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Addictions: 12-Step Programs




Excerpted from
AA to Z; An Addictionary of the 12-Step Culture
By Christopher Cavanaugh

Throughout the world today, over two million alcoholics and hundreds of thousands of drug addicts, compulsive overeaters, sex addicts, compulsive gamblers, codependents, and other addicts abstain from their addiction, having found a new life by practicing the 12-Step program of recovery developed by Alcoholics Anonymous. They work each of the 12 Steps and engage in the fellowship of their programs.

Not too many years ago, addicts of all sons had no means of recovery. That was until the mid-1930s. At that time, an American alcoholic named Rowland H. traveled to Switzerland to undergo treatment from Dr. Carl Jung. Rowland spent a year there, and Dr. Jung helped him to see his inner life and to recognize things that triggered his drinking. Rowland came back to the United States certain that he knew so much about himself that he would never drink again. He was mistaken. In a short time, he got drunk and ended up trapped in the nightmare of alcoholism as badly as ever.

Rowland went back to see Dr. Jung. This time Dr. Jung told him the basic truth-to stop drinking Rowland would have to have himself locked up or hire a bodyguard. Jung also told him that if he kept drinking he would probably die. Rowland asked him if there was any grain of hope. Jung told Rowland that in rare cases, people have had a profound spiritual experience that enabled them to stop drinking. These people had huge personality displacements, let go of their old set of beliefs and behaviors, and picked up an entirely new set. Jung also told Rowland that he had been trying to elicit such an experience in him.

Rowland felt that he could accomplish this conversion because he was a man of church and faith. Jung told him that church and faith were not enough. Rowland came back to the States and sought out a new way of life with God at the center. He joined the Oxford movement, an evangelical Christian group modeled after the early church. He joined and never drank again

Rowland had a drinking buddy named Ebby T. Ebby got himself in trouble with drinking, so much so that he faced jail if his drinking continued. A hopeless alcoholic, Ebby ended up facing a judge once again. Rowland and two other Oxfordians interceded and convinced the judge to release Ebby into their custody. Ebby joined the Oxford movement and went to New York to serve at the Calvary Mission with Dr. Sam Shoemaker, the head of the Oxford movement in America. Ebby had a drinking buddy from childhood who now lived in New York. His name was Bill W.

Ebby knew that Bill was having trouble in his work and trouble with drinking, so when he got to New York he contacted Bill with hope of helping him Bill was delighted to hear from an old pal. Bill figured that they could drink together, reminisce, and recapture the laughter of their youth. He also welcomed having someone to drink with, because his loneliness and isolation were painful. When Ebby showed up at the door, Bill didn't recognize him. He looked healthy, and sober! Bill invited Ebby in for a drink but Ebby refused, telling Bill that he no longer drank and that he had found religion. Bill thought to himself, Well, he's gone from being a boozing crackpot to a religious crackpot.

Despite his disappointment. Bill invited Ebby in to chat anyway. While they talked, Ebby told Bill about the six steps of the Oxford movement:

  • Surrender to a God of your understanding
  • Examination of one's conscience
  • Confession of character defects to another
  • Practice of making amends when someone has been injured
  • Meditation and prayer
  • Quiet time, following meditation and prayer

These steps were a planned course of action, meant to bring about a personality change, just as Dr. Jung had prescribed for Rowland H.

Bill didn't believe in any of it, and he kept right on drinking that night and for several more days. In December of 1934 he ended up in Towns Hospital for another round of treatment under the care of Dr. Silkworth. Bill overheard Dr. Silkworth give his wife, Lois, the same prognosis that Dr. Jung had given Rowland-that unless Bill locked himself up he'd die. He had no control whatsoever over drinking. When Bill heard that, he paid attention. He also remembered what Ebby had told him Bill struggled with the idea of a higher power, but he struggled more with the thought of insanity or death. He cried out, "If there is a God, let him show himself." At that moment Bill had an instantaneous form of the spiritual experience that is vital for an alcoholic to stop drinking. Bill describes the experience in his story in the Big Book.

Bill left the hospital and became involved with the Oxford group in New York. In Bill, three vital understandings necessary for recovery from addiction came together: he learned from Dr. Silkworth that alcoholism is a disease composed of an obsession and an allergy; he knew he was hopeless unless he maintained spiritual enlightenment; and he found a means to maintain his spirit-the Oxford group.

Bill set out on a mission to save other drunks. He embarked on the quest for about six months, with no luck sobering up anyone else. He discussed this with Dr. Silkworth. Silkworth told Bill that the other drunks probably thought he was crazy because he kept telling them all about his spiritual experience and they didn't have a clue what he was talking about. He advised Bill to hit them with the cold, hard facts first-tell them about your own drinking, and then teach them about the allergy and the obsession.

Shortly thereafter, Bill traveled to Akron, Ohio, in hopes of taking over a company. The deal fell through. Bill was low on cash and depressed about his business failure On a Saturday afternoon he stood in the lobby of the Mayflower Hotel in Akron. Across the way sat the hotel lounge. Bill could hear the music, the sound of ice in the glasses, and the laughter. His alcoholic side thought that in the bar he could make a few friends and relax after his horrible setback. His sober side didn't want to go back to the old life and felt panicky. Bill knew that he never wanted a drink when he actively tried to help another alcoholic quit drinking, so he went to the church directory in the lobby to search for a local pastor who could help him find another drunk to work with. He told the pastors about his affiliation with the Oxford group, and one pastor referred Bill to Henrietta Seiberling, an Oxford member who lived in Akron.

