U.S. of AA

January 5, 2023 Comments Off on U.S. of AA

The book “US of AA,” a polemic by Joe Miller attacks the origins of Alcoholics Anonymous on three fronts. First, it argues convincingly that there is no science behind the AA theory of “alcoholism.” Second, it shows that AA’s claim to “attract, not promote” was never adhered to, and that the only reason AA and similar 12-step programs are the default treatment for alcohol use disorder is because of an orchestrated, funded, and indefatigable lobbying-media campaign that lasted decades. Third, Miller simply argues that for most people, AA does not work.

Miller’s first point, that AA treatment is not science based, is effectively but somewhat lazily argued. He focuses first on the fact that no one involved in the formation of AA had any scientific or medical training with regard to alcohol use disorder, and on the fact that the disease theory of alcoholism was accepted by the American Medical Association as the result of a coordinated but covert media campaign. These two points are thoroughly researched and proven in great detail. AA’s only medical researcher, Dr. Jellinek, had no medical credentials and was likely a fraud, and after concluding that alcoholism was a disease in an important treatise, he actually backed away from this conclusion in later years.

Unfortunately, Miller fails to focus on the modern scientific failures of AA, which are far more relevant, and which stem from the absence of a science based approach in AA from the very beginning. There’s hardly any mention of the Oxford Group and its bible-beating fundamentalism as the guiding approach for AA’s original six steps, and more importantly, there’s no discussion of what science based treatment should have looked like, even back in in 1939.

In short, the ammunition against AA in the 30’s for being whacky and wrong is weak; alcohol use disorder hadn’t been medically described and “alcoholism” was considered a moral failure. Few branches of medicine in the 1930’s operated according to theories and practices that would be accepted in a modern hospital. For example, rejected treatments for the “insane” included malarial therapy, deep sleep therapy, insulin shock therapy, cardiazol shock therapy, electroshock therapy, and lobotomy. The difference between real medicine and AA is that over time scientists discarded the use of the word “insane” in favor of more descriptive diagnoses, and they tested these various therapies against objective outcomes, eventually concluding that they didn’t work. AA has never tested, and will never test, its theories because they are religious and therefore not testable.

Miller fails to understand that AA isn’t to blame for being wrong in 1939, or even for being wrong-headed. He misses the cardinal point, that AA isn’t science based because nothing that AA promulgates is open to investigation, testing, and revision. AA’s principle that it will never engage in controversies is its statement of religious belief, that these truths according to AA are immutable. If anything, AA’s willingness to tackle a socially distasteful syndrome like alcohol abuse is worthy of great praise, and however misguided, AA’s insistence at least superficially that alcohol abuse deserves medical recognition not moral condemnation, was a giant leap forward. But as I’ve discussed elsewhere, acknowledging somatic processes and treating them with religion is a disappointing, and ultimately for most AA participants, an ineffective way to treat alcohol misuse.

Miller’s second attack is by far his best. AA goes to great length to claim that it is anonymous and that it succeeds due to “attraction” rather than “promotion.” Nothing could be more untrue. Through its tightly coordinated but organizationally distinct lobbying arm and the full time efforts of publicist-lobbyist Marty Mann, AA achieved public acceptance, public funding, and incorporation as a business model that it could never have gotten had it passively waited to “attract” new followers. This massive and massively coordinated chicanery explains why alcohol and drug misuse in the U.S. are treated with a 12-step religion rather than with science based therapies.

Much more than his weak critique of AA’s science, Miller’s presentation of prior research regarding the way that AA mobilized politicians and media to fund and install itself as the go-to treatment for alcohol use disorder explains why science will likely never prevail in the U.S. against this and similar syndromes. In short, the religious program of AA has been adopted by virtually every drug and alcohol treatment center in existence due to the low cost of start-up, the absence of any scientific or medical credentials to be a therapist/counselor, and the limitless funding provided by healthcare insurers who now include 12-step alcohol and drug treatment as covered therapies. Other writers have explained in detail the financial boondoggle of these centers, but Miller synthesizes why they exist and how AA’s model co-opted scientific treatment of alcohol use disorder before it ever fell under the rubric of serious scientific inquiry.

By far the most disappointing aspect of Miller’s book is his third critique, that AA simply doesn’t work for most people. From his bibliography and discussion, Miller shows himself to primarily be one who synthesizes and summarizes, which is important, but he’s also lazy because the single best critique of AA lies in a simple search on PubMed. There are significant reviews and numerous randomized, controlled studies that examine exactly the question of whether AA works, and all it would have taken was a bit of reading to marshal the strongest criticism of AA, namely, that it does not work.

Of course a few published studies do show that some people are helped by AA, and the most comprehensive review shows that compared to other treatment modalities AA can confer treatment benefits. However, even the most favorable research only shows that achieving abstinence through AA is limited to a few years. No study has ever confirmed, or even hinted, that AA delivers on its promise of lifelong sobriety when you “work the steps.”

In the most favorable study results, AA shows that it can have a slightly better outcome than other modalities but only as measured over a very short time span such as three or seven years. This is another huge knock on AA that Miller misses. AA cannot claim with any sincerity to have cured anyone because the organization is by definition anonymous and immune to study. When the Big Book throws out lines like “worse than average” in discussing its results, it’s GIGO. There are no numbers because AA membership and alcohol usage are not tracked.

This is most evident in the terrible selection bias of AA itself. In my short tenure there, so many people have come and gone, never to reappear. They could never be included in a study of AA’s effectiveness because there is no record of their existence, so all you’re left with are the people who have some measure of success. But eliminating all the failures has a much better phrase to explain its statistical worthlessness than “selection bias,” and the phrase is “cherry picking.”

Is AA better than doing nothing? Some studies say yes, but most say no. Has AA ever been shown to result in lifelong sobriety? No, never. Which isn’t to say that some people in AA haven’t become sober for life, it’s just to say that their sobriety can’t be shown to be a result of AA. This is exactly the point made in “This Naked Mind” by Annie Grace, which is that sobriety for many simply happens, and continued abuse simply continues: the causes and cures are, as of 2023, unknown.

As a treatment modality, the failure of AA to result in complete sobriety is damning because unlike other treatments, in AA you are not cured as long as you are drinking, even if it’s one drink per year. In fact, even after 30 years of complete sobriety, a single drink reverts you to the status of a newcomer. The burden of proof is on AA to show that its methods result not in moderate drinking, or healthier lifestyles, or other measures of success, but that AA attendance will result in complete abstinence. With no rolls, no records, and a religious approach, this is simply impossible. By its own standard, AA is a colossal failure.

Why would Miller have failed to account for these damning scientific results? It seems partly personal, because he begins and ends the book with his personal experiences. AA didn’t work for him, and he still struggles to control his drinking. There is obvious rage in his writing at being subjected to unscientific, religious mumbo-jumbo as a “cure” for a deadly and destructive disorder. At the same time, by failing to hit on the real problem with AA, which is the fact that it is a religion not a science, he misses the substantial benefit that AA has conferred to countless people. That’s the benefit of fellowship and a support network.

Whether AA helps you stop drinking, membership provides an instantaneous network of emotional, physical, financial, social, and medical resources. Members will drive you to the hospital, pick you up, give you a place to stay, give you money, feed you, give you a job, talk to you at all hours of the day or night, and for the most part will help you recover after a binge.

Like all functioning churches, AA has a human fabric that is strong and resilient in the face of great struggle, and the only requirement is that you have to believe, or at least go through the motions of belief.

For so many people on the knife-edge of death, despair, and disease, that’s a tradeoff well worth making.


END

Wagonfall

December 26, 2022 Comments Off on Wagonfall

I’ve been drinking again, three nights in a row now.

The first night we stopped into the brewery to get growlers filled for our guests. On the menu was their award-winning IPA “Citra,” brewed twice yearly in small batches.

“Let’s get one while they’re filling the growlers.”

“Okay,” Kristie said, looking at me strangely. “Are you going to be okay?”

“Yeah.”

I had the beer, which tasted wonderful because ethanol is addictive and I’m addicted to it. After seven weeks of no ethanol, the effect was immediate and awesome. I had that one pint and we went home. Everyone else was drinking at the cabin except Pepper but I’d had enough.

The next evening I joined in the drinking. I had two beers and got pretty drunk. The next morning I felt bad because of drymouth and I’d slept poorly. “I really don’t want anymore beer today,” I said making breakfast. “It tastes like shit.”

Last night I returned to the shit, drinking two and a half pints and getting sloshed. I sobered up before bedtime but sat around the Christmas lamp with my head disconnected. It had been an amazing day, and Tiana had baked an incredible cake. Even though you know the ethanol adds nothing good, somehow I drank it anyway.

“Somehow.”

I got up this morning and felt okay. Another year older but no wiser and certainly no smarter. At this point, as long as there are people and fresh beer around, it’s impossible not to join in.

Ethanol is the most addictive chemical we know of, twice as addictive as heroin.

——

END

When science stops

December 18, 2022 Comments Off on When science stops

AA is maddening. On the one hand it provides a therapeutic social support group that clearly helps some people stop drinking and live happier, productive lives. On the other hand, the reasoning behind its methodology is contradictory, mostly made up, and fundamentally unsound. It’s my opinion that AA fails to help most people because it intentionally rejects the scientific principles that it pretends to embrace.

What, then, is the science behind AA? The Big Book itself only mentions the word science a handful of times, and only to repudiate science as a means for treating alcoholism. “Science may one day accomplish this [making a non-drinker out of a drinker], but it hasn’t yet.” (Chapter 1, p. 31). The chapter on atheism/agnosticism explicitly derides science as a means for answering end questions about knowledge, and oddly ends up arguing that the Wright brothers’ invention of the airplane was somehow a triumph of religious faith over science. This chapter is a hodgepodge of nonsequiturs and exhortations to embrace faith and reject science; the final “clincher” is a trite retelling of the Prodigal Son about how an alcoholic minister’s progeny, in an epiphany, fell down on his knees, rejected science, and received god with this intellectual tour de force: “Who am I to say there is no god?”

AA’s book that details its methods, “Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions,” is similarly scornful of science, referring to it in Chapter 2 as a failed method for treating alcoholism, in Chapter 3 as a way of thinking upon which we are dependent, and therefore analogous to religious faith, and in Chapter 7, as a guaranteed way for alcoholics not to be cured. The sum total reasoning in these texts, which are the foundation for all that AA does, is that science cannot cure alcoholism.

At the same time, AA emphatically rejects the notion that alcoholism is a moral or personal failing, or that people fail to abstain because they somehow lack willpower, and describes it as an illness. “We have come to believe it is an illness,” “the alcoholic illness,” “in the grip of a progressive illness.”

It seems like AA actually does support a scientific definition of alcoholism, but the bait-and-switch comes early. In Chapter 2 of the Big Book, AA specifically states that alcoholism is an illness that “only a spiritual experience can conquer.” It further admits that its use of the concept of illness is merely a front to win alcoholics over to the AA method, which of course is spiritual. Getting people onto the AA program involves ostensibly treating alcoholism as an illness, even resorting to medical advice and treatment to detox, but ultimately seeking the “cure” of sobriety through religion. “You are betting, of course, that your changed attitude plus the contents of this book will turn the trick [convince the alcoholic to stay sober],” p. 144.

One of the religious testimonials to AA in the Big Book (p. 336) makes clear that despite repeated references to disease and illness, AA itself has zero interest in pursuing, understanding, or dealing with medico-scientific treatments or their reality. “I understood that it was not the world’s job to understand
my disease; rather it was my job to work my program and not drink, no matter what.”

Once in recovery, alcoholics are encouraged to proselytize to other people with the disease by pretending to agree that it’s an illness, all the while leading them to a spiritual remedy. It’s an explicit endorsement of fraud and deception because the ends supposedly justify the means.

“Continue to speak of alcoholism as an illness, a fatal malady. Talk about the conditions of body and mind which accompany it. Keep his attention focused mainly on your personal experience. Explain that many are doomed who never realize their predicament. Doctors are rightly loath to tell alcoholic patients the whole story unless it will serve some good purpose. But you may talk to him about the hopelessness of alcoholism because you offer a solution. You will soon have your friend admitting he has many, if not all, of the traits of the alcoholic. If his own doctor is willing to tell him that he is alcoholic, so much the better. Even though your protégé may not have entirely admitted his condition, he has become very curious to know how you got well. Let him ask you that question, if he will. Tell him exactly what happened to you. Stress the spiritual feature freely. If the man be agnostic or atheist, make it emphatic that he does not have to agree with your conception of God. He can choose any conception he likes, provided it makes sense to him. The main thing is that he be willing to believe in a Power greater than himself and that he live by spiritual principles.” Chapter 7, pp. 92-93.

