A Lifelong Liberal Walks Out of a Bar
How Alcoholics Anonymous Affected My Politics
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Throughout my adolescent and early adult years, I was a liberal political stereotype. Born and raised in the deeply Democratic Northeast, I attended New York University's School of Journalism, whose faculty oversaw a particularly liberal arm of an already strongly left-leaning student body. Upon graduating in 2001, I moved to one of Brooklyn's latte-laden enclaves and began a nearly 10-year career as a public relations professional for a Manhattan public relations firm specializing in travel and leisure, an industry whose target audience - travel writers - are quite familiar with Birkenstocks and granola. If you're looking for a Vegan's Guide to South Florida, I'm your man.
I was, to a tremendous degree, politically sheltered. In a city where Democrats already outnumber Republicans nearly 6 to 1, my world had been exponentially more insular. A black-and-white view toward recent history helped justify my dismissal of all things conservative: Under Democratic President Bill Clinton, the United States had enjoyed a spectacular peacetime economic boom and, in the wake of the USSR's collapse, had emerged as the world's lone superpower. His Republican successor, meanwhile, had overseen a recession, used the 9/11 terrorist attacks as an excuse to start an unwarranted, unnecessary war in Iraq, then revealed how little underprivileged minorities meant to him through the appalling federal response to Hurricane Katrina.
Even worse in my eyes: George W. Bush was an intellectually incurious idiot and, by association, I assumed anyone who voted for him shared many of these same unattractive traits. And as I was, of course, an ardent atheist who despised religion's sheep-herding hypocrisies, it was all the more convenient to dismiss this evangelical President and his CINO (Christian in Name Only) supporters as Bible-thumping, jump-for-Jesus rubes. Screw 'em, I reasoned. Their close-mindedness had led to my own.
By coincidence, the Bush years were as troubling personally as they were publicly. In 2001, shortly after Dubya took office, I graduated NYU and entered the real world. Life looked promising: I had a sturdy job with upward mobility potential, and was dating the woman I would eventually marry. Amidst Brooklyn's burgeoning bar and restaurant scene, I was content in my semi-hipsterhood.
And then it all started falling apart.
A complete rehash of the ensuing difficult decade would be too lengthy for the purposes of this article (click HERE for my expanded background). Suffice it to say that decades of anxiety and depression – punctuated by a two-year period in my early 20s when, inexplicably to a team of medical specialists, my eyesight deteriorated from 20/20 to as low as 20/60; a nervous breakdown that led to hospitalization a few years later; and, finally, three years of sharply spiraling, low-bottom alcoholism – all led to October 10, 2011: the first day of my current and unprecedented tenure of continuous sobriety through the Fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous.
The Apolitical Politics of Sobriety
Officially, as stated at most AA meetings, Alcoholics Anonymous “is not allied with any sect, denomination, politics, organization or institution, does not wish to engage in any controversy, and neither endorses nor opposes any causes.” In practice, however, a program where roomfuls of people openly claim to have had their obsession to drink removed by a Higher Power presents a real problem for my brand of unbending, fiercely secular politics. True to the atheist liberal elite caricature I embodied, my cocksuredness at the non-existence of deities conflicted – seemingly irreparably – with the claims of this surreal set of strangers insisting that God had done for them what they could never do for themselves: release them from alcohol’s deathgrip.
I now realize that this Almighty acrimony, rooted in my condescending, dismissive liberalism, made my ultimate alcoholic bottom – lowlighted by inpatient rehab, a wife considering divorce and cameos before judges on both sides of the Hudson River – worse than it otherwise would have been. At the inception of my now nearly three years of sobriety, the Higher Power issue was still a near-nonstarter; this time, though, I was desperate enough to put an agnostic pin in that celestial conversation.
To the desperate newcomer, Alcoholics Anonymous is a subjugating subculture. Faced with indisputable evidence that, despite countless, often drastic attempts, I simply could not stop drinking on my own, I clung to the last life-raft rather than drown in a sea of (increasingly cheap) beer. The raft’s occupants didn’t matter. I was, through sheer self-preservation, a wholly captive audience.
I went all in on AA. As a novice, that meant suiting up, showing up and, most importantly, shutting up. And the more my mouth stayed reluctantly closed, my mind creaked cautiously open and, slowly, I learned a sober lifestyle from a group of former fall-down drunks. I heard people impossibly put into words the types of insane urges to drink - despite their full knowledge of the inevitable, destructive consequences - that I had thought were so tragically unique to me. I heard tales of people as varied as society at large overcome the endless list of catastrophes cast by our common affliction. I heard people far less intelligent than I (wasn't everybody?) speak of accruing wisdom by using the principles ingrained in the 12 steps - humility and selflessness, forgiveness and fortitude - not only to get sober, but stay sober.
Most shocking of all: While accompanying my new sober friends to post-meeting meals at diners and weekend-long group retreats, I heard people I knew for a fact were Republicans speak sincerely and sensibly about not only their views on sobriety but on politics as well. And together, in recovery, we made more bipartisan progress in mere months than Washington, D.C. has in decades.
Spoiler alert: I'm still very much a Democrat. But in terms of affecting my personal politics, AA has done far more than force me into a room - one where leaving means drinking, and drinking means death - with my conservative counterparts. Through the foundation of respect I automatically afford fellow recovering alcoholics, I no longer instantly dismiss that with which I do not entirely agree. And on certain issues where practical politics and sound sobriety intersect, I've come closer to the center of the aisle than I ever imagined I would.
A Hard Truth about Hard Work
For example, I had always found the prevailing Republican antipathy toward extensive social safety nets - the so-called bootstrapping outlook that calls for each person to stand on his own two feet - overly simplistic and patently selfish. "Everyone wishes they could be self-sustaining," I would argue, "but many simply cannot be."
