We do recover – or do we?
The AA message of recovery
When newcomers first get sober, they are soon made aware of AA’s message of recovery. What can they expect from the fellowship? Is recovery from alcoholism possible? Any new arrival will want to know if AA works.
At their first meeting, they hear other members referring to themselves as ‘recovering’ alcoholics. “My name is John, and I am a recovering alcoholic.” In AA, recovery from alcoholism is an ongoing, lifelong process. We learn that recovery requires continued meeting attendance and a willingness to keep working on the suggested program.
The twelve steps are the treatment to help alcoholics stay sober and get well. New members soon realize that there is no graduation ceremony. No diploma is awarded after the steps to say that they have recovered. They learn that long-term sobriety materializes only through the daily application of AA principles. The twelve steps must be internalized and practiced as a way of life to ensure a happy and contented sobriety.
Now and again, at meetings, you will hear some members introduce themselves as ‘recovered‘ alcoholics. On hearing this, most old-timers will look at each other with concern. When you have been in AA for a while, you sense what the old timers are thinking: “Oh dear, has this person deluded themselves into believing that they have now fully recovered”?
What does the AA literature say?
The AA member who proclaims that he has fully recovered cannot judged for holding this view.
At the very beginning of the recovery text of AA, affectionately known as “The Big Book,” we are presented with a powerful statement. It appears on page XIII in the “Foreword to the first edition.”
The first sentence reads:
“We, of Alcoholics Anonymous, are more than one hundred men and women who have ‘recovered’ from a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body.”
(From the first edition printed in 1939)
There it is in black and white. This quote on page XIII clearly states that AA’s early members have recovered from alcoholism. If we are to take the Big Book seriously, this is not a grammatical error.
So why do the older members look at each other quizzically when they hear members refer to themselves as ‘recovered’ alcoholics?
The old timers are under no illusion. These more experienced members know all too well what happens when alcoholics get complacent about their recovery. Perhaps they, too, succumbed to the illusion that after a few years of sobriety, they have fully recovered.
A bridge to normal living
Some members start believing that AA has served its purpose. With time under their belt, they stop going to meetings. They set about trying to ‘cross the bridge to normal living.’ (Popular AA saying) Because their lives now “appear” normal, some members make a big mistake. They walk away from meetings. Thinking that they now have the regular life alcohol took from them, they burn the bridge back to AA. Any further work on the twelve steps gets abandoned.
On their return, their testimonies reveal a startling and disturbing truth. Usually, they start drinking again. If they manage to stay dry, their attitudes and behavior deteriorate. Family, friends, and work colleagues find it difficult to be around them. Without a daily program, alcoholics often end up alienating the very people they are closest to. In AA, this is referred to as a ‘dry drunk.’ All too frequently, you hear this kind of testimony from those who have returned to meetings.
At first glance, the AA Big Book appears to contradict itself. Returning once more to the foreword of the first edition, we read that the first hundred members “have ‘recovered’ from a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body.”
(BB – page XIII)
Then, in chapter six of the Big Book, on page 85, we read:
“We are not cured of alcoholism.”
What does this mean? Is the Big Book contracting itself? We cannot take its contents seriously if that is the case. Does AA offer effective treatment or not?
The facts speak for themselves:
“In 2020, AA estimated its worldwide membership to be over two million, with 75% of those in the U.S. and Canada” Wikipedia.
Foreword to the first edition of the Big Book
So what did Bill W, the author of The Big Book, mean when using the past tense of the verb recover? Did the first 100 recover or not? It’s a fundamental question for every AA member.
Bill’s use of the word “recovered” is open to interpretation. If alcoholics fully recover after getting sober in AA, then there would be no need for continued attendance at meetings.
What does this quote from the Big Book mean? What could Bill have implied when using the past tense of the verb ‘recovered’? Was he saying that all alcoholics have recovered from is the physical alcohol addiction?
The threefold illness
The AA literature does, however, present alcoholism as a threefold illness:
“This self-insurance has resulted in the restoration of physical, mental and spiritual health and self-respect to hundreds of men and woman who would be hopelessly down and out without its unique but effective therapy.”
Big Book – Appendix V p. 572
The idea of alcoholism presented as a threefold illness is also strongly reinforced on page 85 of the Big Book.
Chapter six, ‘Into action‘
“We are not cured of alcoholism. What we really have is a daily reprieve contingent on the maintenance of our spiritual condition.”
For AA members who identify as atheists, agnostics, and freethinkers, this statement raises a critically important question. Is “our spiritual condition” dependent on a belief in God?
Every member has to answer that question for themself. As an agnostic, as the result of going through the twelve steps, I have had a non-God-centered spiritual awakening.
Everyone in the fellowship is free to define the word ‘spiritual’ so that it has meaning for them.
I am comfortable with my definition of spirituality. It is one that I have drawn from the many books that I have read about modern spirituality. They have helped to answer important questions about what spirituality can mean to an agnostic. I gradually learned new spiritual concepts unrelated to formal religion’s spirituality. These new ideas did not require a belief in a traditional monotheistic God.
A non-God-centered spirituality
The books I read were influential in helping me to interpret how I came to apply spiritual principles in AA. Through a daily surrender of the ego, AA members gradually learn to devote their lives to the love and service of others if offered unconditionally.
For many, the AA way of life has spiritualized their sobriety. Indeed, when these two principles become a daily practice, they will eventually lead to a spiritual awakening. It doesn’t seem to matter if the recovering alcoholic believes in God. Recovering alcoholics gradually awaken to the life-giving power of step twelve.
“Having had a spiritual awakening (not necessarily a God awakening) as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs.”