The Grouch and The Brainstorm

[fa icon="calendar"] May 1, 2019 7:32:17 AM / by John MacDougall


Most weekdays I work at The Retreat as the Spiritual Care Coordinator. Most of the time I am meeting with men and women who have already identified themselves as alcoholics and addicts who need recovery and want recovery, using the Twelve Steps and the Big Book of alcoholics anonymous. They understood that what The Retreat has is a thirty day immersion into the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. What The Retreat does not have is radio, television, computers, cell phones, and much in the way of entertainment. We take people who need recovery, put them with people who have recovery, and let everyone benefit from shared experience.

It is easy to see who is not doing well. They are angry. Usually it is anger about some detail of common living. It could be anger about only going shopping at Lund’s grocery once a week. It could be anger about being asked not to “vape” inside. It could be anger about being required to attend the Al-Anon meeting on Sunday at the beginning of visiting times. What the anger has in common is that the individual is being asked to do something they do not want to do.

The truth is that the benefit of doing something I don’t want to do is so great that it completely outweighs the action itself. The self-discipline that comes from doing something I don’t want to do is so valuable that it matters a great deal more than whatever I gave up to get it.

I was either drunk, or high, or both every single hour I was awake for thirty years in a row, from age 10 to age 40. I had absolutely no sober hours at all for thirty years. I finally figured out that I was an alcoholic and an addict. I carefully detoxed myself over a six week period and went to an AA meeting. I asked a guy named Phil to sponsor me. He asked me two questions:

  1. Do you have the desire to stop drinking?
  2. Are you willing to do what you are told?

I am glad I said yes to both questions. What he told me to do was to read the Big Book, and take all twelve steps. He said if I read chapters five and six, which contained the Twelve Steps, and I did what they said to do, I would never drink or use again. That’s what I did, and I never drank or used again. It’s been over 29 years.

When we are angry, it is usually because we feel as if our boundaries have been crossed. Sometimes, our anger is legitimate, because our boundaries actually have been crossed. We have been cheated, harassed, or assaulted. Sometimes our anger is not legitimate. Our boundaries have still been crossed, but we have set our boundaries too wide, because we imagine that we are in charge of everything and everybody. When the world does not meet our expectations, we are angry.

The Big Book, on page 66, describes people who are frequently angry as “the grouch” or “the brainstorm”. Our book says “If we were to live, we had to be free of anger.” I don’t think it means we can never be angry, but we need to be free of anger as a lifestyle. If we are angry all the time, then we have become self-important. Self-important people become grouchy, or unpleasant, because the world isn’t meeting their expectations.

At the time the Big Book was written, “brainstorm” did not mean a bright idea, it meant “a violent derangement of the mind”. Some people get so angry so often that they seem to have a violent derangement of the mind. We look at them and think “What got into them?”

So our book says “The grouch and the brainstorm are not for us. They may be the dubious luxury of normal men, but for alcoholics these things are poison.” (p.66)

We can be angry once in a while for a specific reason, but if anger is becoming a way of life, then we are becoming self-important, even grandiose, and we need to return to an appropriate humility. Our program can teach us to “live and let live.”

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Topics: Sober Housing, 12 steps of aa, AA Big Book, Men's Sober Residential, Women's Sober Residential

John MacDougall

Written by John MacDougall

John MacDougall is the Spiritual Care Coordinator at The Retreat.
His book, “Being Sober and Becoming Happy” is available from

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