Dan L April 9, 2017 at 9:33 pm Reply

        Thanks life-j.  If you don’t drink again after you start it will work no matter what you do.

        If you do the steps with “expert” guidance and fail it is your fault.  You didn’t do it right.

  5. Michelle P. April 9, 2017 at 3:00 pm - Reply

    Thanks Life. You put into words what I have felt for 33 years being in AA. I was fortunate that my first sponsor didn’t believe in ego deflation. When I came in the rooms I already felt I was the worst human being on the planet. I still don’t trust my AA community fully and the older I get I realize my inner voice of caution has been correct. I take what I need and leave the rest and luckily find other arenas for support and connection. AA is a piece of the pie but just not the whole pie.

  6. John H. April 9, 2017 at 2:01 pm - Reply

    This indeed was most thought provoking and a very timely addition to the ongoing dialogues regarding what has gone awry in AA.

    As the classic Wilson described “Type A” type ego driven male alcoholic (born 1948 – sober 1987) I immediately saw the logic and applicability of the “deflation” model as it might apply to me but immediately rejected it from a philosophical standpoint when it became obvious that it was part and parcel of the Millennial Christian/Oxford Group “absolutes” that Wilson and Smith based so much of the so-called “program” on.

    As I have remarked elsewhere and quite publically as a lifelong (since age 12) militant atheist I, at the outset, shortly after joining,  categorically rejected the 12 steps (and any and all secular reinterpretations of same) as inherently irrelevant except the vitally important Step 1, Step 10 (for practical reasons of day to day living) and 50% of Step 12 in that it became very obvious that helping another alcoholic was what ensures and enhances our own long term sobriety. I am therefore quite grateful and “humbled” by the fact that the clearly reductionist view that I espouse (don’t drink, go to meetings, help another alcoholic, that’s it) works so well for me.

    What I need to understand and have slowly come around to is the fact that many people coming to the program take what’s written in the Big Book and 12 x 12 seriously despite the illogic and buy in to the idea that they have to conform in certain ways or die alone, distressed and despised being “constitutionally incapable” of following what, for many of an independent mind, are clearly destructive precepts based on shame and condescension.

    “What an order”…I could just not go through with it and if I had not found DC “We Agnostics” in September 1988 would be either drunk or (far more likely) dead today.

    Thanks for bringing this topic out front for those afflicted by such attitudes and for the many driven away who so desperately need the support we were lucky enough to find in the right rooms.

    Now, how do we really get the word out that despite the lies  and the terrible tyranny of many of the “Steps” the “paradox” that is the real AA (don’t drink, go to meetings, help a anther alcoholic) is the way to the future?

  7. Bill P. April 9, 2017 at 11:54 am - Reply

    Depends on the person. My mother was unsure of herself but overcompensated and did not appear to have much “humility”. She was convinced that when anything or anybody went wrong in the family she could “fix” it. It always made it worse. She was also deeply depressed her whole life, but I don’t think that this really related to her being a woman. Her mother (my grandmother) was neither depressed nor “humble”. She was very judgmental and at times difficult to deal with. Neither my mother nor my grandmother were alcoholics. And what “caused” my alcoholism? Social insecurity and feelings of inferiority as much as my arrogance and lack of humility in assuming that I could “control” alcohol. I did need the insight that alcohol controlled me, not the other way around. In this sense I needed humility. This, I think, is the central issue- if you think you can “control” the drinking and you are an alcoholic, your chances are a lot better if you realize that alcohol controls you and this is so whether you are male or female. But if you are female it’s important that you are never considered “inferior” because of that. You aren’t. You’re human and not “inferior” because of being a woman. And, man or woman, you should never be “shamed” or made to feel “guilty” because of alcoholism.

