Monthly Archives: February 2014

Fridays in Ferndale

Despite all we can say, many who are real alcoholics are not going to believe they are in that class. By every form of self-deception and experimentation, they will try to prove themselves exceptions to the rule, therefore nonalcoholic. If anyone who is showing inability to control his drinking can do the right- about-face and drink like a gentleman, our hats are off to him. Heaven knows, we have tried hard enough and long enough to drink like other people! – Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 31

Back in the 80s I worked the phones Friday nights at the Ferndale office.  Even though I was giving up one of my favorite meetings to do it, I was more than compensated by the great times we had. My old friend Willene G. was my partner, but we always had a lot of folks dropping by to sit and talk program. It was there that I met “Indian” Tom and Arnie and many more whose names escape my aged brain.

We didn’t get many calls from desperate alcoholics. It was mostly people who needed rides to meetings or were new to the area and wanted to find a meeting. The people who called for help most often were family members of alcoholics. I got to be pretty good at sharing the Alanon program and probably helped more people than I hurt.

One night we got a call from a man who wanted us to tell him whether he was an alcoholic. He proceeded to explain in minute detail all the reasons he was not an alcoholic. He did not to believe he was “in that class.”  I listened to him go on and on, all the time thinking that I could be sitting at a meeting where people at least knew who they were. He finally finished and asked my opinion. Bad idea. I said to him “There are thousands of people in the Detroit area with phone books, and AA is on the first page of every one of them. Not one of them felt a need to call me and ask if they were alcoholic. Except you. What do you think?”

When we were drinking, we did not want to believe we were in that class. But everyone who loved us knew we were, and often said we were, and it drove a wedge between us. We knew there was a fellowship of alcoholics, but we wanted no part of them. And then we wondered why we felt so alone.

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Hey, what happened to my legs?

We are like men who have lost their legs; they never grow new ones. Neither does there appear to be any kind of treatment which will make alcoholics of our kind like other men. We have tried every imaginable remedy. In some instances there has been brief recovery, followed always by a still worse relapse. Physicians who are familiar with alcoholism agree there is no such thing as making a normal drinker out of an alcoholic. Science may one day accomplish this, but it hasn’t done so yet. – Alcoholics Anonymous, pp. 30-31

As my friend Lucy S. has observed, “Once you become a pickle, you can never be a cucumber again.” There’s an implication in the first sentence of this paragraph that alcoholism is, in some sense, a condition acquired by drinking. It refers to men “who have lost” their legs, not men who never had them in the first place. In my own experience, there was a line I crossed unnoticed where drinking stopped being something I could choose to do or not (although I rarely chose “not”), and became instead something that possessed me, body and mind. I had “lost” something.
The word “treatment” opens up another area of contention. Nowadays the word “treatment” is essentially shorthand for in-patient rehab. But when Bill wrote this, there was still the notion that alcoholics could be cured in order to return to temperate drinking.  If I were offered such a “cure,” I would only be interested in it if it allowed me to control and enjoy my drinking, and we’re back to square one.

 (A brief digression. Why is it that so many other alcoholism and addiction treatments often go to great pains to disparage AA? Since we have no opinion on outside issues, if in fact such things work for some people, then “our hats are off” to them. We readily admit to having no monopoly. So why are we such a threat?)

As to whether or not “science” has found a treatment to make me like other men, I refer you to the Princeton study documented here. It includes details of the Rand study as well as the Schick-Shadel aversion therapy. (Or as I prefer to call it, “A Clockwork Orange.” Just kidding. Or am I?) As I was reading this, I felt a certain sadness. Here are the cold, hard facts of science objectively reviewing “every imaginable remedy,” entirely divorced from the love and warmth of AA. Maybe there is a “cure.” If so, I really don’t care.

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The Little Engine That Could (stop drinking any time he wanted to)

We alcoholics are men and women who have lost the ability to control our drinking. We know that no real alcoholic ever recovers control. All of us felt at times that we were regaining control, but such intervals – usually brief – were inevitably followed by still less control, which led in time to pitiful and incomprehensible demoralization. We are convinced to a man that alcoholics of our type are in the grip of a progressive illness. Over any considerable period we get worse, never better. – Alcoholics Anonymous, p.30

Don’t ever let anyone say that alcoholics have no will power. It takes a phenomenal  exertion of will to function effectively while still maintaining our consumption of alcohol. We are masters of control. The paradox was that every time we said we could control it, what we were really saying was that we needed to control it. Normal drinkers don’t control their drinking. They don’t need to control it. What would you think if someone mentioned in the middle of a conversation that he could control his bladder? Would you let him sit on your new sofa?

There are a lot of people who would take issue with the sentence that follows because they would point out that some “alcoholics” do learn how to moderate their consumption. Now, I am not interested in getting into a debate. So let’s just simplify it. Our definition of a “real alcoholic” is “someone who can never regain control.” End of debate. If you can regain control you are ipso facto not a “real” alcoholic. AA is not for you. We can only deal with “alcoholics of our type.” Have a nice life.

