I’ve heard it said in AA meetings that “the opposite of addiction is connection.” A phrase popularised in recent years by the writer and journalist Johann Hari. Thinking about my own experience of addiction and recovery I wholeheartedly agree with Hari’s assertion – connection is certainly a key antidote to the underlying isolation that often accompanies addiction. (1)
I felt very disconnected and unloved as a teenager and started using alcohol and other drugs to try and connect with others and feel better about myself. In the long run I was just compounding my inner shame and low self-esteem. My behaviour while drinking was often anti-social and would cause others to reject me, instead of the acceptance that I desperately craved. My feelings of isolation and disconnection grew along with an increasingly poor self-concept. By the time I sought out recovery I was riddled with anxiety and depression. Suicidal thinking was a constant companion and my life felt meaningless.
The Principles of Authentic Connection – An Ideal for Recovery
The theme of isolation and disconnection has been around the ‘rooms’ of Alcoholics Anonymous for as long as I’ve been attending AA meetings, which is nearly 30 years. The ‘loneliness of alcoholism’ is very familiar to suffers and Johann Hari isn’t the first to realise this aspect of the condition. 12 Step meetings place great emphasis upon ‘fellowship’ as an important means of connection, and also strongly suggest that the principles contained within the 12 Step ‘program’ facilitate a healthy relationship with self, others and life.
For me, the principles inherent within 12-Step philosophy are about turning away or ‘practising the opposite’ of my self-centred illness. The principles of honesty, humility, self-acceptance, love and service are the antidotes to my inner shame and its accompanying fear – they connect me in a healthy way to myself and others. My ego’s toxic shame and fear learned to defend itself in various unhelpful ways that disconnect me – addiction, anger, aggression, dishonesty, denial, false pride, inauthenticity and social withdrawal where my primary defense mechanisms.
My recovery process is about letting go of these unhealthy defenses and connecting with my underlying vulnerability. I need to honestly connect with and face my inner shame and fear. Truthful sharing, mutual identification, reaching out for support, and self-acceptance is the way to go I‘ve discovered.
The ‘core-conditions’ of empathy, non-judgemental acceptance and authenticity (congruence) are vital to the sharing and recovery process from my subjective point of view. If I am going to heal from inner toxic shame and fear I need to find an environment that offers love, understanding and acceptance as part of the healing process. When suffering from shame based feelings and a poor self-concept, which prevent self-love and compassion, I require love, support, and empathy from others in my efforts to love, support and accept myself, according to the Person-Centred theory.
In order for 12-Step meetings to help and not hinder the recovery process they need to be environments of love, compassion and acceptance, where vulnerability, authenticity and individuality are welcomed as much as possible and not rejected. The liberal and spiritual principles within the AA traditions provide the basis for this type of setting in which all are welcomed and supported equally and no demands are made…
“Our membership ought to include all who suffer from alcoholism. Hence we may refuse none who wish to recover. Nor ought AA membership ever depend on money or conformity. Any two or three alcoholics gathered together for sobriety may call themselves an AA group, provided that, as a group, they have no other affiliation.”
Third Tradition, Long Form, 1946
Recovery meetings should be inclusive of all regardless of any particular beliefs or opinions held, backgrounds people come from, race or gender differences. Spiritual principles should be practised towards everyone – ‘love and service is our code.’
“Our Twelve Steps, when simmered down to the last, resolve themselves into the words “love” and “service.”
Dr Bob, July 30, 1950.
Barriers to Authenticity and Connection – Group Dogma and Judgmentalism
Unfortunately, the reality of imperfect people is that they often fail to be non-judgemental and accepting of others – myself included. This is particularly true of insecure individuals who tend to project their own feelings of shame and self-rejection upon others. I do think that, in general, 12-Step meetings are accepting and supportive environments and enable individual healing and growth.
However, in all group activity group conditioning or dogma exists, which can create so called “conditions of worth.” In other words, if we go against the ‘group-think’ or ‘message’ we can be made to feel “less than” by others’ judgements and criticism. I’ve personally experienced this type of discrimination and rejection in meetings from certain members with particularly rigid beliefs.
