The Power of Our Stories


By Chris G.

When I first came to AA, I had no story.

Oh, there were lots of stories I could tell: drunken episodes, all the problems the world had given me, all my troubles. But no story that was mine, no coherent line through my life. Nothing of a direction, no beginning, middle and ending, happy or otherwise. All I had was a confused mess of vignettes, smothered in anger, loneliness, and self-pity.

I didn’t come to AA through any rehab or referral. When I got so bad that I couldn’t stand it anymore, I just called the number in the phone book – phone book! does that date me, or what – and went to the first meeting they offered. So I went in with almost no expectations, just some vague knowledge from the newspapers that AA was the place to stop drinking.

Someone greeted me, offered a cup of coffee, said some nice things, and guided me to a seat, up near the front. When the meeting started, I was completely lost. Preamble, steps, traditions and whatever else they read: I could parse none of it. A basket appeared in my lap; I think I put a dollar in it.

Then someone went to the front, said he was an alcoholic, and started talking.

My ears woke up before my brain did. Somewhere in the first few minutes of the guy’s talk, my ears grabbed my brain, shook it hard, and said “Pay attention! Listen to this.” I had no idea what he started with, but suddenly I was paying attention. This stranger was telling me about just what I was feeling like, inside. For the first time in my life, another drunk was getting through to me. I’ve no idea, now, what he said, at that first meeting, but as I think on it I do remember very vividly how I felt. Something inside me melted, or snapped, of both, and I started crying like a baby. He was funny, too, and I remember laughing through the tears, the whole room laughing, and it just seemed impossible but wonderful.

After he was done, my friendly greeter pushed me up front to get a shiny aluminium coin, and someone said the inevitable “suck on this, and when it melts you can have a drink”. Corny, but it made me feel good. He sold me a Big Book on the way out, too – slick salesman.

When I got home, I proudly showed my wife the coin, told her about this amazing guy who told his story about getting out from under the bottle, and said to her, “you know, I think this might work.” It did. Twice.

Fast forward a number of years, some of them black with drink; I was not a first time learner in spite of that hopeful start.

I was on business in the Midwest, and dropped in on a meeting in a small farm town, a one-shot visit. They hardly ever got visitors there, so they asked me to share a little of who I was, at introduction time. So I gave a little ten-minute spiel on how I got there that night – initial sobriety, the relapse, how I got back, current struggles, how I was working on my sobriety right then, how good it was … and looked across the room to see a guy all puddled up and wiping his eyes.

Flashback! Suddenly I was back at my first ever meeting, melting inside. Only now I had a story to share.

I talked to that fellow a bit after the meeting; it was his second meeting. He said, “you were telling my story”. He couldn’t get over it. Somebody just like him, only sober, employed, successful – showing up out of the blue on a cold night in that tiny town in a fancy car – and he knew I’d been where he was then. We were miles apart by the usual social measures of education, dialect, occupation, dress, you name it, but that little story made us like brothers that night. He said I gave him more hope than he had had in years … and what he gave me was priceless: the feeling of joy of helping another drunk, that most powerful of all medicines for our disease. The story, you see, was progressing.

Humans have told stories since they learned to talk. For aeons, stories were the history, the law, the hope and the education of all societies. They are so deep in our social consciousness, we respond to them still with our full attention. They have the power to move us emotionally like no other medium. Certain themes have gone on for so long, that, for example, a hero’s quest is instantly recognizable: we anticipate the challenge, the obstacles, the pitfalls, the betrayals, the struggles, and the final success. We come to want to be the hero, to act as the hero.

So it is in AA. A drunk can immediately empathise with the story of another drunk’s struggles; no other message can get through to him so easily and quickly. And as the AA Success theme becomes familiar, the newer member can relate to the “hero”, the more successfully sober story-teller, and he can imagine himself following in those footsteps, and it gives him hope and courage and energy to go on for one more day. The narrative gets in his mind, he wants to act it out, become a hero, become the sober one.

