Steps Toward Recovery
Over 50, 000 people filled the Alamodome during the Alcoholics Anonymous International Convention opening ceremony on July 2.
By Don Finley
More than 50,000 recovering alcoholics from around the world
have converged on San Antonio to celebrate 75 years of Alcoholics Anonymous,
whose enduring legacy — and mysterious power — is its famous 12 steps to
The basic idea contained in those 12 steps is that to stop drinking, alcoholics must admit they are powerless over their addiction and need the help of a power greater than themselves to quit.
It's definitely a spiritual remedy for a complicated disease, and as successful a remedy as anything out there.
And while scientists over the years have studied AA and those 12 steps — adopted as well by drug addicts, overeaters, compulsive gamblers and the compulsively promiscuous — some of its biggest supporters in the medical community say it's hard to understand through science alone.
“Alcoholics Anonymous views alcoholism as a spiritual disease,” said Dr. Donald Kurth, president-elect of the American Society of Addiction Medicine. “So the treatment is a spiritual treatment. I know that runs counter to some of our Western medicine ideas, but if you can get past that and begin to believe and understand that, 12-step recovery begins to make more sense.”
“I like to think of myself as a scientist, but a physician primarily needs to be a healer,” Dr. Al Mooney, a prominent addiction medicine specialist from Raleigh, N.C., who spoke at AA's International Convention here Friday. “AA has been doing things for 75 years that, thank God, we didn't wait on science to catch up to start doing these things.”
AA began in 1935 when its founders, New York stockbroker Bill Wilson and Akron, Ohio, surgeon Dr. Bob Smith, both alcoholics, met as members of the Oxford Group, a religious movement that stressed honesty and unselfishness as keys to improvement.
Wilson borrowed some of those elements and applied what he had learned in unsuccessful treatment over the years to write the basic textbook for Alcoholics Anonymous — including the 12 steps.
Today, the Christian roots of the 12 steps have been deliberately softened and stretched to embrace almost any spiritual path. There's an agnostic group within AA, as well as followers of all sorts of religions, including Islam.
“Within the 12 steps, there was an understanding that we needed to move away from a denominational kind of religion,” said the Rev. Ward Ewing, chairman of the AA board. “We leave spirituality at a level of experience and personal sharing, but not theology.”
Keeping the religious aspects low-key is important for another reason, said Ewing, an Episcopal priest.
“The church brings a kind of moralistic judgment against people whose lives are out of control from drugs and alcohol. And because of that, many folks — particularly when they first come into AA — are very uncomfortable with the God language.”
A number of studies have found a high percentage of AA members drop out of the program. But Kurth said the program often is successful for those who are ready to commit. Many are not.
“It's a disease of denial. People don't like to recognize that they suffer from the disease,” Kurth said. “We see it in our other diseases, too. Lots of diabetics don't like to face the fact they've got diabetes, that they have to follow a specific diet and exercise program and medication. So they get into trouble over and over again.”
One 2005 study by the Veterans Affairs Department found those who combined AA meetings with medical treatment were more likely to remain sober than those who did one or the other alone.
“There's a maxim in the treatment community that treatment programs that encourage involvement in Alcoholics Anonymous tend to have very high success rates,” Kurth said. “Programs that don't tend not to have high success rates.”
Late last week, I entered the dark, cavelike Roosevelt bar at the Menger Hotel, squinted and spotted only one lonely customer. Meanwhile, across the street, a comic vendor in Alamo Plaza hawked “root beer” raspas and was doing a brisk business.
Up and down the river, margaritas were an endangered species, but there were long, hungry lines at coffee and ice cream shops. While bars were as silent as churches, the sound from the restaurants was more like, “cha-ching, cha-ching.”
The streets were packed with 50,000 sober alcoholics from 90 countries — here to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Alcoholics Anonymous. At street corners, convivial visitors all greeted one another warmly by first names. Many asked if I was having a good day.
Twenty-three million people in the United States struggle with severe alcohol or drug abuse, twice the number of Americans afflicted with cancer. No family is immune.
Mine is no exception.
In November, my brother died from alcoholism. Like a majority of people who enroll in the AA program, my brother enjoyed initial but not lasting success. A proud, successful but secretly frightened man, my brother struggled hardest with the first step — surrendering control to God. Disempowerment was anathema to him. He was sober for a while, and then he wasn't.
As I walked through the crowds, each sober alcoholic seemed to me a living miracle. Alcoholism is a fatal disease. And yet 50,000 survivors, each cheating death one day at a time, descended like a pink cloud of hope over our city.
I kept asking people: How did you change your life, and how do you keep doing it?
Over coffee, a retired couple from Vermont, who've been sober for more than 40 years, told me their stories. Mike started drinking as a teenager but realized he had a problem after he and Jacki, his high school sweetheart, married when they were 20. He was a schoolteacher and took part-time jobs to make more money — many of them in bars. He drank every day until he was drunk.
“I started worrying when I began to lose things — jobs, friends — and then our marriage got rough,” he said.
A friend took him to his first AA meeting, and he heard people tell their stories of ruined relationships and broken dreams.
“I'd had enough,” Mike said. “I left that meeting and haven't touched alcohol since.”
Two years later, Jacki, who was working as a bartender, followed Mike into AA.
“I had lost control of my reality,” she said. “I had two young kids — one 7 and the other 4. As a mom, I wasn't available.”
I asked Jacki why AA worked for her.
“I had the desperation of the dying,” she said. “That desperation was my gift. I used it to surrender.”
The AA convention was the largest that San Antonio has ever hosted, and perhaps the most unusual.
For a weekend, downtown felt like a parallel universe, a fellowship of healing. I imagined seeing my brother's face in the crowd. He wasn't there, of course. But a lot of other people's brothers, sisters, fathers and mothers were there. Each one, a miracle.
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