‘All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way’ is the beginning statement in Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, acclaimed the best novel ever written.
This statement does not seem to hold in the case of alcoholics. Reading their stories, a striking pattern quickly emerges. Similar vows, similar failures, similar vows again, similar failures again until they reach their wit’s end and they welcome death, only that the grim reaper also seems to delight in their misery and refuses to usher them in the rest and quiet of the grave.
After becoming complete wash-outs, licked and kicked by alcohol, most of them are willing to take their own lives, yet cannot master the courage to do so. Happily for some, these seeds of failure and defeat eventually grow to majestic trees of success and victory through an incredible program that is as simple as it is successful.
Take the case of Paul. At 39 years, he considers his life useless. He has nothing to his name. No job; no family; no money. No purpose for living either. His health is wasted. Once weighing 130 pounds with clear eyes and radiant face, he now walks; no-, wobbles like a shadow with no weight or gait. His health is gone. Distant, vacant eyes and a gaunt, wasted frame has come to define a man who was once a picture of health.
Nothing in his early life in Baltimore could have given a hint of his alcoholic future. Paul’s father was a physician and a grain merchant and while both parents drunk, neither was an alcoholic. By local standards, they were well off. He went to more than average schools though his academic accomplishments were very average. In a strict Christian High School where they were having Bible readings before each meal and four church services every Sunday, the rules started to annoy him and he developed terrific aversion to all things religious. He made a vow, solemn and serious; ‘I will never join or go to any church except for weddings or funerals.’
In the unrestrained atmosphere of a University, he would eventually have his first drink. ‘I still remember it to date. I could feel it go right through every bit of my body and down to my very toes.’ But each drink after the first seemed to become less effective and after three or four they all seemed like water. That very first night, he blacked out! This habit of drinking alcohol assumed a steadily frequent pattern.
Needless to say, his grades were trailing in the dust. In order to avoid expulsion on academic grounds, he decided to be patriotic and joined the army. Coincidentally, it was the time of the First World War. However, because he was rarely sober, his contribution to the collective war effort was decidedly negative. The bells and whistles for ceasefire in 1918 found him lying down in a French alley, in torn, dirty clothes; unshaven and unkempt.
Back in America, he got as many jobs as he lost. He had stints in prison and in hospitals; in asylums and in safe houses. Every time he drunk, he blacked out. He started to get tired of his drinking, afraid to take a bottle, yet unable to resist a bottle. He prayed that he would go to bed and not wake up again. Yet at this point he could not sleep but after drowning in alcohol; body soaked in cold sweat; mind tortured by cold fear.
He reached a point where He was willing to do anything to leave alcohol, even if it meant living with wild animals in the jungles of Africa. Then somebody, no, an angel sent by God, introduced him to the group Alcoholic Anonymous. For all the sober years subsequent, he never took a bottle of alcohol nor desired one.
The U.S. Surgeon General states in a 2016 report on addiction that ‘Well-supported scientific evidence demonstrates the effectiveness’ of the program of Alcoholics Anonymous. Yet how do they achieve it? It is simple yet very profound.
I will not go into the minutiae of analyzing their twelve-step program. You may just google it. I will instead address aspects that really struck me.
First, they require a solid acknowledgement by the alcoholic that he is an alcoholic and therefore he is unable, of his own resources and will-power, to control his drinking. This is remarkably similar to the human situation. The first step in the re-birth and restoration process is the acknowledgement that we are sinners and our self-recovery efforts to change our characters are unavailing.
Seamlessly proceeding from this premise, is the realization and acknowledgment that a higher power, outside of himself, is the one who can help the alcoholic. This is a fundamental stage in the recovery plan of Alcoholic Anonymous. Quite expectedly, this is where many stumble. All their lives they have rejected the idea of God, how will they return to it now? Yet, since they really do not have a choice, they are willing to try this God idea; to test it if it holds true for them.
With tearful eyes, some remember their spiritual upbringing and many utter their first prayer in their lives which often-times is not in a carefully worded format but a quiet, desperate groan. Members of Alcoholic Anonymous are impressed upon not to venture into sectarian disputes at this stage like which church to go to or which denomination to follow. Instead, alcoholics are encouraged to try the idea of God as they understand him. What a lesson to believers! We all remember the words of Philip in answer to the questionings of prejudice: ‘Come and see.’ As a matter of fact, members of Alcoholic Anonymous have one cardinal rule; don’t argue.
The next one is deep and profound. Quitting alcohol is one thing. Staying sober is another. Recovering alcoholics are warned that they will only stay sober if they work to save other drowning alcoholics and bring them to the Alcoholic Anonymous program. With this, they are initiated into a life of service. They call doctors and visit asylums in search of those who want to end the drinking habit. Compare this to the Christian situation and the importance of service. We are told that ‘truth that is not lived, that is not imparted, loses its life-giving power, its healing virtue.’1 It is John Knox, the 16th century Scottish reformer, who made the famous prayer; ‘God give me Scotland or I die.’ I have always viewed this prayer as somewhat extreme; I suspect many others have had the same attitude. However, it may well just be true, that without active Christian service, we rot and die. Consider these two lines from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Ulysses:
How dull it is to pause, to make an end,
To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!
Then finally members of Alcoholics Anonymous are encouraged to take daily inventory of their feelings. It looks like resentment, anger, fear, anxiety, worries and hate predisposes one to alcoholism. They are told not to harbor feelings of resentments even against those who do them manifest wrongs but to handle them as sick people who should be pitied; not pilloried. How true of the spiritual life as well! The Bible says a man is the product of his thoughts. How important is it to guard our thoughts then! As James Allen writes in his book As a Man Thinketh, ‘Man is made or unmade by himself; in the armory of thought he forges the weapons by which he destroys himself; he also fashions the tools with which he builds for himself heavenly mansions of joy and strength and peace.’
Surely, the program of Alcoholics Anonymous is a treasure-trove if we are to live spiritually sober lives!