” Maintenance Talk in a Maintenance Community” (Counselor Magazine)

“Maintenance Talk” in a Maintenance Community

Counselor Magazine 2012/Jan-Feb


The concept of “change talk” appeared in the second edition of Miller and Rollnick’s now classic account of motivational interviewing (2002), replacing the cumbersome phrase “eliciting the client’s reasons for change.” Yet, like the first edition (1991), the second explicitly limits its focus to the first three “stages of change” of the trans-theoretical model of change (TMC) (Prochaska, Norcross, & Diclemente, 1994). Both editions ignore “maintenance” as a stage with potential motivational requirements and/or discrepancies of its own. This article documents examples of “maintenance talk,” those reasons people already give to work at maintaining their recovery, not just to change. Most of these examples are found in a worldwide program devoted to lifelong maintenance of sobriety in chronic alcoholics: Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).

The AA Big Book (2001) presents alcoholism as a mental, physical and spiritual disease. AA then describes the first nine of its 12 Steps and prepares the reader/ recovering alcoholic for the last three (page 85): “We are not cured of alcoholism. What we really have is a daily reprieve contingent on the maintenance (my emphasis) of our spiritual condition.” Members occasionally observe that the first 9 of the 12 Steps are for change, but Steps 10, 11, and 12 are “the maintenance steps.” For instance, Step 10 suggests continuing to take “personal inventory,” promptly admitting when “wrong.” This entails daily selfobservation, often using a checklist and/or a sponsor and performing corrective action when mistakes are made.

This is seen as an explicit necessity for maintaining spiritual fitness and abstinence itself.

Step 11 then emphasizes the persistent effort to improve “conscious contact with God as we understand him.” Merely working the first nine steps is apparently not enough to maintain the “fit spiritual condition” required by sobriety. Like all transformational paths, AA emphasizes continued practice and participation, recognizing no graduation.

Finally, Step 12 sets the lifelong intention to practice the principles of all of the steps in every area of living. No time limit. No exclusions. The heart of these principles is “surrender”—practicing nonresistance, not unlike the attitude cultivated by mindfulness and/ or Buddhism. “And we have ceased fighting anything or anyone—even alcohol,” declares the Big Book (p. 84). The second part of Step 12 emphasizes sharing the program with those who still suffer. The slogan “You have to give it away to keep it” declares both the need and the method for maintenance. Work with other alcoholics is described (p. 89) as a tool “that works when other activities fail” (to maintain abstinence in the face of stress, cravings, triggers and/or complacency).

The so-called “maintenance steps” sustain and strengthen the “spiritual awakening” that the first nine steps are designed to activate. But there is another maintenance task spelled out early in the Big Book. It is reflected in the very structure of the program, as well as in many AA sayings. Found on page 24, italicized for emphasis by the creators of the program, they observe: “We are unable, at certain times, to bring into our consciousness with sufficient force the memory of the suffering and humiliation of even a week or a month ago.” How is one to preserve the “force” of painful but necessary memory? That is one of the primary tasks defined by the founders of 12-step recovery.

The answer they came up with? Joining a community in which everyone shares the same challenge. A community where members maintain each other’s memory by repeating their own “drunkalogs” over and over, in a way that makes no more sense to those who do not suffer “the memory problem,” than throwing down a fifth of whiskey a day makes to one whose brain is sated by one drink. A community where members cheerfully announce, “My name is —, I’m an alcoholic.” Only to have the group respond in unison and in joy, “Hi, —!” A group that reinforces daily reading of reminder meditations and/or Big Book passages. And a group that eagerly awaits the best reminder of them all: the shaking and freshly humiliated newcomer.

And what sorts of “maintenance talk” does one hear in this community?

  • One day at a time (as the only way to maintain something that will take the rest of your life, which is too overwhelming to consider).
  • Keep it green (where “it” is the memory of suffering).
  • Those who don’t keep coming back to meetings don’t get to hear what happens to those who do not keep coming back to meetings (not getting the point that the point may never be permanently “gotten”).
  • We have built-in forgetters (where drinking is concerned).
  • It works if you work it (consistently, persistently, perpetually).
  • HALT! (don’t get too hungry, angry, lonely, or tired, if you want to avoid relapse and maintain sobriety).
  • KISS! (keep it simple, stupid! if you want to achieve and maintain sobriety).
  • Stick with the winners (that is, those who are maintaining sobriety, if you want to establish and maintain your own).
  • The first thing to be more important than your sobriety will be the second thing you lose (after you stop maintaining sobriety and lose it).
  • Meeting makers make it (by giving themselves a regular dose of maintenance).
  •  Any day that ends sober is a success (at the primary challenge of maintaining abstinence).
  • And the most basic maintenance principle of them all, voiced in unison at the end of meetings all over the world: Keep coming back!

There are so many ways in which “maintenance talk” weaves into the language and sharing of 12-step recovery that this article no doubt will omit some that are known to readers. Hopefully, it has documented that such talk is built-in to the only program on the planet explicitly devoted to helping alcoholics help each other maintain the memory of why they quit in the first place while simultaneously maintaining “the personality change sufficient to bring about recovery from alcoholism” (p. 567). Not just for a few weeks or a couple years, but for a lifetime.


Miller, W. R., & Rollnick, S. (2002). Motivational interviewing: Preparing people for change. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
Miller, W. R., & Rollnick, S. (1991). Motivational interviewing: Preparing people to change addictive behavior. New York, NY: The Guilford Press
Prochaska, J. O., Norcross, J. C., & Diclemente, C. C. (1994). Changing for good. New York, NY: HarperCollins
Anonymous. (2001). Alcoholics Anonymous: The story of how many thousands of men and women have recovered from alcoholism. New York, NY: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc.