Atheist Big Book Study: More About Alcoholism
The Hard Facts
This chapter follows a formula similar to what Dr. Silkworth recommended Bill W. use while helping other alcoholics at Towns Hospital.
Start with the hard facts of alcoholism, stressing the absolute hopelessness of the condition. Once the prospect has been deflated by this news, build their trust by sharing your own personal experience as an alcoholic, and then close with the solution of conversion via spiritual experience.
From the perspective of an atheist, I would alter the formula a bit by removing the spiritual conversion, and replacing it with a description of how others in A.A. helped me stay sober, and how I have been changed as a result of my experience in A.A.
Similar to a first step meeting that newcomers receive during their first A.A. meeting, the focus here is on the first step of recovery, “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol-that our lives had become unmanageable”, or as stated here, “…we had to fully concede to our innermost selves that we were alcoholics” (Alcoholics Anonymous p. 30).
Alcoholism is described as a condition in which alcoholics lose the ability to control their drinking, but are obsessed with the idea that somehow they will regain control. This idea proves to be an illusion that is often “pursued into the gates of insanity or death”. A progressive illness, alcoholism only gets worse over time, never better. And once having reached this point, there is no going back. “There is no such thing as turning an alcoholic into a normal drinker” (Alcoholics Anonymous p. 31).
To emphasize the futility of attempting controlled drinking, the authors provide from their own personal experience a list of failed techniques they used in an effort to control their drinking. These include:
“Drinking beer only, limiting the number of drinks, never drinking alone, never drinking in the morning, drinking only at home, never having it in the house, never drinking during business hours, drinking only at parties, switching from scotch to brandy, drinking only natural wines, agreeing to resign if ever drunk on the job, taking a trip, not taking a trip, swearing off forever (with and without a solemn oath), taking more physical exercise, reading inspirational books, going to health farms and sanitariums, accepting voluntary commitment to asylums” (Alcoholics Anonymous p. 31).
If the reader is still not convinced at this point, the next paragraph recommends self-diagnosis by experimentation. The authors suggest going to the nearest barroom to “try some controlled drinking. Try to drink and stop abruptly. Try it more than once” (Alcoholics Anonymous p. 31).
I vividly recall reading this in the early days of my sobriety when thoughts of drinking were nearly constant. As I came across this paragraph, I contemplated the idea and nervously planned how I would go about doing it. The entire idea was both exciting and horrifying at the same time. However, the more I thought about it the more concerned I became.
Something wasn’t right about this, and it came to me that this isn’t normal thinking. Today my advice for anyone considering this test is to point out that they have already failed, because if they were a normal drinker, this would never be a concern. Normal drinkers don’t need an experiment in controlled drinking nor would they spend any time contemplating it.
As a way of emphasizing the hopelessness of alcoholism, the authors proceed with three personal stories. One is used to confirm the premise that once an alcoholic always an alcoholic, and the other two describe the thinking that precedes relapse.
Once a Pickle
The first story is of a young man who after showing signs of problem drinking became motivated to quit so he could succeed in business. He remained sober for twenty-five years, but returned to drinking upon retirement. He thought that after having been sober for so long that he could drink again without any problem. Within two months, he was in the hospital for drinking. He tried to moderate but without success, and after further hospitalizations he found he could not stop at all. Sadly, he was dead within four years.
The moral of this story is “once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic. In meetings you often hear that if you return to drinking you won’t just pick up where you left off, instead it will be as if you had been drinking all along. I have also heard it as “once you become a pickle, there is no going back to a cucumber”.
The Car Salesman
H.A.L.T. is an acronym for Hungry, Angry, Lonely and Tired. The advice often given to newcomers is that they not allow themselves to become too hungry, angry, lonely or tired. You might just get drunk. I’m not sure where this originated though I once heard at a meeting that it makes an appearance in this story. It’s a bit of a stretch, but let’s take a look.
This is the story of Jim. He’s an intelligent likable guy with a beautiful family and a great career. He never drank until he was thirty-five years old, but within just a few years his drinking was so bad that he was committed to an asylum.
While hospitalized, he was approached by A.A. members who explained the nature of alcoholism and the solution they found. He accepted their solution and made a great beginning of putting his life back together. Things were going great, but unfortunately he failed to enlarge upon his spiritual life and he ended up getting drunk “have a dozen times in rapid succession” (Alcoholics Anonymous p. 35).
Here is where I need to put the brakes on. Screeeech! Let’s see. God demands that we constantly work at growing closer to him or we are punished by getting drunk. If Jim had only tried to grow spiritually, this never would have happened. Of course it makes no sense. If there is a god, why even play this game? Why make alcoholics at all? Why make one class of person who must work tirelessly at spiritual growth or end up drunk? But I digress…
When asked how it happened, Jim explained that he came to work feeling angry because he was working for a place he used to own and even had a few choice words with his boss. He decided to drive out to the country to visit a potential customer and on his way he felt hungry, so he stopped for a bite to eat at a place where they happen to have a bar. He figured he could strike up a conversation at this place and maybe find a customer. Obviously, his need to strike up a conversation is evidence that he was lonely, and I bet the drive made him tired as well. Get it? He wasn’t growing spiritually and he allowed himself to become too hungry, angry, lonely and tired. It doesn’t look good.
