Episode 95: Bruce H. from Seattle’s Many Paths Group

Transcript

00:00 John S: This is Episode 95 of AA Beyond Belief the Podcast.

[music]

00:27 John S: In today’s episode, I’ll be speaking with Bruce H. from the Many Paths group in Seattle, Washington. Bruce has been sober for over 40 years, and recently was a keynote speaker at the Widening the Gateway conference in Tacoma, Washington. In this episode, we’ll talk about what it was like when he was getting sober in the 1970s and the changes he’s seen in AA since that time. We’ll also discuss his journey through sobriety, what he’s learned, how he approaches the program, and how he has always made a home for himself in Alcoholics Anonymous.

How you doing, Bruce?

01:00 Bruce H: I’m doing great.

01:01 John S: Thank you so much for taking the time to spend with me and the listeners of our podcast.

01:07 Bruce H: I’m thrilled and flattered to be a part of it, so thank you for asking.

01:09 John S: Well, I really enjoyed your talk in Tacoma. There were a lot of things that came up that I wanted to go into in more detail. When you started your talk, you were introducing yourself, and we always customarily introduce ourselves as, “I’m John and I’m an alcoholic,” and you did something a little different and then talked about the subject of identity. This has come up in our meetings here locally too, the question of identity. Can you go into more detail about what you’ve been thinking about lately when it comes to identity?

01:45 Bruce H: Well, I’ve been thinking about it because saying, “I’m Bruce, I’m an alcoholic,” is like a rote thing, it’s like I say it without thinking about it, and it strikes me as a one-dimensional thing. I did a lot of drugs too, so I identify equally as much as an addict as an alcoholic, but it really was in AA where I found fellowship and I found a home. I got sober in Minneapolis in 1975. I was 20 years old, and I was in a treatment center. One of the buzzwords, or not buzzwords but identity words that was controversial then, coming out of the treatment centers often people would refer to themselves as ,”I’m Bruce and I’m chemically dependent.” That was okay in some meetings, but there were other meetings where they said, “No, that’s not okay.” If you don’t say you’re an alcoholic, you can’t be here, almost that literally.

02:44 Bruce H:  It’s interesting, about six months ago, I met a woman here in Seattle who got sober in Minneapolis in the early ’80s, and she did not get to go through a treatment center. She got sober in AA and she was talking about how she and her sponsor would go to these meetings that were mostly men, and they were very, by the book, shall we say, very fundamentalist. It reminded me of how there really were these two cultures in AA in Minneapolis back then. 

03:42 Bruce H: Minneapolis was a leader in treatment centers—Hazelden in particular. I did not go through Hazelden, I went through a similar program at a place called Saint Mary’s Hospital, it’s got some other name now. But there was that real tension between people coming out of the treatment centers and people in traditional AA. I think that I was very fortunate to have landed in that environment in that place, because if I had landed in what we call traditional AA, I don’t think I would have stuck around.

04:04 Bruce H: I found within the meetings that I went to, first of all, there were a lot of young people getting sober and staying sober at that time, and really from the first meeting, I wanted what I saw the people in the meeting having. It wasn’t so much like I wanted to be clean and sober, but I saw they had things in their lives that I just hadn’t experienced, and I saw life in their eyes and they were happy to see each other, and they would hug and all this. It was weird in one respect, but looking back, I recognize there’s really something that’s authentic there that I want in my life. I kept coming back and I never had to drink or use again. 

04:57 John S: I got sober in ’88 and I remember at that time in Kansas City there was some tension in the meetings between people who identified as addicts and people who identified as alcoholics. You would hear people who got sober like in the ’50s, in the ’60s, or whatever, telling people, “NA is down the street.” However, I noticed that subsided after a while, maybe those old timers got over it or something happened. It just stopped being an issue until a few years ago when suddenly groups started reading this card because they wanted to have… Oh, I don’t know what they call it, primary purpose or whatever.

05:45 Bruce H: Singleness of purpose.

05:48 John S: Yeah, the singleness of purpose card. They started reading that card and giving people a hard time about how they identify in meetings. The whole thing is stupid because when we say, “my name is so and so and I’m an alcoholic”, we’re not even required to do that, it’s just a custom. I don’t even know what the origins of it are. The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking, and almost anybody I know who has had problems with other drugs realizes that part of their recovery is to not drink as well. It’s kind of a moot point.

06:18 Bruce H: Yeah, and now most people come in with having used and abused multiple substances.

06:26 John S: Right, and we would be limiting ourselves. If the whole idea is that we help ourselves through helping others, then we’re not going to be helping ourselves very well if we’re turning our backs on people who happened to use other drugs besides alcohol.

