Atlanta was my first International AA Conference; we celebrated AA’s 80th birthday. At the same time, my family and I celebrated my 75th natal birthday and my 31st year of the gift of sobriety.
I have been on a spiritual quest all of my conscious life: studied to be a priest in a monastery for 7 years; pursued psychology for four and therapy for more; experimented with most of the self-help panaceas of the 70s and 80s. I did not change. I could not see that I did not see. I was a seeker but not a finder.
In 1984 I was willing to attend a treatment program to support my wife’s recovery from her alcohol problem. After several weeks they asked me to not drink during the treatment time. I was willing to stop to support her. The next day was my first day without alcohol – February 21. That became my sobriety date! After several weeks they also asked me to write out my history of my experiences with drinking. I was willing to write and be honest. Within 60 minutes of writing I discovered a 30 year pattern that described my first drink at age 12: I drank all there was; got knee buckling drunk; blacked out; passed out; and woke up in the morning covered with my own vomit. The biggest surprise was not that I had a drinking problem. What really startled me was that I had never seen any of the VERY visible evidence. The treatment team suggested I go to an AA meeting. I was willing to do that. I attended my first meeting in April, introducing myself as “Herb, exploring being an alcoholic!” After several meetings I admitted I was an alcoholic and the elders suggested I get a sponsor. I was willing to get a sponsor. He suggested I call him every day, go to a meeting every day and be of service at those meetings. I was willing to do these things and did so for the next 4 years. I stayed sober but I did not change. I didn’t know that I didn’t know. I continued to be a seeker but not a finder.
The key to my initial recovery was a twofold gift:
Abstinence, for which I did nothing; people call this Grace;
My “willingness” to take the suggested actions; I call this Grace!
However, during these four years of being a “good” AA, my pre-sobriety behavior continued and I was restless, irritable, and discontent! I was having trouble at work, at home and most everywhere. The “bedevilments” were rampant. I was a man without integrity and clueless about internal guiding principles.
In 1988 in an AA meeting, I heard a man share about having an experience of being changed through a precise application of the Twelve Steps from the book Alcoholics Anonymous. I asked for his help. Over the next year he guided me through that process. By the completion of the Ninth Step I was aware I had been radically changed. I had had an authentic spiritual awakening: a dramatic change in the way I felt, thought, and behaved; and it was done TO me not BY me! I lived with a sense of serenity, peace and contentment. I knew that experience for the very 1st time. I had become a finder! My career problems were resolved; my marriage became healed; and, I found a personal relationship with the “Mystery” that I never knew was possible.
I have continued to be a seeker. Over the next 15 years I went through the complete Step process four times with 4 different Step Guides. Each time I was led by the Spirit to a deeper experience and a more profound awakening – more light, more change, more finding, more usefulness!
Based on my history and my experience I began to realize the power of the 12 Step program. At the same time, I also began to become conscious that, although an integral part of recovery, meetings are not the program. The Steps on the wall are not the program. The meeting mantras: “Put the plug in the jug and go to meetings” and “Meeting makers make it” may in fact be death sentences!
The Twelve Steps in the book Alcoholics Anonymous, applied to our personal lives, are the only “program of recovery”!
I have a growing concern about AA membership’s focus on meetings – as if meetings are the “program of recovery”. The GSO organized and sponsored International Conference put this concern on steroids. Over three days there were 220+ topic meetings; only 30% were directly or indirectly about the book Alcoholics Anonymous, the Twelve Steps, Spiritual Awakening, or living “Our Way of Life” (Steps Ten, Eleven and Twelve).
Over the last 27 years I have facilitated numerous in depth workshops on the Steps, the Traditions, and the Concepts. My understanding of AA’s primary purpose is to be an organization that supports a Fellowship wherein alcoholics share their experience of gaining freedom from alcohol through a Spiritual Awakening – the promise of the Twelve Steps. My understanding also is that AA GSO is the administrative guardian and the AA Board of Trustees are the policy custodians of this 1st Legacy – the Twelve Steps as contained in the book Alcoholics Anonymous.
