Since I’m not an alcoholic, recovering or otherwise, I don’t belong to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) but I am close to several people in this ‘12-step fellowship’ who have changed their lives for the better through it. Most of them say its ‘programme for living’ would help anyone, drinker or not, to cope more successfully with mental stress. I’ve certainly found the memorable sayings and catchphrases in which their fellowship abounds to be useful in confronting my own anxieties — and sometimes very funny, too. And not being subject to AA’s rules about engaging with the media, I’m at liberty to share them here.
Some are simple in their profundity. ‘One day at a time’ counsels against setting yourself too-daunting targets; ‘keep it in the day’ against worrying about a future that has not yet arrived. ‘It’s never too late to restart your day’ offers an alternative to writing it off. ‘Do the next right thing’ — even if it’s only shining your shoes — is practical advice along the same lines. And if you’re inclined to turn dilemmas over and over in your head without reaching a conclusion, remember that ‘analysis is paralysis’. One might say that a problem shared is a problem halved. In AA, they say: ‘The mind is a dangerous place, don’t go in alone.’
But halt! Or rather, ‘HALT’ (hungry, angry, lonely, tired). If you’re any of those, your actions may be precipitate or ill-judged. ‘Don’t just do something, stand there’ is the answer. Best ‘sit with your feelings’ until they fade. After all, ‘this too will pass’. But failing that, ‘fake it to make it’ — so that, even if you’ve lost faith in your programme or the code by which you live, you can rediscover its value by going through the motions.
If all this sounds quasi-religious, that’s not surprising. AA describes itself as a ‘spiritual’ movement that believes in a ‘power greater than ourselves’ — which for convenience is often referred to as ‘God’. It is He who is invoked in the prayer that closes every meeting: ‘Grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.’ (Those that we can’t change are summarised as ‘people, places and things’.) So stop wasting mental energy and ‘hand it over’ to the higher power. ‘If you pray,’ they say, ‘why worry? If you worry, why pray?’
When you have an intractable problem, it is to Him that you must surrender its resolution — ‘Let go and let God’ — and it is through His mysterious ways that a distance is kept between you and people who are bad for you. Who minds being shunned when they believe that ‘Man’s rejection is God’s protection’? All you can do in personal relationships is ‘stick with the winners’ (such as members of your fellowship).
Meanwhile, avoid corrosive envy at the seeming contentment of others — ‘Don’t compare your insides with their outsides’ — and in any conflict ensure that, whatever the provocations, you don’t trade insults and accusations with people. If you’re tempted, then ‘take the cotton wool out of your eyes and stuff it in your mouth’. If you’re not at fault, ‘it’s their stuff’ and you needn’t dwell on it. Merely ‘keep your side of the street clean’.
So far, so smug? In fact, whenever I’ve been to meetings that were open to non-members, I’ve always been struck by the self-mockery. Quite a few in the fellowship have psychological issues, which may well have tipped them into uncontrollable drinking in the first place, but as they say: ‘We’re all here because we’re not all there.’ Or in a similarly jocular vein: ‘You don’t need booze to make a fruitcake.’ And it’s this realisation that makes many of them wary of pursuing romance in ‘the rooms’, as AA is also known. Ask a singleton about the potential for dating on that circuit and a common response is: ‘The odds are good but the goods are odd.’
Curiously, in the rooms, there are few aphorisms about alcohol itself. That’s because the demon drink is seldom the topic of discussion in meetings, which are mainly devoted to how people are coping in sobriety. The ‘chairs’, who generally begin each session with a description of their own journeys, may mention it. They may reflect that ‘You can preserve anything in alcohol, except your self-esteem.’ They may ruefully recall the self-pity they used to wallow in — ‘Poor me, poor me, pour me a drink’ — but the focus is on treating themselves and others well on a daily basis.
Not that they always meet their own expectations, even when they’re sustained by snappy one-liners. But hey, nobody’s perfect. We’re all just ‘works in progress’.