How It Really Works
When we first enter Alcoholics Anonymous we are encouraged to be teachable which also dangerously exposes us to be vulnerable; vulnerable to all sorts of exploitation: sexual (13th step anyone?), financial (I’ll pay you right back.), and of course, religious. (“…That probably no human power could have relieved our alcoholism…”)
I was so teachable that I convinced myself to return to a belief in a God that I had abandoned many years before. I did everything that was asked of me: I prayed everyday; I got a sponsor and did the 12 Suggested Steps; I even read the Daily Meditation! Mind you I was no altar boy. Rather I was desperate…teachable…and vulnerable.
During my life I have on many occasions revealed certain intimacies to friends. Raised a Roman Catholic I went to confession, and I also talked to several psychologists over the years. However, with a sober mind I have since reasoned and accepted that I am indeed a non-believer.
And I have also come to realize that when Dr. Bob and Bill W. first met on May 11, 1935 they happened upon an age-old dynamic of human interaction. That is, people feel better when they can talk to someone about their problems. We have been doing this for millennia: from confiding to our best friend, to confession in church, and yes, even in doing a 5th step.
Honest and sincere sharing of personal difficulties between like minded people is often a cathartic experience. However since the mechanics of this phenomenon remain mysterious humankind has unfortunately more often than not imbued these personal contacts with some sort of divine intervention.
In doing so many believers claim that getting sober in Alcoholics Anonymous is somehow a “miracle.” Ergo, sobriety is achieved only through closeness with a “Higher Power” or a “God as we understood Him.” I would argue, instead that there is a collective “power” in meetings and exchanging personal stories with fellow alcoholics.
How and why this human experience occurs is not clearly understood. I do know that we are social creatures and we suffer when deprived of this person-to-person collaboration. For example, solitary confinement in prison is now considered “cruel and unusual punishment.” We flourish with others. We flounder alone.
Dr. Bob and Bill W. also recognized that their special ingredient was having an alcoholic speak directly with another alcoholic, just one drunk talking to and with another drunk. They also came to understand some other benefits of personal communication.
For example: In Alcoholics Anonymous it is often said that people are only as sick as their secrets. When Alcoholics Anonymous members share they learn that they are not alone; that others have experienced similar things and can offer a different perspective. And others are sometimes better able to spot signs delusion and denial.
When Alcoholics Anonymous members do not share they can lose their way in recovery; become trapped in faulty thinking and self-deception; and become isolated which often leads to relapse. (For an extended list go to: https://alcoholrehab.com/addiction-recovery/the-talking-cure-in-recovery/).
I might also mention two items to keep in mind:
1. There are a fair number of disturbed members in Alcoholics Anonymous. Be very careful to whom you open up to.
2. Alcoholics Anonymous is not a privileged gathering. Unlike talks with clergy, or lawyers, or psychiatrists anything said in an AA meeting, or with your BFF, or your sponsor can be used against you in the criminal justice system.
Just because the Big Book declares that a belief in a “Higher Power” or a “God as we understood Him” is necessary for sobriety doesn’t make it so. Unfortunately there are many believers in Alcoholics Anonymous who would rather deny nonbelievers the benefits of the fellowship than accept that there are those whose belief in a “Higher Power” or a “God as we understood Him” is not a requirement for their sobriety.
Alcoholics Anonymous was founded at a critical time in America, Prohibition had recently ended. Although the common myth that alcohol consumption declined with the repeal of the 21st Amendment excessive drinking was back at its devastating levels by mid-1935. The most recent attempt at “curing the alcoholic,” the white, Christianity-based Oxford movement had just faded so it was easy to understand the progression of an organization like Alcoholics Anonymous into the truly religious one it has become. That Alcoholics Anonymous claims to be “not religious but spiritual,” (a distinction without a difference) is belied by its adherence and proselytizing of a “Higher Power” or a “God as we understood Him.”