My initial experience of freedom from alcohol was pure Gift. My sustaining that freedom for four years was the direct result of my connection to a sponsor and meetings. My having a Spiritual Awakening during my 5th year is the direct result of a rigorous personal application of the suggestions in the Big Book for each of the Twelve Steps.
The program of recovery is contained in the Big Book – a “text” book with a “precise” set of suggestions for working each Step. The sole purpose of this Step work is to find Power through the experience of a Spiritual Awakening.
The Big Book boldly states in Step Ten that we will be placed in a position of neutrality with respect to alcohol – we have “recovered” – perhaps referring to the 1st half of Step One. Step Ten promises that “We have entered the world of the Spirit.” It also declares “we are not cured” – perhaps referring to the 2nd half of Step One. We have a daily reprieve from the original bondage of alcohol as long as we have a daily practice of staying awake by practicing Steps Ten, Eleven and Twelve. We find freedom from the “bondage of self”.
Step Twelve promises: “Having had a Spiritual Awakening as the result of these steps…”. In the Alcoholics Anonymous textbook, meetings are only mentioned twice:
A place where newcomers can gather once a week to bring their problems;
To meet frequently in each other’s homes to have fellowship.
It is very clear, meetings are not the program! Meetings are not included in the Big Book as any part of the suggested Spiritual Awakening process.
WHEN DID MEETINGS BECOME THE PROGRAM?
Alcoholics Anonymous had a meteoric rise in membership for the first forty years, until about 1976, as revealed in the various Big Book Forwards:
1976 1,000,000 700% growth
2001 2,000,000 100% growth
Although it is wonderful to see the increase in membership from 1976 to 2001, why has the rate of AA Fellowship growth slowed down so dramatically?
The alcohol addiction problem in America has not been diminished. Let’s estimate:
approximately one out of ten adults are alcoholic = 10,000,000;
about 10% attempt some treatment intervention = 1,000,000;
perhaps 10% of those find some long term recovery, most in a Twelve Step program = 100,000 a year. Apparently, by 2001, they are not coming, nor staying, as they were up to 1976!
The Big Book Second Edition (1955) speculated that “… of those who really tried …” about 75% recovered eventually. “Really tried” is the key. We can wonder what that meant to Bill Wilson, the author of these words? Perhaps:
Submitting to the entire Twelve Step process
Living daily in a consistent practice of:
Prayer and meditation
Practice of principles and service
Or, do we believe “really tried” meant going to lots of meetings?
Is it the correct question for a person’s sponsor or the members of the home group to ask about a person’s recent relapse: “How many meetings were you going to?” The recent book on recovery research: “If You Work It, It Works” reviews scientific studies about the effectiveness of 12 Step programs. The evidence is wonderful and very supportive of the wisdom heard in meetings: 90 in 90; get a sponsor; be of service. However, the success criteria of these studies focus mostly on meeting attendance, as if this were the principle component of the AA program of recovery.
It seems as if both the Fellowship itself, and the professionals who study it, reveal a basic misunderstanding of “powerless” and the process of accessing “power.” They reveal a basic ignorance of the real “program of recovery”: Big Book as a textbook; Steps as a process; Spiritual Awakening as the promised product; Steps 10, 11, & 12 as a daily practice of a way of life to sustain the experience.
Maybe what G.K. Chesterton said in his book “Mere Christianity” can increasingly be said about AA:
AA has not been tried and found wanting; it hasn’t really been tried.
The middle way is usually the healthy solution. My experience reveals that both meetings and Steps are vitally important. Meetings fostered the necessary spirit of fellowship; Steps provided the required Fellowship of the Spirit. Meetings provided me a forum to find the “program of recovery”; the 12 Steps provided me the formula for experiencing the “program of recovery”.