Saturday, 18 January 2014

AA BS-busting #3: 'wear your recovery like a loose garment'

Favourites along the same line are:

'I wish you a long, slow recovery.'
'I'm letting the Steps work me.'
'I have been sober a few days.'

When trying to communicate the AA programme or share your experience, be clear. Do not use cryptic imagery or modes of expression. All you are doing is winking at the other adepts in the room who have had the saying explained and deliberately leaving most other people in the dark. These sayings are not about helping people. They are about raising yourself onto a spiritual pedestal in the eyes of other people: look at me; I am so spiritual that my wisdom is accessible only to the initiated!

Wearing your recovery like a loose garment could mean all sorts of things. I have heard it many times over the last two decades, and I am still not entirely sure of its significance. I think it may mean relaxing about the rate at which you are recovering, by leaving that to God, although I would add that this does not mean one should let up on the action or discipline of the programme. These are good ideas. But say it simply!

Wishing someone a long, slow, recovery once invited the response at a meeting in NYC, witnessed by a friend of mine, 'I wish you would burn in hell.' I think this may not be the socially appropriate response per Miss Manners. I am in utter sympathy with this response, though.

The saying purports to say: 'I hope you remain in pain and dysfunction for a very long time.' The real meaning is 'I hope you stay sober for ever. Do be aware that incorporating the programme will take time, so stick with it.' Unfortunately, unless you have had this one decoded, you will be mystified.

'I'm letting the Steps work me' may mean that, although the Steps require action, a lot of recovery will take place with the alcoholic the subject of a bigger process that is happening TO him. This is true. You make amends, and all sorts of magical things happen as a result that you did not personally actuate or effect. Unless this is explained, all this means to a newcomer is: "do nothing. You will get well anyway." This is crap.

The least significant but perhaps most annoying of these is 'I have been sober a few days.'

What this is supposed to mean is 'I have been sober many years but do not take the credit, so I am playing it down.'

There are numerous problems with this. Firstly, the obfuscation is fear-based, coming from the concern that others will think you vain. This is not a good start. Ironically, the fear itself is the vanity. Secondly, it betrays the belief that you think you are staying sober through your own merit rather than the grace of God, or else why would you believe others may think you vain? Thirdly, unless a listener is initiated, he will take this at face value, which makes the ensuing wisdom seem oddly misplaced. Lastly, it is concealing, in more than one way, the great truth of AA: God can keep you sober forever.

When communicating with newcomers, let's be clear and direct.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

AA BS-busting #2: AA works just fine; do not fix what ain't broke

Last time I looked, not everyone who comes to AA gets and stays sober. Groups fold. Service is relatively weak in places. AA's relationship with various classes of professional and with the community as a whole is defective or entirely lacking in many cases.

We are a long way from the vision of what AA could be.

A balance is necessary here. I believe the Big Book and the programme laid out in it do work just fine, in fact better than anything else I have tried, by quite a long chalk. The Traditions and Concepts I have no argument with.

AA is not perfect, however. I have taken hundreds of people through the Big Book in various ways, and few would have coped in understanding it or following its directions without a lot of guidance. The language is opaque and the line of argument, tortuous at times. Many people miss entirely the points that the Book is trying to make and understand them only when they are pointed out explicitly.

I am not exactly stupid, myself, and needed to listen to bunches of tapes at ten and fifteen years sober before lots of the ideas contained within it really sunk in.

I use and will continue to use the Big Book myself and in sponsoring. In fact, it has been in use with several people this week, already, and it is only Thursday. The suggestion, however, that it is perfect is wrongheaded. The book is deeply flawed and requires a lot of sponsorial assistance in parts.

I do not personally believe it should be rewritten, and I cannot imagine how any consensus could be achieved across AA today were the decision to be made to write a fresh set of instructions on how to work the Steps. After all, AA has barely recovered from the publication of Bill's essays about the same, which were designed as ruminations but are taken, wrongly, as sets of instructions. Trying to use those is like trying to use a restaurant review to cook a quiche Lorraine. No, the oral tradition seems actually to be much more effective in carrying the message within AA, and the flexibility of this tradition makes it preferable to trying to write a canonical work that will then become set in stone.

