Monday, June 7, 2010

The First Step: Surrender

"We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable."

So: what's happening here, anyway? It seems simple enough, doesn't it? The process involves an admission - and that word implies that there is some reluctance involved, I think, or some difficulty in arriving at this statement - of one's inability to control one's drinking, and a recognition of the reality of the utter mess one's life has become. And at this point I think I need to discuss something that underlies the way this Step is constructed: the concept of "denial" (something that's discussed in A.A. meetings all the time, but is not defined very well and is sometimes - in my own opinion - merely a sort of folk-wisdom bit of rationalization that's designed to cover a multitude of sins).

"Denial" is used in several different ways. In one case, it refers to the inability of the active alcoholic to see himself clearly; it seems to mean that the alcoholic doesn't recognize himself as an alcoholic, and refuses to acknowledge the damage that drinking is causing in his life. In another case, it refers to a particular "mental block" around alcohol and drinking - a sort of "blackout of reason" when the alcoholic considers having a drink even when she acknowledges her own alcoholism. This second usage is best illustrated by two examples from the book "Alcoholics Anonymous." First, this:
What sort of thinking dominates an alcoholic who repeats time after time the desperate experiment of the first drink? Friends who have reasoned with him after a spree which has brought him to the point of divorce or bankruptcy are mystified when he walks directly into a saloon. Why does he? Of what is he thinking?

Our first example is a friend we shall call Jim. This man has a charming wife and family. He inherited a lucrative automobile agency. He had a commendable World War record. He is a good salesman. Everybody likes him. He is an intelligent man, normal so far as we can see, except for a nervous disposition. He did no drinking until he was thirty-five. In a few years he became so violent when intoxicated that he had to be committed. On leaving the asylum he came into contact with us.

We told him what we knew of alcoholism and the answer we had found. He made a beginning. His family was re- assembled, and he began to work as a salesman for the business he had lost through drinking. All went well for a time, but he failed to enlarge his spiritual life. To his consternation, he found himself drunk half a dozen times in rapid succession. On each of these occasions we worked with him, reviewing carefully what had happened. He agreed he was a real alcoholic and in a serious condition. He knew he faced another trip to the asylum if he kept on. Moreover, he would lose his family for whom he had a deep affection. Yet he got drunk again. we asked him to tell us exactly how it happened. This is his story: "I came to work on Tuesday morning. I remember I felt irritated that I had to be a salesman for a concern I once owned. I had a few words with the brass, but nothing serious. Then I decided to drive to the country and see one of my prospects for a car. On the way I felt hungry so I stopped at a roadside place where they have a bar. I had no intention of drinking. I just thought I would get a sandwich. I also had the notion that I might find a customer for a car at this place, which was familiar for I had been going to it for years. I had eaten there many times during the months I was sober. I sat down at a table and ordered a sandwich and a glass of milk. Still no thought of drinking. I ordered another sandwich and decided to have another glass of milk.

"Suddenly the thought crossed my mind that if I were to put an ounce of whiskey in my milk it couldn't hurt me on a full stomach. I ordered a whiskey and poured it into the milk. I vaguely sensed I was not being any too smart, but I was reassured as I was taking the whiskey on a full stomach. The experiment went so well that I ordered another whiskey and poured it into more milk. That didn't seem to bother me so I tried another."

Thus started one more journey to the asylum for Jim. Here was the threat of commitment, the loss of family and position, to say nothing of that intense mental and physical suffering which drinking always caused him. He had much knowledge about himself as an alcoholic. Yet all reasons for not drinking were easily pushed aside in favor of the foolish idea that he could take whiskey if only he mixed it with milk!

Whatever the precise definition of the word may be, we call this plain insanity. How can such a lack of proportion, of the ability to think straight, be called anything else?

Ah, yes - milk! That's the ticket! I've always loved that story, and that particular excuse. (Truth be told, I loved the Big Book immediately! It's so 1930s, and I adore the stories.)

From the same page, here's another example; the story is similar and begins as the above story does, with the explanation of "how it happened again":
"I was much impressed with what you fellows said about alcoholism, and I frankly did not believe it would be possible for me to drink again. I rather appreciated your ideas about the subtle insanity which precedes the first drink, but I was confident it could not happen to me after what I had learned. I reasoned I was not so far advanced as most of you fellows, that I had been usually successful in licking my other personal problems, and that I would therefore be successful where you men failed. I felt I had every right to be self- confident, that it would be only a matter of exercising my will power and keeping on guard.

"In this frame of mind, I went about my business and for a time all was well. I had no trouble refusing drinks, and began to wonder if I had not been making too hard work of a simple matter. One day I went to Washington to present some accounting evidence to a government bureau. I had been out of town before during this particular dry spell, so there was nothing new about that. Physically, I felt fine. Neither did I have any pressing problems or worries. My business came off well, I was pleased and knew my partners would be too. It was the end of a perfect day, not a cloud on the horizon.

"I went to my hotel and leisurely dressed for dinner. As I crossed the threshold of the dining room, the thought came to mind that it would be nice to have a couple of cocktails with dinner. That was all. Nothing more. I ordered a cocktail and my meal. Then I ordered another cocktail. After dinner I decided to take a walk. When I returned to the hotel it struck me a highball would be fine before going to bed, so I stepped into the bar and had one. I remember having several more that night and plenty next morning. I have a shadowy recollection of being in a airplane bound for New York, and of finding a friendly taxicab driver at the landing field instead of my wife. The driver escorted me for several days. I know little of where I went or what I said and did. Then came the hospital with the unbearable mental and physical suffering.

