Baldwin family knows addiction inside and out

 

By Jeff Vircoe

Billy Baldwin may not be the most famous of the Baldwins. He’s probably not the most controversial. But when it comes to the topic of addiction, he is certainly one of the most literate. Been there. Seen that.

Though not an addict himself, the 54-year-old American actor, producer and writer has had a front row seat to plenty of high-profile carnage. His famous male siblings, Alec, Stephen and Daniel, have, at different times, been public poster boys for the chaos that comes with the illness.

Billy is also married to a woman in long-term recovery, the actor, singer and model, Chynna Phillips. Together 25 years – a rarity in Hollywood for sure – Baldwin and Phillips have recently become more public about their experiences with recovery.

Last fall, they spoke at a Healthy Minds Canada gala in Toronto, sharing how addiction and recovery play out in their own lives. Sponsored in part by the Edgewood Health Network, the dinner helped raise nearly $400,000 towards an assortment of research projects, workshops, conferences and various mental health education initiatives.

Baldwin agreed to talk at length about his wife’s and his own journey through the minefield of addiction and recovery, the full story of which appears in the current EHN Phoenix Magazine. Here is a portion of the interview conducted with Phoenix reporters.

What’s your connection to Canada?

My connection to Canada is far more through the film industry – like a million to one – than it is to any of my ancestors. My father’s side of the family came over, part of it on the Mayflower, another part of it in 1638 to Boston. My mother’s side of the family is German and French. They came through Nova Scotia and they also came through Quebec. Her maiden name is Martineau, but they’ve been in upstate New York for centuries. I don’t have a strong connection to her French Canadian side. I do, but it’s through upstate New York, so not really.

So you didn’t spend time in Quebec growing up?

We were too poor to travel and we were too poor to vacation. I was never on a plane in my childhood. Was never on a vacation in my childhood. We used to go up and visit my mother’s side of the family but that was all in upstate New York, in the Syracuse area.

But, Canada? I’ve made movies coast to coast. I’ve made movies or I’ve worked with my wife and her band traveling across Canada. We’ve worked in Vancouver many times. Winnipeg many times. Toronto, I can’t even count the amount of times. Montreal several times. I made a film out in St. Andrews and St. Stephen in New Brunswick. I did a commercial in Quebec City. I must have made a dozen to fifteen films up there. I’ve done some charity events up at the Banff Hot Springs and Chateau Lake Louise. I’ve done some environmental fundraising stuff up there in the Canadian Rockies. So, I’ve been all over the country.

Have you spoken about addiction and mental illness before?

Not publicly a lot, no. Half my family is in A.A., so, yeah, everybody talks about their addiction and personal family issues in the anonymity of an A.A. meeting, but never on a public stage like that, no.

Do any of your family members give you flack when you talk publically about things that maybe used to be left behind closed doors in the past?

Well, there are certain things that I don’t share. I share what I feel comfortable with. But there’s plenty of stuff that I haven’t shared.

In 1999, you made the movie Virus with Jamie Lee Curtis. She’s a well known spokesperson for recovery advocacy organizations. Do you see that kind of role for you and Chynna going forward? Can you use your profile for causes like this?

We could. We could. I mean, I don’t see why not. When I met my wife, she was three years sober. She was 22 and now she’s nearly 50. She’s been sober since she was 19. She grew up in a rock and roll family, so mental health issues and addiction. Her father was a heroin addict for decades and it killed him. If, somehow, I could put that together.

That format we did for you [EHN] guys would be a great platform for us to go around and talk about show business and family and the strength of marriage and addiction and mental health issues. Yeah, I liked doing it in the format we did. I didn’t want to have Chynna give a speech and then I give a speech. I wanted to sit up there in big fluffy chairs [with] an M.C. and do more of a talk show format, and then throw it out to the audience for questions. I’ve done many of those, but not with Chynna and not on that topic. But I’ve M.C.’d and done chats and all that sorts of stuff in the past.

Your description of one of Daniel’s bottoms was riveting. Did you ever get near that level, that environment that your brother was living, in your own partying years?

In terms of my own personal use, I’ve been around it. I’ve been around Hollywood people and I lived in New York for 25 years, so I’ve been around it with friends and family members, yeah. But, no, I’ve never had that kind of appetite for partying at all.

They say addiction is a family disease. So, when did addiction start affecting you? And now?

I didn’t really have to deal with it a lot. My parents didn’t do drugs and my parents didn’t really drink alcohol. We didn’t really have alcohol in our home, but that was more of a function of the fact that they couldn’t afford it.

I mean, we had it in the house. But my father was never that kind of guy. He was a high school teacher and a coach, so once or twice a year he would go out with some of the other teachers and some of the other coaches on pay day. They would cash their cheques and hit a local watering hole in my home town and my father would have a beer or two, but he was not … you know. Not to say that we were totally devoid of alcoholic behavior. But I really didn’t have a sophistication to identify what it was when I was 12 to 15 years old.
In my early adult life, I would say my earliest introduction was through my brother, Daniel, who was married to his high school sweetheart, had a child with her, got divorced, and in our early days in Hollywood, being around Hollywood people, and being around people [who] were abusing drugs and alcohol and then, my brother Daniel.

Daniel has married and divorced several times, and, more often than not, it has been drug addiction that has destroyed his relationships, and that is something that I was dealing with very early on. Even when I was in the latter years of undergraduate, and the early years in New York City after I’d finished college. I was dealing with bullshit related to his addiction. So, I’ve been running and growing and struggling with it myself – not my own addiction – but struggling with how to deal with [his].

The key being that, you know how, sometimes, when you think you’re helping someone, you’re not helping them. You’re enabling them. Trying to find that balance is always pretty tricky. It’s very challenging because you know you don’t know how to strike a healthy balance. A lot of times people will draw the line in the sand in different places.

Some people had been through this with friends and family for a lot longer than I had been at that point in my life, and they were very hard, very militant about it. ‘You gotta shut em off. You gotta shut em down. Fuck them. Don’t help them. Don’t give them an inch.’ It’s hard. When they are suffering and struggling, it’s hard when it’s a blood relative. It’s hard when they’re married and they have children. That’s something I’ve always struggled with. When children are involved. You want to try and find a way to help the kids without enabling the addict, you know?

Would you say co-dependency is one of your things?

On some level, everybody is. But, how much do you learn? How much do you evolve? How much do you grow? How much do you learn from past co-dependent mistakes? I think I’ve gotten pretty good about it.

You once had a house about 10 minutes away from Stepping Stones, which was Bill and Lois Wilson’s [the founders of AA and Al-Anon] place in Bedford Hills, New York. What are your thoughts on the 12 Step movement?

I think Bill Wilson should posthumously be awarded a Nobel Prize. Tell me where any one individual, unless you discovered penicillin, who else in the history of humanity has saved more lives than that guy? It doesn’t work for everybody. That’s okay. But the 12 Steps, across the board with narcotics, alcohol, with eating disorders – I can’t even quantify – millions of lives this guy has saved at this point.

What is the answer to the addiction crisis facing our two nations, in your mind?

It ain’t fucking Donald Trump, I’ll tell you that. But, I don’t know. I don’t know. This whole heroin thing, the way police departments are dealing with it now. I know a lot of lives are being saved because the cops are now carrying this Narcan [Naloxone]. That’s helping to save a lot of lives. It’s a Band-Aid [solution], but I like that it’s becoming more standard operating procedure. There [are] a lot of police departments that were fighting that, because I guess they didn’t want to be in that business. But they’ve saved quite a few lives, so I’m all for [it].

They say education is the key to this fight. So, what does the average North American need to know about addiction?

I think it’s one part education, one part economy and jobs, and it’s 10 parts God, if you know what I mean. Even then, you’re going to have [a lot] of people slipping through the cracks. But, I’ve never seen the epidemic as bad as it is now.

Even when heroin was chic, back when I was a teenager in the Seventies. The stuff that they have out there now with pot and with heroin, what they’ve done to it, I don’t know what they hell they put into it but, literally, the pot today – you take one or two hits of it and it’s like being on an acid trip in the Seventies.

I don’t do it – but that’s what I hear. It’s incredibly powerful and incredibly addictive. Between heroin and the benzo problem and the painkiller (opioids) problem, you could do heroin one time and no looking back. You’re hooked. It’s scary.