Literal and rigid interpretation of AA literature, and ignorance or rejection of the liberal principles imbedded within AA history and philosophy, often results in extremism with its need for certainty. This fearful need for certainty cannot tolerate alternative points of view and tends to fight them aggressively. This is because disagreement is seen as a threat to self-esteem, identity and its security.
Literalism and the need for certainty can lead to fundamentalism within certain 12-Step groups, which are unhealthy and cult like in my opinion. In this type of group there is little to no room for authenticity, vulnerability or diversity and going against the group dogma results in isolation – the very opposite of connection and recovery from addiction.
Ongoing rejection is toxic and damaging, as well as very painful, and it’s better to leave this type environment and seek one that’s accepting and allows diversity in accordance with genuine 12-Step inclusive principles. Bill Wilson, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), suffered with deep insecurity, and consequently a strong need for approval and acceptance. He realised the importance that the AA fellowship be inclusive and not rejecting of the authentic individual and suggests so in this following quote…
In AA we are supposed to be bound together in the kinship of a universal suffering. Therefore the full liberty to practice any creed or principle or therapy should be a first consideration. Hence let us not pressure anyone with individual or even collective views. Let us instead accord to each other the respect that is due to every human being as he tries to make his way towards the light. Let us always try to be inclusive rather than exclusive. Let us remember that each alcoholic among us is a member of AA, so long as he or she so declares.
Bill Wilson, General Service Conference, 1965
A certain degree of group conditioning is inevitable within any group activity in order to prevent chaos and to provide a certain amount of security and identification for its members. I think that to a large degree the group conditioning that’s present within AA is healthy and encourages sobriety (physical and emotional), service to others, and the practice of virtue – all positive in my book – and needed in my case.
However, some of the group dogma within 12-Step meetings is very questionable and I’ll leave it to the reader to decide what that is for them. I say “questionable” because this depends upon your point of view, although advances in the scientific understanding of addiction make certain statements heard in meetings unlikely at best.
Newcomers are particularly vulnerable to black and white interpretation of 12-Step philosophy and group conditioning, and I think it’s essential that the liberal principles are emphasised with this vulnerability in mind. Although, certain black and white thinking and belief in early recovery serves as a defensive mechanism and is often necessary in order to keep sober and safe. Viewpoints and beliefs often evolve over time and with experience, often becoming less rigid in the process, and this should be allowed and encouraged as each individual makes their own way in recovery. Nevertheless, in some cases, beliefs can become even more rigid and entrenched.
As a fellowship promoting recovery from addiction and encouraging genuine connection with self, others, and the world, it’s vitally important that AA offers inclusivity, acceptance, love and support to all its members in order to enable the authentic recovery and growth of each group member. As individuals we can play our part by being aware of our own insecurities, prejudices and tendency to criticise and reject others who are different from ourselves; or hold alternative points of view. With this awareness in mind, we can choose to ‘practice the opposite’ of our fear based defensiveness and offer acceptance, love and support to others instead.
The respected AA historian Ernie Kurtz, offers some wise words in relation to the importance of inclusivity, which serve as a reminder that our primary purpose is to support each other rather than focus upon any difference…
“Whenever, wherever, one alcoholic meets another alcoholic and sees in that person first and foremost not that he or she is male or female, or black or white, or Christian, Buddhist, Jew, or Atheist, or gay or straight, or whatever, but sees… that he or she is alcoholic and that therefore both of them need each other – there will be not only an Alcoholics Anonymous, but there will be the Alcoholics Anonymous that you and I love so much and respect so deeply.”
The Twelve Step movement has always included its liberals and conservatives and this stems from its historical origins in New York and Akron, Ohio. Bill Wilson, a liberal at heart, tended to be the mediator between these two camps. Members in Akron, led by Dr Bob Smith, tended to be very religious; whereas the New York group, led by Wilson, were less so, and included members who were agnostic and atheist.
