Culture of Alcoholism

002_7619In the US of A, alcohol is everywhere, and those who consume it (or sell to those who consume it) seem to think that everyone consumes it. And not only does it seem like there’s an assumption of consumption, but that consuming to excess is tacitly encouraged. Case in point: a tech industry user conference I recently went to. To be clear, this particular conference was no different than any other in regards to alcohol. I’m using it to illustrate my point regarding our culture as a whole.

It was a two day conference with invite-only meetings the day before.

  • Monday, after invite only meetings, participants in my meeting were invited to head to the hotel bar for sponsor-paid-for drinks. An executive level meeting had alcohol flowing throughout the day.
  • Tuesday, at an invite-only lunch (but it wasn’t hard to get an invite), champagne was handed out at the door “for a toast”. Then glasses were refreshed 45 minutes later. No toast was ever made.
  • Tuesday late afternoon, the “partner pavilion” had free alcohol. Two different people assumed that I was on my way to get something to drink when I was talking to partners.
  • Tuesday evening dinner was paid for by a vendor. This was a close-knit group of coworkers and employees of the vendor, so only about half of the people present drank, and it was in moderation. I think there was an invite to head to the hotel bar afterwards, but I declined.
  • Wednesday happy hour in the partner pavilion had free drinks again.
  • Wednesday evening, immediately following the happy hour, we went to a “final party” event featuring a 90’s band. While walking into the venue, people were pushing glasses of unspecified mixed drinks into attendees hands.

002_7629Never mind that there were a couple of open bars in the venue. Never mind that people arriving had already been consuming if they had chosen. Someone thought “We need to get alcohol into their bellies as quickly as possible. Don’t make them wait in line at the bar for their next drink. Don’t make them grab a prepared drink from a tray. Shove it right into their hands.”

002_7620You know how its hard to not take something that is handed to you? People handing out leaflets know this–get it into their hands so that maybe they’ll look at it. Laws in Las Vegas specifically prohibit this kind of behavior for the people hawking escort services. I had to actively turn down the drink that was pushed at me. I had to resist the automatic behavior and say “no thanks” before I had stepped 5 feet beyond the door.

I’m not upset that alcohol was offered. It was pushed. It was pushed to people who had ample opportunity to drink prior to the event had they chosen to. This is the culture of alcoholism–the inherent assumption that everyone needs more to drink.

Atheism and Alcoholics Anonymous

**Disclaimer: Every AA group is different. Every AA meeting is different. Every person’s experience of those meetings is different. What follows are my reflections of the patterns and themes that I see in the part of the world I’ve been going to meetings.**

I’ve been to a number of different gatherings of Alcoholics Anonymous, and I’m still having a difficult time with the “higher power” concept, and the frequent prayers, and the nearly constant talk of God in some meetings.

Now, to be clear, no one is telling me what to believe when it comes to God or a higher power. But many are clear that belief in a higher power is required when working the steps. And although I have essentially chosen “community” as my higher power, there are a number of places where the Christian history is just too thick to cut through. Its kinda hard to explain, so let me try to illustrate with a metaphor.

Imagine AA is a method for teaching people how to cook. There are a couple of canonical books that were written 50+ years ago, and everyone loves the recipes therein. And also imagine that AA meetings are potluck dinners where people share the dishes they’ve made from these recipes. Maybe they’ve reinterpreted the recipes, or given them their own flair. Some meetings will make one recipe a week (everyone makes the same thing, and talks about what it was like to make the recipe), whereas other meetings will have dishes from a lot of different recipes.

Now, lets say you’re a vegetarian. No problem, everyone says. We won’t make you eat meat. You can substitute any protein you like in the recipes.

One meeting is all about Chicken Parmesan, and the standard refrain is that you can eat just the cheese and the tomato sauce. Just put the chicken aside. The omnivores in the crowd don’t seem to understand that the whole dish has chicken throughout, and you can’t just pick it out.

Or another meeting is about tacos. Some people bring beef, others chicken, and you can bring beans. That recipe works OK without using meat. Some people might point out that beans have protein, and meat has protein, so, they’re pretty much the same, right?

And the strangest part about some potlucks is that they start with a shrimp appetizer, and end with a ceremonial jello toast. So you just stand there, politely waiting for them to finish. The shrimp appetizer is in the canonical cookbook, but the jello isn’t which seems a little weird. But hey, we live in a jello-eating culture, so what’s so bad about it? Many people don’t even realize that vegetarians don’t eat jello.

As an atheist in these meetings I do my best to, as the frequent refrain goes, take what I like and leave the rest. The biggest problem is that in many of the texts atheists and agnostics are treated like lost souls, or children who haven’t quite grown up yet. Consider this excerpt from chapter 4 of the big book, which seems intended to welcome non-believers:

We found that as soon as we were able to lay aside prejudice and express even a willingness to believe in a Power greater than ourselves, we commenced to get results, even though it was impossible for any of us to fully define or comprehend that Power, which is God.

Much to our relief, we discovered we did not need to consider another’s conception of God. Our own conception, however inadequate, was sufficient to make the approach and to effect a contact with Him.

See what they did there? The author seems to think that atheism is born of prejudice, rather than a logically considered and carefully examined viewpoint. They also couldn’t “fully define or comprehend” this thing, but they’re unequivocal in calling it God. And despite what people say about “you can define your higher power as anything you want,” the chapter meant to bring non-believers into the fold specifically says that you’ll have to be willing to believe in a monotheistic deity to reap the benefits of the program. The whole chapter feels like it was written by someone who thought they understood non-believers but was actually a believer themselves.

