Reflection on AA

Reflection on AA, the good and bad points of Alcoholics Anonymous

People seem to love or hate AA, especially on online recovery forums such as You often see people from either side, trying to take over any discussion about recovery and turn it into an argument about the effectiveness of AA. Some people regard AA as dangerous cult, that will harm anyone that goes near it, while others feel the 12 steps are the answer to everything, and many other groups that use the steps have sprung up. I am somewhere in between. I saw some cult type behaviour and a lot of irrational nonsense, but i also saw people reaching out to eachother and was grateful for a place to go.

AA grew out of the religious Oxford movement and has strong links with the Christian church. Most AA meetings take place in churches and so it easy to see the link. This does put off a lot of people who have no interest in God, but others, who are religious are also offended that the higher power concept is getting people to pray to an AA God. People do end up with some strange higher powers. I mention on the front page of my website, that somebody told me to do the same as him and pray to a lightbulb, which he explained he had been doing for 25 years. I view this type of idea as stupid. I basically ignored the whole concept of God. God’s success rate at fixing amputees is zero so far and I suspect he received many prayers on the subject, over the past few centuries and I suspect that he is no more likely to fix an addict.

I simply went to AA for the fellowship and dumped the spiritual/religious stuff and I know of a lot of other people who do that. I still think that being with a group of people on a regular basis who had the same aim was really useful, and I feel it is the involvement of the group that helps most people, rather than working the 12 steps, which I feel are simply faith based moralising . They often do not realise this. Another factor for me was that things had got really bad by the time I went to AA, and I think that actually physically doing something by going to meetings gave me a focus. I agreed with the powerless concept for the first few months but after making the effort to read about other approaches, I changed my opinion. I still think the flawed logic actually helped in the early days. I did feel powerless when I was in my first few weeks, but I feel empowered these days, to rise above my problems of the past.faringdonIS

Some people do get totally taken over by the AA message and are often quite loud about their views. They are also generally the people who most people dislike, with their cult type droning and endless slogan spouting. I do understand, they can cause problems with vulnerable or young people, when they try to control them as their sponsor, which is a common point raised by people in the “Anti AA ” community. The anti meds issue is often talked about and does exist particularly in the meetings where the Big Book thumpers dominate. Other meetings are different and more about helping and giving support. People are not wrapped up in the dogma so much and are focussing on the idea of one alcoholic talking to another. This can help, and I found it helpful to discuss feelings with others who had experienced similar situations, but is not the same as getting good psychological treatment from a trained professional who can take a step back. The idea that only another alcoholic can help an alcoholic is another false idea that is common in the 12 step world.

I think there has been a tendency for meetings to become more dogma based, as the influence of the 12 step treatment industry makes itself felt. People are taught the steps in expensive rehabs, instead of getting physiological treatment that they need. There is also a tendency to send people to rehab, when other treatment may be a better option.

AA has a certain amount of ritual such as readings and praying which a lot of people tend to feel brings the group together in a spiritual fashion. It also leads it to being called a cult, but you are not really being forced to pray, or forced to stay. You are not forced to do the steps, although most that remain over a period of time, choose to do so. People want to be accepted into the group if they stay, but unfortunately some people try to rely on the faith-based techniques, that are irrational rather than take responsibility for their problems. They actually believe that praying to a group of drunks, or some other substitute God, is actually going to help them, which is crazy, if they do not believe in a traditional form of God. These ideas can lead to depression and are not always a great solution for everyone. It is obviously dreadful when people keep bashing away at the steps when they do not help them, but at the same time people do need to take responsibility for their recovery and change approach if one is not working.

People often get angry that the chapter 5 blames the individual for any failure of abstinence which is reasonable if you do not believe in God. I do think that people also are too ready to blame programs for their inability to stay sober. If you don’t get in touch with people when you are going to drink, then a program won’t work.