Essentially, AA’s manual mandates that you dupe the alcoholic with references to illness and disease and the medico-scientific certainties of his condition, but lead him to a moral-spiritual-theistic solution. Yet none of these fragments, despite their plain aversion to science, carry any of the punch contained in AA’s Tenth Tradition, which is one of the twelve core principles upon which the entire organization rests.

“TRADITION TEN — long form: No A.A. group or member should ever, in such a way as to implicate A.A., express any opinion on outside controversial issues—particularly those of politics, alcohol reform, or sectarian religion. The Alcoholics Anonymous groups oppose no one. Concerning such matters they can express no views whatever.”

On its surface this seems like a sound approach to keeping AA focused on its mission, which is to help people abstain from alcohol. Yet what AA considers “outside controversial issues” includes the definition and treatment of alcoholism itself. AA’s stance on what alcoholism is and the best way to treat it remains unchanged from 1939, and with good reason. AA does not endorse or propose any scientific approach to alcohol addiction, it is strictly religious, and like most religions it requires foundational texts that are inviolate, that cannot be updated or amended, and that are immune to new discoveries or change of any sort. If there is a definition of religion, this is it: We are The Way, singular.

It’s astounding that an organization devoted to alcohol addiction doesn’t even acknowledge that the word “alcoholism” has no medical definition and that modern views, based on neuroscience, chemistry, biology, and psychology, recognize that alcohol use falls on a spectrum with some people mildly addicted, some severely, and some not at all. AA’s origins as a religious offshoot of the fundamentalist Oxford Group, its bait-and-switch with an illusory “illness” being treated by prayer, and its insistence that no progress is possible without dog and a rejection of science all explain why, in order for AA’s methods to work, you have to give up and accept that science is helpless and hopeless as a means for curing alcoholism.

And lest you miss the point, AA’s Big Book hammers it home with a bone-chilling accusation in Chapter 5: If you can’t recover from alcoholism, it’s your fault because you are “incapable of being honest with [your]self.” From what seems like an awful judgment, that you’re a pathological liar and you have a strange alcoholic disease caused by lying, AA retreats just a little ands says don’t worry, such human failures “seem to have been born this way.”

This paragraph alone makes science helpless, but if you think about it, it also condemns religion. What god makes people incapable of honesty from birth, such that their dishonesty condemns them to death by alcoholism? And from whence comes this determination that people “seem to have been born this way”? Genetic studies? Observational studies? Review of the offspring of alcoholic mothers? The bible? Leaving aside the glaring fact that “honesty” isn’t defined and that it’s somehow the key factor in the disease’s pathology, that the authors are neither scientists nor researchers who have based their conclusions on anything other than anecdotes, this foundational paragraph, repeated at thousands of AA meetings weekly, concludes that people with “grave emotional and mental disorders” have “less than average chances [of recovery],” but then it does a 180 and says that even these poor souls can recover if they have the capacity to be honest. None of it makes any sense, because the Big Book repeatedly defines alcoholism as a form of insanity, and repeatedly describes the severe emotional and mental disorders resulting from alcoholism. The basic message is something that AA participants learn, relearn, and relearn again, namely that if you succeed it’s because you did the program right, but if you failed, well, re-read the Big Book and try again.

Modern ideas of addiction need not apply. Drugs like naltrexone have no place here. Neuroscience is a chimera. Statistical comparisons of various treatments are meaningless. Randomized, controlled studies evaluating the effectiveness of AA are inapposite. Either you are capable of rigorous honesty and therefore going to succeed, or you’re a genetic pathological liar and doomed to a horrific death by alcohol poisoning. This is how god set it up.

When you add these things together—religion, dogma enshrined in an unchanging text, victim blaming, the perfection of the method, contempt of science, and outright deception—you can better understand why AA works for some and not for others. A lot of others, as it turns out. Even AA admits that they only work for about half of the people they treat. I’ll write later in detail on scientific studies regarding the effectiveness of AA, but for now let’s accept their assertion that at least half of people with severe alcohol use disorder get nothing from AA except more alcoholism. Unsurprisingly, science doesn’t lay the blame at the feet of some nebulous flummery called genetic dishonesty or at severe mental disorders.

Instead, science says something else, and it’s a lot more hopeful than “you just didn’t work the steps,” “you were born this way,” or “you’re dishonest.” If AA were open to incorporating science with religion, it would reach more people and succeed with more of the people it already has. I just finished reading a book called “This Naked Mind” by Annie Grace, one of the countless how-to-stop-drinking books that appeal to those who have been left high and dry by the mental contortions, victim blaming, and inconsistencies of AA. Although not strictly scientific, it’s a very good book and it shows how alternate approaches toward alcoholism can help people. Most importantly, it doesn’t reject AA, religion, pharmacological interventions, cognitive behavioral therapy, psychotherapy, or anything else. It simply views alcoholism through a treatment lens that doesn’t resort to religion.

According to Grace, borrowing heavily from the work of John Sarno, M.D., and from the book “Liminal Thinking” by Dave Gray, alcohol addiction results from a combination of chemistry and socialization. It’s interesting that AA doesn’t ever discuss alcohol addiction, but instead separates it from narcotics and other drugs with a separate organization, also based on the Twelve Steps, called Narcotics Anonymous. There’s no explanation anywhere in AA, even in 2022, about why “drugs” are separate from alcohol when every scientific review of any worth whatsoever unequivocally defines alcohol as a drug, and not simply any old drug, but by any measure the most addictive drug known to man. With twice the addictiveness of heroin, and far greater addictiveness than crack cocaine or meth, you’d think that the science of addiction might interest AA. But it doesn’t.

In “This Naked Mind,” the author begins with what should be common sense. If alcohol is an extremely addictive drug, we should look to that fact to explain why people abuse it. Rather than pointing to people’s congenital dishonesty or ill-defined emotional/mental disorders, why not start with the properties of alcohol itself? And if alcohol is in fact the most addictive drug known to (wo)man, doesn’t it make sense that addiction can happen to anyone if they use it often enough and in sufficient quantity? The clinical answer is “absolutely,” and this is Grace’s first and most compelling argument. Alcoholism isn’t some failing of people who can’t be honest, it’s a condition resulting from ingesting an addictive and toxic chemical that will affect everyone who uses it. Whether you wind up in the gutter or live happily ever after sipping a shot of whiskey after dinner depends on your finances, your socialization, your psychology, and the random dumb luck of your genome, but the alcohol itself is constant: it’s toxic and it’s addictive.

Grace believes that alcohol consumption is unnatural, and she points to the fact that every drinker was once a non-drinker, and the process of becoming one involves socialization. Ethanol, the stuff that makes you drunk, will kill you if drunk pure, something you can’t say for water or orange juice, and the only way to make ethanol potable is with additives such as sugar, spices, flavorings or various types, and oh, yeah, sugar. Dilution is also mandatory because drinks extremely high in alcohol content, consumed straight, will make you go blind, burn your internal organs, and/or kill you on the spot.

Animal models closest to humans will not touch alcohol in any form, and either have to be genetically modified, or have to be presented with death from thirst in order to imbibe it. In short, this is toxic shit, akin to ingesting radiator fluid, motor oil, or radium. Yes, you can package it so that it doesn’t kill “you” immediately, but there is no way to eliminate its toxicity on the underlying “you,” a/k/a your blood, organs, cells, and genes. The most recent comprehensive, global study on alcohol published in The Lancet tells you exactly how much alcohol you can drink risk-free: NONE.

This idea, that alcohol is a poison and should not be consumed under any circumstances, dovetails perfectly with AA’s approach, which is complete abstinence, and it’s an example of how AA fails to serve a lot of people who might take issue with the religious mumbo-jumbo, but who would certainly latch onto the scientific toxicity of this supposedly fun and relaxing drink as a reason to quit drinking it.

And it’s this aspect of “This Naked Mind” that takes the most careful aim at drinking, the socialization that forms our beliefs about alcohol and that ultimately explains why we rationalize irrational behavior. Using the concept of liminal thinking, which simply says that our beliefs stem from experiences that may or may not be true, Grace deconstructs each belief we have about alcohol that undermines our attempts to quit. The theory that our reptilian brain directs our prefrontal cortex once certain experiences have become unconscious memories is the basis of this approach.

By examining our true beliefs about alcohol and reviewing why we have those beliefs, Grace argues that it’s possible to let go of the psychological part of addiction, that is the wanting, the feeling that you’re missing out, the desire to be back in bed with your best friend Mx. Alcohol. These unconscious beliefs, created by experience and observation, include things like “drinking is fun,” “drinking makes me sexy,” “drinking makes me social,” “drinking dissipates stress,” “drinking isn’t that bad for you,” “drinking in moderation is fine,” “everyone drinks,” and “I can quit anytime I want.”

Taking only one of these beliefs, that drinking is fun, and deconstructing it so that you understand how it motivates your conscious behavior, requires you to look at why and how you came to the belief that drinking is in fact fun. In the advanced stages of alcohol addiction, no one describes the experience of severe hangovers, liver disease, brain dysfunction, unemployment, poverty, isolation, homelessness, and mental disorder as “fun.” No one.

To the contrary, even people who are just being socialized to drink immediately run into the harsh realities of alcohol toxicity in the form of headaches, vomiting, falling and getting hurt, and that most enjoyable of alcohol-induced fun, the DUI, or better yet, the traffic collision resulting in severe injury to some innocent bystander or worse, to yourself. Even if alcohol were fun, you’d think that these outcomes, all of which are perfectly obtainable your very first time out, would convince you that the fun of alcohol is akin to a beginner trying cliff diving into shallow water.

The fun of alcohol of course comes from observing, as a child, the antics of drunken adults and their asseverations that it’s fun. You see people enthuse about wine or beer or whiskey. You see them liven up, laugh, and have fun at parties. You see that no social gathering can possibly take place without prodigious quantities of alcohol. You hear folk wisdom about the health benefits, and you soak in the cultural wisdom that wine is the elixir of life, the coaxer of truth, the drink of humanity. This socialization, with all its obscure references to received wisdom, continues throughout youth until you imbibe your first drink and you realize that the elixir of life tastes like shit. But by that time you’ve purchased the idea that it’s an acquired taste and, like rats in the lab, you’ll eventually learn to love it.

The even greater socialization, if there can possibly be something more powerful than the endorsement of mother, father, siblings, relatives, and friends, is the socialization through advertising. I’m not going to go on a screed about how we are literally marketed to regarding the fun of alcohol thousands of times, over and over, throughout our lives, but if there’s one thing advertisers can agree on, it’s that portraying drinking as fun works. When people associate the ingestion of a carcinogenic toxin as the key to enjoying all social activities, it normalizes consumption at the unconscious level. You see people enjoying it, you hear them enjoying it, so your unconscious concludes that it’s enjoyable.

Importantly, your unconscious isn’t absorbing the negative aspects of alcohol in the same way, if at all. One of AA’s classic examples about the insanity of drinking that supposedly makes it unique is the example of someone “addicted” to jaywalking who incurs repeated injuries after being hit by cars but somehow can’t stop jaywalking. A more realistic example would be putting one’s hand in a fire. Your unconscious mind has fully absorbed the lesson that fire will destroy your hand. There is no global marketing campaign to convince you that hand-in-fire makes you handsome, sexy, smart, fun, the life of the party, relaxed, or anything other than “burned.” So for virtually everyone on earth, willingly burning yourself is not considered fun.

But I said virtually everyone. There are people who have evaluated skin burns and concluded that it leads to a higher consciousness, and they engage in fire-walking, or at least they appear to. These people have not accepted the socialization that fire burns your feet and instead “learn” to walk on hot coals. Although fire-walking doesn’t actually involved building up a resistance to fire and is a complete scam, people can be induced to believe that not only are they doing it, but that it’s good for them. Footnote: lawsuits have resulted when the initiates have mistakenly actually walked on the hot coals. The point is that people will do what they believe, and what they believe may be incredibly bad for them. But burned fire walkers, when confronted with the assumptions they have made, and then looking critically at their own observations/experiences, can re-wire their beliefs and conclude that walking on fire results in burns. In the same vein, if it’s proposed repeatedly in media and through socialization, people can be re-taught to believe that drinking alcohol isn’t fun because sickness, injury, slobbering on yourself, waking up with STDs, prison, and being broke aren’t fun.

