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