AA's Sweet Surrender Has Saved Millions

May 14, 2011

Ross Fitzgerald

The celebration of the birthday of Alcoholics Anonymous is a cause for joy and sometimes sad reflection.

Of the millions of lives saved and transformed by this extraordinary organization, just as many have failed to grasp its simple message and the result has been personal hell and untimely death. Such is the destructive power of alcohol, society's most pernicious drug.

On May 12, 1935, Alcoholics Anonymous had its fragile beginning in the US city of Akron, Ohio, when a recently sober New York stockbroker, Bill Wilson, fearful that being alone on a business trip he might return to drinking, hit on the idea of communicating with another alcoholic. After making inquiries, Wilson was directed to a seemingly hopeless alcoholic physician, Bob Smith. As a result of listening to Wilson tell the story of his alcoholism, Smith had his last drink on June 10, 1935, which is the date on which AA is regarded as having been founded.

Ten years later, in March 1945, AA began in Australia.

From its beginnings, the AA program emphasised alcoholism as a health problem, not a moral problem, which could be arrested, a day at a time, by complete abstinence from alcohol. To achieve sobriety in the long term often requires some kind of psychic change whereby an alcoholic person not only stops drinking but also sees the world in a much less narcissistic light. It is therefore not surprising that many members regard their involvement in AA as a way of life.

A key aspect of the therapeutic process involves what can be termed the mechanism of surrender. Instead of telling alcoholics to use their willpower, control their drinking or pull up their socks, AA suggests a much more efficacious strategy is to admit that, at least in relation to alcohol, they are beaten.

This acceptance of defeat often produces, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly, a big shift in attitudethat unlocks new and positive feelings, especially hope.

Surrender in AA involves the letting go of control. Thus at AA meetings one often hears a speaker say: "I'm not a retired alcoholic, I am a defeated one. I've thrown in the towel." To let go in surrender is totally different from fighting alcohol (or life). It is a giving up of the battle in order to move on. Despair and hopelessness, not personal strength, is at its source.

In an important article, "The Cybernetics of 'Self': A Theory of Alcoholism", which appeared in his 1972 book of essays Steps to an Ecology of Mind, British anthropologist Gregory Bateson points out that the experience of defeat "not only serves to convince the alcoholic that change is necessary: it is the first step in that change". To be defeated by the bottle, and to know it, is the means by which the "myth of self-power is broken by the demonstration of a great power (that is, alcohol)".

In contrast, for an alcoholic to attempt to use their individual willpower and say, "I will beat the bottle" is nonsense because the I making this statement is an alcoholic I. As Bateson usefully explains, alcoholics who attempt to use self-control to fight alcohol addiction "will not, or cannot, accept the premise that drunk or sober, the total personality of an alcoholic is an alcoholic personality which cannot conceivably fight alcoholism".

Few people realise Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung was intimately involved in the beginnings of AA. As Jung explained in a letter to Wilson, "alcohol in Latin is spiritus and you use the same word for the highest religious experience as well as for the most depraving poison". Jung maintained that for an alcoholic person the most helpful formula was spiritus contra spiritum: spirit against spirit, power against power.

It was Jung's deeply held belief that, for an alcoholic, the primary sources of long-term recovery were to be found in something like a "conversion experience". This should not be confused with a religious conversion. It is a conversion to accepting at depth that, in dealing with alcoholism, it is not sufficient to rely on the isolated self. This fundamental psychic change needs constantly to be reinforced or the alcoholic will most likely revert to old ways of thinking, feeling and responding, and hence will eventually drink again.

There is a pronounced tendency for alcoholics who have stopped drinking for a time to come to believe that they can be totally self-reliant and that they can somehow control their drinking. Alcoholic pride suggests the individual is not really beaten. Instead of encouraging notions of supposed self-sufficiency, self-reliance and self-control, AA restructures the whole context and asserts over and over again that, with regard to alcoholism, the person is defeated. The AA proposition "once an alcoholic always an alcoholic" reinforces a fundamental fact. Thus, in AA, members never use the past tense about their alcoholism. No matter how long an alcoholic has been sober, they will begin sharing at a meeting by saying: "My name is -- and I am an alcoholic."

AA's only theological conception is that of a power greater than the self. This is sometimes conceived as God, as one understands that concept, or one doesn't. Just as the traditional stereotype of what comprises an alcoholic often blinds sufferers to the reality of their condition, so can the traditional stereotype associated with God lead to confusion and resistance.

But once the theistic, Christian (or any other) stereotype is done away with, it becomes clear that the notion of a power greater than oneself makes room for all alcoholic people, including atheists and agnostics, as long as they are willing to accept and rely on something outside or other than the isolated self, even if it is only the AA group.

At some time during almost every AA meeting in the world, the new person will hear the following phrase: "You may leave this meeting today and need never drink again." Often this is something they have never considered before.

All the elements that comprise AA (attendance at meetings, the notion of alcoholism as an irreversible condition, working with other alcoholics, the Twelve Suggested Steps) are part of a continuing process of surrender that offers the alcoholic not only freedom from the obsession to drink but also a sense of meaning and a useful way of life. Maintenance of the state of self-surrender is the guarantee of personal recovery and a continuing source of hope.

Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 33 books, most recently My Name is Ross: An Alcoholic's Journey. He is also the co-author of Alan ("The Red Fox") Reid, which is shortlisted for the National Biography Award.

The Australian


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