AA, Without the 12 Steps

By Hank Murphy 02/10/16

I took a few basic AA principles that helped me stop drinking and left step 3 through 11 behind. I found my own path to healing and so can you.

AA, Without the 12 Steps

The book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts by Gabor Maté quotes Dr. Bruce Perry, a senior fellow at the Child Trauma Academy in Houston, Texas, as follows on page 206: “A child who is stressed early in life will be more overactive and reactive. He is triggered more easily, is more anxious and distressed. Now, compare a person—child, adolescent or adult—whose baseline arousal is normal with another whose baseline state of arousal is at a higher level. Give them both alcohol: both may experience the same intoxicating effect, but the one who has this higher physiological arousal will have the added effect of feeling pleasure from the relief of that stress.” 

I mention this quote because it rings very true with me, because I lived it. I grew up in some pretty terrible violence which I will not go into here. But the end result was severe PTSD that was so bad, I would wake up screaming from nightmares, swinging my fists. That was in my early twenties. I also had severe depression related to trauma. Basically, I was a textbook case of an untreated trauma survivor. Like many before me, I found a medicine that helped me cope off and on for many years. The medicine was alcohol, and after a nine and a half year run of the equivalent of a fifth of vodka every night in my thirties, my health was being torn up so badly I realized this had to stop. 

But when trying to stop, my brain would obsess about alcohol and I would end up drinking. I am no scientist and will leave it to them to explain how the brain modulates its chemistry to balance out the presence of massive amounts of alcohol. But what I have read is that a phenomena develops where the brain adjusts its chemistry to the drugs and booze, and when the drugs and booze are not present, uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms develop. 

So it was at this point of tremendous discomfort while I was trying to stop drinking that I decided I would try AA. I did not understand how my brain had been affected. But I did know that trauma had played a major role in my life and I had many years of therapy to deal with that. I actually experienced healing from some of the trauma while I was still drinking. But the alcohol impacted my functioning and my health too much. The insanity had to stop.

I went to my first couple of AA meetings and saw the 12 steps on the wall and said to myself, “I am not interested in that stuff.” But I eventually did go through them with a sponsor just so I could say I did them in meetings, so that no one would share against me. 

What did I get from them, you may ask? Honestly, not much after step one and two. I think the first step is a valid tool where I got to take a look at the fact that alcohol was ruining my life and yet my brain was still demanding it. The "powerless" word is often debated in forums, but I will not go into that here. But step one as a principle was part of a journey of admitting abstinence was the healthy choice. 

Then we come to step two. It seems Bill Wilson stumbled upon a concept without knowing the mechanism behind it. That concept being that a power greater than ourselves can restore us to sanity. Now, there are many scientists studying the brain and addiction. There are theories about the limbic system being hijacked and dopamine levels being thrown into disorder. Once again, I am not a scientist, but I experienced the out of kilter chemistry in my head and it was scary.

When your brain is on the fritz, it's sending out powerful cravings to drink more alcohol while the alcohol is ruining your life. Perhaps one should look outside of the craving brain for help. I look at step two as looking outside my own brain for help, since my brain wants to keep the intoxicants coming in to regulate an insane chemical balance that is trying to avoid uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms.

Step two was a useful principle. In AA, the power greater than myself was the kind people that I met along my journey to sobriety. The people I would talk to for an hour after a meeting when my brain was screaming for a drink. The people that would come up to me after meetings and thank me for sharing honestly about the trauma issues that led me to drinking. The laughter over the absurd things we had done to ourselves trying to cope with our inner pain. There is a power greater than yourself sitting in a room with a bunch of people who have the common interest of recovering from substance abuse. There was nowhere else I could go on a daily basis and connect with a group like that. Those things were helpful and healing. 

This is where I diverge from the fundamentalists who say all the answers to life’s problems are in the steps. Or who make snide comments like that I sponsored myself, and who structure their lives around a way of living that was written by a man (Bill Wilson) who never did recover fully to a healthy way of living. I am not completely bashing Bill when I say this. We have to remember the times he lived in. There have been tremendous strides made in understanding the effects of child abuse, trauma and mental illness in contributing to addiction. But the first 164 pages of the AA Big Book has adopted none of the new info and remains stuck in 1939.

Men did not talk about how they felt inside in 1935. They sucked it up and held in their pain till the day they died. The documentary Wartorn on HBO is a prime example of this. Veterans of World War II who never talked to anyone about what they experienced are on the verge of tears when describing the terrifying experiences they had in the war. They had never talked to anyone about it until they were senior citizens. 

Also, there were no anti-depressant drugs available for Bill Wilson, and he suffered horribly from depression. I think if he were alive today, he would be a proponent of treating depression. So it was in that environment that many of his philosophies were developed. What are you going to do when you are crippled by depression and trying to stay alive? Maybe you would be praying as well. Or constantly chasing newcomers to engage in sex like he did for relief from inner torment. 

So now I am going to skip straight to step 12. The reason being that I do not use any of the other ones in my life. They are an adaptation of the Oxford Group religious principles, and I have no interest in living my life by its tenets, even if they are reworded. "Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs." 