How we carry the message, how we reach younger people, or types of alcoholics whose drinking does not match that of the continuous or binge drinkers largely described in the first few chapters of the Big Book, how we run meetings, how we sponsor, how we communicate with the outside world: all of these are far from perfect and will always need ongoing work.

The Big Book is great. The Steps, Traditions, and Concepts are perfect. How we use them is not. Let us not be self-satisfied and complacent and dismiss those of us who come along with new ideas. The gate has not closed on learning.

AA BS-busting #1: your best thinking got you here

Variants of this are "the mind that created the problem cannot solve the problem" and "you cannot think your way out of the problem".

Now, let me first of all say that these ideas have some truth.

My thinking before I got to AA was pretty awry, and thinking, alone, will not get me sober or transform my life.

The injunction against thinking, however, is elevated by many to become an overriding doctrine.

Firstly, let us look at the Big Book. The first sixty or so pages are devoted to the conveying of ideas. Unless these ideas are digested and understood, the subsequent action will have no basis. We must necessarily engage our minds.

We Agnostics, the chapter on Step Two, is devoted in particular to a rational discussion of the existence of God, or at least a power greater then ourselves. Faith and action are discussed as part of the mix, but the chapter discourages mushy and encourages critical thinking. We are to get off the spiritual fence and decide one way or another: will God help us?

Step Eleven certainly requires critical engagement and use of the mind.

Let us now look at experience. My best thinking got me to AA. Absolutely. The idea to phone AA, which was the best thing I ever did, popped into my mind. Similarly, choosing Doug as my first sponsor was the next stroke of genius. This also popped into my mind. If I were to disregard every thought that came into my mind on the basis that it came into my mind, I would never have called AA, gotten a sponsor, or done the Steps.

More recently, I observe that many people, including myself, suffer at the hands of waves of emotion stemming from irrational thinking that is never questioned or challenged. The most significant conversations I have ever had include those where people have encouraged me to examine my own thinking critically. The mind, it turns out, is perfectly capable of assisting in healing itself, provided that sound principles and the guidance of others are used.

Now, thinking alone will not achieve anything, and plenty of action is required. Certain types of thinking are certainly discouraged, for instance the morbid reflection against which there is such a strong injunction in the Big Book. Ruminating on resentment and fear will not help either. There are also times when I have had to take action blindly, against my own best thinking, because someone I trust suggests it as a solution to my problems.

But we are doing newcomers and ourselves a disservice suggesting that the programme invariably boils down to blind action. It is so much more than that.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

The solution to fear

When I am frightened I think I am going to feel bad.

Cowardice: I can be a big baby about bad feelings and simply not believe I will be able to handle the feelings, or I might merely be disinclined to feel them. The truth is that feeling bad will not kill me, and with the resources of AA around me my attitudes, thinking, and actions can be kept on beam so I do not add a superstructure of self-pity and anger etc. on top of the feelings.

Ingratitude: when ninety-six things are going my way but four are not, to be worried about those four rather than grateful for the ninety-six is ingratitude. Gratitude is the solution to this.

Entitlement: other people get to feel pain but I should not have to. A wake-up call from reality is what is required here: things are going to happen that I do not like, just as they will to other people, too.

Self-reliance: if I have been living out of ego I will have been causing lots of the things I am scared of. If I am attached to sex, money, power, prestige, comfort, thrills, and appearance, these are innately unstable and vulnerable, so fear is automatic. If I have not been turning to God in whatsoever form I will not have been accessing the requisite strength to deal with vicissitudes with courage and cheer, so projecting that forward makes potentially difficult situations fearful.

If I have not gotten past prior harms done to me, through forgiveness, I will fear future ones, which will merely add to the  burden.

If I have not gotten past prior harms I have done, through amends, I will fear future ones, which will merely add to the burden.

The solution: pray to God for courage, count my blessings, accept the bad with the good, drop my self-centred plans, forgive everyone for everything, and make every amend.

If my reliance is on God to provide me everything I need to be happy, joyous, and free, there is nothing to be frightened of. If my reliance is on me to get what I need from the material world, I will be frightened as the material world is unstable.

All my fear comes from self-reliance. Reliance on God is the only solution.