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AA Harms Us All.
AA begins and ends with shame and condemnation. We are told that this organization is the premiere way for people suffering from substance addiction to receive help. Nothing is further from the truth. While some recent articles have finally questioned the actual results of the organization, I want to go one step farther by acknowledging how, far from being a benign failure, AA is actually dangerous and harmful to overwhelming majority of addicts and non-addicts alike. This is because AA has almost singularly defined what it means to be a substance user. In short, AA invented the Addict. And they still control the very definition of that dirty word. The articles that have come out recently, that are critical of AA, have mainly focused on the ineffective success rate of the AA program. Most authors site - at most - a 5% to 7% success rate for AA participants. This number is shockingly low and researchers from our best institutions have noted that the "AA success rate" is actually far lower than the rate of those people who just decide to quit on their own - so-called spontaneous remission.
Well, you may ask, what about the people who do claim that AA has saved their lives, isn't the program helping them stay sober? And, almost every author, who is critical of AA's abysmal success rate, eventually cedes the point that AA does, in fact, help "some" people? They do? They help "some" people? Really? Who are these lucky ones?While it is true that some people, usually the proverbial old-timers, seem to stay sober (mostly) from AA, they do not do so in spite of all the other people failed by the program. Rather, they stay sober by exploiting and demonizing the very people whom they and the program have failed.
After attending countless AA meetings, I believe that old-timers, even those who diligently work their programs, actually survive by wielding power over and exploiting other substance abusers, controlling new members, and ultimately by demonizing those people who choose use drugs and alcohol - usually by turning other users into scapegoats and pariahs. Their rigid definition of the drug user - The Addict - serves not to help the user, but rather to create a boogieman or enemy out there. And this is how the old tiers stay sober: they construct an external enemy and they try to stay sober by rallying, one day at a time, against that enemy. Their boogieman - The Addict - assumes a contradictory, tripartite identity: one part blameless victim, one part perpetually diseased person, and one part morally flawed, condemned soul. But users and people with substance issues are not boogie-men, they are not our enemies, Rather, they are our loved ones, people in our families, our neighbors, our coworkers, our friends, and sometime our selves.
Am I overreacting? No. Most people who have attended more than a couple of meetings and then decided at AA wasn't for them are left with a couple of inescapable observations. The first is how AA always tends to facilitate an "us versus them" mentality in their members. People who believe in AA, especially those pesky old-timers, believe that they have found the one and only route to true sobriety and salvation - irrespective of any actual medical or psychological research. No other methods of recovery or harm reduction are ever acknowledged as valid within the program or at a meeting. Far from it, those brave enough to mention alternatives are quickly given the cold shoulder by more established members. The message is always the same: without AA your disease will progress and you will die. Even those folks who achieve abstinence apart from AA are still derided as "dry drunks" and as being in "denial" and simply bidding their time till relapse.
And, why do adherents to the program cultivate such as an "us versus them," you're in or you're out, with us or against us, you're among the chosen people or you're among the condemned people kind of attitude? One reason: Control. Most of these old-timers achieve sobriety, and the appearance of control in other areas of their life, mainly by exerting interpersonal control over others - usually the most vulnerable and/or newcomers to their AA meeting.
But you may ask, isn't their need for control - to give unchallenged directions - benign or even beneficial if it helps other addicts stay sober? After all, aren't these sorry people just in need of some Good Orderly Direction (another one of their crazy acronyms for god)? But the fact is that power and control are never just neutral, never simply benign. And covering up the need for power and control with talk of spirituality and a higher power makes it only more dangerous - especially for the vulnerable newcomer.
AA seeks to control its members in numerous ways. You're forced to "share" to the group, revealing your inmost conflicts and foibles for others to judge. This is one of the first steps of many into lifelong shame and condemnation.
You are told to get a sponsor. This sponsor chimes in on almost every aspect of your life, even those areas that have seemingly nothing to do with your substance use. Sponsors receive no special training or qualifications and are usually ill-equipped to advise people on their most pressing problems. These relationships always involve the sponsor exerting their power over the newcomer in countless ways.
