How Stories Transform Lives

When I first came to AA, I wondered how the hell sitting around in a circle listening to one person talking, and the next person talking and …. could have anything to do with my stopping drinking?

It didn’t seem very medical or scientific? Did not seem like any sort of treatment?  How could I get sober this way, listening to other people talking?

It didn’t make any sense. Any time I tried to ask a question I was told that we do not ask questions, we simply listen to other recovering alcoholics share what they called their “experience, strength and hope”?

How does this help you recover from one of the most profound disorders known, from chronic alcoholism?

I did not realise  that this “experience, strength and hope” in AA parlance, is fundamental in shifting an alcoholic’s self schema from a schema that did not accept one’s own alcoholism, to a self schema that did, a schema that shifts via the content of these shared stories from a addicted self schema to recovering person self schema.

Over the weeks, months and years I have grown to marvel at the transformative power of this story format and watched people change in front of my very eyes over a short period of time via this process of sharing one’s story of alcoholic damage to recovery from alcoholism.

I have seen people transformed from dark despair to the  lustre of hope and health.

One of the greatest stories you are ever likely to hear and one I never ever tire of hearing.

Through another person sharing their story they seem to be telling your story at the same time. The power of identification is amplified via this sharing.

If one views A.A. as a spiritually-based community, one quickly observe s that A.A. is brimming with stories.

The majority of A.A.’s primary text (putatively entitled Alcoholics Anonymous but referred to almost universally as “The Big Book,” A.A., 1976) is made up of the stories of its members.

During meetings, successful affiliates tell the story of their recovery. In the course of helping new members through difficult times, sponsors frequently tell parts of their own or others’ stories to make the points they feel a neophyte A.A. member needs to hear. Stories are also circulated in A.A. through the organization’s magazine, Grapevine.

But the most important story form in Alcoholics Anonymous describes  personal accounts of descent into alcoholism and recovery through A.A. In the words of A.A. members, explains “what we used to be like, what happened, and what we are like now.”

Members typically begin telling their story by describing their initial involvement with alcohol, sometimes including a comment about alcoholic parents.

Members often describe early experiences with alcohol positively, and frequently mention that they got a special charge out of drinking that others do not experience. As the story progresses, more mention is made of initial problems with alcohol, such as job loss, marital conflict, or friends expressing concern over the speaker’s drinking.

Members will typically describe having seen such problems as insignificant and may label themselves as having been grandiose or in denial about the alcohol problem. As problems continue to mount, the story often details attempts to control the drinking problem, such as by avoid-ing drinking buddies, moving, drinking only wine or beer, and attempting to stay abstinent for set periods of time.

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The climax of the story occurs when the problems become too severe to deny any longer. A.A. members call this experience “hitting bottom.”

Some examples of hitting bottom that have been related to me include having a psychotic breakdown, being arrested and incarcerated, getting divorced, having convulsions or delirium tremens, attempting suicide, being publicly humiliated due to drinking, having a drinking buddy die, going bankrupt, and being hospitalized for substance abuse or depression.

After members relate this traumatic experience, they will then describe how they came into contact with A.A. or an A.A.-oriented treatment facility…storytellers incorporate aspects of the A.A. world view into their own identity and approach to living.

Composing and sharing one’s story is a form of self-teaching—a way of incorporating the A.A. world view (Cain, 1991). This incorporation is gradual for some members and dramatic for others, but it is almost always experienced as a personal transformation.

So before we do the 12 steps we start by accepting step one  – We admitted we were powerless over alcohol——that out lives had become unmanageable –  and by listening to and sharing stories which give many expamples of this loss of control or powerlessness over drinking. .

Sharing our stories also allows us to stat comprehending the insanity or out of contolness (unmanageability)  of our drinking and steps us up for considering step 2 –  Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity – through  to step three, so the storeies not only help us change self schema they set us on the way to treating our alcoholism via the 12 steps.

