The Varieties of Recovery Experience


The roads to recovery are many.
Bill W, 1944.

By Roger C.

At about 40 pages in length, The Varieties of Recovery Experience is an intriguing essay.

Written in 2005, the title is reminiscent of William James’ classic work, The Varieties of Religious Experience, which was written in 1902 and inspired Bill Wilson and the Big Book (Alcoholics Anonymous).

No-one should be misled by the brevity of the work, however. It is crammed with information, much of it the result of research in the field of alcoholism and addiction.

The authors distinguish between pathways, styles and frameworks of recovery.

They have a chapter on the varieties of twelve-step experience, followed by a chapter called, “Still Other Varieties.”

They define recovery and examine its scope and depth. There is a section on the durability of recovery.

The authors of The Varieties of Recovery Experience distinguish between solo, treatment-assisted and peer-assisted recovery.

All of these distinctions are important to those of us who wish to have a greater understanding of addiction and recovery.

There is plenty of overlap in the various modes of recovery and addiction. To provide just one example, the authors point out that “(solo) recovery, treatment-assisted recovery and peer-assisted styles of recovery are not mutually exclusive. A.A.’s 2004 membership survey reveals that 64% of A.A. members received some type of treatment or counselling prior to joining A.A.” And roughly the same percentage of members continues to receive treatment after joining the fellowship.

Three recovery “frameworks” are outlined in the essay: religious, spiritual and secular. These are different ways of understanding the path or means to achieving and maintaining sobriety or abstinence from drugs.

In a purely religious framework

groups share a religious interpretation of the roots of addiction (e.g., as a sin of the flesh, idolatry or demonic possession), recovery founded on a total surrender to a religious deity, a religiously-based reconstruction of personal identity and values, and immersion in a faith based community.

The religious framework of recovery involves “confession, restitution, and forgiveness” as key to personal development along with the use of “prayer, reading, and witnessing (service to others) as daily rituals of recovery.”

Members of AA will recognize a number of components of a religious recovery framework embedded in the 12 Steps. Those who grew up Catholic, for example, will flash back to the confessional when Step 5 is read: “Admitted to God, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”

This should not be surprising. The co-founders of AA (Bill W and Dr Bob) were both members of the Oxford Group, a protestant evangelical religious movement which was in its heyday in the 1930s.

The authors of The Varieties of Recovery Experience then go on to affirm that both religious and spiritual pathways “flow out of the human condition of wounded imperfection (what William James, 1902, referred to as ‘torn-to-pieces-hood’), involve experiences of connection with resources within and beyond the self, and involve a core set of values (e.g., humility gratitude, and forgiveness).”

The spiritual approach is not attached to any particular dogma or creed but emerges from a personal sense of incompletness.

Spirituality as a medium of recovery is rooted in the understanding that human beings: 1) are born with a vacuum inside themselves that craves to be filled with meaning, 2) can artificially and temporarily fulfill this need through the medium of drug intoxication, and that 3) more authentic and lasting frameworks of meaning can displace the craving for intoxication.

Those with a spiritual approach to recovery are comfortable with a 12 Step program of recovery, the Buddhist eightfold path or any other way forward, often in combination.

Whereas religious and spiritual frameworks of recovery involve going beyond and outside of oneself, a secular path to recovery involves an affirmation of the self and “the ability of each individual to rationally direct his or her own self-change processes.”

Irrational beliefs about oneself and the world and ineffective coping skills are the roots of addiction, according to organizations such as SOS (the Secular Organization for Sobriety), founded by Jim Christopher in 1985.

The three frameworks of recovery have much in common but also differ in important ways, as well. All three paths involve (1) an essential “re-visioning” of self (2) a new understanding of one’s place and role in the world, and (3) “a restructuring of life-stance (what is accepted as being of ultimate importance) and lifestyle.” Interestingly enough, the authors report that these modes of recovery also share a three part story format as part of the re-visioning and restructuring process in which people share “in a general way what we used to be like, what happened, and what we are like now” (Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 70).

The authors affirm that of the three frameworks of recovery, AA is a spiritual path.

In fact they write: “One of A.A.’s innovations was its emancipation of spirituality from its explicitly religious roots.”

There is, however, plenty of evidence to suggest that AA has not yet extricated itself from the clutches of its early Christian and faith-based origins. One has only to read the front page Toronto Star article, Fight over God Splits Toronto AA Groups, to realize that it may take more than adding “as we understood Him” after the word “God” in the suggested 12 steps of recovery to achieve the much-touted emancipation of spirituality within the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Regardless of that, this is a wonderful and very scholarly essay.

The three frameworks of recovery discussed here form only a small part of its 40 or so pages (plus an extensive bibliography).

The authors have undertaken to explore “the growing varieties of pathways and styles through which people are resolving serious and persistent alcohol and other drug-related problems.“ The paper is a presentation in summary fashion all of the things we might want to know about alcoholism, addiction and recovery. It is remarkably successful in this effort.

And who are the authors?

Ernie Kurtz and Bill White

Ernie Kurtz and Bill White

None other than William White, author of many works on recovery including Slaying the Dragon: The History of Addiction Treatment and Recovery in America and Ernest Kurtz, author of Not God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous and co-author of The Spirituality of Imperfection, a book about the spirituality of AA.

Of Bill White and Ernie Kurtz it can confidently be said that “they know whereof they speak.”

You can visit Bill White’s website at Selected Papers of William L. White.

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