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of Cooperation Between AA and Other
Charles H. Aharan, Ph.D.
Director, Alcoholism and Drug Addiction Research Foundation,
Lake Erie Region, London, Ontario, Canada
© The A.A.
Grapevine, Inc., January 1971
1971 will mark the twentieth anniversary of my first contact
with Alcoholics Anonymous. Looking back, I now realize it
was one of the most significant events in my life. Like
so many other people, I can say sincerely that this experience
changed, or shaped, the direction of my life. Not only did
I become familiar with this remarkable organization, but
it was also the starting point of my life's work. At the
time of my initial contact, I was doing postgraduate work
at the university. Because of the interest stimulated by
this experience, I became fascinated with the problems of
alcoholism in our society and with the therapeutic power
of Alcoholics Anonymous. The result was that I did research
in this area and then was fortunate enough, about two and
a half years later, to be asked to establish the first treatment
center for alcoholics in London, Ontario. What I am trying
to convey is that AA shaped my ideas about recovery programs,
and that my friends in AA, who shared with me their experiences
with alcohol and their opinions about alcoholism, shaped
my ideas about the alcoholic and alcoholism.
preparation for this occasion, I developed a number of ideas
about what I wanted to say, and I nourished the fantasy
that some of them would be worthwhile and original. However,
I thought I should browse through the AA Grapevine, just
to bring myself up to date. I looked up all twelve issues
for 1969 and decided to set aside those issues that contained
anything relevant to my topic. Perhaps you can imagine my
consternation on discovering that eight of the twelve issues
contained, not only appropriate references, but also every
one of my "original" ideas, plus a number of others
that had never even occurred to me. So much for my fantasies
of presenting anything original.
have taken some comfort, however, in the realization that
most discoveries or new ideas in the area of human relationships
are, in fact, rediscoveries and that there is a value in
having different individuals expound the same ideas in their
own unique ways. I have even heard it argued that AA itself
is a restatement of an old idea - an ancient message of
love, spoken in a new language more relevant to our times
and to a particular group.
is a more familiar role for me to be speaking to professionals
about AA. On these occasions, I speak at length on certain
of my professional colleagues' attitudes which, I believe,
prevent them from working effectively with Alcoholics Anonymous.
Today, I am going to risk sharing with you observations
of some AA members' attitudes and practices which, I believe,
defeat attempts at useful cooperation. Before launching
out on thin ice and as a way of protecting myself, let me
emphasize that I believe the AA philosophy is unassailable.
What I intend to deal with are individual attitudes and
practices which occur with enough frequency to be misidentified
by the uninformed as an expression of the AA philosophy
first requirement for successful cooperation between AA
and non-AA treatment services is a spirit of goodwill generated
out of the common goal of being helpful to those still suffering.
The most effective working relationship is achieved when
each tries to complement the other, rather than trying to
compete. For this spirit of cooperation to exist, the welfare
of the still-suffering alcoholic must take priority over
all other considerations. The starting point, then, is in
the quality of our concern. Too often, it seems to me, cooperative
attempts degenerate into a battlefield, where each group
ends up trying to demonstrate the superiority of its own
technique and philosophy. When this happens, the suffering
alcoholic gets lost in the struggle.
are many personal characteristics which contribute to a
cooperative endeavor, but I believe a fundamental characteristic
of all parties to such an endeavor must be humility. For
cooperation to take place, there must be on the part of
all concerned an awareness of their own limitations and
of the possibility that the others with whom they are endeavoring
to work are sincere people and, maybe, even individuals
from whom it is possible to learn.
first point I would like to make is that I do not believe
the recovered alcoholic is necessarily an expert on alcoholism,
although he may be. The recovered alcoholic in AA is, in
my opinion, an expert on his own experience and on his method
of working the program. When he ventures beyond his experience
and starts to declaim on the nature of alcoholism and the
role of alcohol in society, when he becomes involved in
preventative educational programs, etc., I believe that
he is risking credibility as a valuable partner in the eyes
of many professionals in rehabilitation services.
am much more inclined to think of the alcoholic in AA as
an expert on a recovery program. He is knowledgeable and
skilled in helping, and it is in the area of helping that
the cooperative endeavor should be taking place. Having
opinions about the nature of alcoholism is quite appropriate
for the AA, but these opinions are often quite unimportant
in terms of developing effective helping relationships.
