In my early AA days, I encountered two very distinct and opposing styles of sobriety. One, represented by Jimmy, was practical, with alcoholics sharing their story in a general way to describe what they used to be like, what happened, and what they are like now. Alcoholics could identify with each other through their shared experience and affinity, to create fellowship and an accompanying sense of connection and belonging. A crucial element here involves allowing alcoholics to interpret the AA program in a way that is unique to them.
The Joys of Recovery (JOR) represents a second, clone-like, sobriety, in which every JOR member had to accept a narrow, dogmatic, and supposedly correct interpretation of the AA program. The AA program could only be interpreted one way, with your sponsor showing you how to interpret the steps the correct way, as he had been shown by his sponsor. Each step had to be accomplished exactly as written in the Big Book, with dependence on God a central theme of the program. This story is a reflection on my early day encounters with these two opposing styles, their influence on my early sobriety, and their potential long-term impact on AA.
First of all, a little bit about Jimmy’s story for background purposes before introducing the JOR. Jimmy was very intelligent and gifted, with a superb memory and power of recall. I appreciated this element greatly as his shares always included recalling what had been passed on to him from the early founding members of Australian AA. Humour and laughter were integral to his sharing, a crucial element that engaged and held the attention of newcomers, such as myself. As a practicing alcoholic, he was very angry and violent, gravitating towards an extremely militant union, the Builders Labourer’s Federation (BLF) and eventually becoming their Vice President. I had never heard of the BLF, so as a new Australian immigrant his shares helped me to connect with both Australian history and Australian AA. One piece of Australian history I picked up from him involved his coming out of a two-week blackout in the Maralinga Desert, a high-security British Nuclear Testing area in the late 1950’s. This bender earned him an arrest and lockup by security people on suspicion of being a Russian spy. They released him after six weeks when they realised he was just a drunk who had wandered onto their site.
I was amazed when I first heard Jimmy share, because he drank Methylated Spirits (Denatured Alcohol), known as Metho in Australia, which is 95% ethyl alcohol and 5% poisonous methyl alcohol. The poisonous methyl alcohol was added to deter people from drinking Metho, but it never stopped Jimmy. Metho was the only drink that Jimmy was interested in; beer and spirits were just not for him. In the early 1960’s he would walk past the Sydney Brighton Hotel with £300 in his pocket (a sizeable sum in those days) and buy a bottle of Metho in the chemist shop next door. Jimmy softened the shock element of his story for his audience by saying, “But I added a dash of orange juice to it, just to keep it social.” It was the first time I had heard anybody share so openly and honestly about their drinking. Despite the added orange juice, the poisonous methyl alcohol landed him in the hospital emergency department on several occasions with a few close brushes with death.
He experienced five years of this torment from his first contact with AA until he finally got sober. Tough union bosses just did not admit they were alcoholics, but he begrudgingly attended meetings throughout this period while going on a series of benders. Jimmy finally got sober through a no-no, that is to say a relationship with a female member, Olga, who was trying to get sober herself. They got together, becoming lifelong partners and, in their own haphazard way, they got each other sober. When one was down the other was up and vice-versa. They both became seasoned, quality AA old-timers, quite an achievement for Jimmy considering how angry and violent he had previously been. I am aware that some “old timers” in AA are not particularly good examples of long-term sobriety. But when I use this term, I mean old timers who have matured and who possess a worthwhile message for the newcomer.
I never heard Jimmy mention God and he was most likely an atheist, although this was not a term I recall being mentioned in AA in the 1990’s. Jimmy said he never consciously did the steps, but must have done them unconsciously through his discussions with other members. He never read the AA Big Book, instead learning about sobriety from what the older sober members passed on to him. All I can say about Jimmy is that he knew a lot about staying sober and passed on many practical pearls of wisdom to me. Because of his struggle to get and stay sober he was incredibly grateful to AA for saving his life, expressing his gratitude through 12th step work. Jimmy formed his own opinions and rejected dogma or being told by anybody what to do. He could probably be described as a free thinker, but again this was not a term I remember being used in AA back then.
