From the BlogMeet Ron

September 1977 AA and the Religion Turnoff

September 1977  AA and the Religion Turnoff

Does our image of religiosity scare off too many suffering alcoholics?
A FRIEND OF MINE, a fellow alcoholic, died last month. He needn’t have. He could have joined AA. The reason he didn’t is the reason I nearly didn’t, many years ago, and his death recalls the feelings I had then toward the program.

My friend, Tom, and I worked for the same newspaper. In our youth, we contributed heavily to the fortune of a greasy tavern owner in an alley behind the press room. Tom and I were lean and cocky in those years. The thought of a drinking problem for either of us would have been ridiculous. Tom went on to become a well-known correspondent and editor. After we left the paper, we kept in touch, and whenever our paths crossed, the encounter would occasion a glorious and usually prolonged drunk.

Eventually, though, we knew we had a problem. Not knowing how to “frame” it, see it in its true perspective, we called it booze, and let it go at that. We thought it went with the territory. Tom had remarried several times, his wives leaving him because of his drinking. I’d been in and out of several hospitals. Tom and I would lament the passing of the good old days and mark our observance by getting drunk.

Once, over a couple of prairie oysters to aid us through a horrendous hangover, I remember suggesting, half seriously, that we try AA.

“Not those Holy Rollers,” he replied.

Several of our acquaintances had joined the program by then, but we saw little of them. On getting sober, they had a habit of avoiding the watering holes they’d helped make famous. Tom would bomb in from some far-flung war and call my place, and we’d hold a wake for those poor lost souls.

“Whatever happened to Ted?”

“Ah, the silly man got religion and joined AA.”

“Is that a fact? The saints preserve us. Timothy, give us two more of the same. Drink up, me boyo. Our work’s cut out for us.”

As I recall, drinking was becoming work. An uphill fight all the way. All at once, it seemed, we had grown too old for chasing down Third Avenue in pursuit of rheumatic ghosts and the faltering legends of youth. Marathon drinking, to catch the blood-red sun over the East River, was no longer the lyrical experience it had been. Nor even running plays with a professional quarterback, or composing dirty limericks with a famous poet among the pillars of the El, some silver dawn.

But Tom and I had a grudging–perhaps the word is sneaking–respect for AA. Ironically, it was through Tom that I’d first become aware of the Fellowship. He’d written an article on alcoholism, mentioning the successful “cure” found by so many in AA.

Tom’s and my attitude at that point could be summed up by saying we thought the program was okay for the people in it, but for ourselves we couldn’t buy the God bit. The program, in our view, smacked of Christian fundamentalism, even evangelism. Then, too, while we were admitted drunks–defiantly so–we didn’t admit to having the problem of definitive “alcoholics,” as AA members labeled themselves.

For my last birthday, my wife gave me the latest–the fourth–edition of the Columbia Encyclopedia, hailed as the best one-volume encyclopedia in the language. I looked up AA, and there it was–Tom’s mistake, repeated for the nth time. The program was described as a means for “curing” alcoholism. My old copy, the second edition, doesn’t even have an entry for AA, and I’m not sure which is worse–misinformation or no information.

It seems to me that we editorial types share with other professionals what is so frequently a fatal misconception about the program. A misconception going beyond the careless reporting and editing that allow “cure” instead of “recovery.” It goes to the heart of the matter, explaining why so many of us, like my late friend Tom, fail to make it into AA.
Our liverish, bloated egos feel insulted by what we don’t even intellectually understand. We think the program is reserved for the poor, the ignorant, the uninformed. (G. K. Chesterton was fond of saying that intellectuals were seldom intelligent.) We think–even by the time we’re driven to the desperate realization that something is the matter, something is killing us–that AA may be okay for the next guy, but we’re too sophisticated for anything like that to work for us. We need something more complicated, more subtle, more suited to our peculiar genius, the exquisite refinements of our pain. Something, let us say, that sounds more medically or scientifically impressive.

And so, like Tom, we elect to die.

My recovery began with a fantastic awakening. I realized that it is possible to believe in a Higher Power, in the efficacy of prayer and meditation, in making a conscious contact with a Higher Power as those concepts, privately understood–or not understood–are suggested in AA, without the loss of one iota of my precious identity.

Instead of loss, the dread void of what to do in place of drinking, there is gain. A spiritual redeepening of the self, through the affirmation of AA principles that stem, not merely from Christianity, but from all the great faiths and philosophies. A sense of humility, the reapportioning of what is really important for the remainder of my life. Best of all, a new understanding of simplicity, of keeping things simple, of knowing truth, the truth that works for me. It could never have been found through the complicated search that always ended in despair when I drank.

I’d been looking for a reality that doesn’t exist outside today!

Tom never knew this. He never really knew what time it was. Never, that is, knew that the time is always and forever Now.

I attended his funeral and looked on the stranger in the casket. Yet not entirely a stranger. Assuredly, it was not the Tom of old, with whom I’d run and drunk and sung. It could have been, incredibly, myself lying there, except for a grace and power beyond my telling here. He died for both of us (and all those that read this now).

As I left the funeral home on Madison Avenue, I was joined by another battered survivor, whom I hadn’t seen in years. There was little left to see. He looked almost as bad as the one we’d come to mourn. We chatted on the corner. His watery eyes searched out a bar half a block up.

“C’mon, let’s hoist a few.”

I hesitated, not because I was tempted but because, after all this time in the program, that’s still my reaction to friends and acquaintances who might also have a problem–and don’t know how I’ve solved mine. One day at a time.

“I don’t drink any more, Charlie. I’m in AA.”

I saw the familiar start, the gleam of fright that crossed his face. We talked for a minute or two longer, then said goodbye. Charlie wanted to be rid of me, and how could I blame him, knowing so well what he was feeling? He didn’t look back. Braving crowds and traffic with unswerving accuracy (he could have been crossing a minefield and it wouldn’t have mattered), he disappeared under the neon sign of El Dorado, dreams, music, and that old black magic called oblivion. He left his life waiting in the street outside, like a dog tied to a lamppost.

I said a prayer for Charlie–for all of us, for Tom lately departed, for the living trapped in their denial and loneliness, in their embittered, cynical selves. I prayed that Charlie might get it. And suddenly the city blazed with a great beauty that throbbed and thrilled through me–that thing, that high I’d sought and never found in the bottom of a bottle. I felt the fierce, sweet joy of gratitude, standing there in the sunlit afternoon.

Maybe, I thought, maybe he’ll come out before it’s too late. God’s will, chance, and change bear wondrous fruit. Just maybe what I said to him, the seed, will take hold and sprout. I recalled Tom’s old tale of a miracle “cure” for what had ailed us both.
Now he was free of it. And dead.

I still had it, but was alive and well.

You never know.

J. W.
Manhattan, New York

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