  8. life-j April 9, 2017 at 11:34 am - Reply

    Thanks all, who commented, so far. Bill Wilson ended up making a lot of money on the Big Book, but aside from that, or in his more honest moments perhaps all the more because of that, I can’t help but wonder about to what extent Bill regretted writing the Big Book at 3 years sober. I am working on an article about that whole problem: Here’s a few dozen people, most of them no more than a year sober, collectively maybe one hundred years sober, half of them ended up getting drunk again, and then Bill, sober 3 years, knew what was best for everyone, on a mission from god – and these people got to determine how the next 2 million people would work their program.

    At our first freethinkers meeting here in Laytonville I counted roughly 200 year sober among about 10 participants – but we don’t know what we’re talking about, because we dismiss the holy big book for perhaps having shortcomings?

    Friday at a regular meeting I talked about some of the things in this article, and one guy 20 years sober or so came up to me after the meeting, shaking with anger and asking me how come I always have to be so negative. I was on my way to a CAT scan, so didn’t have time to talk about it, but first of all, he gave me no credit for having been “positive” for the first 24 years or so sober.

    Sometimes I can’t help being made to feel guilty (of course according to AA orthodoxy that is fully my own responsibility) for speaking up about the irrationality of AA, but I’m going to do it anyway. I know that I, and all of us here in the agnostic AA community are trying to lift a burden that could turn out to be too big, but I guess we’ll try anyway: To turn AA around so that it will work for all those who never could find the help in AA they needed, which is, of course by far the majority of those who ever tried.

    • Joe C. April 9, 2017 at 3:51 pm Reply

      I grew up on Living Sober.

      If you want the collective wisdom of amateurs with 2-3 years experience, read the Big Book.

      If you want the collective wisdom of amateurs with 40 years experience, read Living Sober. It’s not so sexist, it’s not so brash, it’s in no way religious. It’s just a collection of AA experiences once we were 40 years in the game. Still, the reader has to take what they like and leave the rest but for me, it’s humble and mature. And the best news is Bill didn’t write it, so we update it from time to time.

      I never read the Big Book until I was sober over nine years. I found it interesting from a historical perspective but I don’t owe my sobriety to it. Today, a lot of people in AA do attribute their sobriety to the Big Book. That’s why/how it became sacred in the eyes and hearts of many.

      Regarding book royalties, on a relative basis, Bill didn’t live to reap the rewards. We think of the Big Book as having sold 35 million copies, one million new sales a year. That’s true today. When he died in 1971, the book hadn’t sold one million yet. In 1965, we sold under 30,000 copies per year. No–that’s nothing to bemoan–the Big Book was a success. Ours is a remarkable sales story–not millions (yet) but remarkable nonetheless. By 1965, 30 years after AA started, Bill earned $395,000 in total royalties including 12 & 12 and AA Comes of Age. Average that out over 30 years and it’s under $15,000 a year. Not awful for 1965 wages, really but not riches.

      Lois, now she finally got paid. By 1985, while she was still alive,  the Big Book at nearing 700,000 sales per year, the accumulation or royalties for all books at that time was over $6 Million.  So Lois and her estate did well–better that Bill (or Bob). In later years Bill W rose to the status of worthy-provider but no fortune was made until after he died.

  9. boyd p. April 9, 2017 at 9:36 am - Reply

    Putting the humility card on the table for scrutiny is good.  It’s gender implications are complex.  Trying to keep the program simple, as in repeating a few mantras, will work for only a limited number of folks.

     

    For this guy humility lessons have been central to recovery, though I am left with the enduring questions of next steps.  How to develop focus in this ADD’s life. (attention deficit disorder)  So fellowship at its best can help sort out personal next steps, but the larger world, of which we are all a part, is another can of worms (bless them) which we are not supposed to touch. Yet our humble place in the world community is basic to personal and social survival.  We are largely clueless to the depths of our depravity.  Just one more contradiction with which the program must cope.  

  10. Lance B. April 9, 2017 at 9:25 am - Reply

    Oh, wow, Life.  Wrote my thoughts out at length like so many others and forgot to fill out the name stuff below–thus lost forever.  But mostly it just told you that your articulation of what I can almost see was most appropriate.