Jimmy believed that length of sobriety, with its accompanying experience, very much mattered for the alcoholic when it came to dealing with a variety of challenging situations in life. At twenty-six years sober he woke up one morning to discover Olga dead in bed beside him. This shocking experience pushed him close to picking up Metho, before he thought to himself, “If you drink this Metho, you will be prostituting the memory of Olga.” He poured the Metho down the kitchen sink drain and rang Stan from Ramsgate for help. Jimmy finished this story by saying, “At twenty-six years sober I just scraped through. If I had only been sober twenty-six months instead of twenty-six years, I would have been gone for all money”.
It took me a considerable period of time to appreciate the importance of length of sobriety, whether continuous or not. As a new-comer I was quite certain that length of sobriety didn’t matter. I scoffed at old timers who suggested that it took five years or so to level out emotionally and I was certain that all would be well when I was one year sober. However, the reality of being one year sober was quite different from what I expected. I felt so down on the day itself that I found it hard to get motivated. But I remembered the old timers’ advice, stuck close to them, and got through it. At the same time, they encouraged me to enjoy my early sobriety rather than wishing myself further along the way. And I did experience some important milestones in my first year such as my first Christmas sober, my first St Patrick’s day sober and so on.
I first encountered the JOR in September of 1993 as a new and controversial group in Sydney. Their style of sobriety was completely different from Jimmy’s, emphasizing staying sober in a specific, supposedly correct way by reading the Big Book with a very narrow and dogmatic interpretation of the AA program. Sponsorship was crucial for this, not just any sponsor but one from their group. Generally, their shares ran along the lines that they were quite stagnant in sobriety during their initial attendance at regular AA meetings. But once they joined the JOR and did the program the JOR way their life and sobriety took off. The JOR members would attend other AA meetings in numbers, at least four or five, so you would hear a few of them share at the meeting with pretty much this same message.
My involvement with the JOR members began when I shared at a meeting about struggling in early sobriety (quite normal I now know). A JOR member then shared by directly addressing me and offering to take me to their meeting. He guaranteed that I would feel better if I did a few suggested things. So, after the meeting I took the plunge and spoke to him, with the result that he became my sponsor. At that point, a few of the other JOR members in attendance came up to me and patted me on the back, telling me how I had made a great choice of sponsor. They all assured me I was in safe hands, although for some reason I also felt a sense of unease.
Initially, I was given free rein from my sponsor, but over time I felt the application of more control when he suggested I only attend meetings approved by him. The JOR meeting was run along very different lines compared to every other Sydney meeting I attended. They sat in a circle with the meeting secretary and chairperson sitting together at a table on one side of the circle. The chairperson would then share for fifteen minutes (timed and controlled, very unusual for Sydney) and the meeting then opened up for voluntary sharing, with people just jumping in. Follow-on shares were directed at what the chairperson had said, mostly affirming how wonderful the chairperson was and how it was great to hear them.
In comparison, the other AA meetings I attended were set up theatre style with the audience facing the chairperson who sat at the front. The chairperson would then call people to share while facing the audience (no jumping in). Alcoholics shared in a general way what they used to be like, what happened, and what they are like now. I found myself identifying with what was being shared, and felt comfortable in a roomful of people without needing a drink. The meeting had a predictable and settling rhythm to it, unlike the sudden shouting out shares I experienced at the JOR meeting.
I was introduced to the JOR group founder who was held in very high esteem, almost adored, by all the other group members. The Sydney JOR founder had met his sponsor in the UK while working there before he brought the JOR message back to Australia. Earlier this year I read the following article on the aacultwatch website, I wondered if his sponsor was one of the grand old sponsors mentioned. AA Cult Watch
Each JOR group member was like a link in a chain connecting back generationally to the group founder. I should mention that none of the JOR members had any long-term sobriety (ten years plus) and most were in their first few months to first year.
