AA vs. Hypnosis

By Lucinda Lumiere 03/29/16

As I count to ten, you will go into a deeper and deeper state of relaxation. . . and reroute your neural pathways to form new responses to triggering stimuli.

Is AA Hypnosis?

I sink back into the deep cushions, falling into the soft support of the chair. Tufted upholstery embraces me as I begin to go under. “As I count to ten, you will go into a deeper and deeper state of relaxation,” the soft voice intones. “Until you will be the most relaxed you have ever been.” My head gets heavier, my muscles relax, and a feeling of release suffuses my being. 

I am going into hypnosis. It’s part of my training. And I am very, very relaxed. 

Don’t ask me how these things happen, but they do. As a person with long-term recovery in Alcoholics Anonymous, I have a familiarity with the healing professions. You might say I am a bit of an expert. After years of meetings, therapy and meditation, I have become something of a healing professional. I teach yoga and meditation, and even wrote a book on natural rejuvenation. I’ve often contemplated the nature of reality as perceived by the mind, and tried to understand the nature of the mind itself. 

So it is with some sense of familiarity that I find myself here. I am friendly with the director of the hypnosis center, a widely acknowledged master in the field (I will call her Joan). We met at the local dog park, where she escorted a Havanese, and I, a newly acquired Chihuahua mutt. Both tiny and timid, they forged a friendship, and as it happens, we owners formed a bond as well. I began giving Joan’s tween daughter yoga lessons and in exchange, Joan offered me a training.

I was busy and didn’t really have the time for a new side gig. Yet, I have learned that transformation comes in strange packages, and was curious enough to make the commitment. 

So for the next few months, I will do four weekends of immersion training. The first weekend is Basic Hypnotism, then we move into Neuro Linguistic Programming, Habit Cessation, Pain Management, and Past Life Regression. It’s all pretty out there, but I am up for it!

The first weekend is the introduction, where we learn that any thought continuously repeated is a form of trance. So all those negative thoughts and self-talk I repeat throughout the day? Yes, they are a form of self-hypnosis. We learn that trance is basically just an unconscious state. There are collective trances, too: societal rituals such as the Christmas season, political party affiliation, or the continuous use of social media. Tell me you don’t feel like a robot after a Facebook session!

The conscious mind is only about 4% of the brain, we learn. The other 96%? This is the unconscious, the field of dreams, intuition, fantasy, and creativity. For an addict like me, this is the promised land. Having access to this resourceful place and getting new tools with which to harvest its potential is like being in a candy store. For, as we are told by Joan, programming the unconscious is the fastest route to change. 

We discuss neuroscience and learn techniques for rewiring the brain through pattern interruption. Joan tells us that when we want to stop a habit, we have to throw a neural firewall on old habituated responses and break the autopilot cycle of neural pathways going down the same old roads. The pattern interrupt can take several forms, but must throw a wrench into the works to get the mind’s attention. Then you can offer a new solution and reroute the neural pathways. 

These are topics I’ve explored as a recovering addict: the rerouting of neural pathways to form new responses to triggering stimuli is a crucial aspect of leaving addiction behind. I have done this myself through forming new patterns and healthy habits to combat old triggers: when I was kicking drugs, I began exercising regularly to forge new pathways in my brain and reroute the switch of active addiction. I also used AA literature and slogans, as well as the group wisdom of AA meetings, to circumvent the old rat–in-a-maze programming of active addiction.

After some time sober, I continued to explore mental reprogramming through yoga and meditation. AA had encouraged me to seek spiritual fulfillment wherever I could, and the path of yoga drew me in. 

When I first came to AA, like many, I was sure I had stumbled upon a cult. The constant repetition of slogans and concepts coupled with the primacy of group mentality (not to mention the enshrinement of the charismatic founding fathers) all drove AA’s message home again and again. But after repeated failed attempts to take control of my problem on my own, some of which led to institutionalization and near-death experiences, I conceded defeat. Cult or no, AA provided a safe haven and a support system that genuinely offered me unconditional help—as long as I followed the suggestions to the best of my ability. If I had to be brainwashed, I was willing. And the members told me they’d gladly refund my misery. The literature explicitly encourages those who are not convinced of their alcoholism to go out and try drinking like a gentleman. We have to believe we are powerless in order to get sober. And finally, AA charged nothing and in so doing affirmed its integrity to this suspicious dope fiend. 

