Many people avoid Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) because of the religiosity.
I’ve met countless Alcoholics and other drug addicts whom have successfully recovered from their addiction through the help of AA or NA (Narcotics Anonymous). Naturally it raises the question, how does AA help so many? There’s got to be some sort of hidden information or even power behind it all, but is it supernatural? AA does not ascribe to a specific religion, in fact they are very big on making this distinction. They only believe in God as they “understand him.” According to AA, it means that you simply need to imagine that there is some sort of power outside yourself that can help you. It still begs the questions, how and why and what is this mystical spiritual force?
God does play a central role in AA though, just look at the famous 12 steps; Step 2 wants us to believe that there is a “power greater than ourselves”. Steps 3, 5, 6, 7 and 11 all mention God and step 12 again asks for a “spiritual awakening.” Does this mean the atheist addict is doomed?
When you visit one of these meetings and ask for a metaphysical explanation you will get something like: “spirituality means to stop thinking on a low order, instead choose to think in a higher order” and “god is whomever you choose to understand him as.”
Order, disorder, thinking, high and low? What is going on here?
In the words of the famous one, “let there be light,” or in other words, let me shed some light. First lets discuss this whole God thing or at least how to understand it/him/her. Second we will look at how it/he/she is really at work in AA.
First, the debate for or against God goes as follows:
In the beginning there was God and nothing else, then God spoke and presto, the universe appeared filled with stuff.
The other argument goes as follows:
There was nothing then presto (or a Big Bang of sorts) and a universe appeared filled with stuff.
So basically the two arguments start from the same premise. At first there was the absence of everything, in other words a perfect order. Some magic happened and then there was stuff followed by disorder.
The arguments then go like this:
God continued to speak and a short time later we have order again in the form of stars, planets, plants and animals and soon humans.
Due to the laws of physics matter collided via gravity which led to stars and planets. One very lucky planet was just right to have water and an atmosphere which led to life. Life kept changing by chance to select for creatures and features that could survive better in different conditions.
Again, in both stories we have some invisible force creating order from disorder.
So up to this point we have the two stories explaining how we got to animals, both involving the idea of order, disorder and order again, but then…
Suddenly a historic moment occurred. Up to this moment all the creatures and plants lived in harmony. Their instincts guided them to seek safety, reproduce and eat just enough to stay alive. A sort of perfect balance was achieved either by the guidance of God or the forces of nature. Each animal was perfectly content with what they had and did not want more. A sort of Garden, let’s call it Eden. Then, one of these creatures had a brilliant idea, one that would bring disorder again.
Side note… animals live in this harmonious state due to a lack of a desire to indulge. We do not see the lions on the prairie catching more deer than needed because they are so delicious, if that was to happen, the deer population would decrease resulting in a decrease in the lion population. Luckily the lions have some instincts that tell them, “hey, only when you’re hungry, eat a little bit of deer and no more.”
Back to the guy with the great idea. Let’s call him Joe. Joe thought, “hey, what if I use this long stick over here to knock down a couple extra apples, they’re so tasty and I would feel really good if I could just have a few more.” Maybe it was Jane that gave Joe the idea, no matter.
The first desire to indulge was born. The first battle of the mind: eat more now to feel good versus save some for later to ensure survival. This was the first time any creature thought outside the box, the box being a set of instinctual rules.
A short time later Joe started sharing the extra apples with his tribe. His fellow tribesmen were very happy and they liked Joe. Normally there would be just enough apples to eat one a day, just enough to keep the devil away. Unfortunately the apples ran out early that season. Eventually the rest of Joes tribe insisted on getting more. Joe started hiding some for himself. It was soon discovered that he was hoarding apples and all hell broke loose. Joe tried to use the apple stick to defend himself but didn’t fare to well. Poor Joe and his apples didn’t last long. Charles wrestled the apple stick away and stabbed Joe. Since Charles was the first to turn the apple stick into a death stick he started using it to threaten others and even catch animals. At first rabbits but soon he and his fellow cronies were hunting deer. Life was good. Charles got fat, the animals died out and they had to leave the Garden. Soon the deer population was waning, so Charles started ordering his cronies to hunt for him, for he was the one who came up with this great idea in the first place.
Side note… some theories explain that as humans started figuring out how to game the system, meaning to plan and build and be crafty, their brains increased in size, they also started walking upright more in order to see their enemies approach and scan the prairie for food etc and because of this the female pelvis was tilted forward resulting in a narrowed birth canal. The larger brain with a smaller birth canal led to a painful birth. Further growth of the brain and narrowing of the birth canal also led to premature birth, hence human babies are born without any capability to survive and completely dependent on their mother. This mother infant bonding further led to communal growth. The upright stance led to an exposed abdomen therefore feeling vulnerable and the need to dawn clothing. These seem like theories to try and explain the Genesis story, who knows.
