The disease of alcoholism – A member’s interpretation

Ego and true self

April 22, 2024

By Andy F

Categories: The disease concept of alcoholism

A cynical newcomer arrives in AA

A short blog about how I came to understand alcoholism, presented in AA as an illness: It has been a long and sometimes difficult journey to sobriety as an agnostic: the complete autobiographical account of my battle with addiction is in my book The Twelve Steps for Agnostics. It is available on Amazon.

It’s been 40 years since I first walked through the doors of AA. Joining the fellowship was unquestionably the most important decision I ever made. The sense of camaraderie with fellow members was life-changing. I wasn’t alone anymore. I loved AA from the outset.

Some areas of concern

There were, however, some areas of concern about the fellowship. These were concepts that I felt unable to connect with. Firstly, the idea that you needed to believe in God or a higher power to achieve sobriety struck me as ridiculous. Secondly, the AA literature declared alcoholism a disease. That, too, was a concept that didn’t work for me. I wondered if AA was some quasi-religious sect or worse.

To call alcoholism an illness struck me as something that was born out of the American self-help movement. In the States, everyone appeared to have a therapist. I didn’t see myself as ill, just wild and untamed. I loved going to meetings, but there was no way I was sick. Moreover, I certainly didn’t need any God or a higher power to stop drinking.

Life without booze and a program

Despite being an agnostic, I certainly did have a higher power. Not one, but three! Sex, power, and money. I handed my will and life over to the pursuit of them daily. These powers would fix a sense of emptiness in me since childhood. The truth was that as a dry alcoholic, my head was a complete mess, even with a pocket full of money and an attractive girlfriend.

I was angry and bitter about the past. As time went on, I felt increasingly hopeless. After many years of attending meetings full of resentment, I finally hit rock bottom. I wanted to get even with people from the past. This inner rage resulted in an ongoing depression. Sometimes, suicidal thoughts would drive me back to the first drink.

The disease concept revisited

Gradually, and through no personal virtue, I began to admit that there was something very wrong with the way my recovery was going. I started to listen more carefully at meetings. Could it be that AA was right? Was alcoholism an illness? I felt just as hopeless when sober as when I was drinking. 

After pouring out this misery at meetings, the old-timers would take me aside. They lovingly told me that I was suffering from untreated alcoholism. How could this be true!? Most of the time, I wasn’t even drinking. 

The Big Book perfectly describes where I had arrived after sponsoring myself in AA. Bill was spot on.

“He will be at the jumping-off place. He will wish for the end.”

(BB p. 152)

A conflicted inner self

After all those years in therapy, I developed a keen interest in psychology. I was determined to understand the madness in my head. One thing seemed obvious: I was at war with the whole world but primarily with myself.

There was an inner duality within. I had no power to do anything about it. Drunk or sober, life had not only become unmanageable but also unbearable. The longer I stayed in AA without a solution, the more desperate I became.

It was the same with relationships. I would act out these internal conflicts and project them onto whoever I was involved with. I was utterly unable to form a functional relationship. Girlfriends came and went. It was inevitable that any lasting partnership would fall apart sooner or later.

“The primary fact we fail to recognize is our total inability to form a true partnership with another human being.”

12 x 12 – Step four – p. 53

The Gift Of Desperation (GOD)

“Finally, when all our (my) score cards read zero” (12&12 Step two p. 29), I got myself an AA sponsor and became willing to take suggestions. By this time, I became convinced that I was ill and not just a loser. My sponsor always declared that alcoholism is a mental illness with a spiritual solution. At the time, I didn’t know what spiritual meant.

I always thought that to be spiritual, you had to believe in God. He saved my life by pointing me to page 27 of the Twelve Steps and Traditions. In black and white are the words:

“You can, if you wish, make AA itself your higher power. 

I learned a lot about the illness from my sponsor. With some of the new ideas gleaned from therapy, I gained insight into how I saw alcoholism. It was an interpretation that worked for me. I was better able to understand the tortured duality within. The conflicted inner-self condemned me to inner pain, which in turn drove me to seek relief in all kinds of instant fixes. Alcohol was certainly not my only addiction.

