When Adolf Hitler and the Nazis rose to power in the 1930s, another radical social movement was gaining ground in the United States. This movement had to flop, many believed, not only because the problem it addressed was so intractable, but also because the solution it advocated was so unorthodox and counter-intuitive. Their founders had to be crazy to think they could succeed.
But they did succeed, beyond their wildest dreams. Within a few years Alcoholics Anonymous was front page news, though one of its founders, Bill W., refused to be photographed or give his full name when Time Magazine asked to do a story. The man was serious about anonymity, not celebrity. AA has remained true to that principle, and the group is still growing and thriving into the 21st century.
This organization runs exceptionally well even though it has no leader and no centralized administration. It costs nothing to join. Contrary to popular belief, there is no dogma; all teachings of the organization are regarded as suggestions. A person could attend an AA meeting three times a day, every day of the year, not take a single suggestion, and still be considered a member if they chose to be so considered. To participate it is not required to give your name at any time and neither is it required to speak at a meeting. You can join AA while still drinking heavily; the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking.
With such loose standards for membership and participation you might expect Alcoholics Anonymous to be ineffective as a plan for facing problem drinking. The exact opposite is true. The AA approach remains, for over 75 years, the finest, most effective, and most embraced strategy in the world for facing problems of compulsion. Only two times will you see money exchanged at an AA meeting. One is when a basket is passed and a member may put in a single dollar if they wish, and another is if someone purchases AA literature, which, if not given away, is sold at cost.
I’ve attended meetings in four countries on three continents and the meetings were remarkably consistent. Alcohol problems affect human beings the same everywhere, and AA’s fail-safe approach is the same everywhere. The talk at a meeting in New Delhi, India, sounded to me just like the talk at a meeting in Annapolis, Maryland, if it weren’t for the accented English and occasional dip into spoken Hindi.
The dependability of AA is rooted in the group’s absolute reliance on two documents: organizational guidelines called “The Twelve Traditions” and a sobriety approach called “The Twelve Steps.” There are no promotions, no advertising, no fundraising, and no political ties. It is an impressive feat that AA is beholden to no one except the people the organization exists to serve.
I find AA useful for issues besides problem drinking. For example, at a meeting I heard, “Men are willing to die for an idea, provided the idea is vague enough.” This remark may sound cynical but it speaks to how deeply human beings desire their lives to be meaningful. So much so that the pursuit of the signifier can become more important than what it signifies. That leaves one susceptible to delusional thinking, as that perceptive comment suggests.
One could say that drunkenness is the embrace of a signifier bereft of anything truly signified. That is to say, the feeling of intoxication imputes false meaning randomly to events. If you’ve ever heard the inane conversation between two drunk people, you know what I mean. The effect of alcohol is often pleasurable, but it is a meaningless pleasure, in itself. And meaningless pleasures fade over time.
Despite AA’s stellar success and complete openness about how the program works, snide criticisms and misinformation abound in public opinion forums. It is astonishing how much pain and humiliation caused by drinking some people will accept, while feeling ashamed to be seen at an AA meeting. Why is this?
Every one of us venerates our own sense of agency and autonomy. Problems caused by drinking – social embarrassment, legal trouble, physical danger, financial worries, health problems – can pale in comparison to the crushing sense of shame associated with being “out of control” of one’s life. If sitting in a chair at an AA meeting is considered a public admission of shame, then no wonder it takes deep suffering caused by the drinking to override that shame. Some call this moment when shame is overridden, “hitting bottom.”
Is suffering necessary for one to understand the truth about one’s place in the world, the limits of one’s autonomy? No, not always. If true learning could not happen vicariously, we’d never profit from reading a book, or gain insight from history or from any story well told. But to obstinately insist on learning lessons the hard way, through personal experience only, is to welcome misery as the only teacher. I am grateful for the vicarious lessons I’ve learned, and the misery I’ve avoided, by listening carefully at AA meetings.