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Stories: Health and Healing
Collective Resonance and Recovery

An Interview with Jeffrey T. Member, Alcoholics Anonymous

When he learned about the phenomenon called collective resonance, Jeffrey T. thought of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and wanted to contribute his story to the research being conducted. Jeff invited Renee Levi to an A.A. meeting and then agreed to be interviewed by her for the study. The following describes Jeff’s experiences of collective resonance in the recovery process. True to the A.A. pledge, he has chosen to remain anonymous.

RL: Jeffrey, tell me how you experience collective resonance in the Alcoholics Anonymous recovery process.

JT: I think the most profound example is, for me, the experience of walking into an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting as a newcomer. The reason it is so profound is the shift in states away from desperation and hopelessness, from worry, fear and anticipation that you feel when you’ve got a problem in your life you cannot solve on your own. When you begin to experience the very real possibility that you’re in the right place, the experience is not only emotionally profound…and maybe it’s a result of the emotions…it’s physically profound. One of the ongoing benefits of participating in a group like this is physiological.

For many of us in recovery one of our biggest problems is we are unwilling to go through life without anesthesia. We don’t like pain or discomfort. We don’t like stress, worry…you name it, any unpleasant personal emotion. We would rather avoid it any way we can. But most people who end up in recovery find themselves there because they’ve finally discovered that everything else they’ve tried just brings more pain. We like to say that few people come into A.A. meetings “on the wings of victory”. We’re there because there really aren’t any more places for us to turn, the drugs or alcohol have stopped working for us. We’ve run out of places to go, or people to be with that will bring any comfort. So we end up desperate, scared, upset and worried. Some of us might be physically ill, or fresh out of a hospital or rehab, or even still be hospitalized, and out on a day pass.

When I walk into a strange room under these circumstances - and it’s really human nature to be very suspicious - the first thing I want to know is what do these people want from me? Also, what am I supposed to act like in order to fit in? How do I have to pretend in order to be accepted, or at the least, to be ignored—which is what I think I wanted most of all. What never occurred to me, and still often fails me, is that the only thing people really want from me in a meeting is the truth.

And it’s still really true. You can go to certain meetings…actually, we joke about it, we call them the “My-Nanny-Spoke-To-Me-Harshly” meetings…in other words, people who are alcoholics or who might be in Al-Anon and go to these meetings just to bitch about some pretty high-class problems. You know, “On the way to my tennis lesson I had a flat tire” kind of stuff. On the one hand you want to roll your eyes and say, “I wish I had these kinds of problems every day.” But on the other hand, if the participant takes the time to be honest about the fact that it’s really wigging them out, they’re doing two things. One, they’re opening themselves up to the possibility of getting some help. And two, there’s some physical aspect of sharing that takes a lot of the physical stress out of it. The physical stress is alleviated by the sharing. If you’re relieving yourself of physical and emotional stress, you’re a lot less likely to leave a meeting and repeat behavior that’s self-destructive, or that perpetuates some kind of compulsion.

I think in particular for men, but certainly for alcoholics in general, one of the character traits that seems to unite us is kind of the opposite of what the lay person would think. These are not people who are shiftless and lazy and drunk because they really don’t want to hold down a job. A much more prevalent profile of the typical alcoholic would be a Type A personality. Incredibly successful, powerful, smart, high achieving, but also very rigid, controlling, egomaniacal—and yet deep down insecure. I liked what my friend Mark said the other day when I said, “It’s like being around a lot of insecure egomaniacs,” and he asked, “Is there any other kind?”

RL: Where in your body do you feel the stress being alleviated by the sharing?

JT: It’s systemic. For me a lot of it focuses in my legs and arms, and my stomach. A lot of people have shared this kind of thing.

I think that we tend to turn to drugs—alcohol being one of them—possibly because we don’t know any other way to calm down. When you get into these meetings you discover that you do, in fact, calm down. One of the first things people describe as a manifestation of it is that the obsession to drink gradually goes away.

Physiologically it’s going away because over time, as you get a substance out of your body, there’s a natural progression. I’ve also heard people describe very profound spiritual revelations where the obsession to drink left them. And it left them in a hell of a hurry. I’m one of those people.

RL: Because of the connection? Is it the resonance with other people in the room because of a physical and emotional release when you share your truth?