Cooperative undertakings quite often fall apart because
of disputes as to the nature of alcoholism. All of us, in
trying to work together, need to remember the AA principle
of keeping an open mind.
attitude common enough to comment on, I believe, is the
tendency of many AA members to claim that alcoholics are
a very special breed, entitled to special consideration
and recognition. It sometimes seems to me they claim to
have the world's market on suffering all sewn up. An extension
of this view is the commonly expressed opinion that only
an alcoholic can understand or help an alcoholic. I agree
that an alcoholic has a tremendous advantage in communication,
but I do not agree that only an alcoholic can relate meaningfully
to another alcoholic, or even that being an alcoholic is
a guarantee of success.
am sure that many of you here today can think of fellow
alcoholics whom you have found impossible to understand
and, perhaps, difficult to help. I have noted that, when
some AA people encounter this kind of problem, they are
inclined to explain it by saying, "He is not ready"
or "He hasn't reached bottom." However, when a
nonalcoholic helper does not get to first base, then the
explanation is: "Well, what do you expect? He is not
confronted with this argument, I often respond by saying,
"It's true that I do not know how it feels to be an
alcoholic, but don't tell me that I don't know what fear,
remorse, shame, guilt, uncertainty, and despair feel like.
These are feelings shared by all human beings." I go
on to say that, in my opinion, we have more in common than
you imagine. We are brothers in our human frailty. The superiority
of AA is secure, and it really does not need to be reinforced
by emphasizing the failures of others.
the same vein, we need to ask ourselves why we are so ready
to believe just about everything we hear of certain individuals
or groups. What personal needs are we satisfying by our
uncritical acceptance of unverified rumors? Alcoholics often
refer to themselves as con artists; as con artists, they
should realize that one of the best ways to con somebody
is to find out what he would like to hear and then feed
it to him. Frequently, the practicing alcoholic will try
to gain special recognition and attention by telling his
AA friends or sponsors what he thinks they might like to
hear about his previous attempts to get help from treatment
agencies. (He will also, of course, tell the same kind of
story to treatment agencies about the failures and the lack
of help that he received in AA.)
believe that people in treatment services and in AA would
be very well advised to try to verify the stories they hear
about one another before passing judgment. Certainly, I
have had people come in to me and try to rationalize their
personal failure away by blaming Alcoholics Anonymous. I
know better, and I tell them that it is pure nonsense.
would like to suggest that, when an opportunity comes to
AA members to work in a cooperative way with treatment programs,
wherever possible they try to find out the treatment policy
and philosophy of the unit that seeks their assistance.
It would be desirable if a meeting could be arranged with
the relevant people in the treatment center, to discuss
with them their viewpoint about what constitutes adequate
treatment. In doing this, you would be giving yourself the
opportunity of finding out whether they practice in a manner
that is acceptable to you. If you discover that they do
not, and that they won't change, then I would recommend
an approach which says, in effect, "When you have finished
with the patient, I would be glad to help in any way that
I can." I think this is infinitely better than trying
to work with patients from a treatment center when your
conviction about what the patient should be doing, or should
not be doing, differs markedly from the conviction of the
staff of the center. A suffering alcoholic's involvement
in this kind of contradictory relationship only results
have had the experience of being present at AA meetings
where I have heard speakers say that Antabuse was of no
earthly use, or that our treatment center was of no earthly
use. I respect the speaker's right to his opinion and probably
his right to express it. However, I cannot help but feel
somewhat saddened when sitting with me is an alcoholic who
trusts me, who believes in my competence, especially when
I have been persuading the alcoholic to go to AA and have
taken him there myself. I know no way of overcoming this
kind of problem, except, perhaps, through an emphasis on
the individuality of the program and the importance of maintaining
an open mind.
are one or two additional points about working together
I would like to mention briefly. The first relates to the
problems unique to the recovered alcoholic in AA who is
employed in a treatment center as a counselor. I believe
that the AA member in this position has to reconcile a number
of issues. Perhaps one of the most difficult problems he
will have to deal with is the temptation to become the interpreter
and spokesman for AA at the treatment center and for the
treatment center at AA. I believe people in this position
would be wise to avoid this problem by stating, when asked
to comment, that they are attending the meeting to stay
sober, not to be a spokesman for any other group. As a matter
of fact, I can't think of any other reason why an AA member
should go to an AA meeting.
final point directly related to cooperation: In my experience,
there is a tendency on the part of many AA members to use
the treatment service as an easy way of doing Twelfth Step
work. During our early contacts, I found that many times
we were being used as a dumping ground. I never objected
to trying to help; but, when this happened, I often felt
that the individual was not receiving the full advantage
of AA sponsorship.
conclusion, I would like to share a thought which may not
be directly related to the topic. It is of interest to me,
and I would like to get some feedback about it. I believe
that the impact and implications of the social and technical
changes that have taken place in the thirty-five-year lifetime
of AA are beyond my ability to comprehend and perhaps beyond
the grasp of many others.
society that gave birth to AA is not, in many important
ways, the society of today. AA's continued relevance is
a testimony to the fact that AA, when founded, was ahead
of its time. But the need to stay relevant is complicated
by the rapid changes that are taking place.
principles are constant over time and should not change.
