William Alexander tracks the fractured terrain between booze and badness, gin and genes, identity and emptiness—and makes his way from AA to Zazen

The Twelve Steps

1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.

2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

5. Admitted to God, ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

8. Made a list of all person we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.

12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

The Twelve Steps are reused with permission of Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. Permission to reuse the Twelve Steps does not mean that AA has reviewed or approved the contents of this publication, nor that AA agrees with the views expressed herein. AA is a program of recovery for alcoholism only—use of the Twelve Steps in connection with programs and activities which are patterned after AA, but which address other problems, or in any other non-AA context, does not imply otherwise. Additionally, although AA is a spiritual program it is not a religious program. Hence, AA is not allied with any sect, denomination or specific spiritual belief.

a_to_z_1 I tended bar and hung out in Tampa, Florida. The bar where I spent the most time was a magnet for the One Percenters, a motorcycle gang modeled after the Hell’s Angels, and was a hippie, student, and local redneck lush hangout. We served beer, sandwiches, and hamburgers, which I generally grilled while testing the latest exotic hallucinogen, prior to marketing, for a friend in retail. Later in the evening, in many cases, I wouldn’t be able to make sense out of a handful of change. The beer was provided by a sinister family, the security by the One Percenters, and the harassment by Malcolm Beard and the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Department. Only one person was shot on my watch; the fights were brutal and quickly ended. Just three couples had sex during business hours, and the fellow who masturbated by the billiard table was finally permanently 86ed.

This bar and the two that had preceded it, only to be burned down in mysterious circumstances, were high energy spots. They smelled of sour beer, fried fat, cigarettes, PineSol, and sweat. There was a sign over the urinal in the men’s room that read “Please don’t eat the big white mints,” and the graffiti in the women’s room was from Quiet Days in Clichy. It read, “A good meal, a good talk, a good fuck. What better way to spend the day. There were no worms devouring her conscience.” On the door to the men’s room someone had scrawled “Polymorphous Perversity!” as if the phrase had meaning just by looming large and alone in this juicy little roadhouse. The men I knew who were regulars there talked like W. C. Fields, their words squeezed through the glottis, rolled across a thickened tongue, and oozed out of the side of the mouth, with key words elongated and whinnied. “I’d like a beeeer, Billy me lad.” These were wonderful, dark times; I regret little of what happened during those years. I am also certain that to paint them with either too light or too dark a brush is deadly.

After nearly forty years without any contact between us, I had a long e-mail conversation with one of my best friends from elementary grades through our sophomore year of high school. We shared our histories with each other, only to find that our lives could not have been more different. During my years in Tampa, and for many to follow, Carlton was living a life of responsibility and probity. He finished college in three years and completed graduate school in due course soon thereafter. Like me, he did his time in the Army, but he served in an intellectual’s position in the Signal Corps while I was an infantry officer and paratrooper. He later went into business while I descended into alcoholic madness. He married and stayed married while I was twice divorced before finally meeting a woman who was not my type, thank God. My old friend and I love each other for who we are, not for what we have done or failed to do. My lesson, then, in renewing this wonderful friendship is to treat myself as Carlton treats me: “Perfect and complete, lacking nothing.”

I have attended AA meetings for many years, and I expect that I always will. That is where the healing began and where it continues. And yet. And yet there is a central, damaging anomaly at the core of the AA model of recovery from addiction that haunted me for a long time. It is a haywire troublemaker for people trying to get sober, most often driving them away, and an ongoing vexation for those who are able to stick with abstinence in spite of it. If you’re like me, and hung out in your equivalent of that funky roadhouse in Tampa and were often recklessly indifferent to the harm you were doing, you want to be as careful not to fall into the blame trap as to fall into the I-couldn’t-help-it trap. The problem is this.

a_to_z_2In AA literature and in meeting rooms worldwide, alcoholism is first defined as a disease, “an allergy of mind and body,” and then the alcoholic is implicitly blamed for having it. The blame is in the insistence that alcoholics are less whole or moral than “normies” or “earth people”—such pitiable sobriquets, so damning in their polarizing meanness—and that we suffer from crippling “defects of character” and chronic inabilities to form relationships with others, which characteristics “made alcoholics of us in the first place” (emphasis added). The Twelve Steps speak of “moral” inventories, “defects of character,” and “shortcomings,” and the literature of AA tells us that we are less able to handle anger than other people and are “grandiose and immature in the extreme.”

It is easy enough to argue that this is all simply a matter of language. It is simply a matter of language, and in this case the language is damaging. I came to accept as true the story about myself that I learned through AA, with all its implicit judgments, no matter how false it is. I was convinced that I was bad rather than sick. A theory of disease or powerlessness doesn’t mean much to someone who is newly sober. When we finally see the light, it can nearly blind us. Living in the light is terrifying. Community and story form our conceptions of ourselves in the beginning. Like children who are criticized, we think poorly of ourselves. Even when we are told that we are not “bad people getting good” but are “sick people getting well,” we are still hearing that there is something wrong with us. It is my experience that wrong/right, sick/well, bad/good as they apply to myself are injurious. I am what I am at any particular moment, drunk or sober.

This judgmental attitude is easy to understand. The two principal books of AA, the “Big Book” (properly Alcoholics Anonymous) and the “12 and 12” (properly Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions), although hardly old books, were written several decades ago and reflect the trends and tempers and prejudices of their milieu. No matter how hard the founders and their brothers and (so few) sisters tried to insist on the disease model, the moralizing judgments of generations blocked their way. That judgment that alkies are “at fault” persists to this day. “You have a disease and you are wrong for having it. Shame on you!”

