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THE TABLET, Vol. 234: 746-747, August 2, 1980
by Judith Sproxton
people have heard of Alcoholics Anonymous, but its image
is rather hazy. Perhaps it is drawn to public attention
frequently by the television drama spot which shows an alcoholic
who, after a succession of destructive and humiliating
experiences, finally picks up the phone and dials the magic
number. We then relax. Now that the man has contacted A.A.
play is over, for, we assume, he will soon be an alcoholic
happens, however, after this telephone call? Few of us
know. What members of A.A. know only too well is that the
thing they can ever say is that they are alcoholics no longer.
Joining A.A. means that they have identified themselves
alcoholics and that they must henceforth take this vulnerability
into account whatever they do, for their sake and for that
others. In the view of A.A., alcoholism is a physical condition
which implies that alcoholics are unable to resist alcohol
way that social drinkers can. Where non-alcoholics merely
occasional, or even a frequent social drink, the alcoholic
develops a craving which grows so strong as to eliminate
of responsibility. Unless such a person avoids drink altogether,
he cannot live normally, nor have honest relationships,
whole life becomes dominated by the need to find drink and
disguise from others the degree of his obsession.
A.A., the alcoholic is brought to face the realities of
life which, through drink, he has tried to efface. This
he must relive all the situations which he found unbearable,
reconsider the challenges which these situations offered,
define the shortcomings in himself which made him unequal
task. The important point in this exercise of self-analysis
that the alcoholic, in all probability, is no worse morally
anyone else. But his vulnerability to alcohol makes it imperative
that he does not, as so many of us may, accept a drink to
himself up. It might revive most people, but for him it
disastrous. Therefore, he must strengthen himself in other
Alcoholics Anonymous has found a means of defining sources
strength which have provided invaluable help to thousands
alcoholics, and it is this positive aspect of the fellowship
is so little known to outsiders.
associations confer on their members an identity from
they join. People who join A.A., however, have an identify
already, but one to which they have never before admitted,
which they long to live down. A.A. members seek to assist
another in a rebuilding process by which they may be freed
the addiction to alcohol which has distorted them, in order
become themselves again. The only programme necessary is
enables them to define their experiences in terms of their
addiction so that they may better understand what has happened
their lives because of it, and so that in future they will
to control it. To the outsider, the A.A. programme and its
appear somewhat naive and arbitrary. At their meetings they
two cards on the table: one reads: "Who you see here,
here, when you leave here, let it stay here." The other
day at a time." The meetings close with the "Serenity
members pray to be granted "the serenity to accept
the things I
cannot change, the courage to change those I can and the
know the difference." Why, one asks, do they need slogans?
what is the call for a religious dimension? At first sight,
looks as though some sectarian dogma is quietly in control.
However, A.A. members keep the notion of God deliberately
They insist on the need to conceive of a "higher power,"
member is encouraged to supply his own definition of this.
they seek is not a religious orthodoxy, but a source of
reassurance that the admission of inadequacy will somehow
compensation from elsewhere. The "higher power"
of which they
speak seems to imply a general spiritual optimism which
scope for humility and wards off panic. One agnostic member
remarked that, for him, the "higher power" was,
in fact, the
anonymity on which A.A. insists is a means of allowing
expression to humility in a direct and revealing way which
be difficult in everyday life. The A.A. program demands
alcoholic make an exhaustive review of his life as alcohol
affected it. Through understanding what alcohol has done
the alcoholic is then able to reject that aspect of his
without totaly rejecting himself. St. Exupery in The Little
portrays the vicious circle of alcoholism with his gloomy
who explains that he drinks to forget how ashamed he is
drinks. By giving to their fellow members an account of
shame, alcoholics in A.A. can break out of this circle.
account is a painful process, but despite its personal and
anecdotal form, other members find they can identify all
with the anxieties and admissions of deviousness which
characterize every tale. In offering their stories, A.A.
are in no way giving reasons why they drank. They insist
are no reasons to drink; merely excuses. Their stories are
without appeal for pity, without desire to entertain. For
outsider, it is a great privilege to attend an open meeting
friends and relatives of members may come to hear one of
accounts. Rarely does one hear someone speak of himself
honesty, and with so much trust in his listeners.
slogan "One day at a time" is important because
the alcoholic from the dizzy ambition of changing his life
and for all. Change is a slow process, and he can only accomplish
it by adjusting to the immediacy of things. He has to rebuild
identity in a changing world and this can only be done by
measured evaluation of his responses to it. A.A. members
against the lure of "projecting," of evading the
imposing on the future some self-indulgent fantasy. "One
day at a
time" means concentrating on the here and now. The
gives a similar emphasis. It establishes two poles: that
alcoholic's personal responsibility, and that of immutable
realities. Through assertion of his free will he can adjust
need to accept fundamental limitations.
A.A. members have found is not a cure for alcoholism,
but a cure, perhaps, for escapism. No one knowing an alcoholic
has benefited from involvement in A.A. can fail to be impressed
the positive outlook it appears to inspire. A.A. members
great sense of the joys of the immediate, a consciousness
world they once tried to obliterate. Because they resist
temptation to improve on events, they cherish an awareness
events themselves and seem to find rewards in the unexpected.
never appear to resent other people's drinking, for their
understanding of alcoholism as a physical disability means
they disapprove of the social drinker as little as a diabetic
disapproves of others taking sugar. Their determination
their lives is a source of strength both to them and to
whom they are restored.