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They Have the Magic

It has been an interesting and intense week.  We've been to more classes and more meetings and more therapy sessions.  It is what we do.  In between, we try to do all the things that other people do -- meals and dishes and bills and trash and jobs and -- just life.  However, since our lives are currently consumed with the work of recovery, and make no mistake, it IS work, that is pretty much all there is for us to talk about here (unless of course, you are just dying to know how I mate socks).
We are, officially I suppose, 12-steppers.  There seems to be no other way to do this.  We've investigated a number of the alternatives, and to be honest, the cognitively based models don't offer what we need on a variety of counts.  That may not be true for others, but we are finding that, in spite of our misgivings and negative reactions, the 12 step model has something that we all seem to need.  We've found some meetings that feel pretty welcoming and hospitable -- one is actually a Narcotics Anonymous meeting, but the process is the same and THEY don't distinguish between drugs, so it works. 

The intensive outpatient program that we are attending has a family component, and T and I are spending our Wednesday and Thursday evenings in classes and "group" sessions there.  The counselor/facilitator, a woman named Kelly, is an avid, AA'er who responds to our concerns and discomforts regarding the "god" issue in pretty much the same judgmental voice as our most critical anonymous commenter does here on the God as We Understand post:  
"Your comments have the same tone that Tom's did before he admitted he was an alcoholic. It's so very rage against the machine-like.

Lots of people work the AA program and do not subscribe to the white bearded man in the sky.

I'm not sure you can see that right now. Tom has a disease and as his family of enablers, you are as well. Or perhaps you think that it is only him engaged in this dance?

The plan works if you work the plan. Lots of people recover and stay recovered and all of them subscribe to a higher power. Not all of them call it God."

... and then here in response to the Sunday Update  post:
"As long as the 3 of you can find so many reasons to reject the AA program, or any other cessation program, you will not have to face the painful prospect of changing the many, many attitudes and behaviors which have, in your case, resulted in this very serious problem.

Or you can choose to take what you like and leave the rest."

In fact, on Thursday evening, after T expressed her deep frustration at the continued and pervasive emphasis on God and Him, even as there continues to be an insistence that this program is NOT RELIGIOUS, Kelly put her hands over her ears, declared that the whole discussion was frustrating and made her head hurt, and stormed from the room.   We all just sat there, looking at one another, amazed.

So, I've been continuing to contemplate the set of conundrums posed by our situation:  
  • We clearly have a very real issue.  Alcoholism is an acknowledged problem for our family.
  • We have been unsuccessful in addressing the problem using all the resources and skills that we possess.
  • We need help and cannot do this by ourselves.
  • We have come to accept that this AA approach is the one that "feels" like it offers the best chance and hope for recovery, and recovery has become the thing we want.
  • To do AA is to "work the steps;" all of them, in order, to the best of our ability. 
  • That means we've got to get a grip on this business of the "higher power" that is so central to the process -- "God as we understand Him."

I don't know where the rest of the family is going to come down on all of that.  Clearly everybody is going to have to resolve the paradox of our non-religious world view and our simultaneous reliance on and submission to a "higher power" for themselves. Here's my attempt to accommodate this whole tangle for me:

I cannot get to the personified god thing.  My notion of the divine does not match up with the idea of "god as a person."  So, by definition, I am not going to be understanding "god" as "him."  For this to work for me, I am going to have to simply ignore that language and try not to let it grate on my nerves.

My understanding of the creative divine in the universe is grounded in some odd mix of pantheism and sub-atomic physics and a conviction that we are all creating the universe together in some sort of gigantic evolutionary endeavor of which we are only very vaguely aware.  My belief is that I am connected to and mingled with all the energies of all the "beings" who have ever existed or ever will exist anywhere in the universe.  Together with stars and spruce trees, buffalo and bumble bees, I am moving the universe into existence and then forward -- making the creation happen in every instant. 

The plodding and prosaic religiosity of AA trudges through my spiritual landscape like a Fuller Brush salesman in a shabby brown suit, and I find my impulse is to turn it away at the door.  Except that, as I have struggled to be present to this process in these weeks, I keep seeing the glimmers of something magical under the drab threads and tired visage.

