Considerations for the Study of Spiritual Recovery Communities
Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is not without its critics. Some criticisms are quite valid; others are less so. Like all spiritual communities, be they the Freemasons or the Falun Gong, outsiders often attribute various ills and misunderstandings to AA.
The more valid criticisms, however, have little to do with any of these claims, and in fact, have little to with AA or the 12-Steps more broadly. The most pertinent criticisms involve the all-or-nothing approach of abstinence-based treatment programs, which long ago co-opted the 12-Steps as a for-profit treatment model. Another major issue involves the mandated attendance to AA through the criminal justice system that forcefully exports society’s substance-related legal issues onto a free community resource in order to avoid the cost and responsibility of the state to treat individuals with substance issues.
I should state upfront that researchers should be critical of both these issues. However, in doing so, they must also be wary of carrying on a long tradition of western science with a history of appropriation and the destruction of traditional spiritual communities. These non-professional mutual-aid communities exist outside of the scientific purview, and they exist in resistance to capitalist expropriation. Therefore, they are an ongoing target of the fee-for-service market and the scientific apparatus that legitimates and validates the commodities of medical and psychological services. This biomedical form of capitalism represents a real threat to free, egalitarian, community-based resources when scientific methods and discourses of “efficacy and evidence” are leveraged in ways that seek to disqualify and to dismiss the spiritual recovery of millions as mere “pseudoscience.”
Such attempts to disqualify these spiritual communities through “scientific and medical expertise” therefore raises a dark historical specter with roots in western colonial imperialism that disqualified traditional beliefs and practices of various Indigenous communities and local forms of knowledge throughout the world. Understanding this history is essential. Researchers entering the field of recovery science are part of the neoliberal knowledge production system, clinicians work in monetized arrangements, doctors provide a proprietary service for a fee. Remaining vigilant and cognizant of these facts are essential. The western capacity to damage traditional communities cannot be understated, even when their intentions are good. Researchers living in recovery, such as myself and a handful of others, have a responsibility to guide recovery research in ways that do not harm these communities nor invalidate the experiences we study.
Despite the research on the effects of the 12-Step process and ensuing outcomes, these communities are not treatment programs. The research on the efficacy of 12-steps generally comes from formal treatment models that use a manualized 12-Step facilitation. It is essential to consider the difference between the process of going through the 12-Steps (i.e., “working the steps”) and the community itself as it exists in social and material space. The psychosocial process of the 12-Steps, is separate, though related to the historical, cultural, and communal society of AA. They are self-selecting anonymous society for social support. They are the very definition of mutual aid; a community of voluntary reciprocal exchange, and mutually beneficial support. Meetings are free, open to anyone struggling with alcohol, and they are numerous. According to the General Services Office, worldwide, there are over 2 million members in 180 countries. Virtually every county in the United States has at least one group, and there are over 60,000 active groups in the US alone. It is the “largest club which no one planned to be a member.” For scale, AA is almost twice as large as Rotary International and Lion’s Club, and about 1/3 the size of the international body of Freemasons according to official statistics available from these organization. The 12-Step community in the US is about half the size of the Buddhist community.
Western Pathological Lenses
Defining what constitutes a pathology in a neoliberal capitalist society generally relies on the idea of a productive function as per market participation. Debilitations, particularly regarding “invisible” pathologies such as psychological depression, are defined by an inability or lack of desire to participate in work, home, and social life. The absent but implicit component of this definition is that one should want to participate, happily and productively. Thus, the lack of ability or lack of desire to participate in one’s work, home, or social life becomes evidence of pathology. Overlooked, of course, are the millions of reasons why people may be unsatisfied, and unwilling to participate in a commodified work and social life. The use of substances, the desire for anesthesia, is pathological simply because of what it implies– That our society, at least for some people, is an existentially barren affair. The lack of choice, i.e. “participate or be pathologized,” is a compounding factor that further strips away human hope and the capacity to transcend a meaninglessness each of us have to mitigate.
