Walk into an AA meeting on any given day or night, in a library or church hall, pretty much anywhere in the world, and someone will probably attribute their failed attempts at 12 step recovery on their prideful individuality. It is likely they will say something along the lines of ‘I wasn’t ready to get sober because I was terminally unique’. This means that a member was not ready to accept that the methods others had used to get and stay sober could also work for them. I have heard all kinds of reasons for this e.g. I am an atheist, I have done too many awful things, I’m too broken, or I’m not broken enough. However, I suspect any excuse is as good as the next if it shortens the distance to another drink.
This post reflects on what I’ve learned in AA about individuality and what it means to be an alcoholic, to own the past and not repeat the same mistakes in the future. Individuality, here, means much more than just being ‘terminally unique’ as we like to say in AA. It is about how we conceive of ourselves as being distinct from others, and even distinct from earlier versions of ourselves, even if we think these ‘versions’ are nothing more than a chin-stroking possibility. Am I the same person sane and sober, compared to when I was a clearly insane drunk (insanity measured by repeating the same mistake daily)?
The idea of individuality is even murkier when we consider the distinctions we make between mind and body, consciousness and unconsciousness, memory and forgetting, the spiritual realm of the sacred and the mundane world (Durkheim’s ‘profane’), ideas of a separation at death between physical self and soul, or between parts of our personalities (e.g. ego) and our total, composite selves.
AA’s concept of the individual is located in the present rather than the past or the future. In AA meetings, we share our experiences of what it was like when we were drinking, what happened, and what life is like now. The emphasis is on the present, with the past providing context and a resource for learning what not to do. According to AA, the future is a place best left well alone. This temporality, the value AA places on focussing on the present, is best explained by the old AA trope: ‘I had one foot in the past, one foot in the future, and I was pissing on the present.’ It is believed that meditation/prayer, attending meetings and working with other members can assist an AA member to anchor themselves in the present.
Anthropology has always focussed on communities of people, anthro- (people) -ology (study), rather than individuals per se. However, it has lots of really interesting things to say about the nature of individualism, given a person’s ethnicity, culture or religion. For example, Mark Mosco, an anthropologist who has spent considerable time in Melanesia, writes that anthropologists have conventionally thought of Christianity, including the versions spread by various missionaries throughout the Pacific, as being unrelentingly individualistic. Mosco (2015:371) instead writes that many Christians conceive of themselves as composite beings consisting of a physical body and a soul that is a ‘detachable sacred part of the total Christian person’.* Through this, Mosco suggests that ‘dividual personhood’ and agency might actually be more common to the human experience than the so-called possessive individual of modern capitalist society.
On reflection, the ideal ‘possessive individual’ probably doesn’t exist, or if it does, he or she is most likely to be found inside an investment banker’s cocaine den on Wall Street. Too often we remove the grey scale to make black and white distinctions. Regardless, my point is that it’s ok to feel weird, fragmented, or torn between conflicting desires for stability and risk or autonomy and relatedness, because that’s all part of the human condition.
It’s ok to be weird
One of the great things about working in the public service in Australia is the generous working conditions that are a legacy of past, strong unionism in the public sector. These conditions include flexible work hours, ergonomic furniture and the ability to take plenty of leave, including medical leave to get sober.** The public service also throws buckets of money at staff development and training, and this week was my turn to learn about resiliance. I also learned that I am apparantly ill-suited to my workplace!
A consultant walked our class of mid-level public servants through a few quick personality tests that outed me as THE ONLY YELLOW, amid a wiggle*** of blues, reds and greens. We even had to stand on a Twister-style mat on the floor in our respectively coloured sectors. I proudly occupied a whole quadrant in solitude. Apparently I was the only ‘risk taking, artistic, always-asking-why, big-picture type’ amidst a sea of perfectly-suited procedural mandarins. I find this both appropriate and fucking hilarious.
There was some good discussion of things like mental toughness, post-traumatic growth, dealing with difficult people, wellbeing, thinking skills, positive psychology strategies, and action planning. All of these things are a familiar part of my AA toolkit, so it was good to see that ‘normies’ can access similar tools as we alkies, albeit transmogrified into the language and neoliberal logic of business psychology.
