I’ve noticed that people assume that I am against AA because I support and write about harm reduction, which includes not just abstinence but also moderation and reducing harm from ongoing use. In truth I am a twelve-stepper, but like AA co-founder Bill Wilson, I believe that many problem drinkers are not ready for abstinence or the effort it takes to work the twelve steps. I believe that encouraging a problem drinker to track and moderate their drinking will help them see if it is possible. If a problem drinker tries to moderate and finds that they can, as Bill Wilson said, my hat is off to them. Kudos! If they find that they cannot limit their drinking I believe that knowledge will make them more likely to want to stop. If they find they can’t moderate and chose to continue heavy and harmful drinking, then the principles of harm reduction can help them lessen the damages of heavy drinking to themselves, to their families, and to their community. If you want to learn more about harm reduction click here. One last thought: it is with some trepidation that I break the 11th tradition of AA (anonymity at the level of press, radio, and films.) My belief is that AA is presently secure and stable enough to tolerate such a breach, and that should I get drunk AA deserves credit for the 34 years of continuous abstinence that I have acquired thus far with its help.
Why I Love AA, Let Me Count the Ways
First off, I love Alcoholics Anonymous the way you would love a weird uncle, your favorite one and the one people say you are most like. AA is full of odd balls, people you would never meet anywhere else. I was 29 years old when I joined in the 1980’s and once I got over the age and gender differences (mostly men, everyone decades older than me) I found a seat as comfortable as an old feather couch. I realized that odd balls are the norm in AA and that I fit right in. That was lucky because I had drunk my way into early late-stage alcoholism and desperately needed a place to rest.
I also love AA because it gives me hope for humanity. It is a marvelous experiment in non-governance and democracy. As Bill Wilson wrote, “So long as there is the slightest interest in sobriety, the more unmoral, the most antisocial, the most critical alcoholic may gather round him a few kindred spirits and announce to us that a new Alcoholics Anonymous group has formed. Anti-God, anti-medicine, anti-our recovery program, even anti-each other—these rampant individuals are a still an AA group if they think so.” Wow! No one can throw me out of AA. AA is the only group I have ever known that is founded on absolute tolerance and which empowers each individual to claim it as its own if they chose to.
I love AA because it is both simple and deep. You can work the AA program just enough to stop drinking or you can use it to advance yourself to sainthood. It works fine either way. I love that the goal of AA is nothing short of a “complete psychic change” and that they provide a way to achieve such a change via working the twelve steps. AA’s 12-step program can help a person move from drunkenness to sobriety, from selfishness and self-centeredness to being of service to others; from running on self-will and self-propulsion to being guided by a higher power and supported by a community, a fellowship.
I like that AA delivers. I was raised by atheists and scientists and was taught not to take things on trust. So as a senior in college I did my research project on the effects of the 4th and 5th steps (moral inventory and admitting wrong) on self-esteem. It was an 80-person study and there was a surprising difference between the self-esteem of those who had worked the 4th & 5th steps and those who had not. Working those steps tripled self-esteem on average.
I like that the two founders were so different. Dr. Bob was a steady quiet man while Bill Wilson was a brilliant creative screwball. Between the two of them they sorted out a way out of chronic alcoholism. Before they came along we were destined to die as drunks. Before them the best the medical community could do for alcoholics was aversion therapy, electroshock therapy or permanent commitment to a sanitarium (if your family could afford it).
I love AA meetings. Where else could I hear the inner workings of so many minds and hearts? Last week I heard a man describe how he used honesty to con people. He said, “I would go into great detail about something bad I did so they assume I am that honest about everything.” I am often surprised by people in AA. I started a women’s speaker meeting once and learned that the gal I had sat next to for months played the saxophone in a symphony. My sponsor turned out to be a world-class knitter. (Now I’m a knitter too.) I especially love that there are all sorts of meetings and types of meetings. In some cities there are meetings so rough you would warn your sponsee not to go to them. Some meetings are run by a “preaching deacon” who wants tells you what to do. Those meetings I avoid. My favorite meetings are those where homegroup members have a sense of humor, and where there is a wide spread of time in the program. I need to learn from new comers and have the support of old-timers (even though I am one!).
Perhaps most of all I have loved the people I have gotten to know in AA. That includes Tattoo Bob, a yo-yo champion and metal worker, who was proud that people assumed him to be an ex-con (he wasn’t), and Dwight, who I though was a college profession but turned out to be an elementary school teacher. Dwight has a dry and exquisite sense of humor. I was touched to learn that he had taught several adults to read so they could read the AA literature on their own. And Jimmy D, a man who scared me deeply when I first met him. He wore a crew cut, was a butcher by trade, and had the voice of an Army sergeant. One day when I had six months of sobriety, Jimmy D. put his hand on my should and announced to some other old-timers, “I think this little girl is gonna make it.” That was a profound moment for me. I still cry when I think of it. I’m lucky I made it. I’m lucky Jimmy D. and the other old timers cared enough about a young hippie like me to make me feel welcome.
These days there are a lot of other alcohol support groups. I’m glad they exist. I don’t think many of them existed when I needed help. I’m lucky I thrived in AA—not everyone does—and I’m glad I am still sober after all these years. AA is worth giving a serious try. No one feels comfortable entering a room of strangers, so don’t expect to like it at first. Try a variety of meetings and stick with the one you like best (or hate least) for a month or two or three. If it doesn’t help find another support group such as SMART or Refuge Recovery. (My friend J.J. found that AA made him want to drink so he quit on his own. He has a few decades of sobriety now.) In this day and age there is no need to die a drunk, although many do.
I like AA best of all the support groups because it provides social, spiritual and moral change and a way to stop drinking. Alcoholism is a lonely disease—your best friend is your bottle, and AA provides friends who don’t drink. Spiritual change is optional in AA. More and more meetings for atheists and agnostics are being formed. I had stepped onto a spiritual path before joining AA and found that it improved my relationship with God. That said, my favorite meeting is one for atheists, agnostics and “freethinkers”. Moral change is important for alcoholics. It isn’t that alcohol is evil, it’s that as a disinhibitor. We do shitty things under the influence, and feel badly about what we did. AA gives us a way to let go of that burden and the self-loathing that goes with it. AA is how I not only stopped drinking but also how I became a good and useful person. So thank you, Bill and Bob.