Thursday, 31 July 2014

Dealing with relapsing sponsees

How do I respond as a sponsor when someone relapses?

I have experienced two types of relapsing sponsee.

Type I: the (partial) slacker.

With this type of bloke, it becomes immediately apparent upon quizzing him that he was not taking all the suggestions. I have a document called the 'triangle emergency pack', which, based on the premise that people who live in all three sides of the AA triangle of recovery, service, and unity, lists what actions an alcoholic would have to be taking on a daily basis to stay sober and recover. I go through this with him and he lists out what actions he was or was not taking.

Setting this against the original instruction I gave him, which was to take all said actions like his life depended in it, I ask why the actions were not being taken.

There are several possible reasons.

(I) He does not sufficiently, consistently want to stay sober (lack of rock-bottom).

(II) He believes he is an alcoholic but believes he can stay sober on only a proportion of the suggestions or that there is no urgency (lack of belief in what the Big Book says).

(III) He knows he will drink if he does not take the suggestions but believes that, if he slips, he will be able to come back to AA the next day, so it is no big deal (lack of belief in the physical craving, which extends beyond a bout and can trigger a relapse that persists for years or forever).

(IV) He does not believe that the suggestions will work for him, so does not even try.

(V) He lacks motivation because he knows the suggestions are required to stay sober and live but has an insufficient desire to live (this is usually similar to (IV): the Steps might keep him sober, he thinks, but will not afford him any quality of life).

Most people have a combination of these.

The most pernicious is (III), as slips that did not ultimately lead to permanent relapse may lull him into a false sense of security. Any long-term observation of slipping patterns in AA will reveal the chilling fact that a single slip will often open the door after a longish period of sobriety to a sequence of slips that then join up to become permanent relapse.

Essentially, as you can see, there is axiomatically a problem with one or more aspects of the first three Steps. Examine, therefore, with the sponsee where the problem lies, within the first three Steps, and in particular with the various characters outlined in the first few chapters: the man with the hammer, the jaywalker, the man of thirty, the certain American businessman, Jim, and Fred. I use a document that summarises the first three Steps, 'An exercise for reapproaching Step Four'. This may then lead on to more detailed work on the Big Book. I do not launch in straight away with rehashing every word of the Doctor's Opinion plus the next 62 pages, because there is a risk of not isolating the reservation due to a surfeit of information and material. The work, at this point, has to be very targeted.

The upshot of this is either: no change, with the sponsee eventually drifting away, or the sponsee identifying and eliminating the reservation, pulling up his socks, and staying sober permanently.

Type II: the chronic slipper

This type is baffling.

This character is typically highly willing, non-defensive, and open-minded. He absorbs information like a sponge. For a few days (and it is usually a few days) or weeks, he takes every single action diligently, and may even get as far as Step Six or the cusp of Step Nine. However, he will suddenly stop taking action and is drunk within a day. In contrast to Type I, where there is a gradual slide and a grace period often of weeks if not months, the switch from willing AA to rebel happens instantly, it seems.

The same procedure should be tried as in Type I, as this sometimes works.

This type, however, does not always respond to the above method, as the reservation seems to lie deeper. The Harry M. Tiebout M.D. essay 'Surrender versus compliance in therapy with special reference to alcoholism' describes well the issue: the individual has surrendered consciously but not subconsciously. There is a battle going on, and this individual is often characterised by obsessive analysis, a high degree of attention paid to and faith in his own feelings, perceptions, and thinking, a feeling of being 'special and different', and an unwillingness to experience the negative emotions associated, initially, with early sobriety.

Whilst examining the above considerations can be of some help in breaking the pattern, essentially an all-encompassing rock-bottom (a state of hopelessness that induces absolute surrender) is required, and I do not know of any way of inducing this in someone at a sub-conscious level.

In this case one can only hope and pray.

The Book 'Alcoholics Anonymous' describes those who 'cannot or will not' do what we do. This category is small but heart-breaking. It is difficult to tell with a chronic relapser who does not respond to every effort made to help him which of the two applies: cannot or will not. Gratifyingly, those who persist in sticking around AA will often, at some point, break and break for good, and a number of my friends, and I myself, fall into this catgory.