Newcomers are told how many meeting they need to attend (often 90 meetings in 90 days), what book to read (always read the Big Book) and how to think (think like the Home Group). However, the advice of the sponsor almost never stops there. Newcomers are advised on who to associate with, and who not to associate with. They are frequently given career advice, and are given directions on how to deal with spouses, families, and loved ones. Unsurprisingly, much of this advice is hogwash! And frequently, the demands of a sponsor lead to frayed social relationships with non-AA members and isolation outside of the AA organization.There has not yet been a formal study as to how many people get divorced as a result of following the directions of their AA group or sponsor, but the anecdotal evidence suggests a staggeringly large number. Newcomers are often encouraged to drop their relationships with non-AA members and are encouraged to only have romantic connections with those in the program.
But the need of AAers to perpetuate their beliefs harms far more than just the unwitting newcomer. AA has ingrained in our collective consciousness the very idea of what it means to be a substance user: The Addict - and this is where their harm is most insidious and pervasive. Without any medical backup, they contend that someone with a substance problem is once and forever an addict. This idea is found in the very preface of their organization's holy text, the Big Book, under the disingenuous title "The Doctor's Opinion."
The problem with this idea is that it leads people into accepting the idea that they are terminally ill or at least terminally deficient and powerless - but this simply is not usually the case. The truth is that for most people substance abuse is not a lifelong condition that needs to be managed with constant meetings and sponsorship. Their rigid disease model actually serves to keep people away from other helpful alternatives, such as behavioral therapy, membership in positive social groups, or harm reduction.
They also perpetuate the idea that the addict is a person of uniquely flawed character - one of the condemned who needs AA's saving. At its face this is contradictory: is the addict somebody who has a disease or is the addict somebody who has deeply-seated character flaws? And it is this contradiction is at the heart of AA's religiosity and thinly-veiled religious ideology.
AA has its roots in the Oxford Group, a radical christian cult from the early twentieth century. In fact, the 12 Steps themselves are almost directly taken from the Oxford Group's cult methodology. Central to the Oxford Group's ideology is the old-line protestant idea of Total Depravity - the idea that all human beings are inexorably into sin, brokenness, moral failure, and rebellion. This radical and detrimental belief is the underpinning of virtually all AA thought: e.g. the addict is hopeless and powerless and needs the intervention of a higher power to get right.
The doctrine of Total Depravity is much more than just a dusty old theological formulation. It has real consequences for those belonging to a group operating on such a notions - and what a shame it is! I believe that telling people over and over again that they are powerless and morally flawed only leads to greater and greater problems and dysfunctions with one's self-image and ultimately one's behavior in the world.
So, let me conclude with my original point: AA is not a harmless organization. It's an organization run by power-seeking individuals who often mess up the lives of those whom they purport to help. Their most harmful invention is the identity of the modern addict - a caste or class of person they claim to be inexorably diseased as well as morally flawed. And this classification of the addict is not just limited to AA meetings and their written propaganda. That would be bad enough! Rather, their model of the addict has been perpetuated for almost a hundred years by television, media, the courts, the prison industry, religious authorities, celebrities, and by a multi-billion dollar recovery industry. In fact, over 95% of private recovery programs are still based on the 12 Steps and their assumptions about the drug user - virtually without any empirical evidence of its effectiveness.
The damage is not limited to the people who weave in and out of their meeting rooms - that would be bad enough. The deepest harm from AA stems from their need to demonize and scapegoat the substance user - to cast the unrepentant user as inevitably among the condemned! But we are not condemned. Their organization only thrives so long as they are able to label non-adherents as depraved addicts who are, at best, in "denial" or "dry-drunks." So long as AA propaganda dominates our collective consciousness, we are doing a disservice for people who struggle with substance issues.
AA can only thrive so long as they cast the unrepentant user as outsider, condemned to a long and painful road to death. But that is not the truth. Drug users are not all suffering from "character flaws." Drug use does not make you condemned for life and most users do learn to quit or moderate without AA and then go on to live happy, normal lifespans. We need to cut through the fear and labeling that AA and the 12-Step industry thrives on. What we need is a new model for understanding the substance user, not as somebody who is inherently flawed and diseased, not as somebody who is morally disordered, but as someone who could benefit from harm reduction, psychological therapy, and real medical treatment - as full human beings!
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