I think that, perhaps entirely by accident, Bill W. and Dr. Bob (the original and almost mythical authors of the Alcoholics Anonymous fellowship) grabbed onto a powerful bit of magic -- and I do absolutely mean MAGIC.  I think that they were ordinary enough fellows, caught in the trap of alcoholism, who had no idea about magic, and surely no sense of what it really was.  They were, I suspect, a spiritually unimaginative pair.  All they knew was that they had been saved by some "power greater than themselves," and given the times and the place (Akron, Ohio), they explained the phenomenon with the clumsiest of references to the most mundane religious practices of their day.  Their "magic" got distilled down into a confessional-sort-of-Rock-of-Ages-Bible-carrying-Businessman's-God, and there it has remained, forever frozen in the pages of their Big Book.  Today, if you push very hard, every single AA'er will ultimately resort to the response -- "if it isn't broke, don't try to fix it."  They all seem to have that glimmer of something so numinous that it defies description, but I have yet to find one willing to look at their burning bush straight on.  You would think that they are all afraid they'll be turned into toads.  Magic, indeed!

Consider the world of AA in the context of "magic:"

Definitionally, magic is the use of means (as charms or spells) believed to have supernatural power over natural forces; (step 1 -- We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol) magic rites or incantations (Hi, My name is _________________, and I'm an alcoholic/addict -- Hi ___________________);  an extraordinary power or influence seemingly from a supernatural source (step 2 -- we came to understand that there was a power greater than ourselves that could restore us to sanity);  something that seems to cast a spell (coins and tokens given at milestone marks)

Magic is the claimed art of altering things by supernatural means (we turned our lives and our wills over to God as we understood Him).  There are two modern perspectives on the theory of magic.   The first sees magic as a result of a universal sympathy within the universe, where if something is done here a result happens somewhere else. The other view sees magic as a collaboration with spirits who cause the effect.  One category of magic is “sympathetic magic,” --  the thought that if a certain result follows a certain action, then that action must be responsible for the result. Therefore, if one is to perform this action again, the same result can again be expected (If you want what we have and are willing to go to any lengths to obtain it, ...). Another primary type of magical thinking includes the principle of contagion. This principle suggests that once two objects come into contact with each other, they will continue to affect each other even after the contact between them has been broken (keep coming back -- it works if you work it AND read the big book, go to meeting).

Magical rituals are the precisely defined actions (including speech) used to work magic. The language used in ritual is archaic and out of the ordinary, which helps foster the proper mindset to believe in the ritual.  The purpose of ritual is to act as a focus and the effect will vary depending on the individual.  I've been amazed, attending AA meetings at the remarkable and ubiquitous ritualized formulas every single meeting follows: 
  • reading the steps, the traditions, the promises.
  • passing the hat for the universally understood dollar donation
  • reciting certain phrases from the Big Book in unison
  • the prohibition on "cross-talk"
  • the shared slogans and sayings -- one website that I found lists 400 such aphorisms

Magic often utilizes symbols that are thought to be intrinsically efficacious.  The performance of magic almost always involves the use of language.   Only certain words and phrases or words spoken in a specific context are considered to have magical power.  Magical language  is emotive and it converts words into symbols for emotions.  It constructs metaphors that establish symbols and link magical rituals to the world.  The language of magic is sacred, set and used for an entirely different purpose to that of ordinary life, and differentiated through word choice, grammar, style, or by the use of specific phrases or forms: prayers, spells, songs, blessings, or chants.  Another potential source of the power of words is their secrecy and exclusivity. 

Magical knowledge is usually passed down from one magician to another through family or apprenticeships.  Magical knowledge is often well guarded, as it is a valuable commodity to which each magician believes that he has a proprietary right.  Yet the possession of magical knowledge alone may be insufficient to grant magical power; often a person must also possess certain magical objects, traits or life experiences in order to be a magician.  In AA this acquisition of "magical" knowledge is embodied in the accumulation of days/weeks/months/years of sobriety.  Every practitioner knows his or her sobriety date and the duration of his or her sobriety.  When one attains a certain level of achievement, both in terms of the steps and in terms of the duration of practice, then it is the norm to undertake to sponsor others -- to help them gain in their own practice of sobriety.  And so the magic is passed on and the secrets are carefully divulged.   