He ordered a sandwich and a glass of milk. Still hungry he ordered another sandwich and milk. Then the thought suddenly crossed his mind that if he added an ounce of whiskey with his milk, it wouldn’t bother him on a full stomach. So he had another, and another which started yet another journey to the asylum for Jim.
With all the knowledge he had about himself as an alcoholic, he still came up with this crazy idea that he could drink whiskey if he only mixed it with milk. This is the insanity of alcoholism. The idea that somehow one can drink again with control and it comes on as a simple thought that suddenly enters one’s mind.
This insanity is further illustrated with an analogy of a man with an obsession for jaywalking. This man gets a thrill out of running in front of fast moving cars. He keeps this up for years despite warnings from his friends. Then one day he’s hit and fractures his skull. After getting out of the hospital, he jaywalks again only this time he’s hit and breaks both legs. He keeps this up until his wife can’t handle anymore and files for divorce. He can no longer work and cannot get the jaywalking obsession out of his mind. This is certainly crazy and not so different from the actions of an alcoholic.
I related to this when I first read it, and it made sense to me. Of course I was crazy. I dismissed the first DWI as bad luck, after the second I decided I needed to learn how to pace my drinks, then the third came a long and cost me everything. Alcohol seemed to have a hand in every serious problem I had in my life, yet I could not get the idea out of my head that I could somehow gain control. I just had to learn the right way to drink, so I repeatedly tried the same experiment expecting a different result. The very definition of insanity courtesy of A.A.
The next story is that of a successful businessman named Fred. He is a partner at a respected accounting firm and is entirely normal in every respect yet he’s an alcoholic. When A.A. members first met him he was in the hospital “recovering from a bad case of the jitters”, which to my mind means he was going through alcohol withdrawal.
Fred wouldn’t admit that he was an alcoholic and he was definitely uninterested in a spiritual remedy. He believed that the memory of the humiliation from the latest drinking episode and the knowledge he acquired about himself would be sufficient to keep him sober for the rest of his life. He believed that self-knowledge would do it.
After some time passed, Fred entered the hospital again and this time in worse shape than he had been before. When visited by A.A.s he explained that he really believed that drinking was behind him. He understood what he was told about the insanity of the first drink, but he didn’t think he was in bad enough shape that this would happen to him.
Yet, while on a business trip as he was making his way to dinner, the thought crossed his mind that it would be nice to have a few cocktails with dinner. Again, all it took was a thought to quickly enter his mind. He ordered a drink, and another drink, and another, and another. This set him on a week-long bender culminating in another hospitalization.
He recalled that he was completely off guard and had not thought about any of the consequences before taking that first drink. He remembered what he was told by the A.A. members that “if he had an alcoholic mind, the time and place would come-he would drink again” (Alcoholics Anonymous p. 41). The lesson from his experience is that “self-knowledge and willpower were not sufficient, and this fact was a crushing blow” (Alcoholics Anonymous p. 42).
Notice those words “crushing blow”. This is the part of the formula that was missing after his initial visit from the A.A. members. Dr. Silkworth believed that alcoholics need to experience this deep deflation before they are willing to accept help. Today, we call it “hitting bottom”.
The idea of complete deflation and the teachings of the Oxford Group were offered as a solution to Fred the accountant. These principles included; complete deflation, dependence on a higher power, moral inventory, confession, restitution and continued work with other alcoholics. Though Fred wasn’t much of a churchgoer, these ideas seemed to make sense to him and he found they also worked in other areas of his life.
On the face of it, these principles do seem to make sense. It does appear that real calamity must occur for most of us to break through denial, and most recovering addicts and alcoholics can relate to that feeling of hopelessness that comes with hitting bottom. It makes sense that we should explore the root psychological issues that fueled our drinking, and to talk those things over with another person. And because our drinking affected those around us, it also makes sense to offer amends for our past transgressions. Even if one does not believe in a supernatural god, certainly dependence on the A.A. group as a higher power would be helpful. That’s what does it for me.
In my experience the solution doesn’t involve a spiritual awakening or experience at all. There is nothing supernatural taking place. It is all amazingly real and simple. We rely on our bond with one another to stay sober, we help each other as much as possible. Taking an honest look at ourselves and relating to another person helps us heal emotionally. Making amends aids in ridding ourselves of shame and guilt, and hopefully mends and restores broken or dysfunctional relationships.
Everything we experience in recovery is very real. It’s real help from real people, and in my opinion this is far more beautiful and moving than having blind faith in an unseen, but all-powerful god who grants sobriety to those it deems deserving. I much prefer sobriety that’s grounded in reality.