Unfriending Jack Without Friending Bill

If the AA chapter had been a little more upscale, I might just have gone back. But – surprise, surprise – the one nearest me turned out to be the absolute bottom of the line. All the people who gathered that Sunday morning had cracked skin and spoke in cracked voices and dressed in clothes that looked washed out and – in some cases — grungy. They gave the impression of having squandered the last of their human potential, of being able to aim no higher than they currently were. For me, the gathering evoked less a place of hope or healing than it did the break rooms in the telemarketing companies where I’d gone to work after leaving grad school.

I did stick around for the length of the session, offering my first name and my story, accepting (prematurely) a 24-hour sobriety token, and joining hands with the people on either side of me to recite the Our Father. But as soon as the meeting adjourned, I tossed off a hasty goodbye and pounded sand. I may even have broken into a run. Once I’d gained a reassuring distance, I stopped and took a deep breath. Then I told myself that if I did not quit drinking on my own, I would, sooner or later, end up back in the place I’d just escaped, or some place just like it – because that’s exactly where I would belong.

The surprising part is that the ultimatum worked. One hour in that company effectively scared me straight. The ironic part is that I still owe AA an incalculable debt. The greater part of the framework I employ whenever I think or talk about drinking is the one I borrowed from them.

For example, last Saturday, when I declared myself “two years sober,” I was not only speaking AA-speak but adopting AA standards, along with their built-in dating system. Being sober, the metric of success, equals complete abstinence from liquor; I took my last drink on Friday, May 3, 2013. Now, it also happens to be true that I had quit drinking regularly somewhat earlier — on January 17, 2013, my 41st birthday. Between that day and May, I quaffed only twice, and those benders were a healthy six weeks apart. Through AA’s eyes, however, those qualifiers look like the alibi of a thief caught red-handed, so I don’t generally bother with them.

More basically, AA furnished the criterion according to which I diagnosed myself. I was then a longtime binge drinker whose drinking binges were becoming much longer and much more frequent than ever before. On several occasions – some of them very recent — I’d blacked out or hurt myself under the influence. Drinking had pushed aside most other forms of fun and caused me to flub or blow off countless obligations. It was eating up far more time and money than I could spare. Still, my hands didn’t shake, I didn’t sweat, and I couldn’t say whether or not I was able to stop because I’d never tried.

Various behavioral health questionnaires placed me somewhere on the cusp between alcohol abuse – which is worrisome but common – and alcohol dependency, which is red alert. For me, who both did and didn’t want to quit drinking, this ambiguity posed a danger. Renouncing a drinking habit before it had matured seemed the act of a coward, like Lord Jim’s jumping ship at a single creak of the timbers. Habitual heavy drinkers aren’t widely known for their incisive reasoning.

On a practical level, AA keeps its definition of alcoholism loose and subjective: so long as you want to quit drinking, you’re welcome. Conceptually, it defines alcoholism as a progressive disease that culminates in a powerlessness to control drinking. One Saturday night, I did something so contrary to my good judgment that I thought to myself, “I must be powerless, or else I’d never have done that.” This gave the better angels of my nature license to panic. I reported to the nearest chapter the following day, before I’d fully sobered up.

As it happens, AA’s broad definitions, its “one-size-fits-all” approach, its belief in powerlessness, are the features critics most object to. Reviewing the cases of failed AA aspirants who found effective help elsewhere, Gabrielle Glaser observes that AA’s canons have gone unchanged since its founding in 1935, “when knowledge of the brain was in its infancy.” According to a survey of 140,000 adults undertaken by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nine out of 10 “heavy drinkers” are not helpless addicts and can limit their drinking given a doctor’s “brief intervention.” A seminal study found AA less effective than — again — brief doctor interventions, “motivational enhancement,” and medication that suppresses craving for alcohol, among other alternative treatments.

Predictably, the features that get critics’ backs up, get Catholics swooning. Jesuits have noted a close resemblance between Bill Wilson’s 12 Steps and St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises: both begin with an assumption of human frailty and divine omnipotence, both require that people take inventory of their sins and make restitution to those affected. In an essay on her blog, Helen Andrews remarks that 12-step programs have served Christianity as a Trojan horse into the secular culture. Today’s skeptic, she writes, is likely to love the same things about AA that he hates about organized religion, namely “the admission of powerlessness, the submission to authority, skepticism about the value of thinking for yourself, and the rote repetition of phrases that to an outsider seem facile or sentimental.”

Because I belong to an organized religion, my gut accepts AA’s framework a priori. And, because I belong to an organized religion, I know better than to welcome its treatment program as a comforting novelty. Slogans — which are really articles of faith — along with promises to God and fellow man, are grave and binding affairs. Even apart from the gnawed-on look of the people I met, the thought of spending the rest of my life on a Jesuit retreat made a wonderful bogeyman. Swearing off booze seemed like a small price to pay for escaping it. To save both myself and my autonomy, I became a freelance AA member, or maybe a cafeteria recovering drunk.

So far, my Higher Power seems to be completely on board with my having it both ways. After a false start, abstinence took with me. I don’t miss the booze or the buzz; recalled in the cool light of reason, they took so much more than they gave. Even around the holidays I don’t feel anything I would call a craving. My friends know they’re welcome to uncap and uncork around me. There’s real fun in being the only sober person in a room, just as there’s something edifying in asking myself, My God, is that how I looked?

It’s good that AA’s program is attracting critical scrutiny – and competitors. Even if its foundation is metaphysically correct, people shouldn’t have to choose between conversion and earthly hell. That some former bingers are learning to drink responsibly doesn’t take a thing away from God’s omnipotence – it just adds to his mystery. I have to say, though, that moderate drinking still strikes me as affected gentility, like cigar smoking or pretending to care about the America’s Cup. As long as I’m not priming myself for a late-night skinny-dip, make mine a Diet Coke.

But really, this preference for total renunciation proves just how high my blood-Catholicism level is. And if anyone asks whether I’m a friend of Bill’s, I’ll answer, “No. But I am an acquaintance.”

"Saint Joseph of Cupertino.'Nuff said."

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