Magic is powerful stuff.  Practiced by us, for us, and on us, it changes the world -- and that scares us half to death.  If we are the purveyors of spells and incantations, of charms and assorted wizardry, then we are also responsible.  We can do it.  We do do it.  It belongs entirely to us.  We come together, each with our own capacities and our own lacks, and work our magic.  Who knows precisely the outcome?  We only know what we can see.  We only experience what we live through.  Tom explained His current understanding of the "spiritual" aspect of all of this in a meeting last night, as "backing into it."  He said that He simply feels better when He participates in the fellowship of AA, and that He does not have that experience when He is in contact with the more cognitively based approaches to alcohol cessation.  There is magic afoot.  Wouldn't it be safer to put it all into the hands of some all-knowing "higher power?"  After all, are we not flawed and fallible -- and frankly, in need of some serious fixing?  How can we safely wield such power? 

Most often, I find that AA people suggest that they find the "higher power" is the group, the meeting, the rooms full of men and women working to become clean or sober and stay that way.  Whatever the force is that moves among them, they live in awe of it, grateful for its working in their lives, aware that, for them, it is a daily miracle.  Is it god?  Is it something else?  The answers come from people's own experience, couched in the language that makes the most sense to them.  It is whatever it is.  The magic works.



  1. Swan, I thought you might find this article interesting. Your comment about a giant evolutionary endeavor made me think you might. It's not directly related to your post, but enough...


  2. Anonymous4:46 PM

    My heart hurts for you. You might not believe that, but it does. You fight so hard, tilting against the windmills.

    Point of note: I am the anonymous author of the FIRST comment. I am NOT the author of the second.

    You say that I am judgmental and critical. I would say I have exercised restraint. I would also say that I have a better perspective.

    I see how much you struggle to remain in control of a situation that no longer can be controlled. For instance, your analysis of magic v. AA is your attempt to reduce your uncertainty and find some way to manage your fears. However, you must have read somewhere that many magical practitioners have long recognized that chanting and praying are really the same thing. In fact, if you look at what you wrote, you can interchange many Christian rituals, etc. with magical attributes and assumptions.

    I discussed your blog this last week. I was staying at the home of a colleague while attending a conference and her husband had a gastric procedure and is also in AA. The AA came first. I talked about what happened to your family and asked him how he managed to not have the same experience. First, he was already in AA before he had the procedure, so that helped. He KNEW he was an alcoholic; that helped. He went to AA and in his words, "They told me if I did what the BB said, this is what would happen. So I did. And it worked. When I had my procedure the surgeons said the same thing, Do this and this will happen. So I did. I generally believe that when someone who knows more tells me that x + y = z, then I oughta believe them."

    And btw, he's not BIG into GOD either.

    This is where I see your family struggling. You still want to believe that you do whatever you want and still get the same results.

    I realize you cannot live the lifestyle you have lived for so long without being fiercely independent people. It takes much personal strength to live outside the box.
    That strength will get you through this challenge successfully. I don't doubt it.

    As a reader, it really is frustrating to see you challenging a system that has worked for SO many because of the whole GOD thing.

    There is no need to publish this comment and then tear it to pieces. I am not judging you or your lifestyle or trying to be snarky or mean, but rather I have tried to challenge some of your assumptions. I rather think that is better than just patting you on the back and telling you whatever you want to hear.

    And I am going to try very hard to not return to your blog and comment.

    You might not believe this, but none of the comments I have every made (and please do not attribute ALL anonymous comments to me) were made in the spirit of meanness or hatefulness. I have written, erased, rewritten, deleted, and then finally, posted. I only write of what I know or at least what I feel I know.

    I hope you find your way through this because the hard truth is you need the AA program; they do not need you.

  3. Absolutey astounding piece you have written here. Have you ever read "The Golden Bough.. A Study in Myth and Religion" by J.G Frazer? Magic is very powerful.