But practice can change; words can change. AA pioneered
in the development of a new approach to troubled people,
and future historians will record its impact on the theory
and practice of the helping disciplines. I have been wondering
lately whether there was some way that AA could use some
of the procedures that have been developed in the social
and behavioral sciences - even though these procedures have
grown out of AA impact. I am thinking particularly of the
developments in group process.
believe one of the great strengths of AA is its ability
to communicate in a compelling way basic principles to live
by; but I do think it could strengthen its communication
of method. AA communicates what must be done, but I personally
think there could be more support in the how-to-do-it area.
This is particularly the case in the management of troublesome
feelings which interfere with satisfying interpersonal relationships
and personal growth. I have often had the impression that,
for many members, the quantity of sobriety sometimes becomes
more important than the quality. Concern about quality means
that the individual should not remain content, complacent
because he is a sober man. He must be concerned with what
kind of sober man he is. It is sometimes too easy for a
person to believe the battle is won when he achieves abstinence.
The program (the Twelve Steps), of course, emphasizes the
quality of sobriety, which is just another way of saying
the quality of life - but the practice of many individuals
and the character of some meetings do not.
any human group, there are certain ways of behaving which
encourage identification. In AA, there is a language, a
style, and in some groups there are unwritten and unspoken
traditions. In some groups, if an AA wishes to be recognized
as a member in good standing, he will not speak about his
fear of people, his inability to work or understand all
aspects of the program, the fact that he may frequently
behave badly, or the fact that he is unhappy and depressed
- even when all of these things may be true. Instead, he
will feel that he must tell an unqualified success story
or not speak at all.
have had many people in AA, new and old members alike, approach
me because they were concerned that there might be something
wrong with them. They tell me they like and need AA, but
there is something missing - it's not working for them as
it does for the others. They tell me that they are often
unhappy, that they are nervous at meetings, frightened that
the chairperson may ask them to read the Steps or thank
the speaker, or that they are bored and fed up. They think
they are failures and different, because they so rarely
hear speakers or other members frankly admit to the same
kind of feelings. If they don't blame themselves, they sometimes
react in a much more destructive manner and decide that
all the talk about happiness and contentment is just so
much hot air.
fears and discouragement are common experiences of the new
member; apathy, loss of enthusiasm, and periodic disillusionment
are not uncommon experiences of the older member. These
problems are not impossible or even too difficult to resolve
if one can admit them and share them. The ability to do
this is influenced by the degree of openness there is in
the individual's group. To me, success in AA is characterized,
not by the elimination of troublesome personal conflicts,
but instead by a member's growing confidence that, with
application of the program in his life, he will be able
to cope with his problems. His success at working the program
is demonstrated, not by the absence of pain, but by the
feeling that he can cope with pain. There is usually tolerance
in AA for continuing problems related to the use of alcohol,
but there is not always tolerance to the many other problems
of living. By openly sharing the kind of problems I have
mentioned, the individual makes himself available to help
and will also help others who feel the same.
recent years, in the field of social science, a great deal
of progress has been made in the area of group process.
Methods have been developed which are easy to acquire and
which are remarkably effective in helping people to be more
open in their relationships. It might be beneficial for
some AAs to go to a center which offers this sort of training
and development in human relationships and group process.
Members who attended such a center would not achieve any
special status in AA; in no sense would they be professional.
They would simply achieve a meaningful and valuable personal
experience and would, as a result, be more helpful AA members.
They would be less willing to accept words and slogans which
have lost their meaning through familiarity. They would
be inclined to acknowledge and share the problems I have
mentioned; they would be more sensitive to these problems
in other people. AAs who have had the kind of experience
I am referring to could add a new dimension to their group.
Finally, and most importantly, this activity could be a
growth dimension that would help AA members to evolve to
deeper levels of self-knowledge and appreciation of the
final word about cooperation: The true basis for cooperation
resides in the awareness that love and tolerance must be
inclusive. They cannot be limited to the members of one's
group or to members of AA. They must embrace all mankind.
© The A.A.
Grapevine, Inc., January 1971
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