To begin the story at the beginning, read "Part 1: Post 1: Beginning Again," published in January, 2013. To consult a description of the campus, read "Part 1: Post 14: The Greening of Campus," published in March, 2013.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Year 3: Part 2: Post 7: Life Preservers

“What is the point of sending us to all these meetings?” asked Lila at breakfast this morning. 

She meant 12-step meetings. She is a yearling, and yearlings have to go to a certain number of those meetings. The masters don’t explain why when they issue the request each year. If you ask, they will answer, as with virtually everything else around here, but you’ll probably get a different answer for each person you ask.

I don’t know Lila well. She isn’t in my dorm, so I haven’t had occasion to get to know her yet, and I’d sat next to her only by random chance.  I’d wanted to eat with Andy because I hadn’t talked with him in a while, and he was sitting next to Lila and a few other yearlings. She was mostly talking to the other students—Allen was sitting at the same table and he smiled a little when she didn’t address her question to him. I’m not sure she actually realized he was there. People don’t, always.

When she mentioned the meetings, Andy gave me a look. As you might remember, he’s a recovering drug addict and is in Narcotics Anonymous.

“What’s the point of these meetings? Do they think we need to go for us? Is it strictly educational, what?”

“Yes,” I answered.

“Yes, what?” she asked. She seemed startled, not combative. She hadn’t expected me to butt in to the conversation.

“Yes, some of us need it, others just need to know about it.”

“Which are you?”

“The latter, so far. I could end up needing one, one of these days.” Which was true—I’d been thinking about how I actually qualify for membership in both Al-Anon and Nar-Anon, since they are for friends and family of alcoholics and drug addicts respectively. I’m thinking of Charlie and Andy here. I’ve never noticed any need for such a program, but I’m sure a lot of people who do have such a need start out thinking the same way.

“What, you’re going to start drinking or something?” she asked me. “I’m sure you’d know better, by now.”

“Knowing better doesn’t always help,” said Andy, quietly. I don’t think Lila knows his history, but something about his tone made her back down a little. She picked a little at her eggs.

“Do twelve step programs really work?” She asked.

“It works if you work it,” said Andy. That’s one of the phrases. A big part of 12-step culture, I’ve noticed, is repeating certain phrases over and over. I’m not sure why.

“That’s what they say,” she acknowledged, “but really? Alcoholics Anonymous is seventy years old. Is it really the best way anymore?” 

“Some things that work well are two thousand years old,” said Andy. He’s Christian. Lila isn’t, as far as I know, and she gave him a look.

“That’s another thing,” she said. “It’s so Judeo-Christian.”

Andy had no answer to that. I happen to know there are 12-step members who aren’t Jewish or Christian—Charlie springs to mind—but Andy never does well with hostility. Allen spoke up.

“It is true that there are other ways to treat addition,” he said, “and it’s true there is no way to truly test the effectiveness of AA and the other, related programs. As you said, it only works if you are willing to work it, and there is no way to objectively assess willingness, therefore no way to test how many of the truly willing actually see results. There are also philosophical problems with the disease model of addiction and, in my opinion, probably clinical problems as well. But I’m not sure 12-step is properly comparable to clinical treatments for clinically defined disorders. It’s a spiritual movement that happens to revolve around addition recovery.”

And he took a bite of eggs on toast. And he did not answer Lila’s question.

Later, as we were walking out of the Dining Hall, I told Andy that I couldn’t tell whether Allen really thinks much of 12-step or not. He had seemed about to take the whole cultural edifice apart, and I wondered how much of it had to do with his friendship with Charlie—and how much to his contrary nature, since he must have felt drawn to contradict Lila somehow.

“It doesn’t matter,” said Andy.


“It doesn’t matter whether he thinks much of it or not. Not to me. I seized NA ‘like the drowning seize life-preservers,’” that’s another 12-step phrase, “do you think I’m going to let go of it and hope I find something better?"

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