Monthly Archives: May 2014

Let’s Step on it

Once more: The alcoholic at certain times has no effective mental defense against the first drink. Except in a few rare cases, neither he nor any other human being can provide such a defense. His defense must come from a Higher Power. – Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 43


I could spend a lot more time inching through the remainder of this chapter, but I have pretty much exhausted what I have to say about the First Step by now. And this is exactly where we are. The concluding paragraph sums it up pretty well. As we work through each step, I want to recap what we just covered, where we’re going and, surprisingly, what happens in the “cracks” between the Steps.

Okay, where are we going? Bill leads into the next chapter with the final two words of this one: “Higher Power.” The next chapter is one addressed entirely to the nature of the “spiritual awakening (experience)” necessary for recovery and to the concept of a Higher Power.

But before we get there, it would be a good idea to look at the “crack.”  You may ask, “What the hell are you talking about?” Go ahead.

Here’s what I am talking about. The division of the program into discrete steps was a necessity when the book was being written to make clear the common elements of each man’s recovery. (Sorry Marty Mann, you weren’t around yet.) But none of the early members had this step-by-step experience, and if you really think about it, neither do we today. I think that as we work the steps there is a continuum of experience with milestones along the way. We never really jump from one step to the next.

What is the crack like between Steps One and Two? I have to believe it is different for everyone, but I’ll use my own case as an example. You may be able to apply it to yours.

My crack could be described in one word: hopelessness. I knew about AA but I resisted it for two seemingly contradictory reasons. First, I was afraid it wouldn’t work. AA was the last house on the block and if that failed me, then what hope did I have? On the other hand, I was afraid that it would work, and that I would end up living without alcohol the rest of my life, a life I could not comprehend. I describe this as being in Death’s waiting room. I couldn’t die and I couldn’t live. I knew full well that I was a hopeless alcoholic but I had no sense that any other life would be better. Think about that: even if someone dangled happy useful sobriety in front of me I had no appetite for it.  I could not move toward happiness even if I wanted to.

This is the state into which Bill and the others tried to steer the “pigeon.” This was the condition that Rowland H. was in when Carl Jung pronounced him hopeless. “Is there nothing else?”  he cried. But keep in mind that this is a passage, a moment when the sufferer turns from darkness to light. It’s kind of like rolling out of bed. Hardly instantaneous in my case. So we pass from Step One to Step Two, keeping in mind that this is not a Kodak moment, frozen in time. It is more like the moment when we awake from a dream.

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The Pitfalls of Blogging

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How’s that working out for ya?

Our behavior is as absurd and incomprehensible with respect to the first drink as that of an individual with a passion, say, for jay-walking. He gets a thrill out of skipping in front of fast-moving vehicles. He enjoys himself for a few years in spite of friendly warnings. Up to this point you would label him as a foolish chap having queer ideas of fun. Luck then deserts him and he is slightly injured several times in succession. You would expect him, if he were normal, to cut it out. Presently he is hit again and this time has a fractured skull. Within a week after leaving the hospital a fast-moving trolley car breaks his arm. He tells you he has decided to stop jay-walking for good, but in a few weeks he breaks both legs. 

On through the years this conduct continues, accompanied by his continual promises to be careful or to keep off the streets altogether. Finally, he can no longer work, his wife gets a divorce and he is held up to ridicule. He tries every known means to get the jay-walking idea out of his head. He shuts himself up in an asylum, hoping to mend his ways. But the day he comes out he races in front of a fire engine, which breaks his back. Such a man would be crazy, wouldn’t he? 

You may think our illustration is too ridiculous. But is it? We, who have been through the wringer, have to admit if we substituted alcoholism for jay-walking, the illustration would fit us exactly. However intelligent we may have been in other respects, where alcohol has been involved, we have been strangely insane. It’s strong language – but isn’t it true? – Alcoholics Anonymous, pp. 37-38

Pardon the long citation. I considered truncating it, but it’s such an meaningful example for most of us that it does bear retelling.
Why does the jay-walker engage in such absurd and incomprehensible behavior? Alcoholics are hardly unique in exhibiting this sort of self-destructive behavior. The key to untying this knot is to ask one simple question: “What’s the payoff?” People do not self-destruct for the pure joy if it. I believe they are tying to meet a fundamental need in a way that offers relief without addressing what is lacking in their lives. I’m sure you can think of numerous examples. Those who know me well need look no further.
So what is it that the alcoholic is missing? What emptiness are we trying to fill? Here’s an excerpt from Carl Jung’s letter to Bill W.:

I am strongly convinced that the evil principle prevailing in this world leads the unrecognized spiritual need into perdition, if it is not counteracted either by real religious insight or by the protective wall of human community…  You see, “alcohol” in Latin is “spiritus” and you use the same word for the highest religious experience as well as for the most depraving poison. The helpful formula therefore is: spiritus contra spiritum.

