Dear Mr. SponsorPants,
I am well over ten years sober, and I have two questions:
What happens if you lose your Higher Power?
What happens if you realize you may never have really had one?
Some years before recovery I was working in a third world country. I had gone down there both as a service to others and as a scenery change. During those years in the country I had seen some pretty amazing and terrible things. For most of the job I "self medicated" (as did many of the others working with me) to help keep my mind from the "terrible" part.
Now, years later and sober, I felt I was missing something, something that was nagging at me, so I decided to try counseling for once. that was when it all started coming back to me, all of the events that transpired, both the great and the awful times in that country came to the surface.
It hit me hard a couple of weeks ago. I lost my sense of a Higher Power. My idea of God, of a divine sense of a powerful nature being controller of all things, just vanished. I felt like I was left alone right after a tornado came and swept everything away from me.
My recovery has depended on a Higher Power. I always knew in a small way that things were not right, but I managed. I am a sponsor and have a sponsor. I have been invited to speak all throughout my recovery. I have spoken about the importance of the spiritual base of this program, but now all of it sounds empty.
I am a little scared and have an intense feeling of grief. Any suggestions?
First: I understand. Deeply.
Over the years my own faith has been a fitful thing; from bulwark to bullshit by turns. And it certainly resulted in the kind of psychic whiplash you describe, causing me to not only feel lost and Very Alone, but to question all that I had ever felt -- and shared with others in AA -- before.
I think it was Thomas Merton who said "All great men of faith doubt." And certainly, if you scratch the surface of almost any religion you will find much writing on the topic, from the New Testament's other Thomas (he of the topical nickname) to Muhammad on the night he received the revelation of the Koran.
(I mean no disrespect to any faith when I say that I have often imagined, from Moses to Joseph Smith, from Joan of Arc to "Joan of Arcadia," a universal moment of human emotion which transcended language and era in which each of those who received a revelation stopped, looked into the Light from which their Message came and basically said, "Seriously?")
So buck up. You're in great good company.
I have had more than one crisis of faith as I have stayed sober, and each one has been experienced through a lens both personal and global, offering some surprising gifts along their dark and seemingly empty paths. I tell you this because I understand not just your doubt but your fear -- most especially your fear regarding a crisis of faith and being able to stay sober through it (the serious subtext of your email's conclusion).
So I am going to give you some very direct answers to your questions, and then try and share some more general experiences I've had which I hope will provide, if not a rowboat to climb into, then at least a buoy to cling to.
What happens if you lose your Higher Power? Nothing.
Oh, certainly it is dark and lonely and your eyes may show a little too much white around the edges for a while as harsh reality and hard questions wash through your mind like cold waves from a rising sea. You may be uncomfortable. Tears are probable. Anger inevitable (for what is Anger but Fear with its dukes up?) But you got and stayed sober through doing sober actions. Uncomfortable, frightened or bereft of faith, if you keep doing those sober actions you can keep staying sober.
I can pray without feeling. I can meditate and let it be an exercise in stillness. I can be of service to get out of myself. I can write without writing a letter to God (though when you wind up writing letters to a God you don't believe in it will be a moment of high personal comedy, I assure you). I can go to meetings. I can share honestly about what I'm going through, both one-on-one and at group level. I can pick up the phone and talk to other alcoholics about what is going on and find out how they are doing. I can take a newcomer to coffee and listen, and draw from AA's wealth of common sense, practical suggestions should they ask for help. I can do all those sober actions without feeling any connection whatesoever to a Higher Power.
I know this is true because I have done it. Every single one of them.
I do not want to, when my faith tank is on "E," but as I have learned the hard way, "want to" and "willing" are two different things.
What happens if you realize you may never have really had one? Stop. Literally, stop. Don't do that to yourself. Today's doubt will always try to look back and erase whatever faith came before. Neither you, nor I, were stupid or foolish or simple or duped or blind or in denial or anything else along the course of our spiritual development. What I felt and believed then was valid for then. My doubt now is valid for now. A building's foundation is not the roof. Each part of an edifice is its own part to make a structure as a whole.
A few last things:
Stick with therapy. See this through. AA and common sense both suggest that we make good use of all the healing tools available to us in the world.
The first drink gets me drunk. If you don't pick up the first drink you won't get drunk. Talk frankly with others about what is happening with you. Keeping this a secret is not only dangerous to yourself, it denies others the opportunity to watch someone walk through a crisis of faith and stay sober.
Hang in there. My spiritual deserts now are painful but not frightening. I have been there before and I will in some fashion be there again. St. Therese (the little flowers saint) had some wise insights into this: After feeling a literal ecstasy of faith for years she experienced the other end of the spectrum and fell into a deep (what we might call clinical) depression. What she decided was that, just as she had offered her joyous faith to God, she would offer her overwhelming grief and emptiness to God. A sort of, "Okay, first you wanted me to serve you through joy, now you want me to serve you through sorrow. Not really feelin' it, but okay. I give this to you as I gave the other." (As you can imagine I am broadly paraphrasing here.)
I believe that, as I have used my other difficult experiences to be of service to others (whether there's a God involved in that or not) I can use my lack of faith to show that I can be sober through practicing AA's principles one day at a time regardless. And thus, there is a point to what I am going through -- which then in turn makes it easier to go through.
You saw first hand in the third world some hard truths about the Universe, and when you shake it down you are coming to "Why?" As in, "why, if there is a benevolent God..." I will let you fill in your personal memories at the end of that question.
