OK. Here’s the Thing about Alcoholics Anonymous…

I recently wrote this post on another message board, but thought that it might be relevant to repost it here on this blog, to explain why this subject is important. It’s easy for AAs to dismiss people who spend time trying to shine a light in there — trying to warn people and offer options — as cranks, disgruntled AAs with resentments, vicious people who don’t care about that one alcoholic who might be saved… I always want to ask these people what, exactly, they think we’re doing. Do they think that the criticism is completely random? Pointless? Without foundation?

I’m never gonna get an answer to that question. But, by way of explaining myself here, I thought I’d copy this post.  Some of my opinions have changed slightly, and names have been changed to protect the innocent. –ftg

The issue that some of us have with AA and 12-step “programs” is not their spiritual component or the fellowship it involves. You will notice that no one denies anyone their spiritual fortification in this fight [against addiction]. No one scrutinizes your church, say, or takes issue with anyone who would use their personal spiritual path as a foundation for their sobriety. It has to do with the 12-step industry – and despite the fact that meetings are free, this is a powerful industry that makes money, and the conventional wisdom is that it is a sound treatment for alcoholism. There are many addictions therapists trained in 12 step. There are rehab facilities that rely on it exclusively. Courts order people into AA. Therapists who have no training in addictions will recommend AA to their clients.

As I said before, it is the standard, but it is not held to any of the standards that other disease treatments are held to. I hope that this distinction is clear. It is not about any one person’s personal experience with AA. Consider, for instance, the many times you have heard from people who have had negative AA experiences (myself included). The typical response from AAs is to say that the negative experience is an exception. In other words, anecdotes, in these negative cases, are brushed off – while positive anecdotes are treated as all the proof one needs that it works.

In fact, because AA is both an industry and a spiritual fellowship, there are many contradictions that members have to get right with. It demands cognitive dissonance. For instance, they will say that you can take what you need and leave the rest; no one is forcing you to do anything — but at the same very same time, will say that “there’s no middle road” as far as taking the First Step is concerned. These contradictions are endless.

Now, the thing is that, in order to perpetuate itself, AA must maintain a certain fundamentalism. In that sense, it operates like a Multi-Level Marketing outfit (which also has “sponsors”). It has to be able to be duplicated on the lowest levels of the company, scripts must be followed — like a franchise. You have to be in it to win it. As they say in MLM, you can’t fail if you work your business. They say that the whole point of the MLM (like Avon, say) is “women helping women” (or alcoholics helping alcoholics, see?). They will tell you that you are free to manage your business as you see fit, because it’s your business; but at the same time, they push the idea that if you actually want to succeed, you will follow the plan.

If it were a free-form spiritual fellowship community, and if the 12 steps (and all the jargon, slogans, traditions, etc) were merely a guideline, this wouldn’t be the successful industry that it is. Similarly, most of the people who join an MLM are going to fail at it — just as they will at recovery with A.A. They haven’t worked the program. The business model is sound. It cannot fail; it can only be failed. If you don’t succeed it’s because you didn’t commit to the clear plan laid out for you. And the bottom line of an MLM is to duplicate itself as many times as it can.

Anyway, there are many things I think we can agree on. I think that we all want to see people succeed in their fight against their addictions; we want to see innovations in addictions treatments; we care about each other here, and wish only success for each other. We respect each others paths and personal spiritual beliefs. We also do not disagree that spiritual fellowship with other alcoholics can be the foundation of one’s recovery, if it jibes with one’s belief system. We agree that A.A. can provide something important to some people. Those of us who question it are not trying to discourage people from going.

What we are trying to do is point out that the fact that, because AA is not considered spiritual fellowship, but is treated as a program, and not just a program, but the program, 1. people’s expectations of AA and themselves are distorted (“It works if you work it.”), 2. as long as it is treated as the program, then courts, lay people, therapists, and families, will continue to insist upon it, and 3. addicts will see it as their last hope for recovery, and statistically speaking, they will fail, as will their hope.

How about if we get real about what AA is? A few people are concerned with that one alcoholic who might have pinned his last shot at sobriety on AA, read this thread [which turned into a debate about the effectiveness of A.A.], and throw in the towel. However, if we are honest about what it is — if A.A. were honest about what it is — there is no reason for this to ever be the result. As long as A.A. is considered the last hope, it is just as likely that this one person, who pinned his last hope on A.A., ends up finding that it just isn’t for him, and loses all hope for recovery.

