The Opposite of Addiction – Connection


By Steve K.

I’ve often heard it said in AA meetings that “the opposite of addiction is connection.” Thinking about my own experience of addiction I wholeheartedly agree. I felt very disconnected and unloved as a teenager and started using alcohol and other drugs to try and connect with others and feel better about myself. In the long run I was just compounding my inner shame and low self-esteem. My behaviour while drinking was often anti-social and would cause others to reject me, instead of the acceptance that I desperately craved. My feelings of isolation and disconnection grew along with an increasingly poor self-concept. By the time I sought out recovery I was riddled with anxiety and depression. Suicidal thinking was a constant companion and my life felt meaningless.

The Principles of Authentic Connection – An Ideal for Recovery

For me, the principles inherent within 12-Step philosophy are about turning away or “practising the opposite” of my self-centred sickness. The principles of honesty, humility, self-acceptance, love and service are the antidotes to my inner shame and its accompanying fear – they connect me in a healthy way to myself and others. My ego’s toxic shame and fear learned to defend itself in various unhelpful ways that disconnect me – addiction, anger, aggression, dishonesty, denial, false pride, inauthenticity and social withdrawal where my primary defense mechanisms.

My recovery process is about letting go of these unhealthy defenses and connecting with my underlying vulnerability. I need to honestly connect with and face my inner shame and fear. Truthful sharing, mutual identification, reaching out for support, and self-acceptance is the way to go I’ve discovered.

The “core-conditions” of empathy, non-judgemental acceptance and authenticity are vital to the sharing and recovery process. If I am going to heal from inner toxic shame and fear I need to find an environment that offers love, support and acceptance. When suffering from shame based feelings and a poor self-concept, which prevent self-love and compassion, I require love, support, and empathy from others in my efforts to love, support and accept myself, according to the Person-Centred theory.

Person-Centered ApproachIn order for 12-Step meetings to help and not hinder the recovery process they need to be environments of love, compassion and acceptance, where vulnerability, authenticity and individuality are welcomed as much as possible and not rejected. The liberal and spiritual principles within the AA traditions provide the basis for this type of setting in which all are welcomed and supported equally and no demands are made…

Our membership ought to include all who suffer from alcoholism. Hence we may refuse none who wish to recover. Nor ought AA membership ever depend on money or conformity. Any two or three alcoholics gathered together for sobriety may call themselves an AA group, provided that, as a group, they have no other affiliation.

Third Tradition, Long Form, 1946

Recovery meetings should be inclusive of all regardless of any particular beliefs or opinions held, backgrounds people come from, race or gender differences. Spiritual principles should be practised towards everyone – ‘love and service is our code.’

Our Twelve Steps, when simmered down to the last, resolve themselves into the words “love” and “service.” 

Dr Bob, July 30, 1950.

The environment necessary for recovery and growth…

The soil and seeds of recovery are a loving and nurturing environment and relationships. This healthy foundation of life creates the roots of security, self-esteem and confidence, gratitude, empathy, unselfishness, self-acceptance and compassion, and the ability to love oneself and others.

The Recovery Tree – “The Trees of Addiction and Recovery”, 12stepphilosophy, posted July 2017.

Barriers to Authenticity and Connection – Group Dogma and Judgmentalism

Unfortunately, the reality of imperfect people is that they often fail to be non-judgmental and accepting of others – myself included! This is particularly true of insecure individuals who tend to project their own feelings of shame and self-rejection upon others. I do think that, in general, 12-Step meetings are accepting and supportive environments and enable individual healing and growth.

However, as with all group activity, group conditioning or dogma exists, which can create so called “conditions of worth.” In other words, if we go against the “groupthink” or “message” we can be made to feel “less than” by others’ judgments and criticism. I’ve personally experienced this type of discrimination and rejection in meetings from certain members with particularly rigid beliefs. Literal and rigid interpretation of AA literature, and ignorance or rejection of the liberal principles embedded within AA history and philosophy, often results in extremism with its need for certainty. This fearful need for certainty cannot tolerate alternative points of view and tends to fight them aggressively. This is because disagreement is seen as a threat to self-esteem, identity and its security.