In these stories we accept our alcoholsimm and the need for persoanl, emotional and spirtual transformation. The need to be born anew, as a person in recovery.

Reference

1. Humphreys, K. (2000). Community narratives and personal stories in Alcoholics Anonymous. Journal of community psychology, 28(5), 495-506.

 

 

Helping Others Helps Us.

In AA they say people who engage in service, i.e. helping out at meetings, sharing, making the tea and coffee, sponsoring others, helping on A A telephone helplines, inter group etc  have a much greater chance of staying sober and in recovery  long term than those who do not.

Although I was scared of my own shadow when I came into recovery and my brain was still incredibly scrambled and disorientated, I believe doing service in AA is one of the main reasons for me still being in recovery nearly 10 years later.

It helped me become part of AA not just someone who turned up and hung around on the periphery. 12 step recovery is a program of action not self absorbed introspection. The spiritual and therapeutic aspect of 12 step recovery is connectedness with others who have the same condition and share the same common purpose of wanting to remain sober and in recovery.

Doing service is an outward sign of one taking responsibility for their own recovery and declaring it too others in the meetings via service. When I see a newcomer to recovery start to do service it gladdens my heart as I know they have dramatically increased their chances of remaining sober and in recovery long term.

This has been my experience.

A reality, however, seems to be that most people are very anxious, lacking in confidence and fearful when they reach the rooms of AA.

When you have spent a long time drinking in increasing isolation, suddenly being at a meeting among strangers can have it’s problems.

When we go to meetings, to begin with, we are often unaware that we are actually in the company of people just like us, sensitive souls. Most have at some time at issues around social anxiety.

It is often said that this social anxiety is linked to the not belonging” feeling that many alcoholics experience throughout their lives prior to drinking.

Some have said it can be traced to insecure attachment to a primary care givers or to trauma or abuse in childhood.

Equally I have known many alcoholics who had idyllic childhoods who also have this feeling on not belonging socially, not fitting in, so I suggest that this social anxiety or not fitting in may be the result of some genetic inheritance which gets worse via the adverse effects of abuse or insecure attachment.

The vast majority of alcoholics I have met over the years have this sense of not belonging, having a “hole in the soul”.

I believe it is some neurochemical deficit, such as oxytocin deficit that has a knock-on effect on other brain chemicals, that decreases our feelings of belonging,  which  we all inherit and which can be made more severe via stressful adversive childhoods.

It often leads to isolation, being a loner, not only in adolescence but sometimes in recovery too. We seem to often like our own company but equally it is something to be wary of.

I have often heard of people relapsing after becoming isolated from 12 step fellowships. They stopped doing service, then reduced meetings and then disappeared off the scene, locked away in isolation.

So we seem to have a tendency to isolate and this may be due to many of us having social anxiety issues. Social events often seem like too much effort and this can be a dangerous thought.

So who do we cope with a room full of people?

I just came a cross a study recently which addressed how AA is almost perfect for dealing with this issue of social anxiety.

I will use some excerpts from it. It relates to youths in recovery but is applicable to all people in recovery or seeking recovery.

“In treatment, youths with social anxiety  disorder (SAD) may avoid participating in therapeutic activities with risk of negative peer appraisal.

Peer-helping is a low-intensity, social activity in the 12-step program associated with greater abstinence among treatment-seeking adults.

The benefits from helping others appear to be greatest for individuals who are socially isolated.

Helping others may benefit the helper because it distracts one from one’s own troubles, enhances a sense of value in one’s life, improves self-evaluations, increases positive moods, and causes social integration.

The myriad of existing service activities in AA are readily available inside and outside of meetings; are low intensity; and do not require special skills, prior experience, time sober, long-term commitment, transportation, insurance, or parental permission.

Peer-helping in AA, such as having the responsibility  of making coffee at a meeting, empathetic listening to others, reading inspirational meditations to others, or sharing personal experiences in learning to live sober, may have the effect of greater engagement in treatment and improved outcomes due to patients’ active contributions.