  4. SweetSassyT6:39 PM

    lol...I have no idea why that makes me chuckle but it does. Swan, I'm a confirmed Catholic. I don't argue Doctrine at this point in my life. I'm just one of those people that went, it made sense, it's seen us through, and it makes me happy. But, I get the problem if you didn't. I'm also a practical behavioralist. I practice scientifically proven methods, and sorry to break it to you, Anon above, the success rate is 12% period. It is not a be all end all for lots of people. You don't have a clue how the brain works and how it is programed. Basically, lots of people, merely by the virtually of talking about it all the time reinforce the desire to continue to do XYZ!

    I give you all the credit in the world Swan for trying to get over the parts that don't make sense. I pray to MY GOD as I KNOW HIM for all of your sakes that this is only what it is, and not some part of your brain processing the difficulties it may be for your family. Writing is just a part, ANON of who these group of people are. They figure out what they think by seeing what they wrote. There is nothing wrong with processing and accepting and fighting through it in words.

    Cheering you on, Swan. I'm not sure there's not some truth to ANON about, but it's so darn clouded by truthisms it's hard to ferret them out.
    We're here and listening. I know it's an only going struggle that you could never have imagined. Regardless of how you get to the end, have faith that you will, you will survive, and it will as a successful healthy whole family.

  5. Anonymous1:07 AM

    I am very happy that I am not in the group you are attending, trying frantically to save my own life as you continue to disrupt meetings. Your concerns could be discussed one on one with members outside of normal meeting times so that those who are desperate and willing to receive what is offered there can benefit. These meetings are a safe haven and a life saver to many, many members.

    It's one thing for you to persist in jeapardizing your own "recovery", but to continue to denigrate the founders, the history and the process that Tom is trying hard to embrace is very difficult to watch.

    Sue, you have absolutely no idea what you don't know. And given your attitude, you probably never will. I honestly think you might need the 12 steps more than anyone else in your family. Clearly you use this venue to vent your considerable anger. But for the sake of the many others who want and need what is offered, I hope you will soon walk away and leave them in peace.

    I, too, do not intend to read or comment here again. Your bitterness has grown old.

  6. "... a conviction that we are all creating the universe together in some sort of gigantic evolutionary endeavor of which we are only very vaguely aware."

    Well, Sue, I have been reading your blog on and off for years. It's never been more interesting than it is these days, because we are now into real, universal problems. You have been allowing comments recently that are very critical, and I'm sure that's a good thing.

    The above quote from your post is roughly how I see things. In theory.

    I commented a couple days ago on a post by T. The gist of my comment was that it's our thoughts that cause our suffering. "Vain thoughts", the Buddha called them. I don't expect T appreciated what I said! You, dear Sue, are a very active thinker, your posts are all evidence of this. I am, too, but my thinking ability is not so high-powered as yours.

    However, Sue, your problems will never be solved by thinking. You have to become soft. To submit. To relinquish control. It's so ironic that I'm saying this to one whose who has devoted much of her life to submission! Now you have to submit to one who has much greater, infinitely greater, power than your Tom's personality. This "one" is none other than a vital part of yourself. You will not be betraying Tom by that. It really doesn't matter that there is this reliance on "God" in AA.

    I, too, have rejected Religion. I don't follow any religion now. I am getting old (80 this month) and I have come to realise that the Universe (God?) is friendly, will give me and has given me what I need if only I stop trying to direct the show. This higher power, this "God", is a part of me, or rather I am a part of It. Same with you, with everyone.

    It's true that much teaching likes to put God "up there", separate; that's suitable for people with a paternalistic view of life, but really, He is closer than "the vein in your neck", to quote a Sufi whose name I have forgotten (Al-Ghazali maybe). The difference really does not matter.

    You are trying to defend your habits of thought, or at least to reconcile them with what you get from AA. It's futile! Your convictions, regarding religion or anything else, are just that: habits of thought. It's counterproductive to try to defend them or reconcile them with other systems. Habits of thought are just that, nothing of great importance that you need to keep.

    In some ways, Sue, you are way more intelligent, more energetic, than me. I am a simple man, unambitious, and would never have been able to achieve in worldly terms what you have achieved. Yet I can see and understand things which you cannot - at the moment. And vice versa, of course, but just now it's what you don't understand that is causing you trouble. Your training in submission is not being used for the greater purpose it could fulfil.

