Interview with Stan Tierney, Part 2
Bill: Here’s part two of the conversation with my brother, Stan, as he talks about what it was like for him to get sober and stay sober.
Bill: This is part two of the interview with my brother, Stan. Stan, you just left off at the divorce after describing the central feature of the marriage was alcoholism.
Stan: Yes. And that has stretched into sobriety. The central feature of the marriage became recovery and the burden that placed on my wife.
Bill: Because of your attendance at meetings and because it was all encompassing?
Bill: Is it fair to say that you switched your addiction from alcohol to meetings?
Stan: Oh, absolutely. I could not imagine a life without alcohol, and so what Alcoholics Anonymous showed me is there is a life without alcohol. It’s called “meetings” and AAs. And yes, looking back, it was very much an addiction to that. I had completely read over and glossed over the parts of the Big Book that said our main purpose is to return to the mainstream of society as useful and productive human beings. That made no sense to me whatsoever, so I just read over it. And in fact, I was doing the opposite. I was using Alcoholics Anonymous as a sort of safe womb and refusing to come out of it. And that cost me years with my sons and any more time with my wife.
But I headed out to L.A., because I figured that’s where computer jobs were, even though Silicon Valley was known better then and prospering quite well right outside of San Francisco. I headed to L.A., not knowing a soul and didn’t have any leads, and went on one job interview. I didn’t have a lot of good skills after six years of undergraduate studies, and I didn’t even get an undergraduate degree; I didn’t get a Bachelor’s degree. I had a, what’s a two-year degree?
Stan: Associate’s. Yes…in computer science. And that’s all I had, and I didn’t have a lot of skills. I had taken quite a few programming languages while I was in college, but the one I liked was probably the first one I took and that was “Basic”. And so I put on my resume that I was a really good Basic programmer, which you could say that about most finance and accounting majors, but computer scientists would hardly ever brag about that. So, I went on one interview; got hired because they needed a Basic programmer. Probably the one job in all of L.A. that needed a Basic programmer. That started me off well.
I went and looked at one apartment; took it. It was just a few blocks from work. That never happens in L.A., but it happened for me. I’m remembering I had fifteen hundred dollars in cash, a 1971 Chevy Impala, which all of my Latino friends in L.A. loved. They thought I was “boy of the hood.” And zero life skills; no “I’m going to do this when I grow up,” because I didn’t know how to do anything. I didn’t know how to balance a checkbook. I had no idea about anything. I worked on a complete cash basis to the point of cashing my paycheck at a check-cashing place because I didn’t have enough skills to have a bank account. I lived like that for a few years until I actually started getting some real friends in L.A. who were patient enough to actually show me how to be a grown up…showing me those skills; how to be a friend and all that stuff. And some of these guys are still my friends to this day. One of my friends is about to hit forty years of sobriety, and we were just punk-ass kids cracking jokes in the back of the AA meeting. And now we’re all over thirty-five years of sobriety. One of us just died not too long ago…smoked himself to death…just like Bill Wilson. So L.A. worked out great.
Bill: By the way, the current generation considers “smoking” to be pot.
Stan: Oh, sorry. Cigarettes. Pot is part of my history, but not a significant part of it. I had a hippie counselor in Missoula, Montana, and she suggested that since I couldn’t handle alcohol, perhaps I should try marijuana. It was practically legal in those days in Missoula anyway. And I loved that suggestion because it meant I could still stay intoxicated, and I wouldn’t be drunk, which my wife hated. So, I started smoking pot alcoholically. So that little experiment lasted about a week and brought me back to my drug of choice, alcohol.
L.A. worked out well. I spent my third through my tenth year of sobriety in L.A. When the lady who was going to be my third wife…I did get married and divorced real briefly while I was in L.A. I was living with, I thought, the love of my life at that time, Susan, and right, literally, a month before the wedding, she said that we were breaking up, gave me the keys to the house, and left. And I was just destroyed. I was crushed. And so just like when I divorced my first wife, I knew I wouldn’t be able to ever see her with another man. I knew I wasn’t capable of those kinds of feelings. I decided I gotta’ move again. It helped that I had been smoking three packs a day of cigarettes, and my doctor had told me that if I continued to live in Los Angeles and smoke like that, I’d be dead in three years. So, I quit smoking at ten years of sobriety, quit smoking cigarettes, and moved to Phoenix, Arizona.
Bill: At ten years, is that what you said?
Bill: I didn’t realize we had that in common, it actually for me was nine years.
