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AA Must Change Or It Will Die

Visiting the throne
I often prayed at the “throne,” although it wasn’t always this clean, nor was I so well-dressed!

Turning 32 years sober recently, I have some thoughts about what it was like, what happened, and what it’s like now. And I thought I’d share some of those thoughts because I think they just might help someone.

I have been a member of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) for the duration of my sobriety. I know, I know…I’m supposed to be anonymous, and I’m breaking the tradition of anonymity. But I think at this point many people hide the faults and errors of AA behind that tradition, and I have no doubt that a fearless and searching moral and practical inventory of AA will provide some gems that will help countless people struggling with addictions and compulsive behaviors, now and for the future.

I know there will be those who think my ego is driving me to think I know better than AA but, as my first sponsor wisely told me, “What other people think of you is none of your fucking business.”

And if, Zeus forbid, I relapse on booze or any other addictive substance, the fault was all mine. The principles of AA, as I understand them, have kept me sober and clean lo these many years.

So…here goes…

NOTE: I use the word “alcoholic” to cover all forms of addiction.

A Daily Decision

When I was an undergraduate at Temple University, I had a professor for an introductory philosophy course by the name of Dr. John Atwell. Of all the teachers I’ve ever had, this one stands out as one of the most profound influences upon my ability to think critically. I credit him with forcing me, with much pain, to learn how to think–or at the very least, to recognize when my thinking is not on par with what ought to pass for critical thinking. (The highest grade I ever got from Atwell was a “C,” which I consider a great honor to this day. And his comment on that paper was “Interesting,” which I continue to cherish as a great compliment!)A daily decision

One of his comments in class that struck me the most, and has lived with me ever since: That each and every day, we must make a decision to… and, well, that applies to anything and everything we decide to do, so finish that thought with whatever decision you have made.

The example Dr. Atwell used was the alcoholic. He said, “Every morning, an alcoholic must make a decision not to drink.” In other words, the alkie didn’t make that decision once, and done. He needed to remake that decision each and every morning. Rededication, if you will.

And guess what? I was taught that same concept in AA.

That has implications for what I’ve learned about my Higher Power.

Sponsor As Higher Power

A sponsor, as I’ve been told, is someone who has what you would like to have, as in a way of life, or way of living. Think of it as a coach–someone who you choose to help you reach a goal or goals.

And as with a coach, if I want to get to the point where I can do what they do with any success, then I must be willing to do what they did to get there.

In other words, I must suspend my beliefs, and try on theirs at least for a reasonable period of time that might get me the same results. They must become my Higher Power.

Just think about it. Even if I am training for some religious order, that believes in a particular way about its “god,” then I must allow my instructor to become that “higher power” that leads me to that particular way of believing in that god.

Whether I’m training for an athletic event, or a particular life strategy, I must discard my old way of thinking, at least temporarily, in order to see how the new way works. And I must be willing to do exactly as I’m coached to do, in order to get the full effects of this new way of doing.

One caveat: If, after following that path I find that it doesn’t hold true for me, then I maintain the right to reject it, ultimately.

The difference between a willing athlete and an alcoholic is, the alcoholic may not be fully honest about the choice that he has made not to drink. Even if he’s fully honest, he may not be prepared for the strength of will that it takes to honor his commitment to himself and to his sobriety, especially while the physical compulsion and mental obsession to drink has hold of him.

If it takes belief in some mythical “god” to get the alcoholic to submit to a new way of doing things, then… do whatever works! As they say in AA, “Fake it ‘til you make it.” If it works, then who can argue with that? 

In my own experience, belief in a Higher Power has evolved from acceptance of a “supreme being” who watched over me and protected me from myself, to several Jewish and Christian concepts of a “god” figure, to Buddhist and Hindu beliefs and, finally, to an agnosticism that embraces any and all wisdom that leads to a better, more moral and giving, way of being.

NOTE: I often call myself an “atheist,” so as not to confuse those who don’t understand that “agnostic” does not mean that I believe in a supreme being, but just haven’t pinned down a particular religion. I take “agnostic” to mean that I see no convincing evidence or argument for a supreme being, but I’m not foolish enough to believe that I can prove that none exists.

The Fellowship

A majority of alcoholics seem to do best in a fellowship of support, with other alcoholics facing, or having faced, the same or similar issues. In my early days of sobriety, my sponsor wasn’t always available (and we didn’t have mobile phones at that time, so nobody was really in easy reach, unless there was a pay phone nearby, and the alkie I was calling happened to be home. I sometimes had to make seven or eight calls before someone answered). I spent many hours in an AA clubhouse, playing cards, talking with other alcoholics, going on 12-Step calls, going bowling, for coffee, you name it. I was always in close proximity to others in recovery. I can’t stress enough the importance of that fellowship to why I stayed sober.Fellowship is the Answer

Looking back, the Fellowship itself was my Higher Power.