What do [workers] in the field need to know about the importance of what they are doing for a living?

I’ve never been an addict, so maybe it would be better for my brother, Daniel, to answer. He’s a professional in the field that you are in now. He’s still making movies, but he’s professionally doing interventions and putting people into recovery. He’s been doing that professionally for the last 10 or 15 years, particularly in the last five years.

It’s an epidemic. It’s worse than ever before. A lot of the services are being cut. A lot of the funds are being cut. And it’s coming at a time when you guys are needed now, more than ever. It’s stunning to me when you hear people like Trump talking about cutting services for the addicted. Cutting services for mental health. Cutting services for the National Endowment for the Arts, but then giving the Defense Department a $56 billion increase.

What does the term dry drunk mean to you? Have you ever seen it in action, and what does it look like?

Oh, of course. Of course. Dry drunks are frustrating to me. But, at least they have an excuse. The excuse is they are not in the program and they are not working the steps. What is more frustrating for me is somebody who is a raging alcoholic but they don’t do drugs, they don’t do alcohol, they don’t use at all.

They still go to meetings every week. Sometimes only once a week. Sometimes twice a week. They’re 25-30 years sober. They’re going to meetings, but they’re not really working the steps and they are letting or allowing their alcoholism to manifest itself in various ways in their life. It’s almost at an intolerable level and they are making people’s lives absolutely fucking miserable, and they don’t see it. They’re not doing coke. They’re not drinking alcohol. They’re not getting shitfaced. They’re still going to meetings. They go out with their buddies for a cappuccino after the meeting. They check that box. But they’re not really working the steps.

If they were working the steps then they would not be, in terms of OCD, in terms of control, in terms of rage and anger. A lot of times, the disease, when you’re not drinking and not working the steps the right way, you know, there’s transference, [there are] substitutions. A lot of people put it into exercise or sex. I’ve seen a lot of people are still going to the meetings and are raging alcoholics and it’s raging through their personality.

It’s not like I want them to go out and have a drink. But I wish they could see … they don’t see it. So dry drunk – that can be very dangerous. And, in most cases, that can be very unhealthy for somebody to not be using but to not be sober and not be working the steps. That can be upsetting and frustrating, unhealthy and dangerous.

Are you talking friends and family here?

Both. I have extended family and friends sure. And [in] all the experiences of my life, I’ve seen it many times. It’s very rare that I see somebody [who] is truly, truly sober. I see people [who] don’t use. People [who] go to meetings. And people [who], beyond going to meetings, really honestly attempt to work the steps. But, it’s such a challenge to allow that to transcend all aspects of your life.
I’ve rarely seen somebody [who] is sober who [has] allowed it to access and infiltrate and transcend every aspect of their life. Usually, you see the “ism” finding its way through some tributary; it finds a way to work itself into some aspect of their personality. Whether it’s eating, exercise, sex … I don’t know if there’s any such thing as the perfect 12 Stepper.

Your brother, Stephen, actually runs ministries. Your wife is a Christian. So where are you at with God?

I talk about that with my wife. I don’t talk about that in interviews.

Thank you for your time Billy.

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This too shall pass: timeless advice when the going gets tough

By Jeff Vircoe

It’s not exactly something we say to ourselves when the landlord or the dealer’s buddies are pounding on the door.

This too shall pass.

But it is a slogan, a jingle, or an adage that many in recovery use to get through difficult patches. A death. A deadline. A health crisis. A traffic jam.

Though some in the 12 Step fellowships have taken it as their own, “this too shall pass” has a history steeped in wisdom as well as spiritual and philosophical context. The adage can be definitively traced back to the musings and writings of Hebrew, Turkish and Persian scribes, in particular, poets like Sanai (1080-1131) and the Attar of Nishapur (1145-1220).  The saying grew from a fable about a powerful king who was in search of a ring which would bring him happiness whenever he felt sad. His sages presented such a ring, with words to the effect of “this too shall pass” etched on it.

Over time, many story writers, poets and hymnists have created vehicles for the sentiment that sponsors love to use to comfort the rattled or grieving.

In the 19th century, English poet, Edward Fitzgerald, was writing about it. In 1852, he crafted the fable Solomon’s Seal, explaining how the adage had the power to make a sad man happy but, conversely, a happy man sad.

American newspaper editor and abolitionist, Theodore Tilton (1835-1907), reworked the concept when he wrote The King’s Ring in 1867, which noted that, though one could lose anxiety with the passage of difficult times, one should also expect the end of the good times, too. “This too shall pass” waves a double-edged sword.

The great Roman Stoic philosopher and statesman, Seneca, perhaps explained that side best.

“It is in times of security that the spirit should be preparing itself for difficult times; while fortune is bestowing favors on it is then is the time for it to be strengthened against her rebuffs.”

In other words, change is coming.

In modern times, former Led Zeppelin frontman, Robert Plant, recorded a song in 2010 with fellow musician, Buddy Miller, based on Tilton’s poem, Even This Shall Pass Away.

In one of the more widely circulated explanations of the slogan, before he became the United States’ 16th president, even Abraham Lincoln took a run at explaining the story of the Persian king who needed a ring to pick him up when he was down.

On September 30, 1859, the top-hat-wearing, bearded, up-and-coming Republican icon gave a 4,800-word speech to a collection of farmers in Milwaukee and dropped the mic with this:

“It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: “And this, too, shall pass away.” How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! How consoling in the depths of affliction! And this, too, shall pass away.”

While Lincoln was referring to the debate over slavery, modern techniques in agriculture such as the steam plow, and the importance of farming and using the land and labour smartly, the point he was making was that, good or bad, history moves forward. Nothing remains the same. Things change every day.

One of the reasons the adage resonates so much with the recovery crowd is it reminds them that situations which may seem like a dead end – marital, employment, legal – can, and often do, turn on a dime. Some call them acts of providence. Some call them miracles. Others call them coincidences. No matter, changes happen.

“We, who have recovered from serious drinking, are miracles of mental health,” Alcoholics Anonymous co-founder Bill Wilson wrote in the Big Book in the chapter A Vision For You (p. 161). And in his own story on page 11 in the same book, “My ideas about miracles were drastically revised,” Wilson says.

Another popular saying may sum up the essence of “This Too Shall Pass”:

“Don’t quit five minutes before the miracle happens.”

“The world is a wheel always turning,” American novelist Anzia Yezierska (1880-1970) once said. “Those who are high go down low, and those who’ve been low go up higher.”

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One Day at a Time: a slogan bonded in recovery principles

By Jeff Vircoe

A popular television show named itself after it. Several world-famous singers have used it for hit songs, too. Scriptures of several religions hold it up as sage advice. Yet, somehow, the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous probably has the tightest grip of anyone on One Day at a Time.

One Day at a Time has roots in recovery that go back to the very first man Dr. Bob and Bill W. succeeded helping in the summer of 1935.

Bill Dotson was a brilliant, smooth-talking lawyer when sober, but just add alcohol and he turned into one nasty piece of work. Hospitalized eight different times in his last six months of drinking in Akron, Ohio, A.A. Number Three was known to be physically violent with nurses. By the time Bill and Bob made it into Akron City Hospital to try to convince Dotson that they could help him get and stay sober on June 26, 1935, he had already blackened the eyes of two nurses and had been ordered strapped down to his bed.

Dr. Bob had him transferred to a private room. The famous painting, known as The Man in the Bed, was created for the 1955 December Grapevine, depicting a scene from those visits.

As Bill and Bob unpacked the news about his addiction – how it was not a phase, that it was progressive, and how he was destined to end up again in hospital, should he pick up another drink – Bill D. responded on page 187 of the Big Book.

“Yes, Doc, I would like to quit, at least for five, six or eight months, until I get things straightened up, and begin to get the respect of my wife, and some other people back, and get my finances fixed up and so on.”

“They both laughed very heartily,” Dotson would say in a recorded talk given in Canton, Ohio on New Years Day of 1950.

The doctor and the stock market analyst hit Dotson with both barrels, including the need to accept powerlessness, ask for help, turn to God, share with another person the anger and resentments one carries, and make restitution for harms done. But, one of the most poignant moments of that first successful 12th Step occurred when they told Dotson about how important it was to take things a day at a time.