When I attended the JOR meeting the following week an alarm went off in my head. The same JOR members shared in the same sequence with the same message. I sensed that the meeting was orchestrated, that maybe their style of sobriety was not right for me and that I should leave them. At the same time, I worried that maybe they were right and I needed to give them more time. In early sobriety, this can be a very difficult decision to make, but fortunately I was seeing a psychologist who was a great neutral sounding board for me. With his help and support I realised that Jimmy’s idea of interpreting the program in your own unique way was what I needed and wanted, not the JOR’s dogmatic, program-oriented approach. I had to tell my sponsor that the JOR were not for me and my psychologist and I worked out a few rehearsed sentences that I could use when I spoke to him. When I made the call, my sponsor was pretty good about it and wished me all the best and told me that he was available for me if I ever needed to ring him. I thought to myself, “What were you so worried about, it’s going to be sweet.”
But now I began to experience an unforeseen problem because I still encountered JOR members at many of the meetings that I attended. While they were not overtly hostile to me, the fact was that I was now considered an outsider to their group. This made me feel very uncomfortable since I had not quite found my feet in AA. I had joined the South Hurstville AA group, which represented a very non-pressure old style AA, where you were just welcomed and allowed to be yourself no matter how you were on any given day.
I began to share about my experience with the JOR at my home group as a way to come to terms with it. I was sharing this one night with one of the JOR members in the audience. He shared after me with a very strong rebuttal of my share, and described the necessity of using the JOR interpretation of the program in order to get a quality sobriety. I think this would be a very unsettling and uncomfortable experience for any newcomer and I was no exception. The JOR bloke was sober for a couple of years and I was wondering if I had made a mistake by leaving their group. As you can imagine I sat there feeling very uncomfortable, but what happened next changed everything for me.
Jimmy, from Ramsgate, the next speaker, walked to the front of the meeting, turned to face the audience, and his first words were, “Well after listening to the last speaker I’m glad we don’t all have to get sober the same way.” I felt better straight away because the big tough union boss was on my side and standing up for me. Jimmy went on to share in typical fashion how he had never read the Big Book or did the steps consciously but had managed to get through Olga’s death. By speaking out he showed me in a very real way that you could get sober in a way that worked for you. Words cannot adequately express how much Jimmy’s support meant to me.
After that night, the JOR members didn’t come to South Hurstville as often and soon stopped attending our meeting altogether. Over time their presence at other AA meetings bothered me less and less. I began to meet other new AA members who, like me, had become entangled with the JOR before giving them the flick. We became a sort of ex-JOR group. Over time I connected to AA and attended meetings that suited me and got close to members who had the sobriety I wanted. I was fortunate to live in Sydney which had a very broad selection of AA meetings (300 plus) so I could find what suited me. It still took a long time for me to not be bothered by the JOR if they were at a meeting I attended. Dealing with resentment against the JOR was one of my first introductions to the real-life use of the AA program. By discussing what had happened with an older sober member I could look at it in a different light. I now believe that my JOR sponsor was just trying to help me the best way he knew how.
The JOR meeting closed down within the next twelve months, though I’m not exactly sure why. Many of them disappeared off the AA scene but I have since met some who re-joined AA and continued on with their sobriety. In a way, it was a relief when their meeting closed down because we didn’t have to tolerate listening to their orchestrated shares in meetings.
I can see the attraction of a narrow interpretation of the AA program for some newcomers. My sponsor says, “Do this,” the Big Book tells me “Do that.” It’s all laid out for you and you don’t have to think too much about your sobriety. You will feel protected and safe within your group, with your sponsor telling you everything you need to do. But this approach would drive me to drink because I would get bored, and soon feel restless, irritable, and discontent. The concept of so much reliance on a sponsor is problematic, and as Campsie Mick used to say, “Who sponsors the sponsor?” This is a very valid question, and it directly confronts the self-appointed expert stepologists with the need to explain where they get their ideas from. And what right do they have to tell anyone how to get and stay sober? As Resentments Norm used to say, “There’s no big shots in AA, one shot and we’re all shot!”