Statistics do not really tell the whole story. AA has a huge number of meetings compared to alternatives so even if there is only  5 – 10 % that remain stay sober, you can argue that AA has helped a lot more people, than a method that has a few thousand meetings or less worldwide. People create AA meetings, because it something they find useful and want to do. Other groups do not have this level of support as they have not been around for long and they do not have as much publicity. AA will always put leaflets in hospitals etc, but other groups do not do this. I think Smart are sensible in saying that their approach can often be combined with AA attendance. People who stick with the program for year after year can, often have many years of alcohol free-living, and these people are convinced that AA helps them.

Some in the Anti AA world claim AA has no effect as it only has the same success rate as spontaneous remission. I do believe it does have an effect on some, because, most have failed at stopping on their own before they got to AA. Although I rejected the steps, spending some time listening to the things that had affected other people during the sharing in meetings was helpful, and I felt some relief after hearing that others felt the same way. I think being in a community that was full of people who were trying to live an alcohol free life, was good for a while, until I felt stable enough to move on. I think many in the anti AA world like to bash AA purely, because they did not manage to stop for years and feel stupid about attending a group for a long time which they now feel has little value. They often want to be spoon fed a solution and did not spend any time looking for different methods that might have helped them, and may not have been serious about giving up drinking in the first place and want something to blame for their personal failures. They like to feel that they were the victim of a cult, but they were actually a victim of their own lack of action in taking responsibility for their problems.

I do have sympathy for those who are mentally ill, in the Anti AA world, and who should not have been sent to a 12 step group in the first place. These people have been let down by their treatment providers. Broad based solutions do little for an individual’s psychological problems. Most people decide quite early on if they want to be part of a 12 step group and the statistics suggest that most reject the ideas on offer and move on. If 90% of people walk away after investigating the 12 step solution, in their first year of attendance, I don’t see how you can call it a cult. People object to the praying and rituals, but virtually any group that uses a church hall has some religious component to it. The people calling AA a cult on sites such as the Fix will not be taken seriously by most people, and this actually weakens many of the arguments about moving on from the 12 step model. Many in the Anti AA world come across as crazy, as the 12 steppers, who pray to a lightbulb. They are still obsessed by AA after leaving it and are not able to move on. Sites such as the Orange papers forum have an unhealthy group outlook that is very negative. In fact many recovery forums have a pack mentality, which are just as dysfunctional as cult type AA groups.

I do have an objection to the 12 steps when they are used in the treatment industry. Here people are being charged vast sums of money for treatment that has little medical value and this type of thing, is what cults tend to do. People often do not do a great deal of research and are lied to about the effectiveness of certain treatments. I am glad I avoided the whole treatment center, merry go round and found my own way for a while with the support of self help groups and till I had a clear enough head, to realise I needed to make lifestyle changes, and get some proper advice. This was money well spent compared to the poor quality counselling on offer to many in treatment,  which often consists of little more than an introduction to something like AA, which the counsellor themselves may well like. Many counsellors in the treatment industry are really poorly qualified and can give very bad advice. I found using people who were not addicts and who did not attend support groups helped me the most.

AA certainly has faults and has a “colourful” membership, that includes people it would be best to avoid. However there are some good people there, who genuinely try help and it is a place for people to go, if they are struggling on a particular day, and need a place to sit with people who suffer from similar problems.


Commenting area

  1. After being in daily AA meetings for a year and becoming suicidal, I sought professional help. This is when it really got bad. Multiple mental health agencies referred me again and again to AA, which was exactly what I needed to get away from. I was put on anti psychotic drugs and told that I was non compliant. It was a very expensive learning experience for me. I learned that they cared about AA, but not me.

    • Tom — you are not alone. The vast majority of people with substance use disorders are harmed by the 12 steps. These so-called ‘professionals’ are not immune to the indoctrination.

