A.A. as a Method of Structuring Time

There seems to be no one in the novel more obsessed and inhabited by time than the hard-core drug addicts. After using drugs to escape from the mundane realities of time for so long, they need a structure in place that allows them to move through time in the present, without trying to understand the past, or lose themselves in the future. A.A., through its trite platitudes and endlessly repetitive clichés, gives the addict a foothold in the present. On page 279, Wallace writes, “Time is passing. Ennet house reeks of passing time. It is the humidity of early sobriety, hanging and palpable. You can hear ticking in clockless rooms here”. Rarely in the rest of the novel is time given such physical manifestations as in Ennet House, home of the time fearing drug addict. This physical manifestation, time “reeking”, gives us an insight into how the passing time affects the people constrained and obsessed by the phenomenon, how they literally feel the passage of time. Time has a smell to it, and it reeks. Through Gately, we see an addict who has started to understand his place in time once again, and how he has gotten there. “Gately remembers his first six months here straight; he’d felt the sharp edge of every second that went by” (p. 280). So how did Gately begin to rehabilitate his sense of time? Through A.A.

The first and simplest, and perhaps the most important, way that A.A. helps the recovering addict structure their sense of time is by demanding, with no reprisal except the fear of addiction taking root again, their attendance at meetings. A.A. tries to structure their meeting so that they are always at the same time and on the same day for a given group. This gives the addict a touchstone, a physical tangible setting, that they know if they can get to, will give them some relief. Whether the relief is the society of other addicts or the satisfaction of completing yet another week straight. They give out coins or tokens that the recovering can claim at certain milestones of sobriety, a marker of the time that they have spent getting to that point. A.A gives the sober something in the future to look forward too, aside from the sharp seconds sliding by with no meaning or structure.

The second structural apparatus that A.A. uses is the cliché. Those perennial, ubiquitous saying that seem to inhabit the mind of every successful A.A. member. There are countless clichés that can be examined in this light, but the simple and direct one is “Giving It Away” (p. 344). Giving It Away means going and speaking at other A.A. meeting and sharing your story. But what exactly is the member giving away? Their story, for sure, but more than that, they are giving away their time. They are spending their time, and what they are receiving in return is sobriety. In the next sentence, Wallace explains that Giving It Away is the condensed version of the longer cliché, “You give it away to get it back to give it away” (p.344). Time for all of us can be a be viewed as a commodity, but especially for the addict, who is aware of every second of their sobriety, and the ease at which they can escape from time by returning to their addiction. By asking the members to spend their time, to actually spend it, in the active pursuit of sobriety, is a way in which the addict can escape the crushing weight of the present.

I think this concept can be applied in one way or another to almost all the clichés A.A. uses on their recovery process, and this has not been, by any means an exhaustive examination, so if you see any other clichés that this concept applies to, I would love to hear about it.

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