How purpose and faith evolve over time – a broader lens on addictions

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A few recent experiences reinforced my restlessness about how all of us face the destructive power of addiction in our lives and communities. I’d like to connect this topic to the current series exploring different ways faith develops in different lives and communities.

You may recall a popular book from 2002, The Purpose-Driven Life by Rick Warren. Warren is a minister and earlier had written The Purpose-Driven Church. He adapted his ideas to individuals and had a best seller.

The founders of the Twelve Step recovery movement some 85 years ago advocated the same attention to purpose. Each of the many Twelve Step organizations that have developed – Alcoholics Anonymous, Al-Anon Family Groups, Gamblers Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, Workaholics Anonymous and many others – embraced a tradition that in sum says “our primary purpose is to carry the message to those suffering from (insert the specific addiction).”  

This commitment to “carry the message” for members of Twelve Step groups is a fundamental principle. Members are told this is one of the important ways to maintain sobriety, abstinence, health and sanity – by being available to help the newcomer and person struggling to find peace through the Twelve Steps.

This important and admirable belief has guided Twelve Step organizations along with 11 other Traditions or principles. From my perspective, there is a tension or competing value between this mandate to reach out to others and two other principles. One of the other principles is  “singleness of purpose” – meaning A.A. meetings focus only on alcohol addiction and other addictions are not discussed. Similarly, friends and families of alcoholics attend Al-Anon; friends and families of people with drug problems go to a different organization – Nar-Anon. The second competing principle is “no opinions on outside issues” – aimed to keep distractions and controversy out of Twelve Step meetings.  

While vital principles to the early growth of all Twelve Step programs, our increased awareness of the nature of addiction has led to people needing to attend more than one Twelve Step program to get help. As our communities and societies struggle to overcome our cultural blindness to some addictions – food, sex, work, among the more difficult for most to accept – many people suffer unnecessarily not knowing help is available. There is no coordinated outreach about the many faces and roots of addictions and their impact on many families. Hence each group works on its own and sometimes in competition with other groups to “carry its message.”

Painful evidence exists of the negative consequences of lack of awareness of the complex presence of multiple addictions. A recent History Talk on Recovery Speakers made crystal clear one tragic example. In 1942, when A.A. was in its first period of extraordinary growth fueled by a Saturday Evening Post article, Bobbie Berger became the second national secretary for the fledgling national office in New York.  A brilliant woman and communicator, she had aspired to be a dancer and performed in support roles on Broadway and in theatre in Paris and London before finding her way to A.A. and employment with the national office.

She led the response to over 6000 letters and telegraphs from people with drinking problems and their families who were asking for help. She wrote, edited and mailed thousands of letters. She befriended over 300 A.A. members who were in Europe fighting in WWII. She communicated with a doctor in Australia with over twenty letters to help him develop an A.A. program there. She did the same thing with newly recovering people throughout the US and the world.

Bobbie worked closely with Bill Wilson, the co-founder of A.A. during this period. She was so important to the early A.A. operations that Bill regularly included her name on the annual Christmas letter he sent to members along with the Trustees, his wife Lois, and co-founders Dr. Bob Smith and his wife Anne.

Unknown to Bill, Bobbie was addicted to her work. In letters, she acknowledges she couldn’t stop. She was obsessed and worked at home in the evenings. Bobbie, who came to this work through her attendance at A.A because of a drinking problem, lost connection with her own recovery. She had no time for meetings or a Twelve Step sponsor.

In 1949, Bobbie quit her job at the A.A. national office. Almost immediately she went back to drinking. She fought her addiction for the next four years. Ultimately, the addiction won, as she died from suicide in February 1953.  

This was a tragic loss for Bill Wilson and all the people Bobbie had introduced to A.A. She was mourned and celebrated around the world. Sadly, there was no appreciation of the Twelve Step communities’ failure to help her to continue to grow spiritually and face her other addiction.

Similarly, Bill Wilson, a lifetime smoker, died of lung disease in 1971 because he couldn’t face his other addiction.

Tragically, too many families today are full of people struggling with some combination of alcohol, drugs, work, sex, eating, nicotine and other addictions. Each of these people is part of a family where family members learn negative and dysfunctional ways to adapt to the addiction they confront regularly. Too many children of addicted and abused families become addicts and abusers.

It is past time for the Twelve Step movement to confront the tragedy of Bobbie Berger’s death and the millions since then. These are the lives of people who recover from one addiction and die from another and whose families have no place to go to address the impact of addiction on families.

At the 2021 annual celebration of the founding of A.A. known as Founders’ Day, Billy N. from GA spoke about the Twelve Traditions and offered me a ray of hope.  While affirming all the traditions, Billy N. talked about the obligation for A.A. members to be knowledgeable about other Twelve Step programs and to actively refer those who need them to these programs. I was delighted and relieved to hear this perspective at a Founders’ Day gathering.

I believe if Bill Wilson were alive today, he would be fighting within his fellowship to find ways to both protect the sacredness and purpose of A.A. and to connect it with other fellowships. He would know from experience that his and many other lives and family’s health depend on looking for group wisdom that advances a broader tent for those seeking help and their families.

Since Bill Wilson isn’t here to lead this discussion, how do those involved and concerned come together to advance a better way to prevent unnecessary death and suffering and carry out our primary purpose as humans – to love one another?

This post was published on Recovery Speakers on August 17.


  • Tom Adams

    Tom Adams writes and speaks on topics vital to the intersection of our personal lives with our community and global lives. He has for decades been engaged in and written about nonprofit leadership and transitions, spirituality and spiritual growth, how we each contribute to a more just and equitable world and recovery from addictions and the Twelve Step recovery movement.


  1. Shirin McArthur

    Excellent article and issue Tom. Thank you for sharing it and I hope it gets good conversation going. We can so easily redirect our addictive impulses….

    • Tom Adams

      Thanks Shirin, for the encouragement and reminder of how cunning addcitions are. We need each other and a big tent!

  2. Mary

    As a member of several 12-Step programs (and no doubt in need of others), I really appreciate the concept of addressing the basic underlying cause(s) of addiction. Thanks for opening some doors and windows to let in the possibility of fresh ideas to help those of us with so many needs!

    • Tom Adams

      Thanks Mary for your candor. May we all look for ways to make it easier to grow spiritually and address what gets in the way. Peace, Tom

  3. sally mac

    Such an important post! A few things come to mind:
    -reasoning things out with someone else(to whom we’re accountable)
    -remaining “teachable”, willing to hear other points of view
    -cultivating the skill of using our mouth less, and ears more
    Our spiritual condition requires daily exercise, just like our physical self. We need to stay connected to others in a way that cultivates Humility and Surrender. Our HP is better able to guide us when we take these “steps” seriously. Easier said than done!

    • Tom Adams

      Thanks Sally for your reflections and pracrical suggestions! Best, Tom