A Recovered State of Mind

The best known of mutual help organizations is Alcoholics Anonymous, which was founded by two men in the Midwest United States in the 1930s and has since become a presence in over 180 countries, with around 5 million members. AA members, who refer to themselves as “recovering alcoholics” (as opposed to “ex-alcoholics” or “recovered” alcoholics), meet in groups that they run themselves, and in which they offer each other “experience, strength, and hope” that facilitates recovery.

Humphreys, Keith. Addiction: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions) (p. 83). OUP Oxford. Kindle Edition.

Whilst recently reading Keith Humphrey’s excellent Very Short Introduction to Addiction, I picked up on the above generalisation that AA members refer to themselves as ‘recovering’ alcoholics.

Contrary to what is implied above, there is a small, yet influential, minority of AA members who refer to themselves as “recovered” alcoholics. And they have good reason to do so. ‘Alcoholics Anonymous’ is the title of the book first published in 1939 that contains the 12 Step program for recovery from alcoholism. The Fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous is named after the book. And on the title page of the book it states: ‘The Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism’. The Foreword to the First Edition opens with the following explosive statement:

WE, OF Alcoholics Anonymous, are more than one hundred men and women who have recovered from a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body. To show other alcoholics precisely how we have recovered is the main purpose of this book.

Inc, A.A. World Services. Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th Edition . A.A. World Services, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

I first learned about the ‘Recovering vs Recovered’ debate in my second year of sobriety. I was listening to Mark Houston and Joe Hawk’s seminal 1994 Big Book Experience Workshop and the workshop leaders asked their audience to raise their hands if they thought that an alcoholic could not recover from alcoholism and would always be recovering. Hawk gently admonished the alcoholics who raised their hands, saying: ‘Sad, isn’t it? You don’t even have the modesty of our founders. You’ve got a false modesty that our founders didn’t even have. Keep in mind that no one involved in the writing of the Big Book had more than five years when they claimed to be recovered.’ Later on in the workshop, Hawk remarks sardonically: ‘Have you ever noticed that those who claim to be ‘recovering’ usually aren’t?’ Houston chips in: ‘Get a concordia, the word ‘recovered’ is used fifteen times, the word ‘recovering’ is used four times – and that’s in the last four chapters’.

The point about false modesty is an important one. Many alcoholics are reluctant to claim their birthright of a recovered state because they feel that to do so would be arrogant and grandiose. They are aware that pride does indeed come before a fall – and that complacency can kill. The Big Book states that having entered a recovered state: ‘We are neither cocky nor are we afraid.’ My main problem with the ‘I’ll always be recovering…’ version of events is that it is extremely disempowering. What an uninspiring message for a broken newcome to hear at their first meeting: ‘Welcome to AA where you will never recover from alcoholism. You will always be recovering’.

This assertion likely entered the national consciousness as a result of the profit-driven rehab industry correctly highlighting the nature of addiction as a chronic, relapsing condition. Addiction recovery is a life-long process and the AA Big Book emphasis this – but the focus is on being taken to a recovered state.

There is an interesting comment thread on the Big Book Sponsorship website. With the caveat that the kind of alcoholics who believe that they will always be recovering are unlikely to visit a website such as Big Book Sponsorship. A comment by Bill L says: ‘Recovering is code for having an excuse for living an angry, (or depressed) dishonest, problematic, unprincipled life. If I claim to be recovered, I have no more excuses.’


Spiritual Declaration or Pissing Contest?

A Pissing Contest is a contest or rivalry in which the main concern of the parties involved is the conspicuous demonstration of superiority. Certain members of the 12 Step Fellowships who introduce themselves as recovered alcoholics when sharing at meetings often raise the hackles of other members. This is because often that statement is coming from a place of ego and a desire to be seen as being ‘special and different’. This can come across as unseemly in a Fellowship where the principle aim of the game (the destruction of self) is to cease believing that you are special and different. This is far less common in Narcotics Anonymous meetings, which do not use the AA Basic Text, and so that particular semantic war is not really an issue. It is rather more common in Cocaine Anonymous; a Fellowship I admire for the intensity that its members bring to the recovery process. In CA, the noble desire to build an extremely strong ‘recovered’ container identity often conflicts with reality. CA members in early recovery often refer to themselves as recovered, rant about the 12 Steps – and then promptly relapse. This can, of course, undermine the core message that addicts and alcoholics can be taken to a recovered state.

As far as I’m aware, Bill W and Dr Bob, the men commonly referred to as AA’s cofounders never found it necessary to introduce themselves as being ‘recovered’ alcoholics. In fact, according to an article on the AA Cleveland website, Bill ‘rarely, if ever, introduced himself from the podium specifically as an alcoholic, and there is nothing in A.A. Conference-approved literature indicating how members should introduce themselves at A.A. meetings or whether it is necessary to do so at all’.


My own take on this is simple. My sobriety date is August 8th 2006. At the time of writing, I have not taken a drink of alcohol for over sixteen years. I believe that I have recovered from the seemingly hopeless state of mind and body described in the AA Big Book. How could I not claim to be recovered? I know that I am headed for trouble if I let up on the spiritual program of action. I know that I have not been ‘cured’ of alcoholism. I know that what I really have is a daily reprieve contingent on the maintenance of my spiritual condition.

But I have recovered. I have claimed my birthright.

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