Are You Too Smart for AA?

Are You Too Smart for AA?

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This post was originally published on March 5, 2015.

One of the major stumbling blocks for a lot of people coming into Alcoholics Anonymous for the first time is that, well…no one will ever mistake an AA meeting for a Mensa gathering. The blue and gold Cub Scout banners, the constant God references, and what appears to be the parroting of the slogans by much of the constituency is a huge turnoff for the intellectually inclined (as well as those who just think that they’re smarter than they really are, like me sometimes). I’m sure that Plato and Socrates rest easy knowing that their reputations as Western civilization’s greatest thinkers will never be threatened by an organization that espouses the credo, “If I don’t take the first drink, I can’t get drunk” as the cornerstone of their philosophy.

But being clever or smart has absolutely nothing to do with being able to get or stay sober, and in fact, it has been my experience that believing that there’s an intellectual solution to alcoholism is really one of the biggest obstacles to getting sober–especially if you’re doing it in AA. As my friend (who studied at Oxford) told me, “When I came in, I was trying to figure it out, because I thought it was an intellectual endeavor—but it’s not. At some point it just clicked: ‘Oh shit. I have to do stuff.’”

I was reminded of this a couple of days ago when I went to a morning meeting where my friend (a former film student) was celebrating 26 years, and again later that night when the anniversary speaker was a woman who had been a consultant at Arthur D. Little in the 60’s and 70’s before drinking herself homeless and nearly to death. Although their stories were nothing alike, they essentially gave the same reason as to why they were unable to get sober initially: “I thought I was smarter than everyone here (in AA) until I found out that I couldn’t think my way out of my alcoholism.”

The guy, John, got sober at 24 but bounced around for a few years before becoming willing to take suggestions that allowed him to stay sober. “I was an uneducated 22-year-old who was terrified to tell anyone that I didn’t know what was going on, so I acted like I was smarter than everybody,” he told me. One day he was approached by a guy who went by the name “Don’t Drink Tony” who would end every conversation or phone call with “Don’t drink,” which drove my friend crazy. After he finished explaining to Tony why he didn’t have to do what everybody else did (join and get active with a group, get a sponsor, do the steps and go to lots of meetings without drinking in between), Tony just said, “If you’re so fucking smart, what are you doing in AA? Being smart has nothing to do with it.”

My friend got pissed off and walked away, but after yet another drunken horror show, he just started doing what everybody else did and got and stayed sober.

And that was my experience as well. The first time I came in, I was desperate at first, and I even cried at my first meeting when I identified with a bunch of black guys from Roxbury who drank (and felt) like me. But as soon as I started feeling a little better, I started picking everything apart all of the goofy shit in AA.

For instance, what kind of dipshits live their lives by slogans like “Live and Let Live,” “Easy Does It” and the other aphorisms that are plastered on those ridiculous banners? Only idiots, I thought, prayed (forgetting of course, that one of my heroes, Martin Luther King, was a Baptist minister). Listening to people say that they were sober “by the grace of God” made me want to puke and I wasn’t going to join a group because I didn’t want to be part of such a corny-ass club as AA. I just wanted to stop drinking, not join a cult full of dopes.

So after of 49 days of not drinking (but eating benzos and smoking weed) and not doing much else, I picked up a drink. It took about a week for things to get bad again, but soon they were worse than ever. And I spent the next four years trying to figure out a solution to my drinking problem that didn’t involve going to AA; none of then worked. Finally I got a DUI and was court-ordered to attend meetings (something I’m not necessarily a fan of for numerous reasons but am nonetheless grateful for). When I came back and was a lot more desperate, I started taking suggestions because even if these people weren’t as brilliant as I thought I was, I had to finally admit that at least they knew how to stay sober, and I didn’t have a fucking clue how to do it. I eventually got sober, but not before I started praying, which was the last thing I ever thought I’d do. Luckily, someone told me that I didn’t have to believe in God to pray, but by then if someone had told me I had to perform sacrificial rituals on squirrels and worship the devil to stop drinking I probably would have done it.

Once I stopped drinking and started to clear up (literally a couple of years later), I started to get it: It didn’t matter what I thought or said, it mattered what I did. And what I did was this: I didn’t drink or take drugs no matter what; I got a sponsor; I went to a ton of meetings for a long time; I made coffee and set up halls; I told my story over and over at hospitals and institutions; and eventually I did the steps. I stayed sober.

Did I question everything every step of the way? Yup. But I actually did what they suggested and it worked without all that analysis. Someone once told me that anything worth believing in is worth questioning and that blind faith really is for dopes, and I still believe that today. So I say to anyone who’s new: question everything but just fucking do it. How can you disprove something that you’ve never tried? I heard when I came around that if I did everything that was suggested for 90 days and I didn’t think my life was actually better, than I could go out have an awesome party with all the money I saved from not drinking and doing cocaine.

As far as the intellectual side, this is what I’ve found: Some of the most brilliant people I hear speak at meetings aren’t the most educated or erudite. When I came around the second time I met this really bright guy who always had trouble staying sober, and he told me that he couldn’t go to open meetings because he couldn’t stand the bad grammar. The last time I saw him at a meeting, he was hammered and drinking Listerine. So it’s not the grammar that counts. It’s the level of truth behind it. I’d rather listen to an honest speaker with a sixth grade education who really knows about alcoholism than some highly educated but insincere douchebag recite the Big Book as if he wrote it.

You often hear old timers in AA say, “I’ve seen lots of people too smart to get this program but I’ve never met anybody that was too stupid.” I’ve been around long enough to see how true that is. I’m just grateful that I was just stupid enough to get it.

Photo courtesy of Paul Ehrenfest (Museum Boerhaave) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons (resized and cropped)

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About Author

Johnny Plankton is the pseudonym for a freelance business and comedy writer/editor (and recovering alcoholic) who lives in Boston. He is also a grateful member of America’s largest alcohol recovery “cult” as well as Al-Anon.