By Eric Denner, LMFT, LCDC. That’s how we in “the [12-step] program” of Alcoholics Anonymous introduce ourselves — if we’ve been around a while. It’s a concept that many, if not most, newcomers to the program have a hard time getting their heads around. “Grateful? I don’t think so. What’s to be grateful for? For losing my best friend (alcohol), the only thing I could depend on to take me out of my pain any time I asked it to? Grateful for never being able to drink again? How am I going to have fun without alcohol? Who am I going to socialize with? All of my friends drink. Everyone drinks. What do I tell people when they offer me a drink?”
People who have not had the (mis)fortune of plumbing the depths of addiction, and then had the sense and willingness to ask for help and enter recovery, often have no viable outlet or someone to talk to about problems such as depression, anxiety, isolation, loneliness and grief. Family and friends may have their own agendas and interests blocking their objectivity and often offer unsolicited advice when all the addict really wants and needs is a compassionate listener. People do find comfort in church and those who can afford it or have insurance often do seek out therapy, but the power of a group where many people can help carry the addict’s burden when it is shared cannot be overstated.
The program of Alcoholics Anonymous, along with the myriad other 12-step groups it has spawned, offers far more than a way to stop drinking (or using, spending, gambling, working, etc.). It’s a “way of life,” as we say in the program. In fact, alcohol is mentioned only one time in the 12 steps, in the first one, where “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol [or substitute your substance or process of choice] and our lives had become unmanageable.” By substance I mean not only alcohol but any other addiction that blocks our spiritual and emotional growth, such as gambling, spending, sex, work and overeating. The rest of the program is about what to do after you have put down the drink and arrested the addiction. Addiction is a chronic, relapsing, progressive and ultimately fatal disease. There is no cure, but there is treatment, which starts with abstinence to halt the disease’s progression. The AA program teaches us how to live a productive, “happy, joyous and free” life, with mutually satisfying relationships and freedom from addiction.
Given the power of addiction, why has this program continued to work for millions of sufferers for the past 80 or so years? It comes down to building satisfying relationships with others to replace the substance or behavior that served to medicate and anesthetize the pain of loneliness rather than facing and working through it.
The Problem of Isolation
The ground breaking work of Dan Siegel, Allen Shore, and others has demonstrated the key role interpersonal neurobiology plays in mood regulation, cognitive functioning, and an overall sense of well-being. The need for human connection is hard-wired into us because it increased our ability to survive throughout our evolution. In addiction the human (and spiritual) connection is replaced with dependence on a substance or process that in effect becomes a person’s “higher power.”
Addiction is a disease of isolation reinforced by shame and stigma. While drinking, and even drinking to excess, is considered de rigueur and macho in our culture, especially among young people and men, being labeled an alcoholic is something to avoid, hide, and deny at all costs. The line between recreational, social, “responsible” drug or alcohol use and dependence is most often crossed unnoticed by the drinker/user. It is usually only after someone has “hit bottom,” often after many previous warnings and admonitions from doctors, family, friends, and others, that the defense of denial is perceived and/or broken, and sadly, often not even then. (See the movie, Leaving Las Vegas with Nicolas Cage.)
The Antidote: Relationships
What can replace the relief from pain, loneliness, stress, boredom, and other life problems that alcohol provided? In a word, people. The various tools of 12-step programs (sponsor, the 12 steps, the Big Book, meetings, and service to others) all entail building (or rebuilding) healthy relationships. A belief in a “power greater than ourselves” is an integral part of the 12-step program, making it a spiritual (as opposed to religious) program. Many people struggle with the “God stuff” in AA. Many people have had unpleasant, judgmental, punishing experiences with organized religion. This presents a significant obstacle, one that is addressed in various contexts in AA, most notably in the “Chapter to the Agnostic” in the “Big Book,” Alcoholics Anonymous. Breaking out of isolation and connecting (or reconnecting) with others and with “a power greater than ourselves” is how we put down the drink.
If addiction is a disease of isolation, recovery is about replacing the substance with relationships to fill the emptiness and time that remains once the addiction is removed. The relationships that are developed in AA and other 12-step programs (such as Al-Anon for families of addicts and alcoholics, Gamblers Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, Debtors Anonymous, Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, etc.) are honest, caring and meaningful, unlike the often-superficial relationships with people who still use substances to avoid looking at their fears, doubts, insecurities and shame. For many this is the first time they have spoken honestly to another person about their issues and become teachable.
People who turn to alcohol and drugs often do so when their learned ways of coping with stress and problems aren’t working. Substances and compulsive behaviors provide temporary relief but do not help to solve the problem — and usually they create more problems. As social, interconnected beings we need healthy support systems, including therapists, to help put our problems in perspective and learn effective ways of coping. Lacking these, people feel alone and unique because others don’t talk about their inner feelings or expose their vulnerabilities for fear of shame and rejection. This fosters the impression that others don’t have problems and leaves the addict feeling alone in his or her pain. We compare our insides to other people’s outsides because that is all we are shown. We believe that everyone else is okay because that’s how they portray themselves.
The Power of Honesty
In the rooms of AA and other programs people “get real,” drop their guards, pretenses, and posturing. It’s a program of “rigorous honesty.” We too have been down, and we understand your struggles as few others can. In this fellowship the healing begins. For me, being seen, heard, felt, understood and validated by another, let alone a room full of others, was an unimaginable relief after 40 years of having felt “less than,” “terminally unique,” and alone in my misery.
Members of AA and other 12-step programs understand each other because we have felt similar pain. We talk about it and we get relief — without being told to “get over it,” “move on,” or “just let it go.” You can’t underestimate how energizing it is to suddenly not feel alone. When people ask, “How are you doing?” they actually want to know and will stick around to hear the answer. What a concept! In meetings and after, when people go out for coffee or food, we speak about our pain and suffering and about our recovery. When we don’t feel alone and are listened to we are able to open our hearts, listen, empathize and care about others. And we learn to care about, forgive and have compassion for ourselves.
Over time, members of 12-step programs develop deep, meaningful, caring, loving relationships — not only with those in the program but with family, friends and others in our lives. This is the foundation of a happy, peaceful, fulfilling life. This is how and why the program works. This is what replaces the temporary relief provided by addictions. It is real, long-lasting, spiritually nourishing, and the path to true fun, peace, prosperity, abundance and serenity.
This result is what the 12-step recovery program promises, as stated in the Big Book, www.aa.org/pages/en_US/alcoholics-anonymous:
“If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are half way through. We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness. We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace. No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others. That feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear. We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows. Self-seeking will slip away. Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change. Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us. We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us. We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves. Are these extravagant promises? We think not. They are being fulfilled among us — sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. They will always materialize if we work for them.” (Alcoholics Anonymous, pages 83–84)
This is why we call ourselves “grateful recovering alcoholics.”
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Eric Denner, LMFT, LCDC is a licensed marriage & family therapist and chemical dependency counselor in private practice in Austin, Texas. Eric has been a chemical dependency counselor since 1994 and a marriage and family therapist since 2001. He received a master’s degree in social clinical psychology from New College of California in 1999, a master’s in business administration from San Francisco State University in 1988, and a bachelor’s degree in psychology from UCLA in 1970. Eric has served as treasurer of the Austin chapter of the Texas Association of Marriage & Family Therapists (TAMFT) and as president of the Austin chapter of the Texas Association of Addiction Professionals (TAMFT). Eric is currently treasurer of the state TAAP. His specialties are addictions and family therapy.
Eric Denner, LMFT, LCDC passed away on January 2018 in Austin, Texas. His thoughtful presence and contributions will be missed.
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