The Addictions Academy: Twelve Things You Should Know About AA. Guest Blog from student, Kimberley Berlin.
Twelve Things You Should Know About AA
Kimberley L. Berlin, LSW, CSAC, SAP, NCRC1
Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) has been getting a bad rap lately. Earlier this year, an article in The Atlantic portrayed the fellowship as “irrational” and debunked it as an outdated approach to a medically solvable problem. The solution according to the author was take a pill. But, like much in our society that always looks for a silver bullet, the magic is not in a capsule, the magic is in the process.
Allowing sobriety to unfold entails engaging in twelve steps that maps a journey of “recovery” – from the Latin recovere which means to return to “the original self.” In the case of alcoholism or drug addiction, the original self is the grace of our true nature before it all went bad. Once we embark on this odyssey it will change our lives. It has done so for millions of people for decades. There has to be something right about AA.
In 1935, Bill Wilson, a chronic alcoholic who had finally put together some sober time, was on a business trip and found himself in a hotel with a bar in the lobby. The pull was instant. Get a drink. But he knew if he went in his marriage would be over, and everything he had worked for in sobriety, would be over. Instead , he walked into a phone booth and asked the operator if there were any alcoholics in town who were struggling. “Why yes,” replied the operator, “there is – our local doctor has just tied one on and he’s home nursing a hangover.” Bill Wilson went over to Dr. Bob’s house, and announced himself as a fellow alcoholic. What happened next is what most believe to be “the miracle” of AA.
Bill and Bob sat together and talked for hours. One alcoholic to another, sharing their stories, their experience, strength and hope. One thing led to another, and together, they created Alcoholics Anonymous. That was 80 years ago – in 2015 it continues to work its magic for millions around the world.
I have worked with addicts and alcoholics who are baffled by AA, or resistant because of the emphasis on “God” or refuse to even listen to what the steps mean, or put off because they are told what to do and how to do it. They’ve been to one meeting and swear never to go again. When asked why, the response is usually “It’s not for me.” But inevitably something happened – someone said something off-putting, or they became aware of a truth they weren’t ready to deal with. They left when they should have stayed.
Here is the FIRST thing to know about AA:
Powerless, unmanageable – these are words that one can examine later. The first step means that we have come to the point of surrender. The white flag is being waved. The war has ended. Stop fighting, and admit you’ve lost. There’s no shame in it – it is actually a relief to stop the dance of pretending everything is fine when it isn’t; hiding the bottles, lying, concocting stories, waking up with hangovers – it’s a long list.
The SECOND and THIRD Thing to know:
Steps #2 and #3: Basically, this boils down to letting someone else run the show. We’ve tried to be the writer, star actor, director and producer of a life that went off the rails. Some just had a front tire go off the road, others crashed and burned. Whichever way it went for you, obviously it was not successful. If we wave the white flag, then why not let someone else take control?
This brings up the age-old issue of the “God” thing. AA-er’s will tell you that the “Power greater than ourselves” is God “as we understand Him.” That is all fine and well. But if you’re not a Christian, don’t believe that God exists, or that there is a God – you’re up against a lot of resistance.
When I first walked into the rooms of AA over 20 years ago, I was done. I was willing to go to any lengths to get sober. But as a Buddhist, being told to “hit my knees morning and night to pray” didn’t align with my spiritual beliefs or practices. As if in answer to my struggle, someone came up to me after a meeting and told me they had been told to think of the word “God” as Good Orderly Direction. In doing so, religiosity is removed. Engaging in “good” deeds, living life in an “orderly” fashion, and having the right “direction” is just a sensible way to live. That was a suggestion I took to heart then and now.
The FOURTH and FIFTH thing to know:
A lot of people freak out over the 4th and 5th Steps. It becomes this phantom microscope into the very depths of our soul – and we are terrified to admit any of our wrongdoings to ourselves, let alone someone else. It’s a fear that is very real – but a step that is greatly misunderstood. The easiest way to approach it is much like balancing your check book: take stock of the plusses and minuses.
That doesn’t mean we beat ourselves up – just take stock of reality. The other thing I was told is that the 4th Step is something we will repeat as the years go by. The fear lessens each time. So start somewhere, and get it done!
As for sharing our deepest darkest secrets with someone – your sponsor will have heard it all – or done worse than you – so take a deep breath and it’ll be over before you know it. If you’ve done anything truly illegal like kill someone, use a lawyer or priest.
The SIXTH and SEVENTH things are:
Steps 6 and 7 are nothing more than reinforcing the 2nd and 3rd step. That is – you haven’t done such a good job of it so far, so let someone else do the work for you. If you believe in God, let God do the heavy lifting. If you don’t believe in God, let the program and the fellowship support you. Or Good Orderly Direction. Either way, clean up your act, be mindful of how you can be a real jerk sometimes, and choose not to be – more often than not.
The EIGHTH thing is:
Step 8 can be a little hairy, a bit like Step 4. No one has to do any of the steps perfectly, and certainly not all at once. Writing a list of everyone you hurt along the way, or left in your wake of alcohol and drug induced hurricanes isn’t easy. Just writing it down on a piece of paper and putting it in a safe place never killed anyone.
The NINTH thing is:
Some of the people on the Step 9 list may no longer be living– write them a letter; some may be lost or whereabouts unknown – write them a letter too. Some people may not accept your amends, or it may hurt them if you reveal your misdeeds to them. In this case, live your amends. “Living amends” means you correct your mistakes, don’t drink, get your life in order, and avoid drama on a daily basis.
The TENTH thing is that:
Living sobriety one day at a time becomes a way of life. The process of self examination is a way to make sure that you haven’t insulted someone, done something stupid, or otherwise undermined the good life you are trying to live. However, since we are all human and we all do something stupid at some time or another,admitting it and apologizing for the action goes a long way in life.
The ELEVENTH thing is that:
Steps 11 and 12 are there to ensure that we have a way to be centered in our lives – that we reduce the stress, the unnecessary drama – and help others like we were helped when we first tried to get sober.
The TWELFTH thing you need to know is:
AA is not a cult. Recently, The Fix re-printed an article about the “cult-like quality” of the fellowship. You get out of something what you put into it. If you have issues that go beyond not drinking today, then it is a good idea to get “outside help” which may be a counselor, recovery coach, therapist or psychiatrist. If you don’t like what someone says in a meeting, focus on the good discussed and drop the rest. If someone insults you remind yourself that you are in a room full of drunks and it’s a miracle everyone in the room is sober – including you. If you don’t like how a meeting is run, go to another one. Or start your own. If you think that someone is being “glorified” as a hero of AA, realize that it’s in our culture – Hollywood and Madison Avenue will make heroes out of anyone if it “sells.” Remember: You don’t have to buy it.
Addiction is complex – recovery is simple. Which is why Bill and Bob developed 12 steps; a simple, straight forward approach to recovering from the ravages of alcoholism. All it took was two drunks sitting together, sharing their truth, and allowing the sunlight to touch their Spirit.