Alcoholics Anonymous suggests that I "avoid hysterical thinking" (in the context of developing a sane and sober sex life) and also that "the grouch and the brainstorm" aren't for us (meaning "us alcoholics" in the context of dealing with our resentments). Over time I have found that to be wise counsel in approaching many things, not just the specific Steps being discussed at that point in the the program. ("Alcoholics Anonymous," AA's Big Book, pgs. 66 and 70.)
So in considering questions which trouble me, or take aim at a personal sacred cow, or come from a source that I feel ambivalent or even hostile towards, I have learned from "practicing AA's principles in all my affairs" (to paraphrase slightly) that the best way to address things is with as open a mind as possible -- and the secret key for me to have an open mind (which I went into in some detail here) is the word "maybe." Maybe other people are right. Or maybe their idea has some merit to it. Or, in addressing this question, maybe AA is a cult. Rather than rail against an idea which troubles me, I've found it much better to stop and work (hard) to have an open mind, and consider without hysteria, and with as little bias as possible, viewpoints not my own.
It's no surprise when I say this: I believe Alcoholics Anonymous saved my life when it was in free fall, and I was in the grip of a progressive, terminal illness: Alcoholism.
I'm thinking the "An AA Sponsor Blog" thing in the blog title was probably tipping my hand as to where I stand on the issue of AA. Trying to have an open mind is not the same as not having a starting point, after all. Generally, in all things for me: AA? I vote yes. (And if you think that's the kind of thing someone brainwashed by a cult might say, then I would respectfully suggest you check and see how open your mind is, and point out that you didn't know me then, and I've got the history of strained or damaged relationships, the scarring on my liver and the record of jail time to prove it.)
Over a good number of years now I have seen people come to AA in terrible, tragic, toxic states (and sometimes they didn't smell too good, either) and, after following AA's suggested 12 Steps, experience profound -- some call it miraculous -- change for the better. Much of what AA's Big Book asserts as the result of working the program has come true for me -- and many other people I know as well.
But... what about the people I don't know? In other words, what about the people who have had very different experiences than mine in Alcoholics Anonymous? (Or any 12 Step program, for that matter...)
Not far from where I sit as I write this there is a "famous" (within the limited circle of the recovering community, nationally speaking) AA group -- I've actually written about them a bit before. They have a dress code, and seem, to my eye, somewhat hierarchical, even dogmatic -- yet arguably they help a lot of people. Had they been my first AA experience though ... I'm not sure how it would have gone. (Most days I have the faith that God, The Universe or The Great Whatever will send the people who need them to them, and the people who need people like me to us. Most days.)
Once, a few years ago, I spoke at a meeting in a zip code that I might only wander into if either I was reading a map upside down or was asked to speak at an AA meeting therein. They had a clubhouse, and couldn't have been nicer to me -- I felt a taste of what it must be like for celebrities, in fact, and that was dangerous and heady in and of itself. But as nice as they were it kind of spooked me. All the wives had exactly the same haircut, and all the guys had exactly the same AA-based tattoo in exactly the same place. (I couldn't help but imagine late night initiation ceremonies, where they stood in a line facing Akron, Ohio -- birthplace of AA -- chanting the Serenity Prayer in Latin, or strange hazing rituals wherein you must do shooters of espresso and recite passages from the Big Book backwards.) Nice, nice people though. The world is a better, much safer place for them not roaring through it fueled by rage and alcohol and six different kinds of amphetamine -- but their AA was not my AA, and though I liked them (it's hard not to like people that like you first) they gave me the willies.
For the new kids, this breadth of AA experience can be confusing. I've said it before, and I'm not the first: In AA the inmates are running the asylum. General Services in New York, the closest thing AA has to a "headquarters" will categorically stick to AA's tradition of autonomy if you call and try to get some sort of decree or ruling out of them.
You can have any kind of AA group you want, and as long as you don't violate any of the other Traditions, call yourself AA. Thus you can be as strong arm, didactic and even abusive as you want and still call yourself AA. In my humble opinion those things powerfully violate (and pervert in the truest sense of the word) the spirit of AA, but there is no governing body to address your "bad" behavior. Should someone vulnerable and hurting from any number of issues, who's been self-medicating any and all kinds of pain through alcohol and drugs, stumble through their doors, they would understandably think all AA is like that, and that AA as a whole is either a con or, yes, a cult.
Even in the best-case scenarios, where there is a sincere desire to do nothing but help, some AA's (and I number myself among them) can no doubt occasionally come on a little strong when parsing out "alcoholic thinking" from other issues. Having felt the frightening twist to our own thoughts when it comes to forgetting what happens when we drink, we may not always be good at hearing other people's varying experience, and maybe sometimes we see more things as "alcoholism talking" than may be the case. Black-and-white thinking is always a challenge.
But if we are zealous, it is also because the longer you stay sober the more you see just how high the stakes are, just how difficult it is for true addicts to stay clean, and just how monstrous or fatal the results can be when real alcoholics start drinking again. Like this. And this. And this.
What is a cult, anyway?
Dictionary dot com gives me this:
1. a particular system of religious worship, esp. with reference to its rites and ceremonies.
2. an instance of great veneration of a person, ideal, or thing, esp. as manifested by a body of admirers: the physical fitness cult.
3. the object of such devotion.
4. a group or sect bound together by veneration of the same thing, person, ideal, etc.
5. Sociology. a group having a sacred ideology and a set of rites centering around their sacred symbols.
6. a religion or sect considered to be false, unorthodox, or extremist, with members often living outside of conventional society under the direction of a charismatic leader.