Powerful medicine, indeed. And true medicine, for as we change our behaviour … emulating a hero, for example … we now know that we are actually changing our brains, reprogramming the grey matter at the cellular level, down where our addiction lives, deep in our internal reward system.

So when you are new in AA, listen to the stories. Try to live up to the ones that especially strike you. An then when you have some success, tell your story to others. This is one of the many things you can do to help beat your addiction … and not the smallest. And all those tears? That is catharsis. That is your brain changing, repairing itself.

My story keeps changing, and I keep telling it, knowing that it will resonate with someone, sometime. All our stories do. So as your story develops, start telling it, watch it grow, and keep telling it.

And, of course, listen to others’ stories, too.

10 Responses

  1. Jeb B. says:

    Yes, it is the personal experience, strength and hope that kept me coming back in the beginning and even now. AA has taught me to look back at my life honestly for the lessons I missed or ignored along the way, learning in Step 5, as described in Chapter 6, to tell my whole life story, “withholding nothing.” I continue to identify with others and their stories, getting a clearer picture of who I am and my potentials as a recovered alcoholic. Without the very human power of my peers in recovery, I would never have made it to where I am today on this amazing journey. Thanks for a wonderful, clear and encouraging personal story, Chris!

  2. Brent P. says:

    Steve – I found it, thanks for the heads up.

  3. Brent P. says:

    I’ve gone looking but am not entirely sure what I’m looking for. “New approaches to aftercare” doesn’t bring up anything newer than an article written in 2013. Could you be a little more specific with respect to what I’m looking for. Cheers partner.

  4. Thomas B. says:

    Yup, Chris, an excellent depiction of the glue that initially hooks us and keeps us coming back, the sharing of our experience, strength and hope through relating our stories of staying sober NO MATTER WHAT.

    Yesterday, I was at a meeting and resonated very deeply with a young woman, 11 months sober, who stayed sober despite it being the 10th birthday of her daughter who died of cancer recently, because she was a member of our Fellowship. I cried with her, sharing tears of sorrow and tears of gratitude that neither of us had to drink.

    The depiction of you telling your story in the small town and connecting with the person who was hearing you, like you heard your first compelling story of deep identification as an alcoholic, was riveting — it moved me deeply, as I emotionally recalled the power of hearing the first person I deeply identified with, Stanley S. Stancage. Your sharing this caused me to experience — re-experience again — with tears of gratitude how much Stanley’s story moved me so deeply at my third AA meeting over 42 years ago. Thank you !~!~!

  5. steve b says:

    Brent, check out New York Times article on new approaches to aftercare including heavy texting. Probably yesterday’s issue, or the day before.

  6. wisewebwoman says:

    The stories of AA remain my HP. Thanks for this share Chris. A good reminder of the power of words at meetings. When I heard my own story early on at a meeting I thought it was a “fitup”. LOL.

