Alcoholics Anonymous has provided millions of people with a chance at recovery from addiction. There is one aspect of membership for some members that most people, even addiction specialists, are not aware of, namely, the remarkable transformation that many AA members call a spiritual awakening. It’s a remarkable phenomenon for anyone interested in social science on the addictions.
AA has twelve “Steps” that members are encouraged to follow. After completing the first eleven of these Steps, they are ready for the last one, which begins with the phrase “Having had a spiritual awakening…” This is not cited casually. It hearkens back to a seminal moment in the genesis of the fellowship, the experience of AA’s co-founder, William Wilson. In December 1934, Bill W, as he is referred to in AA, was admitted to the Towns Hospital in Manhattan for a fourth episode of drying out. He was despairing of hope at that point, but later wrote of a transformative experience he had while there: “It seemed to me, in my mind’s eye, that I was on a mountain and that a wind not of air but of spirit was blowing.”
This was a “spiritual awakening” for Bill, dramatic in quality, and one that would serve as a model for future AA members seeking redemption from their addiction. Even today, generations later, there remains an expectation of transformation that serves as a turning point in many long-term members’ own recovery.
At the NYU School of Medicine, we had framed a survey to measure the impact of spiritual awakening on AA members’ addictions. We asked participants to rate the degree of craving for alcohol or drugs they had experienced in the previous week. Later in the survey, they were asked to indicate whether or not they had experienced a spiritual awakening. We surveyed attendees at a conference of doctors in AA, most with long-term sobriety, and most participants reported having had a spiritual awakening. The majority who reported affirmatively on this were twice as likely to have experienced no craving at all in the week that they filled out our survey as those who had no such experience. If you think about it, addicted people coming to experience no craving at all is remarkable, since alcohol and drug addiction are characterized by the craving that drives people to relapse.
An awakening can be very dramatic in character, as one doctor described:
I was there in rehab with 50 bucks hidden in my sock. I wanted to get out and get on a subway and come home.
I went outside the building and was having a cigarette, when all of a sudden a sense of peace came over me and I didn’t see it, but I felt the presence of a person, and in my mind that person was Jesus. It was strange. I was sort of embarrassed. I felt his presence, and then a peace for no more than three or four minutes. This seemed to be part of a message. I was set to come in from the cold. And then I listened and let these people help me. I realized that it was not about judging, it was about acceptance.
On the other hand, for most members, a spiritual awakening is neither sudden nor dramatic, and can be an ongoing and continuing process, but no less meaningful than if experienced with great drama. Here is one example of how the more gradual process of spiritual experience was described:
One day I was walking along the beach in Nantucket and it was 5:00 PM, and I realized that I didn’t have the compulsion to run home and have a drink, and it was a great relief. I go to AA every morning at 6:30 AM and see the sunrise, so every morning I have a spiritual experience. That’s my spiritual experience. They’re not big epiphanies but, along the way, little ‘ephiphanets.’
We wanted to see if we could develop a systematic understanding of the experiences that people affixed to their awakenings: For whom did these come about in a sudden manner, and for whom did they emerge more gradually, over time? Was it common for people to have a sensory experience, as in the first example here? Did they take place in the midst of adversity, as in the depths of drinking?
To answer questions like these, we again turned to the doctors’ group of longtime AA members. The majority reported that it had come about gradually rather than suddenly, and took place while they were working the Steps rather than before or afterwards. The majority reported that they had felt craving for alcohol the week before their awakening, whereas only half that number felt that in the week thereafter. Almost half of the respondents had been using alcohol or drugs during the previous week, whereas the use went down to only one in ten in the week thereafter. Since awakenings presumably put people closer to the AA fellowship’s spiritual orientation, we wanted to know how this might be measured. The majority of those who had an awakening reported that they now felt God’s presence in their lives on a daily basis, but only one in eight of those who had not experienced an awakening felt it that often.
Altogether, we documented a diverse group of experiences, ones that did indeed bolster the doctors’ commitment to AA. In many respects, however, it is the uniqueness of such experiences that is most compelling. The awakenings are personal, and illustrate the individuality of respective members. They go a long way in helping to explain how some people get sober in the AA fellowship.
Featured image credit: Sunrise by The US Army. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.