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Doing the Research.

16 July 2013

I’m guessing that today’s title means very different things to my readers who are academics vs. my readers who are alcoholics. I’m here to talk about the latter sort. Though it springs from a conversation I had with Drugmonkey and Dirk57, who are academics. And Drugmonkey researches addiction, and Dirk57 is also in recovery. So these lines are fairly blurred. It’s a crazy world we have online.

In AA, when we talk about “doing research”, we mean drinking. And of course, also, often doing drugs. There used to be a serious conflict in AA between the pure drinkers and the drug user/drinkers. In some places people will still “apologize” when telling their stories, and say: “I know this is AA, but drugs are a part of my story.” There was once, apparently, a big split between AA and NA, because some people who are addicted to drugs seem to be able to continue to drink normally. AA said they couldn’t be members. A desire to stop drinking is the only requirement. The drug addicts seeking recovery said, “Aren’t we all brothers in addiction?” A rift happened. There are still places where NA meetings include a statement, “We do not discuss other anonymous fellowships.”

I do feel strongly that people who can drink normally, and have no desire to stop drinking alcohol, should not be welcome at closed meetings. More than welcome at open ones. But closed meetings are for alcoholics. And if you can drink normally, and intend to continue doing so, you don’t belong there. I’ve written about my personal experience with this before. But none of this is what this post is about.

The conversation on twitter began when I was asked “how many times it takes for rehab to stick.” The question was tongue in cheek, and there’s no answer. Sometimes it happens right away. For others? Well, I’ve known people who went to rehab 16 times. Sometimes they eventually sober up. Sometimes they don’t. I commented that I suspect there’s a difference in outcomes between people sent to rehab, vs. people who seek it out of their own accord. This led to a discussion of what it means to be “ready” to recover.

Drugmonkey commented that AA seems to put a lot of stock in that. And we do. Though we certainly don’t claim to be able to discern who is and who isn’t ready. And it is really easy to go back after the fact and declare that a person must’ve been ready because this time it “took”. But the truth is, we simply don’t know what makes recovery solidify in one person and not in another. Anecdotally, and as it says in the Big Book, we rarely see people fail that thoroughly follow the path. That is, who get sponsors, go to meetings, and do the steps. Those people seem to have very high rates of recovery.

But most people don’t take those steps. Most people don’t continue to go to meetings. Most people don’t get sponsors. And most people don’t recover. So which is it? Is it that those who take the steps recover? Or is it that those who have some intrinsic capacity for recovery take the steps? If the latter, it would seem to me that we’d see these people everywhere. They’d recover in other ways, if they had some intrinsic means. I don’t know of many people who just give up alcoholic drinking with no program. But I do know of some. If the former, then is there some way of getting people to engage with the steps more thoroughly?

In AA, more people seem to take the attitude that what leads to recovery is honest and willing engagement with the program, and with God, or some higher power (usually God). Now, I’m of the camp that does not believe that God magically comes down and cures some alcoholics but not others. But I do believe that faith can be a powerful tool for recovery. But faith alone is not enough. Or we’d see the recovered in churches and synagogues and mosques, and they wouldn’t need AA or rehab. But we don’t. At least, not many.

When a person comes to AA and doesn’t do the steps, and doesn’t get a sponsor, and then goes back out to drink, we do often kind of shake our heads and say, “I guess they needed to do more research.” Meaning, they haven’t learned enough about their powerlessness over alcohol to do the work to recover. Many people come in to AA believing they’ll find a way to defeat their addiction. Either defeat it and return to normal drinking, or defeat it and be abstinent through victory over disease. It doesn’t work that way.

And sometimes, sponsors will use the “research” angle to try to motivate a recalcitrant sponsee. I’ve done that. I had a sponsee tell me that he couldn’t do the steps because he didn’t believe he had a real problem with alcohol; if his girlfriend came back to him, then he would be able to drink normally. I laughed. Out loud. I told him, “Really? Did you drink normally when you were with her? Or did you bail on her five nights a week to get drunk and smoke crack? Even after she told you she’d dump you if you did it again?”