If I don’t question and challenge what a sponsor tells me, how do I know if it will work for me? I see sobriety as all about learning; because of my experiences, my interpretation of sobriety today is very different from when I first started in AA. Today I count myself fortunate that my brush with JOR did not push me out of AA. I give Jimmy credit for this by the way he stood up for me and allowed me to see that I could figure out my own unique way to get and stay sober.
A narrow interpretation of the AA program arguably has a limited appeal to many new members in general and atheists in particular. Narrow interpretation insists that people comply unquestionably with a specific point of view. In my experience, alcoholics, with their cries of “Don’t tell me I can’t drink,” and, “I don’t have a problem with alcohol,” are generally not renowned for possessing compliant natures. Atheists are arguably even more rebellious by nature and will simply reject any attempt at forced compliance. As an atheist, I naturally question any advice given to me; it has to make sense and stand up to robust critique. Then I have to give it a bit of a test drive to see if it will work.
This raises the question of how we atheists in AA deal with groups that promote a narrow interpretation of the program. A 2016 Australian census showed that those who have no religion outnumber believers in any single religion. This interesting statistic raises the question about Australian AA’s long-term future and appeal to future newcomers, many of whom will be agnostics or atheists. As I have learned from my own observations and experiences, a narrow god-based interpretation of sobriety simply does not cut it anymore and will probably drive newcomers out of AA.
Jimmy and other AA old timers had a very straightforward approach to helping newcomers achieve sobriety. They simply supported newcomers, like myself, until they found their own path in sobriety. Jimmy once told me, “My sobriety hinges on one simple fact, my total acceptance of the fact that I can’t drink.” You can read the Big Book or not, study the steps or not, work the program or not, believe in God or not, as you feel fit. As Campsie Mick used to say, “Feel free to get your own results.”
The old timers didn’t have all the answers but knew that by telling their stories and sharing their experiences they could help others, particularly newcomers. Dr. Bob probably had a similar experience when Bill W first told him about his drinking. In Dr. Bob’s words “… he was the first living human with whom I had ever talked, who knew what he was talking about in regard to alcoholism from actual experience. In other words, be talked my language.” (Alcoholics Anonymous, 1976, p.180)
This AA language is what binds me together with other alcoholics through the affinity I feel with them. In comparison, I don’t feel any affinity with a program (intangible), the twelve steps (words), or a god I don’t believe in. Sobriety is all about feeling an affinity with another living human, not just any human but one who is, like me, an alcoholic.
Today I try to follow along behind people like Jimmy, doing what they did, passing on what was given to me by them when I came in. I need to stand up for newcomers, particularly atheists, if I see them being pushed around like I was by other overzealous members. When I share at meetings I simply state that I am an atheist and that belief in god is not necessary to get or stay sober. At the same time, I also need to avoid becoming overzealous myself with people who have a different take on sobriety than mine.
This is essentially all that Jimmy and the other old timers did for me. That is, to show people that within the AA fellowship there is always an alternative way to get sober that will work for anyone. As the last line of the AA preamble says, “Our Primary purpose is to stay sober and help other alcoholics to achieve sobriety.”
About the Author
PJ migrated to Sydney, Australia from Ireland in 1989 and got sober in 1993. Having come from an Irish tradition of oral storytelling, he naturally gravitated towards the wonderful Sydney AA storytellers, who shared their experience, strength, and hope. This has proven to be a mainstay of his sobriety, with the tried and tested formula of sharing in a general way what we used to be like, what happened, and what we are like now. He is a member of the Brookvale Secular AA ID meeting, a friendly space for those not sure about the god bit.
Original Artwork by Kathryn F.