  7. Brent P. says:

    AA has more stories than it knows what to do with. In fact every piece of AA literature I came across was filled with stories or the declarations of Bill W., whether it be with alcohol, living a spiritual life or conveying some AA history. Actually the most practical book I came across after having read the Big Book and the 12 and 12 was not an AA book at all but something referred to as the 24 Hour a Day book that was published by Hazelden.
    When I take a step back and take stock of what AA’s developed over some 80 years is a number of books, all anecdotal in nature, full of stories.
    Like opinions, everybody’s got one so if you’re going to write a book for AA, it seems the only requirement is, you’ve got a story to tell with an ending that goes, “yet had I not found AA I’d likely be dead by now.”
    Most of them are dead now so they got that part of the equation right. But few of them died of active alcoholism.
    The point of the stories, as I understood them, was for new people to be able to identify with the alcoholic’s narrative. If they identified then there was a good chance they might stay around and, miracle of miracles, get and stay sober.
    So as this Practical Book continues to take shape, it would appear, it too is going to be a collection of stories. I assume they’ll be categorized but, damn, I think that’s already been done in the BB.
    I believe that the stories were key to AA’s attractiveness. Somebody hears a story that’s just as full of craziness, loneliness, recklessness and alienation as their story is. So one wonders, are more stories of the personal, anecdotal – confessionals – nature what’s required?
    I believe our primary purpose is to welcome the newcomer. To provide safe haven for the alcoholic who, at his/her wit’s end, finds herself in an AA meeting.
    But what do we really provide them? I’m thinking of the books and pamphlets that read as if written three quarters of a century ago. If they’re young, they’ll take them, stuff them away somewhere so they can get to texting a few of the other young people they met at that meeting. Anybody who is 18-25 doesn’t really respond to “stories” in books. Show them something on YouTube, a treasure trove of stories, Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook and god knows what other social media, the places where their stories get told, the places where they bond with others, discover answers to their questions.
    Yet AA is going to fill another book with stories. If the bulk of our new people were in their 50’s, what we have so far might just be enough for them. But the social and technological changes that have taken place over the last 50 years are the equivalent of like 100 Industrial Revolutions.
    Young people today define themselves and align themselves with more subsets than we can count. If AA doesn’t find a way to meet the young addict where she or he lives, they won’t find the young addict.
    Two things about that; AA’s enrolment is diminishing except perhaps in places where it wasn’t allowed before; young people with addiction issues get flagged in school where they’ll have some sort of program. If they prove to be seriously afflicted they end up in group homes, rehabs and all manner of program that isn’t AA.
    Those exposed to AA describe it as “old, old fashioned”. They don’t relate and all the God stuff, references to miracles and so on just alienates most of them.
    I frankly don’t think a book is the answer. AA has to know who its audience is, what its audience consumes, get over the addiction/alcoholism distinction. Alcohol is a drug and that means alcoholics are drug addicts. Can’t accept that then most young people who are using alcohol and a bunch of drugs you’ve never even heard of are quickly made to feel defensive in AA. Reciting prayers and pointing to signs that are hand painted platitudes just screams this is somebody’s home remedy for what they already know is a complex disorder driven by genetics, social pressures, neural anomalies, family life and concurrent disorders like bi-polar mood swings, depression, anxiety and a bunch of other things that only a doctor can explain. But much of our using is self medicating.
    AA either jumps, with both feet, into the 21st century or it’s going to disappear, slowly but surely.
    Charles Darwin called it Adaptation of the Species or Natural Selection. Right now AA is not the natural selection of young people. It demonstrates over and over that it in no way functions in the world they live in.
    Sorry this doesn’t have the ending that we’ve all come to expect but, when I honestly examine AA, it’s here where I net out.

  8. Jo-Anne K says:

    Totally agree Chris. I think speaker meetings are very important. I stayed because I heard from the podium that it was ok to be who I was (also an addict) and still get sober in AA.

  9. Jim C says:

    Stories are the connective tissue of (wo)mankind. They connect cultures, generations, individuals. It is in the story of others that we glimpse ourselves and find hope, example, understanding. Most enduring philosophies for finding peace, purpose and happiness teach that the road to the self is through the other. It seems to me that is true for us as well.

  10. life-j says:

    Chris, thanks, this is probably the most important part of our program, the emotional connection we make from the stories people, and we ourselves, tell.

    At my second or third meeting I got to sit next to this really big guy, 6-8, 350 lbs, the sort who could clear the bar by himself, and probably had, telling about being scared of people. He’s the one that saved my life, because I heard what I needed to hear. I was scared of people too. Too scared to talk about it at that point in time of course, but after a bit I did, and healing started.

    Or was he only 6-2 and 250, and I just felt really small at the time? I don’t know. I saw him once a few months later, never talked with him, and it’s long time ago. But I heard what I needed to hear.

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