The Personal Journey of a Nonalcoholic through the AA Twelve Steps
If you will indulge me, I would like to depart from my usual practice of writing about clinical issues and instead share the journey—mine—of a nonalcoholic within Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).
I began my career as a therapist in February of 1962, at a facility previously called Chit-Chat Farms and now called Caron Foundation, founded in 1958. Like other programs at that time, it would not be considered treatment by today’s standards—it provided no assessment, no treatment planning, and no documentation of progress. Group therapy was ten patients sitting in a circle discussing a chapter in the book Alcoholics Anonymous, also known as the “Big Book” (AA World Services, 1984). It was simply complete immersion in the Twelve Steps and philosophy of AA.
In spite of what we might assume from the absence of treatment as we would know it today, many of the program’s patients recovered and some became alcoholism counselors. This was not unusual back then because the requirements for becoming an alcoholism counselor were two years of sobriety in AA (and the willingness to work cheap).
The fact that such “treatment” worked is not that surprising when we recognize that the patients of the time comprised a very homogenous group of what I lovingly call, “plain, old, simple drunks.” They were employed, unless they lost their jobs because of their drinking; they lived in an intact family, unless they lost their family because of their drinking; and rather than worrying about a GED, the patients had high school diplomas and undergraduate or graduate degrees. If they had co-occurring psychiatric disorders, they were referred to mental health treatment rather than addiction treatment; if they had major legal problems they ended up in jail or prison rather than addiction treatment. They tended to begin their substance use and develop a diagnosable substance use disorder (SUD) at a later time in their lives than many of today’s patients. Simply stated, these patients—who often manifested a gradual decline into their alcoholism over many years—were “rehabilitatable,” meaning that they were able to return to an earlier level of successful functioning, in contrast to many of today’s patients who are only “habilitatable” because they have no level of earlier successful functioning to which to return.
To say that I was a “newbie” when I first started working in the field is giving me much more credit that I deserved. I received a total of about five minutes of education about SUDs in the total of my undergraduate and graduate studies and that was a psychology course instructor mimicking someone. When I began working in treatment I was the only nonalcoholic working in the facility—all the staff members were recovering alcoholics except the cooks, who were still experimenting. The counseling staff had no clinical background, but they were in recovery and able to share their strengths, hopes, and experiences.
Because of the emphasis on AA and the Twelve Steps, it became clear to me that I had to become intimately familiar with the Twelve Steps and the rest of the AA program if I was to be of any value to the program and its patients. There were daily Step lectures for the patients and I attended them as an eager learner. I attended the Sunday AA meeting brought into the facility for the patients by outside AA groups. I began attending Al-Anon and AA meetings in the community at least once a week and actually adopted a Monday-night group as my home group. The group had a commitment at the county jail to conduct a weekly AA meeting that they had not met, so I assumed the commitment, went every week, and helped facilitate a meeting, even though I was neither an alcoholic nor an AA member.
I began working the program as if I was an AA member. I have done two written Fourth Steps (“Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves”; AA World Services, 1984) and taken a Fifth Step (“Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs”; AA World Services, 1984) with a clergyman. I continue to take the Eleventh Step (“Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it”; AA World Services, 1984).
So where has all this taken me? In addition to enhancing my ability to cope with my own life and solve problems, one of the results is that I am often mistaken for an AA member when I train. Often participants will approach me during a break and ask, “Are you a friend of Bill?” (i.e., Bill W., the cofounder of AA), a way of asking whether I am an AA member. I view such questions as a complement.
I do not think I recognized the impact my AA involvement had on me personally until the following situation occurred. I consider myself a spiritual person rather than a religious one. After fleeing from the Orthodox Judaism in which I was raised, I returned to services in a reform temple during the time I worked at the treatment program. Sporadically attending Friday night services was a young man who I assume suffered from schizophrenia. He would sometimes act in mildly inappropriate ways when noncompliant with his medication and had terrible body odor, but in no way seemed dangerous.
A group of women congregants approached the rabbi, saying they were afraid of this man and wanted him banned from services. The rabbi, who was a civil rights activist and an advocate for the disadvantaged of all types, was very conflicted since he served at the pleasure of the congregation. He asked me my opinion and I said, without thinking before replying, “If there is no room for him here, then there is no room for me!” The rabbi, clearly impressed with my response, asked me if I learned this in my religious upbringing as a child. My response, probably a surprise to both of us was, “No, in AA.” Suddenly, I realized just what impact AA had on the person I had become.
Alcoholics Anonymous World Services. (1984). Alcoholics Anonymous. New York, NY: Author.