Through Henrietta, Bill arranged to meet with Dr. Bob, a surgeon swimming in it. Dr. Bob wasn't too high on the idea of meeting this stranger, but he liked Henrietta and agreed to meet with Bill. Dr. Bob said he could spare no more than fifteen minutes. Well, the two men met on a Sunday afternoon at about five and they talked until eleven that night. Dr. Bob was the first other alcoholic to whom Bill had given the whole picture-allergy, obsession, hopelessness, and recovery through a spiritual experience Dr Bob had his last drink on June 10, 1935-this is the founding date of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Bill and Dr. Bob thought they should try the same approach with another drunk to see if it really worked. They found Bill D. in a local hospital, and gave him the whole picture too. Then they found another drunk, and another drunk, and another drunk, both in New York and in Akron. Soon there were approximately forty sober alcoholics.

By now they knew that their program worked, but they were still members of the Oxford movement, and there was some trouble there. Nonalcoholic members of the Oxford groups weren't sure that alcoholics were worth much of their time. Alcoholics in the movement felt that the "four absolutes" of the Oxford movement-absolute honesty, absolute usefulness, absolute purity, and absolute love-were unattainable goals and felt it better to seek progress rather than perfection. So for this reason, and because it was very difficult to protect the anonymity of alcoholics in an evangelical movement, Bill and his followers decided to split off from the Oxford groups.

Now that they were on their own they needed a vehicle to carry the message to the millions of alcoholics who still suffered. They thought of hiring missionaries, building hospitals, and writing a book. The last was the only affordable method. Bill, with the help of the collective membership in New York and Akron, wrote most of the book Alcoholics Anonymous (affectionately known as "the Big Book") in 1938. When the book came out, the new movement used the title as the name for their fellowship. Another small group began in Cleveland, and in 1939 total membership in Akron, Cleveland, and New York stood at 100. Membership in Cleveland boomed later that year when an article and positive editorial about A.A, appeared in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Membership in that city surged from 20 members to 500.

The fledgling society struggled to recruit new members for another couple years-until 1941. That year The Saturday Evening Post ran an article by Jack Alexander about the A.A. fellowship and how so many formerly hopeless alcoholics were now living happy, productive, and sober lives. The year that article appeared, total membership in A.A. went from 2,000 to 6,000.

A.A. continued to grow, and by 1950 had approximately 100,000 members. People with other addictions, drugs for example, also sought the help of A.A. This created tension within the groups because some alcoholic members thought that A.A. should be just for alcoholics, while others felt that anyone who could benefit from practicing the 12 Steps should be welcome and supported. It turned out that other addicts had trouble within A.A. too, because they could not identify with alcoholics the way they could identify with other addicts.

As a result, several other 12-Step programs began to appear. Al-Anon, which grew up around A.A., officially began in 1951. Narcotics Anonymous began in 1953, and was the first fellowship of addicts that borrowed A.A.'s 12 Steps. Gamblers Anonymous was formed in 1957. These new programs are wholly separate from A. A., but share the traditions and steps, and the basic 12-Step way of life. Worldwide today, there are over 3 million people who practice a 12-Step recovery-program.

It's been proven by the experience of all these programs that it doesn't matter if you drink it, smoke it, shoot it, snort it, jerk it, control it, obsess about it, spend it, or wager it-if it makes you stupid and if it's killing you, the 12 Steps offer a way out.

While recovering people find delight in their newfound freedom, they come to the programs, and stay, for serious reasons-the alternative being jail, insanity, or death. That's why these fellowships are so strong and continue to grow. Nothing else can claim the success rate for helping addicts find recovery. The programs work through sharing of one's self, finding a higher power, love, continuous fellowship, mutual support. Practice of these principles offers much more than freedom from addiction-it changes people and totally transforms them into new beings. For the first time in their lives, recovering people know that they fit in somewhere and that everything is going to be OK.

Through the years, the people who live a 12-Step life have formed a unique culture, with a language, history, and set of customs all its own. This book attempts to document that culture.

Through research, reading 12-Step literature, attending open meetings of several fellowships, and in-depth interviews with thirteen members of various 12-Step programs, I have assembled the basic language, history, lore, and humor of the 12-Step culture. The thirteen contributors have been the key. I have attempted to give generic explanations for terms and slogans, but the contributors have shared what these phrases mean to them-from their hearts.

We start with Jack's story. Jack has experienced so many addictions and compulsions-and has been able to find recovery from them-that his entire story is included. I think that each of you will be able to identify with at least a part of Jack's struggles and successes. Following Jack's story you'll find short profiles of the twelve other contributors who helped me define the language of the culture. I selected 12-Steppers from a wide variety of programs and from a wide variety of locations. You'll probably recognize some of them (even if you've never met them).

The bulk of the book is a dictionary for 12-Steppers-it consists of the words that make up the language of the heart. It is not meant to be a self-help book Rather I hope it will entertain and teach you about the wide variety of experiences within the 12-Step culture. I also hope it will instill pride in each of you, because you are a vital part of a movement that has helped millions find solutions to their problems, and continues to provide recovery for suffering addicts every day. 12-Step groups offer a unique environment. They are the only place I've ever been where anyone who needs to talk can talk, and when one person talks everyone else listens-and cares about what's being said. There's also a belief within the programs that people are inherently good and can be trusted.

In the appendices you'll find a bibliography of recovery-related publications, a listing of 12-Step program addresses, and a rundown of recovery sources on the Internet.

While many of the main offices of the fellowships provided invaluable help to me in this project, this book does not speak for any of the fellowships. The opinions and definitions are purely those of the contributors and myself. If you read something here that does not sit well with your program, as you understand it, I urge you to disregard it. Follow the suggestion of my friends from Al-Anon- take what you like and leave the rest.

Happy recovery!



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