Embracing Complexity: The Layers of Trauma in Recovery Narratives (or What We can Learn from Bill and Lois Wilson)

In the world of recovery groups, there’s a mantra often repeated: singleness of purpose. It’s the principle that Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Gamblers Anonymous (GA), and similar groups adhere to, emphasizing their focus on specific addictions or compulsive behaviors. This means that anything that is not related to the addiction shouldn’t really be brought up in meetings.  Many places refer to this as “outside issues.” Those things can be other addictions, relationships, even something as innocent as talking about taking a vacation but without giving the context of addiction. The principle of singleness of purpose is not meant to negate these experiences, but to provide a framework for support and healing within a specific context.  However, beneath this surface simplicity lies a complex tapestry of human experience, one that encompasses far more than just the singular issue these groups address. And to me, telling people to be—or worse, think—one way or another is just disrespectful and not productive; we are not unidimensional, and we are not just our addictions.

Over the years, at conferences and in informal discussions, I’ve found myself delving into this complexity, sparking fascination among participants. The idea that just because you’re told something doesn’t belong somewhere doesn’t mean it’s not there resonates deeply, particularly in the context of recovery. Take, for example, the story of Bill W., one of the co-founders of Alcoholics Anonymous. His journey to sobriety is well-documented, but what’s often overlooked are the layers of trauma woven into his narrative. Bill’s father abandoned the family when he was young, and his mother, grappling with her own challenges, pursued her education, leaving Bill and his sister in the care of their grandparents. This early experience of abandonment and instability undoubtedly shaped Bill’s life and struggles with alcoholism. From personal experience (in A.A.) I can guess what it was like for Bill W. to be unable to share any of that history or the feelings that arose because they perhaps didn’t meet the qualification of singleness of purpose. (Bill W. is not solely responsible for how the program and the meetings are conducted and I have no way of knowing if he was the one who came up with those concepts of singleness of purpose… but even if he did, perhaps it’s occurred to him that insisting on it was proverbially shooting yourself in the foot.)

Furthermore, Bill and his wife, Lois, faced infertility and the heartbreak of failed adoption attempts (their application at the adoption agency was denied) due to Bill’s drinking and the stigma of being an alcoholic. Again, as it was with his childhood trauma, I think these personal tragedies underscore the profound impact of trauma on addiction and recovery.

This is not to say that you will be banned if you bring up something that might not belong—no. There’s an unspoken understanding that while the primary focus is on addiction or compulsive behavior, the people sitting in those rooms do carry with them a multitude of experiences, including trauma, mental health issues, and complex family dynamics. However, I do think that it’s important for the recovery circles to evolve even further—in accepting some of those outside-issues topics—as it’s essential to acknowledge that trauma and recovery narratives are intertwined, and attempts to separate them are both unrealistic and unhelpful.

Instead, we must embrace the complexity of our experience, recognizing that just because something isn’t explicitly addressed in the stated purpose of a group doesn’t mean it’s not present. By creating space for these conversations and acknowledging the interconnectedness of trauma and addiction, we can foster a more inclusive and holistic approach to recovery. To me,  Bill W.’s story serves as a powerful reminder that our experiences, no matter how painful or hidden, have a place in the journey toward healing. And by embracing the full spectrum of human complexity, we can create a more compassionate and understanding community for those seeking recovery.

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