I started thinking about the value of writing stories to deal with depression when I read Alcoholics Anonymous, the book that named the growing self-help movement in 1939. For me, it was not the method the book describes but the stories that first hit home so deeply. A psychiatrist I was seeing at the time lent me a copy because he had found it to be helpful to many of his non-addict patients, though he wasn’t sure why.
If you don’t know the book, it consists mostly of the stories of alcoholics themselves. One after another, they tell unsparingly how they lost control of their lives to alcohol, struggled repeatedly through failed efforts to quit, ruined everything they had and then, often by chance, linked up with other alcoholics who had gotten their lives back. Most of these story-tellers didn’t talk directly about feelings or causes – and they certainly didn’t use psychological jargon. They knew who they were talking to – other alcoholics, people like them who had tried and failed to get sober. To reach them, their stories had to be totally honest and absolutely free of pretension or any other false note.
So why did these voices talk to me so deeply since I hadn’t been drinking at all for several years and had never become obsessed with alcohol? There’s more to it than I can understand or explain, but one thing stands out. Woven through those histories I heard about the misery of hitting rock-bottom, having no self-respect, being good for nothing. I could touch the undercurrent of desperation that ran all too close to the surface of my own life. I couldn’t feel so immediately the parts of the book that described the 12-step method itself. Instead, I needed the telling of the stories, the sharing of experience among alcoholics. That’s what caught me.
That seemed to have been the key for the pioneers of AA as well rather than the famous method in its entirety – that came after years of trial and error and was first codified in its 12-step form when Bill Wilson started writing Alcoholics Anonymous. Even the great principle of recognizing the need for help from a higher power seemed not to have been decisive. Wilson had had a powerful spiritual experience that certainly marked a key phase in his life, but it ultimately didn’t help when he found himself alone one night in Akron, Ohio – a city where he didn’t know anyone – and was scared to death of getting drunk. Wilson knew that he had to find another alcoholic to talk to, someone who needed help. Only that could keep him sober. The man he found that night in Akron, Dr. Bob Smith, was the perfect match because he needed to hear a story of recovery from another alcoholic in order to get sober himself. That night, Bill W told his story and forgot about drinking, and Dr. Bob finally sobered up.
Both men had worked with professional therapists, medical doctors and spiritual advisers, but they could really hear what they needed to know only when it came directly out of the desperate experience of another alcoholic. That was the key to building the relationship between Bill W and Dr. Bob. Only a drunk could talk to a drunk. That experience was necessary for the recovery of both the listener and the teller, and people who have lived with the AA method for years have told me that working with other alcoholics is one of the central things that keeps them sober.
That’s what draws me back to the Big Book – the need to hear those stories from people who really lived them. Somehow the narratives of depression that abound today don’t reach me in the same way. For one thing, though many of them describe as well as anyone could the terrible depths of despair, suicidal thinking and other extremes of the condition, the narratives tend to emphasize a near total recovery. There are concerns about relapses, descriptions of the meds and methods they rely on, but still many of these writers talk about their experiences in the past tense.
That’s not my experience. There is no simple getting well. That’s what the AA stories are about. Yes, there are the great turning points in those lives, but they only marked the beginning. What they live with is the ongoing work of recovery and the need to take it one day at a time. That’s the truth of my life, and it’s what I connect with in the Big Book. You’re never done with this problem – it is always there, and you have to dig into yourself with all the support you can get and keep working every single day to prevent a deadly disease from sweeping you away. I need to hear people who’ve been through that kind of life talk about it, and I need to hear those stories over and over again.