Stan: That’s actually pretty common for a lot of AAs. Got to Phoenix at ten years of sobriety, and as Bill said, I’m coming up on my thirty-seventh AA anniversary, so I’ve been here the longest of any place I’ve ever lived…twenty-seven years in Phoenix. And AA’s been fantastic here, although I’ve gone great periods of time without even going to meetings. My longest span was seven years when I married my third wife. She and I were so involved in everything that AA was just a distraction. I would go to get my chip once a year and that would be it. And for seven years, I didn’t even go for that. And stayed sober…very productive, useful, mainstream society type of thing. When we got divorced, I stayed in the same town. I had grown the ability to withstand terrifying emotions. And in fact, she and I get along just fine now, so that’s all just fine. We’ve been divorced now I think about five years…maybe four years.
I’m back in AA. I have a home group. I go once a week on Fridays, and it is really more of a social engagement than anything else for me. I go for the Friday night meeting, where I meet all my friends, and then we always eat at some restaurant afterwards, and then we play dominoes until about ten o’clock when we turn into pumpkins and go home. That’s my social life.
Bill: Friday night with the AA group, huh?
Stan: I was mentioning that I was agnostic and atheist for most of my sobriety. I have to say that I’m pretty close to atheist now, even though I follow the Jewish faith. And my understanding of the Jewish faith: you’re not supposed to theorize about what the entity of God is or what life after life is. And so that leaves you wide open to live life, and it’s considered a sin to do anything but live life to its fullest, including theorizing about any kind of a heaven or a hell, which has really been liberating for me. It gives me the freedom to believe what makes sense and none of the other stuff. That’s my story.
Bill: Thanks for sharing your story. I’ve got some questions about what you’ve concluded after all this time. So, as you know, I did a deep dive study of the Big Book over a period of about six months and learned some things that even though I’ve been sober for thirty-four years in AA, didn’t really understand. I guess I didn’t learn anything that I didn’t already know, but there were things that I learned that I hadn’t previously understood that are relevant. For example: the entire time that I was in AA, in the back of my mind I had the question, “Am I, or am I not, an alcoholic?” And AA is pretty clear about what AA sees as alcoholism. Now that’s just what AA’s opinion is, that doesn’t mean that’s what alcoholism is. I consider you to be an expert in Alcoholics Anonymous. What would you say that AA says an alcoholic is?
Stan: If, after the first drink, you lose the ability to choose the second drink, you’re an alcoholic. If alcoholism is now causing financial problems…if you’re drinking and alcohol is causing financial problems in your life, and you can’t correct those problems on your own, you may be alcoholic. If you’re having marital problems due to infidelity, and normally sober, you would never even dream of cheating on your wife, you may have a problem with alcohol that could develop into alcoholism.
Now, I’ve shortened the ten-question brochure down to just those few points, but I’ve found that those are pretty close indicators of whether a person is an alcoholic or not.
Bill: Now, those ten questions are eight more than you’ll find in the Big Book. Right?
Bill: So, there’s really only two questions in the Big Book of AA. So when I say the Big Book, I mean the basic text of Alcoholics Anonymous that describes the AA program in one hundred sixty-four pages. And my understanding of what I learned in that six months was that we lose choice when we lose control. So, if we lose the choice of whether or not to drink; if after making a commitment to stop drinking for good and for all, we’re not able to do it, that’s one-half of the qualification. And the other half of it is once we begin to drink we lose the ability to control how much we drink is what happens next. You’re shaking your head no.
Stan: I’ve never heard the first part. Where did you see that?
Bill: I can find it later and show you. But, it’s there, and in fact, when I was in the Big Book study workshop that was two hours every Saturday for about six months, those two spots were marked in my book and referred to over and over and over again. That’s not two spots, but it’s basically two pieces of criteria that establish what is an alcoholic…not that we need to really get granular about that.
Stan: No, I was just curious because I’ve never heard that and we read the book cover to cover in my home group.
Bill: Well, this was a pretty deep study. I’ve been in a lot of groups before where we read the book and we discussed it, but never studied it this way and in this much depth. So, I got that according to AA at least, I’m an alcoholic. But it still brings up another question which is: What is addiction when it comes to the substance of alcohol? Really, addiction is addiction whether it’s pornography, or heroin, or alcohol, or work, or food, or whatever it is. Addiction is addiction. Do you think that addiction to alcohol is different in some way to addiction to anything else?
Stan: No. I think a modern term for alcoholism is obsessive compulsiveness. And anytime that I have a compulsion that I entertain and then become obsessive about, I’m an addict of that situation. And that can be anything. It can be a behavior, it can be a substance, it can be a way of thinking. I’ve seen it and experienced it.
