I Didn’t Quit Drinking to Get High On
Hope and Change

Big Hollywood Paper,  by Charles Winecoff

With the holidays fast approaching, I thought it might be a good time to jot down some thoughts on drinking. Or, more specifically, not drinking – booze or Kool Aid.

Recently, I celebrated my eighth year of sobriety. I have 9/11 to thank for that; it was shortly after the attacks that I began attending meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous with regularity. I’d been to AA once before, at 25, when a DUI arrest landed me in “the rooms.” But at the time, I still had 15+ years of drinking to get out of my system, plus a mid-life crisis to go through that sent me flying out to La-La Land (which is where I was when the towers fell back in my home town).

I’m proud I haven’t had a drink since 2001. After spending decades trying to flee my “issues” like an adolescent hamster on an existential wheel, the fog gradually lifted from my brain and I stopped running.

They say when you drink, you stop growing emotionally, that you’re almost in a state of suspended animation – normal on the outside, stunted on the inside. Sobriety gets the spiritual gears moving again. Suddenly, years of pent-up, delayed maturation caught up with me – real fast.
For the first time in my life, I began to think clearly, regardless of the circumstance. I copped to the fact I hadn’t been twenty-something in quite a while, that I had frightening familial responsibilities coming down the pike (a sick parent), and I learned how to pray (which, BTW, works).

I also stopped voting Democrat. As it says in the Big Book, “we reject fantasizing and accept reality.”

The fellowship of AA provided consistency, and even some reassuring laughs. But it also required some eye-opening. The sad truth is that there is no such thing as a totally safe haven – and that includes AA meetings. At least in LA, anyway.

AA meetings are supposed to be little Shangri-Las of partisan immunity,where principles trump personalities, and “outside issues,” such as politics, are verboten. But for years after 9/11, in meetings all over the west side of Los Angeles - and particularly in the gay mecca of West Hollywood - Bush-bashing and anti-war screeds from the podium were so common, they almost seemed like one of the Twelve Steps.

Call me naive, but I was shocked when one fellow alcoholic, in the midst of sharing his story before a crowd of maybe 100 (including some very shaky newcomers), actually implied that anyone who didn’t vote for John Kerry in the then-upcoming 2004 election didn’t deserve compassion. Sure, ”George W” was also in recovery – but he was nothing but a dangerous “dry drunk.” (Similarly, in group therapy a couple years later, our otherwise unbiased shrink ringleader recommended we all read Bush’s Brain.)

And so it was revealed to me that bigotry against conservatives is color blind, knows no creed, and has no shame. That was during what I now refer to as the tongue-biting years.

At the same time, I also began to notice a strange contradiction occurring among my enlightened fellow booze-hounds. Since Republican-smearing was de rigeur, never an “outside issue” – and even fiscal conservatives were invariably mocked as religious fanatics - I would have assumed that the Christian tenets of the AA program would get slammed as well. Yet nobody blinked – not even when their sponsors nudged them to get with the program and chime in for the Lord’s Prayer.

To quote Madge the manicurist from the classic Palmolive TV commercials: You’re soaking in it!

Somehow, the notion of getting on your knees – to pray, of all things - got a free pass from the AAs I knew (despite the fact there there was plenty of un-serene venom directed at Catholics, and Christians in general, in their own personal accounts of ”what it was like”). Did not these clever, recovering boys and girls recognize that AA was encouraging them to do exactly what they had rejected in their own (often Republican) families – i.e. to turn their will over something bigger than themselves, and trust in God?

Remarkably, they just kept praying – and Bush-bashing. We were all reassured that our individual “Higher Powers” could be anything, even a door knob, if that was easier for some of us to swallow than, say, Jesus. So Hollywood AA turned out to be a bizarre mix of angry “progressive” politics and old-time religion – a cult-like “happening” of mass cognitive dissonance.