You may or may not find a "because" to satisfy you. This is the part of the Big Book (my least favorite part, in fact, as the metaphor hijacks the point) which talks about the bridge of logic and the shore of faith and how logic alone cannot get us to a working faith. For me, that means, I must find a belief which leaves room for some of my unanswered "Why's?"
While I may not always find a "because" through prayer, I always find a "how." Even if you do not believe, and the words are sand in your mouth and you feel the Universe is a much scarier place than it was when you had the faith you used to have, if you pray "how can I use this dark, doubtful time in which I do not even believe in You to be of service to others?" then you will get an answer.
And it will be a good one and it will help you.
And you don't have to believe that as you read it. As with anything in sobriety, you only have to try. And also, while I understand what it is like not to believe, you can count on the fact that today I do.
Good luck and please keep in touch.
There are more essays like this one in "Mr. SponsorPants: Adventures in Sobriety and The 12 Steps for AA's and Others." Available as an eBook on Kindle via Amazon. Download a Kindle reader for free on any device or platform, from PC to Smartphone, and enjoy eBooks anywhere you have time to read.
Recovering Jezebel posted this in the comment section recently:
So I've been wanting to ask you this anyway -- everyone keeps telling me, about my crappy Higher Power, "Fire that Higher Power and get a new one!" But *how* do I do that? Because I get it that I can't take Step Three with my current God [Mr. SP edit: Step Three: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him] with my current God, who is, I'm pretty convinced, just in it to screw me over six ways from Sunday, and then hide behind the proscenium laughing into Their sleeve. But what's the technique or practice for making up a God I like? If I just make up a pretty and kind and friendly God, how will I ever be able to believe in Them, since they're patently nothing more than a mere creation of my own little pathetic pea-brain? So confusing.
Great question, R.J., one I think most people who embrace/try/reject/mock/love/hate the 12 Steps ask in one way or another -- that is, it's nearly impossible to come across the phrase "as you understood Him," and receive AA's blank check when it comes to a concept of God, and not puzzle over how to make this process real.
Let me tell you up front that this essay is probably going to let you down. That is, I can pretty much guarantee that the feverish metaphysical musings of one relatively crackpot middle-aged alcoholic is unlikely to achieve any spiritual insights greater than those already mused by most of humanity, which has been tilting at this particular windmill since we first crawled out of the cave and began to wonder at the world around us (and within us).
To state the obvious for a moment, many people subscribe to a particular religious doctrine which supplies a ready-made definition of God -- you may not like it, but at least it's there, clearly defined, complete with rules and conditions, do's and don'ts. Against this specific picture, AA's carte blanche is baffling to many.
Though I've walked this road myself, and I sincerely want to help, it may be that not all of my experience in this will work for you -- I offer it freely, though, and remind you that the one sure-fire way to have an open mind is the word "maybe." Maybe something here is right, and will work for you if you try it.
("Whatcha doin'?" "Building my Higher Power." "Really?" "Yeah." "Wow! Well, ummm, be sure and lift with your legs. I can't even begin to imagine what a spiritual hernia would look like.")
Doing this is, of course, deeply sacrilegious to some people in the world, and in keeping with AA's general spirit of "no controversy" I apologize if anything I write here offends anyone. To borrow one of my favorite lines from the Big Book, a discussion like this "... immediately precipitates us into a seething cauldron of debate." (It's so dramatic and a little poetic - I just love it). But that is not my intent -- this is just a recollection of what has helped me excavate a lot of tired old ideas about God (which I didn't even know I had and ran deeper than I realized), and what I did to begin to embrace new ideas which have brought me much peace and guidance, and sometimes a feeling of blissful connection with a power greater than myself, over the years.
First, though, a story about my dead cat.
(And let me apologize for this, too, as we come perilously close to too too twee when we bring pets into writings about God and such.)
Baxter was a dog-cat, and I had him for many years. A dog-cat is a cat that comes when you call, let's you rub their tummy without incident, is friendly to strangers who come over, might even play fetch, etc. etc. (Words cannot begin to describe the disdain Evil Old Cat had for Baxter while he was alive.) Sitting and reading one time, I watched Baxter engage with a dribble of water from the bathtub faucet. It occurred to me then, watching him, that he could experience that water with his cat senses in a way I could not -- that is, he had a particular way of understanding the water. But then I thought about how I understood the water: How I knew about the fact that it could be liquid, solid or gaseous, how it was comprised of two hydrogen molecules and one molecule of oxygen, that it came into my home via a system of pipes handed down from the ancient Roman aqueducts ... etc., etc., etc. Baxter had an understanding of the water, but his brainpan just wasn't big enough to grasp 1/1000th of what there was to know about it.
I keep Baxter and the water in mind whenever I try to wrap my mind around the Divine. While I may have a particular way of understanding it, my brainpan just isn't big enough to grasp more than the most limited conceptualization -- at best I will only come to an understanding so finite as to be almost a distortion of the Ultimate Truth.
So relax -- we're never going to really get it -- the best we can do is find some crude analogies which open our hearts to a new understanding of spiritual principles and maybe clear away some old ideas planted by lots of other people and things (the religion of our childhood, books, movies, TV shows, friends and enemies, billboards and greeting cards) which maybe don't apply to us at all (regardless of how much conviction those other people may have about their beliefs for themselves).
Now, for me, if I want new ideas, then I need new words and images. I need a new language to describe the thing I've been thinking about -- especially when it comes to God. I've written before (here and here) about Daniel Ladinsky's translations of (mostly) eastern poems about God, found in the book "Love Poems from God" (which, when you're frightened and seeking spiritual solace is a title which you embrace eagerly, but when you're feeling cool and on your game is the kind of thing you roll your eyes at). I am not saying this book alone will help you re-define your understanding of God -- I'm saying that it helped me. It might not speak to you -- the bigger point here is that if you want to find new ways of thinking about God go to new sources and see what resonates for you. That's all.