Jung refers to an “unrecognized spiritual need.” That’s quite in keeping with what we have been discussing so far regarding the spiritual nature of the problem. Notice as well that he sees the solution in a “real religious insight” (a spiritual awakening?) or “a protective wall of human community” (a fellowship?). 
In “A Vision for You” Bill draws the parallel between what alcohol means for most normal drinkers and what the fellowship offers in its stead. “Yes, there is a substitute and it is vastly more than that. It is a fellowship in Alcoholics Anonymous.” AA fills the unrecognized spiritual need by providing the human community that genuinely satisfies the need as opposed to the counterfeit provided by alcohol.
“You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you.” 

So said St. Augustine. I could not say it better.

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Yes, I am

I am going to take the lazy way out and quote a section of “Pass It On” in which Bill describes in detail the insanity of the first drink from his own experience. It is very apropos this section of the Big Book and is one of my favorite stories
Bill was to have one last great battle with booze. It would be a running, bruising battle. It started on Armistice Day.
“The fright was getting hazier. I didn’t have to exert myself so much to resist. I began to talk to people about alcoholism, and when offered drinks, I would give the information to them as a defense and also as a justification for my former condition. Confidence was growing.
“Armistice Day, 1934, rolled around. Lois had to go to the Brooklyn department store where she worked. Wall Street was closed down, and I began to wonder what I would do. I thought of golf. I hadn’t played in a long time. The family purse was slender, so I suggested to Lois that I might go over to Staten Island, where there was a public course. She couldn’t quite conceal her apprehension, but managed to say cheerfully, ‘please do. That would be wonderful.’ I soon crossed on the ferry and found myself seated on the bus beside a man with a flying target rifle. That brought back memories of that Remington single-shot piece my grandfather had given me when I was 11 years old. We started talking about shooting.
“Suddenly, a bus behind us collided with the one we were in. There wasn’t any great shock, neither too much damage. My friend and I alighted on the pavement to wait for the next one to come along. Still talking about shooting irons, we noticed something that looked like a speakeasy. He said to me, ‘What about a little nip?’
“I said to him, ‘Fine, let’s go.’ We walked into the place. He ordered a Scotch. With ease, I ordered ginger ale. 
‘Don’t you drink?’ he said.
“ I said. ‘I’m one of those people who can’t manage it.’ And then, I dwelt on the allergy and the obsession, among other things. I told him all about the terrible time I’d had with liquor and how I was through with it forever. Very carefully, I explained the whole illness to him.
“Soon, seated in another bus, we were presently deposited in front of a country inn quite well down the island. l was to go to the golf course nearby; he was to take another bus to the rifle range. But it was noontime, so he said, ‘Let’s go in and have a sandwich. Besides, I’d like to have a drink.’ We sat at the bar this time. As I have said, it was Armistice Day. The place was filling up, and so were the customers. That familiar buzz which rises from drinking crowds filled the room. My friend and I continued our talk, still on the subject of shooting. Sandwiches and ginger ale for me, sandwiches and another drink for him.
‘We were almost ready to leave when my mind turned back again to Armistice Day in France — all the ecstasy of those hours. I remembered how we’d all gone to town. I no longer heard what my friend was saying. Suddenly, the bartender, a big, florid Irishman, came abreast of us beaming. In each hand he held a drink. ‘Have one on the house, boys,’ he cried. ‘It’s Armistice Day.’ Without an instant’s hesitation, I picked up the liquor and drank it.
‘My friend looked at me aghast. ‘My God, is it possible that you could take a drink after what you just told me? You must be crazy.’
“And my only reply could be this: ‘Yes, I am.’

“Pass It On,” pp. 109-111
Copyright © 1984 by Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc.

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Some additional (unnecessary) thoughts

In one of my last posts, I made reference to the decision to drink as a spiritual decision. This was an idea that came to me as I was writing about Jim. It was not a belief I had ever harbored until that time. It just seemed to make sense.

As I sat at coffee on Saturday and discussed this, the expression on the faces of some of my friends indicated anything but complete agreement with this idea.

I am not one to form my beliefs outside of the context of the fellowship. In fact, if I have anything meaningful to say it is because my knees have been under hundreds of AA tables over the years, not because I have been granted some unique revelation. There are a few that claim this for themselves and for the most part they are the cheerfully ignored. Heaven help me if that ever becomes my M.O. So I was forced to reconsider my position. If you can allow me to get over-analytical I would like to offer some of my additional thoughts on the matter.