Learning to live sober with social anxiety is a challenge in society where people can be quick to judge others

Coping with a persistent fear of being scrutinized in social situations often requires learning to tolerate the opinions of others, feeling different, appropriate boundary setting, and enduring short term discomfort for long-term gain—skills that are in short supply among adolescents and those in early recovery.

The low-intensity service activities in AA offer youths—and those with  social anxiety in particular—a nonjudgmental, task-focused venue for social connectedness, reduce self-preoccupation and feeling like a misfit, and transform a troubled past to usefulness with others.

AA should be encouraged for socially anxious youths in particular.

As stated by a young adult, “I wanted to be at peace with myself and comfortable with other people. The belonging I always wanted I have found in AA. I got into service work right away and really enjoyed it”

References

1. Pagano, M. E., Wang, A. R., Rowles, B. M., Lee, M. T., & Johnson, B. R. (2015). Social Anxiety and Peer Helping in Adolescent Addiction Treatment. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 39(5), 887-895.

 

 

Life In Recovery – Australia (Part 2)

“After over five years of intermittent relapses and struggling to re-invent myself, I can safely say that I feel at ease in my own company for the first time in my life. I trust that I will do the right thing by myself and my family”.

 

“…all levels of government need to stop focusing on the policing of drug use and distribution, and invest more in recovery services.

That would slash health care, child care and criminal justice system costs racked up by addicts, while drastically cutting crime rates and creating more valuable contributors to society, the Life in Recovery report says.

The survey, by the South Pacific Private and Turning Point treatment centres, suggests addicts in recovery are 75 per cent less likely to drive while under the influence, 50 per cent less likely to get arrested and 40 per cent less likely to perpetrate or be a victim of family violence.

They’re also 40 per cent more likely to volunteer in a community group, and tend to make more significant contributions to the community than the average person, according to the report’s author, Associate Professor David Best.

Government funding is provided for detox services but virtually no money is spent on the difficult recovery process that follows, despite relapse rates of between 50 and 70 per cent in the first year of recovery, he said.

The focus needs to switch to funding support groups and programs that help addicts get back on their feet, like finding jobs and accommodation, he said.

“None of the treatment services are sufficiently well-funded but the complete neglect of after care and recovery services is both inconsistent with the evidence and counter-productive, because it just puts people into this spiral of relapse,” Prof Best said.

from

http://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/2015/05/05/govt-policy-addicts-wrong-report

reported in

http://www.southpacificprivate.com.au/Life-in-Recovery-Survey-first-of-its-kind

Infographic  of some of the Survey Findings

 

 

 

RECOVERY STATUS There was considerable variation in how people described their recovery:

• 79.8% described themselves as ‘in recovery’

• 6.3% described themselves as ‘recovered’

• 4.5% described themselves as in ‘medication-assisted recovery’

• 3.7% reported that ‘they used to have an AOD problem but don’t any more’

• 5.7% used other ways of describing themselves

Thus, for the vast majority of participants, recovery is seen as an ongoing process.

The majority (69.8%) reported that they had accessed alcohol and other drug (AOD) treatment services meaning that 30.2% had never done so. Of those who had, 36.6% had taken medications prescribed by a health care professional to help them deal with their drug and alcohol problems.

At the time of the survey, 41 individuals (7.2% of the total sample), were currently receiving prescribed medication to deal with their drug and alcohol problems.

A higher proportion (82.0%) had attended a 12-step meeting, with 68.8% attending 12-step meetings at the time of the survey. Current 12-step group attendance involved Alcoholics Anonymous for 57.1% of the sample, Narcotics Anonymous for 24.6%, Gamblers Anonymous for 2.3% and Crystal Meth Anonymous for 1.0%.

11.3% were currently attending Al-Anon (as a loved one or family member) and 6.8% reported that they were currently attending other 12-step groups that included Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, GROW (for co-morbid alcohol and mental health problems) and Adult Children of Alcoholics. SMART Recovery was being attended by 0.5% of the survey participants.

