Sunday, 10 October 2010

Recovery and wellness: The Coachman, The Borg, and Agatha Christie

"You can and do recover; you do not have to stay sick—you can and do get well!" (Clarence Snyder, Cleveland, 1941)
This is my experience in AA too.

Interesting questions are, 'what does "well" look like?" 'What does "recovered" look like?"

As far as alcohol is concerned, the material at the bottom of page 84 and the top of page 85 of 'Alcoholics Anonymous' pretty much covers it:

"We react sanely and normally, and we will find that this has happened automatically . . . We feel as though we had been placed in a position of neutrality—safe and protected."

Page 57 adds a further dimension to this:

"Save for a few brief moments of temptation the thought of drink has never returned; and at such times a great revulsion has risen up in him. Seemingly he could not drink if he would. God had restored his sanity."

This reflects my experience. The mind will sometimes suggest crazy things to me. My spirit (which is connected with you and with God) pulls rank on my mind. I cannot order my spirit to do so: this is an automatic reaction, beyond my will and beyond my ego. My mind will never be a clean operating system. Sanity—soundness of mind—does not mean that my thinking is perfect. It means that the imperfections and, let's be frank, whole regions of bizarreness, error, and self-deception are encased in a membrane of spirit that holds the whole crowd of me together as a single entity. I will suffer from inner conflicts. But I am kept safe, even when the majority vote in my mind errs.

What 'well' and 'recovered' look like in other areas is not quite as straightforward. With drinking, either I drink or I do not. And, for over seventeen years, I have not drunk. Pretty clear-cut. The rest of my life cannot be judged according to the same binary criterion, however.

Much is made, at times, of the lines "we ask God to direct our thinking . . . Under these conditions we can employ our mental faculties with assurance, for after all God gave us brains to use. . . we find that our thinking will as time passes be more and more on the plane of inspiration. We come to rely on it." (86:2–87:0)

I have, on occasion, made casual reference to my scepticism with regard to my own thinking and had Big Book aficionados quote these lines back to me suggesting that there must be something wrong with my programme if I am not able to rely on my thinking.

Truth is, I usually can rely on it. In most matters, I know instinctively what to do, and my thinking, provided that I pause and regularly ask God for guidance, tends to produce good results practically. That, after all, is the acid test.

However, blind reliance on my mind, bolstered by this passage of the Big Book and justified by the knowledge that I have proceeded through the Steps a number of times and continue to apply them on a daily basis, is, in my case dangerous.

Mind separated from spirit produces arrant nonsense. I absolutely do rely on my mind: what else can I do moment to moment? Call my sponsor every two minutes? (I know that is the approach in some groups, and good luck to them.) But this reliance is predicated on connection to my spirit. So far so good.

Trouble is: my ego impersonates my spirit, and, as time passes, its impersonations are increasingly skilled and faithful. Someone says, "listen to your gut. Fine. But sometimes my head looks a lot like my gut." The ego is like the Borg in Star Trek. It constantly adapts and adjusts and learns from its defeats.

Another image: if my mind is the horse, my spirit is the coachman. When I am not paying attention, my ego creeps up onto the carriage, chloroforms my spirit, duct tapes its mouth, switches uniforms, and blithely takes up the reins of my mind. And I will not notice a thing. Before I know it, I am proceeding down a path that is damaging myself and others, with every move justified and referenced both to the Big Book and the Bible. (You see what I mean about Borg-like adaptation? My ego is smart.)

In Agatha Christie, the murderer always makes an error. The evidence may be a frayed cable, an unstamped train ticket, or a missing sock. It may be an apparently insignificant detail. But it is the key to unravelling the whole mystery and unmasking the culprit.

Being well, being recovered, does not mean I never get into trouble. It means that, when I do, I know how to listen for the sometimes muffled cries of my spirit past the reassuring, self-justifying, and exquisitely argued rationalisations of my ego.

Wellness is not about proceeding based on the majority vote in my mind. It is about the wholeness that comes from being able to listen to the single voice of truth amidst a cacophony of egregious lies, and proceed on the basis of that voice, even if the sky turns black and following this voice means jettisoning everything I think I know and understand cognitively, rationally, and synthetically about a situation.

A further point: it is only in dialogue with other people in AA—my sponsor or friends who have wholeheartedly adopted this spiritual way of life—that a space is created for the single voice of truth to gain ground, to be consolidated and reinforced, to turn all of the discs from black to white or white to black like in a game of Othello. For this spirit to flourish, it must take root in honest and open-minded fellowship.

To stay well, I must share the single doubt, the single incongruent detail, the single misgiving: as in Agatha Christie, this may be the key. Leave no stone unturned. Step Five: "Once we have taken this step, withholding nothing . . ."

This principle is enshrined in the Concepts: the 'Right of Appeal' (Concept V)—the minority opinion must be heard and the personal grievance receive careful consideration. As happens on a regular basis within the service structure, the voicing of a single minority opinion can lead to the majority decision being overturned and reversed entirely, with ultimate substantial unanimity. The restoration of sanity. The triumph of wholeness and God speaking through the inner voice and group conscience.

This is my experience of the recovery process. It does not protect me from error. It provides me with a mechanism for detecting and correcting error in an increasingly timely manner.

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