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Conceptualizing AA Chips as Transitional Objects

Updated: Feb 28, 2023

This post is a heavily edited version of a paper I wrote in school. I think these concepts are helpful for many people, so I hope I was able to make it easier to read and understand for people who don't have a lot of background knowledge in psychology and the psychoanalytic school of Object Relations.

The psychoanalyst, Donald Winnicott, is well known for his pioneering theories about Transitional Objects. Transitional objects are usually thought of as the special objects that most children use for a sense of security and comfort. There are many terms used in place of transitional objects, such as a "lovey," "comfort object," or "binky." Often times this is a favorite stuffed animal, blanket, or pillow.

For Winnicott, these transitional objects arise at a specific time during a child's development and serve a particular function. He describes the transitional phenomena as occupying “the intermediate area of experience,” not quite a mental object and not quite being recognized as a fully external object. Another way of saying this is “the intermediate area between the subjective and that which is objectively perceived."

More succinctly, a key part of developing a healthy mind and psyche is recognizing that the infant himself is separate and different from his primary caregivers and surroundings. This sense of separateness initially takes place in a potential, or transitional space. A physical and mental space between the infant and caregivers. It is in this "space" that symbolism, fantasy, and more complex thought can begin to develop. A transitional object then can serve to symbolize and re-affirm this "space." Symbolically, this object has aspects of the nurturing caregivers and can serve a soothing function when the child is feeling distressed.

I propose that just as this transitional space and object are vitally important in early childhood development, the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) coin takes on a similar role for the newly recovered alcoholic or drug addict. The early recovering alcoholic is about to undertake an incredible shift in both the physical and emotional realms. He may be free of alcohol from his system for a short time, yet not having done the emotional work necessary for long-term sobriety (therapy, the 12-steps, etc.), he is still emotionally distraught, high-strung, anxious, physically dependent, and craving the escape of the symptoms that comes from obliteration. However, he is physically sober and beginning this transformation into, hopefully, a healthy and adjusted man. This transformation can be massive and takes place within a "transitional space." Therefore, The AA chip can represent an in-between or transitional space of unadjusted alcoholic to recovered alcoholic.

In many AA meetings, recovering alcoholics receive sobriety chips for 24 hours sober, one month, three months, six months, nine months, and then every year they have of abstinence. Initially the first chip, the 24 hour or desire chip, is very important to many alcoholics. In meetings before they give them, out someone will often say “this chip represents a desire to stop drinking for 24 hours.” In that same vein, it utilizes the symbolic properties of a transitional object. Winnicott writes that the transitional object “is symbolic of some part-object… It’s not being the (mother/primary care-giver), although real, is as important as the fact that it stands for the (mother/primary care-giver).” Therefore the chip is not itself sobriety or the AA group as a whole but for the newly recovering alcoholic it can represent sobriety as well as the AA group. It symbolizes a commitment to a new way of life.

The relationship between the newly recovered alcoholic and the AA group has many similar properties of the mother (or primary care giver) and her child. It can be conceptualized to serve similar holding and containing functions as the mother. It contains the anxieties of the alcoholic by giving him a space to vent and share his emotions and processes. The group can provide feedback and support by giving him resources (people to call), giving him literature, a new network of friends, and a sponsor to help him work the steps. The group provides a constant loving, supportive place similar to the "good mother." The "bad mother" may be present in a part of the alcoholic who is resentful for having to get sober, angry and rageful at his sponsor for telling him what to do, or envious of other members of the group for various reasons.

The AA chip serves as a transitional object for his relationship with his new found sobriety but also his relationship with the group. The chip is not the alcoholic and it is not the group, but was “earned” by the alcoholic and given to him by the group. It serves to hold the space of both and the space in-between the newly recovering alcoholic and the AA group.

Many alcoholics carry these chips around with them at all times, rubbing or griping them when they feel particularly anxious or an urge drink. The early recovering alcoholic can also project magical properties onto the AA chip, thinking that if they do not have the chip with them at all times they will drink. In this way it serves to help ward against the anxieties that come with their newly found sobriety and new found way of life. Similarly to a child first developing object relatedness and a sense of not-me, both are undertaking a development shift of sorts. The transitional object can serve as a “defense against anxiety… or at a time of loneliness or when a depressed mood threatens” (p. 90). The chip functions as a physical reminder of the commitment an individual has made to his sobriety but also of the holding and containing functions of the AA group.

Similarly, with children and their transitional object (a piece of cloth or pillow, for example), as they age and mature their dependence and reliance upon the transitional object lessens just as a recovering alcoholic maintains his sobriety for the importance of the AA chips lessens. Where in the first chip (the 24 hour chip) and the first year chip are both very important to most alcoholics, the later year chips (7, 14, 22, etc.) can lose some of their subjective importance to a recovering alcoholic. The new way of life is no longer a novelty and has become routine. The transitional space between active alcoholic and alcoholic in recovery greatly diminishes as one maintains long term sobriety. Therefore, the importance and necessity of a transitional object to represent that space also lessens.

In summary, the relationship between the AA group and recovering alcoholic can be compared to that of an infant and mother (primary care-giver). Just as the infant utilizes transitional objects (a piece of cloth, pillow) the AA sobriety coins are used as transitional objects. Furthermore, for a newly recovering alcoholic to be successful, they have to develop a new way of relating to themselves and others. Without significant shifts in ones psyche long term recovery is not possible. The AA chip can serve as a reminder and a place holder of these significant shifts while someone is learning this new way of life (without alcohol).



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