Alcoholics Anonymous is the name of a book that was published in 1939. This book, referred to as the Big Book, was written by one hundred men and women who had found a common solution to their common problem – alcoholism. This solution is the 12 step programme which is outlined in the Big Book. The sole purpose of the 12 step programme is to introduce the alcoholic to a relationship with a God of their own understanding. This relationship with God provides the alcoholic with power. This power is sufficient to counter the power of alcohol.
Dr Carl Gustav Jung is a crucial figure in the evolution of the 12 step programme. His opinion, expressed in the term, ‘Spiritus Contra Spiritum’, is that the alcoholics craving for alcohol was the equivalent, on a low level, of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness, expressed in medieval language: the union with God. In short, we alcoholics need the spirit of God to counter the spirit of alcohol. This does not apply to ‘heavy drinkers’, ‘problem drinkers’, ‘alcohol abusers’ or ‘alcohol misusers’.
I never ‘abused’ or ‘misused’ alcohol, I treated every precious drop with the utmost respect. Alcohol was my best friend in the world. Alcohol had been there for me when humans had let me down. Alcohol never left me for another lover. Alcohol never abandoned me and left me alone. I loved alcohol with every fiber of my being. Alcohol saved me from going mad or committing suicide.
With alcohol as my best friend and companion I could do anything. I could study and get two degrees. I could run one of the first methadone clinics in Greater Manchester, UK. I could become the Director of Research at the harm reduction organisation, Lifeline. I could become a career civil servant. Ironically, with alcohol, I could become the Strategic Recovery Lead for Public Health England.
Then came the ultimate betrayal. About 3am on Tuesday 18th October 2016, alcohol stopped working. I drank two full tea mugs (250 mls) of neat Vodka…and nothing happened! My predicament at that moment is expressed perfectly in the Big Book:
“No words can tell of the loneliness and despair I found in that bitter morass of self-pity. Quicksand stretched around me in all directions. I had met my match. I had been overwhelmed. Alcohol was my master.”
My lifelong friend and companion had abandoned me. My lover had long been my master. I didn’t mind being his slave. But now my master had left me all alone in a world that had terrified me from the age of twelve. At that point I had but two choices commit suicide or commit myself to the 12 step programme. For the sake of my children, I chose the latter.
Alcoholics Anonymous meetings are one part of a triangle. The 12 step programme and God are about – Recovery. The AA meetings are another part and third part is service at those meetings and other places to help the alcoholics who are still suffering. When people say (as I had for many years) that AA doesn’t work, they are usually referring to the meetings. Well, of course they don’t work. The meetings are one leg of a three legged stool. The meetings plus service won’t work either. For the stool to be fit to be sat on, all three legs need to be firmly in place. Once they are firmly in place then people can recover and they do recover. In fact, the Big Book says that if you do all three elements (Unity, Service and Recovery) you are ‘Recovered’. So, why is there so much confusion and controversy about Alcoholics Anonymous? A brief reading of the history shows exactly what AA is, what it is for and who is it for.
Alcoholics Anonymous meetings are gatherings of people who have recovered from alcoholism. They come together in fellowship to share their experience, strength and hope with each other that they may solve their common problem. Those who have recovered by following the plan exactly as set out in the book – Alcoholics Anonymous – show newcomers how they recovered. Alcoholics Anonymous is for alcoholics who suffer from alcoholism. There are two ways of treating alcoholism. The first way is by drinking alcohol, (spirits). When the alcoholic drinks alcohol they are treating their alcoholism and it works.
When the alcohol stops working, or the consequences and pain of drinking get too much, the alcoholic needs to find another power that works as well as alcohol. This takes the form of a spiritual awakening that occurs as THE result of taking THESE 12 steps. A spiritual awakening is not A result, not a random side effect, it is what happens as THE result of taking these 12 steps; ‘Spiritus Contra Spiritum’. The programme of Alcoholics Anonymous is for alcoholics who suffer from alcoholism. There are plenty of programmes for people with an alcohol problem and they work well for ‘heavy drinkers’, ‘problem drinkers’, ‘alcohol abusers’ or ‘alcohol misusers’. Alcoholics Anonymous provides a solution for alcoholics with alcoholism. It works, but, it only works if you work it and let it. It is a great shame that the AA message has been watered down over the years. Nowadays you can hear people say things like “Meeting Makers Make It” (they don’t, they make meetings) and “Just take what you want and leave the rest” (this is selfish and has nothing to do with AA). There are many more examples of how the core message of the AA programme has been watered down and massaged to suit treatment providers and people with alcohol problems. Nowadays, it is common to see heavy drinkers with an alcohol problem pay thousands of pounds to go to a detoxification and rehabilitation centre and leave with an AA Big Book and a meetings list. Real alcoholics can get all that they need for £8.50p, which is the price of the Big Book.
AA will never turn anyone away, nor will anyone in AA ever tell anyone that they are alcoholics. In fact, the third tradition of AA states that; the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking. That means that people who are not alcoholics are welcome in AA. Contemporary AA is chock full of people who had a drink problem and they CAN get well and stay well on the fellowship of the meetings alone. They can arrive at the meeting late and leave early, never read the book, never do the steps, never help anyone and stay sober. The dilemma for the real alcoholic today is to find a meeting or meetings frequented by people who have done the programme and had a spiritual awakening. I am privileged and proud to live in an area where the programme is shared by Big Book Thumpers – alcoholics who suffered from alcoholism and have recovered.