The following interview is part of a “future of mental health” interview series that will be running for 100+ days. This series presents different points of view about what helps a person in distress. I’ve aimed to be ecumenical and included many points of view different from my own. I hope you enjoy it. As with every service and resource in the mental health field, please do your due diligence. If you’d like to learn more about these philosophies, services, and organizations mentioned, follow the links provided.
Interview with Bill D.
Most people in distress are not terribly inclined to “air their dirty linen” in public. They also often feel that their problems are so special and unique that no one else can really understand them or empathize with them. Plus they often don’t want their “problem” tampered with, especially not when their problem is their alcohol use! Hence the reluctance of most sufferers to seek out a supportive group and the reluctance of many out-of-control drinkers to give AA a try. Here is Bill W. on his experience of AA.
EM: Everyone knows about Alcoholics Anonymous, but possibly only in a “soundbite” kind of way. How would you describe AA?
BW: AA is a place I went to get help for my drinking. Although armed with an advanced degree, to my surprise and alarm, my drinking had steadily become a problem for me and left me feeling ashamed and worried. My first few meetings were chosen at random in a large city and I had trouble relating to the people at the meetings. I went back to drinking for several months but in my case it ended with blackouts and negative consequences. So I decided to return to AA, but this time I searched around and found a meeting that looked safe and approachable. It was a noon meeting with a lot of retirees and long-term sobriety. They were very kind and helpful. I got and stayed sober. Then the real surprise: The program of AA changed my life. It was slow progress not perfection but it did happen and I am a different person and grateful.
EM: What do you see as the strengths of AA? Why does it work when it works?
BW: The heart of the program is to use the group for support, spiritual guidance, and motivation. AA is a lot of fun once you get the hang of it. The humor is contagious. Attendance at meetings is the key even though at first this might be difficult for the new person. AA is not a cult and outsiders are surprised to hear about the wide variety of beliefs held by AA members. However, it is a deep spiritual program and most AAs in my experience believe in God and rely on their Higher Power and their fellow members. The relationship to a Higher Power that you allow to work in your life is the heart of hearts of AA. I still have strong atheist-agnostic segments in me, but when I pause when facing a difficult situation or feeling and make room for my Higher Power to get involved things always go better usually in ways I cannot foresee. I love that process. And I am mystified by that process. Best of all, I get to see people change for the better. I get to see this a lot.
EM: If a person in distress wanted to create his or her own “personal recovery program,” what would you advise as some core tactics or first principles?
BW: AAs are pretty universal in not encouraging a personal recovery program. Going it alone is part of the problem. It comes down to the alcoholic underestimating the power of alcoholic drinking and the alcoholic mindset. It is like going into a river and being caught up in a very strong current. Unless you have been there in that situation it is hard to understand the difficulty of extricating yourself from that current. So AA a long time ago promoted the idea of alcoholics working with alcoholics. Find a group you can get along with and stick with them. Then when the time arises you will be able to help others extricate themselves from the current. That said, I have empathy for drinkers who have high social anxiety and are wary of groups. AA can do better to make sure they get support and a warm welcome. AA is far from perfect, but in its clumsiness things have a way of working out time and time again.
EM: Many 12-step programs have appeared over the years. What would you say makes for a good 12-step program? Anything a consumer should be aware of or cautious about?
BW: The key to a good 12-step program is to actually work all 12 steps in order with another person usually a sponsor who has worked the 12 steps and benefitted. This is hard, demanding work. Self-honesty, commitment, restoration of the past, humility, and reaching out to people we may have harmed are all involved. Most people have to shop around and find meetings they like and people they feel safe with. This is crucial. Once over these obstacles, it is a very powerful experience but it has its challenges and that is why we work with and get help from others. Humility, willingness, and flexibility really help here. It takes a lot of humility to ask for help, but that is the key. And by the way, AA is free which speaks volumes.
Anonymous Guy. These are my personal opinions. I do not speak for AA. Go online for AA meetings near you anywhere in the Nation and overseas. A helpful article about AA:
Eric Maisel, Ph.D., is the author of 40+ books, among them The Future of Mental Health, Rethinking Depression, Mastering Creative Anxiety, Life Purpose Boot Camp and The Van Gogh Blues. Write Dr. Maisel at firstname.lastname@example.org, visit him at http://www.ericmaisel.com, and learn more about the future of mental health movement at http://www.thefutureofmentalhealth.com
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