“The next question they asked was, ‘You can quit twenty-four hours, can’t you?’” Dotson said in his recorded talk. “I said, ‘Sure, yes, anybody can do that for twenty-four hours.’ They said, ‘That’s what we’re talking about. Just twenty-four hours at a time.’ That sure did take a load off of my mind. Every time I’d start thinking about drinking, I would think of the long, dry years ahead without having a drink, but this idea of twenty-four hours, that it was up to me from then on, was a lot of help.”

So, the slogan One Day at a Time was used from the very first 12 Step calls, mere days after Dr. Bob had had his last drink.

Bill saw it as effective advice for newcomers.

“Most people feel more secure on the twenty-four-hour basis than they do in the resolution that they will never drink again. Most of them have broken too many resolutions. It’s really a matter of personal choice; every A.A. has the privilege of interpreting the program as he likes.”

So, if One Day at a Time was coming out of the mouths of the co-founders of the 12 Step movement, where would they have come up with it? One likely source is the Good Book, which predated A.A.’s Big Book by hundreds of years. Many Bible study guides point to the saying.

The Our Daily Bread Ministries, founded in 1938, writes this on its website at odb.org:

“The thread of living “one day at a time” is woven throughout the fabric of Scripture. God supplied the Israelites with manna daily (Ex. 16:4). Our heavenly Father’s mercies are new every morning (Lam. 3:22-23). Jesus taught His followers to ask for their “daily bread” (Mt. 6:11) and to refuse to worry about tomorrow (v.34).”

Pastor Rick Warren, who made the cover of Time Magazine in August 2008 for his book, A Purpose Driven Life, puts it this way. “God wants you to trust him one day at a time: Give us this day our daily bread.” Not for next week. Not for next year. Not for next month. Just one day at a time.”
Perhaps no scripture passage rings the One Day at a Time chime louder than the Gospel of Matthew, who wrote in Matt. 6:34: Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

Given the daily readings from the King James Bible that Dr. Bob, his wife Anne, and Bill relied on in that summer of 1935, it would make sense that One Day at a Time was so profound to the first A.A. members.

In official A.A. conference-approved literature, the One Day at a Time philosophy is spelled out clearly for newcomers. Perhaps nowhere is it more succinctly explained than in the A.A. pamphlet This is A.A.: An Introduction to the A.A. Recovery Program, copyrighted in 1984.

The 24-hour plan

“For example, we take no pledges, we don’t say that we will “never” drink again. Instead, we try to follow what we in A.A. call the “24-hour plan,” the pamphlet reads.

“We concentrate on keeping sober just the current 24 hours. We simply try to get through one day at a time without a drink. If we feel the urge for a drink, we neither yield nor resist. We merely put off taking that particular drink until tomorrow.”

Anyone who has been sober for a couple of decades or longer will likely be familiar with one piece of literature called Twenty-four Hours a Day. Published in 1948 by Richard Walker, this handy little black book was the predecessor to A.A.’s Daily Reflections.

Walker, who was a member of the first A.A. group in Boston in 1943, wrote, “If we don’t take that first drink today, we’ll never take it, because it’s always today.”

Expanding his theme to 365 daily readings, Walker’s little black book has sold over nine million copies through Hazelden. Walker explained his One Day at a Time philosophy this way:

“Anyone can fight the battles of just one day. It is only when you and I add the battles of those two awful eternities, yesterday and tomorrow, that we break down. It is not the experience of today that drives us mad. It is the remorse or bitterness for something that happened yesterday or the dread of what tomorrow may bring. Let us therefore do our best to live but one day at a time.”
According to AAAgnostica.org, Walker died in 1965. He had 22 years of sobriety.

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One Day at a Time: Solid advice, in and out of recovery circles

By Jeff Vircoe

The value of living life one day at a time is high, at least if you judge by how many places the advice can be found. Spiritual and religious leaders, philosophers and psychologists, and all kinds of self-help advocates frequently offer up the suggestion of living life in manageable increments.

When it comes to recovery, One Day at a Time is a staple of wise counsel. Certainly, the co-founder of the 12 Step movement, Bill Wilson, understood the therapeutic value.

“On a day-at-a-time basis, I am confident I can stay away from a drink for one day. So I set out with confidence. At the end of the day, I have the reward of achievement. Achievement feels good and that makes me want more!” Wilson is quoted saying in the A.A. conference-approved book, As Bill Sees It.

One Day at a Time is found in A.A.’s basic text book, the Big Book, of course. On page 85, Wilson reminds us that, as addicts, we are not cured of our illness just because we have abstained for some time.

“What we really have is a daily reprieve,” he wrote, “contingent on the maintenance of our spiritual condition.”

When you ask people in the business of addiction treatment who are also in recovery themselves, you quickly find that One Day at a Time is advice they sincerely give and live by.

“For me, it’s about that freedom to start over. There’s a real freedom from the shame and guilt that would immediately hit me. It’s about gratitude of having that gift of a daily reprieve,” says Patty Robertson, a woman with over 25 years in recovery in family programs and a long-time counselor at Edgewood.

“It means being present in the moment and focusing on now. Letting go of the past and, especially for me, God, I want to control the outcomes, I want to worry about the future and I want to live in my self-centered fear. This is an alternative to that.”

One Day at a Time has more than its share of recovery angles. The Al-Anon book, Courage to Change – One Day at a Time, is affectionately called ODAT by many. But it also has practical meaning for many not in recovery.

Mikao Usui, the founder of Reiki, wrote five affirmations that became the principles of Reiki.

Just for today:
1) I will not be angry
2) I will not worry
3) I will be grateful
4) I will do my work honestly
5) I will be kind to every living thing

Powerful suggestions to live by, one day at a time, Usui advised. He was seconded by a host of others.

“Life is like an ice cream cone. You have to lick it one day at a time,” Charles M. Schulz, the creator of Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Lucy and the rest of the Peanuts cartoon gang once said.

U.S. President Abraham Lincoln once referred to the slogan this way: “The best thing about the future is that it comes one day at a time.”

Even Pope John XXIII, the top man in the Vatican from 1958-1963, was sold on the importance of the principals contained in the slogan. He released a Top 10 list of tips for living a better life day by day, known as The Daily Decalogue of Pope John XXIII:

1. Only for today, I will seek to live the livelong day positively without wishing to solve the problems of my life all at once.
2. Only for today, I will take the greatest care of my appearance: I will dress modestly; I will not raise my voice; I will be courteous in my behavior; I will not criticize anyone; I will not claim to improve or to discipline anyone except myself.
3. Only for today, I will be happy in the certainty that I was created to be happy, not only in the other world but also in this one.
4. Only for today, I will adapt to circumstances, without requiring all circumstances to be adapted to my own wishes.
5. Only for today, I will devote 10 minutes of my time to some good reading, remembering that just as food is necessary to the life of the body, so good reading is necessary to the life of the soul.
6. Only for today, I will do one good deed and not tell anyone about it.
7. Only for today, I will do at least one thing I do not like doing; and if my feelings are hurt, I will make sure that no one notices.
8. Only for today, I will make a plan for myself: I may not follow it to the letter, but I will make it. And I will be on guard against two evils: hastiness and indecision.
9. Only for today, I will firmly believe, despite appearances, that the good Providence of God cares for me as no one else who exists in this world.
10. Only for today, I will have no fears. In particular, I will not be afraid to enjoy what is beautiful and to believe in goodness. Indeed, for 12 hours I can certainly do what might cause me consternation were I to believe I had to do it all my life.

Reiki masters, presidents and popes notwithstanding, in modern times, most people seem to associate recovery and One Day at a Time as being synonymous. Asked about his prolific writing history, Canadian rock icon Neil Young once said, “I just wrote one song at a time. Kinda like an alcoholic. One day at a time.”

Sergio O., a man with over 29 years clean in Narcotics Anonymous, sees One Day at a Time as essentially being the same as N.A.’s frequently used mantra “Just for Today.”

“Just for Today to an addict means there is a responsibility to stay clean just for today. The addict mind always worries about what? I’m going to have to stay clean the rest of my life. So, he never stays in the moment. Just for Today helps the individual to stay clean just for today,” says Sergio, who has been helping addicts find recovery for over a quarter century.

“As you go on deeper into recovery, then the second stage of recovery, as I call it, happens,” he says. “Life gets real. We try to solve the problems of the future. So, that’s when we start learning to take responsibility just for today. When it comes to people, places and things we learn to be responsible, just for today. To stay in the moment.”

