Dogma and Alcoholics Anonymous

treebark2As with governments and religions, in Alcoholics Anonymous, either formal or informal authorities are charged or charge themselves with interpreting various founding documents.  The founding document for AA is the volume entitled Alcoholics Anonymous commonly referred to as the Big Book.  Governments and religions have official bodies to interpret their founding documents.  In AA everyone gets to be an expert, at least in their own mind.

As an iconoclast by inclination, I tend to rebel against those who treat the Big Book as inspired dogma.  I like to remind folks that the words “sponsor” and “AA meeting” do not appear in the original edition of the Big Book.  I note as well that the Twelve Steps are “suggested” and not mandated.

How does the dogmatic approach work in AA?  Here is an example.  Step Three goes “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”  After reading this step certainly thousands of times, a few years ago I was struck that “as we understood (Him) God” required a further action on my part. I was charged with coming up with some understanding of a God or Higher Power.  I could not just conveniently co-opt a Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, or other concept fully conceived, unless that was my true understanding.  I found this challenge to be quite exciting and liberating as well.  When I raised this point in an AA discussion meeting, my understanding was immediately countered by someone who considered themself more knowledgeable than I in the post Big Book AA literature.  Leaving aside issues of a God’s gender, the individual noted that “as we understood Him” meant that the understanding had already been done by the founders of AA and discussed in a wealth of AA literature such as The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous and As Bill Sees It, a sort of greatest hits of AA co-founder Bill Wilson published in the 1960s.  I don’t buy it.  Although interesting, the response did not sway my thinking, at all.

Typically, in a post such as this, now is the time I should denounce AA for being a cult, discouraging alternative views, heavy-handed, dogmatic and blah, blah, blah.  The problem is, that has never been my experience beyond the isolated incident here and there.  Over the years that I have enjoyed that AA meetings pretty much reflect of the culture in which they exist.  In that way there is plenty of room for diversity.  There are about 450 meetings per week in the three-state metro area where I live with a population of about 1.2 million.  If I don’t like the meeting I attend, I have 449 other options.

Another line often heard in AA is to “Take what you like and leave the rest.”  I think this is very solid advice.  Here is how this has worked for me.  When I walked in the doors of AA the first time, someone said something about a Higher Power, to which I rebelled that I was not going to hang out with a bunch of Jesus Freaks, so I made my exit.  I didn’t want to “take it” so I “left it.”  Six months later I was back and ready to “take” a good bit more of the program.  Over the years I have continued to “take” and “leave” what I hear at AA meetings.  I have never felt bound by AA Dogma, nor have I ever considered the organization to be a cult or anything along those lines.

Fact is, were it not for AA, I am confident I never would have gotten sober.  Were it not for AA today, my sobriety would be a great deal more difficult to maintain.  I enjoy too that there are lots of folks in recovery with their own network/resource that is very successful for them and has nothing to do with Twelve Step programs.  With so much available, I am grateful that when the addict decides enough is enough, there are an abundance of tools available to start on the recovery road.

Travel in Sobriety

rails to trailsI have always enjoyed getting out-of-town, travel, and the road not taken.  The first travel my wife and I ever did together was an 18-day, no expressway, blue highway road trip from Mississippi to Colorado and back.  My favorite remembrance from that trip is a picture of her standing in a field of sunflowers.  I still have that photo in my campus office.  One of our favorite road trips was the north-south two-lane Road to Nowhere from Texas to North Dakota.  In sobriety I have traveled throughout much of the U.S. on those same back roads.  For work, pleasure, and mission, I have traveled to Turkey, Panama, Honduras, Guatemala, Ecuador, and out to the Galápagos Islands.  At the advanced age of 60 plus, last year I began a collaborative project in the highlands of Peru that I intend to continue so long as I am physically able to sleep on a dirt floor in 32 degree nighttime temperatures without heat.  All of the above is a blessing of sobriety.