Literalism and the need for certainty can lead to fundamentalism within certain 12-Step groups, which are unhealthy and cult like in my opinion. In this type of group there is little to no room for authenticity, vulnerability or diversity and going against the group dogma results in isolation – the very opposite of connection and recovery from addiction.

Ongoing rejection is toxic and damaging, as well as very painful, and it’s better to leave such an environment and seek one that’s accepting and allows diversity in accordance with genuine 12-Step inclusive principles. Bill Wilson, co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), suffered with deep insecurity, and consequently, a strong need for approval and acceptance. He realised the importance that the AA fellowship be inclusive and not rejecting of the authentic individual and suggests so in this following quote…

In AA we are supposed to be bound together in the kinship of a universal suffering. Therefore the full liberty to practice any creed or principle or therapy should be a first consideration. Hence let us not pressure anyone with individual or even collective views. Let us instead accord to each other the respect that is due to every human being as he tries to make his way towards the light. Let us always try to be inclusive rather than exclusive. Let us remember that each alcoholic among us is a member of AA, so long as he or she so declares.

Bill Wilson, General Service Conference, 1965

A certain degree of group conditioning is inevitable within any group activity in order to prevent chaos and to provide a certain amount of security and identification. I think that a large degree of the group conditioning that’s present within AA is healthy and encourages sobriety (physically and emotionally), service to others, and the practice of virtue – which is positive in my book – and much needed in my case.

However, some of the group dogma within 12-Step meetings is very questionable and I’ll leave it to the reader to decide what that is for them. I say “questionable” because this depends upon your point of view, although advances in the scientific understanding of addiction make certain statements heard in meetings unlikely at best.

Newcomers are particularly vulnerable to black and white interpretation of 12-Step philosophy and group conditioning, and I think it’s essential that the liberal principles are emphasised with this vulnerability in mind. In saying this, certain black and white thinking and belief in early recovery serves as a defensive mechanism and is often necessary in order to keep sober and safe. Viewpoints and beliefs often evolve over time and with experience, often becoming less rigid in the process, and this should be allowed and encouraged as each individual makes their own way in recovery. Nevertheless, in some cases, beliefs can become even more rigid and entrenched.

As a fellowship promoting recovery from addiction and encouraging genuine connection with self, others, and the world, it’s of vital importance that AA offers inclusivity, acceptance of difference, love and support to all its members in order to enable the authentic recovery and growth of each group member. As individual members of AA, we can play our part by being aware of our own insecurities, prejudices and tendency to criticise and reject others who are different from ourselves; or hold alternative points of view. With this awareness in mind, we can choose to ‘practice the opposite’ of our fear based defensiveness and offer acceptance, love and support to others instead.

The respected AA historian Ernie Kurtz, offers some wise words in relation to the importance of inclusivity, which serve as a reminder that our primary purpose is to support each other rather than focus upon difference…

Whenever, wherever, one alcoholic meets another alcoholic and sees in that person first and foremost not that he or she is male or female, or black or white, or Christian, Buddhist, Jew, or Atheist, or gay or straight, or whatever, but sees… that he or she is alcoholic and that therefore both of them need each other – there will be not only an Alcoholics Anonymous, but there will be the Alcoholics Anonymous that you and I love so much and respect so deeply.

Ernest Kurtz, published in “Not-God, A History of Alcoholics Anonymous”, Page 305, and adapted by Ernie in January, 2013.

Liberal Inclusive Philosophy or Religious Dogma?

The Twelve Step movement has always included its liberals and conservatives and this stems from its historical origins in New York and Akron, Ohio. Bill Wilson, a liberal at heart, tended to be the mediator between these two camps. Members in Akron, led by Dr Bob Smith, tended to be very religious; whereas the New York group, led by Wilson, were less so, and included members who were agnostic and atheist. The result of this diversity is demonstrated in the contradictions within AA’s main texts. The “Big Book” (Alcoholics Anonymous) and “Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions”; as well as other influential fellowship literature, contain both absolutist theistic statements and liberal inclusive statements…

If you think you are an atheist, an agnostic, a skeptic, or have any other form of intellectual pride which keeps you from accepting what is in this book, I feel sorry for you….. we know that we have an answer… it never fails…Your Heavenly Father will never let you down!

Doctor Bob’s Nightmare, p.181, Alcoholics Anonymous, 3rd edition.