The reason we have no epidemic of jaywalkers or fire walkers is because socialization promoting those things is more difficult; neither activity ignites neurochemical processes that release dopamine or anything else except pain. With alcohol, however awful the consequences, there are undeniable chemical reactions that stimulate the desire to have more. No one ever woke up in the burn unit asking the nurse to please light the other half of their body on fire.

When AA learns that alcohol is a toxic, addictive drug, and that combined treatment modalities including religion can effect extremely positive outcomes, especially for those who abuse it severely, it will be on the path of non-judgmental scientific inquiry, seeking answers that can be observed, tested, and whose outcomes can be repeated.

In short, it will no longer be AA.


END

Nuggets

December 16, 2022 Comments Off on Nuggets

I’ve been reading “Spark” by John J. Ratey, and it confirms what I’ve always known about exercise: Go hard.

I was hammering down PCH in Long Beach, on my way to the cleaners to pick up a pair of shorts, when I passed my favorite liquor store, Junior’s No. 2. I’ve never been inside but almost every time I go by, the parking lot is either filled with cop cars, or people are trying to beat each other up, or someone with a shopping cart is screaming at someone else with a shopping cart.

Because it’s the holidays which means even more sadness and therefore even more alcohols than usual, as I passed today I got to watch a car stop in the middle of PCH as a fat, bald, giant of a man got out of his car to have a posturtation with a smaller but equally furious man whose pride had been mortally wounded to the extent that he was willing to kill someone and go to jail over the slight. Tender is the ego. Mine, too!

They both called each other awful names, raised giant fists, threatened lots of “ass whuppin'” and postured so vehemently and violently with so many neck veins and so much shouting that there was absolutely no fucking way anything was going to happen because exhausted. The posturtation concluded, both badasses declared ass-whuppin’ victory without having to actually whup any ass, traffic resumed, and I continued on.

I reflected how happy I was not to be in the thrall of alco-anger, and I reflected on a few of the wise nuggets I’ve picked up going to AA. They aren’t just for people with a drinking problem; you can use them, too. My application in parentheses.

  • Does it need to be said? By you? Now? (Shut up, think, then shut up some more.)
  • Are you unhappy or simply bored by tranquillity? (Do you have a problem or are you just a drama addict?)
  • Is your behavior an obstacle to someone else’s growth? Or your own? (Are you standing on some important principle or just holding other people back, including yourself?)
  • Did you really let it go? (Have you forgiven/apologized/accepted, or are you waiting to punish them/yourself later?)
  • Do you really know what’s going to happen? (Are you as smart as you think you are?)
  • Are you getting what you deserve? (Is your situation a logical consequence?)
  • Do you want what you deserve? (If not, why don’t you want something better?)
  • Do you know that change happens in the pauses? (There are no revolutions, only small changes that add up.)
  • Why judge? Why critique? (Are you that much better than others, or better at all?)
  • Life never gets easier, but if you’re doing it right it does get better. (Life, inevitably followed by death, is hard.)
  • Do you really know what the other person is thinking? (If not, maybe you should withhold judgment.)
  • Instead of seeing and judging, try observing and concluding. (Why do you always have to be right?)
  • No one wound up in AA on a winning streak. (If you were perfect you wouldn’t have problems.)
  • Did you know that your feelings are what make you human? (Don’t fear what you feel, embrace it.)
  • Are you just suffering from a problem of abundance? (Is this as a big a problem as you’re making it out to be?)
  • Are you clawing at a locked door while equally good or better ones stand open? (Why seek what you can’t have?)
  • The way you do one thing is the way you do everything. (Habit matters.)
  • What has happened to YOU to make you so angry as opposed to what’s happened to others? (Did anything actually happen, or are you reacting to what has happened to someone else?)
  • Maybe you just need to get right-sized. (Does your reaction fit your actual importance?)
  • Are you just pulling a geographic? (Are you making space or just running away?)
  • Did you know that the only cure for self-obsession is helping others? (Self explanatory, I hope!)
  • How can you live if you cannot heal? (Pain and sadness are necessary and okay.)

END

The dog-thing

December 11, 2022 Comments Off on The dog-thing

I learned a great word the other day, “apatheist,” a combination of “apathy” and “atheist.” It fits me perfectly. Basically, it means “I am not interested in the subject of religion.”

It differs from atheism, which indicates that you’ve thought about theism and concluded that you don’t believe in it, and it’s different from agnosticism, which indicates that you’ve thought about theism and can’t conclude one way or another. The apatheist is like the hard-core NFL fan being proselytized about the Tour. He simply doesn’t care, and no matter how much you do, he doesn’t.

My first AA meeting was, to use a religious concept, a revelation. I had no idea that AA was a religious organization or that its abstinence program adhered to strictly religious principles. It was a bit revolting, actually, realizing that going forward I’d be asked to recite prayers, believe in dog, and ask him to relieve me of my suffering which, although initially characterized in the Big Book as a medical illness, I now found out had put on a new uniform and was in fact a spiritual malady.

I couldn’t help wondering why I was being asked to pray to get well rather than listening to a medical/scientific rendition of my problem since alcoholism is a disorder that falls under addiction, and addiction is a well-studied if not perfectly understood subject of scientific research. I also couldn’t help wondering how AA gets away with telling newcomers that it’s not a church, but that you have to believe in god. After reading the Big Book a couple of times it became clear that “we’re spiritual, not religious” was simply a ploy to overcome the resistance that most people with severe Alcohol Use Disorder have to religious flummery.

Nothing will make you an atheist more quickly than severe addiction.

Moreover, AA tries to convince you that it’s not a religion with a completely indigestible bowl of word salad that says yes, you have to believe in god, but that’s not religion because YOU GET TO PICK THE GOD, or in their words, turn your life and will over to “god as you understand him.” It’s like someone saying “You can wear any color you want as long as it’s black.”

So I wondered about the notion that AA is not religious, and turned to a place that has a lot of experience answering that very question, also known as our court system, because guess what? Prisoners and probationers often get assigned to AA as a condition of parole or early release or for earning good conduct points, and lots of those prisoners don’t like being forced to listen to religious claptrap. And numerous prisoners have asked courts how forced attendance at AA can get around that pesky little clause in the U.S. Constitution known as the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which basically says that the state may not establish a religion, discriminate against religion or non-religion, nor may it force people to worship, be religiously indoctrinated, or participate in religious exercise.

The idea has been thoroughly litigated, and the legal reasoning in these cases chops apart AA’s false claim that they are not religious not once, but repeatedly and consistently over a period spanning almost twenty years.

Fact: AA meetings are religious exercises.

Fact: The following court decisions explain why.

827 F. Supp. 261 (1993), Robert WARNER, Plaintiff, v. ORANGE COUNTY DEPARTMENT OF PROBATION, Defendant. No. 93 Civ. 1544 (GLG). United States District Court, S.D. New York. July 29, 1993. Upheld on appeal to the NY S.Ct.

This decision is one of the most cited texts outlining exactly why AA is religious in nature. In Warner, the court ruled that given the language of the Big Book and AA chapter practices, it cannot be said that AA does not have a religious component. This case followed U.S. Supreme Court precedent holding that you don’t need a single deity to be a religion. This means that AA can’t argue that spirituality removes it from the status of a religious organization. When AA members assert that their appeal to spirituality is dog “as you understand him,” and that therefore the organization isn’t a religious one, this decision refutes them.

It’s an important decision because it is a federal appeals court just one step below the Supreme Court in the influential 2nd Circuit, and because it dashes the notion that AA is secular. With Warner and indeed almost all the other cases considering this issue, from the perspective of someone who is simply attending AA as opposed to being a prisoner forced to attend, I think it’s useful, instead of asking “Is AA a religious organization?” to ask instead “Is it a secular one?” From that approach, there’s simply no question that an organization founded on turning one’s will over to god is secular, and if it’s not secular, well, then, it must be …

Seven years later, another New York federal district court considered the same matter in Alexander v. Schenk, 118 F. Supp. 2d 298 (N.D.N.Y. 2000), and found that forcing inmates to attend AA-based treatment was a clear violation of the Establishment Clause because the heart of AA’s program is “unequivocally religious.”

Think about the phrase “unequivocally religious” the next time someone at AA claims that the program is anything less, or when they tell you it’s “spiritual not religious” or when they tell you that because you get to pick the god it is somehow not religion.

88 N.Y.2d 674 (1996), 673 N.E.2d 98, 649 N.Y.S.2d 903, In the Matter of David Griffin, Appellant, v. Thomas A. Coughlin, III, as Commissioner of the New York State Department of Correctional Services, et al., Respondents. Court of Appeals of the State of New York. Argued February 15, 1996. Decided June 11, 1996.

In this case, a New York appeals court had to decide whether AA was secular or religious because an inmate claimed that forced participation in AA violated the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits the state from coercing religious participation. The case is very good because it deftly counters all of the arguments typically made by AA members and sponsors, especially the one that AA is “spiritual not religious” and that it’s not really religious because you get to pray to dog “as you understand him.”

The Griffin court summarily rejected the argument that AA was secular or non-religious: “Concededly, there are passages in A.A. literature, relied upon heavily by respondents, the Appellate Division and the dissent here, which, in stressing the openness and inclusiveness of the A.A. movement, eschew any intent to impose a particular sectarian set of beliefs or a particular concept of God upon participants. However, a fair reading of the fundamental A.A. doctrinal writings discloses that their dominant theme is unequivocally religious, certainly in the broad definitional sense as ‘manifesting faithful devotion to an acknowledged ultimate reality or deity (Webster’s 9th New Collegiate Dictionary 995 [9th ed 1990]). Indeed, the A.A. basic literature most reasonably would be characterized as reflecting the traditional elements common to most theistic religions.”

The court continued, “While A.A. literature declares an openness and tolerance for each participant’s personal vision of God (‘as we understood Him’ [Steps 3 and 11] [emphasis in the original]), the writings demonstrably express an aspiration that each member of the movement will ultimately commit to a belief in the existence of a Supreme Being of independent higher reality than humankind.”

Removing any doubt as to whether or not AA is a religious organization, the court held that “doctrinally and as actually practiced in the 12-step methodology, adherence to the A.A. fellowship entails engagement in religious activity and religious proselytization. Followers are urged to accept the existence of God as a Supreme Being, Creator, Father of Light and Spirit of the Universe. In ‘working’ the 12 steps, participants become actively involved in seeking such a God through prayer, confessing wrongs and asking for removal of shortcomings. These expressions and practices constitute, as a matter of law, religious exercise for Establishment Clause purposes, no less than the nondenominational prayer in Engel v Vitale (370 US 421), that is, ‘a solemn avowal of divine faith and supplication for the blessings of the Almighty. The nature of such a prayer has always been religious’ (id., at 424-425 [emphasis supplied]; see also, Lee v Weisman, 505 US 577, 603-604 [Blackmun, J., concurring]).” And “That is, the A.A. basic doctrinal writings clearly express a preference for and a conviction favoring a concept of God and prayer which is not merely a conscientious social belief, or a sincere devotion to a high moralistic philosophy [but] one based upon an individual’s belief in his responsibility to an authority higher and beyond any worldly one.’”

The AA Big Book and the accompanying explanatory volume that includes The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions represent texts that are “unequivocally religious in theme and proselytizing in content.” Many in AA would argue that whatever the religious content, the goal of the organization is sobriety and helping people with AUD recover. The court agrees, but never takes its eye off the ball: “Thus, while it is of course true that the primary objective of A.A. is to enable its adherents to achieve sobriety, its doctrine unmistakably urges that the path to staying sober and to becoming ‘happily and usefully whole,’ is by wholeheartedly embracing traditional theistic belief.”

The Griffin case is also enlightening because it’s the only one that mentions a core element of AA, proselytizing, and links it to religious practice. Who hasn’t been accosted by the bible beater in the parking lot or at the front door, eyes blazing, hands tightly clutching The Word, and, for just a few moments of time, would like to know if you’ve been saved?

