By Ingrid Mathieu, Ph.D.
Is recovery in today’s AA supportive of cultivating a personal and authentic identity or in some way limiting these? Is a person’s recovery allowing the full breadth of human experience or is a bypass occurring that precludes some of the earthier nuances that might play a key role in someone’s life? If pain is the touchstone to spiritual growth, are we tolerant of the sort of painful conditions that might foster such development?
When you read about Bill [Wilson], there is no doubt that he was a real person, with all the shortcomings and difficulties that any of us have, before and after he got sober. The one true change for Bill was that he stayed sober. The truth is that if Bill had kept drinking, he surely would have been permanently jailed or hospitalized, or died an early death. This is where that saying comes from in AA, that alcoholics are bound for “jails, institutions, or death.” Prior to recovery, Bill had truly reached the end of the line. Sobriety alone was the gift.
When you read about the advanced levels of alcoholism that the early members of AA were experiencing, it is clear that they were all at a very low bottom. They could not stop drinking and had lost everything. Perhaps the expectation that recovery should equal a “perfect health” can be linked with the arrival of “higher-bottom” alcoholics becoming sober. In other words, alcoholics with a high bottom expected a shift of equal magnitude in their own lives to what they witnessed for “low-bottom” alcoholics. The early AA stories were miraculous. Bill was putting the mattress on the bottom floor of his home so that he wouldn’t jump out the window at night. For him to become sober after all he had been through was truly astounding. Who doesn’t want to experience such extraordinary transformation? Perhaps sobriety alone doesn’t allow such dramatic shifts.
Another reason some might believe that sobriety equals transcendence is simply wishful thinking. Just as some of the early AA members shamed Bill for his depression and for not diligently working the Steps (presumably in the hope that they would be immune to such misery as long as they were doing the “work”), this same phenomenon occurs in Twelve Step programs today. People display shadow aspects that repel us, so we tell ourselves that could never happen to us. We create rules to live by that keep us “right,” follow them to the letter of the law, and cast out anyone who believes or does it differently.
It is a sad truth that many of us lack compassion for others who don’t see it the same as we do or who have a different experience. It is terrifying to think that we, too, could suffer a debilitating depression, that we could lose our house, or that a spouse could cheat. So we imagine our way of navigating the world will keep us safe from such things. AA members’ individual makeup, coupled with a predilection for good stories with happy endings, can lead to a preference for principles that support what one wants to know. This has colored the way in which some people see their fellow AA members, even the co-founder of the program.
Bill’s upswing in sobriety was clearly remarkable in that it led to Alcoholics Anonymous. However, he never quit smoking cigarettes, even after developing emphysema. In some circles, he was considered a womanizer who was unfaithful to his wife. He had an insatiable need for approval, and people who knew him well did not associate him with the word serenity. He struggled with insecurity and self-doubt throughout his sobriety. He was homeless for two years in recovery, having moved fifty-four times. Bill did not transcend the human condition, but he did stay sober.
He wanted people to know this distinction—between striving for spiritual enlightenment and achieving it. Much of AA was based on the Oxford Group, a Christian evangelical movement dedicated to absolute honesty, purity, unselfishness, and love; however, Bill wanted to retain the principles without the “absolutes.” He knew that ideals were perfect and that human beings were not. He broke away from the Oxford Group for many reasons that allude to “progress, not perfection.” Bill didn’t want to tell people what to do or what to believe. He strove for inclusivity and never wanted to alienate a potential AA member.
While the intention of “principles before personalities” in AA is to retain the principles without diluting them and to welcome anyone into the program regardless of his or her personality, perhaps the downside to teasing out the personality from Bill’s story was that it created an illusion of perfection. Hearing about the principles in a “general way” can mystify people who are only hearing about the “solution” in Twelve Step meetings. The Traditions that were designed to uphold the program can unintentionally set unattainable standards for members. Putting principles first can work, as long as people in recovery can simultaneously honor their own personal experience. This was Bill’s hope. He knew that recovery did not equal immunity—from further investigation, from the trials that life can bring, or from the underlying personality and psychological issues that were there before he got sober. Recovery allowed him to face these things consciously, courageously, and imperfectly.