I hope that you will join me this Thursday, March 22, 2018, at 7pm at First Christian Church of Decatur at the Atlanta Science Festival panel entitled INTERSECTIONS OF SCIENCE, SPIRITUALITY & ADDICTION. Our panel is made up of the top addiction scientists in Atlanta,including Dr. Michael Kuhar, the most cited professor and researcher at Emory University, who literally wrote the book on the “Addicted Brain.” The panel also has theologians and little old me.
I will be representing the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous—a spiritual program that has scientific results in treating physical and mental illnesses. From the current opioid crisis to the power of forgiveness, this panel is sure to touch on something significant to you in your life!
In preparation for the panel, I’d love to tell you my Alcoholics Anonymous/ 12-step program story. Well, part of it, at least.
When I developed active chronic fatigue syndrome in 2006, my brain became so inflamed that I couldn’t sleep. Not even for 15 minutes. The pathogen that had run amok was Epstein Barr Virus, and like all herpes viruses, it lives in the nerves and the brain. Because I had a 2-year-old at the time, sleeping was a necessity, so my doctor and I searched high and low for something that would help me sleep. We tried everything, even a prescription form of GHB, which is the date rape drug. Now the GHB was a great high, but on the nights I took it, when I woke up, I couldn’t remember the events of the entire day before. That worked well for my husband who was keeping some secrets at the time, but for me…not so much. So GHB was discarded. Eventually, the only thing that worked and enabled me to function was valium, so I took valium every night for 4 years.
I never abused it and always took it as prescribed. But valium doesn’t give a sh*t. As with all psychotropic drugs, there are bills to pay on the backend. When I tried to get off of it 4 years later, I had a horrible withdrawal and started having day-long panic attacks. My family, having no better options for an adult who needed a babysitter during the day, took me to Ridgeview Institute, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center where I spent the next 28 days. And I was put in the addiction program, because, hey, my problems were caused by drugs.
It was there that I had my first exposure to 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Emotions Anonymous, and Al-Anon. I went to a 12-step meeting every day, and as I sat through the program, I remember thinking to myself, “This is something everybody needs.”
For those of you unfamiliar with 12-step programs, they center around group meetings. These are basically self-regulated group therapy sessions that last an hour, where people are invited to share about themselves. During the meeting, commenting about another’s situation, known as cross-talk, is strictly prohibited. Sometimes the focus of the meeting is a passage from a poem or the Big Book, the original book written by Bill W and friends in 1937 during the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous, the Bible of the 12-step programs. (He’s called Bill W, because of another precept of the program—members’ anonymity.) All meetings end with a group prayer—the Serenity Prayer. The conventional wisdom from AA is that if you want to get sober initially, you need to do 90 in 90; that’s 90 meetings in 90 days.
Other than attending meetings, people actively working the program also have a sponsor who mentors them as they work through the 12 steps on their own time. Working the 12 steps is as important to recovery as doing the meetings. The 12 steps of AA read as follows:
Step 1: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
Step 2: Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
Step 3: Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
Step 4: Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
Step 5: Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
Step 6: Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
Step 7: Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
Step 8: Made a list of all persons we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.
Step 9: Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
Step 10: Continued to take a personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
Step 11: Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
Step 12: Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
When I first looked at the steps, I thought, “Well, that’s just what I learned in Sunday School.” And that was a turn off for me, because the church conjures up negative feelings in my mind due to its hypocrisy and judgmentalism. But with those thoughts, I was actually right in line with Bill Wilson, the founder of AA, who despised religion and avoided it for years until these steps saved him from certain death. That’s why when he wrote the steps, he made it clear that it was God as we understood Him, a Higher Power that was not shackled to any religion. A common phrase you will hear in AA is, “It doesn’t matter what your God is, as long as it’s not you.”
Still, there’s no way to look at AA and not see it as a 100% spiritual practice. There is a deity of some kind involved. There is prayer involved. There is confession and atonement.
It’s odd when you consider this seemingly mild spiritual practice against the backdrop of the disorders it is used to treat. Alcoholism is a relentless and absolutely brutal disease, so brutal that it will destroy everyone and everything that gets anywhere near it, not just the patient. It is a physical disease. There are too many bodies in the graveyard for it to be a lifestyle choice. Truly, it’s no different than cancer. (In fact, at the end of his life, Bill W promoted high-dose niacin, Vitamin B-3, as a cure for alcoholism and tried to get it added to the AA program. More on that on Thursday.)
Therefore, we have a spiritual practice that cures a ravenous physical disease. As you would expect, there are huge debates and disagreements on how effective it is, which you will hear about on Thursday. But there are lots of folks walking around sober as proof of concept. And it is one of the leading treatment methods employed at alcohol and addiction treatment centers nationwide, so we know it works in many cases. “It works if you work it,” as they say.
Perhaps these old drunks and cokeheads, being the first to have the humility, desperation and wisdom to look for answers outside themselves, have unearthed a healing modality for the rest of us, one that shows incredible power in absolute powerlessness and one which inadvertently lends proof to the theory of this blog, that “consciousness creates matter.”
I hope you will join me on Thursday as we discuss these fascinating questions!
Until next time, joy and laughter to you. And triple sinks