Inherent in this formula is the individualization of pathology. Failure to meet the demands of the marketplace resides upon the individual to sort out. And sort it out they must, lest they become a drag of the forces of material production and surplus value extraction. To be unproductive is to risk economic insecurity. This fact is the absolute main driver of consideration and measurement of an individual’s ability to function in society.
We must also define spiritual recovery and set this definition apart from the biopolitics of symptom management, death avoidance, and harm reduction measures through public health. Most importantly, we must set spiritual recovery apart from the restoration of productive function that biomedicine strives to achieve through medical or psychological management of troubling or debilitating symptoms.
The word “recovery” is broadly defined as an “individualized, intentional, dynamic, and relational process involving sustained efforts to improve wellness” (Ashford, et al., 2019). Furthermore, Recovery-informed Theory states that “Successful long-term recovery is self-evident and consists of a fundamentally emancipatory set of processes (Brown & Ashford, 2019). To synthesize the definition and theory of recovery– recovery is defined as a process that occurs over time, with no endpoint. Ergo it is not an outcome itself, but instead, a unique psychosocial process marked by intrapersonal, interpersonal, and ecological improvements to one’s life quality.
Recovery is considered “self-evident” in that the vast alterations in multiple life spheres when one moves from addiction to recovery are dramatic. The “evidence” of such a change is witnessed across nearly every life domain– from physical health to mutually respectful relationships, an improved outlook and mood, material changes to the quality of life, and ecological improvement in life circumstances such as stable housing, gainful employment, and educational attainment. Only then may we see how one reintegrates into society (functional participation) as but one self-evident benchmark of recovery.
Spiritual recovery, fits within these boundaries, and the pragmatic outcomes of spiritual recovery are both emancipatory, and noted by vast changes across life domains. Self-evident, in other words.
Accepting Spiritual Explanations
We should accept how people articulate their motive and conception. Those who freely seek recovery through the 12-Steps are seeking a specific kind of freedom. For many their drinking is the most expedient means to settle a seemingly innate existential disenchantment with everyday life. This is described on pg. 52 of the Big Book, as an inability to regulate one’s emotions, being uniquely sensitive to depression, feelings of uselessness and unreasonable fears. Conversely what they seek is contained in the so called “Promises” listed here:
“If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are halfway through. We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness. We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace. No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others. That feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear. We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows. Self-seeking will slip away. Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change. Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us. We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us. We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves” (Alcoholics Anonymous, 2014, pg. 83-84).
In the preface to the main text there is a letter from one of the leading doctor of the time who offers the view of the role that alcohol plays in the lives of the individual and why they are unable to live without it.
“Men and women drink essentially because they like the effects produced by alcohol. The sensation is so elusive that they cannot, after a time, differentiate the true from the false. To them, their alcoholic life seems the only normal one. They are restless, irritable, and discontented unless they can again, experience the sense of ease and comfort which comes at once from taking a few drinks” (Alcoholics Anonymous, 2001, The Doctors Opinion; Forward to the Second Edition, pg. xxvii-xxix).
And even Dr. Jung, while consulting with a man who would eventually come to be one of AA’s original members, stated, “Here and there, once in a while, alcoholics have had what are called vital spiritual experiences. To me, these occurrences are phenomena. They appear to be in the nature of huge emotional displacements and rearrangements. Ideas, emotions, and attitudes which were once the guiding forces of the lives of these men are suddenly cast it one side, and a completely new set of conceptions and motives begin to dominate them.” (Alcoholics, Anonymous, 2014, pg. 26-27)
If I find these explanations scientifically or intellectually unsatisfying that is no different than believing that I am somehow privy to some form of knowledge that is more important, better informed, and more useful than the very words, quotes, and concepts these communities use to define the nature of reality. Can you imagine walking in to some other spiritual community, listening to them describe their beliefs, practices, ideas, and then saying, “That’s nice and all, but what I believe is really going on here is X, Y, and Z.” Of course not. Thus, it is important that we take the right approach, consider our methods, and think about what forms of truth we are trying to capture.