12 step recovery

The Stories They Tell in AA – Transformation through AA Narratives.

The following (1) is another excellent academic article on how the sharing of stories, or “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.

I personally have marveled 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.

One of the greatest stories you are ever likely to hear and one I never ever tire of hearing. By another person sharing their story they inadvertently seem to be telling your story at the same time. The power of identification is amplified via this sharing.


Community narratives and personal stories in Alcoholics Anonymous

Part 1

“This study is an empirical response to recent calls for mutual help group researchers to explore the utility of narrative research approaches (see Mäkelä, 1993; Rappaport, 1993). In keeping with the goals of this special issue, this article focuses specifically on the content, structure, and function of stories in the spiritually-based mutual help organization Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.)…  particular attention will be paid to the interplay between the community narrative of A.A. and the personal life stories of individual A.A. members. As is well known, A.A. is a mutual help (also known as “self-help”) organization for individuals with serious drinking problems.

Since its founding in Akron, Ohio in 1935, A.A. has grown into a multinational organization with two million members. A.A. members meet in groups of anywhere from a handful to a hundred members, and typically stay in regular supportive contact between meetings via a buddy system known as “sponsorship.”

Like other self-help organizations, A.A. is free of charge and is operated entirely by its own members. A.A.’s world view and approach reflect both its founders’ involvement in an Evangelical Christian organization known as the Oxford Group, and the rising influence of existentialist ideas in American life during the organization’s formative years (Kurtz, 1982).

A.A. conceptualizes alcoholism as a spiritual and moral problem. Specifically, A.A. maintains that alcoholism is rooted in self-centeredness and grandiosity, as evidenced by behaviors such as refusing to admit shortcomings (e.g., inability to control alcohol consumption) and ignoring the needs and feelings of other people. The goal of recovery in A.A. is a state of spiritual peace, humility, and acceptance…Hence, in A.A., cessation of alcohol consumption (termed being “dry”) is only the first step of the recovery process.

According to A.A., sobriety can be attained if alcoholics accept their human limitations and come to believe in a spiritual “Higher Power.” Although the word “God” is used in A.A., and many members in the U.S. understand it in Christian terms, the definition of “a spiritual higher power” varies enormously across members and countries (Mäkelä et al., 1996).

To aid members on the spiritual journey to sobriety, A.A. offers a fellowship, as well as its “Twelve Steps”: a program of abstinence from alcohol, acceptance of being alcoholic, honest self-examination, atonement for past wrongs, spiritual reflection, and service to other alcoholics. A.A.’s primary status as a program of spiritual growth rather than only a form of alcoholism rehabilitation is apparent in that seven of the twelve steps refer to spiritual transformation, whereas only one mentions alcohol.

Hence, although A.A. can be conceptualized and researched as an intervention for reducing alcohol consumption (see Emrick, Tonigan, Montgomery, & Little, 1993, for a review), it can also be reasonably approached as a spiritually-based community and way of living (Antze, 1987; Denzin, 1987; Miller & Kurtz, 1994).

If one views A.A. as a spiritually-based community rather than solely as a clinical intervention, one will quickly observe 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. The present narrative research project is intended to enhance the understanding of storytelling within the A.A. community…on the utility of narrative approaches to mutual help research more generally.



Basis of Categorizing Story Types The five types of stories discussed here are labeled as such because of their distinct content, structure, and apparent function(s)…(though) storytellers often embed one story type within a different type of story.

…the most important story form in Alcoholics Anonymous and hence will be discussed here at greater length than the other four story types…describes their personal account 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.” These stories, which sometimes last over an hour, are told primarily in speaker’s meetings, open meetings, and in conversations with sponsors. They also constitute the bulk of A.A.’s primary text, the Big Book (A.A., 1976).

Rappaport (1993) has noted that in church communities,  cross-person similarity in life stories is present because community narratives shape individual community members’ personal stories. This same observation holds in A.A…as a group they are strikingly similar in many respects.