06:40 John S: What I was thinking about when you were talking about identity is the people I’ve met over the last couple of years at our We Agnostics meeting. Usually people in their 20s or so, sometimes have a reluctance to label themselves as an alcoholic. Like, that’s not really who they are. They see themselves as person who just happens to have a problem, and they want to enable themselves to take care of that problem. When we had a couple of people like that in our group; I tried my best to break the habit of saying, “I’m an alcoholic,” and I’d say something like, “I’m a person in long-term recovery.”  It was hard for me to do because I spent so many years just saying the other.

07:25 Bruce H: I know, right? Yeah, I know exactly what you mean. Referring to my talk in Tacoma, I started out by saying, “Hey, I want to do something I’ve never done before.”

07:35 John S: Yeah.

07:36 Bruce H: So, I introduced myself, I said, “I’m Bruce. I’m a person with a substance use disorder.” It’s like, I do think I also would say, I’m a person with a disability. I have an incomplete spinal cord injury from a skiing accident in 2001. I’ve experienced firsthand that whole identity around disability, as well as around alcoholism and addiction. I really do think labels matter, and also increasingly, in our culture…Well, sometimes we easily just dismiss people based on a label, and I don’t like that.

08:25 John S: Right, right.

08:26 Bruce H: I don’t like experiencing it, and I don’t like seeing it when I see it happen. Still a lot of it just is invisible.

08:36 John S: I’m learning a lot about identity from people who I meet in my home group. How a person sees themself is important, and people must have the freedom to label themselves or identify themselves and not be put in boxes. That encompasses everything from how we identify our gender to sexuality—everything. 

09:05 Bruce H: Yeah, yeah.

09:06 John S: It’s interesting. I love having my mind opened to understanding these things. That’s one benefit of being around such an eclectic group of people in our meetings.

09:20 Bruce H: Yeah.

09:21 John S: You mentioned earlier, the woman you met who got sober in Minneapolis in the ’80s. You got sober in 1975, and there’s a difference. I’ve heard this from others who also got sober in the ’70s. Joe C for example, I think he got sober in Canada in the ’70s and he would comment that when he went to meetings, he would never see the Big Book anywhere, that the book everybody liked at the time was Living Sober

John L who got sober in the ’70s in New York says people were more focused on staying away from a drink one day at a time. It wasn’t so much this rigid orthodoxy of having a sponsor that goes through the Steps. Did you notice a change like that? Was that your experience in the ’70s? Do you see any great difference, at least from your experience from getting sober and experiencing Alcoholics Anonymous in the 1970s as opposed to the ’80s, and then going forward?

10:22 Bruce H: I think I’ve seen some similar things in that, yeah, I do remember Living Sober being more important. I did get a copy of the Big Book when I was in treatment, I didn’t read much of it. I guess over the years I’ve read maybe most of it, but I don’t think all of it.

10:43 John S: Did you look at it and just think, “Wow, this is an old book.” [chuckle]

10:47 Bruce H: Yeah, yeah. I did. The language seemed archaic back then. Some of it was just…

10:54 John S: Yeah and Living Sober was just out. Hot off the press at the time.

11:00 Bruce H: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, that emphasis on the Big Book, and the notion of, “I got the tough sponsor.’ The mythos of the sponsor who says, “You’re going to go to 90 meetings in 90 days, and we’re going to work the Steps. One step a week and da da da and this and that.” Everything is regimented. “We’re going to do the fourth step by the Big Book.” I pretty much never did any of that and stayed sober. I never went to 90 meetings in 90 days. I think maybe one time, there was a week when I went to six meetings in a week. I didn’t need to, and I still stayed sober. That’s the point.

11:53 John S: I think the whole idea about getting sober is so you can go out into the world and do things. I did that. I went back to school as an adult because I regretted never finishing my education, which was interrupted by my drinking. [chuckle] I went back to school, and when I was doing that, I wasn’t going to very many meetings because I was busy reading and studying and meeting people. I was okay with that because this is why I got sober, so I can do that. After I finished school, I was able to do some other things, but yeah.

12:26 Bruce H: Back to your question about AA in the ’70s versus now. It’s a little hard because I moved a few times, especially during the first 10 years of my sobriety. I lived in Minnesota, in Minneapolis, and then in Duluth, and things were similar. As I described, I’d find meetings that worked, and I was happy to be a part of, that weren’t overly talking about God, or the Big Book, or any of that. Then at about five years sober, I moved to Salt Lake City and it was just night and day. Part of it was just, I’m looking around like, “Is there anybody here under 40 who’s sober?” I was 25 at the time, and I was like, “Oh, not really.”

[laughter]

13:21 Bruce H: I think that’s really when I also started going to meetings where “How It Works” was read at the beginning, all the time.

13:31 John S: Was that not happening in Minneapolis?

13:34 Bruce H: As I recall, it was off and on but not that often.