Proselytizing in the context of books and ideas that contain god and spirituality are de facto religious because a core tenet of many religions is the obligation on the faithful to convert the heathens. AA’s Twelfth Step doesn’t exhort you to simply help other alcoholics, it commands you to help them through the Twelve religious Steps, and yes, there’s a word for that and it’s called “conversion.” Jews and other religious minorities have run across the concept before.

Kerr v. Farrey, 95 F.3d 472 (7th Cir. 1996).

This appellate case from the 7th Circuit remains one of the best decisions debunking the claim that AA only has religious “overtones” or that it is “spiritual rather than religious.” To the contrary, the 7th Circuit used clear and convincing analysis of both law and fact to conclude that AA is inescapably religious in its operation, and therefore results in religion being favored over atheism in violation of the Establishment Clause. From a legal standpoint, which doesn’t really matter to the average AA participant, the 7th Circuit explained that the traditional Lemon v. Kurtzman test used by other courts is actually inapposite to claims where a petitioner asserts that he is being coerced into religious participation. For this reason, the decision is worth reading, as it distills a complicated issue in simple and well-reasoned fashion. Rather than the Lemon test, the court applied the coercion test in Lee v. Wiseman, correctly understanding that the issue of religious discrimination differs from the issue of religious coercion.

In concluding that AA was religious, the 7th Circuit said that “The district court thought that the NA [Narcotics Anonymous] program escaped the ‘religious’ label because the twelve steps used phrases like ‘God, as we understood Him,’ and because the warden indicated that the concept of God could include the non-religious idea of willpower within the individual. We are unable to agree with this interpretation. A straightforward reading of the twelve steps shows clearly that the steps are based on the monotheistic idea of a single God or Supreme Being. True, that God might be known as Allah to some, or YHWH to others, or the Holy Trinity to still others, but the twelve steps consistently refer to ‘God, as we understood Him.’ Even if we expanded the steps to include polytheistic ideals, or animistic philosophies, they are still fundamentally based on a religious concept of a Higher Power. Kerr alleged, furthermore, that the meetings were permeated with explicit religious content. This was therefore not a case (again, on the present record) where the only religious note was struck by the insertion of the words ‘under God’ in the Pledge of Allegiance, or other incidental references that the courts have upheld. See, e.g., Sherman v. Wheeling School District, 980 F.2d 437 (7th Cir. 1992). Because that is true, the program runs afoul of the prohibition against the state’s favoring religion in general over non-religion.”

This analysis emphatically argues what anyone who has sat through an AA meeting knows: The Twelve Steps are based on a religious conception of god.

956 S.W.2d 478, Jimmy ARNOLD, Petitioner, v. TENNESSEE BOARD OF PAROLES, et al. Respondents. Supreme Court of Tennessee, at Nashville. Nov. 10, 1997.

This case from the Supreme Court of Tennessee, after reviewing Arnold’s claim that being forced to attend AA meetings violated the Establishment Clause, remanded the case to the district court for a finding of whether or not AA’s treatment program was a religious one. “If, on remand, the trial court finds that the treatment program at issue is a religious one and that there are no alternative secular treatment programs offered, then to require a prisoner to attend or participate in such a treatment program would constitute a violation of the Establishment Clause. Attending or failing to attend such religious meetings can not be considered in a decision whether to grant or deny parole.”

The court relied on Warner, Griffin, and Kerr, and although it didn’t rule on whether or not AA was religious, it cited these prior courts and their stance on AA with approval. Since the district court’s ruling after remand wasn’t appealed, we don’t know what the final decision was, but it’s a very good bet that the district court followed the Supreme Court’s intimation that these meetings were religious and therefore could not be mandated by the state.

Warburton v. Underwood, 2 F. Supp. 2d 306 (W.D.N.Y. 1998).

This federal case from the Western District of New York agreed that AA’s meetings were the “functional equivalent” of religious exercise, approving the Warner decision above. “The Warner Court scrutinized the A.A. literature and was persuaded by the fact that the Twelve Steps program, which is the fundamental statement of A.A. and which describe the required procedure to be followed by all attendees, is centered on a concept of a ‘higher power.’ In fact, all but five of the twelve steps refer specifically to ‘God,’ either directly (Steps 3, 5, 6 and 11) or as a ‘Power’ (Step 2), ‘Him’ (Step 7) or as a ‘spiritual awakening’ (Step 12). The Court also found that the A.A. focus on religious faith, spirituality and prayer was also demonstrated by its other writings, including the basic text of A.A. (commonly referred to as the ‘Big Book’) and the ‘Serenity Prayer’ used to start many of the meetings (all of which closed with the Lord’s Prayer).”

Although the court didn’t take an even more reasonable approach by asking, “Is this secular?”, which would have led it to the same conclusion, it satisfactorily resolved the matter by applying Warner. If it looks like god, acts like god, smells like god, and you find yourself praying to it, it’s religious, whatever you call it.

Ross v. Keelings, 2 F. Supp. 2d 810 (1998).

Also in 1998, this time decided by a federal district court in Virginia, an inmate successfully challenged his coerced assignment into a program that followed “spiritual and religious” principals as a violation of the Establishment Clause. Like others, the district court had no trouble concluding that the prison’s Therapeutic Community alcohol/drug abuse program involved religion. “‘Spiritual well-being’ is incorporated in the program, publications are utilized that refer to God, and the Serenity Prayer is recited. Id. Also, by the program director’s own admission, ‘religion is incorporated into the program so that an inmate can seek out and find his own spirituality.’ Id. P 14. Thus, the object of the program is to teach religion as a coping skill for life. While the program has the noble goal of preparing inmates to successfully reenter society, it impermissibly advances religion by coercing inmates to participate.”

The reasoning in this case speaks directly to arguments made at AA meetings and in the AA Big Book, namely, that they are not religious doctrines, only “spiritual” ones. This sleight-of-hand is specious; what is spirituality when contrasted with agnosticism/atheism, as done in the Big Book, if not religious? AA’s goal is to prepare members to face sobriety with divine help, and in case you miss that seminal point, meetings feature an opening prayer to “God,” and a closing one to the same invisible friend.

It is a great fraud to claim that spirituality is not religious when the mechanisms of that spirituality depend on prayer to god and on turning one’s will and life over to him–not her, it, or they. The Big Book admits as much in its chapter on We Agnostics, making the point that you may be atheist or agnostic when you start, but properly following the program will result in something that is not atheism or agnosticism. What’s left, besides theism?

Yates v. Cunningham, 70 F. Supp. 2d 47 (D.N.H. 1999).

This federal case from the District of New Hampshire provided no analysis, but simply said that even assuming coerced AA participation violated the Establishment Clause, other factors rendered the appeal moot. No case law was cited, but the court noted that there was evidence on the record showing that prior courts had ruled mandatory AA participation unconstitutional.

139 F.Supp.2d 1029 (2001), John BAUSCH, Plaintiff, v. Debra SUMIEC, Michael Sullivan and Jon Litscher, Defendants. United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin. April 10, 2001.

In this case a parolee protested coerced attendance at a rehab program that closely mimicked AA. Unlike some of the other cases, however, the defendant prison officials agreed that the program was “religious in nature,” not even attempting to pretend that all the dog and spiritual references were somehow non-religious. The court slapped down the coerced attendance as unconstitutional and ordered the prison to provide secular alternatives and, as importantly, to advise parolees that such alternatives existed at the time of assignment to the program.

For the purposes of this post, it’s not the ruling but rather the interesting administrative rulings that were made in Wisconsin after the Kerr decision, rulings in which prison officials explicitly admitted what even today AA members vehemently deny: that AA and its progeny are religious in nature. Here are two great quotes, from the Wisconsin Dept. of Corrections Office of Legal Counsel: “Agents cannot order offenders to attend alcohol or drug treatment at a 12 step program without offering a secular alternative. Kerr v. Farrey, 95 F.3d 472 (1996). The United States 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that to force an offender to attend a treatment program with religious components violates the establishment clause of the 1st Amendment to the United States Constitution. As a result, agents should write rules that order the offender to attend and complete out-patient (in-patient) alcohol/drug treatment without citing a specific program. The offender can attend a 12 step program if they choose, but a non-religious alternative must be offered.”

And: “The United States 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, in Kerr v. Farrey, 95 F.3d 472 (1996), ruled that to order an offender to attend a treatment program with religious components violates the establishment clause of the 1st Amendment to the United States Constitution. Agents cannot, as a condition of probation or parole, direct offenders to attend treatment or support programs that have a religious component. An agent cannot consider an offender in violation of supervision if the offender fails to attend a treatment or support program with a religious component. The court considered Alcoholics Anonymous, for instance, to be a program with a religious component since the program refers to a higher power and to God as we understood him. Agents can order offenders to attend specific treatment or support programs as long as they are secular in nature. An offender may choose to attend a treatment program with religious components, but a non-religious alternative must be offered and agents must document this. For example: An offender is required to attend a support program. The agent directs the offender to attend a non-religious program but the offender requests to attend AA and the agent agrees. The agent must document that it was the offender’s choice to attend AA in order to consider the offender in violation of supervision should the offender fail to attend AA meetings.”

How is it that the administrative bodies responsible for implementing AA-type programs can admit that these programs are religious, but that AA cannot?

DeStefano v. Emergency Housing Group, Inc., 247 F.3d 397 (2d Cir. 2001).

This federal appellate decision from the 2nd Circuit involved a taxpayer challenge to the use of public funds for an AA program. Unlike the prisoner/parolee cases that examined the issue of coercion, this court examined the issue of indoctrination; that is, whether or not AA religiously indoctrinated participants.

Before it reached that issue, however, it reviewed controlling law and held unequivocally that AA is religious. “Our conclusions that the A.A. program is religious activity under our case law and that the district court’s decision was incomplete require us to assess the merits of DeStefano’s assertions under the First Amendment.”

In detail, the court reviewed the precedential rulings to support its conclusion. “The district court in the case before us rightly considered the A.A. program at the MACC to be a ‘religion’ for Establishment Clause purposes. It is too late in the day for the defendants to argue otherwise. See Warner, Griffin v. Coughlin, 88 N.Y.2d 674, 683, 649 N.Y.S.2d 903, 908, 673 N.E.2d 98 (1996), cert. denied, 519 U.S. 1054, 117 S.Ct. 681, 136 L.Ed.2d 607 (1997) (holding that a review of A.A. materials ‘demonstrates beyond peradventure that doctrinally and as actually practiced in the 12-step methodology, adherence to the A.A. fellowship entails engagement in religious activity and religious proselytization’); see also Kerr v. Farrey, 95 F.3d 472, 479-480 (7th Cir. 1996) (reaching the same conclusion about a materially indistinguishable N.A. program); Alexander v. Schenk, 118 F.Supp.2d 298, 300 n. 1 (N.D.N.Y. 2000) (treating A.A. as a religion, following Warner and Griffin); Yates v. Cunningham, 70 F.Supp.2d 47, 49 (D.N.H. 1999) (same, citing, inter alia, Warner and Kerr); Warburton v. Underwood, 2 F.Supp.2d 306, 316-18 (W.D.N.Y. 1998) (treating N.A. as a religion, citing, inter alia, Warner and Griffin).

“We find no basis on which to distinguish the content of the A.A. program at the MACC from that which was before us in Warner. Both programs use the same Twelve Step system in which participants pledge, among other things, to ‘turn [their] will and [their] lives over to the care of God as [they] understood him’; both programs distribute standard A.A. literature reflecting the need to take these and similarly religious ‘steps’; and both conduct meetings in which these beliefs are inculcated. See DeStefano, 67 F.Supp.2d at 278; Warner v. Orange County Dep’t of Prob., 870 F.Supp. 69, 70-71 (S.D.N.Y. 1994), remanded, 115 F.3d 1068 (2d Cir. 1997), reaff’d after remand, 173 F.3d 120 (2d Cir.), cert. denied, 528 U.S. 1003, 120 S.Ct. 495, 145 L.Ed.2d 382 (1999).

In re the Personal Restraint of Garcia, 106 Wash. App. 625 (Wash. Ct. App. 2001).