If we could lift this taboo, shine the light on AA, show what it is and what it isn’t, which would allow addicts, counselors and families to make an informed decision about it and to be realistic about what it can (support) and can’t (treatment, cure) offer them, perhaps both hope and innovations in actual treatment could thrive.

One major contradiction I see here is that people who are invested in A.A., and who insist that it is not treatment, not a program, but rather a spiritual fellowship, get very upset when it is pointed out to them that — they’re right — it is not effective treatment. How can you both deny that AA is treatment and then get upset when studies show this very fact? If you want to say that A.A.“works” then you have to deny that it’s a just a spiritual fellowship. But when it is pointed out that it doesn’t “work,” then the hackles go up, and the response is that it’s not supposed to “work;” it’s just fellowship. And I’m really not understanding why scrutinizing A.A., in light of the conventional wisdom about it, should be threatening at all. The scrutiny does not effect, one way or the other, whether it is meaningful or appropriate for you. But the scrutiny would certainly effect approaches to addiction treatment positively in the recovery industry, which is what we all want, I think.

  • Primrose

    That's one thing I think about; the long term members who have invested a significant amount of their life to this nonsense.  Excuse me if this is completely wrong but I think that native americans (or some?) used to think that they originated from a lily pad (or something) and must have found it hard to assimilate the evidence that their ancestors had walked over the Baring Straits.  Not from a different sort of water plant, but something completely and utterly different.  I wonder if the aggression that some steppers display towards sceptics or faced with evidence is either their inability or their refusal to accept such a reversal of what they have lived with as truth.

    And that their sense of being a Special, Higher Status Spiritual Healer, with years of aa membership, from which they develop their self worth, they are actually, er, not right.

    Won't their be tons of unemployed 12 step therapists when this cult implodes?  I do hope that they are able to accept that they are quite powerless over that happening.  

  • Primrose

    I have had several conversations with an aa oldtimer, who now drinks secretly but very very modestly, with him telling me which people in local groups actually believe this stuff, and those that go along with it and get other (social? supportive?habitual? to please family?) benefits from their attendance.  There were surprisingly (to me) that he believed to be few true true hardcore believers.   But these hardcore believers (a few were quite alarmingly intense) attended several regular meetings and, significantly undertook the '12 stepping.

    They also tended to have very long periods of sobriety in relation to their age; ie they had spent much of their adult like as diligent cult-members.

    One woman came up to me at a meeting and we had a sort of superficial chat, then she whispered that she had no idea what she was doing their and this wasn't her scene at all, but she went to a clinic and she was now supposed to be going to a meeting a week.  She, like everyone else, gave the similar redemption story quite fluently. 

  • Z

    So, there are 2 or 3 key problems:

    – as treatment plan, court mandated, and so on, it isn't effective and also violates the separation of church and state

    – its rhetoric has become a kind of "common sense" (although it's illogical and not necessarily helpful) in the culture and promotes self-blame for what are actually often social ills, not the fault of the individual or their creation

    – yet people do want support groups for addiction related problems, and if you want that to happen in person it's often the only thing available

    hmmmm.

  • The more I read these posts the more I am convinced there is room for another program.

    All the things that were written in this post are so true. I am a long time member. But the shell cracked 18 months ago when we started an awareness raising to deal with some rape that was happening in Los Angeles from AA members to new AA members. I was horrified by the stories we were hearing along with the obligatory equally horrid 13 stepping still going on by oldtimer in their 50's hitting on young him/her in her early 20's sober 43 days!

    The police were called and a rapist was arrested. However what is so scary to us is that if AA World Service does not warn the public then innocent young folks will be preyed upon by these sick fucks. We can't leave just yet. I can't knowing what I know now.

  • Z

    A movement. Recruit psychologists who don't believe in it to this movement. Have it be smarter than 12 stepping. Seriously. Part of why I'm so fascinated by this site isn't really that I need to hear these ideas — after much effort and reading the Orange Papers I'd figured a lot of them out already, so I am more or less over it — but this site is full of comments by really smart people, so it's something I'm basically reading for pleasure. It would seem that with this much horsepower, a real impact could be made. And stopping the 12 step takeover of everything would really improve the country, to boot! 🙂

  • tintop

    It takes a frame of mind/mental condition to 'buy into' the doctrine.  One may call it desparate or vulnerable or other words.  People characterize it in their way.  I think that comes first.   Then, it provides an answer.  An answer that makes the problem go away.   Desparate and vulnerable followed by a need for a certain answer.