    I’ve often noted that my identification in AA is most easy with the average woman because of the shame I felt over what “I was getting away with.”  The men, well, a lot of them just seemed to be proud of what and how they drank and all the conquests they had made while consuming prodigious amounts of alcohol.

    And I also note that since I live in mountain standard time zone, I feel that I get to the Sunday morning post early while preparing for my meeting at 10.  Today many of the articulate secularists of our group have already posted long and, I’m sure, thoughtful extensions from your stimulating treatise.   And I don’t have time to read them all before getting busy, but I shall savor the idea that I can cogitate over them for a great rainy Sunday afternoon.

    Thank you.  Due to our conversations in Austin, I can picture you writing intensely in your Oregon cabin (I know it’s California, but the image of that state just doesn’t fit the rest of my image).  Keep it up.

  11. Joe C. April 9, 2017 at 8:05 am - Reply

    Thanks Life,

    Millennials have a lot to teach me; one of the defining characteristics of this younger, evolved generation is their relationship with identity. Gen Y (born mid-80s to mid 00s) don’t identify with masculinity and femininity in terms of personality characteristics. When I try slipping male or female attributes into conversation, as a fact-of-life, past my 20-something kids, I’m shot down like a dinosaur.   So the A-type or alpha-male archetype and second-sex submissiveness that my generation uses as socio-psychological markers is as old-fashioned to the youth today as male-only pronouns in literature.

    This newer way of looking at things is easy for me to make room for because I identify with your story, Life. So personalities as a complex vs. “are you an A or a B” is how I identify.

    I wasn’t raised by Big-Book orthodoxy so I was unaffected by it’s dated view of the alcoholics psyche. But I understand that many of us have been pointed to a square and told by authority that to survive,  we had to mold ourselves in that shape to pass through to lasting sobriety. Our hetro-normative, middle-America narrative does read like the black-and-white movies they were shooting at the time, looks today… charming, but hardly an example of modern medicine.

    What I really like about your story, or the part of it you share in this essay, is it is first person. That’s what the AA I was raised on, is. Not a program – but a fellowship of alcoholics – telling our individual experiences to each other. And when you share your experience, I identify.

    There is support for the alpha-male description of the legend of Bill W – especially through a Baby-boomer or Gen-X lens. Looking at his whole sobriety, 1935 to 1971, I see more in Bill of what we call today, an untreated bi-polar or what my generation is inclined to still call manic-depressive. Bill W never claimed to be the best example of “spiritual experience” in the room and his history is characterized by not only runs with grandiosity but also with a deep-seeded feeling of inadequacy/incompleteness. This suffering was never alleviated by the 12-Step formula he penned for the rest of us. I hesitate to calculate what people I never knew were thinking but I presume that Bill never intended his 1939 writing to be orthodoxy for our generation. You can blame that on my generation of AAs.

    The Big-book talked truth-to-power in as much as it described the circumstances of a privileged class: white judeo/christian, heterosexual, middle-class American males. That was the echo-chamber of the day that tried to paint in broad stokes.  Any trained and empathetic counselor today would quickly dismiss the “ego-deflation at depth” for all model as innocently intended but superficial and antithetical as a cure-all. For me, “the program” (or “programme” if you prefer), it’s stories just like today that hit the mark for me. If I want a historical perspective, I read Alcoholics Anonymous.  If I want to know “how it works” (today), I read AA-Beyond Belief (and other contemporary blogs). This is just the AA program I need, today.

  12. Thomas B. April 9, 2017 at 7:52 am - Reply

    Indeed, life-j, thanks so much for a thoughtful and well-reasoned critique of AA’s central dynamic of ego-deflation, reliance upon an external spiritual solution instead of the Fellowship of drunks sharing with other drunks and deification of the Big Book as sacred text.

    Yes, we in the secular movement within AA need to insure that our minority voice is part of the conversation of how AA evolves in the future, and this is insured when we get involved in AA General Service work as you have been for many years in Northern California. I salute you for this.

