Anger and Resentment in AA. Is there a difference?

A palm tree being blown down in high winds

June 8, 2021

By Andy F

Categories: Untreated Alcoholism

Alcoholics Anonymous: A Homecoming   

I arrived in AA on May 15, 1984. For the first time, I heard people openly sharing feelings I had always felt. I thought I was the only one who felt like this. It felt like a homecoming. I had finally found my tribe. I grew up in foster care. Overnight, AA became the family I had never had. Meetings filled the emptiness and loneliness that I drank to escape. I was no longer an alien stranded on this hostile planet.

Everything was great until I saw the twelve steps. The first suggestion was to get a sponsor. The second was to work through the steps with that sponsor. I didn’t react well to either of these suggestions. As a confirmed agnostic, I could not accept the word God. I also rejected any reference to a higher power. To me, God and a higher power meant the same thing. The twelve steps lost their credibility once I realized that God was involved.

Not a sponsor but a therapist

Secondly, sponsors were just alcoholics like me. They may have been friendly but weren’t qualified to help someone like me. I believed that my case was different. Neither a sponsor nor the steps were the proper intervention. As I saw it, I had suffered significant traumas in childhood. A ‘special’ case like mine would require professional help.

In my cynical and suspicious mind, no step sponsor was qualified to help me. Moreover, what did God have to do with healing my complex issues? I only had confidence in therapists and dismissed the spiritual ones offered through the 12 steps. In later years, I realized that the quality of parenting I received was about average when compared to my brothers and sisters in AA.

Therapy and Anger

As a newcomer, I liked to see myself as special and different; I thought going the therapy route was the best way forward. It was a decision made by an alcoholic in early recovery who knew nothing about alcoholism, which in AA was presented as an illness. In meetings, I learned that AA saw alcoholism as a threefold illness: mental, physical, and spiritual. This idea struck me as ridiculous. What did spirituality have to do with not drinking?

Having lived on the margins of society, I had almost no living skills. At best, I had developed some very crude and primitive survival skills. I genuinely believed that my anger had nothing to do with the destructive lifestyle of a drunk. I pointed the finger of blame at my alcoholic mother. She had, after all, put me into care with what I saw as a wicked foster mother.

Does therapy treat the alcoholic illness?

I found myself a therapist with a good reputation in the twelve-step community. He was also a recovering alcoholic. John had worked in a 12-step rehab and trained as an addictions counselor. All his clients looked up to and admired him. He was well-liked by many alcoholics and addicts in early recovery. He appeared to have plenty of clinical experience.

I remember my very first session with him. I sat in his consulting room and told him my life story. He listened attentively without interruption. When I had finished, he carefully considered what I had said. I am sure he was very well-intentioned when giving me his feedback. I do not doubt that he genuinely believed that he was helping me. Over the next decade in AA, the feedback I received from him almost killed me.

“Andy, you have a right to be angry,” he told me.

The victim’s belief system

John’s statement propelled me into a further ten years of therapy. Over the years, I continually reinforced the belief that I had a right to be angry. My frequent relapses in drinking were all triggered by my right to be angry. When one therapist tired of my ranting and raving, I found another. One said, “You are getting a lot of mileage out of this anger, Andy.” You are like a dog with a bone when it comes to anger! I refused to let go.

This right of mine to be angry reinforced a lifelong belief that I was a victim. I became an alcoholic and addict because of all the harm that I suffered from an early age. My second sponsor, Jamie, taught me that the victim belief system is very toxic, especially for alcoholics. It frequently sends them back out drinking, and that is what happened to me. The rage created by my victim belief system almost ended in tragedy. 

My alcoholic Anger

I gradually began to realize that I don’t process anger in a normal way. What I do is obsess and ruminate about perceived harms. I repeatedly play these harms in my mind, turning them into resentment. As an alcoholic, I seem incapable of processing anger like a more balanced person. Taking anger into therapy did offer temporary relief. But that’s all it was: temporary relief. In the long run, sharing my anger with another person didn’t help me to deal with it and let it go. I was like a dog with a bone when it came to holding on to resentment.

It was like being a hamster that kept going round and round on the hamster wheel of my anger. It didn’t take me anywhere except, of course, toward the next drink. For an alcoholic like me, it’s a complete waste of time sharing my anger with another person. I have no “off” switch. As we learn in AA, “Alcoholics don’t let go of anything without leaving claw marks on it. Picking up the first drink was the only way I could get off the merry-go-round of my anger.

Bill’s description of alcoholic resentment

I genuinely believed that anger and resentment were the same things. Many years of relapse while in therapy convinced me that this was not the case. Many different types of talk therapy failed to help me come to terms with my past. I finally opened my mind and became more receptive to Bill’s description of the alcoholic illness. :

“Resentment is the “number one” offender. It destroys more alcoholics than anything else. From it stem ALL forms of spiritual disease, for we have not only been mentally and physically ill, we have been spiritually sick. When the spiritual malady is overcome, we straighten out mentally and physically.” *

(BB p.64)

Then, Bill goes on to make a clear distinction between the anger of alcoholics and non-alcoholics.

“They* may be the dubious luxury of normal men, but for alcoholics, these things are poison.”

BB p. 66

*They in the above quote is – “The grouch and the brainstorm.”

An agnostic interpretation of the spiritual illness

Gradually, after committing myself to step work with a sponsor, I was set free. No longer am I twisted with fear, hatred, or resentment. Despite being an agnostic, I have come to believe that these things not only made me mentally unwell but spiritually sick. I was a tortured soul. The sheer transformative power of the twelve steps helped me find peace at last! I am happy to call this total transformation a spiritual awakening: a non-God-centered spiritual awakening.

I accept that I have the disease of alcoholism. Resentment and fear are at the core of my illness. Whenever I get resentments, I have to take inventory. Talking about my anger merely inflames the anger even more. I have a complete toolbox designed to hold onto resentment—pride, self-justification, rationalization, dishonesty, blame, jealousy, envy, impatience, intolerance. The list goes on and on. These are my character defects. They are all products of my malada[ted alcoholic ego. It’s all just for today; I hope I never forget that:

“We are not cured of alcoholism. What we really have is a daily reprieve contingent on the maintenance of our spiritual condition.”

(BB p. 85)

What are your thoughts about anger and resentment? Can resentment eventually lead to “all forms of spiritual disease”? 

(BB p.64)

In fellowship,

Andy F

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