    For many, it is not just an answer to stopping the drink.  It is. also, an answer to the question:  How shall I live?

  • Z

    Yes. One more reason why it should be dethroned, because its answer(s) to that question are far from the best!

  • tintop

    That may be one reason for people having some problems when leaving:  they were led astray on that matter.

  • Z

    Definitely. And I can say that when I left Al-Anon, I had to fix the problems I'd caught from it. If I hadn't lived in a way I liked earlier and had that frame of reference available, I am not sure how it would have gone.

  • I remember when I was studying film in college, there was a recognised convention that moviemakers rely on called "Suspension of Disbelief." The official definition of this term is defined in textbooks as "leave your brain at the door." It basically means that the viewers of say, an action blocbuster film, question how it is possible for the action-hero protagonist to jump out of a helicopter, land on an 18 wheeler, break into said truck, and take control of the vehicle. We as audience viewers are not supposed to question it. It happened in the film. The film is for entertainment purposes. It's not possible, but we don’t care. We are there to be entertained, distracted, to escape reality.

    Let me confess, I always, *always* hated films where they use ‘Suspension of Disbelief’. This doesn’t mean I didn’t love Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, Predator, or ET. I have been even happier, lateley as the disney movies have amped up computer animation, which tells kids, this isnt real, it’s entertainment, and heck, we’ll teach you a thing or two you can hopefiully apply to your real, human existance.

    Anyway, in almost every AA meeting, I thought about what I learned in film class, about suspension of disbelief. How ironic, that I was once a greeter (regrettably) taking everone's brains at the door. It seems to me that a lot of businesses, organizations, etc. rely on our ability to leave our brains at the door. And you know , there's a market for it. They know that. Lots of people at the ends of their rope, willing to believe anything, or be distracted by reality.

  • I went to my weekly womens meeting that I still go to. Each week it gets harder and harder to listen to the rhetoric and dogma. Some share honestly. But the readings, make me wanna gag.

    Tonight on Criminal Minds the episodes title was “The Thirteenth Step. ” Wow was it great.
    Talk about payback. Check it out online maybe you can still see it.

    They go into a meeting shooting the Predators /or guy who tells a kid who was molested and raped by his DAD that he needed to work his 9th step.

    Nice change! SOme writer on that show might see things as we do on ST.

  • SoberPJ

    Actually, some writers may have found ST and got some great new material. Writers ARE researchers too and are always lookin for a story. I think the vibrator assault would make a great story line. The opening scene could be a dildo factory in China with millions of them all in a row, then a chinese worker puts one in a box and closes the lid and the scene goes dark, then they could snap to the scene where the cop is being assaulted with it….. then a flashback to previous uses.. yeah, that’s it … AA life from a vibrators point of view… That first year is really tough …

    I wrote that just in case any writers come by and need ideas … 🙂

  • hulahoop

    @PJ –The opening scene could be a dildo factory in China with millions of them all in a row, then a chinese worker puts one in a box and closes the lid and the scene goes dark, then they could snap to the scene where the cop is being assaulted with it….. then a flashback to previous uses.. yeah, that’s it … AA life from a vibrators point of view… That first year is really tough …

    PJ, just wow. Really. Wow!

    @ftg – The thing I really like about this site and the thing that keeps me coming back – is there are people here who still attend meetings. Nobody is telling them not to go. Go if you want. There are people here who drink – Nobody is telling them not to drink. There are Athiests here. There are Christians here. And probably a few in between that. Nobody is preaching a religion or saying, “If you don’t do this or that, this or that will happen to you.” Nobody is telling anyone how to live their lives here.

    Some steppers will come here and say that this is an ANTI AA site. Yeah, I’ll agree it does (at the very least) point out the uh…shortcomings of AA. For me personally, what this site does, is to give people in AA something to hopefully think about. It also gives them alternatives to AA. AA seems to be the only game in town. That isn’t true.

    Also to warn the person who is considering going for the first time to carefully consider what they are getting in to. At least if they do choose to attend what they read here will be in the back in their mind. They were warned. My hope is it will make their minds a little more clearer and to know what to really expect at their first few meetings. I don’t care how many people have been helped. Those are the ones you hear from. Very few people who have been harmed or had lost a loved ever speak up.

