Gresham's Law and Alcoholics Anonymous
by Tom P., Jr.

Part Four of Four

That term is “spiritual experience” in the Twelfth Step. A member of my AA home group, who first came into the Fellowship in 1941 tells it this way: “When I first came in, they were still talking about “spiritual experience”. A year or two later they started calling it “spiritual awakening”. It was at this time that the “official version” of the Twelfth Step was changed to read: “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps....” The term spiritual experience, which had been perfectly acceptable in the early years when the Fellowship was small and explicitly conversion-oriented, came to be viewed as too narrow and prejudicial against the less-profound life changes resulting from the mimesis-oriented AA, which were coming to be the majority recovery pattern in AA.

An explanatory note was added to the Big Book, as follows:

The terms “spiritual experience” and “spiritual awakening” are used many times in this book which, upon careful reading, shows that the personality change sufficient to bring about recovery from alcoholism has manifested itself among us in many different forms.
Yet it is true that our first printing gave many readers the impression that these personality changes, or religious experiences, must be in the nature of sudden and spectacular upheavals. Happily for everyone, this conclusion is erroneous.....

When you compare the above statement to the statement which introduced the Twelve Steps in chapter five of the Big Book, the difference in tone is astonishing. Chapter five rings with a series of booming affirmations that the goal of the program is a life given to God and the way is an uncompromisingly spiritual one. In the later-added explanatory note there is virtually a full retreat from the earlier vigor and joy in God-commitment. The stated purpose of the explanatory note is to reassure people that the spiritual change accompanying an AA recovery need not be in the form of a sudden upheaval. The point needed making and was well made.

However, a further point was made: the point that spirituality was not an essential of the program but that willingness, honesty, and open-mindedness were all that was needed. This point was not made directly, but by clear, strong and unmistakable implication - by the indirect , defensive, almost apologetic treatment of the whole subject of religious and spiritual experience. The founders of the Movement were responding to the spiritual problem by lowering the spiritual level of aspiration of the society, a move they could not make in the early days, but could make, and even felt they must make, now that the society had become large and gained a reputation for respectability and reasonableness.

The facts of the situation in AA which prompted the rewording of the Twelfth Step, and adding of the explanatory note to the Big Book, could have been summarized this way:

It is now possible to recover in one of two ways in AA. Option number one is the original, spiritual-experience way which follows from working all the Steps. Option number two is the way of partial practice of the Steps and primary dependence on the social aspects of life in AA. This second approach does not produce a strong spiritual experience. It also does not follow our tradition that we should always place principles before personalities. But in its favor, it requires less commitment and less work; it involves less in the way of life rearrangement; and it has proven itself sufficient in many cases to produce lasting abstinence from drinking.

No such clarifying statement was made, however, and the switch in terms from spiritual experience to spiritual awakening had the net effect of clouding in everyone’s mind the real nature of the change which had come about. It was not a matter of conscious deception. The mistake was simply a failure to see a dividing into two camps when the division had occurred. This was a quite understandable failure to see a trend developing, comparable to a mother’s inability to notice growth changes in her own child. But in a Movement now strongly committed almost before all else to the avoidance to controversy, blindness to the split in the Movement was inevitable.

This blindness has prevented AA members from seeing the serious flaws built into the weak-cup-of-tea practice. The relatively superficial life change which weak AA produces is sufficient to get some alcoholics sober. It is not adequate - it is not effective - it simply doesn’t work - for a very large number of others. This situation is evident both in the “easy” cases and the “hard”cases, that is, those alcoholics who have been very badly damaged physically and mentally before they arrive at their first AA meeting, those whose alcoholism is complicated with drug abuse, crazy sex, criminal or psychotic tendencies, or a hard streak of socio-psychopathology.

Also, weak AA simply doesn’t work with the very large population of AAs who are known everywhere as “slippers” - those alcoholics who have developed a pattern of hanging around AA, staying sober for periods, but relapsing repeatedly into drinking.

Note well: if the above-mentioned “hard” cases manage to find their way into a group where strong AA, and nothing but strong AA, is being practiced, many of them are able to achieve lasting sobriety. The East Ridge Recovery Facility in upstate New York has worked with thousands of these “hard” cases over the past twenty-nine years. Strong AA is standard practice in the East Ridge group, and this group has a recovery rate of over seventy percent with these so-called AA failures. No-success has turned to success with this large majority of the “hard” cases, when weak AA is replaced with strong AA.

