Book Review: Undrunk

UNDRUNK:  A Skeptic’s Guide to AA, by A. J. Adams, © 2009

Undrunk: A Skeptic's Guide To AA

As a long time member of Alcoholics Anonymous, I found this book to be a moderately entertaining peek inside the complex organization that is AA.  It’s a good basic primer for folks who are wondering if AA might work for them, with the author explaining his personal experience with the 12 Steps (one year when the book was written,) including his misgivings and misconceptions going in and lessons learned.

The book suffers, however, from overlong explanations which became tedious very quickly.  I was also disappointed that the author didn’t cite his sources in those sections dealing with AA history.

I have mixed feelings about this book.  Anyone wishing to know what AA attendance is like would do better to go to a dozen or so meetings and get the experience first hand.  For those who think that would be too time consuming, following a dozen or so AA recovery blogs or forums for a month would give a more complete picture.  Still, for those with more money than time, this book would be a worthwhile read.  I give it 3 out of 5 stars.

Step 8

8.  Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

The List

I had a pretty good start on this list from the inventory back in Step 4.  That’s where we look at our resentments and find our own mistakes in each case.  So I already had a list of resentments along with the whos and the whys, including where I had acted selfishly, dishonestly, or for my benefit at the expense of the other person.  Without going into specifics, let’s just say I had a hefty list and a lot of work to do.  In nearly all of my resentments, and I’m sure it is (or will be) true of your inventory, I was at least partly at fault.  But it was far from complete.

My list wasn’t lacking from thoroughness; it was lacking all those times I’d caused someone to hurt that did not involve resentment on my part—a thoughtless word spoken in anger or frustration, a forgotten birthday, or a case of insensitivity to another’s situation.

Keeping in mind that in Steps 8 and 9 we are dealing with people we have harmed, there may be people on our resentment list who have harmed us in some way while we did nothing to cause harm to them.  A woman who has been raped or a person who suffered physical or sexual abuse as a child come to mind as obvious blameless victims.  No amends are necessary or appropriate where we have caused no harm.  Forgiveness, yes, but that is not what these two Steps are about.  I’ll talk about forgiveness in a later post.

The Willingness

By the time I’d gotten this far into the Steps, I was already willing to do whatever it was going to take, so the willingness wasn’t a huge problem for me.  I will admit, tho, that for several people on my list, I needed to keep reminding myself that they were human, too, and even if they weren’t alcoholic, they had problems, too.  When I could see them as like unto myself, it made the amends process easier.  As recommended in the Big Book, I could say to myself, “This is a sick person.  How can I be helpful?”

And in fact, the other person can benefit from our amends as much as we do.  If they have carried resentment against us, as we against them, it gives them the opportunity to also let go. That’s entirely their call, tho.  My job in the process is to offer to amend the damage I’ve caused.  It’s not up to me to even so much as suggest what they should or should not do from there.  From the Tao Te Ching:  “The wise one acts, then steps back.”  (And accepts whatever the result might be.)

Next up—Step 9, where the magic happens.

Any thoughts or questions about Step 8?  Please leave a comment!

No Fear, Please

“As we approach the actual taking of Step Seven, it might be well if we A.A.’s inquire once more just what our deeper objectives are.”  Bill W.

Like most people I had just one goal (objective) in the beginning–to stop drinking.  I was a wreck, a card-carrying late-stage chronic alcoholic, certain that if I could just put down the bottle all would be well and good.  Several relapses later it was clear that stopping wasn’t as big a problem as staying stopped.  That’s when I got serious about taking the Steps, and began thinking about what I wanted from sobriety.

I couldn’t find a sponsor, though.  I don’t know if I’ll ever understand why, but for whatever reason the hand of AA was not there for me.  Without a sponsor, all I could do was sit down and read my copy of Alcoholics Anonymous (the Big Book, or BB), knowing that it contained the instructions for the program.  One of the reasons Bill W. wrote it was to help alcoholics who could not find a group in their area.  Loners, he called them.  So that’s what I did.

Not finding a sponsor just may have been the best thing that could have happened .  I know I’m grateful for the results.  In reading the BB, I picked up several “damn fool notions” about alcoholism, sobriety, and AA itself.  One of them was the idea that recovery from alcoholism is not only possible; it’s the expected result of the AA program.  If the full title of the Big Book “Alcoholics Anonymous, The Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism,” isn’t enough, the word appears again fifteen times in the context of alcoholism.

