One step beyond
What would it take to modernise Alcoholics Anonymous?
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On a trip home to London, the unthinkable happened. After seven years off the sauce, I drank. It was Christmas. Outside every bar, strings of festive lights. Around every corner, a pub spruiking hot toddies, or a market, spicy with mulled wine. As we bounced from pillar to post, my friends reminded me of giddy nights I’d forgotten: of being bundled into a bin in this alley, of bouncing off a pinball machine and into Boy George at this bar, of generally being hilarious.
Still, I resisted. Those are their memories, not the grinding, awful reality. Then, on New Year’s Eve, I passed a bar selling cocktails of reassuringly expensive ingredients, and I heard myself announce my intention to enter. My friend responded that she would neither encourage nor discourage me, but was ultimately planning a quiet night.
That evening I luxuriantly sipped smoking bishops and bourbon chais, and the world didn’t end. For the next two glorious weeks, I established firm rules and drank moderately to my success. In week three, I broke every rule. My brain felt highly activated, like a freshly watered mogwai.
One night, I got off the train in my parents’ town and walked straight into the pub opposite the station. It was the sort of establishment you never think to enter, furnished only with UV lights and a pool table. I surveyed my double vodka and came up with a solution to my anxiety: I would go to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting for the first time in five years.
Then I remembered: rather than just get things off my chest, I would have to announce myself as “one day sober”. If picked to speak, I would feel obliged to relay a tale of relapsing woe (I might have to ham it up a bit), after which I would be given a newcomer’s chip. And I would be expected to start the 12 steps at step one.
According to AA’s bible, the “Big Book”, relapsers are “constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves. There are such unfortunates. They are not at fault; they seem to have been born that way.” Such language harnesses shame to scare a person into staying sober, but given that shame is perhaps the biggest driver of problematic substance use it also has the potential to backfire.
Going to AA helped me a great deal when I first stopped drinking, so in theory I could have gritted my teeth, accepted the organisation’s stance on “relapse” (I’d call it a “holiday”) and attended a few meetings. But AA’s policy that we must start anew implies that after seven years of exemplary non-drinking I’d failed. The 12 steps are based on Christian principles, so of course it follows that the member who relapses must return and repent, and then be born again. It’s out of sync with drug and alcohol services, which would advise one to simply dust themselves off and get back on track.
And so, even though my hometown has all sorts of meetings – meditation, daily reflections, lunchtime quickies – I attended none. Instead, I focused on my return to Australia, when this rudderless period would end. Thankfully, once the plane landed in Melbourne, and I peered out at the hopeful southern sky, I too was grounded – enough to decide I was a non-drinker again.
But it did make me wonder about the logistics of making changes to AA literature.
It’s unusual for any organisation to exist for 82 years without significant updates to reflect both changing times and a growing mountain of evidence-based research. AA’s Big Book has gone largely untouched since 1939, except for the foreword and the case studies in the back, which means there’s an adherence to the idea that the “norm” in Drinkerland is the white Christian male. Take the quaint patronisation in the ‘To Wives’ chapter: “Try not to condemn your alcoholic husband no matter what he says or does … The slightest sign of fear or intolerance may lessen your husband’s chance of recovery …” That was actually written by AA co-founder Bill Wilson, posing as a woman. We know that because his wife, Lois, in a later publication, Pass It On, said, “Bill wrote it, and I was mad.”
It surely can’t be so difficult to change ‘To Wives’ to ‘To Partners’, acknowledging both that men and women are now drinking on a par with each other (according to a 2016 National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre report, which pooled the data of 68 studies worldwide) and that not everyone is straight. The only concession in ‘To Wives’ is the opening passage: “With few exceptions, our book thus far has spoken of men. But what we have said applies quite as much to women.” This careless extension of the male norm to include the female experience – which is often dramatically different – is a problem I tackle in my own book, Woman of Substances. In fact, it’s the reason I wrote it.
But how would you even go about making annotations to such literature when AA has no real hierarchy to speak of? There are District Committees and Area Assemblies, a national General Service Board and a World Services Board, but no managerial team to make executive decisions. You might have an easier job trying to rewrite the Boy Scout Handbook.
