When AA members return to drinking, as they frequently do, it usually to much worse drinking than before initial AA contact. Since the program is held as perfect, the drinker and other groupers attribute this to the particular nature of “the disease.”
Often, a person quits attending meetings because he is angry over being pressured to accept a particular point, or presumed point, of doctrine. For instance, a Jewish person may be told that his prayers are no good because he doesn’t pray on his knees. “God won’t listen unless you show humility.”*1
While the statement itself may have little effect, if a member’s “willfulness” becomes an object of efforts at group “help,” great pressure will be brought to bear. Speakers and sharers may tell how their own refusal to pray on their knees cause them great harm. Or, a speaker may tell how his “terminal uniqueness,” thinking he was different from other alcoholics, cause him to think he didn’t need to pray on his knees. Proper praying position may become a frequent topic of “casual” conversation at after meeting coffee.
Pressure also takes other forms. For example, if the Jewish man should seek direction on a particular problem, he may be asked if he has prayed about it and then be asked if he prayed on his knees. If the answer is “no,” he may be met with silence and body language which suggests, “Well, that explains it.”
The subject may be kept at the forefront of discussion for days or weeks until someone else’s crisis becomes the focus of “help,” the errant grouper sees the error of his ways or he becomes angry and decides he doesn’t need AA.
If he should angrily decide he doesn’t need the program, it may be only the beginning of a process in which the errant grouper learns the depth of the wisdom of AA. The grouper has adopted large chunks of AA doctrine and rejecting just one small part leaves him extremely vulnerable.
In AA, one learns that anger, sadness, loneliness and other emotions are the work of Devil Drink and must be repressed. Most of the methods of repression an AA member has learned can’t be used without AA. For instance, if one is “in danger” of becoming angry, the “resolution” may include going to meetings, public confession, working the steps, reading the Big Book, getting counsel form one’s sponsor or convincing others of the miracle of recovery in AA. The person who leaves AA can’t continue to repress emotion in the same ways. He also fears he will, and is unanimously expected to, return to drinking. Upon leaving, the errant grouper is likely to notice the “symptoms” of his “disease” get worse. He experiences strong feelings of “self pity,” “resentment” and fear. There are many reasons for this but none have anything to do with any disease.
During the indoctrination process, barriers went up between the grouper and pre-AA friends. His entire social group now includes predominantly or only AA members. Upon leaving AA he is at best left friendless and “suffering self pity” (extremely lonely).
In all likelihood, however, his grouper friends will, out of genuine concern and fear for him, respond in a way that sabotages his ability to remain abstinent.
The most dangerous way this is done is with sincere body language which transmits the expectation of failure while giving verbal expressions of cautious optimism. For instance, if the errant member should state that he can remain “sober” without meetings, bodies will stiffen and apprehensive eyes will express genuine fear and the expectation of failure. The accompanying verbal response may be, “As long as you have a spiritual program.”
Of course the errant grouper knows that AA is the only spiritual program for alcoholics. His self doubt and fear increase.
Grouper friends may also confess to how they had left the program and how they had the same thoughts as the errant grouper now has. They will tell of the grief and danger it caused until they returned to the program. If a grouper has no such personal experience to confess, he may, out of loving kindness, tell how someone else, preferably someone who died, did exactly what the errant grouper is now doing.
The errant grouper’s “disease symptoms” grow worse.
The errant AA member is locked into an identity as an alcoholic. His “disease” has long since been proven to him. He will find it extremely difficult to imagine that he could be anything but a “drinking alcoholic” or “in recovery.” Unable to even imagine that there are other possibilities or even that he may not be an alcoholic, he is trapped.
AA worked to shatter his ego, allowing ego support only through belief in AA doctrine. When he leaves AA, he can no longer speak as someone who has special knowledge of God’s Will. He is no longer part of the great moral crusade. He no longer has special wisdom to share. He is unable to tell others how he has found a solution to their problems.
When he leaves AA, the ex grouper is left with his frightened, disoriented, discounted, sad, betrayed, disease defined self and an extremely shaky ego at war with his “disease.” His only remaining ego support is his abstinence.
The presence of strong emotion and the unanimous responses of his grouper friends are not the only evidence to the errant AA member that he will return to self destructive drinking. Other evidence comes from society at large where people, influenced by 50 years of propaganda, encourage him to return to AA thinking his distress (and, in a sense, accurately so) is because he stopped attending meetings. He shouldn’t be angry with AA; they are only trying to help.
With even non grouper friends, acquaintances and authorities suggesting, “You should go back to the meetings,” the errant grouper is caught in a bind. He can either return to meetings and humbly acknowledge his “willfulness” or he can decide “the whole world is wrong and I am right.” The latter thought he recognizes as a disease symptom.