    AA is a bait and switch program. As far as I am concerned, go ahead and go to AA if it truly helps you. Well, not really because I can’t believe anyone swallowing the bullshit…but hey, that is just me. Go if it helps you, but please do your research and know what AA is really offering and the dangers acquainted with the rooms. Please realize your sobriety is due to you and not to some God or group or higher power. What AA represents itself to be and what it really is are two different things. As I told someone yesterday, I would rather drink myself to death than to suscribe to the bullshit religious program AA is. My hope is if ONE person is persuaded by this site to at least explore the alternatives and give something else a try…then it’s worth it.

  • Mona Lisa

    Hula: Yes. I agree wholeheartedly with what you wrote, and I’ve said this before. If a person, fully armed with the facts, including the risks, of AA membership finds it beneficial, then that’s cool with me.

    What I don’t like, and will continue to push back against until the day I die (because full change will take longer than I have on this earth) is the recruitment of people into AA without providing them with the facts. And those facts are:

    AA has never been shown to improve on the rate of natural remission.
    AA has never been shown to be superior to other support groups.
    AA does not and cannot provide a safe environment at its meetings.
    AA “recovery” is not superior to “recovery” achieved in other ways.

    The other stuff, such as whether AA is a cult, or a religion, or a bunch of whack-jobs hanging out in church basements, is much less important to me. I have opinions about those issues, but to me the thing that is really important is that AA needs to stop being sold as the only or the best way to quit drinking. I find particularly obnoxious the notion that formerly addicted persons are not viewed as “recovered” unless they are active in AA. I was at a professional continuing education program not long ago about addiction, and the entire group was told that if a fully abstinent person stopped going to AA meetings, that person had relapsed. That is the sort of thing that needs to stop.

    • Eradicated-Self

      Yes but the idea that “addicted persons are not viewed as recovered unless they are active in AA” and many other ideas are directly related to “The other stuff” (Aa is a cult, religion etc). In my view they cannot be seperated.

  • Primrose

    I think AA needs the 95% who don’t get it, and it needs the alcoholic deaths and suicide, because such events are used to prove that the program ‘works’. The fact that AA only allows its own literature in meetings, and firmly squashes any suggestion of an alternative method, is about the only thing about it that makes sense. The massive failure rate helps the myths of the power and mystique of this non-existent disease.

  • (and the need for livelong cult membership, naturally)

  • JD

    “They go into a meeting shooting the Predators /or guy who tells a kid who was molested and raped by his DAD that he needed to work his 9th step.

    Nice change! SOme writer on that show might see things as we do on ST.”

    Awsome MA, and who should they kill after that?

    On most forums violent nutcases who want to kill people aren’t made to feel welcome. But it seems you’ve found a home here since this is as you say, how STer’s see things. I note no one has felt compelled to argue that point with you, so it appears you are speaking for all.

    Keep out of my neighborhood.

  • SoberPJ

    There’s that bossy stuff again.. it’s like clockwork – “keep out of my neighborhood” . The end is punctuated with an order, again. Fascinating.

  • hulahoop

    @JD – Keep out of my neighborhood.
    Gladly. I don’t go to AA meetings with my point of view out of some sort of weird respect I have for protocol. I don’t troll the AA boards either. I come to an appropriate venue to talk about my experience with AA and my feelings about it. You came to a neighborhood I frequent and you want to bitch about how the folks feel here. Trust me Sugar, nobody is going to read your posts and head straight to an AA meeting after reading them. You are truly a vile piece of (bull)shit in my book. You (like Bill) can’t even uphold the principles of your own religion. You set no example. Really. Shouldn’t you be helping other alcoholics today? Why are you spending your time here?

  • hulahoop

    @PJ There’s that bossy stuff again.. it’s like clockwork – “keep out of my neighborhood” . The end is punctuated with an order, again. Fascinating.

    PJ – stop trying to be nice. You know as well as I do this behavior is typical. I truly wish one stepper would come here practicing the humbleness they preach and show me something good about AA. Yes, I liked the fellowship of it, but JD makes me wonder about who I was fellowshipping with. He is all of the big book I am going to see today. Thank God for that.

