Recognizing an existential vacuum, the drug abuser experiences unhappiness and, as a maladaptive response, turns to drugs or alcohol for relief of emotional pain. In the tradition of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), it is through the recounting of life stories that the addict learns how to interpret their past in a way that gives meaning to the past and hope for the future. From a phenomenological perspective, the past is relived, interpreted and created in the present experience of an AA meeting, and becomes a model for creation of the future. The telling of stories provides a different structure and logic that helps the individual understand and accept his or her being as an alcoholic.
The regular introduction of oneself as an alcoholic at meetings is another important element of the AA program. This proclamation reminds the member that they are just one drink away from losing the newly recovered self they have become, and that they are powerlessness over alcohol. Powerlessness, as referred to in the First Step, brings the focus of the program on the alcoholic as one who is essentially limited.
Essential limitation and finitude are core concepts of existential philosophy. Finitude concerns limitations such as what one cannot do or be. The AA member who states he is alcoholic embraces the existential insight of essential limitation. Having confronted the choice of abstinence or insanity, the alcoholic becomes aware of the reality of the fact that some limitation has become absolutely inevitable.
The acceptance of limitation is key to the healing dynamic of AA. These concepts are pervasive throughout the program and fellowship as exemplified by the mottoes, "First Things First", "One Day at a Time", and Progress Rather than Perfection". The acceptance of limited control is well summed up by the Serenity Prayer; the "can" and "cannot" of the prayer eloquently integrate the existential concepts of limited control and limited dependence. Thus, the AA member gains his freedom to not-drink as opposed to surrendering freedom to drink.
The acceptance of limitation is most stark when an individual faces an existential predicament or limiting situation. Alcoholics face this decision when pushed to their personal limit situation referred to in AA as "hitting bottom". They must either continue on their present path leading to death, or change their life by surrendering to the First Step. If the alcoholic is able to do this and integrate this experience, a more meaningful, authentic life ensues.
The feelings of alienation and loneliness of active addiction arise not from the sense of limitation, but from the refusal to accept essential limitation when faced with a personal "bottom". Rather than trying to control the limitation, the alcoholic is urged to gain perspective, which involves facing fear and pain. Frankl maintained that people grow through pain and suffering. A fresh human perspective is gained, not by conquering and controlling, but by acceptance and surrender.
In addition to the AA core elements of telling one's story, admitting powerlessness, and acceptance of hitting bottom, sharing and the pursuit of happiness foster personal growth. During Frankl's horrific wartime experiences in a Nazi concentration camp, he realized that the survivors were those prisoners who put their suffering within some meaningful context through faith, belief or hope. In a similar fashion, AA members, as prisoners to alcohol, share what Kurtz described as their "kinship of common suffering". The sharing of common suffering within AA teaches the alcoholic that to be fully human is to need others. The alcoholic learns to be more self-aware and more honest with self and others. Once these existential issues are faced, the alcoholic in recovery can experience a sense of purpose or meaning in life, and shift the focus of their attention to the action stage of change involving behavior modifications. Thus begins a new life of recovery, rich with purpose within the fellowship of AA.
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John Derry, B.Sc.Phm., M.A.
Founder and Director,
A Home Away Retreat Inc.