7. the members of such a religion or sect.
8. any system for treating human sickness that originated by a person usually claiming to have sole insight into the nature of disease, and that employs methods regarded as unorthodox or unscientific.
By that definition, I like #4 for AA, and I suppose a dash of #5, too. I have no problem with that.
People who are not fans of AA might see me at number 5 but raise me 6 and 8.
Generally the term cult, when applied to AA, is a pejorative, and there is great disparaging issue with "AA speak" and "AA think."
(Though I would tentatively float the idea that if AA is, in the worst sense of that definition, a cult, it's the lamest, most poorly organized, non-profit-making cult in the history of Cults.)
I recently had coffee with someone who told me all about the receptionist in his office, and how she had just joined AA -- ironically, with only a little description I deduced that she had joined the AA group with the dress code I talked about a few paragraphs ago. His assessment was that in some ways she had traded one addiction, drinking, for another, this AA group.
Again I say... maybe. Maybe she has. (For myself, I got pulled over, and eventually arrested and sent to jail for drunk driving, not for AA Cult Speak/Think driving, so even from the baseline therapeutic model of harm reduction that's not a totally bad thing, whether that's a fair depiction of someone's relationship with an AA group or not.)
There is also the question of loneliness. By most accounts addiction becomes a terribly isolating existence, regardless of what you use ... my coffee date had no clue as to what his receptionist's life was like outside of the office -- maybe these people are the first real relationships she's had in some time -- it is very often a life barren of genuine human connection when you're drinking yourself to death, even if you're married, or sitting in a crowded bar every night. Maybe that wasn't the case for her (there's that damn open mind getting in the way of my lovely and poetic image) but even the most skeptical might acknowledge that the overwhelming body of evidence points to the progression of addiction as something which cuts people off from the world, and thus AA people, even if we're zealous or culty, are maybe better than no people you're connecting with at all. There's a reason Tom Hanks started talking to a beach ball in that "Castaway" movie after all.
My experience of people who view AA with either suspicion or outright hostility is that they may have some valid points in accusing AA of being a kind of cult, or at least cult-like. (Cult Lite?) I feel obliged to insert here, and I'm not trying to be cute, that not all medicine is for all people -- and sometimes people have more than one issue or illness to address, which of course complicates matters.
But to speak plainly there are some bad AA's out there -- yet maybe that's about human nature and spiritual sickness, not about AA per se'. (Ole'!)
I do however think it is a false logic to say "I had bad experiences with some AA's, thus AA is bad." I believe that's a little like saying "I got food poisoning from some mayo, thus all condiments are bad."
Yes, there is a "vocabulary" to AA, the language of recovery can sound odd to someone who's not actively going to AA meetings. All I can offer is that for me it is a kind of short hand to express important ideas about my alcoholism and how I address it, and even beyond that, how I might use spiritual principles to deal with life's challenges, both large and, more troubling sometimes, petty. When people have a problem with the language of AA I find (sometimes) it's really more that it's not language they would use which seems to be the problem for them. And sometimes, yes, AA's sound just plain weird -- in the same way that any group sounds clannish to outside ears. This phenomenon is not about AA, in my opinion it's about human bonding. After all, each generation reinvents slang to accomplish the same thing. (Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury, I would like to introduce the following Exhibits in support of this testimony: Groovy, Cool, Rad, Chill and ... ummm... I'm almost 50, so I don't know what comes next. Do we have something after Chill now?)
Those who've read Mr. SP from the very, very beginning (Hi, Anne!) may recall one rather vehement commenter I used to have, who felt AA, and me, for that matter, were Evil because we were espousing a faith that did not line up with theirs, and they quoted extensively from their own religion in the comment section to support this assertion. In the spirit of open mindedness and inclusivety, another gift I've gotten from AA, I let him go on for a while, till I felt it became abusive, and responded to him directly in the comment section, and to his credit, he stopped (shattering another preciously nurtured prejudice I had that certain kinds of religious people will never listen. It's always such a drag when I have to let go of a favorite bias.) But beyond those with a specific, faith-based beef with AA, there are others who have worthy questions and concerns, and for AA to be healthy in the future I believe we should consider those carefully indeed.
AA saved my life, and I'm grateful for it. I have found it to be a good thing, overall, and from "inside it" my experience is that it is generally much more a force for good than for ill in the world.
Alcoholics Anonymous is not selling anything, and neither am I. If you have a problem with alcohol and want to try what AA suggests you will find much camaraderie and support, coupled with a good amount of practical advice and a very liberal helping of spirituality.
If you try AA and it's not for you, then what AA itself (though maybe not some AA groups) -- and I -- wish you is the best of luck in solving your problems, whatever they may be. Please forgive us if sometimes we passionately suggest that your thinking might be the result of alcoholism -- for some of us that has been true, and that experience has given us a sense of responsibility to check with others as to whether that is what they are experiencing as well.
I heard it said at one of my earliest meetings, and it made me chuckle then, and turned out to be somewhat prophetic: If AA brainwashes people that's okay, since when I showed up my brain needed washing.
The general spiritual principles and plan of action AA suggests were not invented by this Fellowship, but were existing ideas combined in a way which seem to resonate with many different kinds of addicts -- and while much in the 12 Step world which has evolved from that time and those people in Akron, Ohio is indeed flawed, I feel that's more to do with the foibles of humanity than the AA program itself.
I did not write this to convince anyone of anything. I was simply moved to address the question and share a little of my feelings and experience on it -- make of it what you will.