But since I got my copy of that book down, let me share two things from it which have always stayed with me.
The first is from Meister Eckhart, a monk who lived around the 12th and 13th Centuries. It is a small thing, and it comes back to me often:
It is a lie -- any talk of God that does not comfort you.
That's it. A small thing. A small thing which rocked my world one day.
And then this, from Hafiz, the Persian poet who lived in the 14th Century, entitled "Two Giant Fat People":
and I have become
like two giant fat people living
in a tiny
keep bumping into
What a jolly, poetic, ridiculous image! What a wise metaphor to illustrate, when I have eyes to see it, all the tiny moments in my day when I feel some Divine Hand guiding me. To think of the moments when I "bump into God" with silliness and joy -- to think of God feeling silliness and joy -- that's the way I needed to start thinking about my Higher Power.
Also, something which sounds twee (there's that word again) but was very helpful to me for a while, is to stop giving God a penis. I cannot escape the influence of the culture in which I have lived my whole life. And this culture, Western culture, has a particular set of qualities which it values as masculine, and a particular set of qualities it thinks of as feminine. Without getting into a debate about gender dynamics or cultural norms, I think it would be fair to say that if you listed a bunch of characteristics on a page, most Westerners would be in agreement over certain ones being masculine or feminine. I'm not suggesting that, when people in a meeting say the Lord's Prayer, you make a big deal out of saying "Our MOTHER who art in Heaven..." For me, though, thinking about God in the feminine was a good way to begin to think of a loving God, as opposed to a more judgmental one. (Today I do not ascribe a particular gender to God at all, but you can mostly blame the Hubble Telescope for that -- after looking at those gorgeous pictures of the universe and beyond, the idea that Whatever made all that has a particular gender seemed, for me, quite ludicrous.) But for the umpteenth time I want to stress that I do not think you should or should not believe what I believe. I'm just saying that, silly as it sounds (and I know it does indeed sound very, very silly), looking at how I felt about male vs. female archetypes helped me begin to deconstruct some of my fears and negative ideas about God.
A few more thoughts and a concrete suggestion or two.
R.J., you wrote, "...If
I just make up a pretty and kind and friendly God, how will I ever be
able to believe in Them, since they're patently nothing more than a mere
creation of my own brain..."
With respect I submit to you that you are already doing that. You've made up a mean and unjust God who's out to get you -- but that is merely a creation of your own brain. Don't tell me it's from this Sacred Text or that Learned Elder. It's your brain, you're the one thinking it and dwelling on it. The tough question to ask yourself (and I'm afraid it begs another even tougher one in a moment) is this:
Do you always assume that the negative voice is inherently more true than the positive one? That is a mistake many people make. Because I am sure that, in AA, you have met people who have suggested a definition of God which is quite, as you say, "pretty and kind and friendly." But since they're describing a "nice" God you don't believe them, but when someone/something else describes a "mean" God you do believe them? Believing the negative voice is inherently more true than the positive one, is, I assure you, merely a trick of perception. The existence of the half of the glass which is empty does not negate the truth of the half that is full. They are equally real. It is only our mind which dismisses one and values the other.
And I am sorry, it is not my intent to imply anything nor am I trying to be snarky or offend, but that question does beg this one as well, offered only for your consideration, feel free to dismiss it as I do not know you personally, so I could be way off base:
Is investing in the belief that God is out to get you ("...screw me over six ways from Sunday...") a device to perpetuate some kind of victim role, cosmically speaking?
Because another way in which I have been able to redefine "God as I understand God" was to pull the camera back somewhat, and not evaluate each individual twist of Fate as a Good thing or a Bad thing per se, but try and take a longer view. This is a little hokey, but is a good illustration of what I mean. Yes, sometimes bad things happen -- but sometimes things happen and I decide they are bad, which can feed the victim-loop in my head.
Now, if you're really serious about this trying to "fire" your old Higher Power and begin to find a new one, here is what you do:
Get a notebook, a highlighter, a pen and your Big Book.
Read Chapter 4, "We Agnostics," and after each paragraph, write in the notebook what you think the book was saying, and then what you think and how you feel about what the book was saying. Then use the highlighter to mark all of the things which particularly strike you -- either that you especially like or you especially hate (cause I learn from both). Don't let this suggestion overwhelm you -- it doesn't have to be this dreadful, arduous homework assignment. Try a page a day. There are 14, actually (if you count not the leaves in the book but each side of text). If you do that, and sincerely ask God to open your eyes and your mind, in two weeks you will have a beginning -- maybe a very strong beginning -- on a path towards a Higher Power of your understanding which is indeed one you can come to trust and even feel a deep and powerful love from.
Sorry, one last thing:
Remember, if, by the end of the night, you don't drink, or use, or kill yourself, YOU WIN. There is no "wrong" way to do any of this spiritual pursuit -- you aren't in a contest, you aren't in a race, your path and your process need not satisfy anyone else's measure or criteria. For each 24 hours you just don't pick up the first drink, and if you do that and keep going to meetings the rest of this stuff will absolutely work itself out.
R.J., I hope some of this was helpful, and as always, thank you for reading and your wonderful comments.
Back in September of 2009 I visited Stinkin' Thinkin', a blog which "muckrakes the 12 Step Industry."