There is yet another and more insidious danger built into weak AA. In many cases the “recovery” produced by watered-down approaches to the Twelve Steps fails to hold up over the long haul. What looked in the beginning like an easier, softer way to maintain happy sobriety yields progressively less and less serenity and real happiness, finally ending in complete reversal of momentum and a relapse into serious personal misery. The end result may be a return to active alcoholism; or it may be a sinking-out into a life of discontented abstinence, marred by some combination of tension, resentment, depression, compulsive sick sex, and an overall sense of meaninglessness. It is a final failure to reap the benefits of the AA program; it is, in the last analysis,a failure to recover.

Two ominous tendencies are noticeable in contemporary AA. One tendency is toward a lower recovery rate overall. For the first twenty years, the standard AA recovery estimate was seventy-five percent. AA experience was that fifty percent of the alcoholics who came to AA got sober right away and stayed sober. Another twenty-five percent had trouble for awhile but eventually got sober for good, and the remaining twenty-five percent never made a recovery. Then there was a period of some years when AA headquarters stopped making the seventy-five percent recovery claim in their official literature. In 1968’s General Service Board published a survey indicating an overall recovery rate of sixty-seven percent. The net of all of this seems to be that as AA got bigger and older, its effectiveness dropped from about three in four to about two in three.

The second ominous trend in the Movement is not indicated by statistics, but it is clear enough to any careful observer of the AA scene. As the Fellowship grows older its class of old-timers, alcoholics sober ten years and longer, grows. And the question of the staying power of an AA recovery looms ever larger. It is an unhappy fact that growing numbers of these old-timers find the joy going out of their sobriety. Many of them search around frantically for ways to recapture the old zest for alcohol-free living, and many of them end up in such blind alleys as lunatic religions, pop psychological fads, or chemical alternatives like psychedelics, pot, tranquilizers and mood elevators. And many end up either back drinking or sunk in despondency., hostility, bizarre acting-out patterns of one sort or another, or just plain, devastating boredom.

All of this is unnecessary. The gradual shrinking recovery rate and the old-timer blues do not require a complex or an innovative solution. The answer lies in a return to original, strong AA. It turns out that the men who wrote the Big Book were right after all. It turns out that there really is no easier, softer way. The extra work and commitment demanded by the full-Program approach pays out in enormous and indispensable dividends. The extra work and commitment make sobriety fun, because they do not make sobriety an end in itself.

The majority of those who become addicted are people with a mystical streak, an appetite for inexhaustible bliss. We sought in bottles what can only be found in spiritual experience. AA worked in the first place because its Twelve Steps were a workable set of guidelines to real spiritual experience. The growth of the Movement made possible for a time a kind of parasitism in which partial practitioners of the spiritual principles were able to feed off the strength of full practitioners; those who had undergone real spiritual experience.

But now, the parasites have already drained the host organism of a considerable portion of its life force, with no benefit to themselves.

It is late in the day for anybody to be sounding a call for a return to the original way, to faithful practice of the full Program. However, a great deal of life is left in the Fellowship, and a major revival is possible. If enough of us see in time our dangerous situation, personally and as a Fellowship. What we need to do is clear enough. What we need to do is spelled out in the first seven chapters of the Big Book. What it all boils down to - especially for us old-timers - is a willingness to continue practicing all the principles in all our affairs today, rather than resting on our laurels, taking our stand on what we did way back then, in our first weeks and months of sobriety.

But we must not fail to face squarely the need to change, the need for rededication. Complacency, smugness in our record of success, is our greatest enemy. If we as a recovered-addict society are unwilling to reverse our present course, the outlook is clear enough. We stand to recapitulate in less than a century what the great religious communities of the world have spent the last two thousand years demonstrating: that even the very best and highest of human institutions tend to deteriorate in time; and that size in spiritual organizations is often achieved at the expense of the abandonment of original goals and practices.

I owe my life to AA. I hope we have the vision and the humility to change. I believe we can if we will. This much is certain: the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous are as inspired, as effective, as un-compromised, and as practical now as they were when they were first put in writing fifty-four years ago. Whatever else may have gone downhill, they haven’t.

Gresham's Law and Alcoholics Anonymous, by Tom P., Jr., © 1993.This article originally appeared in 24 Magazine, with minor revisions to bring the numbers and the history up-to-date. Address questions and comments to 24 Magazine, Box 10, Hankins, NY 12741.