The term "spiritual awakening" is referenced in the appendix of the Big Book and described as follows, “the personality change sufficient to bring about recovery from alcoholism has manifested itself among us in many different forms.” 

I will give you my version of this. I have become abstinent from alcohol for over seven years now. I had one hell of an addiction that was destroying my life. I can connect to someone else with the same problem and let them know it is possible to stop, and tell them how I did it. Here are a few rules that have saved me grief in AA. 

1. Realize that when you walk into an AA meeting for the first time, that the fellowship is not a safe place. It is not a good place to share out loud horrible things that happened to you that you have never told anyone. Some tremendously sick individual may share against you angrily saying, “this is not a therapy session,” thus wounding you further.

2. An AA meeting is not the place to share against the steps. The reason being is that the true believers will start to share against you, and if you are newly sober and fragile, it really is not good to be attacked by them. I tended to say things like, “god did not come down from heaven and strike me sober,” or “Bill Wilson does not run my life,” to keep my individuality. You will meet like-minded people as well. You will be surprised by the divergent opinions going on behind the scenes in AA. Many in my area are not devotees of the book written in 1939. I have one friend sober since 1971 who says, “they should throw away the steps and start from scratch.” He says there was a "question everything" attitude in the meetings in the Seventies.

3. It is okay to stand in silence when members pray at the end of the meeting. I am not Christian so I do not like saying the Lord's Prayer. I never say the third step prayer. However, I am okay with the serenity prayer. It is simple advice and AA has no monopoly on it. 

4. Watch out for people who want to get overly involved in your life. There are people that go to AA meetings to get the heat off and find someone to manipulate for their gain while having no intention of getting sober. If someone is trying to get you to be their roommate when you are new, watch out. I fell for this and moved in with a sociopath who had no intentions of stopping drinking. He was violent and socked his girlfriend in the face while blacked out, and threw food all over the counters when drunk. One time, I poured out three half-gallon bottles of whiskey in one day while he was on a run. He had not left the house and was buying the crap by the case. He just kept coming out of his room with a new bottle as the day went on. 

5. There are some very sick people that will try to sponsor you and start telling you how to live your life. Do not get involved with them. Run for the hills. No one has the right to tell you how to live, especially when their only qualification is they stopped drinking. 

6. It is okay to share about your life in a general way, and you will meet some nice people that will come up to you after the meeting. I talked about trauma issues that related to my addiction and met a lot of people that way. I did not put up with any cross-sharing sick members that tried to comment on my life. But bear in mind, I had a ten year relationship with a therapist prior to getting sober and I had healed a lot of symptoms. Thus, I had the strength to stand up to bullies that tried to share against me. If you are newly sober and torn up by addiction and past issues you have never dealt with, use your energy for your own healing and do not waste it fighting with sick people in AA meetings. 

AA is not the great panacea that solved all my ills. I do not think I ever would have gotten sober if I had not had therapy. The level of unresolved pain I was dealing with in the Nineties was off the charts. Alcohol helped numb that for some years, but like all addictions, there is a massive price to pay. The healthier you get, the less willing you become to pay that price, even when you are under tremendous stress and a euphoric thought of getting loaded passes through your brain.

The steps, in my opinion, were going to do nothing about my trauma issues. I do not think it is healthy to do a moral inventory and then look at your part when you are dealing with trauma or abuse issues. Also, let's face it. The steps' remedy for all these things is praying for things to be removed. My experience is that healing is a very long journey. You do not get instantaneously fixed. 

Getting treatment for depression was instrumental as well. Anti-depressants do not work when you are getting loaded all the time. That is why I do not mess around with substances. I want to live and do not want to risk playing games with my brain chemistry and going back into the darkness of addiction. 

I read the Big Book from cover to cover and explored many others opinions on the subject online and in person. I had to listen to the inner voice that said, I do not believe in the 12 steps. So I took a few basic principles that helped me stop drinking and I left step 3 through 11 behind. I found my own path to healing and so can you. 

I stop into a meeting here and there to see friends. I get to reflect on how I recovered from the madness of addiction, and perhaps offer a kind word to someone trying to find their way. But I have to admit, the constant talk about the steps being the great tool of healing annoys me. 

I have learned a lot in my twenty-year journey towards healing. I found out that healing is not an event, nor is it a linear journey where I keep getting better. There were detours along the way. There was debilitating, crushing grief and the mistake of trying to numb pain with alcohol and drugs. 

But what I found was that once I became conscious of my inner world and wounds, I embarked on a journey that kept on going to healing new and deeper levels of damage that I did not even see as a young man back in the 1990s. I stopped being dissociated from my inner voice that had always been there, buried deep under a mountain of trauma, and became a conscious human being. It was beautiful and it continues to deepen. You can find your own way toward that experience as well. 

Lao Tzu said, “the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” I encourage anyone struggling with addiction and unresolved pain to take that first step and have their own personalized healing journey. You may look back one day and be surprised by where it led you.

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