Bill: So, I am imagining that there may be people that are listening to this podcast from different perspectives that would have questions that I won’t even think about. For example: there’s going to be people who have tried Alcoholics Anonymous and have said, “That doesn’t work for me,” for one reason or another, and they’re done. They’re not going to go back anymore because of something that happened once they got there. For example: I think what would be a common objection to going to Alcoholics Anonymous to get help for addiction to alcohol is the religious nature of it; that it’s a Christian program that claims not to be Christian, it’s a religious program that claims not to be religious and that, for a lot of people, is highly offensive. Did you hear what I just said as an opinion or as a fact?
Bill: Okay. You don’t think that is a fact?
Bill: You don’t think that in those one hundred sixty-four pages when Jesus Christ is referred to…
Stan: Now you’re trying to sell me.
Bill: Yes, well, I’m debating with you a little bit.
Stan: I know, for a fact, you can go to parts of New York and go to a meeting that’s one hundred percent Jewish and no Christian things are brought up. It’s the same 12-Steps and the same 12 traditions, but from a Jewish perspective.
Bill: Well, that’s not the program of Alcoholics Anonymous then. If, what AA is, is what’s described in that one hundred sixty-four pages, then that’s not AA.
Stan: No. I find that it is genuine across the globe to not be a religion, a specific religion-based program of recovery. I, on the other hand, have been irritated all these thirty-six years of, in order to fit in, I have to say a Christian prayer, even though I’m Jewish. And I’ve fought that battle for a long, long time.
Bill: Well, the origins of AA are the Christian faith.
Stan: Well, the two people that founded AA, one was agnostic from a Christian background and the other one was very much a Jesus Christian. And he didn’t 12-Step, which, if you don’t know, 12-Step means you take this message to the alcoholic who still suffers in the hopes that you’ll both, somehow, be sober at the end of the experience. He would take the New Testament and completely 12-Step from that. And once the Big Book came out, everybody else started 12-Stepping with the 12-Steps and he was even called – this is Dr. Bob – he was even called the “Prince of the 12-Steppers”. And he never once brought the 12-Steps when he 12-Stepped. That’s kind of an interesting factoid.
Bill: Yes, that is interesting. So, here’s what’s really amazing to me.
Stan: Well, I stand corrected. Often times he would leave, not just the Bible, but a Big Book, with the person that he was visiting.
Bill: So, the group that you just referred to in New York that’s all Jewish, there’s a group in Spokane, where I live, that’s called the “Free Thinkers Group,” and they’re all atheist or agnostic. And like you just said, the Big Book is still used, and yet there’s references to God and higher power throughout the Big Book.
Stan: And you see, that’s not a Christian concept.
Bill: Well, God is not.
Stan: Neither is higher power.
Bill: And higher power is not, but there’s lots of phrases in the AA Big Book…
Stan: And there’s in all the literature, if you read it all; again it’s written by people from a Christian perspective. And so, you get a lot of references like the Prayer of St. Francis. Of course, if it’s a saint and a Catholic saint, then it’s a Christian saint. Beautiful prayer, but it is Christian, and it’s a Christian philosophical thought that many religions, like modern Judaism, try to practice those principles anyway.
Bill: And I don’t mean to debate or argue that, it’s just this is one of the things people object to when they go to Alcoholics Anonymous; they don’t want to go to church.
Bill: And it feels a lot like church, except people are cussing and smoking.
Stan: And not praying or worshipping, which is a huge difference.
Stan: Now, some of the things we say, we say in rote like the Serenity Prayer and other things. And to me that sounds like mindless robotics, and I refuse to participate in those parts of the meeting. The other day I was in a meeting, and I was doing something on my phone; I may have been playing “5-Card Draw” while they were reading “how it works” out of the fifth chapter and one of the guys with ten years – those are the most rabid – looks at me and he goes, “What are you doing?” I said, “Oh, I’ve heard it.” It pissed him off, but yes, I’ve heard it probably over a hundred thousand times. I don’t need to listen every single time. If I continue doing what I’m doing, I’ll probably stay sober even if I didn’t hear it that one time.