JT: Yes, but it’s not just when I share my truth. I don’t want to get too tangential here but for me the other really personal experience I’ve had about truth is that within my alcoholic background, truth was a rare commodity. In a family of alcoholics, in a lot of alcoholic relationships, truth is hard to find. Sometimes it’s the grandiosity of alcoholic behavior that means you’re making up stuff about yourself because you want to make yourself bigger than you are. Sometimes you’re actually making yourself smaller because you want to hide. Sometimes it’s just absolutely forbidden in the family culture to say what’s on your mind. It’s the go-along, get-along with everybody no matter what, don’t ever call anybody on their stuff. It’s the notion that personal confrontation will quickly accelerate out of control, even to the point of being physically threatening.

RL: Because you don’t have control of yourself because you don’t even know what you’re going to do?

JT: Right. I mean, I happen to believe that most of these—what we, as recovering alcoholics, like to describe as “character defects”—in fact are basic personality traits. They were often adopted as survival mechanisms when we were children. The problem is that we no longer need them to survive as adults, but we can’t let them go, because they’re totally ingrained patterns.

The notion that people can come into a room, in fact they might be utter strangers, and share the closest they can come to their truth, is a remarkable thing. There are people who sculpt and edit and outline their talks, you know, thinking while they’re getting ready to speak. Sometimes I do that, sometimes I don’t. There are people who raise their hand without a clue—or so they claim—of what they’re going to say. My sense of it is that what’s encouraged, what works better, is to try not to impress or deliver with great poetry and emotion, but just try to do the best you can to speak from your heart. Sometimes that’s a very hard thing to do. And if you don’t prepare your thoughts a little, you may miss conveying the message that’s in your heart.

RL: You know, I’m fascinated by what you said before about the shift in states you experienced. You said one of the more profound ones was as a newcomer when you entered the space where the people were and you felt there was a physiological shift. You said there was a kind of a relaxation, a calmness that came over you. Was the shift when you realized they didn’t want anything from you?

JT: Yeah. That’s huge.

RL: What did that feel like?

JT: I just re-created it. Just now, sitting here, I had the experience of it. It’s emotionally very strong. I remember…I couldn’t share for weeks and weeks. I just couldn’t because I knew I would burst into tears if I tried. I remember the blood draining out of my face. I remember all the tension…and I remember…almost that feeling of blood draining out of me. Not the frightening kind, but everything just releasing and letting go and flooding with gravity, downward, just not holding on so tight. I thought, “I don’t actually have to do anything. They’ll let me just sit here and listen if I want to.”

I was very reluctant to share for quite some time. I think I did speak once or twice but not often. I was very nervous about crying. I felt emotionally at tenterhooks. I knew for sure—and this has always been true of me—that the thing that was going to make me cry wasn’t…you know, it wasn’t that there were all these pent up emotions or this sense of relief…it was the truth. That was what was so moving to me.

The idea that people were saying things that I had thought for all those years, but never expressed out loud. I would literally have a thought and think, “Geez, I’ll just keep that one to myself,” and then five minutes later someone would open up his mouth and say it. My mouth would just hang open. I think it’s a guy thing, perhaps, but embarrassment and false pride is a pretty big thing with men and certainly with alcoholic men. The idea of letting my guard down, letting my emotions show in these meetings was really embarrassing. I’d go to great lengths to avoid that particular emotion, it’s not one of my favorites. I just figure that’s something I’m stuck with for my life, but the more I let it go, the more I’m willing to let those emotions sort of wash right over me, the better I do.

During the time I stopped drinking on my own I did a ton of research on the physiology of alcoholism. I believed I could read my way through to recovery, you know? That’s a running joke in A.A.: “Read your way to recovery!” People will burst out laughing at what a futile concept that is, because if you could read your way through to recovery, you wouldn’t need A.A.! There wouldn’t be one!

RL: So the physical sense of it was like a washing down?

JT: Yes, for me it all feels like it’s moving downward with gravity. It’s like tension is just letting go from the head through the shoulders and moving on down. I did some training, physical training for meditation and Buddhist practice, and so I automatically go there. The first thing one learns in those trainings is breath. So, for me, the first thing that happens is an exhale, just the idea of letting my breath just flow naturally. It precedes every thing else.