First, Alcoholics Anonymous does not demand that you believe anything. All of its Twelve Steps are but suggestions.

Twelve Steps & Twelve Traditions, p.26

God is everything or else He is nothing. God either is, or He isn’t.

Alcoholics Anonymous, p.53, 3rd edition.

To some of us, the idea of substituting “good” for “God” in the Twelve Steps will seem like a watering down of AA’s message. We must remember that AA’s Steps are suggestions only. A belief in them as they stand is not at all a requirement for membership among us. This liberty has made AA available to thousands who never would have tried at all, had we insisted on the Twelve Steps just as written.

Alcoholics Anonymous Comes of Age, Page 81, 1957.

The Twelve “suggested” Steps are strongly influenced by Christian principles, with room for manoeuvre when it comes to belief in a higher power. The Twelve Traditions are strongly influenced by liberal, democratic, and spiritual principles and are a suggested guide to how fellowship meetings best operate. The ‘preamble’, read at the beginning of meetings, is basically a short summary of the AA “traditions”. As each group is autonomous they vary greatly between these influences, with some groups being quite traditional and religious in focus, with a tendency to “cherry-pick” from the absolutist statements in the literature; whereas some groups are more focussed upon the liberal principles underpinning AA philosophy.

As an example of the freedom and diversity that the traditions bestow upon 12 Step groups there are now hundreds of secular AA groups throughout North America, that don’t use the traditional literature at all and are very different when it comes to format. These groups are a vanguard of an evolving AA fellowship; which its liberal and democratic organising principles generously permit.

As an agnostic and humanist member of 12-Step groups my focus is upon the liberal and inclusive principles that are imbedded throughout the AA traditions and literature; as well as principles such as love, service, honesty and humility that are inherent within the 12 Steps.

These principles allow this chosen focus and facilitate my relationship to an imperfect philosophy and fellowship. Due to the democratic structure of the 12-Step movement, the integrated nature of its ideology, and the very human shortcomings of its membership, there are no easy solutions to the many criticisms that an increasing number within society validly submit.

However, once the organising structure and its underlying philosophy are fully understood, it becomes clear that 12-Step groups don’t necessarily have a universal character and often are quite diverse in nature. Therefore, criticising the fellowships as a whole isn’t really that fair and doesn’t fully make sense.

Time and experience within the 12-Step recovery movement, and a thorough understanding of its history and literature, as well as being open to alternative perspectives in relation to addiction and recovery, have enabled me to find my own voice and integrity within the supportive and inclusive meetings that I attend. I am able to go against group dogma when it feels right to do so, be appropriately vulnerable when necessary (meetings are fundamentally very public in there nature – any person with a desire to stay sober can attend – and we are all amateurs!) and authentic in my relationships with others. I appreciate not everyone can, or wants to do this, and it depends upon one’s personality and point of view.

In consideration of the above question… liberal inclusive philosophy or religious dogma? My response is it depends upon individual outlook; it can be either, or, more objectively, it’s probably both. So, I’d like to finish with these liberal maxims – “to each his own” and “to thine own self be true.”  As ideally 12-Step philosophy allows us meaningful connection and genuine authenticity.

The 12 Step Philosophy of AASteve K. has been a member of AA for the past 28 years and lives in Cheshire, which is in the N. West region of England. He would describe himself as an agnostic, although open to humanistic spirituality. His home group is the Macclesfield Saturday morning AA group. He has a background in advice and counselling work, mainly in the areas of mental health and social welfare law. Steve writes for his blog 12stepphilosophy and regularly keeps fit through hill walking, yoga and swimming. He has self-published a book entitled “The 12 Step Philosophy of Alcoholics Anonymous: An Interpretation by Steve K.


13 Responses

  1. life-j says:

    Bob, indeed, it is a problem with those “outside issues”. One of those is that alcoholism is to a large extent governed by socio-economic circumstances – one of the things we strenuously make sure to stay away from because that would involve politics, which in turn would be sure to break us up. And indeed, if AA had come forward and said that Alcoholism was tied to poverty and other social circumstances, and that only a major change in society would change it, Rockefeller would have smelled the rat of revolution, and he would have made sure to squash AA like a bug. And many others would have joined him in the effort. But now, since we are apolitical, even to the point of AA being a (supposedly not) Christian organization, AA gets support from even the most conservative corners. Our secular faction is probably a fly in the ointment, and hopefully it will not cause a problem for our unity.