To say that they are not fans of Alcoholics Anonymous, or anything 12 Step, is putting it mildly. Still, they had some nice things to say about Mr. SponsorPants, and as I am shallow enough to be seduced by any crumb of praise or flattery always interested in a spirited debate, I read through some of their postings, found one called "The 12 Rights for Newcomers to 12 Step/AA" which I especially admired, wrote a bit about it and posted it here.
The other day, when perusing the "who's visited the site" blog thing (it doesn't show you as an individual person, but if someone has visited from another blog or website sometimes that address will show up) I noticed that there had been some recent visits from the Stinkin' Thinkers to Mr. SP again, and, hoping to find more nice things about myself curious to see what might be the current topic, I swung over to take a look.
They are as passionate in their views as ever, and without any silliness I want to say that I respect that, and would remind any AA who either visits their site for themselves or encounters those opinions in the world that "love and tolerance is our code." It's not much of a program of attraction if we cannot keep a civil tone (as they have with me, for the most part, I
hasten to point out -- and by 'for the most part' I mean that some
turns of phrase are less flattering than others, but that is hardly
being abusive, or even discourteous) when disagreeing with people about addiction in general or Alcoholics Anonymous in particular.
One of their contributers posted a video with several provocative questions, the one on the title screen being:
"I would like to pose a question to all members of AA: Would you allow anyone that has managed to get their lives back on track again without using AA to chair one of your meetings?"
I confess my first reaction was kind of a "what would the point of that be?" -- not in a refusal to allow differing viewpoints (I've been to meetings where some peoples' entire share was basically "AA sucks and I hate all of you." My experience in those meetings is that they have their say, they finish, people clap politely -- if it's a clapping meeting -- and the meeting goes on. No one is ejected or censured for "disagreeing" with AA) but more along the lines that it would be like having a representative of the beef industry speaking to a vegetarian convention. We're just not on the same page is all.
Here is a link to the video and the blog itself.
And, for whatever reason, most likely equal parts a desire to have a true dialog and probably some bit of ego as well, I posted a comment there in response to the video.
There were then comments in response to my comment. So I responded to them, they responded to me and ... oh never mind, here is the heart of it:
My comment to the video:
You *do* ask provocative questions. In a few instances you then go on
to answer them with what “people in AA would say” — which is kind of a
zero-sum game I think. Just as many people who don’t like AA, or have
had bad experiences there, might give a variety of answers to a
provocative question about why “AA is bad,” so, too, would many AA’s
offer a variety of responses to the question of someone who stopped
drinking without AA, beyond just the one you model here (I’m really
thinking of the response you offer “from AA’s” that if someone can stop
without AA then “they weren’t really an alcoholic.” A paraphrase, but I
think a fair representation of what you said.) Sure, SOME would say
that, but others … not. I wouldn’t. The longer I’m sober in AA the
more open minded I feel I’ve become about addiction treatment.
People in AA can be very reactionary when they think Alcoholics Anonymous is being “attacked.” (And the general level of literacy in comments across the internet on every and any topic is depressing, frankly. For every anti-anything commenter who gets ‘to, too and two’ wrong I’m sure you can find a pro-the-same-thing commenter making equal gaffs.)
People get reactionary generally because they are afraid. For some people in AA it feels like Alcoholics Anonymous is the first thing that has worked for them, and they are perhaps overly protective. That’s no excuse for being rude, I offer it only as a consideration.
*sigh* Already this comment is longer than I’d intended, your larger question about chairing meetings would mean I might go too long in a comments section, so I will only add that I believe some of your issues are a matter of interpretation or context, BUT I encourage you, and anyone, who feels AA is not right for them to keep searching for whatever they might need outside of or instead of AA. AA has worked for me, but as with all diseases and treatments, there can be a lot of factors involved in what makes a particular “medicine” work, and what is the right course for one may not be the right course for another.
I hope you keep questioning, and making your videos. (As a bit of a codger, I would offer that a music track with lyrics as background for something I am reading does tax my synapses a bit, but I’m not the sharpest mind on the planet. It’s probably an excellent cognitive exercise!) Obviously we have different philosophies, but we’re all trying to use this medium to help people who might need it — how can that be a bad thing regardless of whether we are on the same side of something or not?
A response to my comment:
AA is not a treatment nor is it a treatment for disease. Any medical treatment that has you praying for a daily reprieve to keep a disease in remission is not a medical treatment. You might as well insert your head between your knees and kiss your ass goodbye. AA is a religion and until I hear its members tell me that it is a religion I will take no prisoners.
I use the word “medicine” metaphorically, and perhaps I should do a
better job of making that clear. It feels like medicine to me, so the
metaphor is apt. To speak in clinical terms (though I am not a
clinician) AA’s suggestions are a course of treatment which combine
suggestions for practical behavior modification, peer review and
support, and yes, a spiritual component which includes prayer and
meditation. Any picture of AA’s overall plan for recovery which does
not include all three is perhaps somewhat skewed. In addition, AA is
pretty clear that if you’re dealing with what the literature and the
fellowship generally refer to as “outside issues” that you should get
busy finding “outside help” i.e., prayer is a good way to become willing
to go to a trained psychologist or psychiatrist and address past trauma
or brain chemistry imbalances, but prayer alone is likely not enough.
There’s a lot of interesting research now on what they’re calling the “neuro-plasticity” of the brain (not sure if the scientific “they” hyphenate that or not). Prayer AND meditation, whether there is an actual Anything out there or not, seem to have a positive impact on brain chemistry and can even change the actual physical structure of the brain to SOME degree. (Obviously only after sustained practice). What I personally got from AA was a message of “pray, but get busy.” I’m not comfortable with the word “religion” but I can see how to some it looks that way. As with anything, AA can be used well or abused, and while there will always be problems within it — rampant ego, abuse of custom or tradition, etc. — I personally have found much good there, too.