Living one day at a time does not mean swearing off drinking or drugging with other substances or behaviors forever, even though we know that’s what we need to do. In the A.A. Pamphlet This is A.A.: An Introduction to the AA Recovery Program produced by the fellowship in 1984, the authors put it this way.

“We take no pledges, we don’t say that we will ‘never’ drink again. Instead, we try to follow what we in A.A. call the ‘24-hour plan.’ We concentrate on keeping sober just the current twenty-four hours. We simply try to get through one day at a time without a drink. If we feel the urge for a drink, we neither yield nor resist. We merely put off taking that particular drink until tomorrow.”

It goes on to say:

“Today is the only day we have to worry about. And we know from experience that even the ‘worst’ drunks can go twenty-four hours without a drink. They may need to postpone that next drink to the next hour, even the next minute — but they learn that it can be put off for a period of time.”
In practical terms, those with the disease and those without it seem to understand that the slogan One Day at a Time is all about calming one’s self down long enough to do the next right thing. John M., an Edgewood counselor with 30 years in Al-Anon and another 28 in A.A., has been counseling addicts for 26 years.

“One Day at a Time really just breaks it down. I can get overwhelmed when I think about the future. Crazy making. I want to control it. Run it. Panic about it. My anxiety goes up through the roof. But when I just stay in one day at a time, I can manage that.”

He also recommends taking it deeper, if necessary.

“Sometimes I break it down even more to just this hour. Or the next five minutes. So, it helps break things down to manageable segments, a manageable load.”

One day at a Time is a philosophy and counsel that can be applied to all sorts of addicts, their family members, or non-addicts. The overwhelmed, anxious moments all humans face can be eased with getting grounded, and this slogan provides that relief.

“Is it common for addicts to feel overwhelmed? Oh yeah. Incredibly. It crosses all forms of how addiction acts out. Addicts and alcoholics, myself included, we are so used to having to manage and control and figure out and second guess. So, being able to just breathe and figure out what’s the next right thing, instead of two weeks from now, what’s the healthy thing that I can do right now? It makes all the difference in the world.”

 

 

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KEEP IT SIMPLE: A mainstay slogan for addiction recovery, but one with time tested roots

By Jeff Vircoe

Leonardo da Vinci is often credited with saying that simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.

Albert Einstein put it this way: If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.

The message behind both? Keep it simple.

The history of recovery from addiction tells us that if ever there were two men who had reason to be losing their minds to sophisticated chaos, it was William Griffith Wilson and Robert Holbrook Smith.

The two co-founders of Alcoholics Anonymous (pictured above) launched an anything-but-simple, volunteer, not-for-profit organization with no rules and no president. Through growing pains, which included rejections, salutations, anonymity breaks, scientific and religious praise and plenty of scathing reviews, too, there was nothing simple about it. With membership including rubbies, rummies, pill-poppers, atheists, agnostics and mentally disordered crackpots from all walks of life, it wasn’t exactly a recipe for success. Yet, somehow, though they didn’t get to see the current version, the baby which Dr. Bob and Bill W. birthed blossomed to over 2 million members around the world.

Yet, as complicated as the story of A.A. has been, the Keep It Simple slogan has become closely associated with the fellowship that has saved countless lives.

Variations of the Keep It Simple term were not invented by Da Vinci (1452-1519) nor the A.A. co-founders, of course. They weren’t claimed to be. The concepts and origins of the value of simplicity are thousands of years old. Around the year AD 55, the Apostle Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 11:3, “But I fear, lest somehow the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, so your minds may be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ.”

Half a century before that, in 551 BC, the great Chinese teacher, Confucius, had this to say: “Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.” He also advised to “Keep it simple and focus on what matters. Don’t let yourself be overwhelmed.”

So, the idea of keeping things simple has long been in the lexicon of mankind’s languages. Contemporary advocates of keeping things simple included the prolific author Tom Clancy, whose complicated novels included The Hunt for Red October and Clear and Present Danger. Though his stories were teeming with complex political and military intrigue, the writing of the books themselves required a whole lot of simplicity.

“I do not over-intellectualize the production process,” he once said. “I try to keep it simple: Tell the damned story.”

One look at the online store eBay will tell you how popular the slogan Keep it Simple is; Judge Judy Sheindlin wrote a book titled Keep it Simple Stupid about amusing true crime cases. Keep It Simple was also the name of books from Weight Watchers, gardening buffs, breast feeders and even NFL quarterbacks – Terry Bradshaw wrote Keep It Simple in 2002.

It’s a pretty flexible slogan. In the 1960s United States Navy, Keep It Simple was a design principle advocated for weapons systems. Their Keep It Simple, Stupid (KISS) acronym was a way of saying most things work better if made simple instead of complicated. According to Wikipedia, lead engineer Kelly Johnson was credited with coining the saying after handing a team of aircraft designers a handful of tools and explaining that, under combat conditions, the average mechanic had to be able to make repairs with just the barest of equipment at his or her disposal.

To those who owe their lives to the fellowships of recovery, the term Keep It Simple comes with some serious historical 12 Step cache. It’s one of the most revered sayings in the history of Alcoholics Anonymous.

It goes back to at least two instances of note, both involving the co-founders.

The first happened in the summer of 1950. Dr. Bob Smith was dying of colon cancer. Alcoholics Anonymous was hosting its first ever International Convention, in Cleveland, Ohio, just an hour’s drive from Dr. Bob’s home in Akron. Many thought he was too sick to speak at the event.

Al S., a friend and A.A. member from New York, drove Dr. Bob to Cleveland.

“All he said was, ‘I’m tired. Please excuse me if I don’t talk,’” Al recalled in the A.A. book Dr. Bob and the Good Oldtimers. “I didn’t think he was going to make it.”

Nonetheless, though he had been bedridden for five of the past seven months, Dr. Bob steadfastly stood at the podium in front of 3,000 people on July 30th for his farewell talk to A.A. members.

In a speech which lasted mere moments, he explained how he could not miss this first convention. And he shared on the slogan on which this story is based.

“There are two or three things that flashed into my mind on which it would be fitting to lay a little emphasis,” he said to a hushed crowd. “One is the simplicity of our program. Let’s not louse it up with Freudian complexes and things that are interesting to the scientific mind, but have very little to do with our actual A.A. work,” he said. “Our 12 Steps, when simmered down to the last, resolve themselves into the words ‘love’ and ‘service’. We understand what love is, and we understand what service is. So let’s bear those two things in mind.”

Seeing the man who had saved so many lives in that condition was not an easy sight, the book reports.

“As he finished, those who watched could easily see that the exertion of saying the brief words had left him physically weak and spent. Try as he would, he was forced to leave. In consternation, thousands of eyes followed him as he left the stage.”

Dr. Bob was to succumb to the illness less than four months after that talk, on Nov. 16, 1950.

The second moment of clarity, as far as Keep It Simple goes, happened when Bill Wilson, the other co-founder, got a final up-close and personal sense of Dr. Bob’s energy a few weeks later when he went up to Akron to see his old friend. Wilson was forever struck by the vision of his peer dying.

In his book, Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, written in 1957, Wilson recalled that final meeting, when he and the doctor agreed that an annual conference featuring sober A.A. delegates from around the world was the way to lead the fellowship into the future.

“A few hours later I took my leave of Dr. Bob, knowing that the following week he was to undergo a very serious operation,” he writes on page 214. “Neither of us dared say what was in our hearts. We both knew that this might well be the last decision that we would ever make together.”

“I went down the steps and then turned to look back. Bob stood in the doorway, tall and upright as ever. Some color had come back to his cheeks, and he was carefully dressed in a light gray suit. This was my partner, the man with whom I never had a hard word. The wonderful, old, broad smile was on his face as he said almost jokingly, “Remember, Bill, let’s not louse this thing up. Let’s keep it simple!” I turned away, unable to say a word. That was the last time I ever saw him.”

In closing, Keep It Simple was a classic Dr. Bob saying. He urged members to stay away from overanalyzing the program, and to stick to love and service and spiritual matters as the answer to their dilemma.

 

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The therapeutic value of Keep It Simple

By Jeff Vircoe

The Akron surgeon probably knew the therapeutic value of the term as well as anyone.