I traveled a good bit during me pre-recovery days too.  I remember being enraged at my partner at the time for having the nerve to schedule a whitewater rafting trip in a dry county of West Virginia.  What I recollect most from a trip to Ireland and England was going through an entire bottle of Jameson’s one day in Irish Coffee, and at one pub being lectured to by an angry bartender “What you want is a pint of bitter, not bitters.”  On a road trip to Minnesota before I was 21, I made certain to stock up on fifths of bourbon as I did not want to possibly run into problems with underage drinking away from my regular suppliers at home.  On a trip to visit old drinking friends in rural Yakima Washington, I faked an excuse to cut the trip short, but actually just sat in a Seattle hotel room bar drinking for two days because my friends no longer drank and they had kids that screamed all day.  Consuming alcohol is what I remember most about these trips.

Comparing my travel before and after is another reason I choose to live in recovery today.

My Recovery Blog After One Year

jeepcloseI started this blog one year ago (364 days ago to be precise), and coincidentally, this is my 100th post.  Some reflection:

  • My original purpose for this blog was as a form of personal therapy.  I like the daily reflection approach to recovery.  I find writing to be a fantastic means for self-discovery.  Combining the two allows me a daily reminder of my recovery and an intentional opportunity to be mindful and reflect.  This purpose has been met in the past year.
  • I intended the blog to be a 15-minute exercise on a daily basis.  Like all of my blogging efforts, from typing the first word to hitting the publish button, I generally spend considerably more time than I expect.  Over the past year, I probably posted about 40 times in the first two months, went out of the country for a bit, posted a few times on return, then went quiet till about the first of the year.  I now post 2 or 3 times a week which seems a good schedule.
  • As a general statement, I describe myself as a lazy blogger promotion-wise.  I am surprised at the number of folks who follow this blog.
  • I have come to see blogging as a substantive and meaningful part of my overall recovery.  In fact, I intentionally reduced my 12-Step meeting attendance because of the quality and amount of time I spend in recovery blogging.  The recovery blogs I subscribe to are a source of insights and conversation.  I also am able to share my experience, strength, and hope as in 12-Step meetings.  In several specific instances, I have enjoyed watching how the blogging community provided meaningful and critical support that really made a difference in an addict’s recovery.
  • I have very much enjoyed that blogging has put me in touch with other recovery support, particularly for eating disorder.  In my career world, and in recovery, I have long advocated tearing down the walls that people build for their special situations.  I believe that we can learn more from the whole of addiction recovery than our little segmented part.  In my experience, 12-step meetings do not advocate this approach.

In sum, my experiment in recovery blogging has certainly exceeded my expectations of one year ago.  I like that blogs are another instrument I can add to my ever changing recovery toolkit – reminding me too that recovery is a process and not an event.  Of importance, I also note that blogging has not in any way replaced my 12-step meeting support.  Rather, blogging has become another recovery resource.

A Final Gift

crop hillisdeI did a six-hour round trip a couple of days ago to attend a funeral.  I was very glad I did.  The funeral was for a gracious gentleman, who along with his wife, had been good friends with my wife and I for a number of years.  My wife had known the couple for many years more than I and as an ordained clergy, she preached the sermon at the funeral.

When we lived in the same city we socialized on a rather regular basis.  We moved to a city a couple hundred miles away about 7 years ago.  About three years ago the friend became afflicted with alzheimers.  When he was in the early stages he commented to his wife one time  “I know we had two really good friends who moved to Memphis, but I cannot remember their names.”   I was greatly saddened when I heard this story because I felt I had never reciprocated as a true good friend should have.  My departed friend was always such a quiet and calm presence that he could seem to fade into the background when drama was being played out on life’s stage.