I yield the field on further commentary on this posting, it is not my intent to visit here and incite acrimony of any sort.
Another response from the other side of the aisle:
Several US Federal Circuit Courts of Appeal have ruled that AA is
religious in nature, and AA cannot be mandated by a governmemt authority
on that basis. As far as I am concerned, that settles the matter.
“pray, but get busy” is very interesting. The important part is “get busy”.
First is to quit drinking : no matter what happens, do not drink.
Second, busy doing what? getting your life in order — determine what you want to do with yourself and set about doing it.
Third, get professional help if need be.
And another response from a contributor to their blog:
Hi Mr. Sponsorpants, I am really happy to see you here. We appreciate the dialog — and it doesn’t happen often. (Usually, we get serenity bombs or real hardcore nutbags.) You’re definitely welcome here. We can be civil… I think.
I am interested to know what you think about the fact that 12-Step has become institutionalized in this country… about the fact that most addictions treatment is based on AA’s model; that people are sentenced to attend AA, that people who attend AA are treated as though they had somehow mitigated their crimes.
If you know that it’s not for everyone, do you think maybe we should be doing more in this country to treat addictions?
And another thing, you are a really really good writer, and your blog is so engaging, and so it drives me crazy that I disagree with everything you write.
This same commenter went on to add this:
Ben, I am with you on this: AA is a religion and until I hear its members tell me that it is a religion I will take no prisoners.
Specifically, what I want is for AA to acknowledge that it is not treatment. It is a path to a spiritual awakening, and, as such, it should occupy a different niche than it does. Whether or not prayer or mediation has been shown to have benefits, that is not enough to justify it’s current position as the only game in town, or to justify the fact that when someone is coerced into treatment (say, via an intervention or through the courts), they will end up in this spiritual program, which acknowledges that sobriety is just a benefit of it’s actual purpose, which is a spiritual awakening.
Also then this from another commenter there:
FTG says: “ Specifically, what I
want is for AA to acknowledge that it is not treatment. It is a path to a
spiritual awakening, and, as such, it should occupy a different niche
than it does.”
Exactly. If AA was honest about its being a
program whose main aim is to find God and achieve a spiritual awakening,
I don’t think anyone would argue with that – or care much. They could
even say that some addicts (albeit a tiny minority) might have
incidentally found that finding God has helped them overcome addiction,
just as, say, Buddhist meditation or Islam, or a physical exercise
regime, might help others.
It is the way that it is presented first and foremost as a program for treating alcoholism that is so scandalously deceitful. People seeking help for an alcohol problem want just that – help in overcoming an alcohol problem. They should not then be subjected to attempts to convert them to a religion and be told that this is the only way they will ever recover (or indeed, that they will never actually ‘recover’). It is hugely immoral that a fringe religious group should recruit vulnerable and often desperate people in this way. And it is much worse, and what my grandmother would have called ‘a sin that cries out to heaven for vengeance’, to tell people that they will inevitably fail in what they are desperately and sincerely trying to do if they don’t conform to this very weird religious program which has nothing whatever to do with overcoming addiction.
It is so full of mindfuck, it’s difficult to step back from it and take a cool rational look at what’s really going on. If the 12-step program and the big book were introduced today as any kind of approach to treating addiction, it would be laughed out of court. No-one would take it seriously at all. But because it’s somehow managed to establish itself, undeservedly, as the only answer, it has been allowed to go largely unchallenged. It is appalling.
The worst thing is that people get into AA’s clutches when they’ve already recognized they have a problem and want to do something about it. And then AA exploits that very real desire on the individual’s part to stop drinking or using to literally put the fear of God into them and threaten that if that person doesn’t conform and become a believer, all their genuine efforts to overcome their addiction are doomed to failure. I really can’t think of anything more cruel and self-serving.
But obviously I’m preaching to the converted here. The main challenge is to expose what the real agenda of AA is to society generally so that people can make informed choices about it. 12-step practitioners, especially those in the rehab centres, take great pains to conceal what they are really about – presumably because they know that most people would avoid them like the plague if they knew that the ‘treatment’ they are selling is completely bogus. It’s unlikely that AA will ever voluntarily be publicly honest about what its program really entails, so I guess the rest of us will just have to try and do what we can.
(Despite this rant, MrSponsorPants, I’m glad to have you here on this forum. But I really hope that you don’t tell your ‘sponsees’ that if they don’t become spiritual, don’t follow the 12 steps, etc. they will inevitably fail in their attempts to stop drinking and stay stopped. This is really not very kind.)
And one more from yet another:
I too would like to thankyou for your comments. As I hope you have noticed, the forum is treating you with civility, as I will.
I do have some questions though.
Do you think the 12 step organization has been hijacked? There is a 17 BILLION dollar industry out there, made up of AA members, that promote, MARKET, and prosylitize for the AA faith professionally. This is done in direct violations of the organizations stated traditions. Do traditions become suggestions when there is a dollar to be made?
How do you, as an AA apologist feel about the forced and coerced participation in the AA faith with regard to incarceration, loss of child custody, loss of employment, and at the demands of organ transplant teams?Do you feel that AA has become a dumping ground for the judicial system and social services?
Do you think that AA headquarters should do something about this? In the 70’s and 80’s AA high command sent notifications out to the rooms to request people not to tell newcomers to stop taking prescribed medication. Do you think this was the proper thing to do? Do you think it was a suggestion or does anything from the head office matter?
And finally, would you support the idea of AA publicly accepting and recommending actual medical treatment for addiction, such as the wonderdrug naltrexone, that the AA faith has been very outspoken against?
