I’ve no doubt that Alcoholics Anonymous does a great deal of good in the world– I’ve seen it first-hand. This recovery path has worked for many people, and it is wonderful that these individuals have been able to break free of the miserable life of a drunk. The founder of AA, Bill W., is one of my heroes, and I would never try to discourage anyone from trying out the meetings. I do not personally subscribe to most of the tenets of this group, but I don’t have any interest in AA-bashing just for the sake it. I do think that it is important to talk about the more dangerous aspects of this program though, so that people who are experiencing difficulties with this group do not feel alone.
The Philosophy of Alcoholics Anonymous Supports Addiction
The principles of Alcoholics Anonymous can be used to support addiction as well as recovery. I attended my first AA meeting at 18 years of age, and it came as a bit of a relief to find that I had this disease called alcoholism. It meant that for the next 17 years, I had the perfect excuse for my fuck-ups – of course I’m drinking, I’m an alcoholic. The philosophy of AA supported my behaviour because it was made clear to me that I needed to hit rock bottom before I’d be ready to quit. There were many times when I felt desperate to stop drinking, but I didn’t want to return to the meetings – AA members told me that this was a sign that I wasn’t really ready and that I should keep on drinking until I could fully accept the program. I now look back on this advice as not only bad but possibly even abusive.
The other way that this program supported my behaviour was by making relapse appear so natural. After all, I would always be just a recovering alcoholic, and the best I could hope for was staying sober one day at a time. At one point I managed to stay sober in AA for two years, but I never really felt free during this time – the old timers constantly reminded me that all I had was a daily reprieve that was dependent on my willingness to go to meetings and follow the program. I obediently went to a meeting almost every day for that two year period, but I still ended up back drinking. I didn’t feel too bad about my downfall though because I’d been told that alcoholism is a relapsing disease. It would be too cynical to claim that AA created the rehab revolving door syndrome, but it doesn’t seem to have done much to undermine it.
Alcoholics Anonymous is Oversold
The thing that worries me the most about the Alcoholics Anonymous program is that it is too heavily promoted. The members of this group can be very passionate, and the zeal by which they promote this approach can border on fanaticism. I was repeatedly told over the years that AA was my only hope of recovery, and there are still parts of the world where this is the only show in town. The success rate for this group is far from impressive (mind you, the same could be said for all addiction treatments), so to tout it as some type of miracle cure is disingenuous. It may be the best recovery approach for some people, but it is certainly not the best approach for everyone. It is horrible to feel ready to quit alcohol and to be told that AA is the only viable option, and to know that this option will not work for you. How may chances of recovery have been lost due to this shitty advice?
Alcoholics Anonymous, Circular Reasoning, and Group Think
Alcoholics can engage in a dangerous form of group think. There is this ‘us and them’ mentality, and members are encouraged to think of themselves as this special group with special problems. This feeling of having a unique set of problems can border on the ridiculous – I’ve heard people in Alcoholics Anonymous suffering from the common cold who talk as if they have some type of special alcoholic’s cold.
Those who follow the AA program can feel threatened by any type of criticism, and they sometimes seem more interested in defending AA than in helping alcoholics. I can’t remember ever meeting even one member of that group who was willing to suggest any other option than the meetings. This is all made to seem acceptable by using some fancy circular reasoning – if you are an alcoholic your only real hope is AA, but if you manage to get sober without AA you were never a real alcoholic to begin with.
Alcoholics Anonymous as a Refuge for Dangerous People
One of the nice things about Alcoholic’s Anonymous is that it is open to anyone. The downside of this is that there are plenty of dangerous people hanging around, and it is relatively easy for these individuals to gain positions of power over the vulnerable newcomer. It is expected that old timers are treated with respect but some of these guys are as fucked up as the people they are trying to help. Too many of them act as if they are on some type of power-trip, and there are even some of this guys who use their position to gain sexual favours from newcomers. The only requirement for AA membership is the desire to stop drinking, and the only requirement for winning respect in the meetings is the ability to say the right things.
Alcoholics Anonymous Does Work for Some People
Despite all of the dangers I’ve listed here, I still feel that this approach to recovery will work for at least some people. I’m glad that the meetings are there for those who need them. I think that AA suffers from problems that all large groups sharing a belief system end up having to deal with. Bill W. created the 12 traditions to help members avoid some of the most common pitfalls associated with this type of fellowship, but it is probably not possible to remove all the dangers.