At this point of extreme pressure, the errant grouper often begins drinking or commits suicide. Knowing he is “powerless over alcohol,” he may decide to delay his “inevitable” return to AA in the only way he knows how. Drinking will remove the intolerable “symptoms”; at least for a while.
Once he takes the first sip, all his Time, his sole remaining ego support, is gone. He can no longer say, “Well, at least I’m sober.” He is living proof of AA doctrine.
At this point, the errant grouper may have so little sense of self that he returns in terror to AA with proper penitence or proceeds to turn his anger towards himself and drinks himself to death. If his efforts to maintain “spiritual principles” and stay “sane,” as defined for him in AA, are particularly successful, he may manage to be “not angry.” This often ends in schizoid breaks and suicide. All of these prove to his grouper acquaintances the power of the cunning, baffling and powerful disease and the wisdom of AA.
However, the errant AA member may find he doesn’t want to or even like to drink. This is not surprising since most people first go to AA because they don’t want to drink any more and only went because they were told they needed to in order to stop. He may decide, “I am not an alcoholic.”
Under such circumstances, his AA belief system remains intact except for the one point of doctrine which he is angry about. With a basic belief that he is helpless, inadequate and in danger of being overwhelmed by evil forces, he is extremely vulnerable to, and may even seek, another cult or cult like group. Any similar group which understands his basic “badness” or “sickness” may be acceptable. The easiest and most frequent transition is to other Twelve Step groups. Codependents Anonymous is probably the most often chosen.
An AA member may question and become angry at some of his peers or elders over the interpretation of a particular point of doctrine. It would be extremely unusual for him, however, to question the “spiritual principles” themselves. By joining a similar group, he is merely exchanging social groups to one which won’t pressure him, at least for the moment, on the particular point on which he takes a stand.
Most groupers return to excessive drinking without being overtly angry with AA. The most outstanding characteristic of these people is their intensely held belief in the goodness of AA and the badness of their self. Having unquestioned belief in the doctrine and knowing they are “powerless,” they can’t conceive of, and don’t even try, moderating or stopping until they are ready to return to meetings.
Their explanations for drinking, while perhaps paying lip service to some event, center on the evil self as responsible. Since no one is as emotionally and intellectually dead as the doctrinal ideal, the errant grouper need only pick and choose which “manifestations of self” are most responsible.
Many of these people are actually extremely angry at AA elders, peers or doctrine. However, they “know” their anger is wrong. The Big Book stresses “resentment is the number one offender”; the number one symptom. Perhaps most convincing is the obvious sincerity and unanimity of the other groupers. A grouper has difficulty grasping the possibility that people who act out of sincere loving concern can be wrong. The fault must be within himself. Feelings of anger are repressed.
Verbal assault on the doctrine is met with extreme anger. Verbal assault on the errant grouper from the context of the doctrine is accepted as true and perhaps even gratefully acknowledged. Telling someone “the truth” is a sign of the great love in AA. Telling someone, “Maybe you have good reason to be angry” is an obvious sign of spiritual ignorance. It is dismissed out of hand.
The errant grouper may drink himself to death but since excessive drinking is its own punishment, he will probably reach a point where he wants to stop. Being thoroughly indoctrinated, he “knows” he must return to AA.
Upon his return, if the other groupers know he has been drinking, he must show proper humility and penitence. He may, if no one knows he has been drinking, decline to confess until he has reacquired 30 days of Time with which, in most meetings, he can confess and immediately resume his status as elder authority with the newcomers.
Many people go back and forth between abstinent meeting attendance and being “out there.” When a grouper is not attending meetings, he is drinking. When a grouper is attending meetings, he is not drinking. This is proof to all concerned that the program “really works.”
The more often a grouper relapses, the more skillfully he adopts the repentant sinner role and the more “personal experience” he has to share about his own “sickness,” the wiles of “the disease” and the wisdom of AA.
During indoctrination, words and slogans are given highly charged emotional associations. This is partly due to the unanimous emotional responses and body language of the other groupers to the language.
Another, more important way words and slogans acquire strong emotional associations is during the Fourth and Fifth step redefinition of the self. Everything which has meaning, all experience, thought and emotion, is redefined in terms of the loaded AA language. AA language elicits emotion. Emotion elicits AA language.
Information contradictory to the doctrine no longer registers properly. For example, if a family member points out to a grouper, who never had a real drinking problem, that he never was really an alcoholic, the grouper can not seriously consider the possibility. The family member is a “normie” and “doesn’t undrestand” or, if he is a drinker or an alcoholic, abstinent or not, it is his “disease speaking.” If he himself should think he may not be an alcoholic it is, by definition, a disease symptom. The thought is a dangerous one and evokes fear. Feeling fear, another trick of Devil Drink, means he is varying too far from the “spiritual.” To be safe he must not think the thought. It can only lead back to the bottle.