But when Dr. Robert Smith offered Keep It Simple as prescription for the good health of one Bill Wilson, he probably had no idea how profound that little slogan would become.

Keep It Simple was one of the most frequently used slogans by Dr. Bob. On record, he offered it up on the railway platform when Bill left Akron to return home to New York after the summer of 1935. He used it again during his last talk to the membership at the 1950 Alcoholics Anonymous International Convention in Cleveland. And, he encouraged Wilson to pay attention to the simplicity message the last time the two cofounders of A.A. spent time together, just weeks before Dr. Bob died in November 1950.

Sixty seven years later, in countless meeting rooms around the globe and in thousands of treatment centres like Edgewood in Nanaimo, B.C. (part of the Edgewood Health Network) the slogan Keep It Simple is still considered a fundamental slice of the recovery pie.

Apparently, addicts need that simplicity. It makes sense.

“Drug addiction is a complex illness,” reads the first page on the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) website.

As one of the world’s leading researchers into the health aspects of drug abuse and addiction, NIDA is about as scientific in its definitions and vocabulary as any organization. Its credibility is impeccable. With articles on diagnostic methods, pharmacology, and use of heady terms like endogenous and cardiac arrhythmias, organizations like NIDA help scientists and doctors, treatment centre counselors, and you and I to figure out the mechanics of what is wrong and what is fixable with our brains. Yet, with scientific language about as exciting as watching grass grow, it’s not exactly Keeping It Simple. So, by telling readers that, first and foremost, “drug addiction is a complex illness,” NIDA’s intro speaks volumes.

If drug addiction is a complex illness, it probably goes without saying that addicts are complex people. But are they?

Not necessarily so, says one woman with a decade of working with and studying addicts.

“I believe there is not a huge difference, sometimes, between the life problems that addicts face and the life problems that somebody without active addiction faces,” says Dr. Christina Basedow. “One of the main differences that I see is the amount of obsession that is given to those types of problems. So I wouldn’t say that addicts necessarily complicate things, but I think the obsession that comes as part of addiction complicates things.”

With a PhD in Psychology, Basedow is the supervisor of the continuing care team at Edgewood Treatment Centre in Nanaimo. Her team of counselors treats patients in extended care – a typically three-month phase of treatment which follows two months of inpatient residential treatment. In extended care, patients continue with the group therapy in which they’ve been extensively involved in inpatient treatment. But, they are also transitioning back into work or school, volunteering, and attending 12 Step meetings in the community. It’s a transition back to the outside life awaiting them: bills, relationships, jobs, kids and health issues. You know – life. Everyone’s got problems, and everyone has their own way of navigating through them. But, by the sheer nature of addiction, the level of obsessiveness with which addicts roll into recovery makes dealing with life, well, complicated.

“There’s a belief that addicts think that ‘normal’ people don’t have all of these [life] issues,” says Basedow, “and they think, ‘There is something wrong with me – there’s something different and I’m sick.’ But, really, it’s not that ‘normal’ people don’t have issues. It’s just that they don’t obsess to the nth degree about them.”

With a decade of experience studying and helping addicts, Basedow explains how the addict can’t necessarily help him- or herself when it comes to how they process information.

“Addiction has definitely got a brain disorder component. We’ve seen that. If you look at it from a hereditary perspective or a thought process perspective, the cognitive distortion perspective, there’s definitely something that’s dysregulated in the brain when it comes to active addiction, especially when someone is using. It can re-regulate when we get into recovery. But, in the active phases of addiction, there is absolutely a cognitive dissonance component and a brain component to it.”

The idea of interfering in the crazy-making, obsessive, compulsive mind of an addict means hope is available, but it requires a complete overhaul of how addicts approach their lives. A rerouting of the brain patterns and responses to issues. The 12 Step movement offers one way. Psychotherapy offers a way. Medication management, diet and exercise, pet therapy, religious programs – many suggested avenues appear on the map toward recovery.

At Edgewood, what has been found to be successful is taking an honest inventory of what has been going on in active addiction, studying the story told by the addict brain and comparing it to the facts. So, a lot of time is spent on assignments like Step One, and on questions like how have chemicals placed your life or lives of others in jeopardy? Have you lost self respect due to chemical usage? What is it about your behavior that your spouse-friends-family object to the most? Questions like these, truthfully answered, can start the process of rewiring the complicated web of half-truths, full on lies, or imaginary instances with which many addicts have been living in their un-simple world.

Dr. Basedow says the assignments and plenty of group therapy are about getting to the truth and changing the story.

“It’s about sorting out what the story is that this person has been telling themselves sometimes from childhood onward, what has kept the lies alive, what has kept them disassociating or kept them complicated or kept them using. Re-narrating the story into something that’s a lot more simplistic. It could be something as simple as, ‘I had a lot of stuff happen in my childhood, and some of them were really traumatic. And, because of that, I didn’t connect with people. And, because of that, I told myself that I was unworthy and unlovable. And, because of that, I was …’ It’s about asking, ‘How do I re-narrate all of these thoughts that I’ve had into a story line that has led me to use?’”

“That’s why we use group therapy, because, then, more people than just one can help re-narrate the story and confront the masks you wear and the different types of stories you’ve created for yourself and the way that you keep yourself away from people. And, just the lies you’ve told yourself, whether it’s the victim stance or whether it’s a different type of role.”

Once the honesty aspect – the truth about our situation – is established within us and with others, then recovery can grow from a spark into a life filled with ups and downs.

Keep It Simple means understanding that life is not always up or down.

“When you get into recovery, everything feels different. You’re not using a substance of process or choice. And because you’ve used it to regulate your emotions for so long, you don’t know that this flood of emotions, this roller coaster, is a normal part of early recovery, and the problems that people in early recovery are facing are not abnormal. People out there [who] don’t have substance abuse issues are also struggling with things and also don’t know how to cope. They just don’t pick up [an addiction] to get through them,” says Basedow.

Perhaps no item provided by Edgewood staff to patients is as useful as the Aftercare Plan. A one-page document which describes in simple detail a list of items to follow each day to maintain the spark of recovery embedded in treatment, the Aftercare Plan keeps things in a simple order.

Meetings. Sponsorship. A home group. Aftercare. Exercises to look after physical, spiritual and mental health. Nothing too complicated, the Aftercare Plan is Keep It Simple in action.

The willingness to enact their plan is on the addict.

If you’ve spent money and time on feeding your addiction and it led you to a point of devastation and you or your loved ones chose to spend money and time getting help, including treatment at one of Canada’s most widely recognized centres, then Keep It Simple means carrying on the process of recovery, bumps and all.

“I think there is solid therapeutic value in Keep It Simple,” says Basedow. “Really, what we are saying in Keep It Simple is don’t trust your mental obsession. Don’t trust the constant reoccurring thoughts as your brain is rewiring itself. Don’t trust that all of those ideas are good. Don’t trust that [you] should act on every impulse. Don’t trust that [you] should re-engage with every person that [you] thought that maybe [you] shouldn’t have. Basically, don’t act on impulse is what keep it simple is all about. Keep it grounded. Keep it connected. That’s the whole purpose, really.”

 

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Recovering addicts have close relationship with Keep It Simple

 

By Jeff Vircoe

Looking out at the beaming crowd of some 3,000 sober alcoholics, the doctor who co-founded the movement spoke for just 10 minutes, but what he said has lasted generations.

“There are two or three things that flashed into my mind on which it would be fitting to lay a little emphasis.  One is the simplicity of our program. Let’s not louse it all up with Freudian complexes and things that are interesting to the scientific mind, but have very little to do with our actual A.A. work. Our Twelve Steps, when simmered down to the last, resolve themselves into the words “love” and “service.” We understand what love is, and we understand what service is. So let’s bear those two things in mind.”

The simplicity of the program. Freudian complexes can louse it up.

Two thoughts, which when added up clearly mean Dr. Bob Smith’s idea for the continuing success of the program was Keep It Simple. Spoken in the last year of his life, when he was dying of colon cancer, when he was 15 years sober, at a public auditorium in Cleveland, the Keep It Simple slogan was forever solidified as one of AA’s standards.

The slogan has always resonated with addicts. In the meeting rooms, one can regularly hear the comment “This is a simple program for complicated people.” Or “Get out of your own way.” Or “I’ve never seen anyone too dumb to get this program but I’ve seen many who were too smart.”

