In November of 2013 I watched an interesting movie called “My Name is Bill W.” It’s a movie about the man who founded Alcoholics Anonymous.
Before watching the movie, I expected to have two concerns with it:
- “They’re going to call alcoholism a disease (i.e. an excuse).”
- “They’re going to emphasize the ‘higher power’ or God thing.”
I was pleasantly surprised. Yes, they did mention both of these things, but they did not dwell on them. And the result is that I came away from this movie with a better understanding of addiction than I did going in. As well, I’m now able to recognize the borderline addictive behavior which I exhibit in my own life.
With that context, I wish now to tell you my understanding of addictive behavior, and my new take on the above two bullet points.
Addictive behavior is a challenge we all have the potential for. Addictive behavior, as I’ll define it, is to make the same bad decision over and over. This bad decision is generally to engage in some pleasurable activity as against doing something that would be considered more responsible or productive.
The addict is doing something which he knows will make him feel good, even though he knows it will also make him feel bad or guilty later on. An addict is temporarily blind to his future. An addict, while “high”, is living “in the now”. Something he’s doing feels good, and he does not see any reason to stop. In an important sense, the addict is blinded by pleasure.
Attempting to reason with a “high” person about his future is futile. To a euphoric addict, the future, as he sees it, is just as wonderful as the present is. To be “high” is to feel as if one has found the solution to the problem of existence.
There’s a fantastic monologue delivered by James Woods in “My Name is Bill W,” when he finally realizes the power that addiction has over him. He carefully and passionately lists all the terrible things he’s done because he’s a drunk, and then he says (approximately): “And I tell you, that even with full awareness of just how bad drinking is, there’s nothing I want more to do right now than to take another drink.”
The movie goes on to dramatize the idea that an addict is a person who must seek out help, from people who can understand—i.e. other addicts. The movie pretty clearly illustrates that non-addicts are all but incapable of helping an addict.
Now, how should we take this idea, that addicts must get help from addicts? Is it that addicts live in a different world than the rest of us? Is it that they are all similarly deluded and so only they can see the “addict’s world”?
Addicts do live in the same world we do. But they have a serious challenge regarding their value system. Because they know, all too well, the existential joy of being drunk, they cannot accept the value of staying sober. And every day they stay sober, their emotions are screaming at them: “Why can’t I have what I want? Why can’t I live in that world where my problems don’t exist—a world I can so easily visit by taking a drink or a pill or a snort?”
They’ve had so much enjoyment from their addiction that it becomes very difficult for them to see the reasons for staying sober when the desire to get high comes around. If they think too much about the enjoyment, they start rationalizing a prospective choice to indulge. This makes the consequences of indulgence seem less negative, and the longer it goes on, the more likely they’ll “pick-up”.
Being with another addict, in a supporting role, serves to interrupt this slide down the slope to indulgence.
I once had a girlfriend who was an alcoholic. I asked her: “Do you know why you shouldn’t drink?” She answered simply: “No.”
This is an essential aspect of addiction: that at most moments in the addict’s life, he doesn’t see the problem with his own behavior. He knows what he gains by getting high, and he has no idea what he is losing—or what he has given up. Alcoholism (and other addictions) destroy many people who cannot imagine that being sober would or could be better. The pleasure they know is obviously valuable to them. The years of potentially happy living they are giving up are not—because "happy" for them, means "high." Why live long and sober when you can be high?
An addict lives with a narrowed awareness, and it is because of this that one of the first steps to his recovery is to admit that he is out of control—that he must trust someone to help him.
But is that really true? Does he have to trust someone else, or some “higher power”? I believe the answer is no, but that the most probable and effective route to recovery involves trusting someone else, and recognizing that you probably will not be able to recover without someone else’s help.
Regarding whether alcoholism is a “disease”, the issue depends on what you think “disease” means.
The basic issue is: are we born alcoholic, or do we choose such? And even if alcoholism is a choice, does that really affect how it is best treated?
The point is, once you are an alcoholic, your problem is not a mere moral fault that you can un-choose or make restitution for. Being an alcoholic is a permanent state of affairs—it’s a way of being which doesn’t go away. It’s about wanting to get high, no matter how smart you think it is to stay sober.
One might metaphorically call it a “disease of the soul”, in that one’s desires tend to lead one towards one’s own demise.
But wait. A permanent state of affairs? Doesn’t alcoholism get better the longer you’ve avoided drinking? Doesn’t the desire to drink fade at least a bit?
I suspect yes, but all alcoholics know that resting on one’s laurels in terms of how many days one has stayed sober is a sure-fire way to fall off the wagon. To stay sober, one must continuously view the desire to drink as one’s mortal enemy; one which is cunning and subtle, and which will sneak up on you, even on one of your best days.
So, even if one considers alcoholism to be a disease, that doesn’t mean that alcoholism is an excuse. Being an alcoholic is a fact about some people. What’s most important, though, for alcoholics and non-alcoholics alike, is that staying sober is a choice.
For alcoholics, this choice is much harder—so hard that in order to best succeed at repeatedly making that choice, one should enlist the support of a fellow addict, and one must recognize that when high your mind is not fit to deal with reality.
This last point is probably from where the “higher-power” idea of Alcoholics Anonymous derives. If a high person were to think rationally at all, he’d think “My mind isn’t working right now. In my current state I cannot trust myself to make decisions. I must rely on someone else, who, at least right now is a ‘higher power’ than I am, mentally speaking.”
Quite contrary to being mystical, this interpretation of the “higher power” idea is ruthlessly rational. It leads the alcoholic to stop trusting his drunk mind, and instead appeal to more sober minds.
If you are drunk, you are less than an individual. You are less than independent. You are less than rational, and as such, you must seek rationality outside yourself.
An alcoholic is someone who has become deluded by a substance. Formally recognizing that one is indeed deluded is an important step to recovery. No it doesn’t mean you hand over every decision to God, or to someone else. But it certainly means that you defer/refer to a sober person when the decision to drink or not comes up.
Recovering from alcoholism is not an act of giving up one’s intellectual independence—becoming an alcoholic is.
Appealing to a higher power is, then, not a form of mysticism, but is a simple recognition that qua addict, you are a lowered power. Some humility, in this case, is in order.
Given my limited understanding of Alcoholics Anonymous, I cannot be sure that what I have said represents the truth about their principles. I only know that I would hope that AA recognizes two facts:
- Recovery from alcoholism doesn’t require mysticism.
- Not drinking alcohol might be a very hard choice for some people, but drinking alcohol is a choice for which each individual is responsible.
What Bill Wilson discovered was a radical new method for alcoholics to avoid drinking. That the method requires cooperation between individuals should not be construed as an indication that the method is essentially mystical, nor an indication that the individual alcoholic is to be absolved for his actions.
Alcoholism is a disease, which the afflicted alcoholic is responsible to treat—most effectively by getting help from others—others who are also alcoholics who wish to stay sober.
The above fact is not obvious, and kind people should inform alcoholics of it.