Despite increasing distrust of Alcoholics Anonymous, it evidently does work, albeit in varying degrees, for some people suffering from Alcohol Use Disorder. Although its critics claim AA isn’t evidence-based, is out-of-date or, in extreme cases, a cult, Alcoholics Anonymous has undoubtedly helped untold numbers achieve abstinence. Equally, it has failed just as many.
Whilst AA’s Third Tradition states the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking, refuse to admit you’re powerless over alcohol, and you’re liable to be accused of being in denial. Share your disbelief in a higher power, and you’re likely to be labelled closed-minded, dishonest and unwilling. Express any concerns, discontent or doubts about AA and someone is sure to quip ‘It works if you work it.’
This seemingly innocuous AA adage conceals a myth commonly held among some members: AA works for everybody, under all conditions, always! They dogmatically insist that AA is the only path to happy destiny, and that the sole hindrance to achieving it is self-will. Yet this simply isn’t true: lots of people achieve contented abstinence by other means; and plenty leave AA and remain sober. I am one such person.
Following a brief relapse after eight years of continued abstinence in Alcoholics Anonymous, I left. Over the years, I had become increasingly disillusioned with AA’s core principles: the 1930’s medical hypothesis; powerlessness; faith in a higher power; and life-long attendance. Until my relapse, however, I had been too afraid to leave. AA members had repeatedly assured me that doing so would eventuate in jails, institutions and/or death; fortunately, none of which happened. Instead, I accepted AA was part of the problem, and committed to finding a solution. I soon found it in SMART Recovery, and the book When AA Doesn’t Work for You; Rational Steps to Quitting Alcohol by Albert Ellis and Emmett Velten. That was almost three years ago; I have remained abstinent ever since.
Even AA’s revered Basic Text, the Big Book (by some thought to be all but divine), doesn’t claim a 100% success rate. In the forward to the second edition we read, “Of alcoholics who came to AA and really tried, 50% got sober at once, and remained that way; 25% sobered up after some relapses, and among the remainder, those who stayed on with AA showed improvement.” Fourth Edition, p-xx.
I’ve heard these so-called statistics misrepresented time and again by AA fundamentalists. Claiming the fellowship has lost its way, they speak of an imaginary yesteryear in which AA had an overall recovery rate of seventy five percent; a rate that is now, they purport, as little as one in ten. These AA Nazis are often the first to tout, ‘It works if you work it,’ implying that it’s your fault if it’s not working. Yet, even among this subgroup, there are different interpretations as to what ‘It works if you work it’ actually means.
So just what does it mean? Having experienced AA on three continents, and talked at length with members the world over, there seems to be no uniform way in which the Steps are interpreted or worked. More often than not, interpretations and methodology are simply passed from sponsor to sponsee with little or no discussion. Even staunch Big Book adherents, it would seem, fail to interpret and the work the steps in a consistent manner.
There’s also the question of members who achieve abstinence, only to replace alcohol with another addictive behaviour (known as swapping the witch for the bitch). Under the guise of an outside issue (Tradition Ten), these new compulsions are frequently swept under the AA welcome mat. Yet these new addictive behaviours can be just as crippling as alcohol. AA is rife with people decades ‘sober’ who chain-smoke, over-eat, over-indulge in porn, sex and romance, and guzzle gallons of caffeine, all to their own detriment; yet, year after year, they proudly claim their sobriety chip. There are those too who, having achieved abstinence by ‘working it’, attend other 12 Step fellowships to address the new addictive behaviour(s) they have acquired in ‘sobriety.’
Additionally, there’s the steady increase of atheist, agnostic and freethinker meetings. Disenchanted with traditional AA, such groups generally take an open-minded, science-based and secular approach to recovery. Often held in contempt by fundamentalists and regular members, these AA dissidents have clearly shown that neither god nor strict adherence to the Big Book are necessary to achieve contented abstinence.
So, what can be gleaned from all of this? Well, whilst Alcoholics Anonymous may indeed work for some of the people some of the time, it clearly doesn’t work for all of the people all of the time. Fortunately, for those of us who choose not to attend AA, there are numerous other frameworks of recovery available. In addition to SMART Recovery, there’s Life Ring, Secular Organizations for Sobriety (S.O.S.), the Sinclair Method, CBT, Rational Emotive Behavioural Therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy, and Motivational Enhancement Therapy, to name a few.
Naturally, all of these methods only work if one works them, but none would claim that it works for everybody, under all conditions, always. Secular and humanistic in approach, such frameworks actually empower its participants to actively find a model that is right for them. If only AA would take a leaf out of their book.