Ask Katie: AA Is Helping Me, But Should I Listen to Its Critics?

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Ask Katie: AA Is Helping Me, But Should I Listen to Its Critics?

By Katie MacBride 09/19/16

Advice columnist Katie MacBride on why there are AA naysayers and whether you should pay attention to them—especially if the program is working for you.

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Man giving the thumb down gesture.
Am I wrong? Or are the critics?

I'm new to the rooms but they've been helping me more than anything else I've ever tried. But I keep coming across these critiques of AA—that women get attacked there; that the science is all wrong; that the program only works for a tiny fraction of people who go to meetings. Two of the critics—Lance Dodes and Gabrielle Glaser—get a lot of attention in particular. I'm just wondering why the positive results I've been getting over the past three months have to be made so negative.

This is an excellent question and one you are likely to encounter more than a few times throughout the course of your recovery. 

Your question raises a lot of important issues and I want to address all of them. The short answer, however, is that there is no one “right” way to get sober. More accurately, the “right” way to get sober is whatever gets you sober. If AA is working for you—as it has worked for so many people—that’s the only thing that matters. 

Still, it’s impossible to avoid the harsh criticisms of AA (and conversely, you can find many in AA who will harshly critique any other program of recovery). This kind of universal praise or condemnation for any one recovery program is misleading and harmful. And while it may be distressing to see a harsh critique of a program that has helped you, it’s worth trying to understand why people are so adamant that their program is best. 

So let’s get hypothetical: say I’m a person who suffers from depression. I can barely get out of bed in the morning, I struggle with suicidal ideation, and while I have done my best to “snap out of it” nothing is getting any better. Then, my doctor gives me a pill that is supposed to combat the depression. After a few days or weeks of taking this pill, I feel better. I can get out of bed, my suicidal thoughts are gone, I start to have something resembling a “normal” life. I am happy. There may be a few unpleasant side effects of the medication but they are minimal compared to the benefit and totally worth it. 

It would be reasonable for me to want to scream from the rooftops about the effectiveness of this pill, to suggest any friends suffering from depression talk to their doctor about this medical miracle. You could call me “brainwashed” by the pill, but that’s not how I see it. I am simply happy to be relieved of the enormous weight of my depression and want to help others struggling with the same issue. 

If, however, the pill doesn’t alleviate my depression at all and heaps on a bunch of terrible side-effects, I’m going to warn everyone away from taking it. I’m going to tell everyone about my experience, research the pharmaceutical company responsible for pushing that monstrous pill on me and question why anyone in their right mind would ever subject themselves to such a harmful medication. 

Both of these reactions are natural. As humans, we love universalizing our individual experiences. Our family and friends often do the same thing: if they see us have success with a medication, they will recommend it to their friends and acquaintances with depression. If the pill proves harmful, they’ll warn people away from it. 

The magical/harmful medication in this case is AA but the analogy applies to pretty much any recovery program. AA works really well for a lot of people. For many in AA and the people in their lives, the program is a godsend. For other people, AA is an important component of a successful treatment program that also includes therapy and/or medication. Still others walk away from AA feeling terrible and no closer to recovery. (For those who are struggling to get sober and don’t connect with AA, here are some alternatives.)  

AA is an easy target because a) it’s so popular and b) people play such an important role in the program. Unlike the example of the magic depression pill, AA is a program filled with people, people who are imperfect—not because they are recovering addicts and alcoholics—but because they are human. Different people comprise different AA meetings all over the world, ensuring some degree of irregularity among the groups. Irregularity in a popular program is easy to exploit. It helps sell books. And because AA has a policy of not responding to public criticism, it can appear as though the organization doesn’t have a rebuttal simply because they are not making one. 

Glaser has made some reasonable critiques of women’s safety at AA meetings, but there is nothing inherently dangerous in AA’s program. With millions of AA meetings happening all over the country, you can find women who have been going to meetings everyday for 20 years and never felt unsafe as well as women who felt preyed upon at their very first meeting. There’s more that can and should be done to address that particular issue but it will never be eliminated completely—at least not until it’s eliminated in every other public space on earth.  

Dodes has done some studies that question the effectiveness of AA, but even he acknowledges that we need AA and it should be there for those who want it and who do well in it. 

Other critics of AA claim to have uncovered the “big secret” that AA is really a sham. What they have actually realized—and should be more sensitive to—is the dynamic, powerful nature of addiction. It is not something for which there is a one-size-fits-all treatment. There are those who give the program their all and are not able to stay sober: a bitter and life-threatening disappointment. When that happens, AA’s program is not necessarily at fault, nor is the alcoholic. It can simply be that it was not the right program for that particular person.

Depression is a useful analogy here because it’s similarly complex with so many different possible treatments. Exercise is one of the many things that is thought to alleviate depression. So, if I'm depressed and I workout five days a week my depression doesn't improve, does that mean exercise NEVER alleviates depression? Or that I was exercising incorrectly? Or that Big Exercise is conspiring with Big Psychiatry to trick people into going jogging? Of course not. It just means that exercise was not an effective treatment for my depression. 

One last point about those who claim to know everything about how AA works: be wary of anyone who claims to have hard scientific evidence about the effectiveness of AA. You'll find such claims on both sides of the debate and it's never made any sense to me. It is virtually impossible to obtain reliable data about AA. Aside from the fact that gathering statistical data about a group whose members are anonymous is more than a little complicated, there are many other variables that one would never be able to account for: what does being in AA mean? Just attending meetings? How often? Working the steps? All of the steps or just the first few? Do court mandated attendees count? If your head is starting to spin, there's a good reason—turning all those variables into reliable scientific evidence is an impossible task. 

But none of that matters. What matters is that you are getting positive results through AA. Addiction is a sneaky motherfucker and it kills people everyday. You must fight it with the best, most effective tools at your disposal. For many people, those tools include AA. Anyone who suggests you stop a program of recovery that’s working for you is not a person to be trusted.

Regular Fix contributor Katie MacBride is not an expert or a mental health or medical professional; she is a sober person offering her experiences and advice about sobriety. Every other Tuesday she will answer one recovery related question posed by our readers, based on her experience. If you have any general advice questions email her at editor@thefix.com with Ask Katie in the subject.

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Katie MacBride is a writer and the Associate Editor of Anxy Magazine. In addition to The Fix, her work has appeared in Rolling Stone, New York Magazine, Quartz, and The Establishment. She writes an advice column about recovery for Paste Magazine. Follow her on twitter at @msmacb; find her work at www.katiemacbride.com.

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