Thursday, 10 March 2016

Laying off the spirits

About a month back I wrote about attending my first LAAG (London Atheist Activist Group) meeting and how much I enjoyed the evening. Since then I'd been looking forward to Jon Stewart's talk Inside AA:Can a non-existent God cure alcoholism? I wasn't to be disappointed.

Jon was born in Sheffield in the late 60s, had a fairly normal childhood, and was intelligent enough to go to uni in Manchester where he met Louise Wener and formed the band Sleeper. They had 5 top 20 singles and 3 top 10 albums so they did pretty well. Jon recounts the apex of their career being supporting REM (then a serious contender for biggest band on the planet) at Milton Keynes Bowl. Eventually the band split. Jon drifted into session work playing on unsuccessful albums by Mel C & k d lang and ended up living in America. Throughout all this he'd been drinking. It was showbiz. Everyone was drinking. But, in retrospect, he was hitting it harder than most.

Finally reaching rock bottom he dragged himself (I assumed not literally) into Alcoholics Anonymous on his doctor's advice. He sobered up. They helped save his life for which he remains eternally grateful. He found a sponsor (someone to help you through the early stages of sobriety). He intentionally chose a guy he thought was 'sciencey' as he wasn't looking to be converted to Christianity, or worse, some sort of woolly Spiritualism. The science guy turned out be a fully signed up believer and, eventually, so did Jon.

He tried to rationalise his new found beliefs by saying to himself that the God he believed in was a god of nature. Little things, like buses turning up on time to take him to AA meetings, would cement these beliefs in his head. Eventually, however, he came to feel he was lying to himself and it ate away at him. Another visit to the doctor. This time the advice was - get out of AA for your health. Those two medical visits neatly bookending Jon's time in AA. He still doesn't drink but he doesn't need AA anymore - and he doesn't need religion either.

There are probably as many theories as I've had drinks as to what causes alcoholism but the one Jon briefly ran through was the theory of a no longer useful evolutionary advantage. Our ancestors needed to fend off rivals for berries and to make sure they ate the best ones. The best ones were the shiny colourful ones. The shiny colourful ones had some kind of alcohol in them. It wasn't a tasty Rioja or a double malt but it was booze, of a sort,  nonetheless.

It's worth noting that current thinking sees alcoholism as a continuum. You're not either an alcoholic or you're not. Theres's a scale but at one end of that scale there are people with serious problems. It's always been thus. There's a few dipsomaniacs in the bible. Noah gets epically pissed after the flood although it could be argued that he'd done well to live to 950 anyway. Lot got so drunk he impregnated his own daughters. In Judges 9:13 even God himself is 'cheereth' by wine.

So with all these biblical boozebags bouncing about it's something of an irony that AA, without any doubt the most well known service for alcoholics, sprang out of an American Christian missionary organisation. The Oxford Group. Founded by Dr Frank Buchman, a Pennsylvanian Lutheran minister of Swiss descent. Like a lot of nascent religious organisations popping up in the new country they believed in a fair bit of mumbo-jumbo although most of their aims were honourable. They wanted to stop wars and they were against racism - which was quite radical at the time. The copybook was not so much blotted, as completely ruined, when they decided to announce their support for Adolf Hitler as a bulwark against communism which was the thing they really really didn't like. The AA, to their credit, cut their ties with the Oxford Group on this. So at least twelve steppers aren't required to be goose steppers.

Alcoholics Anonymous were formed on June 10, 1935. Why so specific a date? It's the day that co-founder Bill Wilson (or Bill W if you're with the programme) had his last drink. There's a huge thing, within  AA, made of the back-story of its founders. Bob Smith, a surgeon from Vermont, had drank all the way through prohibition but the more colourful story belongs to Bill W who'd done the same.

Also from Vermont, and sixteen years younger than Bob, he became a stock speculator. A naturally shy man, alcohol put him at ease which I'm sure most us can recognise. By the age of 40 the drink had got the better of him and he wanted to stop. He met an old drinking buddy, Ebby Thacher, who'd become sober (though not for long) with the help of the Oxford Group. Bill went for treatment, claimed he had a 'hot flash' of spiritual conversion, and never drank again.

He did, however, spend most of the next five years tripping his nuts off on LSD and indulging in creepily predatory behaviour towards the growing AA's young clients. It's said that on his deathbed, in 1971 he screamed, cursed, and demanded booze. Which those around him, his AA friends, wouldn't allow him. There's a whole game of Scruples right there.

Jon didn't just relate these stories for background colour. They're, or at least some of them are, relevant now because the twelve step programme that the co-founders devised has not changed at all since 1935. It's hardly in keeping with modern medical thinking. Either with regards to mental or physical health.

That's not the only issue with AA. There's the whole God thing, of course. Which both deters atheists and agnostics from seeking treatment and asks people at their lowest ebb to submit themselves to a higher power. There's also the claim that AA is 100% successful. This is justified on the basis that anyone who returns to drinking has failed as a person. AA are not to blame for people's weaknesses. Alcoholics should just believe more, pray harder.

There are lots of pros. They genuinely do stop somewhere between 5% and 20% of those who sign up drinking (it's difficult to say exactly as there's no precise definition of how long you'd need to not drink for before you can be included in the statistics). There is a sense of community. You can make friends in the group who understand what you've been through and don't look down on you. A vital psychological component of recovering from any addiction.

There are alternatives to AA though and very few people know about them because AA has dominated the agenda for so long. That's who everyone mentions when joking about people who drink too much. There are atheist groups dedicated to recovering sobriety, Jon claimed CBT had been a great help to him, and there's also something called the Sinclair method where those seeking treatment receive a drug called Naltrexone which blocks the positive reinforcement effects of ethanol in the brain. Success for this is rated anywhere up to 80% with a few patients reporting being able to drink moderately afterwards with no problems. Again, statistics and definitions are hard to verify or even obtain in the first place. But surely this option should at least be more widely known.

Jon Stewart wasn't there to try to destroy AA, there are much fiercer critics out there, but to try to encourage them to modernise and work with other organisations to help people. He disagreed with many of their techniques but he tried, and succeeded, in not being disagreeable. As he said, they saved his life and they continue to save lives today so there was no sledgehammer required to crack this nut.

He ended on a positive note and suggested that many health organisations were coming round to progressive methods and more secular sobriety groups were being formed. It was an absolutely fascinating talk and I'd recommend, if you get a chance, you get along to see it. I think it really helped some people there. There were other alcoholics, ex-alcoholics, recovering alcoholics (shall we just say people) there who movingly and bravely shared testimonies of their experiences. At one point it was getting like Alcoholics Anonymous Anonymous.

As Jon was packing his laptop up I accidentally caught his gaze. Perhaps I read too much into it but it seemed to me he smiled the smile of a contented man, a man who knew his self and was happy with who that self was, a man who'd visited some very dark places and didn't want to go back. Later I thought of his friends and family who, surely, on occasions, wondered if he'd drink himself to death. I thought how that smile must light up their hearts and I thought it was worth listening to this man - and it's worth living.

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