So, since I had been specifically asked, it seemed like I should address some of those questions, and I tried to:
Please remember that I am only a member of AA, there are no official spokespeople, and anyone who represents themselves as such should be viewed with deep skepticism. All of my responses are solely from my own experience, be it direct or observational.
Wow! Okay, where to begin…
Firstly, thank you for the civility in the exchange. It’s clear from all of your writings (the all of you and the all of the writing) that you are as passionate in your beliefs as I am in mine — I appreciate the ability to talk about these things — even if neither of us move one jot towards the other position I believe everyone is helped in these exchanges.
Secondly, thanks very much for the kind words about the blog and my writing — if the people that disagree with you vehemently speak well of how you put things, well, that’s high praise indeed, so again, my thanks.
Regarding the “institutionalization” of AA:
As I understand it, when the courts started sending people to Alcoholics Anonymous there was a strong reaction within AA that this should be “fought.” That is apocrypha, but my sources are pretty credible (Well, they were. They’ve passed on now.) While there was a tradition from the very beginning of AA to send members to the courts and offer assistance to people who wanted it (and that’s the key there) a “sentence” flies in the face of the foundation of AA, that is, we offer help to people who ask for it. AA itself is not selling anything. And I don’t think it is splitting hairs to delineate between an organization saying “we are here if you need us” and one which says “you should try us.” AA has done the former over the years, but assiduously avoided the latter, imho. Ultimately this fight was abandoned shortly after it was begun, in part because AA had no real influence over the judges and a core Tradition is that AA does not engage in public controversy, nor do we “fight” for or against things. Ultimately, I’m not sure that there is anything other than economics and an overburdened court system at work when it comes to this issue. The courts found a cheap (free) short term solution for the glut of alcohol/drug related offenders, and sometimes it even worked! And please, let’s note that the people standing in front of a judge have (generally) committed a very serious crime — I’m not talking about the casual pot smoker here, I’m talking about people who drive under the influence. This is not a scenario of hapless innocents being rounded up and force-fed AA. I have no doubt that if you said, “No, Your Honor, I object to both this system and being forced to attend these free 12 Step meetings at a time that works best in my schedule, that is, before or after work, and would rather you just send me to jail” that the court would indeed accommodate you. (Yes, yes, you may also be sentenced to “classes” and there is money involved, but that’s not AA.) Personally, I have deeply mixed feelings about it. I count among my close friends people who came to AA on a court card and it turned out, by their estimation, to be a life-saving thing. No doubt those that didn’t think so merely counted themselves lucky that they didn’t have to do time.
Are “most” rehabs based on a 12 Step model? I guess. I know (and
wrote about on the blog) a rehab that’s whole advertising angle was that
you *don’t* have to go to AA. People who have an intervention done on
them and are “coerced” into treatment are generally people that are in a
lot of trouble, and need SOME kind of help. No one is rounding up
happy innocent atheists who just enjoy getting snockered on occasion and
forcing them to do anything. If you watch the show “Intervention,” as
one example, these are people in real trouble, a danger to both others
and themselves. At least someone is doing SOMETHING. If anyone offers a
better solution I am open to it. PART of this debate is the question
which is represented by the Motorcycle Helmet Laws. Does the government
(or an enlightened society) have an obligation to protect people, in
essence, from themselves? Regardless of your answer to that question,
the issue becomes more complicated because of the diminished capacity of
the addict (thanks “Law and Order”!) And then there is the issue of
minors in the care of active addicts… no one in our little discussion is
anywhere close to saying the issue is a simple one, I know that. But
(to me it seems that) some of the language you are using paints people
who find themselves in the court system, or on the receiving end of an
intervention, as the victims of some horrible miscarriage of
circumstance or justice, while I would offer that very, very rarely does
one find themselves arrested for using, dealing, driving under the
influence, or standing in the HR office of their company, as part of
some baroque plot to force a spiritual program upon them.
Phew! Long answer to just a start of the questions. Please forgive me for having to break my answers up into other responses I will get to in a short while.
My immediate question in response to all this, though, is would anyone involved in this (excellent) back-and-forth object to my copy/pasting our exchange onto the Mr. SponsorPants blog? (and if you do object, I certainly will continue to respond, and also respect your wishes…)
Other answers to the other questions coming up — forgive me if I am
going on too long, these are questions that deserve considered
responses, and I am trying to give you that.
Again, I’m not here to hijack the comments section, or cause any problems… but you *did* ask… <chuckle>.
Response to my comments:
Sponsor P. – I also appreciate you willingness to openly dialogue. As a
matter of perspective, I am not an atheist and I was never harmed while
in AA. I don’t consider myself an AA hater and strongly support the
right of AA members to peaceably meet and practice their religion.
1. AA members routinely (i.e. daily) troll the detox wards of hospitals (with the approval of hospital administration) and patients are coerced by hospital staff into attending AA meetings in these wards (in fact, attendance is sometimes taken). Thus, AA members are actively supporting coercion by chairing AA meetings that are mandated by hospital staff. It is certainly not attraction.
2. AA members (often the secretary) routinely sign slips (both court and rehab) attesting that the person has attended an AA meeting. Providing proof that a person has attended a meeting is a clear violation of their central principle of anonymity, even if a person requests a signature.
A simple solution to these issues consistent with AA traditions/principals would be for AA members to stay out of hospital wards and stop signing slips to verify attendance. This will never happen voluntarily.
As to the issue of the government having an obligation to protect people from themselves the answer is simple – No. One could fill volumes on this issue. Plus, helmet laws suck.
