I’ve been sober for a long time. I have a sponsor and have worked the steps. All along, I have been in AA and have gone to thousands of meetings. I have listened to tens of thousands of pitches. I have also gone to hundreds of book studies and, as a result, have a pretty good familiarity with the Big Book, other AA publications, and the ideas behind them. I’ve sponsored guys who are still sober who have sponsored other guys.
I have also been very close to many old-timers who take the AA way of life seriously. We’ve spent countless hours discussing how they each work their programs and how they pass it on to others. These conversations have occurred at the meeting-before-the-meeting and the meeting-after-the-meeting. And what, you may ask, have I learned from all this that I could pass along that might be useful to others?
What’s the Point?
Over time, Sober AAs had very different, highly idiosyncratic experiences of getting and staying sober. While there are many similarities between them, there are just as many differences. For example, many have worked the steps. Some have not. Many have or have had sponsors. Many do not. Some have anchored their programs with a steady diet of meetings. Others have not. Some have taken a break from AA for years and stayed sober.
More importantly, the details of how they did the steps and how they worked with their sponsors can be vastly different from AA to AA. Yet when you go to meetings and listen to AAs sharing their experience, you think everyone is doing the same program. From my perspective, what is common, more than anything, with sober folks in AA, is they develop something unique for themselves that works in keeping them sober.
Keep it Complicated!
We all hear “Keep it Simple” in meetings – it’s on the walls of meeting halls and in the book. I get it, “keep it simple” means not drinking, a simple goal. So, it may be good to see and hear repeatedly.
But, the how of not to drink is a far more complicated set of experiences. Sober people do all sorts of things, some consistent with others and some not. If they remain sober, they can return to a meeting and, with their badge of years of sobriety, pontificate pablum like “Keep it Simple” as if that is something helpful and true when it isn’t reflective of the truth.
The truth is, and It ain’t sexy, nor is it what anyone wants to hear, getting and staying sober is complicated. Sobriety for anyone who has time and is honestly reflective about their experience will tell you that their sobriety is nuanced, constantly changing, refining itself, and complicated to articulate in a couple of minutes.
Hence as emotionally appealing as “Keep it Simple” is to say, under the light of intellectual scrutiny is pretty flimsy advice. Few things in life are simple. In fact, nearly anything meaningful is extremely complex. Is marriage simple? Raising children? No.
If only getting sober was as simple as, “Not drinking a day at a time!” If that were the case, overnight, the horrible ravages of alcoholism and other addictions would vanish.
The truth is, not drinking a day at a time is not the cause but more the result of the successful integration of many complex ideas and actions that lead to abstinence. The confusion between results and causes is a common one. And, when it comes to spoken rhetorical conventions, emotion can trump logic. Not a great thing for someone looking for help.
The Root Cause(s)
Why is there this obsession to “keep it simple” and repeat similar vacuous platitudes at meeting after meeting?
I see three.
- AA’s core belief in open-mindedness allows latitude for nearly anything to be said. If it works, it is good! “We realize we know only a little” isn’t true. Otherwise, why are there ten books and 72 pamphlets explaining the AA program?
- AAs speak unchallenged at meetings. Because everyone has a voice at meetings, and they can say anything, untruths go uncorrected.
- It’s nice to believe that sobriety is just as simple as “working the steps and keeping coming back.” It sounds good! This fondness for simple solutions to complex problems is hardly isolated to AA – it’s everywhere.
Commitment to Truth
Once I became aware that I had become an “AA jukebox” spewing cliches and oversimplifications at AA meetings, I stopped. I realized I was saying things that sounded good rather than what was true. I saw how potentially dangerous this could be for someone struggling to look for some reality about sobriety and what they are in for. Consequently, I don’t do that anymore. Today I try to speak the truth. It’s not winning me many friends.
So, while “Keep it Complicated” doesn’t have a great ring to it, it is absolutely true from my experience. If you want to get and stay sober, you need to get some experience of AA and the AA program for yourself that fits your situation and personality; then, you need to keep at while life brings on all the complications that come with it like earning a living, managing relationships, being happy. That is hardly simple.
But, I do have to admit, Keep it Simple sounds so much better!