“A problem shared is a problem halved.” Why does the unburdening of our deepest secrets often “free” us from their grip? Why do we relate so profoundly to stories? We still don’t know.
On the one hand, science has moved forward since 1935 when, for example penicillin had just been discovered. In fact, it’s not even referred to as “alcoholism” anymore, but “Alcohol Use Disorder.” On the other hand, we still do not know definitively how and why Alcoholics Anonymous works. There are no randomized, double blind, peer-reviewed studies on the efficacy of Alcoholics Anonymous.
But what is important is that you continue to sincerely share with fellow alcoholics. All those crypto-Christian steps and other rituals don’t affect things one way or another. You can even believe god is involved, whether it’s the placebo effect or Pascal’s Wager you will still benefit from a sympathetic ear and voice.
Successful members of Alcoholics Anonymous who regularly participate in meetings also change their behavior, the most profound outcome being abstinence from alcohol, one day at a time. The overriding result is that Alcoholics Anonymous has enabled tens of thousands of problem drinkers to experience sobriety on a scale never before seen.
So the combination of open sharing and daily abstinence are the two crucial and I would argue only requirements for a long and meaningful sobriety. There’s no need for all the “…May you find Him now!” Simply, “Don’t drink and go to meetings”
That’s How It Really Works!
© Vic Losick MMXVIII All Rights Reserved
10 thoughts on “How It Really Works”
I’m with the stark “K.I.S.S.” simplicity of “Living Sober”. If you can believe some of what’s said on the plethora of dedicated secular AA websites and social media groups and pages, etc., “Living Sober” is the one Conference-approved piece of literature that seems to trigger the least abhorrence, disgust and dismissal among the God-rejecting and God-indifferent sliver of the broad Fellowship.
Through 2007 at least, its inside title page was emblazoned with this tidy snippet attributed to the American Medical Association: “… treatment primarily involves not taking a drink …”
Though more recent editions of “Living Sober” have removed that stunning simplicity from the inside title page, the text survives in Chapter 13, ‘First Things First’. I happen to think that’s a good thing. It dovetails quite nicely, too, with the updated science and objectivity of the APA’s DSM-5’s “alcohol use disorder”. The latter diagnosis, a spectrum of behaviors and consequences, steers clear of the elusive, inexact and anachronistic “alcoholism” (real or otherwise) and the contentious and moot “disease concept”. “Use” is a verb and describes a binary action: you drink or you don’t drink. The rest is clutter and obfuscation. It’s a personal decision; the proverbial “inside job” per tired and off-putting AA-speak.
All that said, I won’t dare pretend to speak for that dead charlatan who checked out back in 1971, a con man who’d say anything to anyone if it’d sell one more copy of his book. I haven’t read where Bill Wilson established a hierarchy of applicability of the Twelve Traditions. In the interest of AA unity, as dictated by Tradition One, I won’t try to tell 99+% of the Fellowship (as accounted for by GSO group census/estimate) that the God that’s intrinsic to AA has nothing to do with their sobriety. Wilson had time and opportunity aplenty to reword or chuck, “How It Works”. He never did.
* The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition of the American Psychological Association (2013)
Thanks to you, Vic, I celebrated 34 years of continuous sobriety. In all those years I have harbored the thoughts you express. I rarely share this bluntly at meetings. It is not my business what others believe. I was also raised in the Roman Universal Church. Luckily I was able to detach from that hold at an early age, but it has taken years to understand how much the indoctrination had affected me. I actually believe in a higher power but it would be impossible to define it. I know that going to meetings and sharing with another alcoholic, has kept me sober these many years. Staying sober has allowed me to enjoy life in a way that was impossible as a drunk. Thank you Vic for your assistance in my recovery. That’s how it works for me.
Thank you for your essay as you nicely emphasize the reciprocal person-to-person collaboration that is the basis for any authentic encounter between at least two people whether we are alcoholics or not.