Wilson had originally written the 12 steps in 30 minutes, based on Biblical passages and ideas borrowed from the Christian-based Oxford Group, from whom he had sought a religious conversion cure for his own drinking. In 1952, recognising the need for tweaks but also the fact that the steps had become a sacred text in the eyes of many members, he compromised by publishing a companion book called Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. By now, Wilson was weathering criticism from members for his womanising and his interest in séances, and these misgivings would peak a few years later over his advocacy of vitamin therapy and LSD in the recovery of alcoholics. In 1955, Wilson announced his intention to turn AA over to its members; within two years the General Service Conference made the “advisory action” that no change to the literature could be made without the written consent of three-quarters of AA groups worldwide.
Why are the 12 steps so sacred? An explanation comes from Dr William Duncan Silkworth, a specialist in alcoholism who contributed to the Big Book. In his 1947 essay ‘Relapse Explained: Slips and Human Nature’, he compares alcoholism to a disease. If a cardiac patient has sought treatment after a heart attack, he explains, they will at first religiously follow doctor’s orders. Then they might start letting things slip: exerting themselves, having a cigarette and a cocktail here and there. Eventually, they suffer a relapse. Similarly, if an alcoholic does not follow instructions faithfully – in this case the 12 steps – they will fail.
Thus, strictly adhering to the steps is the cornerstone of AA. This is also something of a get-out clause for the fellowship. Wilson was originally a salesman, and, as any marketer will tell you, a service should cover itself with terms and conditions that stipulate the customer must follow instructions to the letter.
There is one area in which AA is striving to demonstrate flexibility, and that’s spirituality. This has to happen outside the confines of the Big Book, in which the steps are clear that the repentant alcoholic must turn their life over to the care of God or a “Higher Power”. (There is a ‘We Agnostics’ chapter, but it could be accused of false advertising: “after a while we had to face the fact that we must find a spiritual basis of life – or else”.)
To get around this, in 2014 AA’s General Services Conference approved a pamphlet entitled ‘Many Paths to Spirituality’, which contains the views of atheists, agnostics and members of different religions. To this end, there are increasing numbers of atheist and agnostic groups springing up. Some limitations are imposed – two Toronto groups were delisted by AA for annotating the 12 steps – but Melbourne’s Atheist, Agnostic, Freethinker group dodges them. As co-founder Steve explains, the serenity prayer is recited with all references to God removed, and the 12 steps are not hung on the wall at all.
“I think AA is a wonderful organisation – it saved my life, basically,” says Steve, who observes AA anonymity by not providing his surname, “but it’s hard to find a more conservative organisation. Change is nigh on impossible. There are some atheist books coming out of the US, but trying to get one of those books in a meeting would never happen, it’s just for home reading.”
Steve himself draws on Meditations by Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, who practised Stoic philosophy. “Maybe there’s something that can help me, but I’m not going to paint a picture as to whether it’s Yahweh, Zeus or God,” he says, explaining that some members prefer to think of the group itself as their Higher Power. Or, “a lot of people leave it blank and they find that’s enough. That allows enough of a loophole to do the AA program.”
Only, it’s not just the references to God that some members find problematic; it’s the idea that one hands over the reins of their life. In 1985, the journal Employee Assistance Quarterly called upon three addiction experts to review the Big Book. Two of those, psychologists Albert Ellis and G Alan Marlatt, were concerned by the program’s lack of emphasis on self-management. Ellis wrote, “By calling on God to remove your defects of character, you falsely tell yourself that you do not have the ability to do so yourself and you imply that you are basically an incompetent who is unable to work on and correct your own low frustration tolerance.”
Steve’s group recognises that the greatest strength can come from AA’s peer support. Could that not be taken further, with the formation of groups that fearlessly discuss relapse prevention techniques? I’ve only been able to identify one such meeting in Australia, yet this safeguarding-against-relapse approach seems more useful than adhering stubbornly to the idea that “rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path”.
That message of failure had stuck with me in my years away from AA. I’d always assumed that if I drank a solitary drop I would catapult into a 12-month wet-brained bender. The reality was that I didn’t even work it hard enough for a hangover – so a stronger argument could be made that I’d failed at drinking. Upon returning to Australia I booked in to see an addiction counsellor to discuss the root causes and warning signs. Now I’m more vigilant, but entirely unrepentant.
The General Service Office of AA in Australia was approached for comment.
Jenny Valentish is a journalist and novelist. Her first non-fiction book, Woman of Substances, was recently published by Black Inc.