 

1. FINANCES

Changes in financial situation from active addiction to recovery There were marked improvements in paying bills on time, in having your own place to live, in having a good credit rating and paying taxes from when participants were in active addiction to when they were in recovery.

WELLBEING & LIFE

2. FAMILY AND SOCIAL LIFE

…  there were marked reductions in the experience of family violence from around half of the participants during active addiction to less than 10% in recovery, that were accompanied by positive improvements in participation in family activities and planning for the future. There was also a clear improvement in children returning from care and a massive increase in participation of community and civic groups.

3. HEALTH

There are marked differences in health functioning as reported by participants with clear improvements in a range of self-care activities – improved engagement with GPs, regular dental check-ups, improved diet and nutrition and regular exercise. At the same time there is a clear reduction in health service utilisation indicated by marked reductions in the frequency of use of healthcare services and emergency department attendance and improvements in the rate of smoking. There is also a significant reduction in experiencing mental health side effects.

4. LEGAL ISSUES

Changes from active addiction to recovery in offending and criminal justice system involvement There are very striking transitions in involvement with the criminal justice system and overall offending with the most marked transition from 82.9% reporting driving under the influence while in active addiction to fewer than 5% while in recovery. Likewise, while more than half of the sample had been arrested in active addiction, this dropped to around 2% in recovery, leading to significant reductions in family disruption as well as significantly reduced costs to society. This is also reflected in the more than 90% reduction in imprisonment from active addiction to recovery, while there were considerable improvements in re-obtaining both professional registration and the right to drive once in recovery.

5. WORK AND STUDY

Missing work and being fired or suspended, which had been frequent occurrences in active addiction, were extremely uncommon in recovery, as was dropping out of school and university. In contrast, there were clear improvements in positive job appraisals, in further education and in remaining in steady employment.

 

THE SOCIAL NETWORKS AND SOCIAL IDENTITIES OF ACTIVE ADDICTS AND PEOPLE IN RECOVERY

Here the position is even more dramatic with the vast majority of participants reporting no contact with people in recovery while they were active addicts, but that this situation is reversed to the extent that 36% of people in recovery have a social network made up only of people in recovery.

This is reflected in ‘qualitative social capital’ – in other words the number of people individuals can rely on. At the peak of their addiction, 38.3% of participants reported that they had nobody they could discuss important things with compared to 2.0% who reported the same in their recovery. By contrast, while 8.6% of participants reported that they had four or more people they could discuss important things with in active addiction, this increased to 65.9% in their recovery. This is reflected in changes in social group membership – a proxy for connectedness and wellbeing.

…our participants’ social identification with addiction had not diminished but their social identification with recovery had grown enormously.

 

PERSONAL ACCOUNTS OF RECOVERY

THE EXPERIENCE OF ADDICTION

he pain and trauma of addiction is clearly illustrated in the reports of participants. Active addiction is seen as having destroyed the person’s own lives and taken many of the lives of their peers.

“Active addiction completely destroyed any semblance of normality in my life. Everything was reduced to absolutes: the need to get drugs so I could not feel sick, and the use of drugs to numb any emotional or physical pain”.

“Ruined my life in all areas, physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually”

“I am alive, none of my peers from that time are alive. Only 5 of the 33 people I was in rehab with are still alive”.

THE JOURNEY TO RECOVERY

This journey is not perceived as a quick or easy journey by most of the participants. Many recognised that they have had persistent problems long into their abstinence. However, for most people it is a generally positive transition.

“After over five years of intermittent relapses and struggling to re-invent myself, I can safely say that I feel at ease in my own company for the first time in my life. I trust that I will do the right thing by myself and my family”.

 

“Addiction was part of my journey, I don’t regret it but recovery is so much more comfortable”.

THE EXPERIENCE OF BEING IN RECOVERY

Building on the previous section, this was generally very positive and the following examples illustrate the perceived benefits. Many people spoke of what they had achieved since starting their recovery journey.