At the funeral, we were all given a final gift from my parted friend.  The hymns were wonderful, the service full of meaning.  I was so happy to see and embrace his widow and my friend.  My wife preached a wonderful sermon.  But the gift was in the reading of something my departed friend had written some 15 years before:

“What I have learned from my life journey thus far, about God – from my study, reflection and experience – that seems most important to me – that as long as I live I will never be able to answer all the questions about who God is, who created God, why does a good God let bad things happen, is there life after the death of our human bodies, and so forth. So the best thing to me, is not to spend too much time trying to figure out something that’s impossible to do, but to spend your time in community with nature, and other human beings. Continue to read and study and expand your beliefs, but also be kind to others, help them, love them, and do not be self-centered. If after I die, and I encounter God and he, or she, tells me he gave me life and asks how did I use it, I would like to be able to say, wisely, lovingly, compassionately, and of service to others. For truly, in giving you receive great rewards. Whatever we gain in this life, we do not come into the world with it. We are only stewards of our part of the universe while we are here! So, lets do a good job while it’s our watch.”

What an incredible message of life and meaning!


Anonymity in Recovery

buddyKristen over at Bye-Bye Beer recommended to me the documentary The Anonymous People.  The film which streams on Netflix has some fantastic insights and certainly clarified some of my thinking on the concept of anonymity.  A basic point I got out of the documentary is that folks in recovery are too often anonymous for fear of having their addiction found out by others with possible negative consequences.  As a result of this fear, those still actively practicing their addictions do not have the benefit of knowing about the millions of recovery stories that are out there. The film got me to thinking about my recovery and anonymity over the years.  Here are some thoughts:

  • The Twelfth Tradition of Alcoholics Anonymous goes “Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.”  In AA’s publication The Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, the four-page (pp. 184-187) discussion of the Twelfth Tradition suggests anonymity is based in a need for humility.  Anonymity also prevents gossip and an addict’s fear of reprisal, such as loss of job, etc.  Anonymity also assures not having a myriad of voices speaking for AA in what could be construed as official policy.  That all can make sense to me in terms of formal association or representation of Alcoholics Anonymous.
  • I tend to be reasonably transparent about recovery in my day-to-day existence.  For example, often in my advising of college students, some with checkered pasts, I  raise that during my first go at college in the 1970s, I accumulated 43 credit hours and an 0.7 GPA.  When I quit drinking 15 years later and went back to school, I maintained a 4.0 through my PhD program.  The lesson being that we all screw-up and that redemption is possible.  This truth-telling has been very helpful to some of my students and me as well.  I enjoy being able to give back.  Last year I posted about a memorable example of how this worked with one of my former students.  I have also had the opportunity to speak from the pulpit to several hundred on Recovery Sunday services in the past.
  • But when I started this blog about one year ago, I felt the need to be anonymous, going so far as to blur my face in post photos.  Why?  At this point, I am pretty hard-pressed to come up with a compelling reason.  With family and friends my recovery is completely a non-issue.  I am certain I have some allegiance to the AA tradition, though I don’t consider myself an AA representative and am always very clear on this point.  I suppose my biggest reason for anonymity when starting this blog was not wanting to mix my career and recovery blogs.  Therefore, my profile on this blog is pretty anonymous, but I realize too that given the way WordPress works with multiple blogs out of a single account, it’s not really that difficult to tie blogs together.  (Here is my nonanonymous about file on my other blog by the way.)
  • But the biggest point I got out of The Anonymous People film is that by being anonymous, the millions still actively in addiction do not have the benefit of the experience, strength, and hope of the millions of folks in recovery – beyond those seen in the rooms of 12-Step programs, high-profile celebrities and so forth.  The film makes the point that if addiction is truly a disease, as determined by the American Medical Association, where are the walk-a-thons etc. for recovery like those associated with other diseases such as cancer, ms, cf, etc. etc.?  Where are the voices of the millions of recovery survivors?  They are restricted to anonymous recovery meetings.  Also, that relative silence allows a ready platform for anyone who wishes to trash a range of recovery efforts to make a buck.  For example see the Q and A at the Fix with Dr. Lance Dodes, which reeks of anti-AA and general recovery conspiracy theory and to me is about as convincing as the existence of Sasquatch, Area 51 UFO landings, or a flat earth.  But the problem is that ramblings about extraterrestrials and the like, to my knowledge, do not result in the suicides, family dysfunction, self-loathing, and wasted lives as in the case of substance abuse.