Addicts of all ages, walks of life and time in recovery chimed in for this story about the slogan. From Halifax to Victoria, they see the need for Keep It Simple regularly.

“Over thinking kills,” says Eric P., a man with almost 20 years off the bottle. He offers a fascinating insight into the addict mind, even in recovery. What does on between the ears of a perfectly sane human is on one hand comical, on the other, sad and frustrating for the addict.

“Am I going to do this thing or not? It seems simple, but I have never been good at this. This could be a new adventure, but I have always been afraid. Some people think I am dumb but this could show them … oh it’s too late. Shit. Am I going to do this? Yes or no? Yes – do it!”

Complicating a simple situation is a regular occurrence for addicts it seems. Lauren M., a woman with 29 years of recovery, explains it this way.

“Negative thinking will take over and I will talk myself out of something before I even start. Also known as the f-it syndrome.”

When you ask a question of an addict to explain why Keep It Simple is good advice, expect the proof in the pudding.

“Even trying to write down a good answer, I’m over-thinking,” says Edgewood alumnus Andrew Z., a man with recovery since 2012.

“Keeping it simple keeps the crazy hamster at bay,” says Kellyanne. “Break it down to one nanosecond task at a time.”

Roberta D., a woman with nearly 30 years in recovery puts it this way.

“We (addicts) are so good at complicating things. We’re too much in our heads. Keep It Simple helps us relax and let go.”

The advice that Dr. Bob gave the 3,000 who heard him share in Cleveland all those years ago about simplifying the program is as pertinent to some members of 12 Step programs today as it was then. Some believe the answer to addiction – the solution – remains the same.

“Keep It Simple applies to the Steps,” says Dave R., a man with over 35 years in.  “Over the past few years so many different ways of doing the Steps have come about and have actually complicated and misrepresented the original 12 Steps. The program was developed in such a way that the process is simple and does not have to be complicated at all.”

Kella-Lee N., an Edgewood alumnus with nearly 14 years clean, agrees.

“I think if we believe that the program is simple, it helps us to stop overthinking things and complicate recovery. Really it all boils down to trust God, clean house and help others. Simple eh?”

 

 

 

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When it comes to Higher Power, open mind, insert relief

By Jeff Vircoe

The old-timer grunted it out.

“There are only two things you need to know about God, son: There is one. And you’re not it.”

When I first heard that proclamation at the Out To Lunch Bunch 12 Step meeting in North East Calgary back in 1986, I nearly spit out my coffee. It was so outrageously sanctimonious, yet, at the same time, so very helpful. I was, of course, too new and too afraid to say I had no idea what the hell I was doing in this cult. I just sat there and laughed between my ears where nobody could see me.

I didn’t believe in a Christian God.  Okay – I was more afraid that there was a God because if there was, I was in big trouble. But I got the point just the same – I’m not all that and a bag of chips. I was just another drunk trying to get better, and I needed to keep that in mind.

As time has gone by, I’ve actually learned to pay more attention to the hidden gems in the slogans. While interviewing people for this one, I had an atheist tell me that There is a God and You’re Not It was an “idiot slogan” that he didn’t bother processing or interpreting.

I understood his disgust. I also understand that, like it or not, more people in recovery believe in a Higher Power than not, so it is up to me to figure out how to deal with what seem like over the top slogans that are occasionally spouted in recovery rooms.

Asking around, it seems people in recovery – renowned for taking things too seriously – actually don’t worry too much about this one.

Thirty-three year-old Elspeth just finished her time in Edgewood’s Extended Care program. Though she spent the better part of attending meetings, to the tune of five a week, she says she never heard the slogan “There is a God and you’re not it.”

But it gave her something to think about, and as she pondered it, a smile crossed her face.

“What immediately comes to mind are other slogans. Like running your own show. In the therapeutic sense, it is the block on my Wall [assignment] of terminal uniqueness,” she said, moments after receiving her treatment medallion in the lecture hall for completing treatment.

As a recovering addict, knowing you are not God and that you need help from others to survive is fundamental stuff, says Anthony C., an Edgewood alumnus, former chaplain and current counselor. He says most addicts don’t trust people so they end up trusting themselves as their own higher powers. Not a good idea.

“Unless they fire themselves as their authority and their God, they are going to continue to be slaves to addiction,” says Anthony. “If they fire themselves as God, they need to find something that is greater than their addiction and greater than themselves, that will help them and they can trust.”

The power of “We”, found in other recovering addicts and the first word of the first of the 12 Steps. A creator. A supreme deity. The home group – whatever, the bottom line with the slogan is its important to learn to ask something greater than yourself for help. Stop being God!

“Discovering that I’m not God is like ‘ahhhhh,’ says Shaun Jessop, a chaplain at Edgewood. “It’s a relief. Because it’s not all my responsibility. And I’m not where I’m at solely because of me. There are more things going on than just me being a horrible person in this addiction, in this disease, you know?” he said. “I’m not alone. I can identify. Because when you are your own God, your own Higher Power, you’re isolated. There’s so much pressure. All that weight on your shoulders.”

That makes sense to newcomers.

“Actually, there is a lot of power in the relief that would provide,” Elspeth concurred. “Finding the relief and knowing you think you’re doing yourself a favour by being all powerful and in charge. The relief it provides in knowing I’m not!  It all comes back to Step Three and turning it over, and realizing that that is unburdening yourself. Allowing things to happen without obsessing about the outcomes. Relinquishing control.”

That from the mouth of someone just getting into recovery, newly post-treatment.

In the rooms of recovery, others who’ve been around a while have a whole different pallet on the slogan.

One woman in Parksville, who will notch 30 years of sobriety later this summer, is Renée L.. She says when she works with newcomers regarding the slogan, she tries to keep it simple.

“I tell them to look for the essence behind the saying,” says Renée. “It just means I’m not in charge of the universe. I don’t have control over anything or anyone but my own actions and attitude. Not even a little bit. So, quit trying!”

The essence, she says, is humility.

“I take responsibility for my own stuff and never mind what’s going on on the outside – it’s none of my business how others live. There is no room in recovery for self-importance. Self-respect and self-care, yes. Self-importance, no.”

Another old-timer, familiar to most who have a connection to Edgewood, is Sergio O.. With 29 years of clean time and 17 years counseling addicts at Edgewood, he also sees the principle of humility at play when it comes to There is a God and you’re not it.

“In the early stage of my recovery, I used to hear that,” he says with a smile and a nod. “For me today, it says there needs to be a lot of humility. Being humble. There is a power greater than myself, which I call God, or love, today. For me it’s about God, it’s about loving. It’s not a mystery; it’s not something up in the sky. It’s in my spirit and in my heart. That’s the meaning for me. I’m not it.”

Whether you have decades clean, days in recovery or somewhere in between, the point of the slogan “There is a God and you’re not it” resonates. Chelsea P. completed Edgewood back in early 2012. Five years later, she sees the slogan as something to not get all twisted up over.

First of all, I love this slogan. It brings the good ol’ ego down a couple of notches,” said Chelsea, adding, “I don’t hear it often in the rooms, but when I do, it’s from someone who’s been around for a while.”

Like many, the whole God issue is something that can frustrate newcomers if they let it, which she chooses not to.

“I don’t need to overthink it. Simply put, this whole HP [higher power] thing exists even if I can’t explain it and even if I don’t initially believe in it,” says Chelsea. “Being open to something I don’t understand is sometimes hard to grasp but it’s also been very comforting for me. And the fact that I’m not God – well, what a relief!”

“Imagine if I had that kind of power. Or you. Or any of us. What a weight to carry on my shoulders. I can trust that something is out there that is guiding me, and I can choose to seek that guidance on a daily basis. I am not God. Nor do I wish to be. I thank my HP for that,” she said, with a wink.

The post When it comes to Higher Power, open mind, insert relief appeared first on Edgewood Health Network.

Can spirituality and therapy get along?

By Jeff Vircoe

If you came into recovery at peace with the God word, the old-school A.A. slogan “There is a God and you’re not it” won’t particularly bother you.

You’re not alone. Studies show that most people do have some kind of God with whom they are comfortable. Gallup Polls conducted in the U.S. in 2005 showed that 90 percent of respondents held a belief in a personal God. Arguably, that may be different in Canada, but the point is that the conclusion that “there is a God and the guy or gal in the mirror ain’t it” just doesn’t freak the majority of people out.