“I am a productive member of society today: a good partner, parent, employee, daughter, sibling and friend, and I was not any of those things before”

“I experience long periods of peace of mind. I can manage problems really well. I am less inclined to react negatively to adverse events. I have recovered from Hepatitis C. I have deep and meaningful relationships with friends and family. I feel a wide range of emotions and can (mostly) sit with them. I have experienced 15 years of being engaged with and liked by the community instead of being a pest to society and that is absolute gold”.

POSITIVE ROLE OF TREATMENT OR MUTUAL AID

There were a striking number of comments supportive of 12-step groups, as illustrated by the following:

“AA saved my life because I gradually changed and got my self-respect back”

“AA saved my life; I would be dead without AA”

“I have a brand new life thanks to AA. For me, my children and my grandchildren. I am responsible at work and pay my bills”

“In nearly 30 years I have literally witnessed many hundreds of people turn their lives around from chaos and mayhem to lead similarly fruitful lives to the one I live today, overwhelmingly through the agency of their involvement in 12 step programs”

“I could not stop drinking on my own. AA has shown me a new way of living. Life is not perfect but I can now live like a ‘normal’ person. I have self-respect and dignity and I am a good worker and mother”

COMBINED APPROACHES Furthermore, as is consistent with the literature, a number of respondents talked about the benefits of bespoke and blended support from both mutual aid groups and professional treatment services.

“I am an active participant in the AA program – the 12 steps are my program for recovery. Putting the 12 steps in my life and putting the skills I learned at South Pacific Private into my life have given me a life that is full of understanding, patience, great relationships and love”.

“Detox set me on the path to recovery and AA helped me to sustain my recovery”, while a third respondent reported that “recovery through detox, rehab clinic, 12 step program with AA has completely changed my life and my attitude to life. I feel free and have choices and I am happy for the first time in years”

The overall conclusion by the majority of participants is that recovery is experienced as liberation and is an opportunity not just for a normal life but a meaningful and fulfilling one. That does not mean recovery is without regrets or without problems :

“My addiction was hell, my recovery has been amazing. I will be forever grateful for the second chance I was given. It took a long time to feel a part of the world when coming out of addiction. It was so hard to fit in with a world I felt so uncomfortable in. But now I love every day. I suffer with depression, and it has been harder than active addiction was but it is in remission and I have learned to live with it. My children are my greatest blessing and I have been able to break the cycle”.

 

Filling the Empty Self

In the first part of this two part blog – we looked at how addicts in recovery move from a more negative (perhaps chronically negative) self schema to a more positive recovering self schema and how this now sense of self and the new interrelatedness with others which develops in recovery drives recovery and an increased self empowerment.

The self, via schema, is increasingly positive in outlook, attitude and action. In other words recovery does for the self schema, sense of self, what we could not do for our own selves, our own self schemas. The self and the self schema becomes a vehicle for increasing well being and not further disease and disorder.

It is a vehicle by which we recover.  For me it helped recover the person who I was meant to be, the person who had become so lost to alcoholism for so long. It in some ways introduced me to a person I did not really know and in many ways am still getting to know.

The fascinating thing also is that negative self perception, as we know from previous blogs, generates a brain frequency very similar to thinking about drinking and not similar to drinking itself. We presume a positive self perception does not and this not only does not lead one back to drinking but very much in the opposite direction.

We again cite from the same article as before (1) to demonstrate perhaps how self schema, especially, the recovering self schema, is so vital to recovery for alcoholism.

“….From this perspective, specific disturbances in the underlying structure of the self-concept are considered intermediary factors that serve as important mechanisms that link more distal factors (e.g., genetic factors, family history of alcohol problems) to alcohol
use. A person with a self-concept composed of few positive and many negative and highly interrelated self-schemas would not have the internal motivation necessary to facilitate adaptive behavior. The negative affect stemming from such a self-concept configuration
would be likely to motivate maladaptive
behavior in an attempt to escape the negative self views
(Baumeister, 1990) and “fill up” the empty self (Cushman, 1990).