You point out that there are “no randomized, double blind, peer-reviewed studies on the efficacy of Alcoholics Anonymous.” This is true although I have recently been reading the work of Harvard University researcher John F. Kelly who reports that a new Cochrane study began in 2017 as a standardized, professional testing review. Here is a brief summary followed by the link to Cochrane review.
“Because Alcoholics Anonymous is not controlled or standardized by professionals, it has historically been harder to study than professionally designed and delivered treatments for which manuals are written, doses can be randomly assigned, and length of contact can be standardized and predetermined (Humphreys 2004; Kelly 2017). However, over the past two decades, Alcoholics Anonymous researchers have become increasingly sophisticated at finding methods to study Alcoholics Anonymous in a rigorous fashion. Reviews of this research have been conducted, including a prior Cochrane Review (Ferri 2006a; Ferri 2006b; Kaskutas 2009; Kelly 2009), but a flurry of additional empirical investigations since these reviews were conducted signifies a need for major update. Consequently, an additional rigorous, high‐ quality systematic review is needed that includes more recent studies to inform the field of the clinical and public health utility, and effectiveness and cost‐effectiveness of, AA and TSF. Consequently, this review updates and supercedes the previously conducted Cochrane Review, on which one of the present coauthors participated (Ferri 2006b).”
I’ve always felt a good vibe from you, Vic. It’s always a pleasure to run into you and I admire you honesty. When I got my copy of the Big Book and read that I needed a higher power “as I understand it”, I instantly knew I was in the right place. I’ve also paid lip service a God I neither truly believed in nor understood, but it seemed like the right thing to say I did at the timr. When I did my steps with John, he shared that he had carried around the same secrets that I did, and that took a burden off my shoulders that was beyond anything I ever got from therapy or church. At last, I realized I was not alone, but just another garden variety drunk with a cocaine problem, and low self esteem. I owe my 25 years of continuous sobriety to what I’ve gauned from AA, and from examples of a real grownup like Vic Losick. Thank you for being “all the things you are” (in Ab, of course) my brother!
A very useful and straightforward piece Vic. It can never be restated often enough that once you strip the mythology away that the simple essence of what we do becomes glaringly obvious. Other than that “moment of decision” and the secular “alchemy” of sharing one of the abiding “mysteries” to me regards why so many of us persist (even within SecularAA) in giving any regard what so ever to the Oxford Group inspired 12 Steps and the totally obsolete structures and tenants of the Big Book. Thanks for pointing out to us once again how simple our “disciplines” can be!
Beautifully done. I, too, found no use for God as we understood him,” deciding early on that I would postpone any thoughts about a higher power until I had been sober for a while. Well, I will celebrate 29 years on the 21st of this month (December), and I have yet to need a higher power. All I need to stay sober is don’t pick up a drink, go to meetings, and help other alcoholics. The easiest way to help is just to show up at a meeting. Your being there helps me stay sober, as I hope my being there helps you stay sober.
One of the very last things written by the inimitable Ernie Kurtz was, in part, this:
“Story and storytelling lie at the very heart of Alcoholics Anonymous. AA’s basic text and voices within AA meetings across the globe ‘disclose in a general way what we used to be like, what happened, and what we are like now.’ From the catalytic meeting between two desperate men in the mid-1930s to today’s growing varieties of AA experience, the history of AA is a story about stories and the healing power of mutual storytelling. Anyone wishing to truly understand AA must look first, not to ideas, techniques, or studies, but to stories.”
I like the essay, and I agree with “how it really works.”
The iconic meeting of Bill Wilson and Bob Smith took place on May 12th, 1935. On May 11th, Dr. Smith arrived home more potted than the potted plant he was bearing as a Mother’s Day gift for Mrs. Smith.
bob k: Thanks for the correction. Here’s why I stated May 11, 1935:
AA states only “1935”
Whereas Hazelden states “May 11, 1935”
Nice sharing; loved it. Long live candour.
Well said Vic. Thank you. For me, that collective power boils down to this simple fact: my problem with alcohol was bigger than me and any one person. I needed a team to overcome it.