Psychotherapists and religious types have long been at odds with one another about this topic. The great Sigmund Freud once characterized spiritual experiences as pathological, an illusion, and “an infantile need for a powerful father figure.” The renowned American psychologist Albert Ellis once deemed all religion as “childish dependency.”

In a modern, evidence-based society, especially in the health industry in which addiction therapy finds itself, old-school slogans containing the God word can be problematic to qualify if you are a clinician.

While the nature of the “G word” is debatable, it has always been part of deal for millions who practice the 12 Step way of life. Anyone who takes a chair in 12 Step rooms will hear regular talk of Higher Powers at meetings, and witness the omnipresent scroll of the Steps on the wall that ooze and encourage spiritual discussion way more than they do abstinence.

So, God or no God, faith or no faith, agnostic or atheist, just how does one qualify the slogan “There is a God and you’re not it” as good therapy?

Those who have their sleeves rolled up and are doing the work say it can and is being done.

Like many things in recovery, it all depends on how you choose to look at it.

“Well, first off, what is God? Who or what am I taking directions from in my life?” says Edgewood Treatment Centre counselor and former chaplain, Anthony Cafik.

As a man who has been on the receiving end of literally hundreds of Fifth Steps, he says that the word God in that slogan is not necessarily what people assume is meant.

“In addiction, if my choice has been taken away to say no to alcohol and drugs after I pick up the first drink, it is officially where I am taking my direction from. It is my authority. Someone in their active addiction, in their delusion, may think that, just because they didn’t say no to it, that they can freely say yes, they don’t see that they are a slave. That is their God.”

As Cafik sees it, they already have a God and they just don’t know it.

“It’s not religious, no. It is whatever is the authority and direction you are taking from in your life.”

In the rooms of recovery, most members are quick to point out that religion and spirituality are very different animals.

“Religion is for those afraid of going to hell. Spirituality is for those who have already been there,” the saying goes.

Many people who are not big fans of the “G word” are often put off by the amount of religious overtones in the literature or even the shares of group members. That may be unfortunate, given that, in the A.A. Preamble, members are assured that the organization is not affiliated with any sect or denomination. Nonetheless, it is important to remember the roots of the program come from an evangelical Christian movement and, as such, many old-timers were raised on the language passed on to them from their sponsors. Language that includes the word God.

So, is there a God? That’s far too complex a subject to cover in this story. But if you are one of those who believe there is, there is evidence to show that you can benefit from that way of looking at things.

In a opinion column for the National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine, Dr. Ruth Buczynski commented on the a pair of studies done by psychologist David Rosmarin and his team at the Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital in 2011.

The idea of the studies was to see how spirituality and belief impact worry and doubt – things most addicts suffer through in great detail once the fog lifts and when the truth of their new sober life is looking at them square in the face. The results of the study, which included 332 subjects, showed how participants who chose to believe in a caring God reported lower levels of worry and were more open to uncertainty.

“Some therapists are hesitant to include spirituality in their practice. But if it can calm worries and lower stress, wouldn’t we want to integrate it into practice?” Buczynski writes.

In another study, this one in 2015 by London, UK-based psychologists Yveline Arnaud, Ava Kanyeredzi and Jacqueline Lawrence, the clinicians found that, in the analysis of 10 recorded one-hour interviews, it could be argued that “the Higher Power is not only central to sobriety but also to the well-being of A.A. members, whatever their original or current declared spiritual or religious beliefs may be.”

The study quoted from the late American psychiatrist and best-selling author Scott Peck, who once said, “the importance attributed to the HP is seen by some as the main reasons why A.A. has been much more effective than psychiatry in treating alcoholics, because A.A. addresses the spiritual needs of these people – something that traditional psychotherapy, with its secular humanist values, does not address.”

In a 2012 posting on Scotland’s Castle Craig Hospital website, the facility noted that Peck’s main criticism of western psychiatry is that “it disregards spirituality.”

“In 1992, he was invited to address the American Psychiatric Association and he told them that people were turning away from the profession because they were unable to discuss spiritual issues with their psychiatrist. He urged them to incorporate spirituality into their thinking and stop the loss of patients to “the competition” – lay, fundamentalist and new age healers.”

After six years working as a chaplain at Surrey Pretrial Services Centre, a high security remand centre for men, Edgewood chaplain Shaun Jessop says the God issue is front and centre for those arriving at the House of Miracles, as Edgewood is fondly referred to by many of its alumni.

“It’s huge. I find, with a lot of patients that come in, the God thing, they don’t want anything to do with it. It’s religion and all that kind of thing,” says Jessop, an ordained minister with a Bachelor’s Degree in Sacred Literature.

Hearing slogans like the ones recovering old-timers hurl about like Frisbees regarding the higher power concept can be a powerful, and even necessary, wake up call.

“So, it’s the beginning [of] redefining what is God and what’s religion. It’s kind of drawing the line in the sand and saying, ‘Okay, religion is one thing, God is another thing.’ They tie the two together all the time,” he says.

“It is beginning that journey of connecting with something outside of themselves. A lot of them come in and they already are their own Higher Powers. So, it’s a case of, ‘How is that working for you?”

And once they are getting curious about God, then comes the next piece: You’re not it. That often brings with it a sense of relief when the implication is understood, Jessop says.

“You’re not it? It’s very freeing. People don’t usually think they’re God – but they act like it. Self-centeredness. Grandiosity. False pride. Where the whole world revolves around them. A victim mentality. Where they think that everything outside of Edgewood relates to them, or is because of them.”

When you are your own God, your own Higher Power, you’re isolated, he says. There’s so much pressure. The weight is on your shoulders.

“The ‘you’re not God’ part? Connecting with the ‘We’ is a huge starting point. Because that spirituality thing, well, it’s often too vague and weird. So, it becomes about starting to connect in group [therapy]. Beginning to connect with somebody outside of yourself. They begin doing that and then they’re like, ‘Oh, this helps! This is great!’ and it gives them life and freedom. Then that builds that confidence to step out a bit more out of their comfort zones. To risk a bit more with prayer, with meditation. So, it’s baby steps.”

Anthony Cafik agrees.

“Many come from homes of addiction, and that means abuse. [The] authority figure becomes abusive and, therefore, they can’t trust it. So, guess what? They become their own God. ‘I’m going to make the choices in my life so I don’t have to get hurt like that again.’ They choose something to comfort them because that’s a lonely place. So, alcohol and drugs. Then they become a slave to that, unknowingly. So, unless they fire themselves as their authority and their God, they are going to continue to be slaves to addiction,” says Cafik.

“If they fire themselves as God, they need to find something that is greater than their addiction and greater than themselves, that will help them and they can trust.”

The door is open for addicts to choose their own concept of a power greater than themselves. It certainly does not have to be religious. Many choose this power of “We” that facilities like Edgewood support. An addict and his or her peers can do it. “If that person can stay sober, why can’t I?” One addict talking to another. Group of Drunks. Good Orderly Direction. Acronyms abound.

Of course, not everyone buys into the slogans which imply a supernatural being at play.

Asked for his opinion on the “There is a God and you’re not it” slogan, Roger C., website master of Toronto’s A.A. Agnostica site had this to say: “There are idiot slogans that I don’t process or interpret, and that is one of them.”

In this fellowship, whose expressed written Third Tradition assures members that “the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking”, the message is clear: Take what you like and leave the rest.

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Digesting the religiosity of some of the language of recovery

 

By Jeff Vircoe

“There are only two things you need to know about the spiritual side of the program. There is a God and you’re not it.”

To anyone who has been sober in A.A. a long time, as in 20 or more years, they will likely have heard this admonishment in smoke-filled rooms.

It’s a slogan that brings smiles to the faces of many old-school members. It is also about as polarizing a statement as you can find in the program. It is the line in the sand for those who struggle with “the God thing”; it’s saying on the surface that, in this outfit, we believe in a supreme deity. And, since it is supreme, it does not need your assistance. You need it. That scares the bejesus out of some who have God issues.

But really, should it?

