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Ownership and Addiction.

8 May 2017

Almost everyone in AA thinks that people outside AA could also benefit from working the program in their lives. Not giving up alcohol, but the core concepts of doing inventory, relinquishing control, accepting what we can’t change, changing what we can, and taking radical ownership for our problems. I’m not so sure.

AA works because the program allows me to address my deep issues. I have a disease that tries to convince me I don’t have a disease. That my problems are not my fault. That I am a victim. That the appropriate response to my troubles is to slug down as much alcohol as possible and tell the world to go fuck itself. I know other people aren’t like that.

I cannot confront my disease without taking hard personal responsibility for the outcome of my choices. Indeed, I cannot confront my disease without recognizing my choices. For example: my ex-wife spent an enormous amount of money which devastated me financially. But that wasn’t her fault. It was mine. Because I was making the money, I had exclusive access to it. I could have put an end to her spending easily.

It would have meant getting divorced much earlier. She was clear about that. Quite explicitly, she told me that if I “put her on an allowance” (a term which covered making a budget), she would leave me. So I didn’t. And so I ruined my finances. That was my choice. It was a terrible choice to have to make, but it was my choice.

But I own it. Does that ownership absolve her of anything? Nope. I have no idea how she feels about it now, as we don’t speak. I hope she’s happy and free of resentments. But if she does have any, those are her responsibility. But I do not get to blame her for the choices I made. I own my acts.

I’ve had people tell me that my thinking on this is warped, and that I should blame her. But what would that get me? It would leave me resentful, embittered, and not a dollar wealthier. As it is, I’m free from this, because I can look at my own decisions, separate them from hers, and release her from my regrets about my financial decisions. I had a choice, I made a choice, I live with the results. It’s about me, not her.

I’ve adopted this severe framework of ownership because it works for me. It allows me to be sober, to be happy, and to learn from mistakes and make different choices moving forward. I’m sure I’ll make bad decisions again from time to time. But I have changed my relationship to money and now I have some savings and good credit. And I don’t drink about it.

For most people, the consequences of not taking this kind of radical ownership (a phrase a friend in recovery introduced me to) are not nearly so dire. Most people can tolerate resentment (or manage it a different way) without it risking a cumulative cascade ending in an cataract of ethanol. My framework was established to help people like me, who do not do well when we think other people are the causes of our problems.

I live pretty high on the privilege scale, but I have seen this framework function well for people from as low on the yardstick as it is possible to be. I’ve seen non-gender comforming persons of color with felony convictions and multiple mental health diagnoses use the program of AA to rise from squalor and establish happy and successful lives.

Much of how we live in the world is how we choose to see the world around us. If we think we don’t have choices, then we don’t. If we think we can’t make changes, then we can’t. But if we’re willing to look at ourselves and search for the choices we have, the ones we had, and the way we allowed ourselves to get into a situation we wish we hadn’t? If we take ownership of that? We can start seeing the way out.

That doesn’t absolve the world. The world really does do us wrong in many ways (and does far worse to some than others). Some people are victims of acts and systems that they do not deserve to be subject to. But we all still have choices of act and attitude that we can make to change what we do and how we live, and how we choose to see the world.

But maybe that doesn’t work for normal people. Maybe my alcoholism really is a gift, and advantage, rather than a liability. Because my brush with terminal mental illness has given me a perspective and a set of tools that other people just don’t need, or can’t use. I have a life preserver. But other people, maybe, just swim. The tool I have isn’t necessary for them. It would be a hindrance, not a help.

I like to think the world would be a better place if everyone used the program. Most of us in AA do. But maybe it doesn’t work like that. Nevertheless, if a person is overwhelmed, unhappy, and can’t see a way out? Look for your choices. The ones you made. The ones you can still make. They’re there. You have more power than you think you do.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 8 May 2017 08:14

    I have always found the idea that everyone would profit from our program a little bit silly. It’s a pretty rudimentary program. It works well for alcoholics. But I think we are pretty different from other, non-alcoholic/non-addicted, people. I believe Bill Wilson called it a “spiritual kindergarten.”

    All that said, I am so grateful that I have this way of life. It works for me. That “radical ownership” (love this term!) has been my salvation.

  2. Aimee permalink
    8 May 2017 15:36

    I live the term “spiritual kindergarten” from your commenter below. You’re right – not everyone needs these simple rules. Not everyone needs a life preserver because some people are good swimmers. But there are lots of people who it there who aren’t alcoholics who can’t swim, either. There are lots of ways to be spiritually stunted, and lots of diverse manifestations. I think the program would help many of these folks. But, working my own program is enough work for me.

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