 The term “spiritual” has very positive connotations, both in AA as well as in the larger culture. To speak of such an insane decision as being spiritual in nature is therefore very jarring to the ears. How do I put this in words that are more in harmony with the general tenor of the Big Book?

When Bill says that we “… may be suffering from an illness which only a spiritual experience will conquer,” I think there is a strong implication that we do not so much “lack” a spirit as we possess a diseased spirit. This leads to the question as to whether our spirit is entirely dormant. The term “spiritual awakening” does seem to imply that our spirit is present but not functioning. (I think I may have heard mine snoring a couple of times.) But the term can also imply a moment of enlightenment. Frankly, I don’t think Bill gave it anywhere this much thought. But I will.

An analogy might be useful. I own a print shop, and the world of color is sometimes my personal hell. Trying to get color right is a delicate balancing act between CMY and K (cyan, magenta, yellow and black). If one of these is missing, the resulting color is skewed away from the missing color. For example, an image deficient in yellow will appear purplish. Now, the thought life of someone whose spirit is diseased will result in thinking that is skewed heavily toward the mental and physical, in other words toward “an allergy of the body” and an “obsession of the mind.” If we turn that around, you can say that alcoholism is the “color” of someone with a diseased spirit.

Therefore (finally) I can say that the insanity of alcoholism can only be understood as a fundamentally spiritual condition. The decision to drink is a fundamentally spiritual one. If that makes any sense, God bless ya.   

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Comments anyone? Anyone?

I’m still in the process of writing some new posts, but something occurred to me that I want to share.

None of my opinions or observations of the Big Book were made in isolation from the Fellowship. If I am going to accurately re-create the dynamic of the Happy Hour Group I absolutely must have feedback. Otherwise, I’m just tootin’ in the wind.

I know many of you have had trouble figuring out how to post comments, so here’s the easy steps you need to follow.

1. Get a Google account. They are free and you don’t have to give any personal information other than your age. In their never-ending conquest of the world, they acquired Blogspot so it’s a Google site, like it or not.

2. When you get to the blog, sign in at the upper right hand corner using your shiny new Google account username and password.

3. Click on a post to read and comment. When you first sign in you are taken to a screen with recent posts but you are not able to comment until you click on one title.

If you are still having problems, email me at

Talk with you all soon.



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Self Knowledge

Thus started one more journey to the asylum for Jim. Here was the threat of commitment, the loss of family and position, to say nothing of that intense mental and physical suffering which drinking always caused him. He had much knowledge about himself as an alcoholic. Yet all reasons for not drinking were easily pushed aside in favor of the foolish idea that he could take whiskey if only he mixed it with milk!
Whatever the precise definition of the word may be, we call this plain insanity. How can such a lack of proportion, of the ability to think straight, be called anything else? – Alcoholics Anonymous pp. 36-37

Why exactly does self-knowledge fail to protect us? I think the answer lies in understanding what type of thinking leads us back to the bottle. To call it insanity is merely descriptive. This is how the world perceives us. We behave in a totally insane, irrational way. “Yet all reasons for not drinking..” And that is were the problem lies. Picking up a drink is not irrational from the perspective of the alcoholic. I believe it is arational. This may not be a familiar term, so here is a definition:

Not within the domain of what can be understood or analyzed by reason; not rational, outside the competence of the rules of reason.

I find this to be an effective way of untangling the “strange mental twists” that characterize this kind of thinking. We have “reasons” for not drinking, but the decision is made outside the domain of reason. We can’t think our way out of the first drink because the impulse in not coming from the rational part of our minds. From a psychological perspective, it could be seen as emanating from the subconscious mind. But if that were so, then psychotherapy would be an effective cure for alcoholism. Clearly it is not.

So what part of our brain is conscious but arational?  I think the idea that we are simultaneously body, mind and spirit implies that it is not the mind of the alcoholic that gets him into trouble, it is his spirit. Consider this passage in page 64 (emphasis mine):

[W]e have been not only mentally (mind) and physically (body) ill, we have been spiritually sick. When the spiritual malady is overcome, we straighten out mentally and physically.

Notice the priority. Mental and physical health is dependent on our spiritual health: sick spirit, sick body and mind. We have a daily reprieve contingent on our spiritual condition. So if the decision to pick up the drink is a spiritual one, then self-knowledge, a rational state of mind, cannot help us. We need a new spiritual state. And that is what AA is all about.

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