I was delighted to be asked and honored to take part in one of the excellent “The Hope Interviews” with Steve Jones for the recovery newspaper “Keys to Recovery” – our interview is on page 9 and it was a experience strength and hope type interview from both a 12 step recovery and a neuro-psychological perspective, showing how these perspectives are very compatible and how we need a spiritual solution to a neuro-psychological problem.
This week saw Alcoholics Anonymous celebrate it’s 80th Birthday.
Many media outlets have stated that AA was founded 80 years ago but this is not correct.
AA was co-founded 80 years ago when Bill Wilson passed on a message of hope to Dr Bob, or Dr Robert Smith to give his full name.
Dr Bob like Bill Wilson had intermittently stayed sober via involvement with the Oxford Group but they had always relapsed back to drinking.
When Bill Wilson first met Dr Bob he convinced him that he had a spiritual malady coupled with a abnormal reaction to alcohol, which meant he could not control the amount he would drink and could not control when he was going to drink, he had, in effect, become powerless over alcohol and only help from a power greater than himself could help him.
The original power greater than himself, as for millions of alcoholics over the last 80 years (and for some it stays this way) is another alcoholic. One recovering alcoholic or a group of recovering alcoholics is a power greater than oneself.
The message of recovery is usually from someone who has recovered from alcoholism, this is a power greater than yourself as he/she has used certain tools to recover and this is now being passed on to you, as they were passed onto him or her. The solution to your alcoholism is the same as the solution to their alcoholism.
There are no individualistic programs or people simply doing their own thing, it is a collective program of action.
Thus at the heart of AA is one alcoholic helping another get sober. It is a reciprocal relationship. Helping other get sober helps us stay sober too.
It is the most perfect win-win situation.
The wounded healer principle personified.
Bill Wilson had got this idea of abnormal, or allergic reaction to alcohol, from a physician, Dr Silkworth, who had treated him at Towns Hospital. It seemed to account for his uncontrolled drinking.
Dr Bob did however relapse again soon after receiving the message from Bill Wilson, briefly, and this only served to reinforce his view that Bill Wilson was correct about this abnormal reaction to alcohol and his inability to continue not drinking under his own steam.
Today this would be termed “despite negative consequences”.
Hence his first day of sobriety is taken as the first day of AA, although the AA organisation as we know it today took longer to come in to being.
It symbolizes that this was the day when one alcoholic helped another alcoholic achieve lasting sobriety.
Dr Bob, it is aid, went on to help over 5,000 alcoholics achieve sobriety and died sober.
The basic tenet of this, is that it takes one alcoholic to help another alcoholic achieve sobriety. This has been borne out in millions of cases around the world.
Millions of lives have been saved not to mention the lasting benefits it has brought to families, and societies once harmed by alcoholism.
When asked what he thought was the greatest accomplishment of the 20th century, Henry Kissenger replied, “Alcoholics Anonymous.”
AA saved my life and I can never put into words the gratitude I have for AA. I cannot express how happy it has allowed my wife, family and friends to become.
I can never properly describe the chrysalis effect it has had on me and on everyone close to me.
The age of miracles is still my us, our recoveries prove that. It is a gift that keeps giving, freely.
Thus my original point is not semantic, AA was not founded by one person, it was co-founded as we alcoholics achieve sobriety with the help of other alcoholics.
It is “we” of Alcoholics Anonymous, as the very first line of the Big Book of AA states.
In the twelve-step groups the focus is not on the individual self, but on the group or the community. Mutual aid and equality are the core principles of the twelve-step groups. Each member of AA help themselves by helping others who are in the same situation.
Essentially as one academic put it, The «power»
referred to in several of the twelve steps is therefore unrelated to religion; it refers to the potentially healing power inherent in interpersonal relationships based on reciprocity and equality.
Most active ingredients accounting for AA’s benefit are social in nature, such as attending meetings, and the 12 steps mention “we” 6 times but not “I” once.
AA’s 12 steps are a spiritual program of recovery but at the heart of that spirituality is the role of sponsoring.
Sponsorship embodies the fellowship’s altruistic orientation, reflecting a “helping and helper therapy principle” . Sponsorship plays an important role in the recovery process.
High sponsor involvement over time has been found to predict longer recovery .
Although social support is key to early engagement in the Twelve-Step membership, over time, spiritual issues emerge as increasingly important and helping others achieve recovery is at the heart of this.
The spirituality of AA is exemplified in helping others, it creates a feeling of wholeness and connectedness with others.
This is why we celebrate this great anniversary, this co-founding of AA, as it is the start of this therapeutic and spiritual connectedenss with other alcoholics needing help and giving help and with the wider world.
Thank God For AA!
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”
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.
Like many others in recovery from alcoholism and addictive behaviours I grew up with this really uneasy feeling of “not being part of”, “never belonging anywhere”.
I felt like I did not belong or did not fit in. In fact it was only when I got to AA that I had my first sense of belonging, of being amongst my own kind.
I had found my own recovery family and had this feeling of having gone home in some strange way.
I grew up in a house with three older sisters so thought I did not fit in completely with them because I was a different gender and had my own bedroom.
I also felt warily distinct or different from my parents too. I was always wary of my parents because I never completely trusted them.
Their violent arguments had lead to many traumatic incidents in my early childhood which still scar my psyche to this day. In fact I still suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) today as do about 40 % of alcoholics.
So I felt I never completely trusted and hence never completely attached to my parents, especially my mother. I loved them deeply but there was always this invisible almost unconscious wedge between me and them.
I also grew up in the “troubles” of Northern Ireland. I grew up in the highly usual scenario of being a Catholic in a very predominantly Protestant neighourhood.
This was also traumatic at times so I never attached with the society and culture beyond my home. I also got trouble from Catholic kids at school for coming from this Protestant area. I was always having fights to defend myself. So it was a fairly traumatic upbringing inside and outside the home.
Looking back I had more than enough reasons to feel not part of.
It wasn’t until I came to AA that I found a whole bunch of people who had also felt the way I did – they also felt they never belonged.
I was suddenly struck with a choice – either I felt I never belonged because of various circumstantial factors (which quite frankly did not help) to do with my upbringing or because I was an alcoholic?
As I feel completely at home with other alcoholics this seemed to be the reason I felt that I had never belonged.
If you feel that you do not belong it may be because, like me, you haven’t found your society of like minded people.
People just like you. People who do not fit in naturally with the so-called “normal” world?
In fact when I look back on my early drinking at about 14 or 15 years old I remember alcohol giving me that warm euphoric glow which felt like someone had poured “love chemicals” into my blood.
I had a “spirit awakening” if you like, whereby I felt so much more comfortable in my own skin, relaxed, expansive, acting spontaneously without fear, connected more with other people, felt the warmth and camaraderie of my fellow human beings.
Alcohol allowed me to more fully join the human race.
I allowed myself via alcohol to belong temporarily, to attach to the warmth of others.
Then in cold sobriety these feelings would shrink and recede – until the next time.
But was the illusion.
For me the so-called euphoric recall contains that feeling of belonging, or not being desolately alone. But connected. In fact the spirituality of 12 step groups is about the connection with others in the same boat as yourself..
In later years when asked by my wife why I drank, I would answer “to get away from myself”; to escape me!
I found a surrogate home in AA, a learnt attachment. Like my own family it can be far from perfect at times, but it is here I belong ultimately, with my own.
Accepted completely for who I am.
Where I am free to be me.