Still, I am impressed by Joan and her irreverent approach to her topic. She swears profusely and often encourages us to improvise when we practice hypnosis. “This shit,” she repeats often enough to induce a new trance, “is all made up.” 

What she means isn’t that the hypnotism is a hoax, but that the leading of the subject into different unconscious terrain is a bit of a dance: as a hypnotist, you can have a format, even a script, but ultimately, you need to throw out the script and follow your gut. We fledglings are a bit daunted at first, but get lots of practice hypnotizing each other in between lectures. 

It is really cool to play with this medium. We get to assist one another in confronting obstacles and outdated beliefs.

“What do you want to change today?“ We are trained to ask our subject as we start each practice session. I work on transforming some negative patterns and beliefs around my creativity, and exploring some recurring blocks in relationships. 

And then the habit cessation weekend comes. And it hits me: alcoholics and addicts may try to cure themselves with hypnosis! This could potentially be a very dangerous situation. And so I ask Joan what she does in such situations, when the most recognized form of treatment for addiction is the 12-step model. 

“I don’t believe in AA!” she bleats. “Talk about a negative embedded command! Telling people they have a disease, and that they are probably going to relapse or die?“ She snorts derisively. “Do you know their success rates are abysmal?” 

I am stunned. Alcoholism is defined as a disease by the American Medical Association, after all. The disease definition was primary in my finally getting well and not thinking I was a weak, amoral person.

“I’m in AA,” I say. “I have been sober for 26 years, and it’s worked pretty well for me.“

“Well, you’re the exception,” she scoffs. “I think it’s a very damaging and destructive way to treat people.” 

“What do you do if someone comes to you and asks for help with their addiction?” I ask, genuinely curious.

“Well, for liability purposes, I would never treat someone who is actively addicted. They would have to get off the substance in a detox first,“ she says.

Oh, I get it, I think to myself. Cover your ass, right? 

But what if someone really needs AA and they end up in your office instead? I wonder. This could have disastrous results, potentially keeping someone out of AA for years.  

“I have been in AA for 20 years,” another trainee pipes in. “It’s worked for me, too. But I agree about the negative embedded commands.“

Although this is a loaded topic, we move on to discuss more hypnosis techniques.

I go home that night disturbed, not sure I want to continue the training. For one thing, I need to watch my own recovery. If I encounter a belief system that tells me AA is bullshit, I could potentially lose my own hard-won sobriety. I have to be vigilant with my disease, whether Joan thinks it’s one or not.  

In the morning, I decide to go back to the training. After all, despite the repeated “embedded commands” in AA, I have always been encouraged to exercise free will and discernment. “Take what you like and leave the rest” is one of my favorite AA slogans. 

We have also neglected to discuss the spiritual side of AA. After all, despite behavior modification and embedded commands, the keystone to the program is a spiritual one. We are told that no human power can stop an alcoholic from drinking, and that only a spiritual awakening can really help an active alcoholic get sober. I can’t wait to hear Joan’s take on this one.

Back in training, when Joan asks if we have questions, my hand shoots up. 

“Back to AA,” I say, as Joan’s face twitches a bit. “The cornerstone of sobriety in that program is a spiritual awakening. What do you think of that?”

“Well, I am an atheist,” she offers, ”So that’s one of the things that pissed me off about it.” 

We move on and I decide to let it go—for now. 

After two more weekends, I complete the training. I am moved when I receive my diploma and certification from the National Hypnotists Guild (I am a sucker for ceremony and love a diploma). 

The truth is, I have received help in hypnosis, and have indeed seen a change in myself. I have also witnessed the transformation of my fellow trainees around issues such as procrastination, underearning, and weight loss. And I have been able to let go of a harmful belief I was clinging to that I had picked up from Underearners Anonymous. It was directly due to the hypnotism training that I realized I didn’t have to identify myself as an underearner. Shortly after that, I booked a sizable creative gig. 

At the end of the day, the training helped me to examine my own beliefs and prejudices, and after some lively debate, value what works for me. I realized that beliefs are subject to change, and that neuroplasticity can indeed be applied to many areas. 

Ironically, it has been through the grace of getting sober in AA that I even have the luxury to consider these questions. I am no longer scrabbling for a fix in a punk rock squat, or overdosing on some stranger’s couch. 

The final irony? Towards the end of the last weekend, we discover that Joan was forced to attend AA under duress many years ago. It didn’t work for her, she says, but now I think I understand why she got so mad when I brought it up. Negative embedded commands or not, the firewall of habituated response sure went off for her on that one!

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