That is, of course, true to an extent. Some people inherit or fall into such dire circumstances that public assistance is morally imperative. However, experience in recovery has shown me that it isn't necessarily the people who need AA that stay sober. It is, rather, those who want it, and are willing to go to discomforting, disruptive and altogether thorough lengths to attain its life-saving rewards.
We call it "working the program" for a reason, and the simple truth is this: some people just aren't willing to work hard. I did not come to this position lightly; it has been ingrained gradually by witnessing countless desperate newcomers choose complacency over commitment and, in the process, destruction over salvation. They may hang around a few meetings and see if some sobriety rubs off, but won't do the sort of humbling heavy lifting - getting a sponsor, making the coffee, learning and living the 12 steps - required to recover and thrive.
Quite literally, then, I've seen people choose death over life with hard work as the deal breaker. They want drive-thru sobriety. Instead they get drive-thru drunk and, sometimes, drive-thru dead.
Seeing this sad scene bear countless sequels has made me reconsider my liberally lenient outlook on social safety nets. I had been assuming that, by and large, people can't do what it takes to be independent. I now know that many - not all, not most, but many - simply won't.
I used to blindly support the expansion of our welfare state - punctuated, most recently, by Democratic demands for seemingly endless unemployment benefits - because I deemed them compatible with brotherly-love socialism. Through AA, I've come to understand that no man can infuse a comrade with the enthusiasm necessary to save himself. Each person must be willing to work harder than they ever have in their lives and, in cases where this depth of dedication is lacking, the only true motivator is desperation. Disincentivizing that desperation is akin to enabling it, and is wholly counter-productive. What I once derided as cold-hearted I now derive to be common sense.
My mindset regarding the possibility of a God also has evolved. I realize, of course, that religion is not Republican policy per se; but for many with my background and general age - 30-somethings whose political views were shaped during the encroaching evangelicalism and notorious non-sophistication of George W. Bush - the GOP and G-O-D go hand-in-holy water.
AA slowly punctured my God guard via its 12 steps. Step One insisted that I admit my utter powerlessness over alcohol, and that my life had become unmanageable; both were exceedingly obvious. Step Two then asked me to believe that a power greater than myself could restore me to sanity. Far from a leap of faith, this, too, was readily apparent: here was a group of people once enslaved to bottles of booze and bags of whatever else, and who now were not. Alone they suffered active addiction; together they enjoyed active recovery. The group itself had an intangible greater than the sum of its parts and, ergo, a power greater than each individual. Checkmark on Step Two.
Step Three was more daunting: I was asked to turn my will and my life over to the care of God as I understood Him (yes, those four words are actually underlined in the official 12 steps). My initial mistake - one oft-repeated by those of my political bend - was letting my antipathy for traditional religion interfere with my personal journey of spirituality. I was also intimidated by the apparent certainty of others' conceptions of God (typically the Judeo-Christian white-bearded, sandals-clad old man on a cloud) and, reactively rather than honestly, I responded by trying to short-order an iron-clad divinity of my own.
Less than three years later, I currently enjoy a comfortable relationship with a God of my misunderstanding. I think it unlikely that any one person can fully know exactly what God is. Conversely, he also cannot know with certainty that God is non-existent. I now find atheism as arrogant as excessive Bible-thumping.
I also have gained respect for more traditional concepts of religion. This is because the Christians I've befriended in Alcoholics Anonymous actually follow the teachings of Christ. One reason for this, I believe, is that the 12 steps have mostly purged their Christianity of the largely political impurities of the modern-day Church, such as the supposed inferiority of gays, women and non-Christians. Pure Christianity, I've learned, has no political party and, besides, I think JC would have voted Democrat.
Contradictory Convictions Leave No Room for Tea
The newfound political open-mindedness AA has brought me does not, however, extend to the Tea Party. In fact, sobriety has made me all the more virulently opposed to its core tenets. Alcoholics Anonymous has no room - and, wonderfully, no tolerance - for discrimination based on race, gender or sexual orientation.
Recovery through AA is the communal counteraction of a common chronic disease, a group therapy-delivered medicine whose active ingredient is identification with fellow former sufferers. The result is a binding empathy that runs countercurrent to the steady stream of disgusting bigotry espoused by Tea Partiers. And denying science-based facts like climate change and evolution? It would take more than the 12 Steps to undo that level of insanity. Sobriety can't cure stupidity.
Of course, Tea Party ex-problem drinkers do indeed exist. Alcoholics Anonymous has over one million members in the United States, meaning its meetings are representative of society at large. I have encountered several Tea Party-affiliated recovering alcoholics - a phrase that, on its face, is oxymoronic. I don't understand how they marry their politics with AA principles and, quite frankly, do not wish to. AA has made me less tolerant of intolerance, not more.
I can, however, tolerate the possibility of changed perceptions and altered beliefs - even ones as deeply rooted and selectively reinforced as my political views once were. It took nothing short of naked survival instinct to allow for this; this is, I think, both a symbol and sign of our dramatically divided democracy.
In Washington, bipartisan private lunches, golf outings and retreats have yielded nothing in the way of national progress. In a twist on these awkward attempts at healing, perhaps our country would be best served if Democrats and Republicans had a beer together. Then another one, and another one, and another 20. Enough, eventually, that they had an intervention rather than a bar fight. I'd not drink to that.
Christopher Dale is a recovering alcoholic and freelance writer who frequently covers recovery-based issues. He is the founder and sole contributor to www.ImperfectMessenger.us, a blog which, in addition to topics surrounding sobriety, also discusses politics and social issues.