Many people avoid AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) because of the religiosity. What they are misunderstanding may cost them the potential to gain their sobriety.
What is it about AA that got them sober? They tried everything until they did the 12-steps. They got a sponsor and can quote the big book. They swear by it, they are convinced that AA or NA is what helped them.
How does AA and NA help them stay sober?
There’s got to be some sort of trick or hidden information. Maybe some sort of mystical power behind it all. Is it supernatural?
AA does not ascribe to a specific religion, in fact they are very big on making this distinction. They only believe in God as they “understand him.” According to AA, it means that you simply need to imagine that there is some sort of power outside yourself that can help you. It still begs the questions, how and why and what is this mystical spiritual force?
Our Understanding of God
God does play a central role in AA though, just look at the famous 12 steps; Step 2 wants us to believe that there is a “power greater than ourselves”. Steps 3, 5, 6, 7 and 11 all mention God and step 12 again asks for a “spiritual awakening.”
Does this mean the atheist addict is doomed?
When you visit one of these meetings and ask for a metaphysical explanation you will get something like: “spirituality means to stop thinking on a low order, instead choose to think on a higher order,” or “god is whomever you choose to understand him as.”
Order, disorder, thinking, high and low? What is going on here?
In short, the universe is falling apart, the second law of thermodynamics states that everything naturally moves toward disorder. Everything, except Life. Life has one goal, to use energy to create order. Order is Life is God.
In the words of the famous one, “let there be light.”
First lets discuss how to understand it/him/her (God).
Second we will look at how it/he/she is really at work in AA.
First, the debate for or against God goes as follows:
In the beginning…
In the beginning there was God and nothing else, then God spoke and presto, the universe appeared filled with stuff.
The other argument goes as follows:
There was nothing then presto (or a Big Bang of sorts) and a universe appeared filled with stuff.
In both scenarios there was stuff, just floating about in space, very disordered.
So basically the two arguments start from the same premise. At first there was the absence of everything, in other words a perfect order. Some magic happened and then there was stuff followed by disorder.
The arguments then go like this:
God continued to speak and a short time later we have order again in the form of stars, planets, plants and animals and soon humans.
Due to the laws of physics matter collided via gravity which led to stars and planets. One very lucky planet was just right to have water and an atmosphere which led to life. Life kept changing by chance to select for creatures and features that could survive better in different conditions. Through evolution and natural selection we now have many plants and animals and soon humans.
Again, in both stories we have some invisible force creating order from disorder.
So up to this point we have the two stories explaining how we got to animals, both involving the idea of order, disorder and order again.
The creatures and plants lived in harmony. Their instincts guided them to seek safety, reproduce and eat just enough to stay alive. A sort of perfect balance was achieved either by the guidance of God or the forces of nature. Each animal was perfectly content with what they had. They lacked a desire for more. It was a peaceful Garden, let’s call it Eden.
Then, one of these creatures had a brilliant idea, one that would bring disorder again.
Side note… animals live in this harmonious state due to a balance in the availability of food and the effort to obtain that food. We do not see the lions on the prairie catching more deer than needed because they are so delicious, if that was to happen, the deer population would decrease resulting in a decrease in the lion population. Luckily the lions have some instincts that tell them, “hey, only when you’re hungry, eat a little bit of deer and no more, save your energy to hunt again later.”
Back to the guy with the great idea. Let’s call him Joe. Joe thought, “hey, what if I use this long stick over here to knock down a couple extra apples, they’re so tasty and I would feel really good if I could just have a few more.” Maybe it was Jane that gave Joe the idea, no matter.
The first desire to indulge was born. The first battle of the mind: eat more now to feel good versus save some for later to ensure survival. This was the first time any creature thought outside the box, the box being a set of instinctual rules.
The primitive brain
The primitive brain or “animal brain” consists of the following. The Amygdala which regulates emotions and fear response. The hippocampus which records memories. The Nucleus Accumbens which signals reward. These three work together to ensure a species’ survival.