13:37 John S: Wow!

13:37 Bruce H: I get there and it’s like, I’m hearing this and, you know, [chuckle] to me right out of the gate. It’s, “Rarely have we seen a person fail.” It’s ableist. If it doesn’t work for you, there’s something wrong with you. Over the years, I’ve seen people of all stripes get sober and stay sober. That includes people who are doing it literally by the book, or at least by what they think the book is, and those who have nothing to do with it. It’s hard to predict. But back to Salt Lake City, it was really very different and that was also where I experienced people going to AA meetings and not drinking but continuing to use drugs.

14:38 John S: Oh, wow.

14:41 Bruce H: Which just I had not really seen in Minnesota because people were more aware that, okay, people would say, “You know, a drug is a drug is a drug.”

14:50 John S: Right. Ain’t that interesting?

14:51 Bruce H: Alcohol is just another drug. I had a friend there who… I mean, I didn’t know it when I first met him, but he spent about two years going to meetings but still smoking pot. Finally one day he went to a meeting and said, “Well, I’ve quit doing all this other stuff.” It was interesting to see him. He was like always on the margins and always in trouble and whatever and struggling, but still coming back. Finally he quit doing that, and he got some traction. How much he worked the program, I don’t remember, but he started to live the benefits of being clean and sober.

15:40 John S: I know science recognizes that these drugs affect our brains in the same way, whether it be alcohol or any other drug.

15:51 Bruce H: Right.

15:52 John S: It’s doing the same thing to our brains anyway.

15:53 Bruce H: Yeah.

15:53 John S: It’s a shortcoming of AA. If the only drug we’re concerned about is alcohol, well, technically, then you’re free to go do whatever. [laughter]

16:01 Bruce H: Yeah, yeah.

16:02 John S: I would do. [laughter]

16:02 Bruce H: Right. Right.

16:05 John S: You started a Young People’s meeting in Salt Lake City. I like how you were talking about how we can create our own community within AA. You were going through this period in Salt Lake City where you’re looking around, there aren’t any people like you, so you decided to create your own community. Can you talk about that? What was it like getting a young person’s meeting going?

16:23 Bruce H: Well, I didn’t start that process of trying to start a Young People’s meeting, but after I’d lived there maybe a year, I went back to Minneapolis and Saint Paul. That year, I think it was 1981, they had the ICYPAA conference, International Conference of Young People in AA, in Saint Paul. A friend of mine was one of the co-chairs, so I went to this conference not really knowing what to expect and was just blown away by it, just how powerful it was to have a few thousand young people, sober together in one place, celebrating in all the ways that we celebrate. I have this memory of sitting in the hotel by the pool, looking around at all this and going, “Wow! It would be so cool to have this at Salt Lake City. It would be amazing.”

17:24 Bruce H: I went back, and I started going to meetings and talking about ICYPAA and people would look at me like, “Huh? Okay.” [chuckle] “Whatever. I don’t know what you’re really saying.” I did start to meet some other people who were young, who either had a bit of time or some time, and were experiencing some of the same things I was. I remember trying to start a couple Young People’s meetings and there’d be like two of us and a pot of coffee sitting there. It took some time to get traction. Really, the thing that started taking off was a group of us got together and we decided, “Well, let’s start our own Young People’s Conference.” We did that, and we started the Utah Conference of Young People in AA, which is still going. Then, out of that we started the ICYPAA Bid Committee. I went to the ICYPAA in 1984, and I was the only person there from Utah. In 1985, it was in Denver and we chartered a bus and filled it full of people and we went to Denver, and we put in a bid for ICYPAA.That was the turning point because the people who were on that bus came back and we were on fire. We just had this powerful experience.

19:15 Bruce H: That conference was two weeks before I moved to Seattle. I remember thinking, “Well, okay, I got this thing started, but now it’s having a life of its own.” It carried on, they continued to bid for ICYPAA and got the bid in 1989. That was amazing. Now I go there, and I have a brother who lives there. I go there, and I get to some meetings and there are young people sober all over the place. Now they have not just one conference for the state, but the city, Salt Lake, and Provo, and Ogden, and various cities have their own young people’s groups or their own YPAA groups. They’re getting together and they’re bidding on conferences and whatever. It’s really cool to see.

20:14 John S: That’s good. I think it’s cool that we can do that. All we have to do is go meet other people like ourselves, start hanging out together over a cup of coffee. Next thing you know, you got something going like that. You mentioned your brother and you talked about him also in during your talk in Tacoma. I don’t know if this is the same brother who got into recovery that…

20:34 Bruce H: Well, I have two brothers, and both are in recovery, but this brother was the first one and the one that I probably talk the most about.