  2. John M. says:

    Thanks for this, Bobby. The Peabody connection is helpful.

  3. Bobby Beach says:

    The first paragraph of Steve’s excellent article describes a theme that is commonly expressed in AA stories—the shy, disconnected, unloved teen who is ripe for the magical transformation produced by alcohol. Alcoholics Anonymous literature stays away from the causality of alcoholism—an engrossing topic with no “one size fits all” answer.

    Eighty-eight years ago, lay therapist Richard Peabody wrote a fascinating book on the nature and treatment of alcoholism—THE COMMON SENSE OF DRINKING. Bill Wilson was much influenced by this volume that pre-dated the Big Book by eight years. Peabody ventured into the area of causation. Dismissing heredity, but only partly, Peabody saw alcoholics as inheriting the neuroses of parents, and viewed this “dis-ease” as predisposing them to be captivated by the self-medicating effects of alcohol.

    Peabody recognized a common thread in the alcoholics he treated—somewhat detached or taciturn fathers, and cold, controlling, neurotic mothers. Those descriptions fit the parents of AA founders, Bill Wilson and Bob Smith. We have less information about Clarence Snyder, the driving force of Cleveland AA, and the third AA group, but we know his mother gave Clarence a thrashing around his second birthday, that, in the modern world, would land her in jail or a psychiatric hospital. The mothers of Bill and Bob fit Peabody’s template perfectly.

    There is the further environmental effect of being raised by such parents. Peabody wrote: “Our fears are educated into us.”

    The connectedness, confidence, conviviality and spike in self-esteem produced by alcohol in those of us with extra vulnerability becomes hard-wired in our brains. When the side effects of alcoholic drinking make it time to quit, the task is devilishly freaken difficult. Something more is needed beyond the decision and resolve to divorce one’s intoxicating lover. Peabody had some success in rearranging the thinking of his clients, but his therapy included no fellowship—no establishment of connection. AND, it was expensive.

    Connection with others likewise afflicted is at the core of AA’s success, and there are earlier precedents. The previous (mostly 19th century groups were effective, but generally dissolved in squabbling over tackling what AA would call “outside issues,” and through allowing non-alcoholics to take majority positions in the membership of the societies.

    AA may one day dissolve for a different reason—the stubborn refusal to adapt its 1939 ideas.

  4. Steve K says:

    Thanks for your comments John.

  5. Steve K says:

    Thanks for your comments Harry. I find that the very best AA meetings do come close to the ideal of the core-conditions. A particular meeting I attend adheres to inclusive principles and is full of support, open discussion, empathy and honesty. This is possible if all are on board with the liberal principles inherent within the traditions and are practising the virtues of ‘love and service’.

  6. Thomas B. says:

    Thanks, Steve, for a wonderful article about the central dynamic between ardent believers, mostly based in Akron in association with Dr.Bob and more liberal, secular/humanist AA members based in New York City in association with Bill Wilson which has existed since AA’s earliest days. You most adeptly pointed out how both of these somewhat opposite belief systems are demonstrated in the Big Book, AA’s Bible of recovery.

    You mention the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions but don’t mention the Twelve Concepts of Service, also written by Bill and adopted by the General Service Conference in 1962. There is no mention of God at all in the Concepts of Service, which delineates how AA is organized and functions. My experience is that this explains why so many agnostic or atheist members of AA are actively involved in AA General Service work.

  7. Steve K says:

    Thanks for your comnents life-j

  8. Steve K says:

    Your comments are spot on Bob!

  9. bob k says:

    End of the 3rd last paragraph should be “For those who can “buy in” ,. . .”

  10. bob k says:

    This is an essay that rich in content and broad in scope. John M. might agree that many essay-length comments could be written in response. Fear not. I will not do that—probably.

    More and more, addiction is being described in terms of lack of connection, and rehabilitation as a discovery of connectedness. I like that. 12-Step fundamentalists can be guilty of terribly underestimating the value of fellowship in the recovery process, notwithstanding that the sacred book says:

    I know I must get along without liquor, but how can I? Have you a sufficient substitute?