    I just hope there are a few words in my response that may be of use to you. I'm afraid it's disjointed, but never mind! I send many loving thoughts to you and yours.

  7. It's hard, but we can't choose another person's issues. Ever. No matter how sure we are that we have the answers they need.

    Answers only work when we figure them out for ourselves.

    It does sound to me that you have succeeded at putting God, as you understand God, into words here:

    "... a conviction that we are all creating the universe together in some sort of gigantic evolutionary endeavor of which we are only very vaguely aware."

    At least now your thoughts have a place to go when someone says the word God. It's a really helpful description you've shared, in my opinion.
    I've also read an author who shares that God is a Good Orderly Direction in our lives.

    Continued strength and courage and healing energy from me to you, all of you, for the living of these days.


  8. Anonymous9:29 AM

    I have never posted on this, for in honesty it sickens me.

    But lately I see you as looking for a way out. 8 months from now if this DOESN't work, you can say "its that GOD thing" we KNEW this program wasn't for us because of this GOD thing.

    There is your excuse. Like all the previous post, It was the surgery, the doctors, the police. God is just another excuse.

    Until you realize that GOD is what YOU make him/her/it then you are destined for failure.

    I hope you succeed, alcoholism is a terrible disease, a terrible illness, but you have to give it a chance, you have to stop looking for excuses.

  9. I am absolutely astounded by some of these comments. Wow. Are these missives supposed to be helpful or merely a way to spew ego and further kick people when they are down?

    I hope the people in your groups are kinder and more understanding than some of the 12 steppers here, who seem to specialize in judgement and criticism.

    No one can really understand what others are going through or dealing with. This is merely a blog, and even with writers as eloquent on honest as you all reader can fully see your experiences.

    I see you guys doing the best you can with an imperfect system and making it work for you. I see you following the rules and guidelines even though the religious overlay is profoundly uncomfortable. I see you trying and finding hope. And I see you moving forward.

    I don't know if I would let some of these comments post on my journal, but it sure does give us an idea of the shit you are putting up with.

    Good for you for flying right over it.

  10. Anonymous1:21 PM

    I'm the anonymous commenter who went to Al-Anon meetings and said I'm currently a hardcore atheist. Although I see you writing about attending AA meetings, NA meetings, family counseling meetings run by the outpatient clinic Tom is involved with, I don't see where you are attending meetings specifically for people like you and T, run by people like you and T and where the focus is on you and T. Like Al-Anon.

    I'm simply baffled at the intense focus your family counseling group(s)/meetings are putting on AA and The Big Book. If I had to follow the 12 steps as an alcoholic does, it would drive me nuts, too.

    There is a major difference in how the 12 Steps are approached, discussed, incorporated in Al-Anon. At least in the many meetings I've been to. The tone of the meeting is completely different from an AA or NA meeting. In the good Al-Anon meetings I found (I had to shop around a little but if you're in a large city, you should be able to find a good one), the LAST thing seasoned members discussed was the alcoholic or the Big Book or the steps as AAers do them; we were all focused on our own path which was way different from the AA path and/or meetings.

    I went to a few AA meetings to understand what my alcoholic was going through and I could not relate to them very well. But he found great value in them.

    Why? Because I wasn't an alcoholic. HE was, but I wasn't. So of course I felt out of place in those meetings.

    The fact that your AAer group leader stormed off is so indicative of you not being in the right place for you.

    I realize I'm basing this on my own experience and massively projecting but honestly, I went to several public Al-Anon meetings on my own almost every day for an entire year and I never ran across any of the problems you talk about here. It was so so not focused on alcoholism or religion or even the alcoholic. It was all about me and my issues. The only time I picked up the "Big Book" was out of curiosity because my ex was reading it because of his meetings but that book did not 'speak' to me at all and although we might've discussed that book at some point, we never studied it or attempted to follow it.

    The books I've suggested and others have suggested in your comments, books like "Courage to Change", etc., are good books for non-alcoholics who are trying to cope with an alcoholic. The Big Book wasn't written for you and it really puzzles me that your therapy group is focusing on it so much, it really does. I would be very annoyed too.

