Breaking Free From Our Most Dangerous Drug
From humble beginnings, Alcoholics Anonymous has saved millions of lives
by ROSS FITZGERALD
Yesterday, on Australia Day, I was sober for 50 years.
Since I stopped drinking and drugging on January 26, 1970, Alcoholics Anonymous has continued to teach me that for an alcoholic one drink is too many and 100 is not enough.
Indeed, the trick for an alcoholic like me is not to pick up the first drink, and to keep attending AA meetings.
The stark reality is if I hadn’t stopped drinking and drugging aged 25, I wouldn’t have made 26.
Yet had I not started drinking at 14 I may well have taken my own life by the age of 18.
This is because, as a child, I felt like a garbage tip and alcohol enabled me to hold down those dreadful feelings, but only for a while.
Then the progressive nature of the illness of alcoholism began to thoroughly take hold. This was until, through the agency of Alcoholics Anonymous and particularly through attending AA meetings, I was released from the need to drink and use other drugs 50 years ago.
The role of Alcoholics Anonymous in combating alcoholism and other drug addiction deserves to be celebrated.
However, for the millions of lives saved and transformed by this extraordinary movement, just as many have failed to grasp its simple message and the result has been personal hell, family breakdown, and untimely death. Such is the destructive power of alcohol, society’s most pernicious and damaging drug.
On May 12, 1935, Alcoholics Anonymous had its fragile beginning in Akron, Ohio, when a recently sober New York stockbroker, Bill Wilson, fearful that being alone on a business trip, he might return to drinking, hit on the idea of communicating with another alcoholic.
After making inquiries, Wilson was directed to a seemingly hopeless alcoholic physician, Bob Smith.
As a result of listening to Wilson tell the story of his alcoholism, Dr Bob had his last drink on June 10, 1935, which is the date on which AA is regarded as having been founded.
Ten years later, in March 1945, AA began in Australia.
From its beginnings, the AA program emphasised alcoholism as an illness that could be arrested, a day at a time, by complete abstinence from alcohol.
A key aspect of AA’s therapeutic process involves what can be termed the mechanism of surrender. Instead of telling alcoholics to use their willpower, control their drinking or pull up their socks, AA suggests that a much more efficacious strategy is to admit that, at least in relation to alcohol, they are beaten.
This acceptance of defeat often produces, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, a shift in attitude that unlocks new and positive feelings, especially hope and a sense of usefulness.
Surrender in AA involves the letting go of control. Thus at AA meetings one often hears a speaker say: “I’m not a retired alcoholic, I am a defeated one. I’ve thrown in the towel.” To let go in surrender is totally different from fighting alcohol (or life). Despair and hopelessness, not personal strength, is at its source.
Few people realise that the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung was intimately involved in the beginnings of AA.
As Jung explained in a letter to Bill Wilson, “alcohol in Latin is ‘spiritus’ and you use the same word for the highest religious experience as well as for the most depraving poison”. Jung maintained that for an alcoholic person the most helpful formula was “spiritus contra spiritum”: spirit against spirit, power against power.
It was Jung’s belief that, for an alcoholic, the primary sources of long-term recovery were to be found in something like a “conversion experience”. This should not be confused with a religious conversion.
In AA it is a conversion to accepting at depth that, in dealing with alcoholism, it is not sufficient to rely on the isolated self. This fundamental psychic change needs constantly to be reinforced or the alcoholic will most likely revert to old ways of thinking, feeling and responding, and hence will eventually drink again.
There is a tendency for some alcoholics who have stopped drinking to believe they can be totally self-reliant and can control their drinking. Alcoholic pride suggests the individual is not really beaten.
Instead of encouraging notions of supposed self-sufficiency, self-reliance and self-control, AA restructures the whole context and asserts that, with regard to alcoholism, the person is defeated.
The AA proposition, “once an alcoholic always an alcoholic”, reinforces a fundamental fact. Thus when I speak at meetings I always begin by saying: “My name is Ross and I am an alcoholic.”
AA’s only theological conception is that of a power greater than the self. This is sometimes conceived as God, as one understands that concept, or one doesn’t.
Just as the traditional stereotype of what comprises an alcoholic often blinds sufferers to the reality of their condition, so can the traditional stereotype associated with God lead to confusion and resistance.
But once the theistic, Christian (or any other) stereotype is done away with, it becomes clear that the notion of a power greater than oneself makes room for all alcoholic people, including atheists like myself. This is the case as long as we are willing to accept and rely on something outside or other than the isolated self, even if it is only the AA group we attend.
At some time during almost every AA meeting in the world, the new person will hear the following phrase: “You may leave this meeting today and need never drink again.” Often this is something that alcoholics have never considered before.
All the elements that comprise AA (attendance at meetings, the notion of alcoholism as an irreversible condition, working with other alcoholics, and the Twelve Suggested Steps) are part of a continuing process of surrender that offers the alcoholic not only freedom from the obsession to drink but also a sense of meaning and a useful way of life. Maintenance of the state of self-surrender underpins personal recovery and is a continuing source of hope.
Ross Fitzgerald is professor of history and politics at Griffith University. His memoir, Fifty Years Sober, is released by Hybrid in March.
The Australian, January 27, 2020, p 12.