AA helps many souls take flight

Tue 21 Jun 2005 Byline: Jim Coyle

Aerodynamically speaking, bumblebees are said to be incapable of flight.


By any reasonable standard, the world conference being held in Toronto on Canada Day weekend should be equally impossible.


Alcoholics. About 50,000 of them. Folks who couldn’t be trusted to bring home the pay packet running a multi-million-dollar undertaking. Folks who could scarcely get themselves to work organizing one of the biggest conferences in this town’s history.


Folks who once thought only of themselves volunteering to get things ready for visitors from all over the world.


And doing it all without dues or fees or fundraising campaigns or leaders or much of an organization at all.


Who could be blamed for saying that, in a logical world, it should never get off the ground?


Yet there will be alcoholics enough in Toronto to fill the Rogers Centre until it runneth over (three times, in fact). And, touch wood, there won’t be a lampshade, impaired charge or bouncer-issued black eye to be seen. For they will be (or most of them anyway) as sober as the judges who used to lock them up.


As sober, in fact, as the judges who will certainly be in their number.


Along with butchers, bakers, candlestick makers - and people in any other line of work you care to name.


The conference, to mark the 70th anniversary of Alcoholics Anonymous, will more or less be a rolling series of AA meetings. In that sense, it might be one of the larger storytelling festivals Toronto’s ever had. For what an AA meeting is, at its core, is the telling of tales.


That’s the way it began June 10, 1935, in Akron, Ohio, when a thirsty stockbroker named Bill Wilson and a drunken doctor named Bob Smith were put in touch with each other.


Bill told Bob the story of how he got chronically and almost fatally drunk, then how he got sober.


What happened that day has happened ever since in AA groups all over the world the person passing on insight got at least as much benefit as the listener.


With AA meetings now a staple of prime-time TV, and no cop drama complete without an officer in wobbly recovery, the how of the program is fairly well known.


But why it works – even when the best efforts and threats of doctors, judges, parents, police, wives and others failed – is something that continues to astonish even the long sober.


Of the two co-founders, Wilson was the theorist and wordsmith, the chief author of AA’s 12 Steps and associated literature.


Whatever else he had come to know about matters of medicine, psychology and the spirit – he was by his own estimation a brilliant synthesizer - he surely understood the power of a story.


He understood that if the essence of addiction is to isolate and separate the sufferer from the human race, the essence of stories, whether told between generations, cultures or individuals, is to connect.


“We understand our lives by telling ourselves stories about what happens to us,” Susan Cheever wrote in My Name is Bill, a biography of Wilson published last year.


Needless to say, what happens to the alcoholic is unlovely to the onlooker and horrifying beyond imagining to the sufferer.


Alcoholism has been called a disease of perceptions, a disease of loneliness, a disease of “more,” the family disease.


Alcoholics, too, have been subject to many definitions. They are egomaniacs with no self-esteem. They have a high threshold for pain and a low threshold for fear. They are maladjusted to life and in full flight from reality. They have an allergy of the body – the overpowering craving for alcohol once some has been introduced to their body.


They have an obsession of the mind - all other concerns supplanted by thoughts of the next drink.


They have a spiritual malady. Spiritus contra spiritum, Carl Jung called it. Spirits against the spirit.


What they also have, Wilson knew, is an acute ear for the sound of someone who understands, who has known similar suffering.


Tell the person still struggling your story, instructs “the Big Book,” Alcoholics Anonymous. “If he is alcoholic, he will understand you at once.”


In the story, they hear truth. In the clear eyes of the teller, they see something they want. In the listening, they gain the sliver of hope that they might not be alone, that others who felt and behaved and suffered in familiar ways have found a program for recovery that might just work for them, too.


It is really the oldest of wisdom that there is no substitute for experience. That the teacher will come when the student is ready. That example is the best – perhaps the only – way to instruct.


By Susan Cheever’s appraisal, the program Wilson and Smith devised didn’t work perfectly or all the time, “but it worked often and fairly well, which was worlds ahead of anything else that has been thought of to combat addiction before or since.”


To the millions worldwide who’ve found contented sobriety, that’s cause for one world-class party.


And hardly less astonishing than a bumblebee’s flight.


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