Believe it or not, the AA Program and the AA Fellowship are not one in the same. The Program refers to the actual stepwork and the traditions – the texts, the literature, and the personal process we take with our sponsors (and sponsees, eventually) as we sit down, read, and do the work. The fellowship, on the other hand, refers to the social component of Alcoholics Anonymous – meetings, coffee with another program member, dinner after meetings, recovery-based websites… any circumstance in which one alcoholic shares his experience, strength, and hope with another. When we are working our programs, we are actively working the steps and applying the traditions. When we are fellowshipping, we are engaged in some sort of social interaction that somehow involves AA.
This distinction is very important to grasp. If we fail to understand the difference between The Program and The Fellowship, we may mistakenly assume that everything said at a meeting is valid – the authoritative word on the subject. However, must of what we hear in meetings (and from our sponsors) are personal accounts, opinions, and suggestions. For example, your sponsor may suggest that you stay away from relationships and romantic involvement for the first year of your recovery. An old-timer may advise that you avoid making any big changes until you’ve completed your steps, or a counselor may suggest that you continue with IOP (an intensive outpatient program) after completing inpatient treatment. These are suggestions – not a part of the program.
The Program VS. The Fellowship
However, the significance and value of one alcoholic helping another is mentioned all throughout the AA literature, and fellowshipping is actually just as important as working through the 12 steps with a sponsor. Why? Because most addicts and alcoholics are painfully self-reliant, and have failed to master the art of forming healthy bonds with other human beings (through no fault of their own). The vast majority of recovering alcoholics, in fact, suffered immense relational trauma early on in life. Relational trauma pertains to a violation of human connection, which results in attachment injuries that prevent the development of healthy, functional relationships later on in life. The term itself encompasses a wide range of personal violations, including childhood abuse, neglect, abandonment, domestic violence, bullying, entrapment, sexual abuse, psychological or emotional abuse, and the sense of rejection and complex grief that may arise from losing a crucial human connection.
Learning to Connect With Others
The consequences of relational traumas are profound, and they are often the result of detrimental generational patterns of dysfunction. Most relational traumas occur very early in childhood – often during infancy. The relational bond between an infant and its primary caregiver greatly impacts the development, structure, and function of the brain of the infant. When attachment is insecure or there is a fair amount of abuse or neglect within the parent-child attachment bond, these patterns of intimate interaction will be absorbed as cellular memory, and the imprint of trauma will be unwittingly re-enacted throughout life. The long-term, psychological repercussions of early relational trauma are extensive, and include difficulties with emotional self-regulation, trouble relating to and forming bonds with others, and engagement in self-destructive behaviors.
In order to thoroughly heal from early relational trauma, an individual must be given the opportunity to form corrective connections – meaningful and healthy bonds with other human beings. Of course, the paradox of healing from relational trauma is that it is what the sufferer fears the most that will ultimately cure and restore. When most of us enter into recovery, the very last thing we want to do is open ourselves up to a complete stranger – let alone a group of strangers, for crying out loud. Yet, in order to cultivate the life skills necessary to fulfilled recovery, we must put ourselves out there… and what better way than the fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous? Going to meetings is a great way to stay engaged in the program, but it also helps us in ways that may not be so outwardly apparent or obvious. For those of us who have suffered relational trauma, for example, fellowshipping may contribute greatly to a deep emotional healing.
The Importance of Corrective Connections
Next time you are considering skipping out on a meeting, consider your motivation and attempt to challenge yourself. Of course, meetings alone will not cure us of past harms – but fellowshipping is an ideal way to set the ball in motion.