Am I an AA Basher because I found Alcoholics Anonymous unhelpful?
Check out more fresh voices in The Fix’s new blog section.
Ten years ago, I learned that AA’s primary purpose was helping “other alcoholics to achieve sobriety” through working the 12 steps. To disagree was to “bash” AA. I believed AA could help MORE people if it was secular, not spiritual. I even objected to staying anonymous. Were we ashamed? People with other diseases organize 5K runs and put magnetic ribbons on their cars.
Today, my home state of Ohio has over 266,000 people with three or more drunk driving arrests. When I was court ordered to 12-step meetings for the third time, I knew I had to do something different. After all, hadn’t I heard in AA that the definition of insanity was doing the same thing and expecting different results?
I had over a year left of probation when I started a Secular Organization for Sobriety (S.O.S.) meeting. Still, my probation officer professed AA was necessary for my sobriety, and my refusing to go could have resulted in jail time.
I discovered that AA is not a support group that encourages the exchange of ideas. It is a fellowship based on living spiritually and carrying the AA message to others. The women who wanted to help me would ask if I had a higher power – was it God, and did I pray to it? I wanted to be restored to sanity, but as an atheist, I could not make believe I had an imaginary friend.
Discussing spirituality, or religion, made me uncomfortable. As far as I am aware, alcoholism is the only “spiritual” disease. I believe it is beyond the government’s scope of power to prescribe prayer under threat of imprisonment. My opposition to the AA organization does not mean I oppose recovery, but as long as 12-step treatment centers only support AA, other options like S.O.S. or SMART Recovery cannot grow.
It’s not bashing AA to claim AA does not work for me. According to a National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism survey of 43,000 Americans, three quarters of those dependent on alcohol recover, and three quarters of those do so without AA. NIAAA uses the clinical definition of remission from alcohol dependence as a person who is no longer dependent, including asymptomatic, or controlled, drinking. A majority of those in recovery drink without problems according the government’s massive national survey.
So I am in the majority! But in AA one drink is failure and sets you back to Step 1, admitting you are “powerless” over alcohol.
In his 2014 book, Recover! Stop Thinking Like an Addict and Reclaim Your Life with the PERFECT Program (written with Ilse Thompson), Stanton Peele writes: “Most people overcome alcoholism themselves, as they do smoking and every other addiction.” Instead, AA enabled me with applause and reward coins for not drinking. Nobody needs to clap for me because I didn’t drink today.
It’s not bashing AA – it’s truth – to point out that AA doesn’t work for everybody – for most people – and that other methods can be helpful to them. Psychotherapy helped me recognize continuing life and emotional problems I had that the 12 steps never addressed. And I don’t consider myself powerless.
Co-founder of AA, Bill Wilson, wrote in 1958: “Today, the vast majority of us welcome any new light that can be thrown on the alcoholic’s mysterious and baffling malady… We are glad of any kind of education that accurately informs the public and changes its age-old attitude toward the drunk. More and more, we regard all who labor in the total field of alcoholism as our companions on a march from darkness into light.” It’s entirely possible Wilson would have considered SMART Recovery or Moderation Management or Peele’s new book as worthy companions to AA today.
I hope those in AA become more accepting of people who disagree with AA, or who find other ways work for them, instead of calling them bashers. Hopefully, we’ll all benefit by having fewer drunk drivers and “powerless” alcoholics.
Juliet Abram is a writer and artist. She is also a former court mandated attendee of Alcoholics Anonymous. Her activist cause for 12 Step alternatives in Ohio is the AARMED with Facts blog.