In other words, there is always hope.

Monday, 28 July 2014

Step Eleven adventure

I follow the instructions in the Big Book on pages 86 to 88. These are vital and not to be avoided. However, page 87 does suggest being quick (not slow) to see where religious people are right. The religious have gone before us in establishing paths to spiritual awakening. Although the instructions in the book 'Alcoholics Anonymous' are surely sufficient to have the first spiritual awakening and in promoting and furthering more, I would be a fool not to take any other help I can get.

I gain much from dipping into various traditions as necessary for the odd idea here or the odd quotation there.

I gain more from taking a tradition or a writer and following its practices or implementing her or his ideas consistently over a period of months and years.

If my utterly bankrupt thought system requires dismantling through the Steps, it surely needs rebuilding along new lines. One or a small team of consistent architects is better than many conflicting ones or none.

A question to anyone wanting to grow spiritually:

What author are you currently reading as a consistent, medium- to long-term project? How are you implementing the guidance? What meditation practice are you applying? What are you doing to grow more in the understanding of the spiritual system that underpins that practice?

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Last word

"Where is that in the first 164 pages?"

What looks like a genuine enquiry by someone who wants to know more about the contents of the first 164 pages is generally no such thing.

The real message is this: I do not believe that what you are saying is in the first 164 pages, so it is wrong or invalid or has no place in AA. Rather than arguing the point on the merits, the individual is citing the Book itself as the authority that bars all discussion, which saves the individual the bother of formulating an argument.

Does the Book itself suggest that it is the last word?


Aside from the many references, in one way or another, to the fact we have no monopoly on recovery, the Book itself suggests that more will be revealed.

To attack the 'more that has been revealed' on the basis of the Book that promises that more will be revealed, by God, to those who have taken the actions described in the Book and continue to take those actions, is perverse logic.

It is to say: God has nothing more to say. All has been said. Repeat what has been said, or keep quiet.

It is all the more odd to say this on a discussion board, which, as the description might suggest, is a discussion board, not a repetition board.

This is not to say that the question cannot legitimately be asked: 'is this idea consistent with the principles contained in the Book?' That itself is a principle enshrined in the Book: we are encouraged on page 87 to pray not just those prayers that are in the Book but also any other prayers that stress the principles outlined.

As with most things, balance is probably wise. A free-for-all would undermine the purpose of such a discussion board; a restriction of discourse to quotation would likewise achieve little.

No, the middle way is likely the most productive and the most interesting.


The Book suggests I not rest on my laurels and that I remain spiritually active. Having been restored to sanity, I do this, because this is the sane thing to do.

I do not need to maintain the fiction that the original problem still remains and that the process of removing the problem has not worked, in order to keep me active in AA.

I keep doing what the Book says not because I view myself as perceptually sick, perpetually broken, and perpetually being chased by a 'disease' that is out to kill me but because I have been restored to my right mind and awakened to a sense of destiny and responsibility for the world I live in.

I also do not attribute my human failings or human experience to alcoholism. I do not say I am still 'sick', because I make mistakes or have human emotions. It is alcoholism I have recovered from, not humanity.

That responsibility for my contribution to the world starts in AA, and my spiritual path has always led me back to the meat and potatoes of AA, helping other alcoholics, because we are uniquely fitted to this end.

Lifelong conceptions

The Big Book suggests we will have to throw out many lifelong conceptions.

Here are some I have had to throw out.

