What I found helpful in AA / Alcoholics Anonymous
My time in AA or Alcoholics Anonymous.
I have been fairly critical of the 12 step “Alcoholics Anonymous or AA” approach in places on this site, to explain why I moved on from it, but have also given AA credit for being useful in getting me to commit to living an alcohol free life. I had many attempts at stopping drinking on my own, especially between the ages of 30 and 40, but could only manage a few months at a time and would then go back to my old ways. These were horrible times as I really did not want to drink, but I was not emotionally capable of dealing with life without alcohol and I did not understand that I was caught in a vicious circle where the drinking was driving my depression and not helping me avoid it. During this time I had no idea that panic attacks were caused by drinking, and I did not really understand what was happening to me. I thought I was the only person that felt like I did, but was actually very relieved to find that I was not unique and that it was possible to change my life. I think that hearing people share about their problems in AA meetings really helped me. I no longer felt alone, and I had a bunch of people I could identify with. When I heard others talk about their issues openly in front of a group it made it all right for me to look at myself. I don’t feel that AA gave me a complete solution to my problems, as I am not religious and there was no way I was going to fully embrace the steps, in the way that some do in meetings, but I feel that it was an important part of my recovery in those early days, although I reached a point where I felt having too much reliance on a group was holding me back.
Motivation to beat Alcoholism – why AA helped.
I strongly feel that it is up to the individual, to find a path that motivates them to recover, if that is truly their aim. This is harder than it sounds and takes a lot of work, along with some trial and error and probably involves some mistakes. There is no formula out there, that will save everyone. People often feel that simply going to a group such as AA, is going to solve all their issues thanks to the intervention of a “Higher Power”, or that “CBT” will help them even if they do no work. Many of these people are not particularly committed to recovery and so no method will really help them. Certainly a system such as the “Sinclair Method” which is modern and helps people cut down their drinking, has amazing potential, but I feel that some people will need the support of a group after cutting down in this way, if they are going to be able to cope with life without alcohol or drugs blocking out things they would rather not face. I think this is what used to cause me to drink again when I was attempting everything on my own. In fact it was the physical side and warnings from doctors that had initially motivated me to stop. The mental side had been horrible but that was not enough on its own to make me stop drinking.
I think that it is often using a combination of support methods as well as some guidance from the medical profession when required, that brings the best results. I personally found it best to make recovery my primary focus for a while (which is what AA suggests) until I had found some stability and could relax a bit. I think many people find that being part of a group, and really getting involved with it in the early days, is beneficial and the biggest of these groups and the one that most people at least try, is AA. I am certainly not saying that everything about Alcoholic’s Anonymous is great, and I can certainly see room for improvement, but can accept it for what it is and see that some people find it beneficial to be long-term members, while people such as myself choose to make use of the support offered and move on. I certainly find some of the arguments against AA are very weak and that many conclusions are based on emotion and conjecture rather than facts. I think The Sober Truth by Lance Dodes, gives a good assessment of AA and is far more accurate than some of the online critics, such as the Orange-Papers, which influences some people, but I view as fairly inaccurate and extreme in places.
I certainly did not have much faith in the religious/spiritual side of the program, and this is the area that most of the small but noisy, online“Anti-AA” bunch attack (when they are not arguing with each other!). AA and other 12 step groups, grew from the “Oxford Group”, which was a moralising religious group. It has kept the values of the “Oxford Group” and incorporated ideas such as sharing problems. I certainly learnt a lot from the sharing, as I have mentioned before, especially as I had not been to rehab, and this helped me later, in my second attempt at CBT, as after spending a year or so in AA, I was more ready to open and deal with my problems, than I had been in the past. I had been treated for depression and given CBT counselling ten years before I went to AA, but I did not take on all the ideas that were being presented and did not really discuss problems in a truthful, open manner with doctors. This lead to me spending another decade living a poorer quality life than I could have done. The bottom line in those days was that I could not face life without alcohol, and it was not until I joined a fellowship of people (AA), that were trying to do the same thing that I really faced up to my problem and had started to do something about it.
