I'm Ray, and I'm an Alcoholic

Reflections in Recovery

Anne Smith and Dr. Bob
I don’t remember what anybody said at my first AA meeting, but I do remember how I felt. I was desperate—terrified in fact. I had no place to live. I was broke. I was driving a taxicab the night shift, a dangerous job in a dangerous city. It was the only way I could pay the rent on my teenage daughter’s apartment in another city, where, having left her at the mercy of alcohol and cocaine, her own life was coming apart.

I also remember how everybody else seemed to feel at that meeting. Not at all like me. They were all telling jokes and laughing and having a jolly good time. “I’m so and so and I’m an alcoholic,” they would start seemingly inauspiciously, and then they would proceed to tell some story that would make everybody crack up. As confused as I was, I realized what was going on. It wasn’t that they hadn’t felt what I was feeling. It was that they didn’t feel like that anymore. They seemed to have attained that state which I later would learn was AA’s long-term goal in recovery. They were “happy, joyous, and free.” Oh, probably not all of them. But enough to create an atmosphere. It was infectious. By the end of the meeting, I didn’t feel so bad anymore. My fear started to lift. I wasn’t alone. There was hope.

Some 90 days later my sponsor took me to the Commuter’s Special meeting of AA across the street from a large transportation hub and I delivered by first “qualification,” as we used to call it then. I told my story. It was the story that qualified me to be in that room with other alcoholics and to speak as one of them. So I identified myself accordingly, commencing my talk with “I’m Ray and I’m an alcoholic.” Thirty-five years later, I still identify myself that way before I share at an AA meeting. That’s the way they did it at my first meeting. That’s the way it’s done at every meeting, every time.

For some in the outside world, that’s a real problem. An acquaintance of mine (we’ll call him Jim) came out of rehab a couple of weeks ago. His church friends promptly arranged for him to meet with his pastor. This angered him, Jim said, because they hadn’t even bothered to consult with him. He was even more upset when the pastor didn’t seem to support Jim’s plans to start attending AA meetings, declaring that he didn’t like the way people identified themselves as alcoholics there. You shouldn’t call yourself an alcoholic, he said. You should call yourself a child of God.  

Now, the pastor probably meant well. In his eyes, for me to say I’m an alcoholic is to speak ill of myself. It’s to put myself down and focus on what’s wrong with me. Worst of all, it’s to deny my real, spiritual identity.

Some years ago, I wrote a letter to the editors of a religious magazine which shared such a view. Apparently, the magazine had written favorably about AA in the past. But they had changed their minds. So they “revisited” AA, channeling their newfound disapproval through “D,” a “brother” who had become disaffected with the program. According to D, saying that he was an alcoholic was a “formula” that was “unwittingly feeding the beast” he thought he had “finally conquered.” It’s a “once-a-drunk-always-a-drunk philosophy” that “keeps us bound to our past condition with a 12-link chain,” where our life is “still revolving around the bottle,” and where “we are still controlled by our former problem to the extent that we are dependent on 12 Step meetings to keep us sober.” Contradicting “the scriptural truth that he was ‘a new creation’ and had been made free,” it’s “daily professing the wrong identity.” It “keeps people chained to sin.”

I had 23 years sober when I first read that article, and having now read it again, I’m still amazed at the self-righteousness it reflects. It reminds me of the Big Book’s quote about what keeps a person from having a spiritual experience in AA: contempt prior to investigation (p. 567). For it shows an abysmal ignorance of AA, even if it’s based on the experience of somebody who supposedly was in the rooms. It’s the kind of thing that gives religion a bad name.

When I say “I’m Ray, and I’m an alcoholic,” I’m hardly spouting a formula. Actually, I’m doing a number of rather significant things. First of all, I’m working Step 1, the Step on which the entire program of recovery rests. I’m reaffirming my admission that I’m powerless over alcohol. I’m reminding myself that I cannot control my drinking like other people can. No matter how long I’ve been sober, if I drink again, I will drink like the alcoholic I am. My life will become unmanageable again, and, not unimportantly, I will wreak havoc in the lives of others as well—again. That’s what “once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic” means. It’s hardly a “philosophy.” It’s a fact of life for drinkers like me, and none of those who object to it with such vehemence actually contest it. They never claim that it’s OK for the type of out-of-control drinker AA identifies as alcoholic to drink again. And—this should be very clear—that’s the only kind of drinker AA is for, not for any other.