It’s interesting how brief periods of control were inevitably followed by still less control. Why do you suppose that is? In my own case, whenever I felt I was gaining control, the immediate temptation was to see how much more I could drink and still be “in control.” Think about that. Does the phrase “control and enjoy” apply? Remember, I was never happy when I was actually drinking moderately. So there was always a constant impetus to see how far I could push it in the vain hope that I would reach that magic moment when I could drink to excess moderately. I can recall not a few times when, having gone without drinking for some arbitrary length of time, I would reward myself with a drink! This is like the pyromaniac who, having gone a year without starting any fires, rewards himself by burning down his own house.

Demoralize: to cause (someone) to lose hope, courage, or confidence : to weaken the morale of (a person or group).

In other words, because our attempts at control only exacerbated the problem, we lost hope, we lost confidence, we became pitiful and we had no clue as to why.

Now comes the next controversy. We are in the grips of a progressive illness. But is alcoholism a “disease?” I discussed this somewhat in my 9/9 post. The word is only used once in the first 164 pages, and page 64 only refers to all forms of spiritual disease stemming from resentment. Doesn’t mention alcoholism per se. You could split hairs and say that, since alcoholism is a form of spiritual disease, then that makes it a disease. But even I’m not that analytical. I’ll just say that, when people constantly refer to their “disease” like it was some kind of pet, I get a little irritated. “Hi, I would like you meet my disease. Its name is Fluffy.” 

 The one thing that is almost irrefutable is that, whatever alcoholism is, it is certainly progressive. And our experience is almost universal that periods of abstinence do NOT reverse the progression. That delusion is at the heart of many a slip. “If I don’t drink for a year then I will be where I was a year before I stopped.” If you follow that logic, all you would have to do to become a normal drinker would be to stay sober as long as you drank. When that happy day arrives, reward yourself with a drink. And don’t forget to set your house on fire.

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After we got plowed we got smashed

We learned that we had to fully concede to our innermost selves that we were alcoholics. This is the first step in recovery. The delusion that we are like other people, or presently may be, has to be smashed. – Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 30

I my last post I quoted a dictionary definition of “delusion.” Actually, that paragraph never uses the term. I guess I was getting ahead of myself. There is a difference between illusions and delusions, but it’s really not important in this context. In both cases, Bill is talking about a state of mind that denies reality. And in addressing the stronger term “delusion,” Bill uses a very vivid image: it has to be smashed!

When I persisted in the belief that I was like other people or soon (presently) would be, I was laboring under a self-inflicted break with reality. I never was like other people in regards to alcohol. Well, I was like some people, namely other alcoholics. But I think Bill means temperate drinkers here. And this persistent and astonishing illusion was not going to melt away slowly. It was not going to gradually yield to the force of logic. No, it would have to end with a bang.

I have heard many times around meetings the truism “as long as I don’t take the first drink I am working the First Step perfectly.” I don’t believe that, not in light of what this paragraph clearly says. There were many times in my drinking career that I was not taking the first drink, but I could not have been further away from the First Step if I tried. I had not even begun admitting to my outermost self that I was anything like an alcoholic.

What does Bill mean by “our innermost selves?”  To me, it implies that we operate in varying degrees of self-awareness, that our sense of self can be more or less deep at any given time. We’ve all heard stories of people who have had life-changing experiences. I believe these are occasions in which the innermost self is exposed by some experience, either traumatic or ecstatic. That’s why I think that “hitting bottom” is often the result of some crisis. The innermost self is forced to confront reality. That’s probably why very few people make it to Alcoholics Anonymous because it was a nice day and they thought they would try something new.

So, for me, the First Step is really a radical upheaval of self-perception, the world turned upside-down, if you will. External circumstances (like the flashing blue lights in your rear-view mirror) can precipitate it, but in the end it is really a crisis of self.

It is a crushing victory.


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Somehow, someday

Most of us have been unwilling to admit we were real alcoholics. No person likes to think he is bodily and mentally different from his fellows. Therefore, it is not surprising that our drinking careers have been characterized by countless vain attempts to prove we could drink like other people. The idea that somehow, someday he will control and enjoy his drinking is the great obsession of every abnormal drinker. The persistence of this illusion is astonishing. Many pursue it into the gates of insanity or death. – Alcoholics Anonymous, p.30

We speak of the hopelessness of the alcoholic, but that word implies that there was something originally hope for. We find it here in this paragraph. Most of us remember the golden moment, that magical first rush of alcohol to our brains. Yet for all the drinking I did, I never again experienced that same first rush. So I settled into a period of happy and successful drinking, never allowing control to interfere with enjoyment. I could get away with it because at that point I could drink as much as I wanted without any dire consequences.

Then, as it says elsewhere, “gradually things got worse.” Gradually, I needed to control my intake, but that began to interfere with the enjoyment. So I started to look forward to occasions when I could drink without interference. I encouraged my wife to visit her family in Michigan without me so I could party on. I would go away by myself for weekends, visiting places she wasn’t interested in seeing. But most of my sightseeing was done in my motel room, drunk in front of the TV. (I did drive through some lovely scenery getting there, though.) Eventually I began to tell everyone to leave me alone, and one by one they did.

