The term “gaslighting” comes from a 1938 play called “Gaslight,” and it’s a story about a wife and a husband who’s set out on making her think she is going insane. One of the tactics he uses is making small changes to their environment—such as moving furniture around—but when the wife points out these changes, he accuses her of being delusional. The wife also confronts the husband about the dimming of the lights around the house, but he also denies that has happened.
In psychology, the term has been adapted to describe someone having their perception of reality distorted by another person (or a group of people) to the point where they are no longer sure of what their reality is. An example of a group of people who undergo gaslighting would be a cult where the targeted members are fed information that makes them doubt their own beliefs, memories, perceptions, morality and so on.
How does this apply to recovery? Unfortunately, there are many instances of gaslighting that happen in the very places that promise to return us to sanity. There has been a lot of debate over the years whether Alcoholics Anonymous qualifies as a cult—it doesn’t—and there have been questionable “branches” of AA that would meet some of the definitions of a cult and whose practices are questionable. A quick Google search will let you uncover some of those controversies. I am not here to stir up any trouble. However, I do want to touch on the topic of gaslighting because I believe it does happen when recovery groups or group members go beyond their call of duty, sharing their experiences, and try to actually mould new members into something. One of the sayings I used to hear in AA rooms was that AA teachings were “brainwashing,” but it was good because people’s “brains needed washing.”
It’s a cute saying, yet it sends chills down my spine. It makes me think of forced confinement, lobotomies, and other kinds of abuse perpetrated on alcoholics over the years. People who have recovered from their substance use disorder have no special power that should allow them to manipulate those around them in the name of recovery. Yes, certain beliefs and experiences should be shared as they are helpful—for example telling a newcomer how to replace his evening bar visits by attending a meeting is not the worst idea or sharing meditation practices with those who struggle with stress is a great way to help. Talking about their own histories and their journeys of recovery is also useful—telling people things should be done a certain way or else they will drink is not – it is dangerous. So many times, I’ve heard stories of newcomers being told that if they don’t do this or that they will get drunk.
Many of us are programmed to rebel—it’s a survival instinct—and that kind of gaslighting can have the opposite effects of those intended. “You say I’ll get drunk if I don’t attend the special Sunday morning meeting? Well might as well get drunk now, what’s the point of trying?” Fear, ridicule, and/or pontificating do nothing for recovery. They only arrest it. They distort it and harm the newcomer from getting the clear picture.
In my experience attending regular meetings, putting my recovery before anything else and getting involved in service was what helped me to get sober. I can share that information with a newcomer, but I could never say that he or she will relapse if she or he skips a business meeting or doesn’t show up at a roundup. I can’t even be sure that a newly sober person will relapse if they stop going to meetings all together! Maybe they can find recovery elsewhere! Who am I to say that dismissing AA is going to ensure their demise? I believe that recovery support groups should stick to experience, strength, and hope instead of advice and alternative explanations of their reality. That, in my opinion, includes the belief in god as Higher Power—I am here to tell you that there are lots of us who have recovered without that as a requirement for our success.
About the Author
David B. Bohl, author of the memoir Parallel Universes: The Story of Rebirth, is an independent addiction consultant who fully understands the challenges faced by so many who seek to escape from, or drown their pain through, external means. His story offers hope to those struggling with the reality of everyday life in today’s increasingly stressful world.
Through his private practice substance use disorder consulting business, Beacon Confidential LLC, David provides independent professional consultation, strategic planning, motivation and engagement, care coordination, recovery management and monitoring, and advocacy services to individuals, families, and organizations struggling with substance use issues and disorders.