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Professional service providers who conceptualize their work as consisting of treatment, clients, and service models often understand AA as an alternative treatment model. This understanding, according to Rappaport (1993), is limited for gaining insight into what AA means to those who join. For a different understanding, he proposed reframing the meaning of AA (and other mutual help groups) in terms of a narrative perspective: "In its simplest form, the narrative approach means understanding life to be experienced as a constructed story. The stories that people tell and are told are powerful forms of communication to both others and one's self. Stories order experience, give coherence and meaning to events and provide a sense of history and of the future" (Rappaport, 1993, p. 240). The stories are told in community, and these communities have powerful narratives about change and about themselves and their members. In this sense AA can be seen as a "normative structure in social experience" (Rappaport, 1993, p. 246). It is a "normative structure" because it is more comparable to other voluntary associations of people "living lives," such as religious organizations, professional organizations, political parties, and even families, than it is to a social services agency setting where clients come to receive services from professional helpers. In the narrative framework, people joining AA are not help seekers in search of treatment, but story tellers who through telling and listening transform their lives. Personal stories become narratives that define a "caring and sharing community of givers as well as receivers, with hope, and with a sense of their own capacity for positive change" (Rappaport, 1993, p. 245).
Consistent with postmodern thought, the narrative perspective embraces the idea that personal reality is itself constructed, as in a life story, and therefore has the capacity to be reconstructed throughout a person's life. In other words, as narrative therapists would say, "people make meaning, meaning is not made for us" (Monk, Winslade, Crocket, & Epston, 1997, p. 33). The AA community provides a safe harbor and a rich tradition of stories one can use to reconstruct one's life story from that of a "hopeless alcoholic" to a person with "experience, strength, and hope." Hearing things in the stories of others can offer hope that one's own life can be changed. For example. Smith (1993) cited one woman's experience in her early days in AA: "A man I met told me that if I didn't think I belonged, I should hang around and I'd hear my story. Then a few weeks later, this girl got up and as she spoke, it started to dawn on me. I was so engrossed. . . . Every word she said I could relate to where I had come from. Here was this woman with seven or eight years in the program telling my story (p. 696)!" Smith (1993) elaborated on the process of individual integration into the "social world" of AA by describing how each step in the process of affiliation (attending meetings, sharing "experience, strength, and hope" in meetings, getting a sponsor, working the 12 Steps of recovery, doing service work to help other alcoholics) enhances the person's comfort level in forming new relationships with others. It makes it possible for them to take some risks and experience small successes, enhances self-esteem, and leads to further commitment to the community. Understanding AA in a narrative framework—as a context where people tell stories about their lives within a community—implies a conceptual shift from a rational (service delivery) model to a metaphorical (spiritual) understanding. This shift to the metaphorical is the framework for the following interpretations of the meanings of AA.
Storytelling as Metaphor
This list illustrates the extended meanings that can occur within the context of a particular meeting, depending on the circumstances and histories of the individuals introducing themselves. Central to the meanings of AA phrases and language is a redefinition of the experience of being an alcoholic. A "practicing alcoholic" (one who is currently drinking) may be better understood in AA as practicing a flawed way of life dominated by self-centeredness, superficiality in relationships with others, and spiritual bankruptcy. The personal stories told in AA, "what we used to be like, what happened, and what we are like now" (AA World Services, 1976, p. 58), are vehicles for making sense of the chaos of the typical alcoholic's life by redefining it within this logic. As Marion described the process in Maracle (1989), "The more I went to meetings, the more I heard what other people said, I'd come home and think about it. I'd reflect on my own life, far back, up close, when I started drinking, what happened, how much of my life was related to alcohol, drinking. That's how I began to connect the depression and the drinking. I began to connect information, to put pieces together. I'd really listen at meetings. Hear what people said. And think about it all. And about me. I got real serious about trying to understand." (p. 154}