Persons with a family history of alcohol problems or other risk factors for alcohol problems would be likely to turn to alcohol (versus other types of maladaptive behavior) as a means to escape the negative emotions. A core belief about the self in relation
to alcohol (drinker self-schema) would be likely to form as drinking experience accumulates and similarities across drinking-related incidents are abstracted. Such a drinking-related self-schema
would serve to motivate schema-consistent (drinking)
behavior.
According to the hypothesized model, a person in sustained recovery (long-term abstinence) would have a more well-developed self-concept—one that consists of newly developed positive self-schemas and a recoveryrelated
self-schema. The recovery self-schema is conceptualized
as central to the recovery process as it would serve to motivate schema-consistent (recovery) behaviors.

During the process of recovery, new positive self-schemas are likely to form as a result of new relationships, activities, and involvements. The development of new positive self-schemas would diminish the proportion of negative self-schemas and the overall level of interrelatedness among the self-schemas.

 

How-To-Fill-The-Inner-Emptiness-Of-Addiction-PhysicianHealthProgram

 

TESTING THE THEORETICAL MODEL

… findings provide empirical evidence that (a) young adults with early-onset alcohol dependence have impaired self-concepts that are characterized by many negative self-schemas, a tendency toward few positive self-schemas, and an elaborated self-schema related to alcohol; and (b) young adults in recovery have healthier self-concepts characterized by few negative self-schemas, a tendency toward many positive self-schemas, and an elaborated recovery related self-schema.

If further longitudinal research studies demonstrate that the self-concept configuration that we found in persons with early-onset alcohol dependence contributes to the development of the disorder,
then prevention strategies aimed at children and adolescents
could be beneficial, particularly for those children who are at risk for alcohol problems based on the presence of other risk factors (e.g., familial alcohol problems, conduct problems). More specifically, interventions designed to build a healthy self-concept (by
fostering the development of a diverse collection of positive self-schemas, thereby decreasing the relative proportion of negative self-schemas) may serve as a protective factor that buffers the effects of the more distal risk factors.

 

At the other end of the spectrum, the data from our study suggest that interventions may also profitably focus on fostering the development of a recovery self schema in persons with alcohol dependence. 

…the nature of any recovery related intervention would depend on how ready the person is to change. For a person who does not yet recognize that alcohol is a problem, the goal would not be
to foster the development of a recovery schema but to help him or her identify that drinking is a problem.

One possible way to do this is to assist the person to make associative links across the multitude of negative alcohol-related outcomes so that rather than a series of unrelated incidents, the individual begins to see a pattern of repeated, enduring, and pervasive alcohol-related problems.

when the individual is able to pull unpleasant alcohol related episodic memories together to identify that he or she indeed has a problem with alcohol. So whereas
assisting the person to increase his or her awareness
of problems with alcohol is consistent with the basic
tenets of motivational interviewing (Miller & Rollnick,
2002), fostering the development of a recovery self schema
is not.

For people who recognize that they have a problem with alcohol or people who are seeking treatment for alcohol problems, one strategy may be to foster the idea that they can be recovering persons— that is, that recovery is possible for them. Fostering communication with other recovering persons and encouraging involvement in recovery-related activities may help to form a recovery-related “possible self”—a future-oriented conception of the self one “hopes to be,” that is, a recovering person.

Imagining the self in the future by developing detailed images of what one would be like in recovery is an important part of this process. Participation in 12-step recovery programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous that explicitly foster the development of a recovery related identity may also be helpful…

In fact, one plausible explanation…for an emerging recovery related self-schema is that the alcohol dependent participants were in a treatment  facility based on such a 12-step recovery program.

 

 

Reference

1. Corte, C. (2007). Schema model of the self-concept to examine the role of the self-concept in alcohol dependence and recovery.Journal of the American Psychiatric Nurses Association, 13(1), 31-41.