20:43 John S: Okay, and you mentioned that when he started getting sober that it really triggered within you other memories from your experience growing up in the family. I don’t know if you’re comfortable talking about it. I have a brother who was in the program for a while and we had two different experiences. He’s not doing so great right now. Would you be comfortable talking about how having your siblings in the program impacted you? 

21:12 Bruce H: Yeah, sure.

21:13 John S: Are there any drawbacks and benefits in sharing your AA experience with a family member?

21:19 Bruce H: Well, I guess, yeah. I can’t say that I’ve really experienced many drawbacks to having them in recovery. There were more the drawbacks when they were using. It’s hard to have a close family member out there practicing.

21:34 John S: Yeah.

21:36 Bruce H: When my brother Keith was practicing, I finally realized, “Hey, I should go to some Al-Anon meetings.” I did, and I started going regularly for some years, even a bit after he got sober. It really helped me sort out what’s my stuff and what’s not. It was hard to watch him go through that and not be able to talk with him about it. He finally had something happen. His employer said, “Either you go to treatment now, or you’re fired.” He went to a treatment center and got sober and stayed sober. I don’t think today he goes to many AA meetings, but he is sober and has found a way in the world. It really was interesting to me. As part of his treatment, they had a family week. We have family from Minneapolis, and I was living in Seattle at the time, so I flew down to Salt Lake to be a part of that. I think I was 12 or 13 years sober, I thought, “Well, I have to try and impart this wisdom or whatever.”

[chuckle]

23:08 Bruce H: That was like, oh, that just isn’t how it works. The counselor who was leading the family groups would ask family members, “Are you willing to accept the gift that your family member’s bringing to you?” She would ask that question and people would think, “Well, the gift is that they are going to get sober,” right? That’s pretty much what we get.

23:33 John S: Right.

23:34 Bruce H: Well, no, she was saying, this person is  bringing you a gift. You are affected by alcoholism and addiction just as much as they are. She was asking that question, “Are you willing to take on some of your own work?” That question just really went right under my skin and right in and it really was like, I had this closet with stuff in it that I had just shut the door on and sealed it up, and it was there, and that question cracked that door open to where I was able to see and remember things that had happened, and from my viewpoint like, “Okay, that happened and now, what really was my part in it? How is that affecting me today?” It was amazing.

24:31 Bruce H: One of the things that happened is I got there late, and my dad and my brother were in the middle of doing some work with this counselor in this group setting. They were sitting in two chairs facing each other and the counselor was on the side, like a coach, shall we say? Then the people… I think there were five families that were there, and part of this group, were watching and they started going back to work. I saw myself sitting in each one of those chairs. I saw parts of myself from my dad, parts of myself from my brother, and it was just like somebody punched me in the face or something.

25:17 Bruce H: It was amazing, but I also came out of it still, particularly with my father, I was incredibly angry with him, and all this started coming out, and after that it seemed like for some months, I would go to a Step meeting, and it would always be on Step Eight. [chuckle] Are you willing to make amends? I thought, “I’ll be goddamned if I’m going to make amends to that son of a bitch,” I would think that and then I would next think, “I’m carrying around this poison, but I’m still carrying it around, I don’t want to let go of it.” I knew that I was going to have to find a way to let go of that, and over time I did find a way to get through that. It was maybe two or three years later, I remember being in Minneapolis, visiting my dad and we were sitting out on the deck of his house that overlooks the lake and suburban Minneapolis. A beautiful setting, it was a beautiful sunny summer day, and we started talking about things that had happened with our family.

26:29 Bruce H: My mother had died of cancer about a year before I got sober, which was a big complication. She had it for 10 years. When she first got it, she was given three years to live. It was a very traumatic thing for all of us. Her having the cancer, and especially her passing away when she did. After she died, I just went right off the cliff. We were talking about all that stuff and we never had before, and then my dad said something, he said, “I could never imagine having had a conversation like this with my father,” and like almost in front of my eyes, he turned into like a 5-year-old boy. It was like our relationship changed dramatically in that moment, and I was able to see him as just another man among men. That was for me, like living the ninth step.

27:30 John S: I loved that story when you were sharing it in Tacoma. I don’t know if I ever had a conversation like that with my father. It’s difficult to speak with men from that generation. He was born in 1935, and he’s an army guy, tough, and he was just one of those people that just felt like, “I don’t want to talk about the bad stuff.” So, I just kind of, with him, changed my behavior and I think over time we got closer. I just tried to be there for him. I think the conversation you had with your dad was amazing and is just what we need. I can’t remember who it was, but I had a podcast with someone and we were talking about how there’s sometimes a misconception that when there’s a death in the family, that it brings a family together. Often times, i really tears a family apart. That rang true for me. I had that experience. I was 21 when my mother died, and our family just fell apart. I went off drinking, my father went off doing his thing, we all just fell apart.