The Anonymous People makes a compelling argument for not being anonymous in recovery.  So, my name is Robert Connolly and I am in long-term recovery.  I say that also not being certain what “long-term recovery” means – but at 29 years, I know I qualify.  I say that also recognizing that anonymity is a personal decision that must be weighed by each individual.  The Anonymous People film showed me that in my case, there is really is no compelling reason that I remain anonymous.

Eating Disorder and Alcoholism

buddysnowI recollect getting my first little buzz from alcohol at the age of 10 when my father gave me a beer at a Fourth of July picnic.  I note that many folks in recovery remember their last drink.  I also remember my first drink.  After a few years of sobriety I recognized my addiction to tobacco was quite similar to my addiction to alcohol.  Through a 12-step program, an online (IRC chat) community and Nicorette gum, I successfully dealt with the physical manifestations of my nicotine addiction.

A few years ago I recognized my compulsive overeating as  another true addiction for which I needed to work a recovery program.  Seven years ago I successfully dieted my way down to a suitable weight through Weightwatchers.  Since then, I have yo-yo’d back and forth, gaining 20 pounds, losing 10, gaining 20 and so forth.  Right now I am about 25 pounds overweight.  I get plenty of exercise and bike a lot.  A few years ago I became friends with some folks who were in recovery from either bulimia or anorexia.  Coupled with my alcoholism recovery, the friendships provided me tremendous insights into my eating disorder.

Upon reflection, I realize that I had a full-blown food addiction long before my first beer at 10 years of age.  I recollect well when I was 5 years old, I would pull a chair over to the kitchen counter and climb up to the sugar canister to eat scoops of sugar.  On the kitchen shelf I ate spoonfuls of grease from the can my mother poured in the residue from frying bacon and other meat.  I often ate till I was in pain.  In elementary school, I had a pretty successful career at shoplifting and stealing money from my mother’s purse.  Without exception, the only thing I ever shoplifted or bought with stolen money during those years was food – more specifically, candy and pastries.

By the time I hit high school, I switched over to alcohol, speed, and tobacco as my drugs of choice and earned enough money that I did not need to steal to support my addictions.

Here is where the revelation on my eating disorder came to the fore.  About three years ago my wife was standing in the kitchen having a conversation with our daughter on the phone.  The daughter lives about 200 miles away.  Although I could not hear the entire conversation, by my wife’s responses, I understood that our daughter had just been physically assaulted by a relative.  I was completely incensed, wanted to take action, but I was 200 miles away.  There was a package of cookies on the kitchen counter.  In the course of the 10-minute phone conversation, I ate the entire package of cookies.  Were I not in recovery from alcohol addiction, I would have drunk a bottle of something in that 10-minute period.  Were I not in recovery from nicotine addition, I would have chain-smoked cigarettes.  Instead, my response was to eat.  When I reflect over the past few years, my overeating generally results from my not dealing with life on life’s terms, the same reason I anesthetized myself with alcohol in the past.

Personally, I find my eating disorder even more “cunning, baffling, and powerful” than addiction to alcohol or other drugs.  I can technically be “sober” by just not putting those substances in my body.  However, I must eat, but I must do so in a non-addictive way.

I am grateful to my time in recovery from other addictions to understand that I use food in the same way and that recovery has less to do with the physical substance and more with living life on life’s terms.  The simple knowing is half the battle.  The next question is – So what am I going to do about it?  To me, being able to ask that question is an exciting aspect of recovery.  It is not a matter of getting holy.  Rather, I am grateful for the opportunity to make choices.