This appellate court decision from Washington continued the long march of decisions ruling the obvious, that AA is a religious program. “As such, contrary to the State’s claim, Garcia is in a position to demonstrate the alleged religious content of AA classes. A plain reading of the AA 12 steps shows that they are premised on the idea of a monotheistic God.22 Like Kerr, the record before us does not present a situation where the only religious note was struck by incidental references to God such as the words ‘under God’ in the Pledge of Allegiance. Rather, the record shows that the AA classes at AHCC are permeated with religion because the classes revolve around the 12 step manifesto. The record also shows that participants recite the Lord’s Prayer and receive coins inscribed with the Serenity Prayer. As such, we conclude that the object of the classes is religious.”

This court’s conclusion strikes at some of the earlier cases, cited later in this post, deciding that AA passed constitutional muster because the principal object was inmate and parolee sobriety, not religious conversion or indoctrination. Those courts of course never explained how teaching a subject or promulgating a “manifesto” that commands obedience to god is less religion and more sobriety program. They never explained it because it’s untrue. When you sit down in church the primary purpose is to make you a better person and to strengthen your community, but the methods used are prayer, religious faith, religious texts, and every manner of devotion to My Invisible Friend.

The plain fact is that when any activity is infected with My Invisible Friend, it converts the activity to a religious one. Beer may only be 4% alcohol but it’s still an alcoholic beverage.

Cox v. Miller, 296 F.3d 89 (2d Cir. 2002)

This murder case from the 2nd Circuit is different from most of the other cases, which consider whether or not the state can coerce attendance in AA or its progeny. In Cox, the appellant claimed that confessions he made to fellow AA members were inadmissible evidence because the law protects communications between penitents and their spiritual advisers, and since the 2nd Circuit has ruled that AA was religious in nature, his confessions were necessarily protected and couldn’t be used to convict him in a gruesome murder case.

Although the Cox court agreed that AA was a religious organization for purposes of the Establishment Clause, it left open the possibility that some people in AA wouldn’t consider themselves members of the “AA religion” as they would Buddhism, Christianity, or Judaism.

“We have nonetheless held that when engaging in Establishment Clause analysis in certain settings we must treat A.A. the same as we would a group or organization that is a ‘religion’ in the popular sense because some of A.A.’s activities and modes of expression are religious in nature. As the Seventh Circuit observed, the inclusion of qualifiers in the tenets of A.A. (e.g., ‘God as we understood Him’) — which indicates that A.A. does not mandate one religious dogma — fails to remove it from the realm of religious activity in which the government may not, consistent with the Establishment Clause, compel citizens to participate and which the government may not fund: … (omitted)

“We have treated A.A. the same as we would a traditional religion where the State compelled participation in A.A. despite its ‘intensely religious’ nature, Warner, 115 F.3d at 1075; and where the State allegedly funded ‘governmental indoctrination’ in A.A., DeStefano, 247 F.3d at 415 (emphasis in original).”

While it’s an odd suggestion, that something can be religious for purposes of the Constitution but somehow secular in the normal sense, it’s moot because legal definitions of religions are what matter when it comes to discrimination, coercion, and taxation. And as with the other cases, the Cox case makes clear that AA is religious.

Nusbaum v. Terrangi, 210 F. Supp. 2d 784 (E.D. Va. 2002).

In this federal case from the Eastern District of Virginia, a court again held that AA and its progeny are religious. “Applying the same standard as the court did in Ross, this court must conclude that the Therapeutic Community Program continues to violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. ICCC has instituted a mandatory program which implicitly espouses religion. Inmates must participate in the Program or lose good conduct credits and be unable to earn good conduct credits. The Program teaches spirituality and encourages participants to turn their lives over to their ‘higher power.’ While spirituality and ‘higher power’ are defined in ‘The Alternative 12 Steps: A Secular Guide to Recovery,’ in a secular manner, the overall program blurs this distinction. Pl.Ex. 1 at 26. Furthermore, the Johnson tape, which inmates are exposed to in a required part of the Program, advocates that the only viable definition of ‘higher power’ is God. Finally, God, which participants may interpret as ‘Good Ordered Direction,’ is, as defendants concede, inappropriate.

“The record has established that discussions regarding the importance of God and religion in conquering addictions is still a part of the Program. However, these discussions are led by other inmates rather than staff members. It may not be possible, nor even necessary from a First Amendment perspective, to remove all mention of God or religion in discussions related to coping skills and overcoming addictions. Nevertheless, it does not appear from the record that staff members have been intervening to negate any proselytizing.

“The Program at ICCC is mandatory. Inmates are required to either participate in the Program or serve a longer time in prison because of the loss of good conduct credits. Therefore, inmates are coerced to participate. While defendants have attempted to remove religion from the mandatory Program, it is clear they have not been entirely successful. As a result, plaintiffs have been coerced by the state to participate in a program that espouses religion. Thus, the Program, as it is currently constituted, continues to violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.”

What I find interesting about many of these cases, including this one, are the ridiculous attempts of challenged officials to defend the obvious religiosity of AA and its progeny. In Nusbaum, officials actually tried to argue that when AA speaks of “God” it doesn’t mean a deity but is an acronym for “Good Ordered Direction.” How do people do this with a straight face? They can do it because in their minds the ends justify the religious means, and when examined by a critical court the explanations collapse into a mishmash of ludicrous soup.

Turner v. Hickman, 342 F. Supp. 2d 887 (E.D. Cal. 2004).

This federal case from the Eastern District of California, building on what was now close to fifteen years of jurisprudence and legal scholarship on the issue, completely eviscerated the claim that AA-based programs like NA were not religious. Most importantly, the court dismantled the cant offered up in The Big Book and at meetings that, because dog can be anything as you understand it, belief in dog is somehow not religious.

“Defendants argue that NA’s ‘God’ is nonsectarian, and that participants in NA are free to define ‘God’ in any way they wish; by way of example, at oral argument, defendants’ counsel suggested participants could identify ‘God’ as anything, a lake, a pond or even a doorknob. Cf. Def’ts’ Ex. Set 1 at 27:20-22 (Tr. of Dep. of Sol Irving, administrator for substance abuse program, explaining that ‘God is what that person believes is a higher power . . . [it] could be that doorknob over there . . .’).

“Although NA’s literature says it is ‘not a religious program,’ Def’ts’ Ex. Set 5 at 1516, NA unequivocally and wholeheartedly asserts that belief in “God” is a fundamental requirement of participation. Id. at 1510, 1513, 1514; Declaration of Charles Edward Turner (filed Mar. 5, 2004) (‘Turner Decl.’), Ex. B at 49-57. The NA program (like AA) prescribes the completion of twelve steps that cannot be completed without expression of a belief in ‘God, as we understand him.’ Def’ts’ Ex. Set 5 to Mot. Summ. J. at 1533; see also id. at 1541, 1546, 1552, 1553; cf. Def’ts’ Ex. Set 1 at 160-66 (chapter of AA handbook entitled ‘We Agnostics’). All of the NA meetings plaintiff attended began with either the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ or the ‘Serenity prayer.’ Turner Decl. at 2:16-17; see also Tr. of Pl.’s Dep. at 24:18-22.

“Both prayers presuppose belief in a monotheistic higher power. See School Dist. Of Abington Tp., Pa. v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203, 223, 83 S.Ct. 1560, 10 L.Ed.2d 844 (1963) (re Lord’s Prayer); Def’ts’ Ex. Set. 1 at 234 (Serenity Prayer).

“As disclosed by the record, the NA program plaintiff was required to attend is fundamentally religious, based as it is on the concept of a higher power to which participants must submit. See Black’s Law Dictionary (8th ed. 2004) (defining ‘religion’ as a ‘system of faith and worship usu. involving belief in a supreme being and usu. containing a moral or ethical code; esp., such a system recognized and practiced by a particular church, sect, or denomination. . . .’). The suggestion that plaintiff could meet the parole board’s requirement of successful completion of NA by ‘learn[ing] those 12 steps, work[ing] those 12 steps,’ by expressing a belief in ‘God’ while reflecting on something completely at odds with all traditional notions of ‘God,’ simply is not creditable under the circumstances of this case. See Kerr, 95 F.3d at 480 (rejecting notion that ‘concept of God could include the non-religious idea of willpower within the individual,’ where case was not one in which religious references were merely ‘incidental’); Warner, 115 F.3d at 1076 (rejecting non-sectarian argument made by defendants because, inter alia, ‘the claim that non-sectarian religious exercise falls outside the First Amendment’s scrutiny has been repeatedly rejected by the Supreme Court’). See also Warburton, 2 F.Supp.2d at 318 (‘The emphasis placed on “God,” spirituality and faith in a “higher power” by twelve-step programs such as A.A. or N.A. clearly supports a determination that the underlying basis of these programs is religious . . .’); Cox v. Miller, 296 F.3d 89, 94, 108-09 n. 11 (2d Cir. 2002), cert. denied, 537 U.S. 1192, 123 S.Ct. 1273, 154 L.Ed.2d 1026 (2003) (in reviewing claim of cleric-congregant privilege in habeas case, summarizing history of AA and concluding that AA’s activities ‘must be treated as religious for purposes of [] Establishment Clause analysis’); but see Stafford v. Harrison, 766 F.Supp. 1014, 1016-17 (D.Kan. 1991) (pre-Warner and -Kerr decision commenting that ‘[w]hile the spiritual nature of [AA] cannot be denied, the court is not persuaded this program may properly be characterized as a religion. The central text of the program . . . refutes such a suggestion. . . . Further, the belief in a Supreme Being `cannot be sustained as a distinguishing characteristic of religion.’ (citations omitted)).

“Based on the above, the undersigned recommends that this court join the Second and Seventh Circuits in their determination that requiring participation in NA is an establishment of religion prohibited by the First Amendment. See Warner, 115 F.3d at 1076-77; Kerr, 95 F.3d at 480.”

The Turner case attacks the typical sleight-of-hand used in AA meetings, where you are told that god can be “as you understand him,” as being anything but. The court points out the absurd suggestion of defendants that for purposes of AA god can be “a doorknob,” and notes that the totality of AA mandates belief in a monotheistic higher power that is thoroughly traditional. To the person attending an AA meeting, the AA god is therefore wholly familiar. We’ve met him before, we didn’t like him then and we don’t like him now. “God as you understand him” means “God as we understand him,” which is why AA members recite The Lord’s Prayer, the Serenity Prayer, and the prayer that god remove “all our defects.”

University of Maryland Law Journal of Race, Religion, Gender, and Class, 2006, Vol. 6, Issue 1.

The author of the article minces no words about AA’s religious content. “To begin, a strong argument exists that, contrary to the position of the A.A. proponents, A.A. is more than ‘somewhat religious.’ The famous ‘Twelve Steps’ of the A.A. program repeatedly mention ‘God.’ In fact, the third step involves a decision ‘to turn [one’s will and [one’s] life over to the care of God.’ In addition, the A.A. program, through its literature, expresses a viewpoint that repudiates atheism and agnosticism: ‘We, who have traveled this dubious path [i.e. – atheism or agnosticism], beg you to lay aside prejudice, even against organized religion. We have learned that whatever the human frailties of various faiths may be, those faiths have given purpose and direction to millions. People of faith have a logical idea of what life is all about.’ Because of these themes, the A.A. program is most properly characterized as religious exercise.”

In a detailed review of the current state of the law with regard to whether or not requiring inmates to attend AA violated the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution, the author concluded that despite a relaxing of the standard when it comes to state action that makes it easier for certain religions to practice in prison, the time-honored, strict preclusion of forcing people to worship against their will remains inviolate. AA’s indisputable religious content therefore becomes unconstitutional when anyone is coerced by the state to submit to it. “The Court has consistently recognized that the First Amendment protects both the rights of traditional believers and the rights of nonbelievers. Because A.A. contains a message that is antagonistic towards atheists and agnostics, it therefore contains a message that is antagonistic towards religious belief.”

This citation from AA, that religious people have a logical idea of what life is all about, leads to the obvious conclusion that atheists and agnostics are illogical and have no idea what life is about. Religion has given purpose and direction to millions, per AA, and the implication is that atheism and agnosticism leave you rudderless and confused. Such a powerful endorsement of religion in the context of constant prayers and submission to dog render AA’s orientation crystal clear.

Inouye v. Kemna, 504 F.3d 705 (9th Cir. 2007).

