Freedom and Recovery: Our Challenges after 85 Years
By Tom A. Greenbelt, MD
The intersection of the 85th anniversary of Dr. Bob Smith and Bill Wilson meeting on June 10, 1935 and our annual celebration of the Fourth of July offer all in recovery an opportunity to revisit our freedoms. The 85th birthday of Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) and the Fourth of July are a great opportunity to ask ourselves, where are we individually and collectively not free and what actions are ours to take? Are there intersections with other Twelve Step Fellowships that could advance the freedoms of those suffering from all forms of addiction?
Anyone who has been plagued by an addiction to a substance or behavior knows the ecstasy that eventually comes with freedom from the addiction. For me, my first addiction was sugar and overeating. When I was tall enough to reach the kitchen counter, I was taking big gulps of Hershey syrup right out of the can intended to put a drop in our chocolate milk. I stole candy from the candy box at school and looked to food for comfort for the pains of growing up. Through the Twelve Step program of Overeaters Anonymous, I have weighed between 175 and 180 for over 35 years. And that is after having weighed 250 pounds when I arrive at A.A. in 1980. – Believe me, that constitutes a meaningful freedom!
My next addiction was to alcohol. As a teen working construction, I began drinking on the job. Soon any free time and free money was devoted to drinking. Oblivion became my desired state while I turned to the seminary and a life with God to try to dull the pain of life. It didn’t work.
I didn’t recognize it until many years later but my next addiction was to work and saving the world. I started out in social work and quickly moved to nonprofit work aimed at making the world a better place. My work obsession likely delayed hitting rock-bottom. By age 32, in 1980, I hit bottom with alcohol first and six months later with food and sugar.
As painful as each surrender was, I experienced an indescribable freedom when I finally reached what Bill Wilson calls “neutrality” with my addictions.
I also learned that freedom from addictions does not guarantee happy, joyous and free. There were more surrenders – to my fear of people and my need to accept a Higher Power’s unconditional love in order to open my heart to love more freely and deeply.
As individuals in recovery, the tenth step provides a daily opportunity to ask ourselves ”where we are not free? Are there habits or other addictions we overlook or are afraid to face.” More is always being revealed. We are urged to be “open, honest, and willing” in facing what is blocking us from more love and service.
The Al-Anon traditions provide an interesting clue to one place where we might find more freedom. Tradition 6 in Al-Anon states: “Although a separate entity, we should always co-operate with Alcoholics Anonymous.”
My A.A. sponsor Les A., now deceased, often brought up issues in our talks relevant to Al-Anon. Periodically, I would suggest to him he try Al-Anon. He would look at me like I was from another planet. I learned emotional sobriety and how to accept and relate to people different than me at Al-Anon. Les eventually joined me and found Al-Anon as helpful as A.A. I don’t understand why everyone in AA doesn’t go to Al-Anon. “The only requirement for membership is a problem with alcohol in a relative or friend.” Anyone in A.A meets this requirement.
But few of us make the trip to Al-Anon. What if A.A. had a tradition of cooperating with Al-Anon. What if we admitted that when we say addiction is a family disease, that it is not enough for the alcoholic to get sober. Success is the whole family recovering. And that means exploring what Al-Anon has to offer both the recovering person and the family. By fully embracing the power of recovery in both programs, the odds for addiction to be spread from one generation to the next are reduced. This is more freedom.
Similarly, what if A.A.’s traditions stated we would cooperate with all Twelve Step fellowships? How many drug addicts and overeaters who attend A.A. meetings and feel second class might have an easier road to recovery if we were more open. I can imagine a world where singleness of purpose coexists with more cooperation to better carry the message to those still suffering.
A recovering alcoholic is not free if he is still fighting drugs or obesity or gambling. For me, there is some new freedom needed in the Twelve Step rooms to make it simpler and easier to get help for all addictions and to support and encourage recovery for the whole family.
If Bill Wilson were alive, my hunch is he would be agitating for more freedom. He and others would find a way to respect the current traditions and at the same time to increase collaboration and cooperation among Twelve Step fellowships. Such freedom would expand our ability to carry the message to those still suffering. A world with less addiction and less family pain from addiction is a freer world. Is such a world possible?
Tom A, Greenbelt, MD
Tom writes on recovery, spirituality and racial justice topics.