26 May 2021

Lockdown, Alcoholics Anonymous and the laws of ‘spiritual physics’

By Sean Walsh

The Fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous was created in 1935 pretty much by chance. A former stockbroker, six months sober, ruined by the Wall Street Crash and on the rough end of a business deal gone wrong, walked into a hotel bar intending to drown his sorrows. Instead, he came to a realisation: that he could refuse a drink, but only by helping a fellow sufferer. Rather than relapse he picked up the phone and asked a local pastor to put him in touch with a local drunk. Any local drunk.

This happened in Akron, Ohio. The two alcoholics were thrown together by (what seemed then to be) a random act of the cosmos. Each remained sober for the rest of his life. It established the principle that recovery is a service, a sub-discipline of spiritual physics. You want to stay sober? You help another drunk, not for their sake, but for your own. If no drunk is available, you do the “next right thing”.

It is impossible to quantify the impact of lockdown on the Fellowship. Arguably, the recovering alcoholic has an advantage here: we practise a program which requires that we “keep it in the day”. We are encouraged to believe that in the 24 hours available to you lie the possibilities that can you sober the next day.

But being dissuaded from meeting in person has had a harmful impact on AA.

Before March 2020 you were never that far from an AA Meeting. In my own small Wiltshire town, we used to have about five a week. The meeting does two things: it allows us to share our “experience, strength and hope” with each other. Meetings are therefore quirky. It is only in a Meeting of AA that a member can recount experiences of prison, loss of friendships, attempted suicide, marital break-up… to be met with the response: “thank you for that lovely share”.

The second thing the meeting does is to embed those habits of service. I once attended a meeting in Bath. The person serving tea was a multimillionaire rock star, and I was in the Chair. The rock star would refuse to sign autographs, he was not there in that capacity. He was there to serve.

You cannot have an effective AA meeting via Zoom (we have tried) for three reasons. The first is that the embedded structures of service cannot be replicated virtually. The second is that the most important person in any AA meeting is the “newcomer”, many of those fellow sufferers have no access to Zoom. In 2016, when I first entered the rooms of AA, I was street homeless.

But thirdly, and most importantly, there is a certain “sacramentality” about the AA meeting: it just helps to be physically present with the fellow sufferers. A Zoom relationship is ersatz.

Those of us who are sceptical about the system of interventions imposed on us over the last 14 months sometimes miss the point. We surrender to the game of data tennis initiated by the SAGE types who want to analyse everything in terms of stuff that can be plotted on a graph. There are invisible harms, though. The wonderful alchemy of the AA meeting requires that we actually meet.

Alcoholism is a disease at least as lethal as Covid. Recovery is a marathon. The ‘meeting’ is the drinks station. How do you run a marathon without water?

Like all institutions AA has its own language, when people relapse, we say that they have “left the rooms”. I hope the rooms, the meetings, will be open from 21st June. There are invisible harms, Mr Johnson.

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Sean Walsh has a PhD in the philosophy of mind/artificial intelligence and has taught philosophy in several universities. He now works with recovering addicts and writes about and researches the metaphysics of addiction

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.