What if all I could do was look to the sky and ask “god” for the solutions to my problems, for answers to the questions I had about how to deal with the problems I was having, or even to sit with me in a coffee shop for a couple of hours while the compulsion to drink had its grip on me?

I know there are people who have prayed alone and had the compulsion to drink pass. But I believe that anything I believe with enough force is going to come to fruition–such is the power of the human mind, which I call, among other things, the “law of attraction”–and praying with all my might is just another way of reenforcing the decision I make each morning to stay sober for today.

Under even not-so-careful examination, such an event is not a proof of the existence of a god. If anything, for me it’s evidence of the power of the human mind to create reality.

It’s All About The Steps

The “program of recovery” is all in the Steps. Period.

Not only have I helped many people recover from addictions using the steps, but also have used them for coaching non-addicts as well.

I’ve changed some of the language, or course.

When I suggest that I become someone’s “Higher Power,” it’s not an ego thing. Think about the wisdom of hiring a coach, paying good money for that service…and then saying, “No, I’m not going to do what you tell me.”

Doesn’t make a lot of sense, eh?

And if one of my coaching clients reacted that way, I would give his money back.

The addict/alcoholic objects because he likes to think that he is the Higher Power, and putting a sponsor in that position takes away that power.

I understand it perfectly well.

I’ve witnessed real miracles working Step Four (the personal inventory) with addicts as well as so-called “Earth People” (non-addicts) alike. I never allow a sponsee or client do Step Four on his own–at least not until I know they understand to near-perfection the idea of “rigorous honesty.”

The Steps themselves are an excellent plan for living. It ain’t just for alkies anymore!

Insistence On “God” Is Killing A Lot Of People

When I first got sober, and someone in a meeting would become adamant about his or her “god concept,” or even use the word “god” too strongly, one of the old-timers would caution: Don’t talk about “god” so much in a meeting–it will scare off the newcomers. Their focus was on making AA attractive to those who still suffer, and the suffering alkie is likely to have negative thoughts about the gods that have been forced down their unwilling throats, or hung over their heads in futile attempts to scare or guilt them into submission to the wills of family and friends–often, their very enablers, who often enjoy no better spiritual and emotional health than the alkie himself.

Today, I hear selfish people whose only concern with newcomers seems to be lipservice say, “My higher power is Jesus Christ, and I’m not ashamed to say it,” as though anyone were shaming them for their choice of a higher power. All this is is ego, bravado in the game of “Whose God Is Bigger?”

And this god competition is destroying AA for me.atheist symbol

The insistence on reciting the “Jesus Prayer,” otherwise known as “The Lord’s Prayer” at the end of meetings is anathema to me. That prayer was being recited even while literally hundreds of millions of people were being murdered in the name of the perpetrators’ “lord and savior jesus christ.” 

 I refuse to take part any longer. I have been able to convince a few groups to stop reciting this Christian prayer at the end of meetings, and to substitute the perfectly fitting “Responsibility Pledge” (Whenever anyone, anywhere, reaches out for help, I want the hand of AA always to be there. And for that, I am responsible.), but I’m often met with ugliness when I suggest that reciting a Christian prayer at the end of a meeting is killing people.

What about the Muslims and Jews who feel they “don’t fit in” because they can’t identify with that prayer?

I have also seen LGBT people turned off from AA because of the religious bullshit they encounter in meetings. I knew a guy who, after being a drunken wretch who used to get drunked up and terrorize his neighborhood, turned into a fundamentalist Christian in sobriety, and tried to “change” LGBT people, insisting that the way they expressed love itself was “wrong,” and insisting on his narrow Christian view that human sexuality is binary.

I will always tell the story of the man sitting in the AA clubhouse, eating a ham and cheese sandwich, who felt the need to tell me that “homosexuality is wrong.”

“Oh? And where do you arrive at that gem of wisdom?” I asked him.

He looked at me in disgust. “It’s in the Bible,” he sneered at me.

Knowing him from meetings, and knowing full well that he was not a paragon of biblical virtue, I gently pointed out that the ham and cheese sandwich he was currently enjoying was “against the Bible.”

This time his contempt for me had him shaking in disgust. “I don’t follow the Bible!” he shouted.


I can laugh at that, and I did, in his face, at that time. But how many LGBT people, or Black people, Muslim or Jewish people, who haven’t had any kind of healing yet, who haven’t been taught how to develop a backbone in the face of such turds, turn around and walk out the door to die?

I repeat: Insistence on “God,” especially the god of the fundamentalist Christian, in AA is killing people!

