When I was in AA, sponsors, old-timers, other members talked a lot about looking words up in a dictionary. As part of my step two, my sponsor had me look up ‘came to’ ‘believe’ ‘restore’ and ‘sanity’ and this formed the basis of our discussion. However, there were certain words I never looked up. I have now.
I have been thinking about this lately, and tonight, on the hoof, formed my thoughts into a comment I posted in response to an article written by Ken Anderson on Psychology Today. This process sort of gelled all my ideas together. So, I’ll post my comments here (with some edits for tidyness) as I think the dictionary is a helpful tool for those of us trying to deprogramme.
The focus of Ken Andersons’ article was AA, depression and suicide. I felt it was a pretty balanced discussion, and explored whether there was a correlation between 12 step membership, depression and increased suicide rates. If you are interested in the article you can read it here: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/overcoming-addiction/201408/alcoholics-anonymous-depression-and-suicide . For you wordsmiths, here are my musings on three words that I’ve recently reclaimed from my time in AA (and one new word).
Oxford English Dictionary
NOUN (plural egos)
1 A person’s sense of self-esteem or self-importance: he needed a boost to his ego
1.1 Psychoanalysis: The part of the mind that mediates between the conscious and the unconscious and is responsible for reality testing and a sense of personal identity. Compare with id and superego
1.2 Philosophy (In metaphysics): a conscious thinking subject.
1.the faculty of conscious and especially of deliberate action; the power of control the mind has over its own actions: the freedom of the will.
2.power of choosing one’s own actions:to have a strong or a weak will.
3.the act or process of using or asserting one’s choice; volition: My hands are obedient to my will.
4.wish or desire: to submit against one’s will.
5.purpose or determination, often hearty or stubborn determination; willfulness: to have the will to succeed.
6.the wish or purpose as carried out, or to be carried out: to work one’s will.
7.disposition, whether good or ill, toward another.
verb (used with object), willed, willing.
9. to decide, bring about, or attempt to effect or bring about by an act of the will: He can walk if he wills it.
10. to purpose, determine on, or elect, by an act of will:vIf he wills success, he can find it.
11. to give or dispose of (property) by a will or testament; bequeath or devise.
12. to influence by exerting will power : She was willed to walk the tightrope by the hypnotist.
VERB (used with object)
Gaslighting or gas-lighting is a form of mental abuse in which false information is presented with the intent of making victims doubt their own memory, perception, and sanity. Instances may range simply from the denial by an abuser that previous abusive incidents ever occurred, up to the staging of bizarre events by the abuser with the intention of disorienting the victim. The term owes its origin to the play Gas Light and its film adaptations, after which it was coined popularly. The term has been used in clinical and research literature.
ADJECTIVE, soberer, soberest.
1. not intoxicated or drunk.
2. habitually temperate, especially in the use of liquor.
3. quiet or sedate in demeanor, as persons.
4. marked by seriousness, gravity, solemnity, etc., as of demeanor, speech, etc.: a sober occasion.
5. subdued in tone, as color; not gay or showy, as clothes.
6. free from excess, extravagance, or exaggeration: sober facts.
7. showing self-control: sober restraint.
Please note that ‘sober’ is not defined as a state of grace bestowed upon one by surrendering to God, it merely means not intoxicated – when steppers ask ex members or struggling members (or even members feeling powerful feelings) ‘are you sober?’ it’s a very loaded question. it’s designed, in my view, to shut a person down, shame them, cast aspersions on their thoughts and feelings. A bit like a hard sell salesperson asking ‘are you sure?’ – ‘sober’ plants the seed of worry, uh oh am I ‘sober’ …??. And is it the right kind of sober.
This question is particularly loaded should you have dared to have left and be doing alright. Are you ‘sober’? You can read more about this in the brilliant essay I ‘borrowed’ from Stinkin Thinkin entitled Carbon Based Slogan Generating Machines.
Ditto “drinking” is an incredibly loaded word, used to crush dissent and discredit apostates. ‘Ah she’s drinking again’ is a way to entirely discredit someone who has left, or who is speaking out about AA – when they say ‘drinking’ they mean ‘not sober’ (this state of Grace). That person is no longer ‘one of us’ and can’t be trusted. They don’t mean imbibing a glass of wine and moderating successfully as that is not possible in the AA world view – they are not interested in the kind of drinking you are doing or not doing. But, as I was once told, if your boat is made of matchsticks, then when anyone starts to rock it you are going to yell at them to sit the hell down. A sturdy boat can stand some rocking. The Big Book states that AA has no argument with other methods, and yet you only have to look online at some of the pushback at ex-members trying to speak up to see that this doesn’t translate in reality.
So if we are accused of ‘drinking’ and we deny it, we are lying, we are in denial, we are planning a slip, a relapse, a bender, it’s just a matter of time. If we are moderating (as many, many can do quite successfully) we are on the slippery slope, whilst our disease is doing push ups (that deadly allergy from just one sip must be taking a little while to kick in obviously …). If we are abstinent then we are dry drunks, emotionally sick. If we are successful, then we can’t possibly have been a ‘real’ alcoholic (although find me a person who was told this as they entered AA, as I’ve yet to meet one).