When I say “I’m Ray, and I’m an alcoholic,” I’m practicing a number of spiritual principles which Step 1 embodies. One of these is honesty. I’m no longer in denial, but recognize that I do have a serious problem with alcohol. A second is acceptance. I’m no longer fighting the fact that I have such a problem, rejecting the diagnosis, and looking for ways to get around it and drink like everybody else. And a third is humility, the spiritual foundation of all of AA’s Steps and Traditions. Humility is at the heart of my admission of powerlessness, the recognition that I’m not in control. Humility opens the door to a Higher Power who can restore me to sanity. Practicing such principles hardly feeds my alcoholism, keeps me bound to my past condition, or makes feel controlled by it. It liberates me.

When I say “I’m Ray, and I’m an alcoholic,” therefore, I’m not speaking ill of myself at all. Understood in those words is the fact that I have recovered from “a hopeless condition of mind and body.” (Big Book, p. 20)  Now, that’s a miracle, as our two basic texts tell us and most of us in the fellowship believe—from personal experience, mind you, not because the books say so. It’s a gift we’ve received, for as those two books tell us again and again, “we are today sober only by the grace of God” (12&12, p. 92; grace is mentioned 24 times in our two texts). And so I am grateful. I am “a grateful recovering alcoholic,” as many of us like to say. How does being grateful to God for his liberating grace keep me tied to sin? It doesn’t.  

That gratitude—not some alleged dependence on 12-Step meetings—is what keeps me going to those meetings. The Big Book makes it abundantly clear that our “recovery is not dependent upon people,” but upon God, and more specifically, upon our “relationship with God” (p. 100). This follows logically from the understanding that we are sober by the grace of God. Going to meetings is our grateful response to that grace. “Freely ye have received, freely give,” we’re told in the 12&12 (p. 110). By continuing to go to meetings, we are practicing two additional spiritual principles which AA derives from that quoted passage, the source of which is evident. Step 12 calls them “love and service.” We keep our sobriety by giving it away, out of gratitude and in love and service to others. We do that by sharing our “experience, strength and hope.” Therefore, our lives do not revolve around the bottle at all, but about giving back what God has so freely given us.

Finally, we are hardly professing the wrong identity when we identify ourselves as alcoholics. We are acknowledging the truth about our condition, and that honest and humble admission opens us to receive the gift of sobriety. “A.A.’s manner of making ready to receive this gift,” we read in the 12 &12, “lies in the practice of the Twelve Steps in our program.” That starts with our admission of powerlessness in Step 1. Underlying that admission is a recognition of our real identity. The Big Book tells us what that is in Step 3: “He is the Father, and we are His children.” It then goes on to conclude that such recognition is the beginning of our liberation: “Most good ideas are simple, and this concept was the keystone of the new and triumphant arch through which we passed to freedom” (p. 62).

Admitting I’m an alcoholic doesn’t negate my being a child of God any more than admitting I’m a sinner. In both cases I’m admitting to my “worldly” condition, to use a language familiar to the religious, not to my original, divine origin. At the same time, in AA to say I'm a child of God is not to express a pious platitude or a dead dogma. It reflects a faith that works, a faith that practices acting and living like one. That’s the purpose of the 12 Steps and the spiritual principles in them.

As these brief remarks and accompanying quotes suggest, Jim’s pastor’s concern, and the magazine article’s critique, are unfounded. A simple reading of our two basic texts would bear this out. That’s not hard to do. The Big Book is not that big a book. It’s only 575 pages, and only the first 164 actually contain the AA program. The rest contain personal stories of the fellowship’s members (which may or may not reflect that program). The 12&12 is even shorter: only 192 pages of relatively brief essays. Both books are written in practical and accessible language. Certainly, religious leaders who wish to help those of their co-religionists who have a drinking problem bear a responsibility to give them honest and informed guidance.

Telling Anonymous Jim he’s not an alcoholic and discouraging him from attending AA is doing him a disservice. It is enabling his denial. For Jim is not able to stay sober. He keeps relapsing time after time, year after year. In AA’s experience, that shows he can‘t control his drinking, that he’s powerless over alcohol, that he is, in fact, an alcoholic. But he can’t bring himself to effectively admit it. Going to meetings is where he can find the help to make that admission, and, by the grace of God, receive at last the gift of sobriety.

[Posted 06/29/19. Image: Portraits of Anne and Dr. Bob at an AA meeting. For an extensive treatment of AA’s concept of powerlessness—which is what’s behind the saying “Once and alcoholic, always an alcoholic"— see PTP123, Step One, Chapter C: Lack of Power: Our Dilemma. On this website, see PTP123 excerpts Surrender and A Humble Admissionand in Ray's Book Reviews, see Powerless Over Alcohol: An Objection and a Response.

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