By Jerry F.
In some of the meetings I attend I have heard what sounds like a misunderstanding of the 10th tradition. The long form of the tradition reads like this:
“No A.A. group or member should ever, in such a way as to implicate A.A., express any opinion on outside controversial issues–particularly those of politics, alcohol reform, or sectarian religion. The Alcoholics Anonymous groups oppose no one. Concerning such matters they can express no views whatever. “
This tradition is in a way an amplification of Tradition Five that states AA’s primary purpose. We can’t carry a clear message to the alcoholic who still suffers if AA is commenting on all sorts of topics that are completely unrelated to this primary purpose. This means that AA will never have an opinion on national politics, the question of whether marijuana should be legalized, and the relative merits of Buddhism and Christianity. Furthermore, no member of AA should express an opinion on what the short form of the tradition calls outside issues in a way that suggests that his or her opinion represents AA itself.
Beyond this, Tradition Four tells us that each group can determine for itself what issues are suitable for discussion. It is unfortunate however, that in some meetings topics related to alcoholism and recovery are also considered outside issues and this is wrong. I’ve often heard a speaker in a meeting interrupted and told to not get into this sort of outside issue. I’ve seen a meeting leader told that such a topic was unacceptable.
There are several errors being made when this happens. First, AA as a whole may have no opinion on such issues but AA members have both their opinions and their experiences and should be free to discuss them during a meeting. When prohibited from doing so, they are clearly being censored. An example of a bogus outside issue might be the use of medications to help a person stay sober at the beginning, or meditating, or even reading non-conference approved literature. Tradition Four says, “Each group should be autonomous except in matters affecting other groups or A.A. as a whole.” This means that a group has the right to determine what topics are suitable for discussion. Some groups, for example, ask attendees to not talk about drugs. I suppose an AA group can engage in suppression of speech even while knowing that their actions are unjust. But why do so? Why not be open-minded in a way that allows AA members to discuss whatever topic relates to their efforts to stay sober? To prohibit this smacks of cultish behavior.
Another result of the misapplication of Tradition Ten is that the group members are deprived of learning about matters that may be useful to them in maintaining their own sobriety or that of their sponsees. I’m told that this is not a problem in all parts of the country but here, in the Southwest, a meeting attendee dare not speak about any drugs other than alcohol. Someone will interrupt them and tell them to confine their comments to alcohol and alcoholism. Anyone speaking about outside issues such as a medication to suppress the craving to drink or a therapeutic method that has been proven to be the most successful treatment for alcoholism that we have today, is passing on facts that may be essential to newcomers.
Our rapidly declining membership numbers tell us that our message isn’t working. One reason for this is that we are not incorporating the latest treatments and therapies into our discussions. Bill Wilson used the best medical opinions that were accessible to him when he wrote the text of the Big Book. If he were with us today I have no doubt that he would be telling us about the best medical solutions available now.
Even in Bill’s lifetime when the Yale alcoholism studies were published and when E.M. Jellinek produced his famous chart, Bill did everything he could to promote understanding of these outside issues. In fact, Bill carried out personal experiments with LSD (before it became illegal) and large doses of vitamin D in order to find as many ways as possible to help fellow alcoholics. One of Bill’s friends remarked that when it came to looking for new ways to help other alcoholics, Bill was the most open-minded person he had ever known. Why shouldn’t we carry this same openness into our meetings today?
Substance abuse disorder treatment today recognizes that there are multiple experiences that have led to each person’s addiction and multiple stressors acting upon each individual at the time of treatment and therefore there are multiple pathways to sobriety for each of us.
And this is not AA taking sides or even AA having an opinion. It is AA members expressing their personal opinions based on their personal experience. Too many people in the past sobered up in AA and, finding a safe harbor, battened down the hatches to stay blissfully unaware in the shelter of AA. But they pay a terrible price for their chosen ignorance and they do immeasurable harm to AA by contributing nothing more to the meetings than platitudes of gratitude. We, the members at any particular meeting, could benefit from hearing from members who have tried SMART or SOS or psychodynamic therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, motivational interviewing, or any other approach to recovery from addiction.
The National Institute on Alcohol and Alcoholism has a wealth of information available for anyone with internet access. The National Institute on Drug Abuse has an array of solutions for those who keep coming in and going back out. Maybe if AA meetings encouraged more discussion of these solutions, we would have fewer people relapsing and even fewer dying.
Without getting into all the dopamine and GABA receptors jargon about neurotransmitters, we can still, in our meetings, discuss some simple concepts that are very helpful in understanding what addiction really is and how it controls us. All of us have a certain amount of depression brought about by the stresses of life. Some of us take drugs that increase this depression, drugs that we may have initially begun taking to counter the depression. Depression can be mild or it can go all the way up to what the shrinks call Major Depressive Disorder. People in this state are unable to function, often unable to get out of bed. Those of us who are somewhere in between these points can benefit by discussing depression at meetings.
In addition to depression, all of us alcoholics suffer from a certain amount of anxiety. Again, the degree is highly variable among us. Anxiety and depression may seem to be opposites but they are not. They are both the result of chemical imbalances in our brains. Anxiety is a learned, irrational reaction to fear. It is fear of fear. Since everyone in the Fellowship, newcomers and old-timers alike, deal with the stressors that create these imbalances, we can all gain from discussing how we are coping with them and staying clean and sober while doing so.
Some of our members are struggling far more so than others. From an experiential standpoint, anything that is creating difficulty for a member in attaining or maintaining sobriety is very much an inside matter. It is inside that member and it belongs inside the AA group he or she belongs to.
We in AA are in this world and of this world. What is happening now in medical research, in psychology, and even in politics, affects us greatly. I do not believe that AA should form an opinion or express one on any of these matters. But I do think that AA members should seek to inform themselves on the issues that are affecting our Fellowship now and those that will soon be doing so. The outside won’t stay outside just because so many of our members desire it to do so.
AA works, to the degree that it does, by one alcoholic talking to another. The prohibition of recovery related outside issues puts constraints on that successful method.
About Jerry F.
Jerry is one of the founding members of We Agnostics in Tempe, AZ and was the instigator of the WAAFT-AZ Convention last November in Phoenix. He has served in many positions in his 27 years in AA and is currently treasurer of his traditional AA group, coffeemaker of his secular group, and is beginning a term as a board member of WAAFT-IAAC. He considers his greatest achievement as being responsible for a change to the Fourth Edition of the Big Book and his greatest asset as being relentlessly anal.
The artwork used for this article was created by Cope C. from the Many Paths Group in Urbana, Illinois.