Lisa Simpson, Coffee Pots, and AA

By Beth Burgess 04/07/19
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“Prayer is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” I believe Lisa Simpson said that. When people have reached a point of extreme suffering, a Road to Damascus moment is not uncommon.

Many alcoholics who have reached the very depths of their drinking make the decision to try something that they might not otherwise consider to save themselves. Having possibly tried other methods, Alcoholics Anonymous is often a last-ditch effort to get off the drink for good, especially if the apparently religious aspects of the program have always been a turn-off.

When you join AA, it is suggested that you find a God (“of your understanding” has been helpfully tacked on these days) and pray for all you are worth. You must pray for a sober day, and for the removal of your shortcomings. You must pray to “improve your conscious contact” with this God. You must pray for knowledge of His “will” for you and then for '”the power to carry that out”.

And if you don't believe in a God? Well, it's usually suggested that you pray for the willingness to believe in one, whether it's an almighty being, the wind in the trees, or a coffee pot. It doesn't matter too much as long as you have one.

And when people recover within AA, of course, most ascribe that recovery to their God or Higher Power. Which seems a bit bonkers really, particularly if you're an atheist or have been believing in a coffee pot all this time. After all, does a coffee pot have a “will” (other than, perhaps, to make a fine brew)? And is it likely to intervene in your life or remove your shortcomings? I don’t know about you, but my coffee pot hasn’t done a thing for me lately.

No-one Cares Why AA Works

The Big Book of AA has a particularly revered section among the faithful called “How It Works”, which outlines the Steps that are deemed necessary to recover from alcoholism. But there is no section on why it works. Bizarrely, very few AAers I have met seem to care much about that. They seem happy to ascribe their recovery to a miracle, to some instructions laid out in the 1930s, or indeed to a cafetière.

This is all very well and good if AA’s methods have helped you to recover in a healthy, solid way. But what about those poor souls who spend years going in and out of the rooms, relapsing over and over again because, apparently, they don't “get it”?

Usually, recidivists are told to pray some more, perhaps find a new sponsor, or work harder at the Steps. Oh, and pray some more too for good measure. I have never heard anyone suggest that you might want to change your Higher Power to something with more agency than a coffee pot, a doorknob, Lisa Simpson, Elvis Presley, (yes, I've heard them all) or whatever completely impotent object an atheist or agnostic is forced to choose as a God.

I believe that struggling alcoholics should be told exactly how and why the recovery process works. Because if you cast aside the mystique, the pantomime affirmations, and the archaic traditions, there is a very real reason why AA works for some. And, deep down, it has nothing to do with miracles, prayer, or coffee pots.

Why AA Works

There are four major elements that are necessary for recovery to begin. The first is being totally and utterly honest about your alcoholism, laying aside all denial or belief that you can cope with your disorder. Take a bow Step One.

The second is getting “held” in sobriety for a period of time so that you have a clear enough head to be able to work on recovery. Step forward a fellowship of people who understand your feelings, who do not judge your disorder, who will listen without criticism to your dilemmas, and who will cheerlead you through those first broken and confusing months of being sober.

Thirdly is the need to commit to putting your recovery first – above all else in your life. Thank you 90 meetings in 90 days; thank you service commitments; thank you chairs and sharers who remind alcoholics of the perils of their disorder and the need to constantly be vigilant and work on becoming better, no matter what.

The fourth and final piece of the recovery puzzle is to change your thinking. This is one of the most crucial parts of ensuring a lasting recovery, because learning critical thinking skills and thinking less negatively means you will cope with life in a more positive way – and you will be far less likely to pick up a drink.

AA is set up in a way that teaches you to be less selfish, less wilful, less self-concerned, and less angry. The structure of AA nurtures alcoholics. It gives them a sense of belonging, of mattering, of having a meaningful and positive role to play in others’ lives.

The Steps teach you integrity, honesty, taking personal responsibility, a sense of perspective, courage, altruism, how to stop negative patterns, and a better way of dealing with life. Far from shrouding these lessons in some esoteric code, we should be celebrating the Steps for their power as a behavioral therapy; because that's exactly what they are.

And what about the praying thing? How and why does that work? It's about helping you to understand that there is meaning in your life, even if maybe you don't understand it yet. It’s about making you see that there is a bigger picture after all. That's why it works, if it does, for people who are not religious.

The Responsibility of Sponsors

I think that AA and its members would benefit greatly from being clear about what the fellowship can be at its finest. It should be supportive, positive and therapeutic; not some secret, shame-based, quasi-religious sect. It’s not as if addicts need a higher dose of feeling guilty, weak and ashamed, or any more barriers to seeking help, such as the lack of understanding of what AA actually is.

I wish some of the more over-zealous sponsors would realize how great their responsibility is, and proceed sensibly and sensitively, rather than being hampered by a “Higher Power” blindfold, calling things “miracles”, or warning members they will die if they leave AA or abandon the Steps.

Why not stop using rhetoric, such as suggesting that following the program will give you "a life beyond your wildest dreams"? AA's "Promises" would be much more credible if they toned down the language and instead talked about the freedom and fulfillment an alcoholic can achieve in recovery.

Life does become more meaningful when you're in recovery. Your world opens up and things you could never have done when drunk are achievable. You can become the person you want to be and connect with the world in a way you never could before – and it's nothing to do God, or with coffee pots for that matter (unless coffee-making happens to be your service commitment). It's really about finding a healthier way to think, to behave, and to respond to life and other people. It's about getting your self-esteem back, so you can build a better life.

If alcoholics actually had an understanding of the logic of the program, I believe that more would be willing to give AA a fair chance. I gave it a go myself, but left soon after my sponsor insisted that I say the Step Three prayer using the word “God” when I’m a confirmed atheist. If my sponsor had only understood that she just needed to show me a bigger, more meaningful world than the one of my alcoholism, rather than forcing me to pray to something I don’t believe in, AA might not have lost me as a member.

Thankfully, AA is not the only way, and I found recovery through other means. But I do credit my early sobriety to the wonderful people I met in AA who “held” me and hugged me when I was a wreck, and who were always willing to have a chat as I poured them their coffee.

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