The 9th Circuit finally weighed in on the issue of whether AA was primarily based on religion, and dispensed with the issue quickly. “Our record on the content of the AA/NA program here is limited to Inouye’s allegations that AA/NA is based in ‘a higher power.’ Nanamori does not, however, dispute that the program was substantially based in religion, and presents no evidence that the program differed from the usual AA/NA program, described by the Second Circuit in Warner as comprising ‘intensely religious events,’ 115 F.3d at 1075, and by the Seventh Circuit in Kerr as ‘fundamentally based on a religious concept of a Higher Power.’ As such, on this summary judgment record and given the lack of dispute between the parties in question, we have no trouble deciding that the third prong of Kerr’s Establishment Clause test has been met as well.”

Importantly, the 9th Circuit in this case set forth the long list of cases that have all concluded that yes, Virginia, there is a god in AA.

Armstrong v. Beauclair, Case No. CV06-49-S-EJL (D. Idaho Mar. 27, 2008).

This federal court case from the District of Idaho “granted declaratory relief to Plaintiff on his Establishment Clause claim, finding and concluding that Plaintiff’s First Amendment rights were violated when Defendants required him to attend a religiously-based prison rehabilitation program prior to considering his eligibility for parole after he informed them of his refusal to attend the program on religious grounds.” This was a case in which Armstrong had been coerced into AA meetings, which the court noted had already been declared “religious” by the 9th Circuit, which is controlling law in Idaho.

Of course it wouldn’t be law if there wasn’t some court somewhere that examined the same facts and reached the opposite conclusion, and we need look no farther than Kansas, California, and Illinois to find the only three published cases concluding that AA isn’t primarily religious. The California case has been superseded by the 9th Circuit’s decision in Inouye, cited above.

766 F. Supp. 1014 (1991), James STAFFORD, Plaintiff, v. Delane HARRISON, et al., Defendants, No. 88-3027-S, United States District Court, D. Kansas, June 28, 1991.

In 1991, a federal district court in Kansas ruled that AA was not religious because it did not define the “Higher Power” and left it to the participant as “he understood him,” quoting from AA’s Big Book and applying no law or analysis whatsoever, with the exception of  citing U.S. v. Seeger, the seminal U.S. Supreme Court case, and misapplying it to the facts at hand. This slap-dash opinion is not good law and was understandably not followed by subsequent courts considering the question.

855 F.Supp. 303 (1994), Edward F. O’CONNOR, Plaintiff, v. The STATE OF CALIFORNIA and Orange County, California, Defendants. No. SACV 92-817-GLT. United States District Court, C.D. California. June 8, 1994.

This California case also held that requiring participation in AA as part of a probationary scheme did not violate the Constitution, but its holding was not based on the claim that AA is secular. Rather, it argued that since the probationer had the option of a purely secular alcohol recovery program as well as AA, he could not claim that the state was coercing him to attend. Had there been no secular option, the court would likely have held differently. In any event, the court, while declining to call AA a religion, cited with approval the language in Warner attesting to the religious nature of the AA message. For the purposes of someone trying to decide whether or not AA attendance is going to be dog-heavy, the O’Connor decision confirms what I in fact found out: it is. In any event, this case has no precedential value after the 9th Circuit’s decision in Inouye v. Nanamori, cited above, which unequivocally found that AA was a religious program.

An Illinois case from 1988, (172 Ill. App.3d 498 (1988), 526 N.E.2d 894, PAUL B. YOULE, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. JIM EDGAR, Secretary of State, Defendant-Appellant; No. 4-88-0005; Illinois Appellate Court — Fourth District; Opinion filed July 14, 1988; Rehearing denied August 23, 1988).

This state appellate court reached the same result as the O’Connor case, but unlike O’Connor it dismissed the constitutional claim that AA was religious with no analysis of fact or law, and simply said that since the petitioner had other treatment programs available besides AA, his appeal was without merit. The bare bones nature of this case has made it an outlier and no court has cited it favorably. Moreover, the 7th Circuit, which includes Illinois, has precedential federal case law that finds to be AA religious-based programming.

Though these decisions go to great length to analyze the content, and in some cases the history of AA in order to resolve the question of whether it’s a religion-based program, the answer is a lot easier to reach when you look at the Big Book and the way it sets up AA’s concept of a higher power versus atheism/agnosticism. AA definitively tells members that atheism/agnosticism will be overcome by working the Twelve Steps, and that the spiritual awakening, whether sudden or gradual is inevitable.

I think it bears asking this question: What are atheism/agnosticism if not secular, and what is secular if not nonreligious? And if the AA program requires members to believe in a god that is not atheism or agnosticism, what is left but religion? Surely AA does not accept that there is such a thing as an atheist god, or that in seeking a higher power members are encouraged to choose god “as they understand him” in the form of a non-god god?

Semantics matter, and in this case AA’s Twelve Steps, conveniently numbered by Bill W. to correspond to the Twelve Apostles, require submission to god. The fact that you get to pick the god doesn’t make it less religious, although it does indicate how silly the whole notion is, namely, that there is some all-powerful deity THAT YOU JUST MAKE UP who can remove all your defects, get you permanently on the water wagon, and maybe even help you pick a winning lottery ticket. And why is it that this deity is only available through AA? Is he like a genie in a bottle and you have to go through a million old used lamps before you find the right one? Why does he prefer AA to, say, the First Baptist Church? And if he’s really a god, why is he subject to YOUR definition? Doesn’t that put the cart before the horse?

At least with the Hebrew and Christian and Islamic bibles they sit you down and say, “Look, motherfucker, this is god, he’s pissed and he will send you to hell unless you do exactly what he says. This is how he acts, the shit he has done and is capable of doing, he is very badass and perfect and he fucking made you out of dirt and we even have a bunch of ancient papers written by goatherds that he told them to write. These goatherd manuscripts are not suggestions they are commandments, and no, you don’t get to update them. So listen the fuck up.”

This kind of balderdash is a lot more convincing than the prison warden in the Turner v. Hickman case who, obviously having flunked Theology 101, avowed that under AA principles god can simply be “a doorknob.”

AA tries to sidestep the reality that it’s a religious organization by saying that all you have to do in order to recover is believe in dog as you understand him, and the only requirement is that it be a power higher than yourself. This is specious. All conceptions of dog are “as you understand him.” Some conceptions follow various writings, but all depend on the religious person to envision, understand, commune, believe in, and have faith in a spiritual power as the individual grasps it. No two people ever have exactly the same dog concept.

What’s interesting is that none of the court cases examined the philosophical underpinnings of AA, which were limned in the 1920’s and 1930’s and were profoundly influenced by hard-core religious bible beating in the form of the Oxford Group, and also by religious studies such as The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James. Bill Wilson, co-founder of AA, writes that “the early A.A. got its ideas of self-examination, acknowledgement of character defects, restitution for harm done, and working with others straight from the Oxford Groups and directly from Sam Shoemaker, their former leader in America, and from nowhere else.” All of the original six steps, later expanded to twelve to match the number of Jesus’s apostles, came directly from the Oxford Group and from its precepts of “1) Give in to God; 2) Listen to God’s direction; 3) Check guidance; 4) Restitution; 5) Sharing for witness (how one had changed) and for confession (what one had done).” And although the Oxford Group was non-denominational it was explicitly religious, promoted religious belief, conversion, and proselytization, and was explicitly Christian.

In addition to fun facts such as the Oxford Group’s declared intention in 1936 to win Adolph Hitler to their program, members were required to follow and “guidance” that leaders had received from My Invisible Friend, and forced to make a “surrender” to God on their knees in front of the group or another member, reciting the exact words to use being dictated to him, before being allowed to attend meetings. So the idea that AA has its roots in non-religious spirituality is untrue historically as well as in current practice.

The deep religiosity of AA is enshrined in its twelve steps to recovery and in its detailed interpretation of those steps. At its most basic level, AA exhorts people with Alcohol Use Disorder to “grow on spiritual lines.”

This sounds user-friendly, but it isn’t. What is spiritual growth except for an ever-increasing faith/belief/exercise of religion? AA’s second step requires users to say that they have come to believe that a Power (their capitalization) greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity. This has a lot of problems, none addressed by AA. First I was told in the Big Book that we were afflicted with a disease, but now I learn that we are insane. Yet insanity has no clinical definition, rather, it is a colloquial term used by AA to convey “lack of proportion” or “the inability to think straight” or lacking “the ability to stop drinking on the basis of self-knowledge.” With regard to drinking, AA views insanity as having sound reasons not to drink, yet being compelled to drink by some parallel, “trivial” reason that overrides good sense.

In this colloquial, nonscientific sense, it may well make sense to appeal to religion. After all, if science is helpless, what’s left? The problem is that this “insanity” of being unable to utilize sound reasoning in the face of choices regarding alcohol is actually a demonstrable physiological outcome of alcohol abuse. If you search PubMed for “alcohol reduced white matter” you will come up with numerous reports and studies that document the significant reduction in white matter in the brains of alcoholics, especially the parts of the brain most critical to impulse control and learning new behaviors. This damage follows a dose-response pattern, that is, the more alcohol, the greater the damage. The pathways that support self-monitoring, planning, judgment, and reasoning are physically impacted by chronic misuse of alcohol, leading to the poor impulse control or “insanity” described by AA. Similarly, gray matter, also responsible for impulse control, memory, planning and information processing, suffers impairment from heavy drinking.

The point here is that what AA describes as insanity, researchers describe as physical assaults by excessive ethanol on physical neuronal structures. It’s not a matter of a “Power greater than ourselves restoring us to sanity,” it’s a matter of decreasing alcohol consumption so that the body can begin the process of healing the damage. Dog has nothing to do with it.

At this point you might think that I’ve dismissed AA’s effectiveness and its rationale. You’d be wrong.

After learning that membership in AA was going to require significant exposure to dog-ma, I took a look around and began listening carefully. What I found is that regardless of how much people attribute their sobriety to My Invisible Friend, the actions they take and discuss are entirely secular. Here are some quick examples:

  • Reducing the chance of a relapse by hanging out with other sober people.
  • Attending meetings that encourage you not to drink.
  • Avoiding places where drinking, or excessive drinking, is taking place.
  • Making new social networks.
  • Changing jobs, e.g. leaving food service for clothing retail.
  • Not keeping alcohol in the house.
  • Practice saying “no” to peer pressure.

Success in AA is largely a function of adaptation to shifting from choices to drink to choices to be sober. And this, in my opinion, is where dog comes in. As AA repeatedly reminds us, people with severe Alcohol Use Disorder and those who are on their way lack the ability to make those sober choices. It’s a vicious circle because, lacking the ability to choose not to drink, you drink, which increases the damage to your impulse control functions, which further reduces your ability to choose sobriety.

AA’s genius, and the place it has saved so many lives, is by creating a space, an overarching reason, for people to put on the brakes long enough to be abstinent, if only for a day. That space is faith, and whether you are religious, apatheist, or something in between, there can be no way out of the drinking spiral without hope that there is, in fact, a way out. AA allows, encourages, sometimes strong-arms you into using religion as the place to hang your hope, and for millions of people, that spark has ignited the conflagration that allows them to make daily choices not to drink such that lives are saved, families rehabilitated, health regained, and a certain, awful end converted into a mostly normal existence.

In my case, I have zero hope that My Invisible Friend will give me the key. But I do have faith that the guidance and wisdom and support of other people can help me quit drinking in conjunction with faith that I have the ability to change my own behavior. In that sense, my faith is no different from those on bent knee, tossing off hosannas and insisting that dog is going to remove every defect. They have hope that dog will prevail. I have hope that people, and I, will. Both of these attitudes, secular and religious, are based on faith, which at its root is the belief that something will happen for no reason other than you believe it.

Nor is hope unscientific. What researchers call “hope-thinking” has an effect on everything from the incidence of obesity to promoting mental health in the elderly to prenatal care. It’s no surprise that someone at an AA meeting who believes recovery is hopeless has dimmer prospects, if any, than someone who has hope, however faint, that recovery is possible.

However difficult it is to hear endless thanks to dog and to listen to the litany of epiphanies, revelations, dog-visions, submitting all to dog’s will, letting dog be in charge, giving dog the wheel, being a vessel for the will of dog, not to mention the underpinning philosophy that we’re all sinners a/k/a alcoholics, it’s also a challenge, and I mean that in the best sense, to immerse yourself in an alien culture when you realize that though it’s divergent from your own ideas, it has a fundamental effectiveness that can work for diverse people. When AA says “take what you need, leave the rest,” I take them at their word.

