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What They Say in AA

AA old-timers like to share a treasure trove of opinions—some which could be interpreted quite negatively. Here are some that could be seriously daunting—or even dangerously discouraging—to newcomers.

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By Laura Vogel

10/21/11

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1) Saying: “After five years you get your marbles back. After 10, you know how to use ’em.”

Why I Don’t Like It: Many newcomers can’t fathom 10 days (or minutes) without a drink. To set recovery up as a 10-year process—to get a minimum of sanity—is ridiculously negative.

Further analysis: It’s true that your brain, spirit and body need time to bounce back from years of substance abuse and that people with five or more years are, statistically speaking, more likely to stay sober. But it’s foolhardy to rely on absolutes when the program is made up of individual people having their own experiences.

2) Saying: “Behind every skirt is a slip; behind every zip is a slip.”

Why I Don’t Like It: It’s so sweeping and universal that it’s almost meaningless. The reality is, people in recovery do have sex and it does not necessarily mean they’ll relapse.

Further analysis: Most agree that it’s not a good idea to mix the business of staying sober with the pleasure of sex—especially in the first year. It’s particularly thorny to date someone in your regular meeting because if it goes south, you may be tempted to skip meetings that you know that person attends. Yet it’s worth noting that in the Twelve & Twelve (Bill Wilson’s extended version of the 12 steps), Wilson raves about the potential for love partnerships in AA, writing, “On the whole, these marriages are very good ones.” 

To set recovery up as a 10-year process—to get a minimum of sanity—is ridiculously negative.

3) Saying: “Don’t make any big changes in your first year or you’ll drink.”

Why I Don’t Like It: For one, ceasing drinking or using is a huge change and will, in most people’s lives, engender some big (generally positive) other changes. In fact, the Big Book promises that “our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change.” In other words, if you’re a barfly, you probably should change where you hang out and the people you surround yourself with. If you’re in a horrible relationship, you should most likely get out. If an amazing job opportunity comes along, especially in this economy, you ought to consider taking it. If you live in a hovel that was always booze central, consider moving. I’ve long thought the “no change” idea was silly. I made a ton of changes—all for the better—in early sobriety and didn’t drink.

Further Analysis: Change is lauded in all of the seminal AA literature, so the negative spin on it is likely the creation of an overzealous sponsor or two who spoke authoritatively enough about it until it got passed down as “wisdom.”

4) Saying: “A lot of people go out when they’re working on their fourth step.”

Why I Don’t Like It: There are variations on this one—“I’m working on my fourth step so I’m miserable,” “My fourth step is the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” etc.— but the fact is that the fourth step, to many, is the path to freedom. If you’re ready to face all those old demons, there is no way Step Four will endanger your sobriety. Plenty of people are excited to catalogue their various resentments and have been waiting their entire lives for someone who will actually sit and listen to the entire damn list. And look, no one’s life was made worse because they did a fourth step.

Further Analysis: Whether it started because of someone who was rushed through a fourth step by a drill sergeant sponsor or because procrastination—a common alcoholic defect—causes people to try to come up with excuses or simply because alcoholics tend to like to complain, one thing is for certain: it’s almost never said by people who have actually done the step.

5) Saying: “Pain is the touchstone of spiritual growth.”

Why I Don’t Like It: I have heard this over and over and over and it always rankles. Pain is, sometimes, just pain. It hurts, it’s not fun, and most of it is best avoided. Sure, doing step work and being honest with yourself can be a bit painful at times, but to set up an expectation that all pain is good strikes me as BS. For me, it harkens back to the tough-guy roots of AA. If you break your leg, would someone tell you that it’ll deliver spiritual growth?

Further Analysis: I have to assume that it originated because of the natural human instinct to want to feel that everything “means something” and that even pain is positive.

6) Saying: “You know you’ll be back, so why don’t you just stay?”

Why I Don’t Like It: It encapsulates the silly, blame-the-victim, tough-guy attitudes of the worst AA nostrums.

Further Analysis: People relapse, true; it’s part of the process of recovery. But to set up a paradigm that people choose when to go out is ridiculous.

7) Saying: “Expectations are resentments waiting to happen.”

Why I Don’t Like It: This one always baffled me. I expect to keep working a program of recovery and that my life will continue to improve because I have faith in a power greater than myself, and this “expectation” is shared by many in recovery. How could that possibly become a resentment? Sure, some people in early sobriety might have wild expectations of a glittering new life and may get a little bitter when they find out that their new lives have nearly as many problems as their old ones. But will it create a resentment? To me, this saying throws a wet blanket on hope—a crucial element of recovery.

Further Analysis: We addicts do tend to rely on outside circumstances for happiness and are often so extreme in our thinking that we can find ourselves expecting say, for a project or an accomplishment to be a massive success, a date to be the love of our life, or a friend to be a life-saver; this is surely meant to save us from being shattered if it doesn’t pan out that way.

8) “If you take antidepressants, you’re not sober.”

Why I Don’t Like It: Simply put, some people have chemical imbalances that would make recovery—or any kind of “normal” life—impossible if not treated with medication. Sober addicts, no matter how much time they have, are not doctors, and they should not be spouting absolutes about medication that could, potentially, save people’s lives. If someone in recovery is scrupulously honest with themselves and their doctor and aren’t abusing their meds, they’re clean.

Further Analysis: AA literature is pretty clear about advising people in recovery not to turn to tranquilizers and sleeping pills instead of alcohol. However, modern antidepressants don’t carry the danger of addiction or the possibility of getting high.

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