RL: So, those shifts in states…You talked about release. You talked about truth. You talked about emotion, anything else?

JT: Some rules of body English, rules of non-verbal communication, get changed in meetings like that. I’ve seen it, it’s interesting. For instance, we all know there are prescribed rules about eye contact and physical posture. I used to teach workshops on negotiation and business communication, and so I studied this stuff. It used to annoy me that hippies would talk about ‘vibes’, because at that particular phase of my life I was reacting against what I thought was an oversimplification of non-verbal communication. I got annoyed that people were not articulating some very perceptible physical stuff. You know, the arch of an eyebrow, the twitch of a lip, gesturing. These are as clear a set of communications as someone standing up and saying, ‘I really resent what you just said!’ Hippies were such a non-judgmental group, such an accepting group.

So I had this reactionary phase where I felt that it was important to look at body language. But lately, I’ve been feeling that I went too far that way, that it’s not all physiological clues. There are, in fact, other things going on. Maybe that has something to do with my willingness to accept that I’m not actually in charge of everything.

For example, in meetings, people will make eye contact with you and won’t necessarily look away out of concern.They’ll maintain eye contact with you as long as you want. You can both feel it. You know how if you’re listening to Mahler and you make eye contact with someone, and the two of you are listening to the music together? You don’t have to look away because you’re both listening to the music.

RL: And that’s what’s similar to what’s happening in the meetings? Because you’re both absorbed in listening to people’s stories?

JT: Yes, that preoccupation with self is not entirely absent, but less than in normal life, I’m not all that worried about what I’m conveying to that person. I’m not sitting there terribly upset about what they’re perceiving from the expression on my face because, for a moment, I’m not actually all that ego-driven. I’m just kind of sitting there, taking it all in. And that’s a pretty powerful experience.

I’m a pretty organized person. I’m reasonably comfortable with public speaking. At a particular point in my life I was getting by on four, five hours of sleep a night. I ended up running a lot of stuff. I ran a housing cooperative, I ran a union, I was teaching weekend workshops, sometimes with a dozen students, sometimes hundreds, lecturing in front of people for two solid days, eight hours at a clip. I got really used to being in charge.

Part of the physiological change for me, in these meetings, is that I’m not in charge. I first went to a meeting in 1989 in New York in a church basement in SoHo. It turned out I knew a third of the people in there. I had decided I was going to try Alcoholics Anonymous. I wasn’t sure if I was an alcoholic, but I thought I’d just go look. And I walked in and knew half the nutcases in there. Of course it was New York, so everybody was dressed in black leather and black jeans and black boots and black gloves and black hats…you know, it was Soho. I thought: “I’m not going to stay here, because I know just what’s going to happen: within a short amount of time, I’m going to be up there running this room.” I was going to be the guy taking all the phone calls, trying to work out rewriting the steps they’ve got up there on the wall, whatever they’re called…whatever their constitution is.

RL: Lots of ego.

JT: Yes, and also hard experience of knowing that with my personality, somehow I would find myself there. But absolutely, lots of ego. It’s been amazing, I walk into these rooms now and no one says, ‘What do you think?’ or, ‘How would you like to do this?’ I came home and grabbed those “Twelve Steps” that have become legendary. It turned out to be a pretty astonishing document, the kind that happens in the course of human events when once in awhile a bunch of people get together, and not always fabulous people, but they put their minds together and amazing things result. You know, the Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights. Well, I happen to believe that the Twelve Steps to recovery deserve a place in that lexicon, they’re that heavy, for tens of millions of people, you know?

So they got it right. So I brought the Twelve Steps home from my first meeting, and I decided to re-write them. I didn’t know what they were, I just decided: ‘What’s this “we” did this, “we” did that? First thing I’m gonna do is just change it to the first person singular, so I can relate to it.’ “We came to believe” became “I came to believe.” One of the first things I shared when I got into A.A. was that I had rewritten the Twelve Steps in the first person, and that story brought down the house. People were literally gagging, they were laughing so hard! And I was too.

RL: Wow, that really says a lot.