Which is another point … SoCal AA is legendarily accepting, and the emphasis on dog-ma is quite low compared to AA in other regions, where meetings can more resemble an assembly of bible beaters than a support group. All AA meetings are different, and there’s little orthodoxy if you take them seriously when they say that the twelve steps are only suggestions. It’s impossible to imagine a fundamentalist Southern Baptist or an ayatollah saying that the Ten Commandments are merely the Ten Suggestions.

Far more important than the constant admonishment to give oneself up to dog is the mission statement that my meeting opens with: “Alcoholics Anonymous is a fellowship of men and women who are able to relate and share their experiences, strength, and hopes with each other in order to solve their common problem and help others recover from alcoholism. The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking.”

This is the real point if you are secular and still choose to participate. AA may be a religious organization, but for voluntary participants it can simply be a fellowship that has only one requirement, which requirement has nothing at all to do with religion. As long as you want to stop drinking, you’re welcome to attend, though you’re going to have to digest a whole lot of talk about My Invisible Friend.

Religion, religion, religion. I suppose for an apatheist like myself, the lady doth protest too much, methinks.


END

I’m no alcoholic

December 3, 2022 Comments Off on I’m no alcoholic

Despite having been to three weeks’ worth of AA meetings, I’m still struggling like hell to get my foot up on AA’s First Step. This is the one where you admit that you are powerless over alcohol and that your life has become unmanageable.

Sometime in November of 2014, I quit drinking with the promise to my family that if I ever drank again, I’d go to AA. About six months ago I restarted my drinking program but had no plans at all to follow through on the promise.

The event that triggered my sobriety went like this. I had been at a cyclocross race all day with friends. I had quit my race and started drinking beer around 10 o’clock. My friend was driving so I kept drinking all the way back to Torrance, where we met my wife and went to have pizza. I’d had four or five IPAs by then, which was enough to get me totally sloshed.

Amazingly, the pizza joint served beer, which I thought would go really well with all the beer I’d already had, so I ordered another beer. My behavior deteriorated. Everyone was embarrassed, and through the fog so was I, but not enough to stop drinking. Plus, the more I ate the more it would absorb the alcohol and the more sober I’d become.

Right?

Eventually I became so sober that I fell asleep on the table, reviving only when my friend and wife carried me out of the restaurant. My point here is to show that I was not at all powerless over alcohol. I was in control the entire time. That spittle coming out of the side of my mouth? That was controlled spittle, sir.

The abstinence that followed wasn’t my first brush with sobriety. The previous time I had quit drinking involved the Red Bull Tavern in Redondo Beach. I had gone there to meet two friends, one of whom was a drunk and the other of whom drank a lot. They were late so I had a beer. Beer is nothing, right? I suppose I should mention RIGHT NOW that my reaction to alcohol has always been slightly different from other people I know. I metabolize it instantly and get an immediate effect of drunkenness. It doesn’t take much and it never has.

I’ve never gone on a multi-day bender and have only rarely consumed what most people with severe Alcohol Use Disorder would consider a lot of alcohol at once. The most beer I’ve ever had in short succession is four pints, not even enough to meet the definition of a binge, which is five drinks in two hours. I’ve never had half, or even a quarter bottle of hard liquor, except for one time that a friend and I split a bottle of aquavit over dinner, with a beer and a couple of glasses of wine preceding. I vomited all of it, and dinner, over the third floor railing of his flat onto the parking lot below. The most hard core sprees I’ve ever been on have involved drinking two or two-and-a-half bottles of wine over the course of an evening, with beer or sake sprinkled in. In short, lightweight.

I say this because the last time I quit drinking, though I willingly called myself an alcoholic, my idea of an alcoholic has always been the classic one, the compulsive binger portrayed in the AA book, and the people in my own family who consumed massive quantities of alcohol over periods of days, weeks, years, lifetimes. My grandfather Jim could drink a fifth of Old Forester a day, and most days he did. My uncle Phil chose to keep drinking rather than abstain to receive the possible life-saving treatment for his esophageal cancer. I never saw my father stop drinking once he started, never heard him say “I’m good,” “That’s enough for now,” or “Maybe later.” When offered another drink, he always said “Why, thank you, don’t mind if I do!” or his favorite line, “You’re a gentleman and a scholar!”

My point is that although since my last dry spell I’ve called myself an alcoholic, and I follow everyone’s lead at AA meetings by introducing myself as “Seth, alcoholic,” deep down I haven’t believed it.

But back to the Red Bull Tavern. When my friends showed up, we had a couple of bottles of wine and steaks. I don’t know how much I drank. It wasn’t a prodigious quantity, but I could barely stand upon leaving. My one friend offered me a ride home. He was visibly concerned, but too drunk himself to force me into his car. The other friend had arrived drunk, gotten drunker, and would keep drinking at home. What happened to me was my business. In any event, I can now answer the joke “What do you call three lawyers in a bar?”

Punchline, and it’s not very funny: “Future defendants.”

The drive home was less than three miles, but I was living in PV on Via Zurita and I was terrified of getting stopped. I was shaking in terror the whole way home. When I safely parked the car I swore “Never again.” That lasted, like most of my abstinence periods, for 5 years or so, during which time I had not a drop, and didn’t even want one.

See? I wasn’t an alcoholic. I was in control. Driving completely drunk and not getting a DUI and losing my law license was proof that I had, uh, control.

The time I quit drinking before that I don’t really remember, nor the previous time. What I recall is that I always quit cold turkey and was completely fine for a period of years, at least five, often longer. And when the drinking resumed, it was always the same gradual process, never the textbook AA’er who goes instantly from one sip to massive, multi-day binge.

My alcohol habit, which to me didn’t fit the test of alcoholism, was gradual. Once I’d started drinking again I’d go months having a beer or two a week, or a couple of glasses of wine a week, and then the intervals would shorten, always over months so I knew I was in control, and then after a year, sometimes two, I’d have a regular habit: at every day’s end, never the beginning, I’d finish up with enough alcohol to be completely drunk. And it only took a relatively small amount. See? That’s not alcoholism.

It was about six months ago that I was lost on a Forest Service road. We’d been riding all day. We were destroyed. We’d had to carry our bikes over barbed wire fences and high, wooden ones more than six feet off the ground. Our GPS didn’t work and we were pretty sure we were trespassing, so running across anyone was going to be really bad.

When it seemed like we were close to where the road should have picked up again, as we were pushing our bikes in a dry creekbed, practically dying of thirst, we saw an encampment of hunters. Thirsty and not caring if we got caught, we haled them. Two guys came over, smiling. “Want a beer?” one of them said.

I know I had “Yes” written all over my face. I took it and drained it, the best beer I’ve had before or since.

We got home many hours later and I was fine. I didn’t crave a drink or even want one. But I had been behaving badly and the stress was wearing on our relationship. A few days later, I decided to have a beer and see if that made things better, and surprise, it did. For me.

But it didn’t make it better for anyone else, because I’m a mean drinker. Alcohol in my case takes what’s there already and intensifies it. I’m a mean person by nature, haughty and misanthropic, arrogant, vain, insecure, and cruel. The alcohol ratchets all those things up, and as my drinking went from a few beers a week to a beer a night to two beers every night, I realized that I was back in the trap.

But I was in control. Right? I could quit anytime, and I did. There’s a longer story here and I intend to tell it, but for now I’ll just say that I found myself in a huge family fight, and one of the only people left on earth who cares what happens to me said this: “You promised that if you ever drank again you’d go to AA.”

I nodded and stormed out, thinking “That was then, this is now, FUCK YOU.”

How I got from “Fuck you” to AA is another story, and again, it’s one I fully intend to tell, just not today. Today I want to finish with the obvious, which is that to belong in AA you have to be an alcoholic who wants to quit drinking, and to be an alcoholic according to them means that you have no control over alcohol. It doesn’t mean that the first drink leads to ten more in two hours, although it can. All it means is that once you start drinking, things eventually fall apart, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. In their words, you’re “powerless over alcohol.”

In my third AA meeting, a newcomer like me said, “Frankly, I’m still having trouble calling myself an alcoholic.” That made me wonder because her story was so typical–booze, booze, booze, all day, all the time.

“Of course you’re a fucking alcoholic,” I said to myself. And then the speaker’s words started to sink in, because I was still having trouble calling myself an alcoholic, too. But what was the difference? She drank a lot all the time and it was ruining her life, I drank a little all the time and it was ruining mine. She couldn’t stop, I couldn’t stop. She had come there because of her family, I had come there because of mine. She desperately wanted to quit and so did I. Most germane of all, we were both at a meeting of people who were all admitted alcoholics, who had experience with all kinds of alcoholism, and no one was telling us that we were okay. To the contrary, they were telling us that we weren’t.

I further thought, if I’m not an alcoholic, what am I? Someone who drinks uncontrollably in small amounts until he has destroyed everything and everyone around him? How, exactly, is that different from “alcoholic”?

Or maybe I’m someone who drinks just enough to let down my guard and show the world what a cruel, mean, and nasty sonofabitch that I am? Hasn’t that made my life completely ruinous? And isn’t that the second part of the AA definition of an alcoholic, having no power over alcohol such that life becomes unmanageable?

The only escape hatch left is that “I’m just an asshole, sober or drunk.” Unfortunately, being an asshole is completely compatible with, and almost always exacerbated by, being an alcoholic. Same thing, by the way, for being a narcissist, a sociopath, or what in the good old days was called “crazier than a shithouse rat.” Alcoholism pairs well with each of these noxious flavors, and is mutually exclusive with none.

But what does “alcoholic” really mean?

When AA started in the 1930’s, it broke new ground by identifying alcoholism as a medical condition rather than a moral defect or a failing of willpower, beginning the decades-long process of making alcoholism less stigmatized, and making it socially acceptable to seek treatment. Yet at its core, AA identifies alcoholism as a deep personal failing, and more importantly, requires drinkers to accept that they are in a sense helpless and hopeless sinners when it comes to drink. Indeed, AA is clear that the people for whom their program won’t work are those incapable of rigorous honesty. Salvation for sufferers lies in following the steps, in honesty, and giving themselves up to a god.

That’s one reason sitting in a meeting and introducing yourself as an alcoholic feels strange. It’s hard to imagine a group of cancer survivors going around the room and grimly saying, “Jim, cancer patient,” with other patients sometimes catcalling and saying “Yeah, you are!”

It’s also hard to imagine a group of people with lung cancer taking turns as they recount their first cigarette or their first exposure to asbestos, and ruefully talking about how many packs a day they smoked or how many ship boilers they worked on. But in AA, the meeting’s core activity is to talk about what you were like before AA, what happened, and how you are now. This ever-changing narrative is almost always described in painful terms of terrible human failing, and the awful consequences to oneself, loved ones, friends, and society.

In short, AA may begin with the premise that you are in the grips of a disease, but this particular disease has distinct moral qualities, and the only way to cure yourself is to focus on “defects of character,” which you exhort a god to remove, and which you publicize to others. It wouldn’t make any sense if you told someone with lung cancer that his cure lay in telling everyone about stealing cigarettes from mom’s purse and then making amends, but somehow with alcoholism, people act as if it does.

Nor do people simply act as if it works. For a whole lot of people, AA puts their drinking into permanent remission. There is much scientific argument about AA’s true success rate, but everyone agrees that its methods work for many, and if you go to enough meetings no degree of cynicism can overcome the reality that the process has helped a lot of people either control or completely abstain from incredibly destructive behavior. One study has even quantified it, showing that attending 27 or more meetings your first year is correlated with a high degree of sobriety.

In a way, AA makes it hard to get to its own first step by using the word “alcoholism,” which is not a medical term anymore. Current science calls it Alcohol Use Disorder, and like most disorders it occurs on a spectrum from mild to moderate to severe. Crucially, Alcohol Use Disorder is free from pejorative connotations, blame, or moral judgment of any kind. “I’m Seth and I have a moderate case of Alcohol Use Disorder” is a lot easier to say than “Seth, alcoholic.”

