Who Says I’m Crazy?
Step 2: “Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”
Here’s a rule you can count on: no one wants to be told he’s crazy.
My problems with Step 1 paled in comparison to Step 2. To accept the second Step, you had to admit you were insane. I thought that notion was crazier than I could ever be.
It may be a lack of imagination or an infinite capacity for self-delusion, but even at a blood-alcohol five times the drunk-driving limit I never thought I was insane. I wasn’t hallucinating (as far as I could tell). I didn’t bay at the moon or take orders from dogs. I certainly never thought I was God or any incarnation of past greatness.
Insane? No way. Not if the common definition of deranged and delusional applied. I wasn’t legally insane, either. I knew the difference between right and wrong; it was the primary reason for my guilt and shame.
Then I found myself at a rehab hospital with 12-Step posters on the wall and as hard as it was to get past the First Step, I fell right over the Second which told me I was nuts, but if I accepted AA’s God, He would restore me to sanity. Though I could barely manage to get out of bed, I wasn’t going to take this lying down. I said, “I don’t know about the rest of the loonies around here, but I’m not insane. I just like to drink. It makes me feel better.”
A counselor answered by telling me AA’s definition of insanity, taken not from any religious text but from Albert Einstein: “It’s doing the same thing over and over and each time expecting a different result. Like all the times we promised ourselves to have just one and woke up the next morning asking through our hangovers, ‘How did that happen again?’ Like all the times it happened again and again and again, all the months and years we continued to do the same thing, each time expecting a different result.”
This shut me up. I knew I was guilty as charged. Every time, I was completely convinced things would turn out different, that this time I could break through the nightmare. It seemed like every morning I sincerely promised myself not to repeat yesterday’s collapse. I swore an oath I couldn’t possibly have intended to live up to more to begin anew no matter how belatedly. And yet, as the day progressed and my cravings grew, every day (every day!) for years (years!), I succumbed, only to awake again a mess, perpetually perplexed, wondering what happened.
What’s more, I’d done insane things. Hadn’t I driven drunk with my son in the car? Wasn’t I in such despair that I contemplated how much better off he and the rest of the world would be if I didn’t wake up in the morning?
Then, fortunately, the counselor added a pinch of leavening, explaining that an addict’s insanity is caused by drugs: “You’re temporarily insane because you’re under the influence of the addict brain,” she said. You’re not a weak, spineless, out-of-control asshole with such a terrible lack of discipline he has to render himself unconscious to avoid confronting his defects. Rather, you’re a weak, spineless, out-of-control asshole because that’s the essence of addiction.
Part of me wanted to jump on this bandwagon as soon as it slowed down enough to get aboard, never mind it was the exact opposite of what I believed. A huge selfish chunk of me saw it offering an excuse to all the people I’d hurt in my three-year slide into depression and alcoholism. I envisioned telling a ceaseless parade of family, friends, and acquaintances that it wasn’t my fault, it wasn’t that I was inherently a jerk. It was the disease. It seemed like the perfect get-out-of-jail card.
But only a part of me found this attractive. To obtain absolution I also had to buy into the 12-Step cure. I wasn’t willing enough for that for about the first ten days in treatment, until I was sober and could look back at all the insane things I’d done in service of my addiction. (For more, click on When Your Brain Betrays You.)
But after 32 days of continuous therapy in rehab, I came away a believer that for a guy like me drinking was returning to insanity. And though my experience was that I alone didn’t have the power to keep from drinking, I still had grave doubts that a Higher Power existed, let alone that He, She or It could keep me from returning to that insanity. But the caring and compassion I received in the therapeutic community of rehab convinced me that if the program worked for others, it might work for me despite my doubts about God and spirituality.
Neuroscientists don’t use terms like ”sanity,” or “insanity.” But they agree with AA’s basic observation that addiction is a disease of fundamental irrationality. They say the emotional brain circuits hijacked by drug abuse (which are actually pre-rational from an evolutionary point-of-view), overpower rationality in the addict brain, resulting in the irrationality of the disease. (For more, click on Why Drugs Are Gratifying; How Tolerance Develops, and Understanding the Irrationality of Addiction.)