Please feel free to put this response on your blog..
I go on, and now I am trying to be clever. Often a mistake for me <sigh>:
To the use of the word “religion” as in, “AA is a religion…”:
I’m not familiar with the court rulings sited, that “AA is religious in nature…”
To that I would respond that a penguin is aquatic in nature, but it’s a bird, not a fish.
I do not consider it a religion in the “classic” sense, but certainly we could construct a definition which encompasses traditional, organized religion and also the happy anarchy which is Alcoholics Anonymous.
If, by religion, you mean an organization which has a text which records its core beliefs, meets regularly, incorporates prayer in those meetings, suggests its membership consider that there is some kind of Higher Power, then yes, I guess AA is a religion.
However most religions assert one particular belief system, one
particular definition of god, and many go even further and condemn other
religions’ beliefs. Most religions require ceremony and/or
“certification” by a church authority of some sort to consider oneself a
member. In AA you don’t even have to say you’re an alcoholic, only
that you have a desire to stop drinking, and you can consider yourself a
member. AA is non-profit. It is completely voluntary. It is open to
anyone who wants to explore it. If, by religion, you mean an
organization which dictates one particular way of thinking, I would
dispute that. Saying “this is what we think” is not the same as saying
“this is what you should think.” Saying “Why don’t you consider things
in light of this information” is not the same as saying “If you don’t
agree you are wrong.” Some members of AA may speak in absolutes, or
take AA’s suggestions and treat them as dogma. Okay.
Some phrases in the Big Book can be pulled out of the text and offered as proof that AA has a specific belief, or warns people that they will die if they “leave AA.” I think that is a distortion of the spirit of what AA says. I think the Big Book suggests that if someone is a real alcoholic, trying to address the issue on their own is dangerous, and if they don’t get help they could die. That’s a very different thing from saying “if you leave AA you will die.” The Big Book also says stuff like, “… we realize we know only a little…” and “… God will constantly disclose more to you and to us…” and “… we can only clear the ground a little bit…” (and if you don’t believe in God, fine, but the point here is that AA literature mitigates what it says with statements offering room for asking questions and for critical thinking.)
To the point that we, as a country, should be
doing more to treat addictions:
Well, as a country we have an awful lot of challenges. Here’s what I think has been happening which is pretty good: Institutions have been trying to understand and treat addiction from a medical standpoint, rather than a moral one. Different forms of treatment are being evaluated in different ways. Just throwing addicts in jail and using a solely punitive model has been replaced with an effort towards prevention, education and treatment. Even if you do not agree with the content of those efforts, I would propose that this represents a form of progress beyond the “just put ‘em in prison” model. I believe, after many years of sponsoring people and staying sober in AA, that saying “addiction” is akin to saying “cancer” — and by that I mean there are many, many types of cancer, some of which can be treated with the same medicine, and some of which does not yet respond very well to any treatment we currently can offer. Already there is research (for example) into the idea that there are “chemical” addictions (alcoholism, addiction to heroin, crystal meth, etc.) and “process” addictions (eating, gambling, shopping…) and that sometimes some of this overlaps. Can/should we do more? Absolutely, but I think we are still learning.
And then this person comes along and gives it to me right between the eyes. D'oh!:
Mr. Sponsorpants – You seem to be under the impression that a multi-deitistic religion is not considered a religion, which is not the case. So, if your AA is the “pick any god you like” AA, then that is still a religion. Even the court (I cannot remember which specific case) cited this particular argument as lame. Now, if you are of the old-school belief that there is a specific AA God, which is what the ‘Big Book’ teaches – “God as we understand Him”, not “god of our understanding” – then that is also religion.
Your penguin analogy is a good rhetorical device, but it is just another way being insincere about what AA really is. AA is not “religious in nature”. It isn’t even “religious”. AA is religion in itself, and its teachings are specific. Because there are some in AA who choose to rationalize their way around the teachings – i.e., the “take what you want and leave the rest” crowd – does not make it less a religion; anymore than the fact that some Catholics, Jews or Muslims choose not to follow the teachings of the Bible or the Koran to the letter. It simply waters down, bastardizes or rationalizes (as you are doing here) the teachings from the ‘Big Book’. An atheist may attend mass regularly, and may not ever come to believe in the teachings of the church, but that does not make the church itself a “non-religion”. There might be AAs who don’t believe in the higher power hocus pocus, and who rationalize their way through the steps or never really drink the kool-aid. Many readers here fall into that category. Just because they don’t buy what you are selling, does not mean you aren’t selling religion.
So I respond to the above, and maybe start to get a little defensive passionate, but hopefully end well:
You are correct. A multi-deistic religion is still a religion. You are also very correct that an atheist in church does not make the church any more [SIC: I MEANT TO SAY "LESS"] religious, as an institution.
Also, your logic is excellent overall, and you have given me some food for thought. I will not argue that AA’s teachings are not specific, I concur, they are. AA offers a specific viewpoint, and “clear cut instructions” as to how the people who wrote the Big Book recovered from alcoholism, as an example to anyone who felt they had a problem and wanted to try what had worked for the book’s authors
Honestly, I feel like this has become a “storm of words” over the question of whether or not AA is a religion. I guess I got all caught up in the implication that a religion is a negative thing, along the lines of the famous “opium for the masses” and something which limits someone.
All I can really offer is my experience. My life as a drinking alcoholic was very limited, and after coming to AA and trying what it suggested I have found relief from my active alcoholism and a “design for living” which usually puts me in harmony with the people and world around me.