  • Matt Kogler

    My first two years sober my sponsor put me to work at his 12 step clubhouse in Vegas (He actually was a great guy). But I got to witness first hand the sick predatory behavior of so called “old timers with great program”. New young women were constantly swooped up by these great examples of recovery who respected by most. Now I know women are not stupid little lambs, they know how to use and manipulate us guys, but this behavior was swept under the rug by most of the “quality” AA’ers.
    A lot of the time these girls would come in right off the street and not 1 hour would have passed and they would be leaving the club with one of the “good programers”, in many cases 15-15 years older than them.
    I began protesting allowing these individuals to hang out at the club and referred to them as “predators”, and was informed it wasn’t my place to “take other peoples inventory”. This is common at AA clubs (meeting clubs) everywhere I have been in the past 7 years of being sober. This is not what I consider a healthy social environment for someone trying to kick addiction.
    I have also managed a sober living that was State and County certified, as well as worked at a residential treatment program. You would not believe what a “racket” these places have become, especially ones that take and rely on “court ordered” clients. Shameful.

  • Matt Kogler

    “New young women were constantly swooped up by these great examples of recovery who WERE respected by most. Now I know women are not stupid little lambs, they know how to use and manipulate JUST LIKE us guys,”
    (Had to edit, this is what I meant to type-sorry)

  • Matt Kogler

    Edit : in many cases 15-25 years older than them.

  • Matt, so glad that you found us. Welcome to the planet sanity. If you feel the need to share then post on the ‘Why I left AA’ thread. Otherwise jump into the neverending thread.
    xx How did you find this blog?

  • Clyde Strunk

    I am in alignment with ftg’s ’09 post….It’s an excellent piece of critical evaluation; just fine-tuned common sense covering much territory over the whole schmahoola; the wackiness of 12-step “treatment,” etc., yet sees the necessity for some sort of modality/mechanism whereby those of us who thrash ourselves with all those deadly poisons in their pretty packages may find relief & the opportunity to live reasonably comfortable, productive lives, once the poison ingestion ceases and the remarkable healing/repairing mechanisms kick in, sans the claptrap. At the same time, this site allows the sick pups; i.e. JD and all who wish to have a “Pig Wrestle” with him/her their moments of literary flame..(oops, correction: that’s “fame.”) At any rate, a truly democratic welcome flagpole for all those wishing to rally ’round it; regardless whether to make sense or nonsense. …”Confucious say: ‘Never Wrestle With a Pig…You get all muddy, and the pig Loves it.’ “

  • Clyde Strunk

    @Hulahoop – Observing human behavior over a significant lenth of time has proven to myself that most would rather be spoon-fed tubfulls of horseshit/bullshit by those who enjoy that sort of thing than preparing a nutritious, healthy, plain or fancy meal for ourselves, using our own minds & tastes & talents. P.T. Barnum had a way of expressing that observation.

  • Rick M

    When I first went to AA I bought a couple of books and left a dollar for
    coffee at the meetings I attended. Things must be different now. The
    cost for my sobriety was nothing compared to the benefit I received at
    those meetings. Back then not too many people in the program went to
    treatment centres, we didn’t hold hands and sing the lords’ prayer
    either. If someone tried to hold my hand back then I probably would have
    smacked them. I didn’t like religion or god so my higher power was the
    meetings and the people there with good sobriety. After the cloud lifted
    and my mind calmed down a bit, 5 years or so, I developed my own
    understanding of god or a higher power and then made an honest effort at
    doing the steps. These days I think the people coming into AA try to do
    the steps too fast and they just get confused. After admitting my
    powerlessness over alcohol and turning my will over to a higher power
    the craving for alcohol left fairly quickly. I did what was suggested in
    the big book and “prayed only for knowledge of his will for me and the
    power to carry it out”. During the last 30 or so years I have
    investigated a bunch of different spiritual paths and am satisfied with
    where I’m at spiritually, mentally, and emotionally. I honestly believe that contented sobriety
    is dependent on developing and maintaining a spiritual practice of some
    kind. Also, Bill W. and/or Dr.Bob must have had some kind of legitimate
    spiritual awakening to come up with the AA program. The steps and
    traditions mirror the knowledge found in many spiritual traditions from
    varied locations around the world. If you want an example wiki “karma yoga”. In the end, it was my selfishness and self-centeredness, ignorance of my own nature and where I fit in the world that was responsible for landing me at the doorstep of AA. And I’m grateful it did. Best of luck to you on what ever path you are on. : )