    Yes, there is a substitute and it is vastly more than that. It is a fellowship in Alcoholics Anonymous. There you will find release from care, boredom and worry. Your imagination will be fired. Life will mean something at last. The most satisfactory years of your existence lie ahead. Thus we find the fellowship, and so will you.

    Based on almost three decades as an active AA member, my observation is that a large percentage of alcoholics are very much isolated at the end (if not sooner, or always). For a time, liquor may have facilitated connection, but those joyful times have passed.

    Poor self-esteem is almost inevitable, and many suffer varying degrees of social anxiety, depression, and/or neurosis—some at a diagnosable level; others not. At AA discussion meetings, a common topic is “the importance of meetings.” Ironically, the folks most in need of absorbing that message are the ones most likely to NOT be there. People who could most benefit from fellowship have the hardest time motivating themselves to come to meetings, and thus benefiting from our fellowship. It’s just not a comfortable thing. They NEED connection, but are intimidated by it.

    I don’t disagree that some are driven away by the over-zealous preaching of the enthused, and their “my way or the highway” approach. But, it is also my experience that the socially anxious can create reasons for dodging the most liberal and inclusive of meetings.

    In the defense of fundies, and as the essay acknowledges, there is some advantage to the black-and-white presentation that seeks to circumvent the navel-gazing and philosophizing that does little to deliver procrastinators to a new reality. I also forgive those who sincerely push a connectedness to God. It worked for them, and it IS connection after all—the opposite of addiction. For those who can “but in,” it’s a useful tool.

    Alcoholism is notoriously resistant to treatment—that’s the history. We have to DO something. I part with the fundamentalists who attach great importance to the specifics of what gets done. Doing almost anything is better than solitary contemplation. Active participation in some sort of society of like-minded others is extremely helpful.

    It’s exciting to see the growth of the secular option.

  11. life-j says:

    Steve, thanks, well, thoughtfully, written. You focus on the solution here, rather than the problem here, which I like. What it is that works for all or most of us, rather than what it is that makes it not work for some of us. We had to go through that stage, well, we’re still not past it, since we still do get bombarded with admonitions, but this is a good example that we are beginning to formulate our program in a new way, identify what it is that *really* works.

  12. Harry says:

    I found the person-centred ‘core conditions’ interesting, as applied to AA meetings and creating a ‘safe & accepting’ context for ‘connection’. Sadly AA meetings are filled with human beings and all with clay feet, and their own understanding and interpretations of ‘what they hear’ and ‘what they see’. No god power for this atheist! When I read the ‘liberal maxim’ of ‘To Thine Own Self Be True’ it reminded me of the query it raised with me: if this is the answer then the question for me is ‘who the feck am I?’ That took me outside of AA and into counselling around a year sober. My philosophy is person-centred and I gained my Diploma in PC Counselling circa 6 years sober. AA is a melting pot for all sorts and not the epitome of good mental health (as said to me my early doors by my big bro who’s now 51 years sober). The core text is dated, religious throughout, patriarchal and contradictory. The diamond that AA is for me is in its ‘fellowship’. Can we ever establish meetings where we each receive and contribute to creating a context that has empathy, congruence, and upr (non-judgement)? The dated text and echoed ‘AA way in How It Works’ at meetings will undoubtedly make such utopian ideals an impossibility. I love my Tolerance Tuesday meeting in Glasgow with our usual suspects in attendance; Happy Heathens trying to live sober lives with our clay feet connected to the earth we walk. ?

  13. John M. says:

    There are so many wise formulations and arguments presented in this essay, Steve. An example, is what you write in the following:

    “…as well as principles such as love, service, honesty and humility that are inherent within the 12 Steps. These principles allow this chosen focus and facilitate my relationship to an imperfect philosophy and fellowship. Due to the democratic structure of the 12-Step movement, the integrated nature of its ideology, and the very human shortcomings of its membership, there are no easy solutions to the many criticisms that an increasing number within society validly submit.”

    These principles as filters of inclusiveness and liberality in the midst of diversity, imperfection, trial and error remind me of W. H. Auden’s justification for writing:

    “You shall love your crooked neighbour
    With your crooked heart.”

    (As I Walked Out One Evening)

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