Eight Decades of Addressing the Spiritual Malady

June 10th, 1935 is generally considered to be the birthdate of the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous and the 12 Step Movement. Like many things in our society, there seems to be little middle ground when it comes to AA. There are people who credit the organization with saving their life and family, and there are those who consider the group archaic, a remnant from a less enlightened age, replete with unscientific ideas about addiction and psychiatry. Regardless of one’s opinion, there is no debate that the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous began to shift public opinion on how alcoholics were viewed. This shift was the idea that alcoholics were sick people who needed treatment, not bad people who needed punished. There is still a long way to go, but I am grateful that there are places where alcoholics and drug addicts can go where they are treated with compassion instead of scorn. In honor of AA’s birthday, I thought I’d write a little bit about the founder of AA, Bill Wilson, and his correspondence with Carl Jung, who he considered a co-founder along with himself. Though we are closing in on a century since the first Twelve Step meeting, I believe there is deep wisdom in the insights of these two men.

In Wilson’s letter to Jung, he recounts a friend of his who had been psychoanalyzed by Jung years earlier in attempt to cure his alcoholism. Wilson credits Jung not for his skill as a therapist, but for his humility in telling the man after several relapses that his skills as an analyst could do nothing for his alcoholism, and that without a spiritual conversion or the help of a community of like-minded individuals, he was hopeless. Jung states: “I am strongly convinced that the evil principle prevailing in the world leads the unrecognized spiritual need into perdition if it is not counteracted by either religious insight or by the protective wall of community.” I believe when Jung is using the word religion in the letter, he is speaking of the word in the classic sense-religion as observance of the sacred, not theological dogma.

In the fifteen years that I have worked with those in grips of chemical addiction, I have seen how the disease strips them of their most sacred relationships. They become indifferent to the holiness of their children, their bodies, even life itself.  The effectiveness and power of the Twelve Steps is that it asks a recovering person to reengage with the sacred through a series of actions and attitudes. In these movements, now taken with a clear, sober mind, and the help of the community of recovering members, one must acknowledge what has been lost in the fire of addiction, then either reclaim it or mourn it.

Jung goes on to tell Bill Wilson that he believes an alcoholic’s craving for alcohol is the “thirst of our being for wholeness.” From my perspective, this too is one of the gifts of internalizing the Twelve Steps, a uniting of what had previously been divided. From the outside it sometimes looks as if a person in their addiction has no regret about the things they have done while intoxicated. In my experience, the opposite is true, no matter how much it is hidden by ego, anger, or denial. Most of the people I have worked with are deeply divided people who are tortured by who they once were and who they have become in their addiction. Whatever the method for treating addiction is employed, this chasm must be crossed for healing to begin.

Often when a man or woman finally reaches out for help, they say that it is a feeling of emptiness that pushes them toward change. People in recovery also talk about feeling as if there was a hole inside them that needed to be filled. Bill Wilson writes in the forward of one of AA’s text books that, “AA’s twelve steps are a group of principles, spiritual in their nature, which if practiced as a way of life can expel the obsession to drink and enable the sufferer to become happily and usefully whole.” Over and over the language of both those in addiction and recovery points to a deep existential longing that is as old as humanity itself. For millions of people, Twelve Step recovery has been an answer to the question of addiction and purpose. For that reason alone, Alcoholics Anonymous is worthy of the admiration that is mostly given to the organization.

Personally, I owe a debt of gratitude to men like Bill Wilson and Carl Jung who both believed that intellect and spirit were not just compatible, but inseparable. Additionally, I think these two attributes will be what eventually lead us out of the majority of human conflicts.

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