I recently heard a speaker in an AA meeting identify himself this way: “I am an alcoholic and my problem is Bill.” (Not his real name.) That was not the first time I have heard such a statement nor will it be the last. My skin crawls every time I hear it. At a deeper level, I am saddened when I hear such self-hatred. I identify with it, of course. Toward the end of my active addiction, I felt flawed and ill-made, a sloppy construction with vital pieces tossed willy-nilly on the workshop floor. So I understand what the speaker meant in saying that in his life he was the problem. I empathize with him and I wish him no harm. However, I think we need to look more closely at this understanding. When a man says that he is a problem he is saying that he is an object. When he becomes an object, somehow outside of himself, he is committing a violent act upon himself that encourages further violence. This attitude of violence to the self is pervasive in AA. The wheel of the dis-spirited life continues to spin.

In Buddhism, we speak of ahimsa, which means nonviolence. It has become my aspiration to practice ahimsa in my life of recovery and my life after recovery. It is not so easy. Nonviolence to the self is not supported by the overt culture of our times and is only slightly less denigrated by the “sober minority.” “Over there is me, defective and always coming up short. But I’m working on it.” As long as I drank and used drugs but saw that behavior as a problem outside of me, a problem that would crumble before my separate will, I stayed drunk. Similarly, in my sober life, as long as I think I am the problem, my life will be problematic. The practice of ahimsa, nonviolence, directed toward myself will lead to a practice of nonviolence to earth, God, and other. It is in setting up these judgments about myself that I become violent and ineffectual.

I am not the problem. The problem is in me, but it is not me. But just as the problem is not me, it is also not not me. I contain it. Just as I am not a problem named Bill, I am also not an alcoholic named Bill. I often hear people identify themselves in AA meetings by saying, “I’m an alcoholic and my name is —,” reversing the traditional greeting (“My name is — and I’m an alcoholic”). I don’t think this helps. It has the effect of saying either that my whole identity is determined by a deviant liver or, more insidiously, that I am the “real” alcoholic in this room, apart from and better than the rest of you. Alcoholism is contained by me, but it is not me. I’m a father, a husband, a Buddhist, a white Anglo- Saxon male over fifty, all of it. I’ve got it, but I’m not it. This is an important understanding. Alcoholism is not separate from me, but I am not alcoholism. The problem is not separate from me, but I am not the problem. Moreover, alcoholism is not the problem.

If alcoholism is a disease and I’ve got it, but am not wrong for having it, then why am I such a mess? Which is the chicken and where is the egg? Is a disease the excuse for my life lying in ruins around my feet or is it the reason? What is this alcoholism that caused me to lose the affection of my family and the ability to work successfully? Is it so that my liver’s inability to metabolize ACTH caused my heart to harden?

After many years without alcohol and drugs, I came to the conclusion that I needed finally to accept that my problem might be lack of will power, character, and courage. Maybe I was just a bad person, getting worse. I also came to understand that I might have a genetic disorder that manipulated me, at its whim, into a condition of sorrow and hopelessness that I would not wish upon anyone. Here’s the reality. Alcoholism is in me like grey eyes and bad teeth. It doesn’t matter a whit, ultimately, whether I got it from Dad or my own inability not to bite the other children.

Chicken and egg are one. No cause, no effect. No inside, no outside. No me, separate from my illness.

So what about the “sick alcoholic,” willful in the extreme, plagued by insecurity and fear, grandiose and self-loathing—”the asshole at the center of the universe” or Jung’s King Baby? All of those negative traits are mine. I am grandiose, naive, and quick to anger. So are most of the people I know, alcoholic or not. I am also able to see my place in the scheme of things, to be aggressive and hard-minded, to act out of compassion and understanding. Siegfried Sassoon said, “In me the tiger sniffs the rose.”

So, rather than being either defective because of genes or gin, or perfect because of Buddhism and recovery programs, I discover that I am merely human.

a_to_z_3In 1991, I got a phone call from the head monk of Zen Mountain Monastery. He was calling to tell me that I had been accepted to begin the arduous journey toward becoming a member of the Mountain and Rivers Order and a student of Abbot John Daido Loori. This monk, Shugen, and I talked for several minutes, and he outlined the barrier gates to admission as a full-time student that I had yet to pass through. This included an all-day sit, called tangaryo, when applicants sit zazen from before dawn until sunset with only a forty-five-minute break for lunch. There is also an informal tea with the Abbot and a more intimate face-to-face interview when the aspiring student formally requests to be accepted as a student.

This conversation took place on a morning in the early spring. Trees were green again and the breeze was sweet. When Shugen and I had finished talking, I went for a walk. The light was brighter and the trees were greener than they had any right to be. The rich earth cushioned my step. I breathed the spring air deeply. Just then, a line of geese flew overhead. Their sudden cries were like a Zen master’s explosive shout or like the slap of the monitor’s stick on the shoulders of a meditator slipping into sleep. I woke up and for a moment disappeared into pine and new breeze and goose honk. The pines shimmered their welcome. Body and mind had fallen away and for a moment I had come back to my true self. The next step in my full recovery had been taken and the great earth was witness.

Such moments are fleeting and I am grateful to have been awake to notice it. You cannot induce such moments. You must be awake and alert to see them.

The lotus blooms best from the mud. All those greasy psychedelic cheeseburgers had led directly to the place of shimmering pines. I was and am neither “good” nor “bad.” “All of us,” my teacher says, “are perfect and complete, exactly as we are, lacking nothing.'”