It’s easier to say because if alcoholic means someone with absolutely no power over alcohol, I’m probably not that guy. True, it gets worse with time and eventually becomes uncontrollable, but you can’t say I’m powerless when it’s gradual. The idea of being powerless over alcohol is problematic for other reasons, primarily because if you have no power over alcohol, how is abstinence even possible to begin with unless you posit that a benign god will direct your actions every waking second. If this is the case, why go to AA at all? Won’t the benign god eventually take care of you? Or is it a benign god that only works through AA?

If AA shows anything, it’s that people have great power over their addictions, and that despite relapses it’s possible to enter complete remission with regard to Alcohol Use Disorder. What AA doesn’t show, or try to show, is that alcoholism is susceptible of cure. Their stance is that alcoholism is a permanent disease that can only be managed through abstinence, despite no medical evidence of any kind that this is true, and despite overwhelming evidence that it can be managed for many people through a variety of interventions and that it’s a disorder on a spectrum, not a physico-moral infection incapable of cure.

Yet you can quibble over numbers and success rates and measures of remission, but for a lot of people AA works. And it begins with a kind of abasement, a prostration of the self and the will to the demon alcohol such that we admit we are powerless even though we clearly are not.

This is no different from many of the deceptions we buy into when we make decisions with terrifying consequences. For many, abstinence is the only thing between them and death. People who charge a beach, leap out of a trench, run into a burning house, submit to high-risk surgery, or give up everything they have to be smuggled over the border in the back of truck have to tell themselves that what they’re going to is better, even when it often is not. And people who try to succeed in a harsh system, be it prison, the gulag, an exploitative factory, the corporate ladder, or life at a large law firm, must, like the alcoholic at AA, recognize that at some level they are powerless in the face of some external threat, be it hunger, homelessness, or death–in order to adapt to the system, accept its regimen, and “work the steps.”

The difference is that working the steps in prison means not getting beaten to death or spending your life in solitary, whereas working the steps at AA means you radically increase your chances of a better, more sober life.

It’s wise if you’re going to enter an institution, formal or informal, to give yourself up to its tenets. The institution will change you, not the other way around. That’s the definition of “institution.”

Humiliation or recognition?

One reason it’s humiliating to call yourself an alcoholic is because of the word’s moral associations, and because it is connected with drinking run amok. At AA, these are precisely the things that have to be addressed if you’re going to recover. And while it seems like calling yourself a bad name is needless denigration, for a lot of people it really is “the first step” because it’s the point at which they admit they have a problem.

Unlike cancer patients, who quickly accept their diagnosis, people with Alcohol Use Disorder may deny the condition until it kills them. Organic diseases often carry with them their own indisputable effect on the functioning of our minds and bodies, but alcohol is almost unique in that many times even its most extreme abuse is accompanied by a complete unwillingness to admit that there’s even anything wrong.

With alcohol, it’s a case of “to begin at the beginning, you first have to begin.” And as one AA member said, she went from humiliation at having to get treated for her problem to self-confident at having recognized the problem, accepted the problem, and sought treatment. “There’s no shame in addressing what’s wrong and trying to get better.”

Another member added that seeking help is a source of strength, whereas hiding your head in shame isn’t. As every person with a bad drinking problem knows, the anonymity of alcoholism is largely fictional anyway because few things are as public, obvious, and noted by those around you as drunkenness, its consequences, and its casualties. Just because you think no one notices how much you swill doesn’t mean they don’t notice, and for the people who end up at AA due to a plea deal or the ultimatums of families/friends/employers, far from being anonymous, your alcoholism is often a matter of public judicial record.

Whether you call it Alcohol Use Disorder or alcoholism or simply “I drinks a bit,” AA nails it when they say that recovery begins with some sort of recognition that you’re in over your head, you can’t handle this by yourself, and would somebody please help?

At its root the humiliation of calling yourself a drunk is less the social stigma and more the insult of telling yourself truths you’d rather avoid. This isn’t to say that lots of people have found success with a different approach, or that AA works for everyone, or that ‘fessing up to your powerlessness is some kind of forced denigration that all must go through. It’s simply to say that regardless of how you get started, dealing with the “cunning and baffling” qualities of alcohol means you’ve got to honestly appraise where you stand versus where you wish you were standing, followed by an equally honest assessment of whether your approach has worked, is working, or has any prospect of working. For AA that process is simple, close to what one member called an oxymoron: you can’t fix the problem unless you admit that you have it. Duh.

I know a guy who has been in AA for decades, and many years ago he was the first person I’d ever heard describe the process of going from classic alcoholism to complete sobriety. The last time I quit drinking he had said to me, “Frankly, I never thought your drinking problem was that bad.” His words stayed with me all these years, comforting me that whatever my problem was, it wasn’t alcoholism. However, in retrospect, I misheard him, likely intentionally. He didn’t say “Your alcoholism wasn’t that bad.” He said “your drinking problem.” As time has passed, I’ve realized that even though you’re an alcoholic, your Alcohol Use Disorder admits of degrees. Some alcoholics are starving and homeless, some incarcerated, some institutionalized, whereas others may “simply” be miserable people who nonetheless have hearth, home, food, and family in some greater or lesser degree. Others still may have their disorder in check for the nonce, with dimmer and grimmer prospects as time goes by. And of course there’s the AA message, which is that you can be an alcoholic and stone cold happily sober.

A fella can dream.


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The 0th Step

December 1, 2022 Comments Off on The 0th Step

Alcoholics Anonymous is a recovery program with twelve steps, plus one if you include the “Thirteenth Step” … google it. Each step (except that one) forms an integral part of the program, and although participants are supposed to logically progress from one step to the next, in practice they never do, and as AA continually reminds you, “Take what you need, leave the rest.”

But what about not being able to even take the First Step? Doesn’t that leave you with a scenario in which you’re “Taking nothing, leaving everything”? And if so, why bother going?

AA’s First Step is to admit your powerlessness over alcohol and to admit that as a result of this condition your life has become unmanageable. This is for sure a step I’ve been unable to take, despite lots of evidence to the contrary, and like many people who founder on AA’s program in the first days, weeks, or years, this core idea of one’s alcoholism is inordinately hard to accept, regardless of how often we notice the correlation between booze and catastrophe, get told that we have a problem, or repeat the mandatory AA daily self-introduction: “Seth, alcoholic.”

Getting to that first step is hard because there’s so little discussion about what comes before it, which is what I call the 0th Step. In short, the 0th Step is the one where you a) step into a meeting and b) recognize that it is a meeting for people with a drinking problem. Seems simple and rather obvious, but it’s not.

A couple of weeks ago I was talking to a guy who had left one career in search of another. The first and second careers were totally unrelated and he had zero training in the new field, an endeavor that requires highly specialized training and education. He had begun studying on his own, and after a year realized that he was going to need formal training, so he left his secure but unsatisfying job, despite the financial pressures of quitting, in order to get the schooling he needed.

His self-study had given him a leg up, and his earlier career had given him people skills that are sorely lacking in the IT field, and after a couple of months at school, and the relentless submission of job applications, he lined up a series of five interviews. One of those became a job offer, but due to his thin qualifications, the job and pay that were offered were different from the job he’d applied for. Regretfully, he declined.

Rather than being demoralized about the results, he simply redoubled his efforts with the conviction that the right job would come. My guess is that it will. But regardless, he has ascended beyond the 0th Step. That was the step where he realized that his current job sucked and that however hard it was going to be, he wanted to do something different.

In that vein, we talked about the true size of the applicant pool he’d beaten out for those interviews, because it was vaster than the many people who sent in resumes. The true applicant pool comprised the people who never even applied, and even more significantly, the people who wanted to get into IT just like he did, but had never so much as cracked a book. In other words, the 0th Step, as daunting as it seems when you’re there with your foot on the threshold, already means you’ve taken a stride far broader and more purposeful than the countless people who have never graduated beyond wishful thinking.

I’ve experienced it in my own life in other areas, like the time I failed the California Bar Exam. It was crushing, to say nothing of the shame I felt at having let my family down. Of course, I gathered my strength, took the test again, and passed on the second try, and though my sense of failure wouldn’t let me consider it at the time, simply failing the exam meant I had gone way past the 0th Step. That step involved deciding that I wanted to go to law school in the first place such that I was willing to study and pay for the LSAT, to say nothing of actually getting into and out of law school. It’s the conviction that you want to do the thing even though you don’t know what it entails that is at the heart of every 0th Step, whether a job, a relationship, an investment of time, the purchase of a bicycle to get fitter, or the decision to have a family. It’s an endless list.

Circling back to AA, there are many people including me who may feel like they don’t belong, or that the program is a bad fit, or that they’re destined to fail because they can’t even take the VERY FIRST STEP.

I’d argue that if you’re at an AA meeting, you already have.


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Have you ever had to deal with someone like yourself?

November 28, 2022 Comments Off on Have you ever had to deal with someone like yourself?

I was listening to a guy in AA talk about his relapse, how he was sitting in a park with a fifth of whiskey watching the sun go down. He’s a manager and spends a lot of his time dealing with employee problems. As he sat there he was pretty despondent. His long (for him) period of sobriety was down the drain, and now he was getting quietly stoned with no other purpose than oblivion.

He got to thinking about a confrontation he’d had with an employee earlier that week. The employee refused to admit he’d done anything wrong, or that he ever did anything wrong, and instead foisted all the difficulties off on management, other workers, the nature of the job, you name it. Towards the end of the fifteen-minute interview, which was going to end in either termination or another chance, the manager guy pulled out what he called his “nuclear weapon.”

“I always save this for the last, and only for the worst employees. You’d be amazed at how often it works. After going back and forth and both of us being totally exasperated with the other, I looked at this guy and said, ‘Tell me something. Have you ever had to deal with someone like yourself?’

“The guy looked at his feet as it sunk in, and finally, pretty shit-facedly, he said, honestly, ‘No.’ So I told him to think about that and I’d give him another chance. And you know what? It worked out.

“So here I was, getting bombed in the park, and I dropped the nuclear bomb on myself. ‘Have you ever had to deal with someone like yourself?’ Frankly, I hadn’t. And if I ever did run across anyone like myself, I have no idea what I’d do, how I’d handle it. That gave me real insight. Start looking at myself as someone I’d have to deal with, and then see if that changes my approach. It does. It kind of works.”

After he finished speaking, I thought long and hard. I’ve never had to deal with someone like myself. I’ve never even known anyone like myself, by which I mean so perverse, so angry, so ready to lash out, so unreflective, so wholly inconsiderate of how others feel, so completely indifferent to how my actions affect others, so fully ensconced in meeting my own whims to the exclusion of everyone else’s needs … and if I ever ran into someone even vaguely like myself, what in the world would I do?

Fate, as they say, provided an interlocutory answer.

I had come to a hill, three hours into an arduous ride during which time I’d minded my own business and no one else’s. I hadn’t looked at the smattering of other cyclists when they passed or were going in the other direction, save to note that they were in fact on bikes.

At the bottom of the hill a rider flew down in the opposite direction, and as I began going up I heard the sound of whooshing wheels and of pedals pushing a fast-moving chain over gear teeth. “Ah, he’s doing intervals,” I thought.

Suddenly his speed dropped to almost nothing and the rider pulled up next to me with his front wheel even with my pedals so that he could see me but I couldn’t see him without turning my head. “Obviously someone who knows me,” I concluded. “I’m supposed to look back now and make eye contact.”

But I didn’t. I kept my slow pace and so did he for ten or fifteen seconds, which is a lot longer than it sounds until you realize you’re being stalked. Finally, he pulled up almost even to me and I glanced out of the corner of my eye.

It was someone I knew, all right, and his face was twisted with rage. I steeled myself for the onslaught, expecting a torrent of profanity or a slew of insults. Instead of either, enraged almost to the point that he couldn’t speak, he yelled “Why haven’t you been answering my texts?” I hit my rear brake, and made a hard left up a side street. “Have a great day, dude!” he sneered.

My heart was pounding because this guy was me. Angry, explosive, thrilled to have cornered his prey, and relishing the slaughter. A couple of weeks ago it would have ended badly; at the very least it would have ended worse than it did.

But as Pogo used to say, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” It took a wholly new mindset to use my newfound wisdom and simply walk away, though technically I was riding. The ability to recognize your own worst traits in someone else, and then do something different from what you’re expected to do when all your buttons have been pushed, isn’t easy, but then again, nothing worthwhile ever is.


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