First off, there is no record in any literature of A.A. or any other 12 Step program where “There is a God and you’re not it” is conference-approved. It just isn’t. So, when someone makes such a statement, they are not speaking for A.A., N.A. or any A at all. They are merely voicing an opinion. No different than if someone were to say, “There is no God, nor am I it,” or “There is a God, and I’m pretty sure Morgan Freeman is it.” It’s an opinion. Though some folks in recovery believe there are too many opinions, the truth is people are allowed, and even encouraged, to express theirs – especially in a meeting setting.

“There is a God, and you’re not it” may be just an opinion, but it is one with sentimental and historically contextual background.

It is important to remember that Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith did not sober up in A.A., they found abstinence in an organization called The Oxford Group, an evangelical Christian fellowship founded by an American Lutheran minister named Dr. Frank Buchman. Originally called A First Century Christian Fellowship, at its peak in the late 1930s The Oxford Group had roughly 50,000 followers in the United States.

Buchman, who believed that the root of all humanity’s problems was fear and selfishness, was not shy about the solution to these problems.

“The world is anxiously waiting to see what Jesus Christ can do in, by, for, and through one man wholly given to him – God led,” he told prospects. “You can be that man.”

Amongst other things, Buchman and his followers believed that sin was the block between God and a person, and selfishness and self-centeredness were primary problems to be dealt with. The theory was if you surrendered your ego to God, sin would leave.

Through a process of conversion, which included confession, conviction, confidence, and continuance, members aimed towards practicing absolute honesty, unselfishness, love and purity – considered to be the moral principles espoused by Jesus Christ.

There is no doubt that the Oxford Group, which accepted Bill Wilson into its midst in New York City and Dr. Bob Smith in Akron, Ohio, believed there was a God and His name was Jesus.

A.A. co-founder, Bill Wilson, always gave credit to The Oxford Group for being the foundation from which A.A. would stem.

“The early A.A. got its ideas of self-examination, acknowledgement of character defects, restitution for harm done, and working with others straight from the Oxford Group,” Wilson wrote in the book Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, first published in 1957.

Dr. Bob’s expressed attitude about Bible study, prayers, and use of devotional Christian literature, as well as his unrelenting advice for new A.A. members to join a church, are legendary. In his mind, there was no doubt about God. To have someone say, “There is a God and you’re not it” wouldn’t have rankled him, or many in Akron Oxford Group circles, one bit. Things were different in New York, where Bill was struggling with the religiosity of the program.

Up until the moment of his so-called “hot flash” (what he called his vital spiritual experience) in the detox ward at Towns Hospital in December 1934, “I still gagged badly on the notion of a Power greater than myself,” Wilson wrote in on page 63 of Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age. But after his experience in which he says “the room lit up with a great white light. I was caught up into an ecstasy which there are no words to describe,” things changed. He believed he had experienced God and knew he would never drink again. He set out from there to apply the Oxford Group principles as best he could.

Of course, long serving members of the Oxford Group, like Henrietta Seiberling, who introduced Bill to Bob, weren’t necessarily sold on Bill’s brand of recovery. She agreed Wilson was a catalyst for the movement, especially being the promoter that he was, but she believed more along the lines of faith first and foremost.

Henrietta’s son, John F. Seiberling (1918-2008), was an eight-term Akron member of the U.S. Congress who released, in 1973, transcripts of a talk he and his mother had shortly after Wilson’s death in January 1971 about the early days of A.A. and the Oxford Group. It contained an interaction she once had with the two co-founders, in which she said to them, “We are not out to please the alcoholics. They have been pleasing themselves all these years. We are out to please God. And if you don’t talk about what God does, and your faith, and your guidance, then you might as well be the Rotary Club or something like that. Because God is your only source of power,” she wrote.

Again, in her mind, there certainly was a God and the alcoholics were not it.

“Not-God – A History of Alcoholics Anonymous”, published in 1979, is the title of what may be the most comprehensive, non-AA conference approved book ever written about the fellowship, by the late historian Ernest Kurtz. The Harvard educated Ph.D had this to say about the importance of the concept.

“The fundamental and first message of Alcoholics Anonymous to its members is that they are not infinite, not absolute, not God,” he wrote. “Every alcoholic had first been, according to this insight, claiming God-like powers, especially that of control. But the alcoholic at least, the message insists, is not in control, even of himself; and the first step towards recovery from alcoholism must be admission and acceptance of this fact that is so blatantly  obvious to others but so tenaciously denied by the obsessive-compulsive drinker.”

The forefathers of the fellowship certainly understood who was in charge. Remember the early members of A.A. were surrounded by strong, religious Christians. The alcoholics who arrived at the Oxford Group meetings looking for help were getting a strong dose of the Judeo-Christian God talk, like it or not.

“The last A.A. dinner that I went to, over 3,000 people were there,” Henrietta Seiberling wrote. “And it was the first meeting that I went to which I was disappointed in. There were two witnesses there, a man and a woman, and you would have thought they were giving you a description of a psychiatrist’s work on them. Their progress was always on the level of psychology. And I spoke to Bill (Wilson) afterwards and I said that there was no spirituality there or talk of what God had done in their lives. They were giving views, not news of what God had done. And Bill said, ‘I know, but (the speakers) think there were so many people that need this and they don’t want to send them away. So there again has come up this same old bugaboo – without the realization that they have lost their source of power.”

Seiberling said, “It is my great hope that they will never be afraid to acknowledge God and what he has done for them.”

If you do not believe in God, this slogan may make you cringe. Perhaps that is why it is one of the slogans rarely heard in the rooms anymore. The idea of a God, and certainly a Christian, heaven-and-hell, keeping-score kind of God, is passé.

But it wasn’t passé at all for the first wave of sober alcoholics who came to develop the fellowship.

Clarence Snyder, who, when he died in 1984, had the longest A.A. sobriety in the world at the time, sobered up under the guidance of Dr. Bob in Akron in 1938. Snyder would go on to found the first group, not under the auspices of the Oxford Group, but instead using a portion of the title of the newly published Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous as the group’s name in Cleveland in May 1939. He was completely sold on the principles of the Big Book as expressed in the first 164 pages, according to longtime A.A. historian, Dick B.

“At the very outset of his recovery efforts, Clarence accepted: (1) A.A.’s original insistence on a belief in Almighty God, the Creator, (2) the necessity for coming to Him through His Son Jesus Christ, and (3) the Bible as the main source of all for religious truth. He also understood and espoused Akron’s emphasis on the Book of James (the healing book, as he called it), the Sermon on the Mount (which, as stated by Dr. Bob and Bill W., contained the underlying philosophy of A.A.), and 1 Corinthians 13, which epitomized A.A.’s emphasis on love). Nonetheless, Clarence was quick to recognize and absorb the life-changing ideas of the Oxford Group and its four absolute standards – honesty, purity, unselfishness, and love.”

However, not everyone was into the God thing, even in the early days.

When writing the Big Book, Bill Wilson asked the first 100 or so members of A.A. in Akron, New York and Cleveland to review the manuscript, which would become the final nail in the coffin of the relationship between the Oxford Group and its “alcoholic squadron.” One member in particular was prominent in convincing the author to make changes to tone down the old-time religious talk. Jim Burwell (1898-1974), whose story appears in the Big Book as “The Vicious Cycle”, is credited as being the one who convinced Wilson and Smith and the others who were sober in the winter of 1938 to change some of the wording in the Big Book, especially as it pertained to God. Burwell’s self-proclaimed “militant agnosticism” facilitated the use of the phrases “Higher Power” and “God as we understand him” in the Big Book instead of anything specifically pertaining to one religion or another.

Clarence Snyder, whose own story appears in the Big Book as The Home Brewmeister, told his biographer this about Burwell:

“Jimmy remained steadfast throughout his life and ‘preached’ his particular [non-God] brand of A.A. wherever he went.”

The God question is not one that will leave A.A. anytime soon. Some members have no problem with the obvious Christian bias of the literature. Others are frustrated with it, especially given the A.A. Preamble, which supposedly assures members that, “A.A. is not allied with any sect, denomination, politics, organization or institution”, including Christianity.

History shows us that those divisions between the God-centered crowd and the Easy Does It bunch are anything but new. One old-timer used to say this at a Calgary A.A. meeting: “Some people call it luck. And God doesn’t mind.”

One thing is for sure. “There is a God, and you’re not it” is one slogan that doesn’t work for everyone. Thankfully, it doesn’t have to.

 

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