I am always right.
You are always wrong.
If I think it, it is true.
If you think differently than me, you are attacking me.
My worth as a human being is reflected in my virtues, defects, thoughts, actions, results or lack thereof, or in your expression, your words, your actions, or your supposed thoughts.
There is something fundamentally wrong with me, you, and the world.
I can act without integrity but feel whole.
I am not responsible for my thoughts, feelings, actions, and internal life.
I am responsible for your thoughts, feelings, actions, and internal life.
I know what you are thinking.
I know what is good for you.
I can tell the future.
I can be happy by making a list of all of the things I think will make me happy and going and getting them.
Sex, money, power, prestige, comfort, thrills, and looks will bring me health, happiness, harmony, love, joy, peace, and connection.
Getting is more important than giving.
If I think hard enough about the problem, the problem will go away.
I can think resentful, fearful, and guilty thoughts and somehow avoid feeling rage, terror, and humiliation.
Happy people are superficial; unhappy people are wise.
God does not exist.
I am my body and, by extension, my material existence.
How I feel is an accurate reflection of reality.
I will have time to help others when I have solved all of my problems.
My beliefs and attitudes cannot change. My thinking cannot change. My actions cannot change.
The universe will not provide if I simply serve, so I have to grab, grab, grab to get what is due to me.


"Impressed by those who visited him at the hospital, he capitulated entirely when, later, in an upper room of this house, he heard the story of some man whose experience closely tallied with his own."

All through my recovery over the last 21 years, I have benefitted enormously from the breadth of the fellowship: finding people with the same problems, both drinking and sober, destroyed the sense of 'anxious apartness' and gave me hope that there was a solution that would solve all my problems.

I am grateful to have a sponsor who can share practical experience on problems or difficulties I encounter and can say how he actually applied the programme in practice to such situations.

Sponsees will sometimes share very difficult situations from the past in areas I have no experience in. I can share the principles on how to deal with such situations, but I can usually point them in the direction of someone with personal experience. People report to me that this helped significantly in their healing.

I have not had to make amends for shoplifting. I can share general principles on step nine with sponsees on this matter, but I suggest they also speak to friends of mine who have direct experience on how to go about such amends.

I do not have children (although having a lot of sponsees can sometimes feel that way), so I share general principles in this area but suggest they talk to other parents in AA for experience on how to apply the programme in this area.

Fortunately, I have had many problems and a varied life since I was gotten sober by God. Most problems people come to me with I can share experience on, regarding how I used the twelve steps and twelve traditions to handle and transcend them, always turning them to good account. The practical examples of how I dealt with such problems are worth any amount of theorising.

Identification is key: people trust me when I say I have found a solution to all my problems in God, because, when I talk about those problems, they identify. The capitulation, as described in the Big Book quotation above, is very gratifying to see.

Is it in the Book?

I use the Big Book as the basic reference for what the AA programme is.

Over the years, all sorts of other ideas have helped alcoholics in AA. Sometimes, ideas come along that are not so helpful to alcoholics.

It is very simple to determine whether a particular phrase is in the Book. Any fool can do that, and trumpet that everything else 'ain't AA'.

It is trickier to work out whether an idea is contained in the Big Book, because that requires a bit of intelligence and a bit of critical thought.

A good example is sponsorship. The first few chapters do not mention sponsorship. Some people will not have sponsors or call themselves sponsors, therefore. However, the actions most people associate with sponsorship are indeed contained within the Book, specifically in Chapter Seven, and illustrated further in Chapter Eleven.

There is a value in determining whether particular words or phrases are in the Book, so thank you, anyone with the knowledge or time to determine that for us. That is all that has been achieved, however: it has not been demonstrated whether the idea the words or phrase represents are in the Book. That is a horse of a different colour!

AA myths ... Or are they?

For years now, lists and discussions have abounded about the 'myths' of 'watered-down AA', which are 'killing newcomers'.

I have absolutely loved these over the years. I have enjoyed the discourse and the debate. But I also enjoyed the self-righteousness generated by hoisting myself above the fellowship that had saved my life with my sarcastic observations and only partly coherent logic, all under the banner of defending the Big Book.

Something has always troubled me about this pastime and it is this: the tenor of such discussions has an awful lot in common with the anti-AA websites, one particularly prominent example of which uses similar straw-man arguments and derision as I have engaged in with other recovered alcoholics myself.

The method is this: take the slogan out of context, purport it to be a representation of the entire programme, and then find a line in the Big Book that appears to contradict it, attribute the line to treatment centres and middle-of-the-road AA, and your job is done!