     

  13. Gerald April 9, 2017 at 7:38 am - Reply

    Thanks, life-j. I’m still smiling & laughing inside. Indeed, how effective we could be if our program actually made sense … You’ve taken a lot of the words out of my mouth. I relate to much of your article and to the quotes from Jeannie Young & Women for Sobriety; first time for me to hear about WFS, by the way.

    When I was a newcomer, age twenty in ’93, I hadn’t yet entered the grown up world of employment & civic duties, marriage & children, etc.. I was dying – literally – from childish issues along the lines of “Mommy & Daddy don’t love me – do I love myself???” In contrast, adolescent issues, like “selfishness, self-centeredness, and self-seeking” would actually become a big step up for me in those early years of sobriety 🙂

    When I read Bill W.’s story I thought, “What a jerk!” Same with “Doctor, Alcoholic, Addict.” There was only one story in the back of the third edition that I only sort of related to: the one about the nervous wreck who could barely force himself to take a walk around the block and whose doctor said that there was “nothing organically wrong” with him.

    Anyways, the way I see it nowadays is that A.A. could stand for “Adolescents Anonymous.” The AA program does a fine job of addressing adolescent issues of self-importance, but it does a poor job of addressing childish issues of self-love.

    There are plenty of women, by the way, that need their egos smashed, just like Bill W., Dr. Paul O. “acceptance is the answer to all my problems,” and the many, many men & women, both, who really put the “A” in “A–holes Anonymous” 🙂 and there are plenty of alcoholic men who have the same recovery needs that Jeannie Young is talking about.

    I agree and I relate. It has bothered me a lot at times over the years. For my childish issues I’ve found the ACA message very helpful. The tone of voice in the ACA BRB “Big Red Book” is like a loving mother encouraging her own child. In contrast, the tone of voice in our AA BB is like an authoritarian male figure lecturing a wayward teenager.

    … If you find what you need in AA, I think, more than anything, you just got lucky in where you landed in AA: the right group of people whom you could relate to and who didn’t accidentally kill you through their own ignorance, if any, of the steps & traditions. Plus, there would be those two or three people who came along and introduced you to some totally non-AA sources/ references/ principles that totally change your life 🙂 like the man passing through my home group once who spoke at length about his ACA experience. Or the OA member who introduced me to the Paleo diet. And all the atheists in AA who weren’t afraid to say so. And the members on anti- depressants, who weren’t afraid to say so.

    And then you find out, a few months or years later, when you move on to another city/ state/ country that no other AA group will ever feel like that first home group and, worse still, most of this other AA I encounter is … actually it’s just plain wrong 🙂 🙂 🙂

    … I really enjoyed your piece. I was the boy who was always picked last for the dodge ball team. Resentment was a big step up for me in my emotional development 🙂 Shame was what was killing me, and childish shame is still the number one offender for me today, not adolescent resentment. I find resentment motivating 🙂 inspiring even 🙂 and not in the least bit leading me back to drinking.

    Anyways, thanks!

    Gerald, alcoholic, Japan

    • Gerald April 9, 2017 at 7:51 am Reply

      I meant male authority figure. The AA BB is like school principal lecturing the boy who just got caught skipping school.

      • Lance B. April 9, 2017 at 12:53 pm Reply

        Your explanation of shame as my number one offender rings true for me also and I’m going to write that down as a possible topic for next weeks’ secular meeting.  Also the idea that resentment was actually a step up for me.

        We had a great meeting this morning I thought.  One atheist and 4 christian secularists–no three, plus a christian guy who can’t quite figure out what we’re doing or why we’re doing it.  I spoke way more than usual and popped in regularly to emphasize, to add to, to express new ideas, etc.  I don’t like to do that, but need to try new things and I was just a bit manic today.  Hope everyone else liked it as much as I.  Pivoted off Life’s article of course, plus the idea of “Beyond Belief” from April 9 that AA is not the cure of all ills.

        But next week I think maybe I’ll make a copy of this comment of  yours to bring some focus to our small band of secularists.  Thanks.

