An Argument for Literal Interpretation

Confession, Prostration, and the Extreme You Makeover

The initial steps in the suggested program of Alcoholics Anonymous exist to break down the facade you’ve created, whether out of pride or ignorance, that you’re in control of your drinking. This can be rectified by reducing or destroying the ego: we admit that we’re powerless over alcohol, we admit that we’re the ones who got ourselves into this mess, and that given the results, we probably aren’t very good at managing our own lives. It’s incumbent upon us, then, to allow our higher power — whatever that may be — to take control of our lives.

Beyond the first three steps comes reconciliation. We create a detailed moral inventory of ourselves, looking ourselves in the mirror and with brutal honesty categorizing and itemizing each of our detrimental actions and behaviors and their causes. Following this detailed and often uncomfortable introspection, we’re told to share this information with someone else, and with our higher power, as we’re then to ask that higher power to remove these shortcomings from us.

More confession and prostration follows as we make a list of those we’ve harmed and attempt to correct those past mistakes where possible — finally allowing us to move into the final three steps, where we’re able to maintain this mindful state of being, conscious contact with whatever our higher power may be, and to share what we’ve learned from this process with others who care to know.

He Who Suffers Grave Disorders Suffers Alone

This process, as designed, seems intended for a specific type of personality — those with “self will run riot” as it were — but isn’t universal. In the case of dual diagnosis, as the person attempting to recover does indeed suffer from what Alcoholics Anonymous terms “grave emotional or mental disorders” (most common among them depression), the steps can be worked but their intent — in some cases — makes them incompatible, or incomprehensible, to the alcoholic in question.

The first step — admitting that we were powerless over alcohol, admitting that our lives had become unmanageable — implies that the alcoholic assumed they had some power over their drinking in the first place, that they were under the impression they had any semblance of control over their lives. Your average dual diagnosis patient suffers no such illusion.

And what of the second and third steps? Seeking out a higher power — anything, anyone, that could restore us to sanity — allowing whatever that is to make our decisions for us, as doing it ourselves was futile? Again, the notion of being able to do it yourself may strike a chord with the average alcoholic (or whatever the average alcoholic was to men of high social status in the 1930s), but today’s patient is no stranger to turning things over to a higher power,  whether it wears a white coat or a white robe.

Coming to the middle segment we’ve got two steps that involve creating inventories of our defects and misdeeds — again, something a dual diagnosis patient has been doing since they’ve been capable of forming a coherent sentence — followed either sharing this information with others (half of mental health professionals’ careers are financed on this) or attempting to correct our mistakes (which finances the other half).

The last three steps, much more so than the previous nine, do seem more universal. In having developed a better understanding of ourselves, and in having an objective analysis of our faults, we can continue on in our lives attempting to benefit from the knowledge thereby gained. And, of course, trying to help others seek the relief we ourselves found in this process.

We’re left with a complicated problem: the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, which have helped so many recover from this disease of alcoholism, have proven themselves to be effective. There are, though, individuals who may benefit from being a part of Alcoholics Anonymous without adhering to the strictest, old-timery-est, love-it-or-leave it interpretation of what it’s supposed to be.

Expectations of Evolution

There is, of course, latitude built into A.A. to allow for this — in that the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking, and that the primary purpose of A.A. is to help alcoholics to get and stay sober. All else being suggestions, it’s important to remember that the most common and most effective methods of doing this are recognized as working the steps with a sponsor, attending regular meetings, strict and absolute abstinence from drinking and, of course, studying the book.

The book itself, though, is the source from which the aforementioned latitude to not do these things is derived.

Perhaps it’s best to do what the book actually says, rather than blindly obeying the staunchest and most rigid curmudgeons’ opinions of what the book actually means. In this case, taking a literal interpretation of the literature itself allows us to, indeed, “take what we need and leave the rest.”

For most, that will be the steps, the meetings, the book — but for others, we should leave room to allow them to seek sobriety in a manner that works for them. In failing to do that, after all, we’d find ourselves violating the central tenets of Alcoholics Anonymous ourselves.


  1. D.S. Chaos

    Thank you for this. Seeking sobriety as a dual-diagnosis person is a challenge indeed.

  2. Chris

    I absolutely love the message and its intent, and perhaps I should give myself more permission to appreciate and acknowledge all of the effects of my SMI (diagnosed with a serious mental illness . . . I already feel like I’m taking the easy way out by merely making mention of how my mind’s way of trying to operate is extremely debilitating in life in general; this is knowing that professionals and the select few close to me, have commended me on my progress over the years, and that I have A Higher Power that reinstills this in my my heart daily—if I am to listen to It). I’m good at pointing out the hidden Blessings of this particular diagnosis, even as I suffer, and yet I often find it impossible still to admit to myself that there are definite limitations that must be considered, in how I am to view my societal success—in the context of the general population and maybe even with general alcoholics. But for me to say that last part makes me feel completely lacking in empathy, because well, who am I to judge any person or situation that I have no idea of, especially as they set out to accomplish daily goals, and I my head is telling me I’m the worst, because I’m not being the most kind person I can be in any given moment?

    As you can see, I’m very wordy and state things awkwardly in my writing. If you can get past those obstacles and make some sense of my message, please take this with you: The author of the actual blog is very courageous with what (s)he said, for they articulated more specifically what I would like trying to do, but I felt too “less than” to actually come out with it. It was actually their bravery in action, that allowed them to publicly state a pretty radical idea, in relation to approaching the 12 step program.

    To the author, I thank you dearly. The voice in my heart once again booms so loudly in reiterating that I received a Grand Blessing in reading this. Had you not the courage to write it, the rest of my day may have continued downhill. Instead, I’m remaining sober, but most importantly, I’m giving myself room to be human. God Bless you, as God surely will continue doing ?

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