Members typically begin telling their drunk-a-log 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.

as a member with 7 years’ sobriety describes:

People tell their drinking story at speaker’s meetings and at open meetings. People don’t usually tell their story at a closed meeting unless they need to hear it themselves. I guess I used to do that, just to remind myself that I was an alcoholic and I needed to be in A.A

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. Assuming a role and making a public argument in support of it increases the speaker’s identification with that role (Petty & Cacioppo, 1981).

Thus, each time a member says “I am an alcoholic” and tells a story about his or her alcoholism in front of the group, that identity becomes more firmly incorporated. At a more complex level, members learn to construct their stories  in such a way that they parallel A.A. philosophy about alcoholism. As Cain (1991) has demonstrated, over time,  stories of A.A. members become more and more similar to those reported in The Big Book, and more and more exemplify the ideology of A.A.

This process of construction brings the member’s life story more fully into harmony with the A.A. community narrative, and is one of the more dramatic examples of how a community-level phenomenon (the A.A. narrative) influences individual-level phenomenon (a member’s life story) in mutual help groups.

As a result of this process, the structure of members’stories usually similar in that A.A. theories about alcoholism and the
world are supported. For example, most confirm such central A.A. tenets as, “Only an alcoholic can understand an alcoholic,” “You cannot control alcoholism,” and “Our self-will can run riot and destroy us if we do not surrender to a Higher Power.” The continuous recitation of such a story provides the speaker with a rich set of examples to support the A.A. view, and may elaborate it further as the member learns more about A.A





At the individual level, sharing can also help members resolve past trauma. Being an actively drinking alcoholic often causes great suffering for alcoholics and those around them. By the time alcoholics come to A.A., they usually have shame, guilt, and many regrets about past transgressions, and feel alienated from those around them.

According to an A.A. member with 11 years of sobriety, sharing his story is an antidote to these feelings: To me, telling my story gave me an incredible feeling of being accepted by a group. All these awful things I had inside didn’t have to be secrets any more. When the group accepted my story, all the shame I had melted away.

In his writings of self-help and on psychopathology, O. Hobart Mowrer discussed the role of the “pathogenic secret” in maintaining human suffering, particularly isolation from one’s community. According to Mowrer and his colleagues (Mowrer, Vattano, Baxley, & Mowrer, 1975), mutual help groups provide a context for expiation of such secrets and the community acceptance that promotes health and integrity. The experience of A.A. members support this argument, as the quote above illustrates.

Denzin (1987) has argued that another therapeutic benefit of becoming a storyteller in A.A. is that it solidifies the break with the old drinking self by making it the subject of the recovering self’s stories. By turning their past into a story alcoholics gain power and reflexivity over their alcoholic experiences. The experiences of the old self are thus reinterpreted in the new self’s frame, bringing those experiences into A.A.’s interpretive ambit. The self-reflection that was desperately needed but lacking in the days of drinking becomes routinized in the days of recovery through the process of storytelling.

Sharing performs an important organizational maintenance function: hooking newcomers. Following the approach many spiritual teachers have used with neophytes, A.A. prefers storytelling to dry expositions of its philosophy (Kurtz & Ketcham, 1992). The audience often includes people who are new to A.A The purpose of relating drunk-a-logs to potential A.A. members is to get listeners to see commonalities between their own experience and that of the speaker.

This purpose of the stories of A.A. members is explicitly stated in the preface to The Big Book (A.A., 1976): If you have a drinking problem, we hope that you may pause in reading one of the forty-four personal stories and think: “Yes, that happened to me”; or more important “Yes, I’ve felt like that”; or most important, “Yes, I believe this program can work for me too.” (p. xii).

Thus, The Big Book (A.A., 1976) shows the reader that his or her individual life story has a place in the A.A. community’s narrative on alcoholism. Potential A.A. members may also experience this realization when they are “12-stepped” by an experienced A.A. member:

. Somebody came from A.A. to visit and he 12-stepped me—he talked to me about his stuff and I remember getting on the edge of my seat listening to this guy. All of a sudden I was talking real fluently with him. I just talked like I’m talking to you and I seen myself. I became aware of what I was doing. It came to the point where he said he was alcoholic and I was electric, man, when I realized I was alcoholic.”





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

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