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AA Dogma and the Newcomer
I Am Battling Alcoholism
I will always have an affectionate affinity towards AA. AA feels homey; tolerant . . . It reminds me of my own big, happy dysfunctional family. In meetings, low-bottom drunks or angry people are perennially spouting off and the offenders are usually treated with kindness and tolerance.
In the words of the founder of AA, Bill Wilson, AA is “maddeningly democratic.” Rarely do you see such inclusiveness in the ever increasingly divisive world we inhabit. Where can you see a parolee laughing and joshing with a prominent businessman?
However, there are some things that I have observed through the years that just don’t make sense to me. Sometimes, I believe some AAers can be extraordinarily myopic in their inability to see the “Big Picture.” But even worse is when the Big Picture is replaced by dogma. This is just my opinion mind you, and I certainly do not expect to sway or convince anyone I’m right.
I believe Bill’s original program was practically unassailable: it was simple beautiful and effective. But, as with any other spiritual program/religion, when humans put their own twisted, agenda-ridden spin on things, the messages can get skewed.
I did not write this piece for the purpose of bashing AA. I wrote this for newcomers that may be encountering unforeseen issues and for AAers as food-for- thought. The following are three dogmatic statements you might hear as a newcomer. If you choose to not be bothered by them, great! But if you sense something unsettling about what you are hearing and not sure why, allow me to illuminate. . .
1)You must have a higher Power, you must have a sponsor, you must do the steps in order to stay sober and be happy. Otherwise, you will drink again or be an unhappy dry drunk.
Absolutist, either-or-statements seem to be the biggest obstacle for most newcomers. They remind me of Christians telling non-believers: “If you don’t accept Jesus Christ as your savior you will go to hell.” When beliefs are presented as facts, it becomes dogma. The Webster’s definition of dogma: strict adherence to beliefs without question. Hello AA! I want to shake my home group sometimes and tell them: “We have no idea if the above mentioned statements we make to newcomers are categorically true. Some people do all of these things, and still fail. Others do none of the above, still don’t get drunk, and are happy.”
I discovered while attending the interminably long albeit well-deserved DUI program I was mandated to attend that most of my fellow attendees had a wearily cynical view of AA. It seemed that many people were not adverse to having a sponsor or going to meetings; that was not it. It was the heavy handed, “either or” mentality that repelled potential newcomers. Of course many of my classmates wanted to get sober. But as newcomers, they simply could not-- without question--embrace some of the main tenets of AA after only a couple of meetings. Who asks you to just jump into something, giving it your all without asking questions? Cults do! Do not let AA people rush you into getting a sponsor right away or talk you into giving your entire life to AA. If you want to, great! But if you feel a little circumspect, not sure, that is okay, too
Believe me, if you stick around long enough, AA zealots, known as “Big Book Thumpers,” will start noticing you and will begin making “suggestions.” The salient suggestion is always: don’t be on the “periphery” of AA, be in the “center of the herd.” In my early sobriety, these zealot types tried to make me feel guilty and lazy for not participating more. But being able to objectively look back now, I realize remaining on the on the periphery proved to be wise. I discovered that many core members in my home group were seriously screwed up! They gossiped scandalously, were snobbish and cliquish. They also told newcomers not to take medication.
I do not mean to imply that all meetings are created equal. Even though AA is supposed to be “democratic” as evidenced in the creation of the “Twelve Traditions,” unfortunately, hierarchies form. Usually the old timers of the meeting are running the show. They set the pace, the countenance, the ambience of the meeting. Whatever they engage in--good or bad--is going to have a formidable influence on the other members. I’ve seen meetings go seriously south because the kind, compassionate old timers had stopped coming and were replaced by members displaying all sorts of negative behavior.
“Working with others” and “Spreading the message” are ways of doing service, giving back, and derivi
Perhaps you are a successful doctor that has a drinking problem. And perhaps the AAer that is pontificating your head off after the meeting is a Willy Loman salesman type. He may be intimidated by you. But AA gives him the chance to shine and show you that he has “something” you don’t have: sobriety. For once in his life he can feel superior. See through this person’s insecurities and don’t let his condescension alienate you enough not to want to return to a meeting.
If you know you are an alcoholic and know that you have not been successful quitting on your own, you have probably come to the conclusion that you need help. You see that these AA people have been able to achieve long term sobriety and this gives you hope that you can too. You realize In order to be successful, taking direction is crucial. With that in mind, you become “willing to listen” and are “open to suggestions.”
Okay, so here’s the rub. There is a quote from the Big Book said in the preamble of every AA meeting: “If you want we have and are willing to go to any lengths, then you are ready to take certain steps . . .” This quote can cause you problems. You see, some AAers can use this quote as a vehicle for their own agendas and need to control.
You may start feeling rather conflicted and confused. You know you need to be willing to take suggestions, do the work, and trust the process, but at the same time you may feel manipulated by an AAer. His “suggestions” seem more like “orders” that you may find unduly invasive. But, if you do not agree with a “suggestion” or simply will not take a “suggestion” you may be accused of not “going to any lengths” or told you are “unwilling.” So which one is true? Are you just being stubborn and unwilling, or is someone making unreasonable demands upon you? Sometimes the lines can get very blurred. Exercising discernment is paramount. Just because an old timer has sobriety does not mean they know better. Try and extrapolate if the person’s motives are altruistic, or if they are really just trying to control you or need to feel superior to you.
2) You’ll feel relieved and serene after doing your Fourth Step. However, if you leave something out you’ll drink again.
If you are not familiar with the fourth step allow me to elaborate: the fourth Step is where you get honest. In the first part, you write down all your resentments and anger towards all the people and institutions that have wronged you. Following this, is the second part where you admit all your wrongs against people/ institutions.
You will be told that a tremendous burden will be lifted and you will feel positively euphoric after you’ve unloaded. Okay? I was raised Catholic, so I’m intimately familiar with this step due to the weekly confessions we were required to attend growing up . . .
Some may feel cleansed and better, but not all. Personally, I felt terrible doing my Fourth Step, due to the *** sponsors I had. I felt supremely judged, and a little stupid for confessing to the “wrong person” twice. One sponsor shook her head in disdainful disbelief about an omission concerning lying on my resume, and the other sponsor awaited my Sex Inventory as if I was * Star. When I did not tell her everything (I believe we have a right to our privacy—especially what we do in the bedroom should be no one’s business) she looked genuinely disappointed! I mean really! According to the film” Bill Wilson” and biographers research, Bill had affairs throughout his marriage, drinking or not. It’s doubtful a sexual inventory would have even been included if Bill had been faithful . . . not all of us have sexual hang-ups or liaisons we feel the need to confess.
The next time I do my fourth step, I am going to a priest and I suggest you do the same. They are really experienced at this sort of thing. You will not be judged. But, if you choose to do it with your sponsor, or another AAer, please choose someone very much like you culturally that is in the same socio-economic class as you. So if you are an ex- prostitute, I’d suggest you confess to another ex-prostitute. Picking some uppity lady from the ‘burbs who would understand “affairs” but not “prostitution” could prove to be an epic mistake. Sponsors know they are not supposed to say anything about your step, but believe me some can’t help but gossip because that is their nature. You did not sign a privacy agreement with her so legally she can talk smack about you all she wants. It’s not like you can sue her for defamation!
3) All you need in order to recover is AA. You don’t need therapy, medication or education. I often wonder if Bill W. would even recognize his program today, it’s been so twisted by no doubt, well-meaning zealots. Yes, AA is a faith-based program. But that doesn’t translate into “not science based.” Bill W. was extremely interested in the science behind addiction. However, at the time, Bill only had anecdotal evidence to back up his “physical allergy,” and “disease” claims about alcoholism. Bill never chose to be willfully ignorant of science nor did he want his followers to do the same. He had great thirst for knowledge and had a lot of respect for the medical and science fields. At one point, he became obsessed with finding medical antidotes to cure his enduring depression. He also had a lot of respect for psychologists like Carl Jung and William James and wrote highly of them as well as quoting them in the Big Book.
When I first got to AA ten years ago, and even today, I hear a lot of people joke about how patently useless shrinks and medication are in curing alcoholism. And that the only things you need are the AA program and the Big Book. Once in an AA meeting I brought up a book I’d read, “Under the Influence” an evocative book written by a doctor explaining the genetic component of alcoholism. I soon found myself besieged by Thumpers at the end of the meeting, telling me the only book I needed to be concerned with was the “Big Book.” This I found rather contrary. Considering most AA cadets fully embrace the alcoholism-as-a-disease concept; it would naturally follow these people would want to know everything about their disease. If you had cancer, wouldn’t you want to read up on it? So why were they so repelled by a book explain the disease of alcoholism? Because they have let dogma replace reason that is why.
Listening can be dangerous to your health. It has been estimated that approximately forty-percent of all addicts have concomitant psychological disorders fueling their addiction. Yes, AA is the salient component of recovery from alcoholism, but it is not all. Many people have committed suicide or have been hospitalized due to AAers telling them not to take medicine or seek therapy.
AA is not perfect. If you are a person that refuses to embrace dogma, you will be able to admit this. However, if you are a zealot, and hear something negative about AA-- no matter how accurate the assessment is--you will, more than likely, be fiercely defensive of all things AA. There is nothing I can do to change your mind. But please, old timers: Don’t be sanctimonious in your convictions. Allow the newcomer to come to his own conclusions on his own time, not yours.