I found some of the people in AA were inspiring and this motivated me to try to emulate them by living an alcohol free life. I also found other people in the 12 step world to be crazy, and were the type of people who were best avoided. Some people do find the religious side helpful, and do believe their recovery is down to God or a “Higher Power”. It depends on your own values and how you were brought up, but I tended to ignore this side, after realising that the program was written in the Mid West of America, which is generally more religious than the south of England, where I come from. I have travelled extensively in the USA and am aware of the varying attitudes on religion depending on area. I think quite a few people ignore the religious side of AA in this way and just use the fellowship.
I do think AA has some good ideas, for example phoning somebody when you are tempted to drink or simply not having a drink today. I do not feel all the steps are that bad. I think I have always done step 10 for example, since I was pretty young. The idea of powerlessness helped me in my early days and the first step as well, but I modified my approach over time, after I felt I had moved on in my recovery. Step 4 and 5 are held up as core parts of the program and this is not surprising considering the heavy moralising of the “Oxford Group” and these can lead to problems with some people, especially those who are vulnerable and should really be having specialist mental health treatment and not simply going to AA for a solution. Having said that, I do think that looking at resentments especially those that are long-term can be helpful, but should be done with a proper therapist if it is something that causes stress. Many in AA have a sort of blind faith in the program, and push these steps on people who do not feel comfortable with them, and then wonder why things go wrong. These people are attempting to perform faith healing which is not what AA should be. Alcoholics Anonymous should be a support group, and the steps are there for those who want them, not something to be forced on others.
A good thing about going to AA for me, was that it was an anonymous group and I did not have to talk to a doctor to go there, I could just turn up. I was worried about discussing my problems again with a doctor, and this was certainly a reason why my earlier treatment was ineffective (which I mentioned before when talking about CBT). Certain ideas had sunk in from those days, it just took me a few ideas to act on them! For me, attending AA certainly gave me a place to go to help beat the habit of going to a pub. It introduced me to new people, and was an introduction to living an alcohol free life. Being part of a group motivated me to beat addiction, but it was certainly not the final solution, simply part of the early stages. I changed my mind about seeking medical help after spending some time in AA, as I felt I needed help with depression. I think most people have some depression when they stop drinking and are facing up to a new way of life. Although certain people in AA did make me feel uncomfortable, I generally learnt who to avoid. I do not blame AA for my depression like some would, and can certainly see why some people suffer this despite joining support groups. I recently re read the book “Face to Face” by Audrey Kishline and Sheryl Maloy, which I found very moving indeed, especially in light of Audrey’s recent suicide. I was disgusted by some of the online reactions to her death and the conclusions that some people were coming to, despite never having had any contact with her. This was similar to the equally ridiculous comments about Robin Williams and others, by those who have a grudge against AA, and are prepared to use anything from wild claims that AA drives people to suicide or calling it a religious cult that has nothing to do with recovery. There are a small number of people in the recovery world, who will use a fellow alcoholic’s suicide to bash the recovery method they were using. They have formed these opinions from some of the more crazy online sites that are low on real facts and driven by emotion and a pack mentality.
Support from AA members.
Certain people in AA really helped me, with their support at certain events in my early days. I went to a few nightclubs with people from AA, and I’m not sure that would have gone well, if I had been on my own. Having sober people around me who were enjoying the night, was very inspiring and showed me that living a sober life could be fun. I needed to know that, to be motivated to continue, other wise the thought of life alcohol free would have been unbearable. There were people from AA at the first gig I played sober (for over 25 years) which was in a club called Dingwalls in London in front of a fairly large crowd. This really helped me, as they were people who had done the same thing and seeing them at the front of the crowd was really helpful! That was actually an important night for me as I was about 6 weeks sober and it really gave me a lot of self-confidence, especially as the gig was a memorial to an old friend, and lots of people I knew were there. It also made me reflect on the fact that most of those missing were dead through drugs (It was also the night I decided to ignore the advice about relationships in the first year!). I certainly would not have got this type of support if I had only used online support at this time. I feel that meeting other sober people in person can be really helpful, even though you may not share all their values.