The loaded language has many words with twisted and blurred meanings that carry strong emotional associations entirely different from normal usage. The word “sober,” for example, is commonly associated with moderation and when used in reference to alcohol can also mean “not drunk.” To the grouper, however, “sober” means absolutely abstinent and in AA because AAs believe those who “don’t have a spiritual program” are on a “dry drunk” and do not have “emotional sobriety.”
When an AA member asks another person if he is “sober,” he is not asking if he is feeling the effects of intoxication. He is asking if he is maintaining absolute abstinence and perhaps if he is free of strong emotion.
A person who leaves AA, even if he remains abstinent, can not claim “true sobriety.” In time, he may recover from the crisis of leaving and be happier, calmer, better adjusted and abstinent but he can not measure up to the doctrinal standards of “sobriety.”
Just hearing the loaded language can cause an errant grouper to drink to excess or return to AA. What sometimes happens can perhaps best be described as “switching” or “flipping over” into the cult personality.*2 It is like becoming trapped in a maze. In this maze, there are many ways in (words, thoughts and feelings) but few ways out. Once within this “other personality,” thought and emotion stopping techniques are “automatically” evoked.
There are many things one can do to ensure success at leaving AA. Perhaps the easiest and most immediately important is to break the closed loops making up the language by practicing new associations. In other words, rather than allowing a word or slogan to continue evoking AA associations, one can practice other, more customary associations until they become automatic and the language loses its power.
For example, the phrase “in recovery” in common usage implies “getting well.” However, AA usage implies a lifetime commitment to AA. “In recovery,” as AA uses it, means staying sick forever. “In recovery” means in a cult. The word “program” refers to something suitable for a machine, perhaps a computer or a robot, not a human being.
Other words can be dealt with differently. When a grouper asks, “Are you sober?,” one can respond, “Are you speaking English and asking me if I am intoxicated at the moment or are you speaking Programese and asking me if I am practicing abstinence?” If the reference is to “emotional sobriety,” one can be prepared to point out the more unbalanced members of AA, particularly ones with a great deal of Time. It can then be pointed out that “sobriety” as was used is peculiar to AA and a cult term.
Feeling resentment, which in common usage is not fatal, can be replaced by more common and appropriate words like irritation, anger and rage.
Love, in common usage, carries strong emotional associations. The word is extremely difficult for ex groupers to redefine, since there is no clear English definition which covers the feelings of warmth, affection and desire, acts done out of love and the results of those acts. In AA, “love” is often the motivation for actions destructive to oneself and others. “I love myself enough to force myself to go to meetings.” “We love you enough to tell you the truth. You’re the cream of the crap, that’s what you are.” A direct parallel is the Middle Ages man who took his sick wife to a physician to be bled. Did he love his wife? Of course, but it doesn’t mean he wasn’t killing her.
The uses and meanings of this word can become more sharply focused and removed from the cult context by substituting the less ambitious word “respect.” Am I respecting myself? Are they respecting me? Am I respecting them?
Perhaps the word which is most difficult to redefine, and which has the widest range of definitions and associations in common usage, is “spiritual.” One definition which most helped me was “that which gives feelings of worth, belonging and connectedness.” While I have found no organization which is perfect on all three counts, by this definition, AA is grossly unspiritual on all counts. AA teaches that the self is worthless and gives “belonging” (as a “diseased” person) at the cost of connectedness with the human race (we alcoholics and you normies). Even in their own terms of humility, isn’t it arrogant for Twelve Step members to assume that they and they alone are sane and purely spiritual and everyone else is insane and needs their “spiritual” help?
The slogans; also need new associations. Since most are exclusive to AA and would never be used in ordinary conversation, all that is necessary for most of them is to come up with a few associations which show their logical flaws. Making fun of them is particularly appropriate because ridicule is the exact opposite of the reverence in which they are held. It saps their power. For example, one might try thinking, “Alcoholics rarely recover on their own, unless, of course, they are shipwrecked alone on a desert island.” Or, “Alcoholics rarely recover on their own; alcoholics never recover in AA.” (According to AA doctrine one is always “recovering,” never recovered.) Also, “No one ever drank while working the steps, but they usually drink a lot more afterward.”
This is not to suggest that one should ridicule the groupers. The point is, especially in one’s own mind, to neutralize the power of the language. It is also important to protect oneself from interacting with grouper in a way which creates confusion and leaves oneself open to suggestion.
Language and identity mix in the words “I am an alcoholic.” In all Twelve Step groups, members adopt a “disease” as the central core of their identity. This identity can be exchanged for broader, more accurate, self definitions. First and foremost, most general and inarguable, one can say “I am a human being.” While this may seem obvious, for the grouper it is a radical concept. Beyond that, one may partially identify oneself in an almost infinite number of ways including by profession, relationships with other people, politically, socially, religiously, and by interests and hobbies. People are not their “disease.”