Is it Time to Stop the God Bashing in Alcoholics Anonymous? One in Recovery Responds

March 31st, 2012

For years, I was never a fan of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). I never knew much about it, other than my sister had tried it and said it sucked, and when you lose a sibling to addiction it’s remarkably easy to point the finger at anyone and anything that didn’t fix the problem. But as time went on and I got to know more people who were successful with AA, or at least could explain the basic tenets of the program to me, I realized it has a significant place in the treatment of addictions.

To date, however, there remains a massive contingency who are against AA, both addicts and teetotalers, as well as everyone in between. Most people point to the religious aspect of the program as a major deterrent. But this aversion is based on ignorance. Below I have a quote from a highly successful member of the program. I’ve highlighted some points I found particularly poignant. If you or someone you know is struggling with a substance abuse issue, take this person’s words to heart before dismissing the AA approach.

AA is more than seven decades old and has helped millions of alcoholics get sober. It has also spawned many other 12 step groups that have helped countless people overcome their particular addictions. The “proof is in the pudding,” so to speak. Yes, AA does have a high attrition rate, but it’s not for the people who need it, it’s for the people who want it. Most people who stay in AA for the long term — one day at a time — feel that it is a highly positive influence in their lives, perhaps the most positive influence.

The “God” thing is a sticking point for some people, but it’s really not a big deal when you go to the meetings or read the literature. You can think of God as anything you want. Some people think of it as “Group Of Drunks.” Some people have a traditional God that they grew up with. Some people have a tree. It doesn’t matter. We don’t care. All we care about is helping another alcoholic get sober. Because AA is not officially an “organization” and all groups are independent, some groups might “feel” more religious than others depending on where you live. If that bothers someone, then try another group. NA is also a very good option in some places if the recovering person doesn’t like what’s going on in AA. All meetings and each group have a slightly different “culture.”

AA is not religious at all. The word “God” is tossed around a lot because that’s what’s in The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous and that’s the guideline that we use to run meetings and groups, but on the individual level it’s acceptable to believe anything you want. If the word “God” is what’s preventing someone from getting sober, then they don’t really want to get sober, simple as that. In our literature we say “we are willing to go to any lengths” to get sober. ANY LENGTHS. This means perhaps not liking one or more aspects of the program or the meetings, but putting that aside to help yourself continue living. Alcoholism is a progressive and fatal disease. The founders of AA determined that there’s a “spiritual solution” for it. That’s much better than taking a pill or having a medical procedure. And it works.

AA is a simple program for complicated people, is what we say, and that’s correct. Alcoholics — using and recovering alike — can make a big deal out of anything and resist help. That’s one of our commonalities, which makes it hard for some people to get sober, but once someone can put aside their ego and take the leap, there’s water in the pool, we promise. You can literally come into a meeting and say “Fuck your God, I hate him, I hate all of you, you suck, your AA sucks, this doesn’t work, I like to fuck ducks in the springtime,” and people will just nod their heads and tell you to keep coming back, and some people will give you their phone numbers and invite you to coffee. Where else can you do that and not get thrown out or put in a mental institution?

The most important person in any AA meeting is the newcomer. Newcomers are welcomed warmly. Usually, in an established group anywhere else the person who has been there longest is the most important person. Where else can you just show up and be not only welcomed, but regarded as the most important person in the room, and have everyone really mean it?

Nothing else but AA has been proven as a successful long term treatment for alcoholism.

You can learn more about AA here and, as always, share your agreement/disagreement in the Comments thread.

A New Approach to Empathy: Fantasies

March 25th, 2012

Years ago, I worked with a young woman who struggled with the concept of empathy. A trademark symptom of narcissists and sociopaths, she was actually neither, but was in fact compromised in her ability to “walk in another’s shoes” (a phrase you are familiar with if you’ve read this post or ‘Crazy’). Part of this was certainly due to her upbringing, which consisted of a predominantly “pull up your bootstraps” philosophy. And research continues to accumulate that suggests empathy has a physiological component as well, which means it’s entirely possible my client could have been physically compromised in this area.

On one particular session she revealed a rather striking discovery.

“In the past week,” she explained, “my friend lost his job, my sister had a miscarriage after only a few weeks of getting pregnant and a co-worker’s cat died.”

Normally I would anticipate a follow-up statement consisting of remarkably rational thinking that would completely bypass the emotional pain that often follows events she just described.

“My first thought was, ‘okay, bummer, but you’ll find another job, you can probably get pregnant again and although your cat was probably nice and cuddly, it’s not a living person and another cat will serve you just as well.’ But I’d recently been thinking about fantasies.”

Fantasies never fail to perk up an analyst’s ears, although it’s worth mentioning that, because of the sexual connotation associated with the term, people assume that all fantasies are positive. This is not required. Fantasies in the truest sense are simply events in the mind that have not come to fruition at the point of their conception.

