Clean and Sober - And Agnostic
Turned off by AA’s religious aspects, new groups
are leaving God out of their battle with the bottle
On a recent Friday evening, a small group of recovering alcoholics filed into the Couth Buzzard Used Books store, in Seattle Wash., to talk about their struggles with "the beast." "Haul your beast out of the cellar," group monitor Jim Petermann urged one woman. "Beat up on her, confront her. Then lock her back up. Beating up on your beast is a serious tool."
The beast battlers were members of Rational Recovery, (RR), one of a growing number of self-help groups that have sprung up in the past few years as alternatives to Alcoholics Anonymous. Drawing heavily on A.A. defectors, these groups are mounting a direct challenge to the older organization's cornerstone l2-step program which calls on members to kick their addiction by trusting a "higher power."
The 56-year-old, million member A.A. has come under increasing criticism for what some see as the directly religious tilt of its 12 steps, four of which specifically invoke "God. " Some reluctant members of A.A. or similar groups ordered to attend meetings after being convicted of drunk driving have sued on the grounds of civil-rights violation. "They were praying and talking about God half the time at the meetings I went to," says John Norfolk, a Maryland man who won a 1988 suit backed by the American Civil Liberties Union.
A disease. The newer groups, including RR, Secular Organization for Sobriety (SOS) and Women for Sobriety (WFS), lean more on willpower than on any higher power. Where A.A. calls drinking a disease and urges members to acknowledge their own helplessness against it, the alternative groups emphasize taking personal responsibility for kicking the habit. "We credit ourselves for achieving sobriety," says James Christopher, founder of SOS, the largest of the groups, with an international membership of 20,000. "Some people in SOS are quite religious, but they don't believe in an intervening God who would come down and stir their coffee for them."
RR also shuns the religious element. Founded in Lotus, Calif., five years ago by clinical social worker Jack Trimpey, the organization has grown to holding meetings in more than 150 cities from a high of just 30 last year. It traces its roots directly to the ideas of Albert Ellis and his New York-based Institute for Rational-Emotive Therapy. Ellis's theories, formulated in the 1950s, blame emotional problems on the distorted perceptions rather than inner conflict - a view also held by practitioners of cognitive therapy. Trimpey, himself an A.A. dropout, says RR tries to help members recognize the sort of "crooked" thinking that sets up impulse behavior. "The beast" is what RR members are taught to call the irrational inner voice that tells them it would be great to have a beer or a tumbler of vodka with breakfast. To the RR way of thinking, A.A.'s notion of "powerlessness" is another irrational idea. "It perpetuates the addictive cycle,” says Trimpey. "It says, 'I have no choice."' But RR insists that choice is the essence of the drinking problem. "You can pick up a container of beer and drink it without somehow choosing to," Trimpy says.
For some alcoholics, the appeal to forces within one's own control simply works better. "The whole higher-power concept just never did it for me," says Paul, a 45-year-old Brockton, Mass., mechanic who bounced in and out of A.A. for a dozen years before hooking up with a Boston-based RR chapter.
"It was like hocus-pocus, like magic. When I put my hand on the door knob at the package store, I'd say, 'O.K., higher power, where are you?"' With RR he has learned to think differently. “Now I don't even get in my car to go to the package store. I think it out (and) say, "I've been there before. What's going to come of it?"'
A.A. of course doesn't discourage that kind of reasoning. But it holds that alcoholics are never really cured of the "disease" of drinking, and should attend meetings all their lives. Thus, critics complain, A.A. simply substitutes one kind of dependency for another. Jean Kirkpatrick, a sociologist and founder of the 5,000 member Women for Sobriety, says that that presents a particular problem for a woman, who is "already dependent on alcohol, on her husband, on everything but herself." In A.A., Kirkpatrick says, "she develops new dependencies, on a sponsor, on a higher power, on going to meetings for the rest of her life."
Like RR, Women for Sobriety has other ideas. Its own 13 steps stress positive perceptions ("I am what I think") and individual responsibility. Kirkpatrick, who founded the group after A.A. failed to halt her own decades-long bouts of alcoholism, says a Ralph Waldo Emerson essay on “Self-Reliance" finally helped her realize that by changing her thoughts she could change herself. WFS literature tackles A.A. head-on, saying that the older group's "philosophy is to turn over our will and our lives" while WFS advocates "Taking Charge." A.A. puts "emphasis on alcoholism," the literature continues; WFS emphasizes recovery.
The organization justifies its single-sex approach on the ground that women alcoholics have different psychological and emotional needs from males. "We try to give women self-value, self-esteem and self-confidence, which most of them don't have," says Kirkpatrick. "Hopefully, this empowers women." (In A.A., she notes, members introduce themselves by saying, "my name is X and I'm an alcoholic." WFS members say, "My name is X and I'm a competent woman."')
Shrugging off the criticisms, A.A. defenders insist that it doesn't compel members to believe, literally, in a deity. In practice, they say, religion plays a relatively minor role. "Realistically, 12-step people have never behaved as if they think the power is outside themselves," says John Hopkins professor George Bigelow, a psychologist who runs the schools substance-abuse program." In fact, most of the steps deal with what people themselves are going to do."
Enviable-record; Undoubtedly, part of A.A.'s attraction is the release from accountability implied to the appeal to higher forces. Calling drinking a disease instead of a personal failure also seems to help some people. "acknowledging an addictive disorder as a disease has some of the same element of psychological forgiveness as the confessional," says Bigelow. " it says, 'It's a disease, it's not my fault."' A.A. supporters also see nothing wrong with fostering dependency on the group. "For some people, it's exactly what they need," says Dr. Edward Khantzian, a psychiatrist at the Danvers State and Cambridge Hospitals in Massachusetts. "They need an antidote for the terrible, progressive self-centeredness that develops with this addictive illness."
Even critics of A.A. acknowledge that it has worked for thousands over its more than half a century of existence. Because its operations are anonymous by definition, there is no official count; but according to statistics, the organization succeeds in keeping around 29 per cent of its members sober for more than five years, a record considered enviable in the field. The alternative groups will have to prove their own staying power, but meanwhile there is surely room for more than one approach. Indeed, one member of the Seattle RR chapter also belongs to A.A., attending RR's Friday-evening meetings and A.A.'s sunrise meetings on Saturday and Sunday. “In A.A. I'm an alcoholic," he says. "In RR I'm not. I have to remember what day it is." The double allegiance is fine with RR's Peterman. "This is an alternative," he says. "We're not trying to replace A.A. If we help one more person that A.A. couldn't help, then we've saved one more life."
David Gelman with
Elizabeth Ann Leonard in New York
Binnie Fisher in Seattle
(Source: NEWSWEEK, July 8, 1991)