28:37 Bruce H: Yeah.

28:38 John S: It’s a very difficult, painful time. It sounds to me that through the process of your brother’s recovery and becoming aware of what was going on, that you were finally able to have that moment of healing with your father. That’s cool. 

28:54 Bruce H: Yeah, it is. I’m especially grateful for it now. He’s still alive, he’s 89, but he’s in late stage Parkinson’s disease now, so he’s mentally not very present. I do feel fortunate to have had that, and then to have been able to have a relationship. There were still things that we didn’t see eye to eye on and all that, but we just had a different perspective after that, for sure.

29:21 John S: You also mentioned during your talk in Tacoma that after 40 years of sobriety, you started asking yourself why you go to AA to begin with. I’m coming up on 30 years and I ask myself that sometimes too.

29:38 Bruce H: Yeah, right.

29:39 John S: You were asking yourself that, and I think it was around that time, that you were beginning to experience some discomfort with the religiosity of AA. Would you talk about that? What happened, what went on there? What was your answer? Why do you still go to AA? How did the discomfort the religious nature of AA manifest itself?

30:02 Bruce H: It’s been a interesting process because I’ve experienced like a renaissance in both my recovery and my life in general, and in my relationship with AA. I guess for years I’ve gone to meetings and said things like, “Well, the idea of a personal God has never worked for me,” which is true, and I’ve tried. I’ve tried to make it work in a variety of ways, and it just didn’t stick. I also would say things like, “I consider my spiritual experience to be about my relationship with the world, with everything in the world, people and stuff, and the whole… All of it.” However, I did start to experience more discomfort, and I would find groups that were accepting of that, and the home group that I was part of at the time was pretty good, but I’ve had a whole variety of experiences. I remember being in a meeting one time where somebody was talking about the fourth step, and they were reading some stuff out of the Big Book. As they were reading on, I’m going, “Oh, I forgot that was in there. That’s actually pretty good.” It was talking about our stuff, and our self-centeredness, and all this. I’m going, “Yeah, you know, okay, I can relate to it.” Then in the next paragraph, it was like, “And then, God!”

[laughter]

31:40 Bruce H: All these capital letter words of God, and it’s like… I’m just sitting in the meeting, going, “No, no, no, no!”

[laughter]

31:50 Bruce H: He just should have stopped reading right before that.

[laughter]

31:55 Bruce H: It’s like, “No, it doesn’t follow.”

[laughter]

31:58 Bruce H: Bill, bless his heart. He was a salesman. I think he thought of himself as a philosopher and wanted to be a philosopher, but he was a salesman and that’s okay. I think to get something started like what we have here, it took that, but that didn’t follow. When I shared that night, I just gently said, “You know, the first part is totally my experience, I relate to it. The second part, not so much.” Then, I think it was not long after that meeting, there was another meeting, same group, another Sunday evening, and there was a young woman there. She introduced that she was new to the meeting, it was one of her first AA meetings and she introduced herself and she said just out front, “I’m an atheist, and I don’t think AA’s going to work for me, but I’m here and I’ve got a sponsor here. She’s here with me.” Her sponsor was, I should say, a secular AA person as well. Anyway, she just openly introduced herself by that, and I think she did share a bit about some of her experience there. I shared, I guess, in my way where again I said, “Hey, I’m somebody who the idea of this whole God thing, and personal God, and all this has never worked, and I’ve been sober a long time.”

[laughter]

33:43 Bruce H: Interestingly, there was another guy there who was also very new who hadn’t said anything, but he was an atheist too. I got to meet him and spent some time serving as a, I guess as a sponsor to him. He now lives in Olympia. He’s a little ways away so I don’t see him regularly anymore, but he’s still sober. It was like, “Yeah, okay. There’s something missing for me, and I would like to find more like-minded people.” Somewhere in there I also started listening to your podcast, and I remember listening to you and Benn doing the Steps. Those are just great podcasts, that whole series. There were just a whole bunch of them that I really enjoyed and one of them, you interviewed Willow who’s here in Seattle and I was going, “Oh, well, that’s kind of cool. She got sober when she was 15. Okay, she’s young, I can relate to that.” Then she talked about moving to Seattle, and so my ears perked up, and she talked about a meeting or a couple of meetings in the Seattle area here that were relatively new that I hadn’t heard of called Many Paths, Many Paths meetings. I was like, “Well, I got to go to these meetings.” So, I did.