"As soon as I regained my ability to think, I went carefully over that evening in Washington. Not only had I been off guard, I had made no fight whatever against the first drink. This time I had not thought of the consequences at all. I had commenced to drink as carelessly as thought the cocktails were ginger ale. I now remembered what my alcoholic friends had told me, how they prophesied that if I had an alcoholic mind, the time and place would come I would drink again. They had said that though I did raise a defense, it would one day give way before some trivial reason for having a drink. Well, just that did happen and more, for what I had learned of alcoholism did not occur to me at all. I knew from that moment that I had an alcoholic mind. I saw that will power and self- knowledge would not help in those strange mental blank spots. I had never been able to understand people who said that a problem had them hopelessly defeated. I knew then. It was the crushing blow. "

At any rate, this is the condition addressed by the first clause of Step 1: an "admission of powerlessness over alcohol." And the "powerlessness" referred to here is much stronger than a simple recognition that one shouldn't drink anymore; it's got to be stronger than that in the case of a person afflicted with this "subtle insanity" around drinking.

I'm discussing "denial" because it seems to me that it's an important condition in the construction of this Step.  If "denial" didn't exist - if the alcoholic didn't have "strange mental blank spots," this Step would be written differently.  We're talking about "compulsion" here, I think, and the peculiar way it operates on one's conscious mind. 

Leaving aside - because we have to - the actual cause of the "strange mental blank spots" illustrated above, two things seem clear:
  1. It's acknowledged by at least some people who have a strong interest in stopping their own destructive drinking that "will power and self-knowledge do not help," and that
  2. Somehow, at least for some people, the A.A. program and its "spiritual angle" do help.

So:  how do these things stack up as general principles?  Are there non-drinkers out there suffering from compulsions of their own, for which they may need spiritual help?  Surely there must be; alcoholism is only one kind of self-destructive problem (although it's a very stark one).  Are there others faced with very difficult problems not of their own making for which spiritual help is also a comfort and a very present help in trouble?  Yes, no doubt.

What about the rest?  Is there a large group of people who see no need for spiritual comfort and aid?  It would seem so, given that (as I say often on this blog) the fastest-growing segment of the population is the "unchurched."   What about things like the high divorce rate?  It does seem that we hear every other day about some high- (or low-!) profile marriage breaking up, many times due to infidelity.

In re the last point:  one thing I've thought about when considering the era of the Big Book as compared with our own is that women have so much more power today.  It was hard for a woman to live on her own in 1939, but women do it all the time today - so would Lois Wilson have thrown Bill out and forced him to come to terms with his alcoholism sooner?   Would he even have started the crazy, heavy drinking in the first place, knowing that his position might become unstable pretty quickly?  Women don't put up with drunk husbands today as they mostly had to 70 years ago - nor do they put up with philanderers any longer. Are things getter better - or worse? Surely better, in some ways, for women, no?

In any case, there are certainly lots of men in A.A. meetings today - young men, too, and some must be married.  And people still drink and take drugs in reckless ways.  But there is always a cultural aspect to these questions that makes them more difficult problems than they would be otherwise.

So:  is "surrender" a key to finding help for one's problems?  In some way, it must be:  the First Step really is the first step.  You have to acknowledge that a problem exists first, and then recognize that you can't handle it alone, right?  Even if the help is not to come from God, it has to come from someplace outside oneself:  a counselor, a friend, a priest.  Right?

So is this a key step, then, that could apply to everybody when they need help?  And is it necessary for somebody to "hit bottom" before they become willing to ask for help - particularly spiritual help?  I've been using the word "repentance" lately, thinking it's an important step on the way to "Grace" - but here's Calvin, apparently, on the topic:
"Yet when we refer to the origin of repentance to faith, we do not imagine some space of time during which it brings it to birth; but we mean to show that a man cannot apply himself seriously to repentance without knowing himself to belong to God. But no one is truly persuaded that he belongs to God unless he has first recognized God's grace....No one will ever reverence God but him who trusts that God is propitious to him. No one will gird himself willingly to observe the law but him who will be persuaded that God is pleased by his obedience. This tenderness in overlooking and tolerating vices is a sign of God's fatherly favor" (Calvin, Institutes, 3.3.2).

This seems to say clearly that grace precedes repentance - and actually in the case of A.A. I think that might be entirely right. The First Step is not really about repentance at all - is it? It's about "asking for help" and "surrender" - isn't it? And surely this is where Grace happens in the life of any alcoholic recovering in A.A. So maybe I'm completely wrong; perhaps "Grace" is actually an important step on the way to "repentance"?

Or perhaps "repentance" is exactly the right word? And the thing a person is "turning from" is the notion that she can solve her own problems using her own unaided will? Which means that "self-will" (or "pride"?) is the sin referred to, and "asking for help" is in fact a form of repentance?

Where does "Grace" come into it, then? I'm asking because I'm completely clear about the fact of "Grace" in my A.A. life - but I don't really seem to feel the same thing when I think about religious faith.

So I'm not sure, exactly. What do you think?

More later, I think.

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