So I went to a 12 step meeting, and I’m not an addict….

People can use acupuncture for a variety of illnesses and conditions. The most commonly known use of acupuncture is to treat a variety of pain problems in either the acute or chronic stages. A lesser known, though not any less effective, use of acupuncture is for the treatment of addiction and behavioural health illnesses. In order to better understand the use of acupuncture in this way, my school includes a course as part of the core curriculum that addresses the mental, emotional, and physical components that create addictions and chemical dependencies. And it was for an assignment in that class that I walked into the basement of a local church to sit and learn with a group of people who’s introductions all began with “Hi I’m (insert name here), and I’m an alcoholic.”

aa_homepageI can’t say that there has been anything in my life thus far to prepare me for what I could expect at an AA meeting. Well I suppose that there has been plenty of media representation of the iconic group meeting structure, but that sort of exposure just told me what to expect about the layout of the meeting, not the content. AA is a massive and complex organization predicated solely on the premise that people need help and support from other people to get and stay sober. And I use the word sober here to refer to the state of not being intoxicated — one’s “natural” state of mind. But the intoxicant around which an addiction spins is not limited to just alcohol or drugs. The list of twelve-step meetings in the Portland Area is enormous and ranges from Narcotics Anonymous to Emotions Anonymous to Eaters Anonymous. It’s pretty easy to find oneself in a destructive and addictive pattern even if the behaviour causing your problem isn’t always something that our greater society considers a default problem. I’m sure that many of you out there have flirted with the edge of a behaviour that could have easily spiraled out of control, where any number of factors being ever so slightly different would have negated our ability to self correct and landed us in a situation where we would need help to recover. There but for the Grace of God go I.

The thing that struck me the most about the people gathered at the AA meeting that I attended was the level of self analysis and self-inventory displayed by many of them. We had a wide variety of people at this meeting with vastly different numbers of years of sobriety — some as many as fifty years and some as few as three weeks. Within that range of years in the program, constantly struggling to stay on the path of sobriety was a representative variance in the level of self awareness. That is, at least in the group I observed, the ability of an addict to understand his or her addiction and how it impacted his or her life and the lives of the people he or she knows and loves was directly correlated to the number of years sober. The fellow with fifty years sober struck me with all the poise and candid wisdom of a crass yogi master and the person with only three weeks sober was scattered, self-interested and almost certain that his issues with alcohol were temporary and would be solved with just a little more self control and little less credit card therapy.

Despite that differences among the addicts gathered, they listened attentively to each other. They consistently affirmed parts of each other’s stories with head nods and muffled articulations and they managed (for the most part) to limit their sharing and insights to respect the one hour allotted for the meeting. The coffee was terrible but I think that was the only thing I really expected from the meeting. I had heard it mentioned on countless episodes of Law and Order or the Killing. But what I witnessed at this meeting was anything but a trite representation of what happens nearly every hour of every day across the world. I saw people talking frankly about the darkest times in their live; recalling the fall from normal life into a life focussed wholly on the pursuit of their next drink. Most impressively, this self assessment and recognition of the past history and their past transgressions is a daily process. Daily. As in every day they are spending time to understand where they have been, how they achieved where they are now, and how they are going to maintain their lives. Certainly the rest of us, out here in the non-addict world, could stand to apply that same sort of inward-looking analysis more frequently. If nothing else, I found myself heartened and encouraged by what I saw at this AA meeting. I saw people, regular people, helping other people. Helping them because they could and they felt like they should. Not because they were getting paid or because to help made them powerful or better. It was just help.

A core component of the AA system is the idea of surrendering yourself to your higher power. For some members that means God and for other people the idea is more deistic or esoteric. For some of them the higher power is just something unnamed that exists outside of themselves. This surrender is what struck me the most. To constantly admit that you are powerless on your own to solve this problem and only through the release of one’s tight hold on doing everything yourself can you channel the higher power to achieve your sobriety. It’s an unnerving idea: you are not enough. And trying to be everything, all of the time, will only lead to ruin.

Nobody wants to be told that they are not enough. To be the master of one’s destiny is a core Western value and an even more entrenched American value. We can be whatever we want to be as long as we work hard and constantly exercise our will power over ourselves and our surroundings. Sounds like the recipe for a nation of workaholics who spend hours a week at the gym and the rest of their time counting calories consumed and dollars in the bank. Oh right, we’re already there…

So is the answer that everyone should start attending twelve step meetings? I’m sure that has been suggested more times than once. But maybe we can just start with a little more moral inventory. What do we value? How do we show people and ourselves what we value? Why does it matter anyway? And can I loosen my grip on myself and my world in the interest of getting more actual control? It’s counterintuitive, but great thinkers and spiritual leaders have been saying it for years: Wu Wei — stop forcing the will and it will come.

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