35:07 Bruce H: It was really like a breath of fresh air. The first meeting of Many Paths that I went to, I remember just sitting there I’m going, “Okay, well, they didn’t read ‘How It Work’. That’s great.” It was just like a checklist. I went through this mental checklist of things I would want to have in a meeting and not want to have, and it was like it hit most of the boxes. I’m going, “This is really nice.” So, I started attending that meeting regularly, and had the idea, “Well, these meetings are a little south of Seattle,” and I thought, “Well, we need one of these right in the middle of Seattle.” About a year ago, I started a meeting also called Many Paths, and we meet at 5 o’clock on Sundays now in a place called the Recovery Cafe, which is right on the edge of downtown Seattle.

36:04 John S: Oh, neat. How’s that meeting going?

36:05 Bruce H: Well, it’s going okay. When we first started it, we were in a neighborhood called Capitol Hill, which is vibrant, a lot of younger people there, about people of all ages and all stripes, all sorts of gender identities, and every kind of mix of stuff. It’s a very interesting place. So, we started that in a coffee shop and it was important to me to not be in a church. I know it’s an easy place, churches are welcoming usually, and the rent’s usually reasonable and all that, so they’re good places but I wanted to just not have that. I found this coffee shop with a meeting room and we basically outgrew that space, so we moved to the Recovery Cafe at the beginning of the year. Moving a meeting is hard, so it’s now starting to build back up. But it’s a good little meeting, and there are people that come there who say, “You know, I just like the feel.” I started also to be really open. I don’t care what you believe or don’t believe because I don’t want to do to other people what some people in AA do to me. The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking, as you said.

37:47 John S: Wow, I like how you did in Seattle what you did in Salt Lake City. When you weren’t comfortable with what was going on with your AA world, you just created your own community, and that’s a neat experience to have. I got to experience that here in Kansas City when I helped start our We Agnostics group. Suddenly my whole AA world shifts from my Big Book loving, Big Book thumping group to this totally free experience. It’s nice to be able to do that.

38:23 Bruce H: Well, I think it’s one of the things that we think about, “Well, what can we do and how?” The fourth tradition really gives us this freedom to do that. I’ve even thought, “I should start another meeting now called, I hate AA or something like that, you know?

[laughter]

38:44 John S: Yeah.

38:45 Bruce H: There’s that quote where Bill says, “You know, you can get a few people together and even if you’re anti-everything, including anti-AA, you could still call yourself an AA group.”

38:57 John S: That’s right. Absolutely. I think that’s hilarious, but it’s true. It’s neat that we can do that. Speaking about AA and traditions and stuff like that, one final thing I want to talk about is what you mentioned in Tacoma about the importance of how we carry our message, how we communicate the message. You said that when you go to the AA.org website on your cell phone, it’s not really a great user experience. I wonder if you could talk about that? What are we doing wrong, what can we do differently, what should we do? 

39:28 Bruce H: I think back in the ’60s, Marshall McLuhan coined this term that the medium is the message. I think what he was saying is that the way you present something is just as important, if not more important as what you’re presenting. So, I decided to go to aa.org on my iPhone a little while ago and it was not a great experience. It’s hard to navigate. While it does present itself differently on a mobile device than it does on a computer, most of the content is still in PDF format. It’s built for print publication only. So, if you want to know more about AA, you end up having to look at PDF files and they first have to download onto the device, and then some of them are formatted better than others. It just wasn’t that good of an experience.

40:37 Bruce H: One of the particular ones that was weird was that they have things about problems other than alcohol and it has this little caveat that, “Well, Bill wrote this in 1958 and we think it’s just as pertinent today as it was then.” When I see that, it’s like, “Okay, that was 60 years ago.” Okay. [chuckle] I go in there and read this PDF. When I first looked at it, the way the PDF was formatted it was all jumbled. It was formatted to be printed on a paper and then bound into a booklet, so the page orders would be right. The page ordering was just all wrong. They did at least fix that recently, but still it’s this pamphlet and most of it what it talks about is like who’s a member, who can be a member. I think if I’m coming to AA and I have problems with alcohol, I guess probably because that’s why I’m there, but I have problems with other stuff as well, that’s probably not going to speak to me very well, if I make it through and get to the PDF file. When it would say, “What does it mean to be a member?” I don’t care about being a member. I think just in general, our society, the idea of being a member of something back 60 years ago or whatever, that was important, was more important than it is today. Things are more fluid, and boundaries are more fluid. Just in terms of literature, both the AA website and the Grapevine website isn’t great either.

42:25 John S: Yeah, you’re right. I agree.

42:26 Bruce H: The Grapevine has some more flexibility. Well, before I talk about that, I think one of the issues that AA has, it’s sort of like this albatross around our neck now, is this conference-approved literature. We have this archaic bizarre process for going through all of this. Maybe nine months ago, I went to our local intergroup to get some pamphlets for the meeting I started. I thought, “Well, I should have some pamphlets around.” So, I grabbed a selection of things that included various things, young people, women, just a selection of maybe half a dozen pamphlets. When I got home, I showed them to my wife and she picks up AA for the Woman, and she starts reading it, and it was written over 30 years ago and hadn’t been updated.