      • Some like AA other like myself ignore all the crazy stuff and move on. I think the standard of health care in the area is very poor, and many counsellors have very few qualifications and just people who have come from various recovery groups and who who try to push what has worked for them, rather that what would help the person they are trying to treat.
        AA is not simply about the steps which I do find ridiculous, but has a positive side as many are there to help others. I would not class it a healthy environment that I would want to be a member of, but some people like it and that is one of the reasons for it’s growth.
        The steps can certainly hurt some people with the moralisation side and will lower self esteem. Despite that, many low bottom drunks use it as a place to get started in recovery and the 10 percent or so that stay are quite a large number of people compared to those who use alternative solutions.

  2. I do not like the way some people in the treatment industry work but I was certainly never sent to AA by a doctor, in fact the opposite was true for me, they could see it was not helping and we looked at alternative solutions. Good luck in the future.

  3. Hi Mike, I’ve read this article a couple of times to try and understand but I still found it distressing.

    I’m curious, how well do you know the individuals that represent your assumptions about some of the anti AA people you mention? You voiced your opinions about them and have made generalizations about what they want and feel.

    I’ve quoted you below so that you are aware of what I’m precisely referring to.

    “I think many in the anti AA world like to bash AA purely, because they did not manage to stop for years and feel stupid about attending a group for a long time which they now feel has little value.”

    -How do you know they didn’t stop for years in AA? -How do you know the feel stupid? -Why do they feel stupid?

    “They often want to be spoon fed a solution and did not spend any time looking for different methods…..”

    -How do you know that is what they want? -How do you know they didn’t spend time looking for an alternative?

    “…..want something to blame for their personal failures. They like to feel that they were the victim of a cult, but they were actually a victim of their own lack of action in taking responsibility for their problems.”

    -What personal failures? -“Like to feel”? Please explain -How do you know action wasn’t taken about problems and that they didn’t take responsibility?

    Maybe I can help you understand more where they are coming from if I knew how you came to some of these conclusions. I’d like to because you seem to have a beef against “them” that you have referred to before.

  4. Yes a do know some in the anti aa world , some I really respect, but many I regard as stupid.

  5. Wish you could have answered the questions or backed up some of your statements so that you could be understood. You did so in other areas of your essay.

  6. I don’t think there is enough interest in the anti AA movement by most readers of this site, or people who have moved on from AA in general,so I feel that mentioning that there are people who are very anti AA in the context of a piece about AA is sufficient. I have no interest in making personal attacks on people and dragging this site down to level of some others, which are dreadful and where you like to post. Many anti AA posters talk about years in AA without getting sober, so it would appear they did not look for other solutions or take responsibility at this time. Now they like to blame AA for everything that went wrong for them, and wish destroy it, rather than provide people with a support group.

    I do post things that are AA critical at times and found books such as the Sober Truth gave a really well balanced view of the 12 step meeting and treatment world compared to sites such as the Orange Papers, which does not pretend to be balanced, but is probably less effective as a result of being one sided.
    I find some of the things written by Stanton Peele are also well balanced, although I do not always agree with him, as my experiences do differ.

    The anti AA movement has not attracted many people compared to those who have been members of a 12 step group and moved on, and this is probably due to the fact that they tend to devote time to pointless arguing that achieves little, rather than making attractive alternatives for people to attend.
    As far as I know there has not been one AA meeting that has shut down after campaigning by the anti AA people and the mainstream media generally ignores them. I therefore think that highlighting alternatives is the better thing to do, and attempt to keep the site reflecting the majority of people who move on from the 12 step world, rather than reflecting the views of a handful of idiots that think they have been in a mind controlling cult.

  7. I attended AA meetings for 40 years. The first 22 I did not stay sober, and the last 18 I did. I left about eight and a half years ago. I have no feelings good or bad about AA. All I can tell you is that during those last 18 years in AA I did not do anything anyone told me to do. And I went to church a lot. I finally just left because there was no reason to stay. I am a slow learner, but that’s the way it is. I still don’t drink, by choice. What anyone else does their business.

    • Different things motivate different people, and so there is no one answer for beating alcoholism. Glad you got things sorted out! It took me many years before I got things together.

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