Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Value of Alcoholics Anonymous

There was a time I went through a rabid anti-AA phase – in retrospect, I see it had everything to do with my own ego and my own addiction digging in its heels and fighting for itself by using the sharp scythe of rationality. “It’s a cult! It was modeled on the Oxford Group,” I’d say, and I’d add hotly, “No god is going to keep me from drinking—only I can do that.” And I loved rattling off all the contradictions embedded in AA sayings and belief: “If alcoholism is a disease you have no power over, then you are doomed to drink no matter what—the program itself is self-defeating.” Or, “If this isn’t a religious group, why do meetings start off with a prayer and end with a prayer, and in between, people are bringing up God all the time?” I was also fond of pointing out the high relapse rate and could quote from Ellis on cognitive-behavioral therapy and how the truth is that most alcoholics quit being alcoholics not with the help of any program, but on their own.

Well, after numerous attempts to quit on my own, or by using techniques I found in Rational Recovery and SMART Recovery, I found those techniques didn’t stick for me, either. Nothing was helping. The longest I ever went without a drink was seven months—and towards the latter part of that, I was definitely white knuckling it, and my inner addict’s voice was starting to be the loudest one on the committee in my head. “Ah, hell, you’ve gone this long without a drink; clearly you have no problem since you’ve proven you CAN quit.” “You can have just two or three and stop.” “Your drinking is a problem only when it’s a problem—so just stop for awhile whenever it starts to be a problem.” If I could just manage the negative consequences, why, then there’s no problem.

And there I’d be, a year later, right back where I started from, drinking to excess every other day, often so drunk as to black out, calling in sick to work a lot, and feeling like miserable shit half the time.

So what was it about opening my mind and heart to AA once again that worked this last time out (I’ll be two years sober this Sept. 4th)? First, it was finally letting go this idea that my own self-will and determination could get me to stop abusing alcohol. But if I couldn’t do it, who could? “God” was this sketchy figure to me. I wasn’t even sure then that God liked me too much, since I’d been raised by atheist parents and I saw a lot of religion as being just a bunch of silly, superstitious practices. But I also had seen much beauty in certain spiritual practices—such as living in the now, practicing forgiveness, embracing serenity even in the face of chaos, living to serve and help others. Abusing alcohol, acting out, going into rages, I certainly had not been living in a way in which my actions and words were aligned with my own values. So that was my starting place.

“OK, there’s something about this vast universe that is bigger than me, some purpose I’m here to fill that doesn’t mean drinking myself into a stupor all the time—help me fill this purpose.”

Others less emotionally and more rationally inclined than me can choose good, orderly direction (GOD) as their Higher Power and thus their Higher Power doesn’t have to be “God-like” at all. Others choose their own AA group as their Higher Power, their home “group of drunks (GOD).” The point I came to see was that Higher Power could be anything that helps give you strength and direction, as long as that “anything” is not you, yourself. I was finally ready to go there after my own self-will and ego had failed me enough times.

This is the only “ego deflation” that’s really needed: it’s merely acknowledging that hey, guess what? Once I’ve got booze in my system, I can’t stop. But guess what, maybe help provided by my Higher Power can at least help me resist picking up the stuff to begin with. If I can just do that—one day at a time—then I can start getting my life back in order and living a productive, full life.

This was basically the first three steps, and every step after that has everything to do with working through all the reasons I started drinking to begin with and why it was I turned to alcohol as a way to cope. For me, fear of experiencing uncomfortable emotions was a big part of it all. I see the “character defects” of the Steps not so much an innate flaws I’m born with, but as negative patterns of behavior I developed over the years—both to cope with life in general and also to protect my own addiction to alcohol. Me, I blame others a lot; I hang onto resentments and obsess about things; I get anxious when I feel I’m losing control over an outcome; I’m mesmerized by my own intellect and will rationalize and lie to myself all day long if there is something I want to believe or do. Working through the Steps and seeing these things then means I can take action to stop doing them. And lo and behold, when I stopped doing them, the Promises started to come true.

There is much good, practical advice dispensed in AA meetings: “If you don’t want to be a liar, then stop lying.” “If you don’t want to be a thief, then stop stealing.” “If you don’t want to be a deadbeat loser, find a job.” Or this gem: “You don’t make things better for yourself by sitting there polishing the turds. My friend, you are still shitting in shit. Get up. Get out of it.”

It’s a lot of practical stuff that even the PhD’s, doctors, and engineers among us can occasionally stand to hear.

For me, AA has become a collection of groups in which we can share our struggles and our pain and our coping strategies in a safe place—and if you don’t feel safe in a particular meeting, keep looking for one in which you DO feel safe. It could be a same-sex meeting; it could be a large and impersonal one where you can feel anonymous; it could be a small, intimate one of only five or six people. AA is a place where you work through all your garbage. AA is where, working with your sponsor, you can finally start developing some decent coping mechanisms and make some real emotional growth. If your sponsor isn’t helpful, find a new one. You are empowered within AA to be proactive, to take responsibility for your own recovery and for how you can best work your own program.

The value of AA is to be found in the broad experiences of its many members. I have never left a meeting without taking at least some little piece of wisdom from it, even if I had to listen to a lot of baloney or preaching or lecturing or clichés for much of the hour. At some point, somebody is bound to say something I needed to hear that day. And if I’m given a chance at the end, I like to say the Prayer of St. Francis. No, I’m not Catholic, I’m not even Christian in the traditional sense—but it’s a prayer asking to be a better soul. It’s impossible for me to repeat that prayer and not feel better, like I’ve been recalibrated somehow. I close with it here.

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

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