Is AA Bad or Good?

By Brad Oneil 03/08/19
Is AA Bad or Good?

Is AA Bad or Good?

I recently read an article which was definitely anti-AA and bashed 12 Step programs and I asked myself what was the point?

As a headline grabber, it worked because it got me to click on the title. Maybe that was the point. The suggestion was that AA is harmful - to all of us. I should have known better than to read it because, of course there is no way that Alcoholics Anonymous can possibly harm everyone. The headline implied it even harms people who don’t go to AA or who aren’t addicts or possibly have never even had a drink, are harmed by AA.

When I did some research, there seems to be a lot of people who like writing articles about how ineffective AA is for addiction recovery.

I don’t believe in a one size fits all formula and there is no doubt that millions of people get sober without AA as well as with AA.

The article I am referring to is a bit all over the map, talking about how AA is shaming and about how it is about power and control. The writer obviously has a negative bias as he presents no balanced opinion and much of what he writes is completely incorrect.

Sometimes the messages we get in AA and in life sound different depending on who is delivering it. For example, if a friend tells me that my pants are getting a bit tight, I might be offended and feel “fat shamed”. A week later, I might go to the doctor who tells me I should lose some weight and I take it to heart, go on a diet and start exercising. The fat shaming of the week before became sound medical advice seven days later.

Similarly, if a stranger in an AA meeting suggests that I have some defects of character, like being self-centered, I might feel shamed. But if I hire a therapist, they might tell me the same thing, using words like narcissism or ego, and I thank them for their help and refer my friends to them. The main difference is that with one in is free advice and with the other I am paying $150.00 per hour.

Addiction Treatment Centers vs 12 Step Programs

As an addiction counselor, I regularly refer clients who need residential treatment to some of the top centers in both Canada and the Unites States. I recently had a client who returned from one of them some $50,000 poorer, singing their praises and then promptly relapsed a week later. Another, leaving from one of the best centers in the US relapsed in the airport while waiting for his flight back to Canada. Yet another who has spent well over $150,000 going to various treatment centers and who can’t stop drinking or using.

Is it the fault of the treatment centers? Of course not. They have all helped thousands of people turn their lives around and live free of drugs or alcohol.

I have dozens of stories like those ones, but I don’t stop referring to treatment facilities when I think it is right for my client. Nor do I stop suggesting AA, or Smart Recovery or NA or CA because some people relapsed after trying them out or because of some unsubstantiated bad reports.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is this. For ANY program to work, the person has to be ready to make changes. Really ready. It can’t be some vague notion of wanting to be happier or sober. There needs to be a commitment to be willing to go to any length to change their life. And that always starts with changing their thinking
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Remembering that A Goal Without a Plan is Just a Wish, there has to be a plan. This is true for losing weight, getting in shape, going back to school and getting clean and sober.

Just like going to the gym, it doesn’t matter which gym you go to, it’s what you do when you get there that makes the difference. The same goes for addiction recovery. If you aren’t at the gym for the right reasons and doing the right things, soon you will give up. Likewise, if you aren’t going to AA, NA, Smart Recovery, a treatment center for the right reasons and if you aren’t willing to work a plan, none of them will work.

It also takes buy in. 100% buy in. If a person starts criticizing a program and looking for what is wrong with it, instead of what is right with it, the person’s attitude will sour, and the program will get the blame.

Think of diets as an example. There are hundreds of them and they aren’t all 100% good or 100% bad. Which one works? The one you commit to. If you start looking at the negative reviews, you will start to backslide, cheat, and have some snacks and then if one day you weigh yourself and find you have gained a pound and blame the diet.

The same goes for recovery. Does AA work? Yes, if you commit 100%. Is it all terrific stuff based on science – of course not. Do a significant number of people relapse in AA? Yes, they do because they don’t follow the program and commit to it – not because it doesn’t work.

Like so many other people, I used to buy a gym membership at or near the start of every year. I was going to get in shape, drop 20 pounds and build my summer body. I would pick the latest fad workout for flat abs and an amazing chest and back. I would actually believe I could look like the photo shopped guy on the internet after 8 weeks of working out 20 minutes per day.

But it was hard work, and I wasn’t 100% committed, I had a wish – not a plan. Before too long, I would miss a day or two. In recovery circles that would be called a relapse. Then I would binge eat on a weekend telling myself I could start again on Monday. After all, I could build my dream body in just 8 weeks.

It is the same story I hear day in and day out with my recovery clients. It’s not about the gym I was picking or about the workout routine. It was about me and my lack of commitment.

So, the bottom line is this: Pick a program. They all work if you do. The teacher appears when the student is ready to learn.

Brad Oneil is a Certified Addictions Counselor and Sex Addiction Therapist. 


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