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Substance Abuse: Growing Beyond 12 Step Program Dependency
10 CEUs Substance Abuse: Growing Beyond 12 Step Program Dependency

Section 18
Framing AA as a Narrative Community

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Professional service providers who conceptualize their work as consisting of treatment, clients, and service models often understand AA as an alternative treatment model. This understanding, according to Rappaport (1993), is limited for gaining insight into what AA means to those who join. For a different understanding, he proposed reframing the meaning of AA (and other mutual help groups) in terms of a narrative perspective: "In its simplest form, the narrative approach means understanding life to be experienced as a constructed story. The stories that people tell and are told are powerful forms of communication to both others and one's self. Stories order experience, give coherence and meaning to events and provide a sense of history and of the future" (Rappaport, 1993, p. 240). The stories are told in community, and these communities have powerful narratives about change and about themselves and their members. In this sense AA can be seen as a "normative structure in social experience" (Rappaport, 1993, p. 246). It is a "normative structure" because it is more comparable to other voluntary associations of people "living lives," such as religious organizations, professional organizations, political parties, and even families, than it is to a social services agency setting where clients come to receive services from professional helpers. In the narrative framework, people joining AA are not help seekers in search of treatment, but story tellers who through telling and listening transform their lives. Personal stories become narratives that define a "caring and sharing community of givers as well as receivers, with hope, and with a sense of their own capacity for positive change" (Rappaport, 1993, p. 245).

Consistent with postmodern thought, the narrative perspective embraces the idea that personal reality is itself constructed, as in a life story, and therefore has the capacity to be reconstructed throughout a person's life. In other words, as narrative therapists would say, "people make meaning, meaning is not made for us" (Monk, Winslade, Crocket, & Epston, 1997, p. 33). The AA community provides a safe harbor and a rich tradition of stories one can use to reconstruct one's life story from that of a "hopeless alcoholic" to a person with "experience, strength, and hope." Hearing things in the stories of others can offer hope that one's own life can be changed. For example. Smith (1993) cited one woman's experience in her early days in AA: "A man I met told me that if I didn't think I belonged, I should hang around and I'd hear my story. Then a few weeks later, this girl got up and as she spoke, it started to dawn on me. I was so engrossed. . . . Every word she said I could relate to where I had come from. Here was this woman with seven or eight years in the program telling my story (p. 696)!" Smith (1993) elaborated on the process of individual integration into the "social world" of AA by describing how each step in the process of affiliation (attending meetings, sharing "experience, strength, and hope" in meetings, getting a sponsor, working the 12 Steps of recovery, doing service work to help other alcoholics) enhances the person's comfort level in forming new relationships with others. It makes it possible for them to take some risks and experience small successes, enhances self-esteem, and leads to further commitment to the community. Understanding AA in a narrative framework—as a context where people tell stories about their lives within a community—implies a conceptual shift from a rational (service delivery) model to a metaphorical (spiritual) understanding. This shift to the metaphorical is the framework for the following interpretations of the meanings of AA.

Storytelling as Metaphor
Many observers of AA fail to grasp the complex and metaphorical meanings of common terms and practices as they are used by AA members. Wallace (1983) noted that "the extended meanings that characterize the AA language system will continue to elude external observers who remain at literal, concrete levels of analysis and fail to consider the nature of symbolic communication and the purposes it serves in complex social contexts and transactions" (p. 302). For example, it is common practice (but not required) to introduce oneself in AA meetings with one's name, followed by, "and I'm an alcoholic." As members talk, they identify themselves by their first name only, not their profession, not their family name, not where they live. The practice of anonymity is considered by many AA members to be a spiritual necessity for recovery (Chappel, 1992). This greeting has been interpreted by some critics to be a counter-therapeutic reinforcement of a negative label ("alcoholic"), but as Smith (1993) pointed out, "it is understood by AA members that the word takes on a different and positive meaning in the context of AA" (p. 702). Using Wallace's idea of illustrating how a common AA slogan can have various meanings depending on the context, the meaning of the "I'm Joe, and I'm an alcoholic" greeting in the context of an AA meeting could be any or all or none of the following: 1. I have faced the reality that I am an alcoholic and cannot control my drinking. 2. I have suffered and caused others to suffer, just like you. 3. I don't buy in to the shame attached to this label by the outside world. 4. Even though I am an alcoholic and my natural state would be to be drinking, I'm sober today and participating in this meeting to help my mental, spiritual, and physical recovery. 5. Even though I'm not drinking today, there is a part of me that is immature and self-centered, spiritually bankrupt, egotistical, superficial—that is, an "alcoholic personality" that sometimes operates in the world in a "drunk mode" or "dry drunk mode." I claim this part of myself instead of trying to hide my problems by living under a superficial sheen of perfection. 6. I'm grateful to be an alcoholic because having this condition put me on a spiritual path that I never would have found otherwise. 7. I'm not unique, better than, worse off, or any different from any of the rest of you in this meeting. We are here to confront a common problem and to help each other.

This list illustrates the extended meanings that can occur within the context of a particular meeting, depending on the circumstances and histories of the individuals introducing themselves. Central to the meanings of AA phrases and language is a redefinition of the experience of being an alcoholic. A "practicing alcoholic" (one who is currently drinking) may be better understood in AA as practicing a flawed way of life dominated by self-centeredness, superficiality in relationships with others, and spiritual bankruptcy. The personal stories told in AA, "what we used to be like, what happened, and what we are like now" (AA World Services, 1976, p. 58), are vehicles for making sense of the chaos of the typical alcoholic's life by redefining it within this logic. As Marion described the process in Maracle (1989), "The more I went to meetings, the more I heard what other people said, I'd come home and think about it. I'd reflect on my own life, far back, up close, when I started drinking, what happened, how much of my life was related to alcohol, drinking. That's how I began to connect the depression and the drinking. I began to connect information, to put pieces together. I'd really listen at meetings. Hear what people said. And think about it all. And about me. I got real serious about trying to understand." (p. 154}
- Davis, D., & Jansen, G. G. (1998). Making Meaning of Alcoholics Anonymous for Social Workers: Myths, Metaphors, and Realities. Social Work, 43(2), 169-182.
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How does Alcoholics Anonymous redefine the term "practicing alcoholic"? Record the letter of the correct answer the CEU Test.

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