After more than fifty eight years of continuous sobriety, it still bothers me when I’m attending a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous and I hear someone start talking about “the spiritual part of the program.”
I want to drag them kicking and screaming into the Big Book and rub their faces into the pages written by our co-founder Bill Wilson, and supported by our first one hundred members, that tell us loudly and clearly, that there is no “spiritual part” to the AA program. Alcoholics Anonymous is first and foremost a spiritual program designed to treat first and foremost the spiritual disease called alcoholism.
Certainly, I understand when people mistakenly look at the program as being divided into three parts. That’s because we all learn early on in AA that alcoholism affects us in three ways—physically, mentally and spiritually. However, since time immemorial, the treatment of an alcoholic’s physical and/or mental symptoms rarely resulted in long-time sobriety. And spiritual treatment was left up to the often stern precepts of religion which for many reasons turned off most drunks.
Back in the 1800’s, for example, alcoholics who became a public nuisance were picked up off the streets and sent to foul-smelling hospital wards or filthy drunk tanks to dry out. In the drunk tank they were pummeled with fire hoses to get them clean. They weren’t treated much better at hospitals.
If they were going into the DT’s, they would often be given a mouthful of a detestable tasting chemical substance called paraldehyde which calmed their convulsions and supposedly settled their out- of-control mental state. After a week or so, the dried out drunks were dumped back out into the streets to start the routine all over again.
In the early 1900’s, many state legislatures found other ways to treat the alcoholic’s physical symptoms. Some granted medical supervisors of state insane asylums the power to “asexualize” alcoholics if they believed such actions would improve their physical or mental condition. This included sterilization, particularly for those judged to be degenerates or feeble minded.
In addition to treating the physical symptoms of alcoholism, there were also many therapists and psychiatrists who believed they could get alcoholics sober by treating what they considered treatable mental problems. They tried everything from self-examination to hallucinogenic drugs and from hypnosis to electric shock treatments.
Over the years, most reputable psychiatrists threw up their hands and admitted they were playing in a losing game. This included the psychiatrist I went to see back in March of 1961. Like the good alcoholic I was, I didn’t want to blame my drinking for ruining my life, for making me do things I didn’t want to do and do them over and over again, and that I almost seemed powerless to change my behavior. I decided instead that I was either crazy or going crazy. So, I went to see this good man as a last resort.
I think it took him less than five minutes to diagnose me as an alcoholic. Of course, my heavy whisky breath gave him his first hint. But the point is, he said he couldn’t help me unless I first stopped drinking. He said there’s no way psychiatry can help an alcoholic while he’s still in the throes of his disease. So, he advised me to join Alcoholics Anonymous, and if I still had some problems that concerned me once I got sober, to come back and see him.
Until 1935, most people involved in the treatment of alcoholism focused on the physical and mental aspects of the disease. In fact, most people never considered it a disease. They considered alcoholics to be weak-willed, immoral, untrustworthy, unreliable, sometimes dangerous and often filthy, bad-smelling characters with more than one screw loose.
But then Bill Wilson came along, a man who had lost everything as a result of his alcoholic drinking. After winding up for the fourth time in an addiction clinic called Towns Hospital in New York City, he had an awesome spiritual experience during which, as he said, “I saw the face of God.” That experience removed his compulsion to drink. Then, as the result of a serendipitous event, he met a fellow drunk named Dr. Robert Smith in Akron, Ohio. They discovered they could help each other stay sober with the help of God.
And that was the key…with God’s help. Not religion, but with the help of a Higher Power that every alcoholic could choose for himself or herself. …a God of our own understanding. It’s a decision of the spirit…to choose something or someone greater than ourselves to rely on should the compulsion to drink arise one more time.
But, just how do we start down that path toward true spirituality after many of us leading lives bordering on debauchery? The very first word in the Eleventh Step of our program suggests that I become a seeker on a journey to discover the awesome power of a God that can reconstruct my life. I am urged to begin my journey by asking that Higher Power to direct my thinking, so that it can be free from self-pity and dishonest and self-seeking motives. I am to ask not only for the strength to pursue this journey, but also for the inspiration and desire to become an instrument of God’s will.
Looking back for a moment at my initial struggles to find sobriety, when I finally admitted I was powerless over alcohol and willing to go to any length to stop drinking, I was offered a postulate I found difficult to accept at first. The postulate was that I could regain power by admitting defeat and then turning my will and my life over to God as I understood God.
Having failed at almost every other course of action to get sober and stay sober, I grudgingly assented. And as I did, I heard the Twelve Step Program of Alcoholics Anonymous telling me: “Lack of power, that was our dilemma. We had to find a power by which we could live, and it had to be a power greater than ourselves. If a mere code of morals or a better philosophy of life were sufficient to overcome alcoholism, many of us would have recovered long ago.”
Still, turning my will and my life over to the care of a God who I and many drunks like me felt was stern, rigid and unloving, a God I believed had abandoned me because of my wretched way of life, a God from whom I almost felt totally removed, was not an easy task. So I was directed to pray—to pray daily on my knees to seek a Higher Power of my own understanding into whose care I could place my will and my life.
Soon, I came to realize that the God I was coming to understand, was the very same God I had grown up with, and had been with me all of my life. Only now, I had come to see he was a loving God, not a punishing one, and had given me this precious gift of sobriety.; Then came another more marvelous realization—that this Higher Power was actually my very best friend. That he had always been there for me, and always would be, provided I continued to seek a conscious contact with him on a daily basis.
I learned that the journey I’m on has much to do with helping others which strengthens my spirituality and enables me to deal with life’s ups and downs. For now, I not only have God’s power when I ask for it, but he continues to direct my life through the comments I hear at AA meetings, when carrying the message of recovery to others, when being of service to my group and elsewhere and when practicing the Twelve Steps in my life.
Without any doubt, the greatest discovery I have made on this spiritual pilgrimage, is that the kingdom of God is deep within me. Recognizing that fact gives me the power to remain free from the desire to drink, and to build the kind of spiritual faith upon which my sobriety and my life itself can depend. And for that, I will be forever grateful.
William G. Borchert is an author and screenwriter who was nominated for an Emmy Award for writing a movie called “My Name Is Bill W.” based on the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous. It stars James Garner, James Woods, JoBeth Williams and Gary Sinese and has become the most watched television movie ever made. He has also written a number of books including “When Love Is Not Enough,” the biography of Lois Wilson, the co-founder of Al-Anon Family Groups. He also wrote a movie based on that book starring Winona Ryder and Barry Pepper. www.williamborchert.com