Alcoholics Anonymous is a spiritual program. The Oxford English Dictionary defines spiritual as “Relating to or affecting the human soul as opposed to material or physical things.” Many mistake spirituality for religion and this is a big criticism of AA. However, religion and spirituality are each a vast topic and outside the scope of this blog.
Sharing (and being heard) helps greatly.
An individual can observe all the outward forms of a religious practice and yet not practice an inner spiritual path. We’ve all met people like this; they’re easy to spot by their behavior.
Conversely, somebody can practice a spiritual path while not participating in organized religion. Many people belong to a religion and use principles and beliefs of their religious practice to grow spiritually. For instance, Mohandas Gandhi was a devout Hindu, yet who could say he was not a highly evolved spiritual being?
Twelve Steps of Recovery
AA itself is a spiritual path—a path which is mapped out in 12 steps. While the basis for the 12 step program did initially come from a Christian movement—the Oxford Group, from the start AA rapidly evolved beyond the confines of the Oxford Group or any specific religion. If AA had not evolved it would be doomed to failure because alcoholism affects people of every belief system and those with no religious or spiritual beliefs yet AA seeks to offer a path of recovery to all alcoholics.
• Admitting that one cannot stop or control alcohol consumption (Step 1)
• Choosing to believe that there’s a power greater than oneself that can help (Step 2)
• Taking a series of actions to harness that greater power for help in staying sober (Steps 3-12)
Steps 1 and 2 involve choosing to believe something that may be new and foreign to what you want to think. Many people falter with this leap of faith. They can’t accept that they cannot stop or control their drinking through their own willpower. Others have trouble believing there’s some power greater than themselves that can and will help them to stop drinking.
It is okay if you can’t believe that you cannot stop drinking on your own, or that there’s any power outside yourself that could help. You could start by being willing to believe, keeping an open mind to the possibility that the first two steps are true, and taking the recommended actions in the remaining ten steps.
Is Alcoholism a Disease?
For some, a scientific explanation is helpful in believing that alcoholism is a real disease that renders some people powerless to stop drinking once they ingest any alcohol. There is scientific evidence of an allergy to alcohol which some families are predisposed towards due to body chemistry, like diabetes and other diseases. The evidence shows that somebody with alcoholism processes alcohol itself differently than a normal drinker.
Most people find it easier to believe that a disease like diabetes or heart disease ‘runs in the family’ than that predisposition to alcoholism is hereditary. But let’s say you refuse to believe you have diabetes, even though the symptoms are there. If you don’t believe there’s any such thing as diabetes or that your physical symptoms indicate you have it and you refuse medical help and continue to eat foods you aren’t supposed to have, diabetes will kill you. Moreover, you could die slowly and in pieces, a little at a time, losing individual limbs such as arms and /or legs, your eyesight, etc.
I Cannot Believe in a Power Greater Than Myself
Many people cannot believe in the traditional Western concept of God. Alcoholics Anonymous recommends that you find an entity outside of yourself and more powerful than you are to believe in. It could be a spiritual leader like the Dalai Lama, your AA Group, or any benevolent power outside yourself. Faith is a journey, not an end. Again, if you can open the door of your mind, even a crack, to the possibility that there is a power greater than yourself that can and will help you to stay sober you have opened the door to working the AA steps.
Help and Guidance Through the Twelve Step Program
The program of Alcoholics Anonymous is the Twelve Steps. Meetings are where you connect to others who are recovering, working the steps, and staying sober. Meetings are a good place to find a sober alcoholic who has worked all twelve steps and can help you to work the steps. In shorthand, this individual is usually referred to as a sponsor. While people have worked the steps without a sponsor and achieved lasting sobriety, having a sponsor is very beneficial.
A sponsor is somebody who has gone before you and can guide you on the twelve step path to lasting sobriety. Many people form lasting friendships with sponsors but sponsorship itself is limited to guiding another alcoholic through the 12 steps. Most sponsors set a boundary in the beginning of your relationship that they cannot help you unless you actually work the steps, because that’s the whole duty of a sponsor, to help you work the twelve steps of alcoholics anonymous.
If you ask somebody to sponsor you, it isn’t recommended for that person to
• Tell you what you have to do
• Micromanage your life
• Support you financially
• Demand obedience
A sponsor2 is there to make suggestions and recommendations. If you go to your sponsor for advice about a problem outside the scope of continuing sobriety, its okay. A good sponsor will readily tell you if they don’t have the answer to your problem. They may ask their sponsor for advice if you’re in real trouble.
In reality, just like a good therapist is also in therapy*, a good sponsor usually has a sponsor too, and that person has a sponsor. In the best of situations, you have a chain of recovering people who want to help you succeed backing you and you can draw on their collective wisdom and experience for helpful advice about many of life’s problems.
Relapsing While Working the Program
One reason the Alcoholics Anonymous success rate cannot be measured is that it’s an anonymous program. This makes it hard to measure how many people come into the program and stay sober. However, many people go in and out of AA frequently, or try the program, relapse, and say the program didn’t work.
Before he died, Bill Wilson, the founder of AA said that if there was one word he would change in the book Alcoholics Anonymous, he would take out “Rarely” and replace it with “Never”so that the first sentence in How It Works, Chapter 5 of the book Alcoholics Anonymous1 would read, ‘Never have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path.’ After spending decades helping other alcoholics recover, this became his truth.
If you really don’t want to work the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, join the crowd. Most of us had the same problem. But we were desperate enough to give it a try. Nobody works the steps perfectly, we just do the best we can, a day at a time. Whether you work the steps or find a different way to recover from alcoholism, we hope that your path will be a healthy, reasonably happy journey towards healing.
* Alcoholics Anonymous, page xvi, Forward to Second Edition, “Upon therapy for the alcoholic himself, we surely have no monopoly.”