If the animal senses danger, the amygdala triggers a sympathetic nervous system storm which helps them escape or fight to survive. When the animal sees a potential mate, the amygdala helps guide reproduction. When the animal is stressed due to hunger, the amygdala helps to coordinate food seeking behavior. Any time these three goals are met, the nucleus Accumbens fires a reward signal and the memory is recorded in the hippocampus for future reference. Over time the animal gets better and better at surviving to fulfill Life’s purpose. That purpose? To make more life… To continue creating order.
What makes the human brain different
At some point in our evolution (or when God snapped his fingers and made man), our human ancestors developed a new brain function. The ability to control the primitive brain. The frontal cortex in humans is larger than any other species on our planet and is the CEO of the brain. It controls executive function, planning for the future, recalling the past and regulating the reward pathway described earlier. It is what helped our ancestors invent technologies like tool making and farming. It helped them survive better as they lost their animal like strength.
Unfortunately the frontal cortex functions by trying to maximize reward. It’s goal is to help provide more safety, more food and more sex in order for us to survive better. It helped us build homes, farm and attract mates. Survival is a good thing, but what if this mechanism fails the individual?
Temptation, the battle between the primitive brain and the frontal cortex
Back to Joe…
His frontal cortex helped him obtain more apples than he needed, but he’s not to blame, it was simply his brain helping him get more reward.
A short time later Joe started sharing the extra apples with his tribe. His fellow tribesmen were very happy and they liked Joe. Normally there would be just enough apples to eat one apple a day, just enough to keep the devil away. Unfortunately the apples ran out early that season. Eventually the rest of Joes tribe insisted on getting more. They were getting angry with Joe. Joe started hiding some for himself. It was soon discovered that he was hoarding apples and all hell broke loose. Joe tried to use the apple stick to defend himself but didn’t fare to well. Poor Joe and his apples didn’t last long. Charles wrestled the apple stick away and stabbed Joe. Since Charles was the first to turn the apple stick into a death stick he started using it to threaten others. Later he used the death stick to catch animals. At first rabbits but soon he and his fellow cronies were hunting deer. Life was good again. Unfortunately they over hunted. Charles got fat and the animals died out. Charles and his friends had to leave the Garden. Soon the deer population was waning, so Charles started ordering his cronies to hunt for him, for he was the one who came up with this great idea in the first place. Charles became their leader, their king.
Side note… some theories explain that as humans started figuring out how to game the system, meaning to plan and build and be crafty, their brains increased in size, they also started walking upright more in order to use their hands with the tools they invented. Some say the apes living in trees started exploring the ground for more food or other opportunities. Walking upright allowed them to see their potential threats approach and scan the prairie for food. Their posture changed over time and as a result, the female pelvis was tilted forward resulting in a narrowed birth canal. The larger brain with a smaller birth canal led to a painful birth. Further growth of the brain and narrowing of the birth canal also led to premature birth in order for babies to fit through the canal better. Due to being born earlier and earlier human babies are born without any capability to survive and completely depend on their mother. Most animals are able to walk and find food minutes after birth. Due to their dependence on their mother it let to more mother-infant-bonding and further led to communal growth, and probably language. The upright stance led to an exposed abdomen therefore feeling vulnerable and the need to dawn clothing.
The above seem like theories to try and explain the Genesis story, who knows.
Okay back to our story…
The first king was born. King Charles. First he worshipped himself because he came up with such great ideas and soon others worshipped him out of fear.
The need to feel good came to be. The universe became self aware, but this very self awareness led to self worship.
Ever since then, man has tried to feel good, not just to be content with what he or she had but always wanting more. Desire was born.
Man was cast out of the garden, or maybe just left due to eating all the food. (Again, the garden being a metaphor for living in a state of no desire, like animals do. Man gained the vice of desire causing him to be cast out from the garden). The woman now experienced painful childbirth. Man had to learn how to plant food in order to grow more to satisfy his desire. Before, he lived as an animal, naïve to a desire to take more than he needed, but now he gained the knowledge of good and evil. Evil, a synonym for what causes early death, in this case the desire to feel really good at the cost of someone else or even his own survival. Man wandered through the open prairie in search of more, in a search to fulfill his desire.
This wandering through the desserts and prairies led to a development in the early brain that is now thought to contribute to addiction. The early humans who were wandering through the prairie in search of food was in a state of hunger stress. When they found a source of water or food they had to try and remember where it was located. When leaving the safety of their cave the next day they had to find their way back to this source. The humans who could remember better survived better. When under stress the brain that remembers how to escape stress better thus would also survive better.