“When I think about my life, which is almost 30 years old at this point, I don’t reflect much on the past. I look forward. I consider what my plan is for 30, 32, 35 and onward, and I can give you a detailed summary of what I expect life to look like at those times. Good or bad, these are my fantasies. But when I consider a fantasy and then ponder what I’ll feel if they do not come true, I feel an anxiety…here,” and she pointed to her abdomen.

“This got me thinking about my friend, sister and co-worker. I started to consider the notion that, beyond the practicalities of needing money, or the bond a mother has with a child even if he’s not alive, or the companionship of a pet, there’s a fantasy there. There is a distinct, palpable notion of what life will look like going forward with certain factors in play, even if they aren’t completely rational. And even though you can replace most elements in your life, that definitive mental picture must be altered when the life script changes. It simply has to, it can no longer exist in the way you want. And when I envision people struggling not because of people or jobs or animals, but rather because of the life they cannot ever possibly lead in the exact fashion they’ve constructed, I feel something. There’s a hurt at that moment.”

This was a method of self-inducing empathy that I had never considered, essentially using the future as a gauge of another’s pain rather than his present, as well as considering a life script of sorts rather than the tangible loss in front of him.

Our work together ended prematurely, as the woman left the city to pursue a new career, but I do wonder from time to time if her experience was a passing, “eureka!” moment or a more permanent realization. I’ve tried her method myself and, for the most part, it has increased my empathy with both friends and clients.

Here’s an exercise for you: the next time you struggle with empathy, try my former client’s approach. See if helps with your understanding of another’s pain, his experience, see if it’s easier to “walk in his shoes.” And then let me know how it goes.

Let’s Learn About Defense Mechanisms (Reposted because I’m a Bad Person)

February 16th, 2012

A little over a year ago I entered a comedy writing contest. The required material needed to be previously unpublished, but I was so focused on finishing ‘Crazy’ that I couldn’t generate any new ideas. So in accordance with what bad people do, I removed my post on defense mechanisms from the internet and submitted that instead. Of course, as Karma would have it, my piece wasn’t selected, and I was left with nothing but a guilty conscience.

Fortunately, last week my mother forgot my birthday yet again, making this piece now relevant for a second time. It’s interesting how someone else’s transgressions can make you forget about your own. So I’ve forgiven myself for my error and am reposting it here. Enjoy and perhaps you’ll learn something about our unconscious.

When mothers forget their sons’ birthday for the 3rd time in four years they engage in numerous defense mechanisms to deal with the inevitable guilt that follows. Defense mechanisms are psychological maneuvers that allow us to distort reality which in turn protect us from emotional pain. Although we should generally steer clear of overanalyzing others, let’s learn some common defense mechanisms through the use of a recent telephone call transcript.

Mother: Robert, I was calling to tell you that my therapist says I’m just about ready to stop therapy, that I’m quite emotionally healthy.

Robert: You forgot my birthday again.

Mother: What? I did no such thing. (Denial: rejecting a fact despite evidence to the contrary)

Robert: Yes you did.

Mother: When was it?

Robert: Yesterday.

Mother: But yesterday was the Super Bowl.

Robert: I know, every seven years the Super Bowl and my birthday are the same day.

Mother: Did you enjoy the game? (Suppression: intentionally avoiding thoughts that are uncomfortable)

Robert: Are you going to apologize?

Mother: It’s not like it was a landmark birthday like your 21st or 30th. (Intellectualization: focusing on objective details in an emotional situation).

Robert: You forgot both of those too. It really hurts my feelings when you do this. The mother and son bond is one that is too precious to be…

Mother: Don’t be so dramatic. I didn’t break your arm in an act of child abuse, I just forgot your birthday. What do you want me to do, say I’m the worst mother in the world? Shout it from the tree tops? “I’m the worst mother in the world!!!!!” Like that? (Regression: returning to a younger or more immature stage of life).

Robert: Just an apology would be fine.

Mother: Did anyone else forget?

Robert: No, just you. Everyone else remembered.

Mother: If anyone should feel guilty it’s you, giving me such a hard time about this. (Projection: attributing your own emotion to another person)

Robert: I think you are the one who feels guilty.

Mother: Alright, maybe a little.

Robert: Well I accept your apology if there is one.

Mother: Is there anything I can do to make it up to you? (Compensation: working harder to overcome real or imagined weaknesses).

Robert: Other than an apology? How about a Wii?

Mother: I don’t know what that is but it sounds expensive so how about a gift card? Your cousin gave me one for some store. Best Buy I think.

Robert: That’s how you’re making this up to me? Re-gifting?

Mother: I’ll mail it out whenever I get around to it. Oh and Happy Belated. Bye.

I assumed that the apology would never come. I got an email the next day, however:

‘Robert, you are a bright, special boy, and I will get that Wee [sic] game for your birthday because good children deserve good things like fudge and games and Pokemon. Please don’t be mad at me. Someday you will be successful.’

Her verbal skills have always surpassed her writing abilities. If I were eleven years old that email would have made my day. At 36 I think I’ll still take it, as I’m pretty sure I know what she means.