Alcoholics Anonymous

AA how_it_works

Participation in Alcoholics Anonymous often brings a sense of connectivity, safety and support. Membership in this community can provide an opportunity for an addict to acquire a substitute self-object, filling an unmet need from infancy and childhood. AA may serve as an omnipotent transitional object, an integral ingredient in helping make the transition from ingesting self-soothing substances to sudden abstinence bearable.

When AA members speak about their devotion to ‘working the program’, they may be speaking less about AA principles and more about finding a power (AA) strong enough to compete with their drug of choice. Psychology often emphasizes the need for others to help maintain self-esteem, control anxiety, and provide self-soothing functions.

Long-term Alcoholics Anonymous membership combined with significant immersion in the fellowship may partially fulfill the idealization, mirroring, and twinship needs not properly internalized in addicts during childhood. Since it is difficult to fully meet needs that were unmet in childhood, many recovering addicts feel an almost “addictive” relationship with AA.

Perhaps the more one attends, the more the needs of idealization, mirroring and twinship will be fulfilled. Veterans of AA suggest newcomers attend 90 meetings in 90 days, supporting this hypothesis.  AA attempts to fulfill the addict’s mirroring need through admiration and validation. Designated time periods (30 days, 90 days, 180 days, 365 days, etc.) are constructed to acknowledge members have achieved significant abstinence from their drug or addictive behavior of choice.

At these times, members explicitly reflect and voice recognition of the individual’s growth during the recovery process — a coin may be given representing the amount of sober days and the individual may be given new membership responsibilities.  The celebrated member is recognized, validated, and admired by peers. In AA, the addict is given the time to freely share thoughts, feelings and experiences without interruption.

This process promotes, rather than represses, a natural grandiosity often unacknowledged by the individual’s primary caregiver.  It is a relief from the repression of emotions that often occur during active addiction. The mirrored self is seen as the addict begins to recognize like-minded individuals inside the various AA rooms.  Often he is surprised by the lack of judgment from fellow addicts.  This experience may have a transformational impact.

Attendees have located others in the world who have shared experiences and with that comes a unique sense of acceptance and familiarity. These like-minded individuals help lessen the shame associated with previous addictive behaviors. Peers begin to see how voicing their own experiences can help each other. They become sponsors to newcomers, helping guide them through the Alcoholics Anonymous traditions and principles. This continues an everlasting mirroring process, allowing the sponsor to continue having his own thoughts, feelings and experiences, recognized and reflected back to him by the sponsee.

Alcoholics Anonymous attempts to fulfill the idealization need by providing an organization to admire and identify with. It serves as a re-parenting mechanism substituting for the original idealized parental image. In the AA program’s principles and procedures, members recognize organization and productivity. In its focus on simplicity and consistency, members recognize calmness and rationality.

These features were usually not seen in the addict’s relationship with his or her primary caregiver. The hopefully productive sponsor/sponsee relationship makes vivid the often-problematic relationship of the caregiver/child. It is the hope that the sponsor, through example, can provide the addict with what the caregiver could not: the ability to be simultaneously productive and free from destructive anxiety.

The prescriptive nature of Alcoholics Anonymous, including working the steps, attending meetings regularly, getting a sponsor, and abstaining from drugs/alcohol, is reminiscent of a parental figure giving practical and compassionate advice to a child. The focus on a higher power, sponsor, group members and the entire collective could help mirror self-object functions previously attempted by the isolated individual.

The power of the fellowship is recognized as existing beyond any individual room, extending across states and countries. Individuals are given a common language to communicate with a diverse population whose similarities bind them together. The addict feels less isolated in this world, the exact opposite of what she may have felt when in the cycle of active addiction.

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