        • Gerald April 11, 2017 at 6:55 pm Reply

          Thank you, Lance, for your comments. Just wanted to let you know that shame as the number one offender, rather than resentment, comes straight from the ACA BRB, and that they are referring directly to the AA BB when they’re discussing this topic of shame as the #1 offender. 

          Gerald

  14. bob k April 9, 2017 at 7:33 am - Reply

    Thank you for a wonderfully articulate expression of some thoughts that have been percolating in my non-Type A brainbox for many years. For a dozen years, I’ve been sponsoring a very bright, recovering fundamentalist who was two decades sober when I met him. In one of our early conversations, he expressed the idea that AA’s fourth step was written for men, and by men, men of as specific type.

    Arch T. of Detroit was not a man of that type. Sans alcohol, his social anxiety was so bad that he didn’t leave Dr. Bob’s house for 8 months. A reduction in self-centeredness was hardly the pathway to wellness for him.

    A substantial percentage of female alcoholics (and addicts) were sexually abused as children. Many as a result don’t have enough self-centeredness to look up from the floor. Of course, the defenders of the faith point to the fact that AA membership among women has slowly crept up to 40% of the total.

    The unanswered, and generally unasked question is “How many (men and women) have come and gone? How many have been unaided by a solution that is the antithesis of what was needed?” It is certainly time to take off the blinders, and examine the aspects of AA in need of an overhaul. We have less members than we did in 1992. As a percentage of population, we are in decline. Saying it “ain’t broke” does not make it so.

    • bob k April 9, 2017 at 7:36 am Reply

      Women in AA are 40%, I meant.

       

  15. John S April 9, 2017 at 6:48 am - Reply

    Thank you life-j for this well written and intelligent essay. So often both inside and outside of AA, it seems too much emphasis is made on a “belief in a Higher Power.”, when based on my experience, the belief in a power outside myself is the least important aspect of the 12 step recovery process. What was more important to me was listening and learning from other recovering alcoholics, and the actions I took either through the steps or by participating in AA meetings.

    I also had low self-esteem. In fact, it was worse than that. I hated myself. I hated myself as a drunk, and this feeling continued into my sobriety. I was not however what one would think of as “egotistical.” My personality was more introverted than extroverted, so my ego was directed more within myself. In my case, ego told me that I didn’t have a problem with alcohol and that I could take care of it myself. It also had me believe that I was somehow inferior to other people and I doubted my own talents and abilities.

    When I arrived at that paragraph in the Big Book which I know by heart, “Selfishness, self-centeredness, that we think is the root of our troubles…” I at first rejected the notion. However, after a sincere effort to examine my past and current behaviors, I could see how self-centeredness was indeed a serious problem that I believed threatened my sobriety. This motivated me to dig deeper and to look for the causes behind it.

    I found the process empowering. The 12 Steps can be difficult to understand because of the paradoxes. It is through admitting powerlessness that I am empowered, it is by helping others that I learn from and help myself, my ego is deflated with respect to my ability to handle my drinking problem, but I bond with other people and in so doing my self-esteem is enhanced. I can’t even pretend to understand the many paradoxes of recovery, but I’m glad for them because they cause me to think.

    Whether we believe that we are empowered by a source outside of ourselves or from within is irrelevant. It is up to each individual to decide for themselves what they need to draw upon to give them the courage to face recovery from addiction and to decide what action is appropriate for them. At a meeting yesterday, a newcomer was perplexed as to how to make the program work for him because it was all about spirituality and god. I shared with him my experience. The Big Book isn’t a textbook to be taken literally and within it are many contradictions. What it is, is simply the story of how the first members of AA found sobriety, from their experience and at that time. I suggested to him that we can learn from and build upon their experience, we don’t need to replicate it. There is no overarching philosophy that we all must follow.

    At any rate, I ramble now. Thank you for writing something that provoked so much thought from me this morning. These are good topics to be contemplating to begin the day.

    Also, I love the artwork life-j. You are a talented in so many ways, and I’m grateful to you for sharing those talents with the rest of us.

Leave a Comment