A passage from the frequently-read how it works also makes no bones about the requirement to believe in a mono-theistic deity:

Remember that we deal with alcohol—cunning, baffling, powerful! Without help it is too much for us. But there is One who has all power—that One is God. May you find Him
Half measures availed us nothing. We stood at the turning point. We asked His protection and care with complete abandon.

Again, despite frequent exclamations that your “higher power” can be anything you want, it is frequently referred to as a) an individual thing, b) that is male, c) that listens to prayers, d) responds to supplications for assistance, and e) is omnipotent. Sure, I can define my “higher power” as “a community of people who support me in my recovery”, but I have to do some mental gymnastics at every meeting to either ignore or translate the readings.

Fortunately, there are some openly secular AA meetings, but they may be hard to find. My local AA service organization has a nice directory of meetings all over town. They even make it easy to search for GLBT-friendly meetings, men-only meetings, women-only meetings, in addition to those offering baby-sitting, and wheel-chair access. But there isn’t a way to search for or filter secular meetings in the listings. I’ve sent a message to the group asking them to add that in, hopefully making it easier for people in my area to find secular meetings.


I’ve been to around twenty AA meetings in the last two months. There are many things I’ve come to like about AA, and a fair number of things I dislike about the program. Going to the meetings, I find I learn a fair bit about myself, and a lot about others. Many of the meetings (if not all?) read How it works near the beginning of the meeting, and some even make parts of it a call-and-response. I don’t particularly like the reading in general, but there’s one phrase that stands out in my experience of AA: “Remember that we deal with alcohol—cunning, baffling, powerful!” (those last three words are sometimes called out as a response to the beginning).


That’s the most significant word for me. In the one score meetings I’ve been to, the stories people shared have had common themes, and nearly all of those themes could be summed up in that one word: cunning–having or showing skill in achieving one’s ends by deceit or evasion. People of all walks of life have experienced a wide variety of impacts from consuming alcohol. Bright, accomplished people have consumed more than they knew was good for them. Smart people have sworn off drinking for decades. And yet, alcohol finds a way back into their lives. Alcohol, if I may personify the chemical compound, invites itself into their minds, reminds them of the good times they’ve had together (or the pain that it helped to alleviate), and convinces them that it’ll be OK to have just one drink.

One man at a recent meeting told about his decade long sobriety that ended with “just a glass of wine”. Less than a week later, he was in prison for three years, directly because of alcohol. This is just one anecdote of the dozens I’ve heard like it. And I’ve been to just a handful of meetings in my mid-sized city.

Lest you think I’m guilty of confirmation bias, I assure you I don’t think alcohol has this impact on everyone. Maybe not even most. Honestly, I’m not worried about the statistics of the impact alcohol has on people’s lives–it is very well documented.

What I’m interested in are the stories of that impact: the people who have been hurt, the lives that have been shattered, the attempts at recovery, as well as the people who manage to swear it off for good.

So I’ve been kicking around the idea of making a documentary of sorts. My goal is to tell the stories of alcohol’s impact on people’s lives, and hopefully have people rethink their relationship with the cunning substance. I’m not done formulating a plan, and I’m not even sure if I want it to be a “web series” where each story can be posted individually, or it if will be a finished single movie. Details, details, details.

I want to start with interviews of people whose lives have been impacted by alcohol in any way. Where I go from there, I don’t know yet. If you’re interested in helping with this project, please let me know. I can be reached at (just be sure to remove the 7).


“Hi. I’m Rick, and I’m an alcoholic.”

FYI, I’m going to use the “n-word” lower in this post. And by “use the ‘n-word'” I mean I’m going to use the actual word that “n-word” represents. If this bothers you, don’t continue reading.

I’ve been to a fair number of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings over the last couple of weeks. Although I have been uncomfortable at times with the religiosity, I’ve finally come to terms with the label of “alcoholic”. I’ve become comfortable announcing myself as an alcoholic to whatever motley crue I’m interacting with. Given my prior apprehensions, what, you may wonder, has spurred this change in me? It was the realization that the only one judging me for using the label was myself. No one in the meetings were judgemental about whatever label anyone wanted to use: addict, grateful alcoholic, former dipsomaniac, someone who used to drink too much, and a few others. I had to finally accept that the only condemnations were coming from the voices in my head.

I also started to recognize that “alcoholic” was shorthand for “brother” or “sister” in much the same way that nigger can mean the exact same thing among certain communities. And I think this is an important parallel: calling someone nigger depends ENTIRELY on the context in which it is used. I wouldn’t dream of using the term to refer to anyone in general (or particular) because the context of a white man calling someone nigger is almost certainly going to be offensive (yes, certain contexts may make it acceptable among close friends, but those must be tread lightly). As such, I’m OK with calling myself an alcoholic within the context of those who also identify that way, because they probably fully understand the nuances of context in which I’m using it. I would not, however, introduce myself in any other context as an alcoholic, nor will I decline the offer of a drink with “No thanks, I’m an alcoholic”. I also would be uncomfortable with anyone outside of those meetings calling me an alcoholic because I wouldn’t be sure that the word means to them what it means to me, just like nigger can have a million different meanings, dependent on context, tone and intent.

This realization and acceptance has made going to meetings much easier for me. I almost enjoy them now. I haven’t quite developed fondness for a particular meeting group yet, but I can understand how that attachment can start to grow. I’ll continue to go, hoping to continue to progress in my recovery.