Okay back to our story…
The first king was born. King Charles. First he worshipped himself because he came up with such great ideas and soon others worshipped him out of fear.
The need to feel good came to be. The universe became self aware, but this very self awareness led to self worship.
Ever since then, man has tried to feel good, not just to be content with what he or she had but always wanting more. Desire was born.
Man was cast out of the garden, or maybe just left due to eating all the food. (Again, the garden being a metaphor for living in a state of no desire, like animals do, man gained this trait, casting him from the garden). The woman now experienced painful childbirth. Man had to learn how to plant food in order to grow more to satisfy his desire. Before, he lived as an animal, naive to a desire to take more than he needed, but now he gained the knowledge of good and evil. Evil, a synonym for what causes early death, in this case the desire to feel really good at the cost of someone else or even his own survival. Man wandered through the open prairie in search of more, in a search to fulfill his desire.
This wandering through the desserts and prairies led to a development in the early brain that is now thought to contribute to addiction. The early humans who were wandering through the prairie in search of food was in a state of hunger stress. When they found a source of water or food they had to try and remember where it was located. When leaving the safety of their cave the next day they had to find their way back to this source. The humans who could remember better survived better. When under stress the brain that remembers how to escape stress better would also survive better. This in part is the cause of addiction.
Side note… MRI scans reveal this phenomenon today. When surprised with a novel reward the brain releases much more dopamine than when the animal has learned how to obtain the reward. This feature of the brain is taken advantage of in slot machines. Back in the day when slot machines were invented, the makers noticed something peculiar. When completely randomizing the wins, the gamblers are likely to spend more money. This supports the idea that more dopamine is released when the reward is unexpected. Dopamine is not just the feel good neurotransmitter but also helps to solidify memories. Randomized rewards is also the best way to train dogs. When giving the reward at random times they solidify the behavior faster that when getting the reward every time.
When you are under stress and find some substance or activity that immediately makes you feel better your brain is programmed to remember it. This feature helped us survive long long ago. Back then survival depended on finding food or water or shelter but man was smart and invented ways to take care of these basic needs. He was able to sit around and invent other things. Soon he invented alcohol and drugs and gambling. These things trick the mind into feeling good (especially in times of stress) but eventually they are not enough, in fact when they wear off, the absence of them make us feel even worse than before. Ah but the brain remembers. Easy solution, take more of the substance. Eat more, drink more, indulge more and feel better again. A quick fix to feel on top of the world again, just like a king. Just like our old chap king Charles.
As our ancestors learned about what it means to indulge, some were able to withstand this temptation. They also learned that instead of fighting over apples, it is far better to work together. Whom ever had a sense of community and cooperation were able to survive better overall. As soon as one tribesman or woman started to take more than their share they were quickly corrected. Of course some devised devilish ways to get their way. Trickery, magic and even religion was invented. Usually the overall good outweighed the bad and was able to suppress those with self seeking behavior. After all we have made it this far today. The point is that for overall species’ survival, said species need to stick together, help each other and share the apples within reason. This is the knowledge of the good. This creates order. Order which ensures survival. For human beings survival of the fittest became survival of the friendliest.
Do you see what I’m getting at? God is either an old guy with a grey beard or simply the force that helps us survive. God is life and life contains God. God is found in all living beings. God is at work to help ensure survival of life itself. God is a state of order that helps us achieve this goal. God is found in others because others help us survive. The God of AA is simply present in their fellow AA members.
When an addict continues in their addiction they tend to isolate, they lose this human connection. Substance abuse is a very selfish behavior, only the drug user wants to feel good. Taking a drug doesn’t make any one else feel good. In this way addiction leads to isolation. Once addiction takes hold it becomes the central purpose in that life. Other practices to ensure order gets ignored. The addict forgoes the need to work hard, eventually to pay the bills and fix what is broken. They stop seeing friends and family fade away and eventually they have nothing. Their hygiene suffers, their health declines and soon they find themselves in such a state of disorder that they cannot see themselves out any longer. They need a god or simply a little bit of order to jump start the reversal of the addiction. They need what is in other people going through recovery.
This is where AA comes in. Once they start following the steps, they will quickly realize the things they need to live. They are powerless to their addiction and they need help. Their lives have become unmanageable and they need order again. This help comes from their community of recovering addicts found at these meetings. They rekindle human connection to replace their isolation. They find that they are not alone. Solidarity starts building them up and iron starts to sharpen iron. Soon they replace their habits with daily meetings. They make friends all over town and achieve a sense of community. They start rebuilding their life by creating order. They start helping others which provides a sense of happiness. God/Order/Connection is working through them and the people they meet. God is found inside other recovering addicts. Once the addict understands this they no longer shy away from seeking or offering help.
In AA, God is the power outside themselves that is found in others, the power to regain their life.
Instead of changing via chance they start changing via choice.
Thanks for reading, Dr Z.