These days, my boss knows my AA meeting schedule as well as I do during the week. He understands that, like him, I need to go to the gym at lunch to boost my endorphins and keep my stress levels in check. But I also have to get to a few meetings as an additional ‘non-negotiable’. This is part of the natural give-and-take of a high functioning work team and is as it should be. Unfortunately, not too many alkies I know get this degree of flexibility and support at their place of work.
Pride and individuality
Gregory Bateson, social science’s MacGyver, was curious why we alkies are so proud that we are literally willing to drink ourselves to death before we ask for help.**** Bateson (1971:446) suggested this principle of alcoholic behaviour has roots in the strange epistemology characteristic of Western capitalist civilization. For Bateson, the wordview of the ‘West’ or the ‘Occident’ is means-to-an-end driven and hyper-competitive and, if he were alive today, he would probably point to Instagram’s platform of hyper-individualised personal branding and marketing as a shining example of a world gone awry.
While the active alcoholic seeks only to satisfy her or his own immediate needs and wants, primarily alcohol above all else (including the needs of loved ones), Bateson suggests that the alcoholic who wants to get sober tilts even further towards the extreme end of individualism. Bateson (1971:447) writes that sobriety, at this point, is no longer the appropriate context for the individual’s pride. Rather, ‘It is the risk of the drink that now is challenging and calls out the fatal “I can. . . .’
For me, this explains well my stepping off point from so-called functional alcoholism, to disastrous drunk. The whispered challenge that, on this occasion, things will be different and that one drink would be safe, set me on course for week-long benders of self destruction.
Bateson also noted that ‘A.A. does its best to insist that this change in contextual structure shall never occur.’ He explains that:
…they [AA] restructure the whole context by asserting over and over again that “once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic.” They try to have the alcoholic place alcoholism within the self, much as a Jungian analyst tries to have the patient discover his “psychological type” and to learn to live with the strengths and weaknesses of that type. In contrast, the contextual structure of alcoholic “pride” places the alcoholism outside the self: “I can resist drinking.”
Tragically, we alkies and addicts are like the kid who touches the hot stove again and again to check that it is hot. Rather than acknowledging the folly of our own behaviour, Bateson saw that we alkies instead get resentful at the stove, or the universe:
It is all very well to test once whether the universe is on your side, but to do so again and again, with increasing stringency of proof, is to set out on a project which can only prove that the universe hates you.
These days, I don’t have a voice whispering things like ‘just grab a beer, you’ll be right after three years’, because I own my alcoholism daily. I go to meetings to remind myself of this simple fact, and I try to volunteer and engage in random acts of unsolicited kindness as often as possible. AA teaches that the best way to get over yourself, and your own selfish needs and wants is to do something nice for someone else. When in doubt? Pay it forward! Sometimes all this has to be is a phone call, out of the blue, to another AA member to say “how’s it going”? If they are having a rough day, they’ll appreciate it.
AA allows isolated individuals the opportunity to re-engage with society and relearn how to have healthy social relationships again. It teaches that no person is an island, and that even the worst of us can change and make amends. We learn, through reviewing our behaviour and motivations, that we are happiest when we are part of society, not apart from it.
*Mark Mosco, ‘Unbecoming individuals: The partible character of the Christian person’, HAU Journal of Ethnographic Theory, 5(1), 2015, pp. 361-93. Note: italics are his emphasis.
**It is no revelation that these favourable conditions are currently being eroded by prolonged slow wage growth, an ideological war by conservative governments to quell the influence of unions in the economy, and low union membership by historical standards.
***A ‘wiggle’ seemed to be as good a collective noun as any. Also, a group of wombats is a wisdom. See here for more info about ACT Wildlife Volunteers’ program for treating mangey wombats.
****Gregory Bateson, 1971, ‘The Cybernetics of Self: A Theory of Alcoholism’, Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology, University of Chicago Press, pp.440-56.