This may come as a surprise to some lefty lushes (and possibly our current President), but Alcoholics Anonymous was not founded by a Muslim (though there are plenty of Muslims in recovery). Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but AA founder, Bill Wilson, was not only an icky white male, and a God-respecting Christian, he was also - hold on to your seats - a lifelong political conservative. Talk about a triple threat.

Yes, if Bill Wilson were around today, he’d probably be a “tea bagger” (the same way JFK would be a right-wing war-mongerer). We know for sure that he opposed the stimulus bill of his day (FDR’s much-vaunted New Deal) and that he modelled AA on the teachings of an evangelical Christian movement known as the Oxford Group. Why doesn’t that surprise me?

In 1938, a fateful year not unlike 2009, Oxford Group founder, pastor Frank Buchman, declared the time had come for national “Moral Re-Armament.” Now remember, Buchman could be considered the granddaddy of Alcoholics Anonymous. And normally, his brand of militaristic rhetoric would be enough to make most West Hollywood gays run screaming in the opposite direction (that, or publish names and home addresses of his disciples on the Internet). Here’s a sampling:

* “The only sane people in an insane world are those controlled by God.”

* “The true patriot gives his life to bring his nation under God’s control. Those people who oppose that control are public enemies…”

* “God-controlled supernationalism seems to be the only sure foundation for world peace!”

* “A dynamic experience of God’s free spirit is the answer to regional antagonism, economic depression, racial conflict and international strife.”

* “The true patriot gives his life to bring about his country’s resurrection.”

Makes Rick Warren look pretty good, doesn’t it?

Bill Wilson handpicked aspects of Buchman’s theories – such as “Lives must be changed if problems are to be solved” – and tweaked them to reflect his own firm belief that the only way to stay sober was through having a spiritual experience. And the most foolproof way to have a spiritual experience? Regular prayer, on your knees, expressing gratitude, whether you mean it or not. In other words: no-frills “Christianist” behavior modification.

Despite his unapologetic faith, which many urbanites today equate with mental illness – unless the religion is Islam, of course, in which case it’s just healthy multiculturalism - Wilson was far from the closed-minded, violent bigots that Christians are usually stereotyped as on stage, screen, and in casual conversation. Aside from drinking, Wilson cheated on his wife (probably), dabbled in LSD therapy, and even turned to the supernatural for answers in his never-ending quest for freedom from addiction.

But no matter what crazy detours he took, “Bill W” never took his eye off the ultimate goal: eagle-eyed sobriety. He knew he was just a sinner among sinners.

The Christians I’ve met have impressed me with their grace in the face of adversity, their quiet combination of humility and hope (minus the audacity). Maybe I’ve just met the best of the best, but from what I’ve seen, they don’t even expect God - and certainly not Big Brother - to take care of their problems for them. They understand it’s a two-way street.

Bill W was such a Christian: an honest man who faced his demons, shared his struggle, used his brain, and brought renewed life to millions of people of all nationalities, creeds, and colors. (And no, he didn’t believe black people should be slaves.)

If there is a lesson in this, it’s that – contrary to popular mythology - liberalism is not responsible for all the good works in the world. Individuals are. And thankfully, Alcoholics Anonymous is one altruistic miracle the Left will never be able to take credit for (as it too often does).

I didn’t get sober to continue living in a dreamworld of perpetual denial and fantasy, the way I did for most of my life. Being a drunk is a lot like being a liberal – and I was both – always hiding from reality, making childish excuses, blaming other people for my shortcomings. But with time, and patience, my Higher Power revealed to me something unexpected: the common-sense sunshine of the conservative spirit.

Sobriety, if not AA, finally gave me the freedom to think for myself, and to speak without constraint – a liberty which is increasingly under attack these days, in ways both vast and insidious. That’s a freedom I won’t give up easily. It took me too long to discover it.

Some battles you’re born into, others you choose. God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.


From the November 23, 2009 
Big Hollywood Paper,  by Charles Winecoff ©


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