That sponsee never wanted to do the work. He just wanted to fight with me about his problem and insist that alcohol wasn’t his issue. “I’m not even thinking about alcohol! I don’t miss it one bit! Why shouldn’t I go get a six pack?” Eventually, I told him to feel free. Some one who is miserable, refusing to do the work, embittered, and combative is not getting anything out of the program. I told him, “If you really want to drink, and you don’t think alcohol is your problem, then go drink. You’ll either be ok, or you’ll suffer worse consequences. I just hope you don’t kill anyone while you’re driving around drunk and high. But you’re probably going to end up dead or in jail.”

He needed to do more research. Nothing I could do would make him see that his problem was not his missing girlfriend. It was his devotion to his addiction. It was his disease, telling him that the only thing that mattered in his life was rationalizing the way to the next drink, the next hit. So, we don’t tell people to go out and do more research in order to get ready for recovery. But someone who is refusing to engage, and complaining that their life isn’t improving, and battling every step of the way? Sometimes we’ll throw up our hands. “I guess you need to do more research, if you’re not convinced you’ve got the disease.”

One other aphorism we have in AA is that “The only step you have to do perfectly is Step One.” Meaning, if you don’t believe that you are powerless over alcohol, and that your life has become unmanageable, you can’t recover. At least, not in the AA program. Because as long as we think that either we can drink normally, or that we can manage our lives while drinking abnormally, we will continue to drink. We stay trapped in the battle. A battle that ends, invariably, with defeat.

But there are different kinds of defeat. There is defeat that comes with a prison, or a grave. And there is the kind of defeat that I had: surrender, acceptance, and liberation.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. 456 days permalink
    16 July 2013 07:54

    I had a diner discussion recently in which someone who has been around a few years casually invoked the “do more research” passage to a couple newcomers. These were willing people, not arguing about having the disease. The statement was delivered as if to say “it’s fine to go drink a little more and come back.” That led to a discussion.

    I’m glad you emphasized what I think is the correct tone of the passage. Do it if you can’t find any other way to convince yourself you’re an alcoholic.

    Not everyone makes it back. I’m glad you emphasized that. This disease scares the shit out of me.

  2. Syd permalink
    16 July 2013 08:09

    So much good stuff in this post. I have been to many open AA meetings, big book studies, speaker meetings, and I hear the same thing regarding surrender and finding a spiritual solution. One old timer said that if the steps and a sponsor drive someone out to experiment again, the drink will drive him/her back in.

  3. 17 July 2013 05:42

    “How many times does it take for rehab to stick?” – once for me. When I went there though I went because I wanted to – I had a real desire to fix my problem, on the day I walked in there I will admit I still thought I needed to be how to drink “normally”, that delusion was soon cracked wide open, especially as they asked me to work back in my drinking and soon it was apparent I’d never drunk normally, I’d always had a skewed relationship with alcohol, skewed in that from pretty much day one it held the upper hand and I could not control it. The first acceptance that I could complete the first part of step 1 – “powerless over alcohol”. I’d also spent a long time fighting it, I’d tried all sorts of ways to stop, cut down or control it. They’d failed and everytime I was back drinking as much, actually more, as quickly, actually quicker than before.

    As you say there is a time for every alcoholic in recovery where they reached that place and accepted who they were, what was the problem and that to deal with it they needed to accept total abstinence, if only for that moment, that minute, that hour or that day but that was the only way to stop it going mental again was to not pick up the first drink. At that point I “joined” AA – i.e. I possessed a real desire to stop drinking.

    Some I see go back out don’t surprise me, they only come to AA because of a back problem – i.e. their partner is on their back about drinking, their family is on their back about drinking, their boss is on their back, their friends etc. Others however do, one of the guys I first met when early about who followed a zealous route of very stringent adherence to the steps (I don’t class myself in that ilk, I have engrained them in my life but I don’t have to think about them so much as individual steps so much these days) and who whilst is style of AA didn’t sit with me I did admire his sobriety and he did help me out a few times with some well meaning and helpful advice. Imagine my surprise when I saw him recently and he told me about a brief but spectacularly bad slip. Today I’m sober, all I can do today – tomorrow, well that’s another day no point being too concerned about that until it dawns.

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