Academic journal article Health Sociology Review

'Naught but a Story': Narratives of Successful AA Recovery

Academic journal article Health Sociology Review

'Naught but a Story': Narratives of Successful AA Recovery

Article excerpt


Being laymen we have naught but a story to tell

(Bill W., co-founder of AA, 1949).

Narrative psychology starts from the assumption that we are 'story creating animals' (McIntyre 1984) who continually make sense of our actions and reorient ourselves throughout life within narrativelike structures (Bruner 1987). People who face serious adversity, such as alcoholism, develop a means of accounting for their condition and re-appraise themselves when they embark upon major change, such as committing to abstinence, sometimes seeing themselves as being different kinds of people as a result. Harré (1997:177) argues that it is through narratives that are expressed the 'sort of person one is, what one's strengths and weaknesses are and what one's life has been', and moreover, given that the selfconcept is linked to the 'stories we tell about ourselves', the actions one performs as oneself.

Narrative psychology suggests that such appraisals are not merely cognitive readjustments or epiphenomena, but help to 'make up' people, so to speak, implicating subjects in new forms of identity and trajectories. Narrative approaches can consider not only the individual, idiosyncratic story but how stories deploy and incorporate pre-existing discursive resources and traditions. Hence, such approaches are a potentially strong analytic resource, allowing an in-depth understanding of both the idiosyncratic and culturally constructed aspects of a person's story and self-account.

Growing qualitative literature addresses varied aspects of recovery through the use of AA and other Fellowship organisations, including research on AA narratives (Hänninen and Koski-Jännes 1999; Diamond 2000), with an emphasis on shared experience and life stories (Thune 1977; Denzin 1987; Steffen 1997; O'Halloran 2006, 2008), identity change (Rudy and Greil 1988; Cain 1991; Kellogg 1993; Makela et al 1996; Humphreys 2000, 2004), and psychodynamic explorations of how AA addresses characterological problems and self-reconstruction (Khantzian 1989, 1995; Weegmann 2003, 2004, 2009).

Careful research, based on a thorough understanding of AA/Fellowship traditions, culture and literature, can elucidate processes by which given individuals come to define themselves as 'alcoholic', see their previous, problematic drinking and patterns in a new light and embark on a journey of 'recovery', based around apparently simple AA principles and the invitation to share one's story of, quoting Alcoholics Anonymous (popularly, the 'Big Book'), 'what we used to be like, what happened, and what we are like now' (Alcoholics Anonymous 1976:50).

AA distinguishes those who are merely 'dry' (who have stopped drinking, but who have not changed old behaviours and attitudes), from those who are 'sober' (those who have changed their ways and attitudes, thus achieving a degree of inner peace); for recovery to be well grounded, shifts in behaviour, attitude and meaning are required. The stakes are high and as Hänninen and Koski-Jännes (2004:231) suggest, 'narrative reconstruction of one's life is especially urgent in situations where the taken-for-granted frames of life collapse'.

Although there are many descriptions of 'first order' AA stories and story-telling forms (called 'shares') based on direct observation of AA meetings, there are relatively fewer retrospective accounts from 'outside the rooms' of AA, consisting of reflections on the effects and meaning of AA membership; this is particularly true of persons who have a substantial number of years in recovery. The present participants are particularly mature, in this sense, illustrating what can be called 'resolved stories' of recovery; 'resolved' in this context meaning experienced and accomplished, rather than 'finished' of problemfree (Hänninen and Koski-Jännes 2004).

This research is founded on the authors' extensive experience treating AA/NA members in professional psychotherapy, however, these individuals were normally in early- or mediumterm recovery (up to two years abstinence). …

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