My goal had gone from “stop drinking,” to “stay stopped,” to “be recovered.”

Of course, I wasn’t all too sure what being recovered looked or felt like, but the BB has a good description of it starting at bottom of page 84:

And we have ceased fighting anything or anyone–even alcohol.  For by this time sanity will have returned.  We will seldom be interested in liquor.  If tempted, we recoil from it as from a hot flame.  We react sanely and normally, and we will find that this has happened automatically. [...] We are not fighting it, neither are we avoiding temptation. We feel as though we had been placed in a position of neutrality–safe and protected.  We have not even sworn off.  Instead, the problem has been removed.  It does not exist for us.  We are neither cocky nor are we afraid.  That is our experience.  That is how we react so long as we keep in fit spiritual condition.

Heady stuff, for sure, but it was my experience, also.  The problem was removed when I had my “paradigm shift.”  I stopped fighting the fact that I was alcoholic, accepted it, and the problem disappeared.  I no longer craved alcohol. It joined the list of other things I don’t drink, like household bleach and drain cleaner; I don’t drink them. Most importantly, I don’t expend any psychic energy not drinking them.  I just don’t have the inclination to do such a thing as drink drain cleaner.  Or alcohol.   Even in my darker moments when anger, depression, or some other negative feeling tries to overwhelm me, drinking does not come up as an option.

Take a moment to notice what that excerpt above doesn’t say.  It does not say “our disease is waiting to ambush us out in the parking lot;” it does not say “we go to meetings for the rest of our lives because they keep us safe from drinking;” it does not say any of the fear-based things that are heard in every meeting in every area I’ve ever been to.  It does say that the problem has been removed, that it no longer exists, and that we are not afraid.

That was what I wanted.  My goal then changed from being recovered to being fearlessly recovered.  I couldn’t stand the thought of constantly worrying about suddenly drinking again.  That sounded neurotic to me.  As for being chained to AA meetings for the rest of my life out of fear, well, excuse me, but I’ll choose to stay a drunk.  I most likely would have, too, considering that all the character defects I identified in Step 4 were the result of one sort of fear or another.  As it turned out, freedom from fear was part (a huge part) of my ‘paradigm shift’ (spiritual experience or awakening, if you prefer).  All I needed to do was believe it was the real deal.

Believing it took a while.  After a month or so without wanting to drink, I began mentioning my experience at the meetings I was attending. Without exception I was told that I was not recovered, that I was on a “pink cloud,” that I should be going to more meetings.  Then I brought it up on an internet forum.  I described as best I could what I had experienced and how I felt before and after that night and I asked if anyone thought it sounded like a spiritual experience.  Two people, long time AA’s who I respected and trusted told me yes, that it sounded like the real deal to them.  One quoted from Wm. James’ The Variety of Religious Experiences to show why he thought so.  That’s all I needed.  Validation.  I was unwilling to trust what I knew to be true without it.  Now I could accept it as true.  I could be fearlessly recovered.  The problem no longer exists.

Referring back to the above excerpt again, there is one sentence that seems to imply some fear:  ”If tempted, we recoil from it [alcohol] as from a hot flame.”  While it’s true that if I accidentally place my hand over a lit candle or on a hot stove top, I’ll reflexively pull away from it.  In the same way, if I were to accidentally pick up someone’s alcoholic drink at a social gathering and start to drink it, I’d spit it out.  But I do not fear the candle flame or hot stove, and I do not fear the alcohol; I simply don’t touch them.

“So long as we keep in fit spiritual condition.”  Aye, there’s the rub, and keeping spiritually fit will be the focus of future posts here.  For now I’ll just say that I see my recovery as a gift.  (Some folks would say it’s a grace, a gift from God.)  And like a gift, I can accept it or refuse it; I can enjoy it or lose it.  I could also fail to recognize it for the gift that it is, which, as mentioned above, nearly happened.  And if I had not received the validation I needed to believe?  I can only speculate, of course, but I’m pretty sure the gift would have expired after a while, as did all the other pink clouds I’d been on.

How about you?  What are your goals for your recovered self?  Have they changed as you’ve grown in sobriety?