March 28, 2013

After 35 years, I Still Don't Know Why AA Works for Me, But Not Others

In my early years of sobriety, I made a big deal of each anniversary. One day sober! One month! Six months! One Year! Five Years! One day at a time, I was building a new, different, and very much better life.

With the passage of  years, I've paid less and less attention to my sobriety anniversaries. But today is a special one. It is 35 years since I walked into an AA meeting in a church basement near Washington's Shoreham Hotel, hoping find a way to stay sober. This anniversary, I've decided, is an especially significant and symbolic marker.

I started drinking alcohol at 15 and continued until March 28, 1978 when I was nearing my 50th birthday --  35 years of drinking (more and more with each passing year). It's impossible to determine the exact date, but I'm celebrating today as the point at which I've logged  in more sober days than boozing days. 

But Why?
In the many AA meetings I've attended and the hundreds of talks I've had with AA buddies, this is one of the most frequent topics: why is AA working for me, but not for others who are as smart, determined, and deserving?

I never heard a satisfactory answer. All too often, an AA member would say something like "it's just the grace of God," which I found a particularly unappealing answer. I was revolted by the idea that a Higher Power had decided to bestow a special favor on me but not others.

Finally, a Good Response
An AA friend recently sent me a terrific essay in the July 2010 issue of Wired magazine entitled: "Secret of AA:After 75 Years, We Don't Know How It Works."

I urge you to read the entire article for an excellent analysis of AA, and of what we know about dealing with addiction and changing behavior in general.

Author Brendan Koerner says that Bill Wilson, AA's founder, "somehow managed to tap into mechanisms that counter the complex psychological and neurological process through which addiction wrecks havoc. While AA's ability to accomplish this remarkable feat is not yet understood, modern research into behavior dynamics and neuroscience is beginning to provide some tantalizing clues."

"AA Doesn't Work for Everybody"
Koerner says that's one thing that is certain:
In fact, it doesn't work for the vast majority of people who try it. And understanding more about who it does help, and why, is likely our best shot at finally developing a system that improves on Wilson's amateur scheme for living without the bottle.
When AA does work, it can be transformative. But what aspects of the program deserve most of the credit?  "Stunningly, even the most highly regarded AA experts have no idea," Koerner says.

But research in other fields -- primarily behavioral change and neurology -- offer some insights into what exactly is happening in those church basements.

The Power of the Group
This research suggests that a big part of AA's effectiveness may have nothing to do with the 12-step program or the act of surrendering to a higher power, Koerner advises. Instead, he says:
It may derive from something more fundamental: The power of the group. Psychologists have long known that one of the best ways to change human behavior is to gather people with similar problems into groups, rather than treat them individually.
After a review of nearly 200 articles on group therapy, Koerner says, a pair of Stanford University researchers pinpointed why the approach works so well:
Members find the group to be a compelling emotional experience; they develop close bonds with the other members and are deeply influenced by their acceptance and feedback.
My Take on This
The power of the group gets my vote as the most effective part of the AA program in keeping me sober. It's why I attended meetings almost every night for my first ten years of sobriety.

And I see this same dynamic playing out again in my Parkinson's support group.

I want to explore this further next week.

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But Koerner's article has a much more intriguing, thought-provoking discussion of AA and today's research on changing behavior. I was particularly interested in his review of recent findings regarding brain chemistry and the role of the prefrontal cortex. The article is well worth reading: full text.

But if you want a good "Cliffs Notes" commentary on the article, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote a good piece on  it: Bill Wilson's Gospel.

1 comment:

nancy said...

celebrating with you.....all good wishes! nancy downer