I refused to admit that my reaction to alcohol was changing, that I was becoming less and less like normal drinkers, bodily and mentally. I began to cling to the hope that “some new miracle of control” would return me to those happier times when I could control and enjoy it. This is the obsession of every alcoholic. I could enjoy it if I didn’t have to control it, but I couldn’t have it both ways. It became my obsession. My fondest hope was becoming more and elusive until I was left with nothing but hopelessness.

The book calls this a “delusion” of astonishing persistence. Here’s a dictionary definition of delusion:

An idiosyncratic belief or impression that is firmly maintained despite being contradicted by what is generally accepted as reality or rational argument, typically a symptom of mental disorder.

Can anyone relate to that? Delusions are by their very nature persistent. But the alcoholic delusion is so immune to reason that any outside observer would be astonished. It is a delusion characterized by countless vain attempts to do the impossible.

The last sentence is a telling one. I have a mental image of the alcoholic running into a burning building to retrieve something that is no longer there.We pursued it to the gates of insanity and death, and the closer we got to Hell, the harder we ran.

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None of us liked the leveling of pride

Another comment about this paragraph. No matter how attractive the AA message may be to the new person, it is common knowledge that many if not most reject it out of hand.

As I noted in an earlier post, when I began drinking I liked the effect “produced” by alcohol. It never occurred to me that a similar state of happiness was achievable by hard work. It is not surprising that when confronted by a way out that required effort on my part I wanted nothing to do with it.
That’s why it’s so critical to notice that Bill starts with this assumption then says “But we saw that it worked on others…” New people need to see the undeniable reality that it works in others. We have an obligation to show that.

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Plowing the soil

There is a solution. Almost none of us liked the self-searching, the leveling of our pride, the confession of shortcomings which the process requires for its successful consummation. But we saw that it really worked in others, and we had come to believe in the hopelessness and futility of life as we had been living it. When, therefore, we were approached by those in whom the problem had been solved, there was nothing left for us but to pick up the simple kit of spiritual tools laid at our feet. We have found much of heaven and we have been rocketed into a fourth dimension of existence of which we had not even dreamed.  – Alcoholics Anonymous, p.25

They that are whole have no need of a physician. – Matthew 9:12

There is no need for a solution when there’s no problem. From the very beginning, when I inwardly knew that my drinking was far from normal, I would comfort myself in the knowledge that alcohol wasn’t causing me any problems. And I harbored the delusion that if it ever did become a problem I would start drinking “normally.” But it never did. Not that alcohol wasn’t creating havoc and hurting everyone around me. I just made the definition of “problem” a moving target that was always conveniently worse than what happened to be going on at the moment.

In his Guest House talk, Bill talks of the soil, the climate and the light. And by the soil, I believe he refers to the receptiveness of the alcoholic mind. The image is like that in the parable of the sower and the seed. The seed only takes root in soil that has been prepared by being broken. (I guess you could say that we actually were getting “plowed”.) But it’s a brokenness that is of no value unrecognized. The alcoholic has to finally come to the realization that he has passed beyond the point of human aid, that all the resources he can bring to bear on the problem fail utterly. And it is in that state where the soil can receive the seed.

Bill spends most of the chapter up to this point doing precisely that. It’s a sweeping survey of the utter hopelessness of the alcoholic condition. And it is a strategy that he and the other early AAs utilized in approaching a new prospect. They made certain that any hope the new man might have of solving the problem on his own was thoroughly destroyed as they recounted their own futile attempts to pull off the impossible. Bill recounts that, when Roland returned to Karl Jung after his horrible relapse, Jung’s admission that he had nothing further to offer him added “agony to despair.”

But then, suddenly, a sliver of light penetrates this intolerable darkness There is a solution!  Bill recounts that it swept through him like a mighty wind. But those “moments of clarity” we have experienced are no less valid and by no means less profound.

The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light. – Isaiah 9:2

You must excuse me for getting so biblical on you, but I only do so to point out that we alcoholics are not experiencing something new. God’s been doing this from the beginning. If I were more conversant in other religions, I might be inclined to cite examples from those traditions. I’m sure there are many.

We saw that it worked in others. There is the source of the light. My friend Bruce M. would paint this picture. A ship sinks and I am struggling to stay afloat. And around me people are clinging to big hunks of concrete but I refuse to do so because logic tells me that concrete doesn’t float. Yet it works for them. So I think to myself “to hell with reason, I’m finding me a piece of concrete.”

I remember vividly the moment in Sacred Heart when the idea entered my mind that this might work for me. And the feeling that I got was that it was going to be OK. And it was.


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A show of hands

There are times when the absence of comments leads me to believe that no one is reading this. I got an email that assured me that at least two other people were reading it.

If you are reading this, please let me know by leaving a comment or emailing me at An audience if two is okay with me, but I would like to know who else is out there.


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