JT: I know, isn’t it unbelievable? To this day, when I go into HayDay and I see people arguing over check-out lines, who’s been waiting longer, the first thing I want to do is go to the manager. I want to say, “Listen, I’ve been coming here a long time. Why do we have to have these arguments about the registers? All you have to do is just put up a velvet rope and let all of us just wait on one line! There wouldn’t be any more of this. Why have I been standing in line for ten minutes when three people have come and gone since I’ve been here?” So the first thing I want to do is take over managing HayDay. I’m shopping, but instead I want to become a grocery store manager!

RL: (Laughter)

JT: All I’m there for is salmon! But I’ve got to take over the store to do it, you know? And that’s part of the thing. When you let that go, when you realize you’re not in charge - I don’t have to run this, all I have to do is show up - that’s a relaxing experience. If you can relax and let it happen.

RL: Which isn’t so easy…and that’s what they were talking about today. Whether you’re talking about the spiritual piece or whether you’re talking about the control piece, it’s the same thing, it’s about allowing the release to happen….

JT: Right.

RL: It’s not as easy as it sounds.

JT: That’s one reason why they say you’ve got to come to meetings. It starts with physically being there. But you really don’t get better unless you’re doing the other things as well. You get a sponsor—who is sort of a guide to this thing—and you communicate with him or her by telephone. That’s usually a very different, and very profound, experience. You have reading you can do, and, of course, you’re actually doing the work in these twelve steps. You make a list of people that you’ve harmed and make amends to them, unless it would do more harm to make the amends.

RL: But you think the meetings are a profound piece of it?

JT: I think they’re the absolute core of the whole thing. And I know people who say that for them, the core of the program is their higher power, that spirituality is the absolute key.

After one of my first meetings, I went up to a man I’d heard speaking and said “I’m not really sure why, but I have this urge to ask you to be my sponsor.” He burst out laughing, and said “You don’t know why you’re asking?” I didn’t quite get why he thought that was funny, but I said, “No, I’m not sure why.” He said, “I’d be willing to do that, I’d certainly be willing to talk to you about it.”

Later it turned out that he and I are in the same profession, we were familiar with one anothers’ work. We also had other things in common. Like me, he doesn’t really have a profound belief in a conscious entity that is watching over our every move. That fit with my spirituality perfectly. I like choosing to recognize life’s poetic ironies rather than that God cares whether I make a left or a right at the next red light. So his being an atheist—or agnostic at the least—worked out perfectly for him and for me. The higher power that we’ve chosen to identify is the people in the rooms.

I get up in the morning and say “You know what? My best thinking, the best planning I’ve been able to come up with, it got me into A.A. That’s actually the pinnacle of my achievement, that I ended up drunk.” So maybe, just maybe, ‘My Will Be Done’ isn’t going to do it. So I’m willing to say somebody else better manage this for awhile.

What I’ve tried to do is let the wisdom I hear from these people, and what I feel being with these people, act as my spiritual guide. But sometimes I have to act “as if.” I get up in the morning and I say prayers—I’ve shared about this in meetings—even if I’m not quite sure who I’m talking to. I’ll even say “I don’t know if anybody’s listening,” because I think it’s good for me. The first thing it does is get me out of the driver’s seat. But nothing gets me out of the driver’s seat like the meetings.

If you go to A.A. long enough, you hear people who are coming back from a “slip.” In A.A. you keep count of the number of days without a drink, and at 30 days, 60 days, 90 days, they give out a coin. A year, two years, five, ten…. I never realized that people actually keep track of the time since they’ve had a drink! I thought, you know, “Forget about it, why would I ever pay attention to that?” But when you hear people with twenty years, eighteen years, fourteen years who, rarely, but on occasion, will come back in and say “I had a slip,” they all say the exact same thing. Always… I’ve never heard an exception.They stopped going to meetings. They didn’t stop reading, they didn’t stop praying, they didn’t stop whatever, they just simply didn’t go to meetings.

RL: Wow. What is it about the meetings? I mean, you’ve talked a little bit about them but is there anything else? I noticed, for example today, at the end you held hands and you said something together. You said a prayer together. I was curious about that format, about the circle and physically touching one another for the first time in the meeting. I was curious about saying words together because there’s a resonance in voicing the words together. Do you think that has anything to do with it?