Of course some people do have serious alcohol problems and do need to abstain, I’m not arguing that fact. They are drinking dependently, dangerously, abusively. But “drinking” as AA uses it is not a word, it’s a weapon.
It’s hard to converse with Steppers in any reasonable way when they do this because words as they use them have an entirely different meaning to their real world use. For instance, a conversation that I’ve heard take place between many non-AA friends goes something like this: Were you drunk at the party last night? No I was sober. They might have meant they were the designated driver, but what they usually mean is they were not intoxicated. They mean, I was drinking but I wasn’t drunk.
From a drink driving perspective here in the UK with our tough laws, sober means legal to drive, it doesn’t mean you haven’t had a drink. ‘Drinking’ in AA means a diseased state and a fall from Grace. In fact I once heard a girl in AA talk about her father’s ‘slip’ – he was using red wine vinegar on his salad ….
Given the high profile suicide that’s shocked the world in the last couple of weeks, I’ve been on the web a bit, reading around. Of course, the stepper sites are aflame. Somebody taking their own life is bad for business (I’m not saying many well intentioned members are not devasted, they are, for sure genuinely upset). But I’ve read a couple of stepper sites that are talking about it through their prism of the programme – it’s quite chilling. The threads I read debated the whole thing from the perspective of the unfortunate person’s relationship with God. ie. if he’d been right with God (got rid of his ego, and handed his depression over properly) he wouldn’t have killed himself.
I find this view deeply lacking in compassion, lacking in intelligence, not to mention heretical and just downright unkind. Even Jesus on the cross cried, ‘Oh God why have you forsaken me?’ – in my understanding (I’m not a Christian, but I took to heart ‘be quick to see where religious people are right’) this verse demonstrated God’s willingness to go to the depths for us, allowing himself to feel the full force of the human experience, man’s ability to feel desolate and alone and separated. The theological instruction I received about that moment in the crucifixion was that the entire point was that He (and therefore we) are never, ever forsaken, there is nothing we can ever do to separate ourselves from God. Even though fragile, doubting, vulnerable human experience might excruciatingly feel otherwise. It seems to me that this is a core principle of all major religions and it points to the fact that despair has nothing to do with whether or not we are right with God. A quick flick through the Psalms will amply demonstrate my point (and greater theological minds than mine have written reams on this subject, St John of the Cross and his Dark Night of the Soul springs to mind).
But during my time in AA I heard stuff like this ‘ego’ and ‘right relationship with God’ crap over and over when people died or committed suicide (along with ‘at least he died sober’ and dire warnings that ‘this disease can get you even when you don’t drink’) – AA with it’s ‘some must die so many can live’ line is not only offensive, but very permissive of suicide in my opinion. Looking back, how quickly we all moved on from these tragedies, never stopping to think about why it REALLY happened. Their ‘disease’ got them, and that was that.
Also the unhelpful focus on ‘time’ = ‘status’ in the programme, plus the expectation put on old timers to ‘carry a message’ means it is incredibly hard for ‘successful’ members of ‘good standing’ to speak up and admit they are feeling bleak or worse yet that they are ‘drinking’ and ‘not sober’. The shame of a relapse after a period of admiration for being a good AA must be horrific. Failing to be ‘happy, joyous and free’ in spite of doing it all ‘right’, I know from my own experience, is bad for morale in a huge, huge way. Particularly because the implication is you are not emotionally ‘sober’.
I would imagine this is particularly the case if you are person whose anonymity gets broken because of your fame (those photos circulating of the aforementioned person sitting in a meeting were taken by someone IN the meeting, so not very anonymous at all! I can’t imagine its the first time its happened). Added pressure must come from the awareness that you are perceived as ‘having it all’ and you should have a lot to be ‘grateful’ for.
Throw in a bit of learned helplessness, the idea that you can never escape your ‘disease’ and some focus on your ‘defects’ and plenty of moralising on your ‘sins’ and I think you can surmise it’s not helpful for depression or despair, or an existential crisis …
So I’m taking back the English language, and I’m thumbing through my dictionary and I working really hard not to use ‘stepper speak’ and loaded words as I go about my business.
One other thought, there is one (mis) quote in the Big Book with which I’m in wholehearted agreement:
“There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance — that principle is contempt prior to investigation.”
I don’t know about you but I did NO investigation prior to fully signing up to AA – I was lonely, I was vulnerable, I desperately wanted to belong, I’d read novels and seen movies and TV shows that romaniticised ‘recovery’ in AA. If I sound contemptuous now, spurred on by the needless death of another person in AA who forgot for a moment how loved he was, then you can rest assured that my contempt is post- a full and thorough investigation. What I do know, is God, if there is a God, always forgives us when we momentarily forget we are never separate, and there is nothing, ever, to ‘make right’.