When I eventually arrived at AA, I was utterly despairing. I had actually decided to get myself committed for insanity, but due to my location that option was off the table; I went to AA instead. Acutely mentally unwell, and experiencing extreme existential crisis and anguish, I attended my first meeting.
Jesus Christ Superstar
There were only two other members present: a Jewish guy just three days sober, and a Christian with eighteen years. The Jewish guy had attended regularly for 3 years, the Christian for twenty, yet the former relapsed prolifically, and the latter not. I was confused. Here were two regular attendees who both unequivocally believed their respective gods would keep them sober; and yet one was abstinent, and the other wasn’t.
What had separated them? Could it be that Jesus had indeed nullified the old covenant, and was rewarding his humble servant with a ‘life beyond his wildest dreams?’ Or was it that the Christian had simply taken responsibility for his predicament, and was committed to doing something about it (in his case, working the steps)? Whilst the answer seems starkly obvious now, in my hallucinatory, desperate and delusional state, the waters were somewhat muddied.
Although I hadn’t actually concluded that Jesus, not Jehovah, was the way to go, I had completely overlooked the fact that the only thing keeping the Christian sober was acceptance and committed action; god was nowhere to be found. Surely if an ‘all-powerful, guiding creative intelligence’ were truly at work, then he wouldn’t need an imperfect program created by fallible human beings to help get us sober. Yet, twenty minutes before my second meeting, I found myself in an Orthodox church before a cross and an icon of Christ; I came to believe, or so I thought. Little did I know it, but I was to wrestle with the concept of a higher power for the next eight years.
Think, Think, Think
Looking back, I can easily see why god had seemed so enticing and necessary in early recovery: I was desperately on the brink of permanent insanity, and I needed something to hold on to – something to give me hope, and life meaning. As my well-being improved, however, that need dissipated, and I started to do something that AA members had suggested I didn’t do: think!
Perhaps there is a seed of truth in the old adage ‘ignorance is bliss,’ for once I started to question AA’s core principles, my new world order started to fragment. What I had once held as absolutes, were all of a sudden thrown into question. In an effort to appease my discomfort, I looked outside the fellowship for answers.
Honesty, Open-mindedness & Willingness
Suddenly, true open-mindedness, honesty and willingness became a stark reality, but was I ready for it? Did I heed to fellow members’ suggestions, and not question the program? Or heed to the conflicting advice they inadvertently gave me when they enthusiastically quoted, “There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments, and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance – that principle is contempt prior to investigation”? I chose the latter, yet letting go of my new, old ideas proved exceptionally difficult.
Whilst AA had convinced me that I had a cunning, baffling, powerful disease that only a spiritual experience could conquer, I soon learned that, among professionals, the disease model of alcoholism was in contention. Some geneticists, doctors and psychiatrists said it was indeed a disease, citing reams of studies and evidence, and others did exactly the same, claiming the opposite. Some said it was a life-long brain disease, others a maladaptive behaviour that could be changed.
I also learned that many professionals did not endorse attendance at 12 Step meetings, and that plenty of people left AA, and didn’t drink or die. I became aware that there were actually any number of ways to get sober, and that many people just quit without any program of recovery (many AAs would, of course, have claimed such people weren’t ‘real alcoholics’).
Keep Coming Back
Despite all this new information, however, I persevered with AA for fear of relapse. Repeatedly hearing you have a disease that will kill you if you do leave, is strong motivation for staying. Yet Alcoholics Anonymous just wasn’t the same, and I struggled to consolidate this new information with the old ideas I had acquired in AA.
I eventually relapsed. Paradoxically, what had once gotten me sober, actually contributed to my slip. There’s an old saying in AA that members who relapse have ‘a belly full of booze and a head full of AA.’ Well, I had a belly full of AA, and head of conflicting information.
In hindsight, I should have left AA long before I relapsed; it had ceased being a solution for me years ago. Letting go of old ideas, however, can be incredibly hard, even when they’re no longer working for you. In AA, such a predicament is aptly referred to as repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results.