43:29 Bruce H: Now I think they are updating that one or they have updated that one, but of these pamphlets I picked at the time, the newest one was AA For Young People, and it was 10 years old. The iPhone came out in 2007, so just over 10 years ago. That has really changed the way we get information and maybe I’m repeating myself here, but conference approved literature, it’s very difficult to get something new and it takes years to go through the process. I know there are some people talking about this idea of bringing this God Word pamphlet from Britain over here, which…

44:16 John S: Which they approved.

44:18 Bruce H: Yeah, but the pamphlet’s got a weird name.

44:21 John S: Oh, The God Word?

44:23 Bruce H: The God Word, it’s like, if I’m somebody who’s looking at AA, I’m not going to know what that means.

44:30 John S: Right, and people don’t really read pamphlets anyway.

44:37 Bruce H: Yeah, people don’t read pamphlets. [laughter] They need it to be an interactive Facebook thing or something like that.

44:47 John S: Right, right. Well, we’ve been bad, and when I say “we”, I mean AA. We’re just slow with technology. It frustrates me that the Grapevine site is so bad, and I hate to say that because I love the people who work for the Grapevine.

45:03 Bruce H: Yeah. Well, I think they have the freedom to print stuff that…

45:07 John S: Yeah, they can, they do, and they have more updated stuff, yeah.

45:12 Bruce H: Like the Atheist issue from October 2016. You know that was great. I picked that up and I read through it.

45:21 John S: Yeah, it was a good issue.

45:23 Bruce H: Yeah it was a great issue.

45:24 John S: Then they published a whole book about atheists this year. So yeah, they can do stuff like that, but their website design is a mess. It’s better when it’s on the mobile phone than on a desktop, but still, it’s a bit of a mess.

45:37 Bruce H: Yeah, yeah. I was just looking at it the other day and had a few things. I’d bring up an article and it wouldn’t be laid out quite right on my screen, so I’d have to mess around with it to get it so that I didn’t have to scroll sideways. Things like that, but those things do speak louder than you might think. You know?

46:00 John S: Yeah. I think they need to have more free content too, and I was telling that…

46:03 Bruce H: That was my thing too. It’s like everything’s behind a paywall. I understand there’s this problem of how it is supported. 

46:13 John S: Right. They are supported through their subscriptions, and that’s their mandate. They can’t take donations or anything. It has to be self-supporting through subscriptions. But their website, they should be using the website in my opinion, and I’m not a guy who’s in marketing or anything, but I think the website should be drawing people into wanting to subscribe. You need to give them some free content, more free content and more interaction, make it more of a community on that site so that people will want to get more involved with it. As it is now, it’s not accessible for anyone.

46:47 Bruce H: Yeah, and it’s still the print publication model.

46:54 John S: But you know, they’re pretty forward thinking. The Executive Editor Publisher, she actually went to the General Service Conference a few years ago and she was asking them to use their imagination. She said, “Imagine if we had our own YouTube channel. Imagine if we had a podcast,”, but I don’t know. [chuckle] If they will.

47:17 Bruce H: Well, I hope. Sometimes looking at things in the history of AA there have been times where things have changed more rapidly. Maybe we’ll get to a point where people start thinking, “Oh we can do a lot better and we can reach more people.” However, it does concern me. There are attendance statistics which are difficult to compile in an organization that’s anonymous, but I remember early in my sobriety that the size of AA was doubling every five years or something. Then somewhere in the mid-90s, it just stopped. It got up to two to two and a half million, and that’s where we’re sitting. Now we’re maybe seeing some decline, though I don’t know given the way the data is collected. It may not be statistically significant, but that growth that used to happen is not happening. There are lots of alternatives and people have access to that information in ways that they just never had. I don’t know the answer, but I hope we can keep talking more and more about the questions.

48:33 John S: Yeah, I do, too. Another nice thing about it though is that we can have our AA Beyond Belief, we can have AA Agnostica, stuff like that. The Grapevine knows about AA Beyond Belief. We can do our own thing, too. I don’t know, I might interact with that Grapevine a little bit more to see if I can give them some ideas. 

48:56 Bruce H: Yeah. Yeah.

48:57 John S: But like I said, I’m no expert either, but gosh, darn. Anyway, so thank you, it’s been such a pleasure to speak with you. I love doing these podcasts. It’s just like having a chat with a friend.

49:11 Bruce H: Yeah, yeah. Well, I’ve really enjoyed our time together here, too so thanks.

49:15 John S: I love Minneapolis, by the way. What a great city!

49:18 Bruce H: Yeah, yeah. It is fun. Because my father’s health isn’t so good I’ve been traveling there frequently and it’s nice.