Bill: Now, that brings up another thing. Although I didn’t really close the door on that last thing, let’s close this door first. So, there’s a lot of people that come to AA and it does not work for them. In fact, it appears, although it’s not hard science, it’s not hard data, but the best estimates are that about five percent of the people that come to Alcoholics Anonymous are able to remain sober for two or more years. And so, I’ve found that in several different places, and since AA doesn’t have a way to really track it, there have efforts to track it based on how many chips are given out, and what are the dates on those chips. And that can’t be accurate. So, it’s kind of a futile debate as far as exactly how effective is Alcoholics Anonymous. If a hundred alcoholics walk into an AA meeting, five of them will still be sober in over two years if the statistics are accurate. And I think they’re pretty close, pretty accurate. So, that leaves ninety-five people that had it bad enough in their life where they thought they needed to get some help with their alcoholism, and they didn’t get it in AA. What I’m really interested in, and even at the core of the purpose of this podcast, is exploring what about what does work, works. In other words, what about AA that worked for you, that worked for me, that worked for our friend that I spoke about earlier, and that has worked for so many, probably millions of people all over the world. What about that has worked? I wonder, can it be the God thing? If it is God, then it’s God despite us, because so many of us refuse to accept and allow that that’s what’s happening. Is it the fellowship? Which I want to point at and say that’s probably, I believe, more than anything else, what it was for me. Was it the safety of meetings? Although some would debate whether meetings are safe. I’ll say for myself it was absolute fellowship, feeling like I was actually a part of something; like I had found a group of people who were like I was, and I’d never felt that way before in my life. And I just wanted that approval. I asked you earlier, did you feel like you switched your addiction from alcohol to meetings and you said, “Yes,” without hesitation. Same here. I was going to three meetings a day, not because I thought I had to, but because I was jonesing for meetings if I didn’t go to two or three meetings a day.
Stan: Well, and because I couldn’t imagine life without alcohol and without Alcoholics Anonymous once I became familiar with that. And because I couldn’t imagine it, I never gathered the courage in those early days, to venture out. I saw what happened to some guys that had gathered the courage, and they ended up miserably. Three of the people in my own group when I first got sober ended up committing suicide. So, yes, the risks were grave, and very real, right in front of me. “If this doesn’t work for me,” the thought goes in a lot of cases, “then nothing will.” And then that’s when they start looking at self-destruction. Now, thirty-six years into this, I realize that that is a fool’s game, because if ninety-five percent of the people don’t find permanent sobriety in Alcoholics Anonymous, it’s a foolish thought to think that if it doesn’t work for me, the only choice I have is suicide. Because surely, the other ninety-five out of every hundred that walk in the door aren’t going out and offing themselves. Many of them are successful through other ways. Some find it through a church, some people find it through a promise they made to their children, or to their wives, or to their husbands. People find a way to tap into something they didn’t know was there. And I’m not talking spiritual; I’m talking within themselves. And maybe that is spiritual. But, I know that when I finally declared independence from Alcoholics Anonymous and now I go because I’m willing, I just like it now. When I declared independence from it, what I found was this terrific principle inside of me that my wife and my children and my family, the whole family concept was so important, that I could live the rest of my life sober and happy and successful if I never went to another AA meeting. Now that wasn’t against Alcoholics Anonymous because it certainly worked for me for a long, long time. But for me it was a declaration of independence back into the mainstream of society as is encouraged in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. Now, I don’t know moderation, I can hardly spell the word, so I went from two, three meetings a day to seven years without going to meetings. That’s a bit extreme and probably not recommended by any psychiatrist of their worth. But that’s how I do it. And I eventually drifted back. In fact, my brother, Bill, talked me into giving AA a try one more time. He gave me the good perspective of “Yes, was there anybody there when you first got there?”
“Yes, there were lots of people there.”
“Well, maybe there’s people there that need to see somebody with thirty-five years of sobriety that they can listen to.” So, Bill was the initial reason that I started going back to Alcoholics Anonymous, and I’ve been a rebel ever since.
Bill: Well, thanks, Stan. I appreciate your story and your perspective. I’m sure there’s a million questions that I could have asked.
If you’re listening to this podcast and you have questions for Stan or for me based on what we’ve been talking about in the last two episodes, there should be a set up where you can make comments down below where you click on podcast. Or you can just send me an email. Go to my website at breakthroughsuccessclub.com and send me an email with your question, and we’ll address it in an episode where we answer questions.
Bill’s Breakthrough Success Club website: http://billtierneycoaching.com/
Alcoholics Anonymous https://www.aa.org/
The AA Big Book https://b2c.aaws.org/p-42-alcoholics-anonymous-hard-cover.aspx
 “But what about the real alcoholic?…at some stage of his drinking career he begins to lose all control of his liquor consumption once he starts to drink.” P. 21 Alcoholics Anonymous
“At a certain point in the drinking of every alcoholic, he passes into a state where the most powerful desire to stop drinking is of absolutely no avail.” p. 24 Alcoholics Anonymous
“The fact is that most alcoholics, for reasons yet obscure, have lost the power of choice in drink.” p. 24 Alcoholics Anonymous
“We alcoholics are men and women who have lost the ability to control our drinking. We know that know real alcoholic ever recovers control.” P. 30 Alcoholics Anonymous
“If, when you honestly want to, you find you cannot quit entirely, or if when drinking, you have little control ove the amount you take, you are probably alcoholic.” p. 44 Alcoholics Anonymous