I moved on from AA, after having a fair amount of therapy, which was much more effective this time. Looking back I can see that the fact that I was sober, was a big advantage when getting treatment from doctor, as was the fact that I was more motivated to beat my problems having seen some people succeed and live great lives,(and others fail and do badly). After going to AA, I was more ready to embrace ideas such as physical fitness helping beat depression and the benefits of meditation or other methods that help relaxation and looking at life in perspective. I do therefore feel it is accurate to credit AA with helping with my recovery, although I do this for different reasons to many, who feel it is God or “chapter 5” that has saved their life. For me, it was simply a case of identifying that I had a problem and being with people who were similar and who wanted to beat alcoholism as well. I got caught up in the dynamics of the group and did not wish to fail. I was happy to identify myself in the group as an alcoholic in those days, as I was not long out of the craving period, and the consequences of relapse and active alcoholism were large and real in my mind. This is something that has certainly eased with having a fair amount of alcohol free time, and I have changed my life so much and have a vastly different self-image these days, that I tend not to identify myself as an alcoholic any more. I am not in denial about the past, but I simply feel that I have moved on, and calling oneself an alcoholic is a pretty negative self-image in my opinion. I don’t call myself a smoker as I have not smoked for many years, so why should I feel the need to call myself an alcoholic when I have not had a drink for years. Changing my self-image has been key to being able to sustain the changes in approach I have made in my life. I certainly don’t do everything perfectly, but I am able to take a step back from situations and can deal with problems better. This is important in this day and age when economic problems make jobs unstable, and it is difficult to plan for long-term security in the same way that it was in the past. I do feel that working and taking part in society is another key part to recovery. Again it builds self-respect and independence.
Other methods such as Moderation.
One of the things that I find worrying about the recovery world is that people know so little about the alternatives to the 12 step world and that although some progress has been made, people who are looking for solutions are not really joining other recovery groups in huge numbers. I have read books about “Harm Reduction” and find the ideas there to be really good. It is a shame that many of the ideas of these groups are not more widely known as I feel they would motivate people to start looking at their problems much earlier and save them a lot of grief long-term. There was recently a fairly toxic argument on the Soberistas site about moderation, where many of the members of that forum attacked the idea of moderation as worthless. I don’t think this is true if people are in early stages, but do think that people are only joining support groups such as Soberistas or AA when they have serious problems, where attempting moderation can result in serious relapse. If people were helped earlier, or alcohol problems were de stigmatised, then people would could be helped more by these methods. It is a shame that the website http://www.substance.com is not being updated, as the harm reduction world does need a credible website, with the opportunity for some proper discussion, if it is to make people aware of what it can offer. AA is certainly better than other groups at advertising its meetings and its popularity is reflected by coverage in the media.
I have found reading about all the different methods to be really helpful for me. I would say that most solutions have some good ideas, and that somebody new to recovery should look at them all and then make an informed decision about which path works bests with their own values and personal circumstances. I suppose that is the idea of “Harm Reduction”, as it is about finding a method that is going to reduce the harm and addict is doing to themselves and others. I think that all recovery methods such as “Smart Recovery”, “The Sinclair Method”, and even AA can be considered “Harm Reduction”. The one thing I do not consider “Harm Reduction” that I have mentioned on this page, is the actions of the “Anti-AA” bunch and their opposite numbers, that clog up comments sections of sites such as the Fix with their pointless arguments. All they do, is present a poor view of people in recovery, and play up to the stereotype of alcoholics being mental cases. Attacking somebody else support group, which they may have to rely on at times of weakness is certainly not harm reduction. Using the suicide of an alcoholic, as ammunition in a pointless argument against the support group or groups they were a member of is not harm reduction.
Not everything is true that you hear in AA meetings (or read on the web).
The sad truth is that unless you find a solution that motivates you to change your ways, then it is doubtful that you will have a great long-term recovery from alcoholism or addiction. You do have to find your own way, as we all have our own reasons for getting drunk. You have to be prepared to modify approach when things don’t work out, and search for things that do help. I do think that recovery groups are important for many of those who are in early stages, and it can be really important to find some peer based support. However it is important to realise that people who are using support groups or online resources are not always the most mentally healthy, and that believing everything you are told or have read is not always a good idea! I think that methods such as the “Sinclair Method” can really make a difference to the numbers beating Alcoholism, and that it would work well along side peer support meetings such as Smart Recovery. AA has many meetings and lots of tradition and is accessible for most people, but does not move with the times, and so does not motivate as many people to become engaged in the recovery process as it could. This is a shame, but is a result of it being held back by dogma and tradition, which ironically is probably the last thing that the founders would have wanted.Google+