I can assure you there is no vast conspiracy on the part of the 12
Step world to dominate treatment options. Many meetings can’t even get
their act together to donate money to their central office, let alone
carry out such an agenda. As for the “billions of dollars” in the
recovery industry, I can only say that if that number is accurate
(billions? Okay. Maybe I should put the advertising back up on the
blog… hmmm…) that speaks as much to how big the problem is than anything
I don’t know about AA members “trolling recovery wards daily.” Dear God, who’s got time for such a thing? And have you been to one? Not fun. (And often smelly. Pee-ew!) I again come back to the idea that these are people in a recovery ward! They weren’t plucked from their church choir, or nabbed out of a changing room at the Gap, or snatched from their cubicle at the offices of Amalgom Incorporated. Even if you don’t like AA, and even if we *were* trolling daily, at least it’s someone trying to help.
Let’s say all of AA got together and chipped in and decided to take
out ads in all the papers — wait, no one is reading newspapers anymore —
okay, we bought time on “American Idol” and said, “You know what? It’s
been brought to our attention that AA is a religion, and we just wanted
to clear that up with everyone” and the courts stopped “sentencing”
people to AA meetings (the court cards that are signed, in my
experience, are not full name, just first name and last initial, and
attendance is generally taken by a hospital program, not the meeting
itself, and in any case, again, these are not poor innocents brought up
on sham charges, some supervision and consequence is in order by the
court or hospital, isn’t it?) — if those two things happened, what,
exactly then, should addicts do?
Throw themselves on the mercy of the pharmaceutical industry, hoping that today’s pill isn’t tomorrow’s liver tumor class action suit, and medicate for life? Or just “stop, no matter what!” ?
If I could have stopped no matter what, I wouldn’t have had to go to AA.
My tone has become argumentative, and I’m sorry for that.
We come back, I suspect, to agreeing to disagree. There are many examples of people in AA behaving badly. You site many of them here. There are many examples of people in AA behaving amazingly — I have coffee with them all the time. Your bad examples are your evidence that AA is a sham. My good examples are my evidence that AA is a force for good and of real help to people who struggle with addiction. *shrug*
My experience of AA has been overwhelmingly positive. I appreciate the many comments here that do not quarrel with AA in general — I think some of the points of contention lie more with the courts and the “rehab industry” rather than AA itself — though it can seem they are more enmeshed than I have found them to be, I admit.
I’ll keep working to have an open mind, and will certainly mull this all over as the days roll along.
(And I really liked my penguin analogy — I didn’t think I was being insincere at all. Oh well.)
I'm not trying to cheat it by having the "last word" here on my own blog. That's where it's landed, though no doubt more will be posted. It's probably best if I chill out on this now, though in the big picture I really do feel like it's good to read viewpoints very different from my own.
I know, I know, this post is ridiculous. What can I say? I'm still a man of excess. <sigh>
Metaphorically, the evolution of my relationship with God can be expressed like this:
I cried out "God! I'm starving!"
And a banquet appeared.
Later I cried out "God, I'm starving!"
And the food to prepare a banquet appeared.
Still later I cried out "God, I'm starving!"
And God said, "So? You know where the supermarket is."
Alcoholics Anonymous suggests that, to bypass all the religious rhetoric and spiritual dogma many of us have been exposed to in our lives (and which generally we used as an excuse to justify resentment and willful behavior rather than looking for the deeper truths beneath) we create our own idea of what God is like -- an idea of God that "works" for us so that we can then develop a faith that works for us.
But regardless of how deeply your faith begins or becomes, or whatever conception of a Higher Power is eventually meaningful to you, it seems that certain spiritual laws are always in place, (even though, try as we might, we never fully grasp them in their entirety).
And when it comes to alcoholics in recovery, chief among them seems to be:
God will do for us what we cannot do for ourselves, not what we will not do for ourselves.
Or, as a smart friend of mine puts it, perhaps a bit more succinctly than I: "God don't do dishes."
If you poke around over on the NPR site there is a fascinating series about prayer, meditation, spirituality and the brain. In particular, the piece "Prayer May Reshape Your Brain ... And Your Reality" intrigued me. There is both an article and an excellent audio piece I recommend - 8 minutes and 7 seconds long, if you have the time (for me it got very interesting around the 4:17 mark).
I must confess, though, that what left me irritated with myself was -- and I am chagrined to write it here -- my reaction to some of the study subjects' prayer and meditation routines. Many of these people pray and/or meditate one to two hours a day, every day*.
Personally, I have had some pretty profound spiritual experiences -- this whole damn blog came from one, in fact -- but ... one to two hours? For reals? To say that I find that daunting is ...
well, actually it's inaccurate. I don't find it daunting. I find it ... well, the truth is it sounds really, really boring to me.
Now, I am the kind of man who, when I was drinking and using, could spend literally 8 hours sitting on the same bar stool drinking. 8 hours.
And I suggest to people all the time that if they "turn up the volume" on their spiritual practice they will garner greater results.
Yet my first reaction to setting the bar at, oh, let's say one hour, in prayer and mediation a day is that I'm worried I'll be bored?
Jeeze, that's pretty sad.
But of course, by now AA has ingrained in me certain tools that come easily to hand when faced with a problem that either daunts, or, as in this case, embarrasses me:
I'll pray about it.
I don't think I'll be praying for an hour to ask God, the Universe or The Great Whatever to help me to pray for an hour -- but I think that a major addition to my prayer routine now (which, I confess, is pretty solid. It's not that I don't pray, or meditate every day ... it's just that I'm really ... ummmm ... efficient at it) will be to ask for the willingness and the focus and the desire to spend more time doing so.
And I will let you know here how it goes.