JT: Well, there are lots of different meetings, lots of different ways of closing. Some hold hands and some don’t. I like it better when we do. But we always say the prayer of A.A., “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference”.

Everybody says it, one prayer, always as a group, in unison, always as a closing. Following that, people will say, “Keep coming”. Always. And in Al-Anon they’ll often say, “It works if you work it, so work it, you’re worth it.” (chuckle).

RL: I also noticed that people are acknowledged by name. At the beginning of the meeting, everyone is greeted by the group with a hello.

JT: That’s a very profound ritual, right. In fact, if you fail to do that because you forget—that’s a really common newcomer omission, you’ll just start out saying something—everyone in the room will yell, “Who are you?” They don’t want you to forget who you are. You might be Bob, you might be Alice, but you’re still an alcoholic.

It’s about conquering denial, that particular phase. One of the key features of the disease of alcoholism that makes it so tricky is that the non-alcoholic and I have the same opinion about whether or not we’re alcoholics. In other words, part of me strongly, profoundly believes that I’m not an alcoholic. Sitting here right now, there’s a part of my brain that could sweep me away. I can convince myself in short order that I’m not an alcoholic, that it’s safe for me to drink. It’s a real hallmark of the disease.

RL: So saying out loud that you are an alcoholic is about making sure you’re not in denial.

JT: Right. It’s just one small step to chipping away at denial.

RL: …and having the entire group say it, say your name? I’m just wondering again about the resonant piece. There are the different levels. There’s the content of what you’re saying and the reason behind it, which is analytical - a head thing - I think. Just verbalizing things, putting things into language, is what I’d call a head thing because language is symbolic, so whenever I put a feeling into words, it has to go through my head, even to get out as words. However we also communicate energetically, I believe, not only facial expression or gestures, but actually being together in a room where sound waves interact.

That’s what I’m trying to map in this study because it’s a very potent form of communication and we don’t normally recognize it. I’m wondering if there’s anything in the actual ‘hello Jerry’ a whole group of people say that reverberates?

JT: I think it is very profound, particularly for the speaker. I like it.

RL: What does it feel like?

JT: It’s affirming, them saying ‘”Hi, Bill!” is a complete affirmation that it’s okay for me to be there. It’s okay for me to be who I am. It’s okay for me to be what I am. You know, they’re not going to judge me. They accept me. I don’t have to do anything.

Also, at the conclusion of each person’s statement, everyone thanks the speaker. Usually, when people are sharing, there is absolute silence. It’s just completely out of order to be talking, whispering in the background. All attention is focused on the speaker, including silence. If I’m in the middle of speaking and I pause, I won’t get interrupted.

RL: If you want to talk…

JT: Or not talk!

RL: Tell me more about silence.

JT: People will be talking and let’s say they’re emotionally moved by what they’re saying, or just that they’re trying to think through what they want to say or they don’t know what they want to say, they’ll fall silent. And the room will fall silent and stay silent…until such time as they speak.

RL: What does the silence feel like to you?

JT: My first instinct is to panic and fill that silence with something. Then I notice the instinct and I let it wash over me, and then I take the silence as a gift, and then I feel that resonance thing kick in and my whole body just feels: “Aaaahh……”. RL: Would you say that you’re really aware of the resonance in the silence more than you are when you’re listening to other people talking?

JT: No, not really. You know, they have a saying in fiction writing. “Only the heart can touch the heart.” And, for those of us who are storytellers, we’re always searching for the thing that’s really going to grab a reader and hold onto him and shake him.

RL: Do you feel the heart in those moments?

JT: That’s what I’m saying!

RL: You yourself?

JT: Profoundly!

RL: …in the wash, you feel the heart working…

JT: Oh yeah! If somebody’s speaking from the heart…I mean, way down, it’s like an arrow, it goes right through you…it’s really strong stuff. There are people in meetings who have phenomenal delivery, or they’re hysterically funny, or their anecdotes are particularly outlandish or outrageous, and we might be amused or instructed…but not necessarily moved. You know, “it’s the heart that touches the heart.”

RL: Jeffrey, what value or significance have these experiences at A.A. had for your life?

JT: Saved it! Do I need to say much more?

Jeffrey T. has been in recovery for 3 years. He is a successful writer, father, and partner, and acts as a “sponsor” or guide for others in recovery.

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