Insistence On “Singleness Of Purpose” Is Killing A Lot Of People

But I can’t imagine a “workaholic” being of any use to a heroin addict, especially when the workaholic thinks that singing hymns about Jesus saved him from his addiction. 

I actually experienced this nonsense in a so-called “Jesus-based” recovery program, modeled after AA itself. They had retrofitted the Twelve Steps with their own Jesus language, and meetings began with thirty minutes of hymn singing, led by a guitar-wielding authentic Christian.

I will never forget the poor suffering heroin addict, shaking with withdrawals, sitting listening while the “leader” shared about his battle with workaholism. It was a Friday night, and the addict couldn’t get a bed in a detox until Monday. I don’t [[know whether he made it through the weekend, but I have my doubts.

I don’t know many members of AA who are pure alcoholics any longer. The great majority of folks are alcoholics and drug addicts. I’ve seen many many people shut down in their sharing–sharing that is obviously painful and extremely necessary–and they leave the meeting feeling [rightfully] resentful. Most of the people in that room have problems with both alcohol and drugs! Only a small minority can’t identify with the drug part of the equation, but recovery is recovery–the principles do not change dependent on whether the problem is drugs or alcohol.few pure alcoholics any more

AA is 85 years old. The so-called “Big Book,” the original text called “Alcoholics Anonymous” is 81 years old. In that time, much has been learned about addiction, as well as other topics treated in the text, such as human sexuality and gender roles.

It’s long past time that the literature was updated to reflect new information, new times. And many AA practices, such as the Traditions, should be updated for the 21st Century as well.

For those who can’t handle that kind of change, all I can say is: If it’s working for you, that’s great! Keep things exactly as they are. But many people are dying as the result of the inflexibility of those who think that changing the approach to reflect important new information is a threat, rather than a necessary progression of recovery.

I would also like to point out that three of the most quoted stories in the Big Book–Bill’s Story, Dr. Bob’s Story, and Doctor, Alcoholic, Addictall mention drugs! Any time someone in a meeting tries to censor someone’s share because they mention drugs, my hand goes up and I remind folks about the drugs mentioned in these stories, and ask whether they deserve to be torn out of the Big Book!

Perhaps strict adherence to a “revered past” is yet another form of addiction?

Insistence on AA Is Killing A Lot Of People

A woman I met in AA who helped save my life often said, in helping people to understand the power of AA and why it makes sense to avail yourself of the Fellowship: “You can go to the dentist and have your teeth drilled without Novocaine…but why would you do that to yourself? You can stop drinking without AA, but it’s like getting your teeth drilled without the Novocaine…why would you do that to yourself?”

Today, after decades of research into and experience of recovery from addiction, we know much more than was known in 1939, when the Big Book was written. When I went to a Narcotics Anonymous (NA) meeting, I found their literature to be enlightening, and then Overeaters Anonymous (OA) was also refreshing–because both reflected new insights into addiction that couldn’t have been in the AA literature because those concepts were just not known.

Even AA has new literature, although even that must be filtered through those who resist any kind of change as “sacrilege” because it might counter the party line that they read in the Big Book.


I am not on a “warpath” here. My primary purpose remains to stay sober, and to help other alcoholics and addicts to achieve sobriety.

In over 32 years, I’ve seen what works, and what does not work. I have my own ideas about recovery, and I’ve seen those ideas succeed with people that I sponsor.

Today, AA remains a source of prospects for my own Twelfth Step work–for the uninitiated, Step Twelve tells us that, in order to maintain sobriety, I must help the alcoholic who still suffers. I agree with that principle one-hundred percent.

During the period of seclusion brought on by the COVID pandemic, I’ve turned to online sources to help others. I belong to several FaceBook recovery groups, for example, and have offered help in those.

When I find an AA meeting that is vibrant and full of newcomers, I put up with the praying at the end of the meeting–I simply do not participate. But even with the number of years I’ve piled up, that solution to the problem of christian domination of meetings leaves me feeling like I don’t fit in. That’s not a feeling I care to tolerate.

How many alcoholics and addicts are we failing because of insistence on “doing it our way”?

AA is crumblingI, for one, no longer go to meetings, or rarely. My stated reason for going to meetings prior to the pandemic was to find still-suffering alcoholics, because I know that helping others keeps me sober–and reminds me of where I could end up without my daily decision not to drink and drug.

But I want AA to be there for those who might walk through the door–and I want them to stay for recovery!

For that, I am responsible.

Will AA die? We point to the Oxford Group that preceded AA, which enjoyed a good amount of success, but was well on its way out by the time AA was founded. I doubt that AA will go the way of the Oxford Group, but it might remain simply a smallish, cultish organization, one among a variety of solutions for suffering alcoholics and addicts.

AA must change, or it will become irrelevant.

©Bert Wylen 2021

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