The result of this diversity is demonstrated in the contradictions within AA’s main texts. The “Big Book” (Alcoholics Anonymous) and ‘Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions’; as well as other influential fellowship literature, contain both absolutist theistic statements and liberal inclusive statements…
“If you think you are an atheist, an agnostic, a skeptic, or have any other form of intellectual pride which keeps you from accepting what is in this book, I feel sorry for you….. we know that we have an answer… it never fails…Your Heavenly Father will never let you down!
Doctor Bob’s Nightmare, p.181, Alcoholics Anonymous, 3rd edition.
“First, Alcoholics Anonymous does not demand that you believe anything. All of its Twelve Steps are but suggestions.”
Twelve Steps & Twelve Traditions, p.26
“God is everything or else He is nothing. God either is, or He isn’t.”
Alcoholics Anonymous, p.53, 3rd edition.
“To some of us, the idea of substituting “good” for “God” in the Twelve Steps will seem like a watering down of AA’s message. We must remember that AA’s Steps are suggestions only. A belief in them as they stand is not at all a requirement for membership among us. This liberty has made AA available to thousands who never would have tried at all, had we insisted on the Twelve Steps just as written.”
Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, Page 81, 1957.
The Twelve “suggested” Steps are strongly influenced by Christian principles, with room for manoeuvre when it comes to belief in a higher power. The Twelve Traditions are strongly influenced by liberal, democratic, and spiritual principles and are a suggested guide to how fellowship meetings can best operate. The ‘preamble’, read at the beginning of meetings, is basically a short summary of the AA ‘traditions’. As each group is autonomous they can vary greatly in relation to these influences, with some groups being quite traditional and religious in focus, with a tendency to “cherry-pick” from the absolutist statements in the literature; whereas some groups are more focussed upon the liberal principles underpinning AA philosophy.
As an example of the freedom and diversity that the traditions bestow upon 12 Step groups there are now hundreds of secular AA meetings throughout North America, that don’t use the traditional literature at all and are very different when it comes to format. These groups are a vanguard of an evolving AA fellowship; which its liberal and democratic organising principles generously permit.
As an agnostic and humanist member of 12-Step groups my focus is upon the liberal and inclusive principles that are imbedded throughout the AA traditions and literature; as well as principles such as love, service, honesty and humility that are inherent within the 12 Steps.
These principles allow this chosen focus and facilitate my relationship to an imperfect philosophy and fellowship. Due to the democratic structure of the 12-Step movement, the integrated nature of its ideology, and the very human shortcomings of its membership, there are no easy solutions to the many criticisms that an increasing number within society validly submit.
However, once the organising structure and its underlying philosophy are fully understood, it becomes clear that 12-Step groups don’t necessarily have a universal character and are often quite diverse in nature. Therefore, criticising the fellowships as a whole isn’t really that fair and doesn’t fully make sense.
Time and experience within the 12-Step recovery movement, and a thorough understanding of its history and literature, as well as being open to alternative perspectives in relation to addiction and recovery, have enabled me to find my own voice and integrity within the supportive and inclusive meetings that I attend. I am able to go against group dogma when it feels right to do so, be appropriately vulnerable when necessary (meetings are fundamentally very public in there nature – any person with a desire to stay sober can attend – and we are all amateurs!) and authentic in my relationships with others. I appreciate not everyone can, or wants to do this, and it depends upon one’s personality and point of view.
In consideration of the above question… liberal inclusive philosophy or religious dogma? My response is it depends upon individual outlook; it can be either, or, more objectively, it’s probably both. So, I’d like to finish with these liberal maxims – ‘to each his own’ and ‘to thine own self be true.’ As ideally 12-Step philosophy allows us meaningful connection and genuine authenticity.
1. While disconnection is a common causal factor leading to addiction – and is certainly symptomatic of the condition – it is by no means the only causal factor. Addiction is complex and various causal factors are often involved in its development and the interaction of these factors is unique to each individual. For a comprehensive view of the various causal factors involved in the development of addiction see my article: