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November 1984

The Price Tag on Personal Growth

Do we realize that AA's Tradition of self-support pays dividends more precious than gold? - From the November 1971 Grapevine

IF YOU ARE a social or behavioral scientist (as I am), you can look at AA this way: It represents the first successful effort in history by a group of people with a physiological and/or psychological disease to achieve their own common control of that disease. AA also stands as one of the few (but not only) successful attempts by individuals suffering from "anomie" or "alienation" to overcome this condition by creating, in effect, a community of the alienated, though they come of different religious, educational, national, and ethnic backgrounds. "Alienated" people are simply folk who cannot harmonize with their cultures' values and normal life-styles, and their inability may be manifested in many other ways besides drinking.

The unique and, so far, largely unexplainable success of our Fellowship is no secret and is naturally of great interest to professionals in medicine and social work (not all of them social or behavioral scientists), as well as to the public at large. Most of the curious are practical people and frequently ask of us a practical question: "How does AA work?"

We may answer with the conventional quip: "Fine! It works just fine." But the importance of their inquiry is clear.

Without patting ourselves or our co-founders too hard or too frequently on the back (I am convinced that we are merely instruments of powers greater than ourselves), we can say that we have produced remarkable results over the years. AA is the only nonneurologically oriented form of psychotherapy that appears to work with any consistency. It is an effective way of arresting a disease long thought to be incurable.

Generally speaking, alcoholism is incurable, of course. But people outside AA do not often accept our special notion of incurableness. Like many sober drunks, I live and work in a community of intelligent people who, although most of them know that I am an alcoholic, simply refuse to believe that I live only one drink away from a drunk and that I am not cured. But I know--and that is what matters and what averts arguments.

In my travels in this outside world, I have also noticed the tendency of concerned non-AAs to boil our program down to simple misinterpretations. We are usually unable to describe precisely how and why AA works for us and others; so these non-AAs tend, upon superficial examination of our literature and upon conversations with one or two arrested drunks, to construct perfectly rational descriptions of AA's "methods" in accordance with their impression of how therapy of all kinds ought to work. The fact that they are wrong (or only slightly right) does not appear to bother them much, just as their quick and easy conclusions about AA do not bother me, either--much--if I look at them from my own personal viewpoint. In the first place, I have no better explanations than theirs to hand out; in the second place, I am not anxious to test my capacity for serenity too harshly.

We hear that AA is some kind of religion. Or that it requires alcoholics to "get religion" before they are able to sober up. Or that the (suggested) Twelve Steps contain some kind of voodoo that frightens away Demon Rum. (The word "suggested" is usually lost in the translation to the language of non-AAs.) Or that the external formalities and formats of our meetings (in which many Loners and other sober AAs rarely participate) provide some kind of group therapeutic device sure to work as well on schizophrenics, nail-biters, fatties, and other alienated and semi-alienated people. Or that only the more dramatic aspects of our twelfth-stepping work rare and special magic.

Enough delusions. These half-truths, by impelling disturbed people to face their own disturbances, have probably done more good than harm, in the long run. However, it is odd that (in my experience) the two main, indispensable aspects of AA's effectiveness are hardly mentioned. But it is not so odd when one considers that the thoughtful outsider does not see these aspects as therapeutic tools; to him, they seem merely conceits, eccentricities, and diversions from AA's chief purpose. Further, it is difficult to draw the attention of a physician, a sociologist, or a social worker to these aspects of AA simply because they run counterclockwise to the values by which such people live and work.

The first is our tradition of anonymity. Born in the matrix of shame, it serves us magnificently by keeping both our egos and our disease in place, and these are equally critical matters for the kind of people who tend to tipple excessively. A lucky accident? Who knows?

The second is a far more subtle issue, which many wise people--both outside and inside AA--sometimes take all too lightly, I think. It centers on our Seventh Tradition of total self-support, a masterpiece of common sense in a materialistic culture like ours, where almost everything outside AA seems to follow, run, jump, and do tricks at the behest of the almighty dollar.

Now, outsiders are certainly impressed by the Tradition of self-support. They are most impressed when they see it in action: when an "outside contribution" is refused or when an AA declines to accept a fee for doing something that in the normal round of living would command a price. They are amazed at it when, like most public-health personnel, social workers, and university people, they themselves happen to be forever engaged in schemes involving foundation grants, government money, welfare funds, capitalistic largesse, and fund-raising in order to spread abroad what they are convinced are good words and good works.

Everywhere and at all times these days, the prior requirement for accomplishing anything to better the human condition--be it cleaning up polluted rivers, educating ghetto youngsters, conquering some heinous disease, encouraging poets and painters, or spreading the gospel to the unredeemed--is the collection of as many bundles of cold cash as possible. And cash lacks character. All money procured by do-gooders to do good is considered good. Taxpayers, penurious contributors, capricious foundations, and crazy millionaires are all fair targets in the game. Good ends are believed to justify such means as scare advertising, harassment by fourth-class mail, and political hanky-panky. The tax proceeds from Nevada's legal fun parlors and naughty houses are reported to subsidize that state's various school systems.

In this nearly universal quest, the Fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous is the outstanding exception. The reactions of our friends outside AA, therefore, are both sensible and expected: on one hand, admiration of what appears to be severe idealism; on the other, confirmation of their suspicions that the excessive intake of alcohol frequently destroys brain tissue.

They tend to overlook this vital point: Our Tradition of self-support, practiced in letter as well as spirit, is essential to the "method" they have been trying to discover in their queries about how AA works. Our insistence on self-support is the critical difference between AA and most of (if not all) the conventional do-goodism of society today.

We are expecting entirely too much of these non-AAs, I think, if we ask them to understand that when we were drinking alcoholics, the matter of self-support for most of us assumed crisis proportions; if we require them to comprehend (as our founders so clearly did) that such fantasies as the dream of accumulated cash consolidate the relationship between a drunk and his bottle; if we request that they empathize with our need for pride in our own accomplishments as recovered alcoholics and with our need to recognize common humanity, rather than money, as our currency of exchange. Outsiders--even professionals involved in the worldwide effort to solve the alcoholic problem--simply are not drunks or ex-drunks.

Logically and often with good intentions, they may want to support AA. And in their vocabularies, the word "support" is colored green. For us drunks, support is a different matter--or two different matters. While we were drinking, money was merely what we used to buy our bottled support. Now that we are sober in AA, the word "support" has to do with sharing, people, self-respect, gratitude, and what we are privileged to give--not take--in material terms.

Sigmund Freud, one of the intellectual giants of our era, understood all this in a peculiar way, although alcoholics (who were mostly beyond the reach of his therapy) did not interest him more than incidentally. In defending his method of psychoanalysis, Freud emphasized that the payment of a fee to the analyst was crucial to the desire of a patient to heal himself. In a materialistic world, Freud's insight was keen. Financial engagement in psychoanalysis made the analysis important to the man or woman on the couch--and still does.

The paradox of AA is that financial independence and the support of our Fellowship by alcoholics and alcoholics alone not only enhance AA's importance to each of us, but stimulate our engagement in our own recovery and our respect for ourselves, because, in the words of the youngsters, AA is "our thing," from our group's treasury to the balance sheets at the General Service Office.

I cannot interpret the Seventh Tradition as an excuse to let the basket pass by me at my next meeting without weighting it down a bit--especially when I remember the prices I saw under the bottles in the liquor store down the street. I cannot leave it to the group to be "fully self-supporting," because I am part of the group. Neither can I find it in my heart, at the other extreme, to rationalize accepting a nonalcoholic's bequest of $10,000 to an AA central office in a large city--an actual bequest that has been refused, incidentally--by regarding it as somehow anonymous and suitably alcoholic, because it comes from a dead man who meant well. Borrowing another expression once used by the young, self-support is "where it is at"--"it" being my sobriety and yours.

The Seventh Tradition was a stroke of genius born of a necessity that, I believe, deserves respectful and humble consideration by all of us every once in a while. Let's not forget that we are alcoholics, the kind of people who can resist everything except temptation, and that an addiction to the taste of folding lettuce is not too difficult to cultivate--no more difficult, I imagine, than a taste for booze.

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