The Brain and Addiction
When the brain is under stress and finds a solution, it remembers that solution. If the solution is a drug, the brain will resort to drug use in the future for quick relief. This is the recipe for addiction.
Side note… MRI scans reveal this phenomenon today. When the brain finds a reward we see activity at the Nucleus Accumbens. When surprised with a novel reward we see much more activity there. Gambling and Slot Machines take advantage of this mechanism. Back in the day when slot machines were invented, the makers noticed something peculiar. When completely randomizing the wins, the gamblers are likely to spend more money. This supports the idea that more dopamine is released when the reward is unexpected. Dopamine is not just the feel good neurotransmitter but also helps to solidify memories. Randomized rewards is also the best way to train dogs. When giving the reward at random times they solidify the behavior faster that when getting the reward every time.
Dopamine was always thought to be the reward chemical in the brain but it has actually more to do with seeking reward.
When you are under stress and find some substance or activity that immediately makes you feel better your brain is programmed to remember it. This feature helped us survive long long ago. Back then survival depended on finding food or water or shelter but man was smart and invented ways to take care of these basic needs. He was able to sit around and invent other things. Soon he invented alcohol and drugs and gambling. These things trick the mind into feeling good (especially in times of stress) but eventually they are not enough, in fact when they wear off, the absence of them make us feel even worse than before. Ah but the brain remembers. Easy solution, take more of the substance. Eat more, drink more, indulge more and feel better again. A quick fix to feel on top of the world again, just like a king. Just like our old chap king Charles.
As our ancestors learned about what it means to indulge, some were able to withstand this temptation. They also learned that instead of fighting over apples, it is far better to work together. Whom ever had a sense of community and cooperation were able to survive better overall. As soon as one tribesman or woman started to take more than their share they were quickly corrected. Of course some devised devilish ways to get their way. Trickery, magic and even religion was invented. Usually the overall good outweighed the bad and was able to suppress those with self seeking behavior. After all we have made it this far today. The point is that for overall species’ survival, said species needed to stick together, help each other and share the apples within reason. This is the knowledge of the good. This creates order. Order which ensures survival. For human beings survival of the fittest became survival of the friendliest.
God is the force that ensures life
Do you see what I’m getting at? God is either an old guy with a grey beard or simply the force that helps us survive. God is life and life contains God. God is found in all living beings. God is at work to help ensure survival of life itself. God is a state of order that helps us achieve this goal. God is found in others because others help us survive. The God of AA is simply present in the fellow members off AA. Two minds are better than one. Two people working together to stay sober have much more success.
When an addict continues in their addiction they tend to isolate, they lose this human connection. Substance abuse is a very selfish behavior, only the drug user wants to feel good. Taking a drug doesn’t make any one else feel good. In this way addiction leads to isolation. Once addiction takes a hold it becomes the central purpose in that life. Other practices to ensure order get ignored. The addict forgoes the need to work hard, eventually to pay the bills and fix what is broken. They actually just work hard to obtain more of the drug. They stop seeing friends and family fade away and eventually they have nothing. Their hygiene suffers, their health declines and soon they find themselves in such a state of disorder that they cannot see themselves out any longer. They need a god or simply a little bit of order to jump start the reversal of the addiction. They need what is in other people going through recovery.
This is where AA comes in. Once they start following the steps, they will quickly realize the things they need to live. They are powerless to their addiction and they need help. Their lives have become unmanageable and they need order again. This help comes from their community of recovering addicts found at these meetings. They rekindle human connection to replace their isolation. They find that they are not alone. Solidarity starts building them up and iron starts to sharpen iron. Soon they replace their habits with daily meetings. They make sober friends all over town and achieve a sense of community. They start rebuilding their life by creating order. They start helping others which provides a sense of happiness. God/Order/Connection is working through them and the people they meet. God is found inside other recovering addicts. Once the addict understands this they no longer shy away from seeking or offering help.
In AA, God is the power outside themselves that is found in others, the power to regain their life.
Instead of changing via chance they start changing via choice.
Thanks for reading, Dr Z.