I appreciate that none of us are entirely the same. Still, after working with sponsees, I saw that our psychological makeup contains some striking similarities.

The duality of the alcoholic illness

Drunk or sober, I came to see my alcoholism as a conflict between the negative ego and the authentic self. These personality traits, although a part of me, are very different.

I grew up in the cold atmosphere of a foster family. By the time I was a teenager, my young developing ego had already become twisted and self-destructive. Fuelled by low self-esteem, the ego boomeranged on me, and I went to war with my true self.

On a good day, I convinced myself I was the best thing to have arrived on earth. On a bad day, I was utterly worthless and a dismal failure. Sadly, I was so full of shame about how I saw myself that no amount of therapy would heal this negative self-image.

“How dark it is before the dawn” (Bill’s story p.8)

Surrendering to a sponsor’s suggestions was the best thing I ever did. The moment I became teachable, the negative ego lost its paralyzing grip. Although still an agnostic, the twelve steps gradually diffused the conflict between the ego and the authentic self. The steps achieve this miracle of transformation by reducing the ego’s destructive power and increasing healthy self–esteem.

I had to read a passage from Chapter Six of the Big Book daily. It starts on page 86 and runs to the end of the chapter. It has become an essential part of my morning routine. This reading still helps reduce the ego and increases my willingness to remain teachable.

“We constantly remind ourselves that we are no longer running the show” (BB 87/88)

If I’m surrendering daily and agreeing not to run the show of my life anymore, then who or what is? I gradually learned to stop listening to the ranting in my head and embrace the ‘new ideas’ I was learning from my sponsor.

New ideas“Some of us tried to hold onto our old ideas, and the result was nil until we let go absolutely.”

BB – p. 58

It’s the first thought that does the damage

Acknowledging that my best thinking is sometimes a total liability has been humbling. Admitting that I was incapable of resolving my problems by thinking about them was a huge step in recovery. To get well, I learned I must follow the suggested actions to remain stable and happy.

Upon awakening, I remind myself that I have never been a very effective higher power in my life. Once I embrace this truth, all the positive higher powers I learned in AA come to the rescue, and I am empowered to have a great day.

“Love and tolerance of others” (BB p. 84)

A daily surrender of my self-will leads to a small measure of humility. This is the gift of step seven. Practicing the principles of love and service, do what I could never do for myself. Only then do I experience relief from the toxic effects of my character defects. With a reduced ego, I can finally become the person I was born to be.

When I remain willing to work the AA program, humility releases me from the bondage of self. Over the years, I have learned that humility and ego cannot coexist. When this occurs, I find myself naturally becoming interested in helping my fellow alcoholics. I always believed that instant gratification would make me happy. Surprisingly, I discovered that a willingness to delay gratification helped me finally grow up and become useful.

I still don’t believe in a monotheistic God. Yet, the principles of AA have facilitated a non-God-centered spiritual awakening.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I would like to share why I chose the image I have used for this blog. In the foreground is a tiny person, and in the background is a magnificent image of a human head. The head dwarfs the little person and gives the impression of being full of power, majesty, and creative potential. As a newcomer, I used to believe that the ego was the big head portrayed in the image. It was the way to power and success. As such, it was the only thing of any interest to me.

After going through the twelve steps, I discovered something essential for a self-centered alcoholic. The secret to a life of peace and contentment is to view the little person in the image as the maladapted ego. Since coming to AA and embracing the spiritual program of action, I have found that the ego no longer serves me.

Then, the challenge is to fully commit to the growth of the authentic self, as illustrated by the big head in the image. Sadly, the real me was MIA (Missing In Action) on the battlefield of my alcoholism. AA has given me the greatest gift of all: the gift of my true self.

In fellowship

Andy F

Here is a fascinating and relevant article written by Bill W for the AA Grapevine magazine in 1958:

The next frontier : emotional sobriety.

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