49:31 John S: My wife and I went up there for a vacation once. When you live in the Midwest, you go to these fun places: Omaha, Minneapolis.

49:37 Bruce H: Right. [laughter] Yeah. It’s a good city and I guess the part I don’t miss is the climate but there’s a lot that I do miss in that city.

49:49 John S: Well, again, thank you. It’s been a pleasure.

[music]

50:08 John S: That concludes another episode of AA Beyond Belief the Podcast. Thank you for listening. 


Links

Bruce’s Talk in Tacoma

Singleness of Purpose Card

We Agnostics Kansas City

John L.’s Article “Living Sober (The Book)”

YouTube Playlist for Step Podcasts with Benn and John 

Many Paths Group in Seattle

Recovery Cafe

The Medium is the Message, by Marshall McLuhan

AA Website (aa.org)

AA Grapevine Website

AA Beyond Belief Review of October 2016 Grapevine

The God Word pamphlet

AA Agnostica 

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  1. Reid B. July 11, 2018 at 11:14 pm - Reply

    Oh, and the Unitarian Society of Minneapolis also had a Zen sitting group. So I got Atheist/Agnostic AA, Recovering Fundamentalists, and Mindfulness training all under the same roof. It was great for me in early sobriety.

    Now, I am also attending Refuge Recovery meetings which are open to all addicts of any description and really finding those groups to be real and welcoming.

  2. Reid B. July 11, 2018 at 10:18 am - Reply

    Loved this transcript, love this site.

    — I got sober in a treatment center in Center City, MN, starting on Feb. 15, 1988.

    — About 1990 I went to the Unitarian Society of Mpls to hear a fairly famous person give a talk on Sunday morning. It was so dynamic, I thought, I should go back on the next Sunday to see what’s up on a “regular” service. I got in touch with AA for agnostics and atheists there. And that group tried to get their meeting listed by Minneapolis Intergroup and by New York and was refused by both agencies. We persisted.

    — Also at the Unitarian Society, was a loose group calling themselves Recovering Fundamentalists. They were not a 12-Step group! But what came out in those very free-wheeling discussions were that the core of Fundamentalism is textual inerrancy: the Bible, the Koran, etc., is the unadulterated Word of God. Unfortunately attached to that is that a) there are endless contradictions in His Word; b) He changes his mind about a lot of stuff and is unchanging throughout the ages (that is, we and the world change but God is a constant) despite all the textual evidence to the contrary; c) he advocates for ruthless atrocities of murder, rape, and kidnapping for the vanquishing Israelites; d) he doesn’t much care for women and says they’re are to be subject to their husband’s whims without complaint. There’s more, but you get the idea. So now, AA Big Book thumpers are in the textual inerrancy business and it really is a version of Fundamentalism.

    — The book, One Breath at a Time, Buddhism and the 12-Steps by Kevin Griffin gave me another gift. Since Buddhism, which I’ve practiced with mediocre regularity since 1973 and with more daily effort since about 2000, is a spiritual *practice* first and a set of beliefs secondarily, this book was liberating. It reminds me of the W. C. Fields story: One day on the set, he was reading a book. Someone asked, what he was reading. He said the Bible. They said, You’re reading the Bible?!! Fields: Yeah, I’m looking for loopholes.

    — One big loophole is in the 3rd Tradition which states that the only requirement is a desire to stop drinking. And so, as you describe, there are people coming into AA on, say, a court card, who are not drinking but are smoking [now legal in Washington and elsewhere] weed daily.

    — the biggest loophole, though is in the 12th Step where is says, “practice these principles” in all areas of our lives. This loophole is buried in the question: what are the principles? Well, credit my first sponsor who told me, a person raised among Christians, the 12 Steps are the Beatitudes re-written to be comprehensible to a drunk. What, I say?!! Well, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” can be the principle of the “powerless and unmanageability” clauses: an admission of spiritual (or internal culture) poverty, bankruptcy even, is an admission of being “poor in spirit.” That got me going after reading Kevin Griffin’s book: the many principles embedded in the steps are *more important than the steps themselves!* The Buddhist was is to become and remain *teachable.* Step 2 says that the power of the group (our connecting and breaking isolation) is one drunk talking to another; a true higher power. Step 3 is a willingness to do as that wisdom is suggested. Steps 4 – 11 are actions that change our thinking — to train us to let go of our old ideas. Step 12 tells us to be of service. No Imaginary Friend in the Sky is necessary to practice these principles if you “get it.”

    Again, I love this site and the articles and transcripts that come! Keep it up.

    • John S July 11, 2018 at 7:13 pm Reply

      Thank you very much for the kind and thoughtful comments. Very intelligent and well-written. I am always happy when I hear that someone appreciates and enjoys what we do here. Thank you, thank you!

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