You don’t have to be a sheep to stay sober
I’ve been a grateful and active member of AA for fourteen years and have always been an admirer and student of AA literature and history. Though I’d like to think so at times, I don’t have all the answers, but I do have lots of questions about some of the things I regularly hear in AA meetings.
For me, early sobriety was a time of confusion, desperation, secrets, wanting to fit in and be accepted, and just dying for a moment’s peace of mind (which was a long time in coming). My brother gave me my first Big Book, which I devoured from cover to cover. I was blown away by its simplicity, inclusiveness, open-mindedness, and promises of a life free from alcohol and of freedom, in general. The program, as I read it, was practicing the Twelve Steps and being of service to others. The point of it all was to get–and keep–a connection with a Higher Power that could not only solve my drinking problem, but all of life’s problems.
So imagine my surprise when I went to meetings and started hearing what sounded to me like hidden membership rules. I want to stress at the beginning that I don’t find any of these “rules” to be particularly harmful or awful, but I do find them to be impractical, annoying, and somehow missing the proverbial boat.
One is “You should go to ninety meetings in ninety days.” In order to fit in and be accepted, I made my life even more unmanageable by trying to do “ninety in ninety,” even though it was impractical and added to the insanity in my life. In sobriety, I’ve only done it once, and I’m sure it helped in some way, but other suggestions would have been equally valuable such as “make phone calls, get a sponsor, start writing.”
Another is “You drank every day, so you should go to a meeting every day.” Again, not a harmful suggestion, but what about working the rest of the program? What about binge drinkers, like me, who only drank two or three days a week? Does that mean we only have to go to two or three meetings a week?
I was so grateful to finally get a sponsor who had clear direction–for me–about how many meetings to attend each week. She told me to have a three-meeting-a-week minimum, to do service, and to have sponsees. Last but not least, she suggested I “get a life” by joining a gym, taking a class, working on a political campaign, doing art–anything. This has been some of the wisest and most freeing guidance I’ve ever received from an AA member.
I also hear “Don’t date (or move, or quit your job) in your first year of sobriety.” The presumed restrictions on dating, moving, or changing jobs rankled me and made me squirm. These suggestions are referenced in AA’s Conference-approved book, Living Sober, though I don’t think I’ve seen them written anywhere else. All these years later, these suggestions still rankle. Didn’t the Big Book say we weren’t the arbiters or judges of other people’s lives, including their sex lives–that that was between them and their God? So, I did as any self-respecting single newcomer would–I dated and had sex in my first year and then kept it all secret, so as not to get “kicked out of AA” or be some kind of colossal “AA disappointment,” accumulating “AA demerits.” Later I found a sponsor and other AA members who didn’t give advice on things they weren’t experts on, and that included my life, my conscience, and my connection with God. They said that was the wonderful thing about sobriety–that I could do whatever I wanted, provided that I was willing to face the consequences, and that I had to wake up next to myself every morning, not next to them. (I have to tell you, that statement put the fear of God in me much more than “the rules” did.)
Today I sponsor women, and I tell them they can and should live their lives however they wish. I simply ask that they not drink, no matter what; that they be honest; that they pray and continue doing their AA work; and that they call me when their proverbial “butts falls off.” They know they can tell me anything and that I won’t stand in judgment of their personal affairs. My sponsor taught me to be unconditionally loving, and yet to be honest and firm in loving and caring ways. She told me to “mind my own business” when it came to who my sponsees or friends were dating, or where they were working, or if they were planning to move to another part of the country (or world).
There also seems to be an anti-thinking movement in modern AA. Members frequently state that “their best thinking got them here” and hang the “Think, Think, Think” slogan upside down. They say “If I’m thinking it, it can’t be good.” Of course, we need to have a sense of humor about our thinking, but is that really our main problem? The Big Book says that “lack of power” was our dilemma. When I drank, some of my ideas were good, some not so good. Now that I’m sober, some of my ideas are good, some not so good. What hasn’t changed is that I’m still powerless over alcohol and I still can’t “manage” (control, manipulate, dictate) my life. Even on a good-thinking day, I still need God in my life. I have discovered that thinking isn’t always my enemy, and “thinking something through” can save my life when it comes to that first drink.
Last, but not least, is something I hear in every meeting I attend in New York City: “Just don’t drink and go to meetings; that’s all you have to do.” This one is a stumper. It’s good advice for an overwhelmed newcomer or for a mid- or old-timer having a bad day, but it doesn’t seem to capture what I consider the AA message expressed in AA literature. Our literature says over and over that drinking was but a symptom, that ceasing drinking is just the first step, and that a demonstration of AA principles in the rest of our lives is the real test. I’ve heard it said that New York-style AA can be summarized as “Don’t drink and go to meetings,” while Akron-style AA can be summarized as “Trust God, clean house, help others.” Despite my residence in New York, my AA program tends toward that of an Akronite.
I love my fellow AA members, but I constantly encourage myself and my sponsees to question some of the things heard in meetings. AA does not ask that anyone conform and our Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions are but suggestions. Love and tolerance is our code. I hope that we can continue to focus on the spiritual solutions stated in our wonderful AA literature, and otherwise mind our own business, one day at a time.