Now, let me say that there are things said in AA that, by any reading, are inconsistent with the Book, e.g. 'a step a year'. No benevolent reading can make this particular slogan remotely consistent.  Even in those cases, however, I must be careful not to inject a spirit of scorn or derision. Love and tolerance are what the Book teaches me, and I must manifest those qualities. No one is helped by my calling anything an eight-letter word beginning with 'B'.

Here is a good example: I have seen 'easy does it' written off as rubbish, when set against 'half measures availed us nothing'and 'we urge you to be fearless and thorough'. This is a straw-man argument, because this slogan refers not to the speed at which one takes the steps but to relations within the family in recovery. The slogan is actually in the Book, to boot.

To be fair, some slogans are misused, as are lines from the Book, e.g. the 'progress not perfection' idea being used to promote and justify indolence. The problem then lies not with the slogan or quotation, but with its misuse. This is an important distinction. Most slogans, used wisely, are very helpful teaching mechanisms when dealing with newcomers with terrible memories.

Most slogans used in AA are also used in a specific context and were never designed to represent the entirety of the AA programme or preclude the remainder. They are merely devices to represent particular key elements of the programme.

'90 meetings in 90 days' is a frequent target of attack. This is typically used as part of a whole raft of instructions to newcomers, not as a single silver bullet. It is often portrayed, wrongly, as an injunction only to attend 90 meetings in 90 days, ignoring all other measures.

Now, rather than trying to prove that something is inconsistent with the Book, I can substitute positive for negative thinking and see whether it is supported by the Book.

1. The Big Book in the UK still has the AA logo, which includes the word 'unity'. One of the ways I practise unity is by spending a lot of time with or talking to other alcoholics. Meetings are pretty much the best way of doing that when one is new.

2. Chapter Eleven contains this passage:

"A year and six months later these three had succeeded with seven more. Seeing much of each other, scarcely an evening passed that someone’s home did not shelter a little gathering of men and women, happy in their release, and constantly thinking how they might present their discovery to some newcomer."

Scarcely an evening? You mean they met ... almost every day?!

3. Frequent contact with each other and with newcomers is the bright spot of our Iives, according to Chapter Seven.

One could go further, but suffice to say that the instruction to go to a whole lot of meetings in the first ninety days of recovery seems pretty consistent with the principles set out in the Book.

One might also observe whether, all other things being equal, newcomers who do go to lots of meetings generally do better than those who do not. In my observation they do.

Here would be a fun exercise: take every dismissed slogan and see if you can see the good in it. See if you can find how the slogan does actually reflect a principle in the Book. I have been amazed that the analytical skills underpinning my negativity, if turned on their head, can be a positive force for unity.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Surrender questions

Do I want to fit my life around AA or AA around my life?
Do I want spiritual growth and a spiritual awakening for their own sake or only in as far as they help me realise my own plans?
Do I still believe that my plans for happiness will work or do I believe that only God's will for me can bring happiness?
Am I happy simply to serve God for the sake of serving God or do I still want God to serve me?
Do my prayers reflect the former or the latter?
Am I consistent with my AA actions?
When I put other things first do I admit it or do I rationalise?
Am I still driven by money, sex, power, prestige, comfort, thrills, and appearance?
Am I now ready to give up and just serve?

The two stages of surrender

The first surrender is when the alcoholic life becomes too much, and I seek sobriety. I discover AA, and realise that the programme can eliminate all of the blocks within me that are keeping me trapped in alcoholic drinking, and that are preventing me from realising my master plan in life.

The purpose of the programme then becomes to help me achieve my own goals, and I will be satisfied with as much AA as enables me to do that, provided that what is required is not too inconvenient or difficult. I talk to a sponsor to get out of him everything I think I need to improve my life, and then I close the hatch in the door of my castle through which I have been speaking to him and send him away.

The second surrender is when I realise that no plan I can come up with will match God's plan for me and that trying to plough my own furrow will ultimately lead to perdition. The game is now different: rather than fitting AA around my life I fit my life around AA.

Then, the game is to seek and do God's will in all matters, for its own sake. The test: "the things which matter so much to some people no longer signify much to them. How could they?" (Big Book, page 161), for what I have then is the peace of being a servant, and nothing beats that.