One of the many platitudes heard in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is “that you cannot get recovery by osmosis.” I disagree with this glib statement in certain respects. Apart from its meaning relating to biology/chemistry the term osmosis is commonly used to describe the ‘gradual or unconscious assimilation of ideas, knowledge, values, custom and behaviour’.
Speaking for myself this is exactly how I absorbed recovery ideas, values and behaviours, and then very slowly started to apply them in my life. To start with, to a large degree, my learning about recovery was a cognitive process within the social context of AA meetings. This accords with ‘social learning theory’, whereby we learn from each other through observation and experiencing others’ ideas, perspectives, and behaviour. We then adopt them as our own; they become part of us. I suppose this is what is meant by ‘carrying a message of recovery’.
Upon entering the rooms of AA I lacked a realistic understanding of addiction and my knowledge was limited to a common stereotype. I didn’t understand the psychological and emotional nature of the disorder. I lacked acceptance, and therefore willingness, self-honesty and humility. However, a large part of me wanted to stop drinking and thought that this alone would solve my problems with living.
I had to obtain my acceptance partly by listening to the testimony of others in the rooms of AA, and by behavioural experiment. I was in the earlier stages of addiction in relation to physical dependency, but well and truly emotionally and psychologically reliant upon alcohol and other drugs. I had a compulsive relationship with mood altering substances.
Despite frequent relapses I kept attending meetings, listening to and absorbing what I heard, reading the literature and engaging with others in recovery. I found a lot of the sharing in meetings inspirational and this encouraged my willingness to learn and to listen to the direction of others. Slowly my thinking and understanding about addiction and what was required for recovery began to change, and then so did my behaviour. I became willing to put in more effort and to attend more meetings. I started to practice spiritual principles and moral virtues, and most importantly, avoided taking that first drink. These new behaviours had positive consequences which encouraged more learning and practice. Through this process I developed greater acceptance, willingness, self-honesty and humility. I eventually became able to maintain sobriety.
In my case, I did learn to recover partly through the process of osmosis. To begin with, just immersing myself in a recovery environment encouraged me to adopt new attitudes, and then this new thinking inspired me to take action. All I did in the beginning was listen to and observe others, gradually digesting the information and adopting new ideas for living. This cognitive process is an important aspect of growing and change; all that’s required is that we’re receptive and open to learning.
The above platitude seems to be motivated by the idea that the 12 Steps are “a program of action”, and by a bias towards the behavioural component of learning and change. There often seems to be a dismissal of the cognitive relationship to feelings and behaviour in this respect. The truth is there is a reciprocal relationship between thoughts, feelings and behaviour. They are interconnected, and if one changes, so do the others. This is the premise upon which Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy is based.
Regularly being in a recovery environment often does have a dramatic effect upon the individual. We tend to assimilate recovery information, custom and culture, both consciously and unconsciously, just by being around it – it’s contagious. This idea is promoted by the recovery historian and researcher William L White:
“Recovery is contagious. Get close to it. Stay close to it. Catch it. Keep catching it. Pass it on.” (1)
We carry and transmit recovery to each other by sharing our experience, strength and hope with one another. This is the learning environment of the rooms of AA and what I mean when I say I got recovery, to a degree, by a process of osmosis. The above platitude refers to how I keep and develop it. It implies that I need to take action, and I wholeheartedly agree with suggestion too. In order to keep my recovery, I must be willing to give it away in the spirit of service to others, and to “practice these principles in all my affairs.”