    I hope you try outside Al-Anon non-clinic related meetings for your own sake. If time is an issue, maybe drop the family therapy/counseling you're currently doing (they just seem to be frustrating you needlessly) and try Al-Anon meetings on your own. Or just commit to one outside Al-Anon meeting a week if you can't find the time for more than that. Your description of the meetings you're attending are just painful. I loved my Al-Anon meetings, they were awesome; although some meetings were better than others, none of them were remotely like you illustrate here.

    I do like your "magic" analogy; if that works for you, awesome! Sure we all have power, great power. Magical or energy-based or god-given or what-have-you, we all do have the power of life and death, over ourselves and others. Yes, it's scary. But yes, it's true. Learning to handle it is key. Good luck!

  11. Anonymous1:47 PM

    new anony here, never do much commenting anywhere, thanks for the opportunity...

    i thought of you all when i listened to this show on insight meditation the other day, part of the interview spoke to addiction and recovery systems:

    my only experience with aa/al-anon was how many cigarettes, coffee, and cookies were consumed ... didn't work for me, groovy for those it does. "recovery" still comes down to the individual, even if that individual chooses to let go to a higher power or whatever. and nope, i'm no expert. still just a learner, 42 times around the sun and all.

    thanks for sharing so much of your family's experiences here so openly, i've lurked and read and pondered much as a woman in a 20+ year relationship, moving thru some of life's grand challenges...

    somewhere recently i read the recommendation to have one grateful thought for every worrying thought which arises... it's been working for me.


  12. Anonymous9:16 PM

    I for one was thrilled to read this post. What a huge breakthrough for you! Except for the part about Kelly storming out, but of course he/she is a human not a good so he/she acts as a human would. *shrug* I wouldn't let it bother me. He/she puts their pants on one leg at a time like everyone else in the world.

    Each of you have control over what each of you does, thinks, acts or says not the least bit of control over what any other person does, thinks, acts or says. That's all you can do.

    My spiritual path, if I were forced to identify one, is somewhat similar to what you described although I waver on applying either Pantheism or Panentheism alone - I think both can work together but people usually argue with me on that thought. I practice magic and follow a polytheistic belief system when I need to call on extra support for something it is to whatever deity like figure best represents the particular need I have. My kids have attended services in every religion available to them to participate in. I figure the more knowledge they have of how other people view and practice and believe in things, the better educated they are to make their own personal choices in life. I take little bits and pieces from any and all religions that appeal to me at the same time, dump them all in a big pot and stir vigorously till I have something I like. I see no need to fit myself into any other person's definition of religion or spirituality. If I want to cast a spell, say a prayer, say a rosary and praise Allah at the same time while meditating in front of Buddha, I do. It really is that simple. It's only complicated if you let it be. Just relax and let it be simple.

    I mostly believe that my religion is submission and slavery and my Master is the god of that religion. That conversation often irritates other people. I follow his dictates, worship him, kneel in submission to him for forgiveness or blessing and receive penance for sins against him. He is the center of my universe and creates the world I live in. I see no difference between that and mainstream religion except Master has a following of one rather than millions.
    On the other hand I also believe in a logical explanation for most things - falling in love is a chemical reaction in the brain for example, the reaction creates the same release that heroin use does. Music, sex and eating all create similar reactions in the brain that provide the same end result. Logic and order make sense to me.

    Do *I* truly believe in a deity that controls all in the universe? Not really, but I don't hesitate to use whatever resource I feel might offer additional assistance if I feel it is needed. On the other hand, other people's personal choices about representational deities does not affect my life in any way. Whatever floats their boat works for me as long as it works for them. I have never understood the importance of denouncing another person's religion.

    Ironically, as I'm sure you recognized, your description of magic personifies the Catholic Church as well. Many people believe the Church to be the largest group of practicing witches in the world - Just doing so under another name. :)

    Back to the original thought - I thought this was an awesome breakthrough for you!

    (with apologies for the length)

  13. Anonymous9:18 PM

    ps - if Al-Anon works for you then great, if it doesn't then let it go and don't worry about it. Life is too short to worry about something like that. Some people love it, others hate it. I don't/won't go based on past experience.


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