Why You Should Embrace AA Groupthink and Shed Your Terminal Uniqueness

By Christopher Dale 02/06/19

AA encouraged me, a sauced snowflake loaded on liquor and individualistic narcissism, to put aside enough of myself to embrace two traits required to curb my alcoholism: discipline and structure.

AA meeting with one person addressing the group, terminally unique, AA groupthink
I wasn’t sure I could quit drinking but, after just a few meetings of identifying with the similar compulsions of fellow alcoholics, I was damn sure that I wasn’t the only one who had this affliction. ID 48427735 © Vadimgozhda | Dreamstime.com

Addiction has a grand irony: For a disease whose treatment thrives on identification with fellow sufferers, its symptoms are extraordinarily individual. Precisely how addiction manifests in each of us — drug of choice, length of active substance abuse, depth of debauchery — varies more widely than nearly any major affliction.

This is because addiction, like no other ailment, turns us insane and then turns us loose on the world. Ours is not a disease subject to controlled clinical settings; we find ourselves in circumstances that, though certainly following a pattern, have variables as unique as life is complicated. I have a recovering friend who, unlike me, has never sideswiped a taxi in the Holland Tunnel, blind drunk, and kept going. But alas, I’ve never been so creative as to hide vodka in a vase, as he has (#HappyHourFlowers).

As an alcoholic, then, my addiction-fueled adventures differ from the experiences of other problem drinkers. These exploits also are so abnormal in terms of their setting — namely, civilized society — that they feed another peculiarity of addiction: the “terminally unique" mindset that I am, somehow, alone in my inability to stop drinking at any cost.

For me, the result was a hopeless alienation that, in turn, only further fed my alcoholism. Afraid and isolated, I gave up trying to give up.

Amid this lonesome landscape lies the tailored times in which we live. A solid case can be made that we are in the single most individualistic era in human history.

Take me, for example. Like most people Gen X or younger, from early childhood I’ve been called unique, singular, special. I’ve been told I can do anything, be anyone, and was perfect exactly as I was. I am, it appears, a gentle snowflake.

Fast forward to today’s iWorld. We have made-to-order music playlists, binge TV watchlists, e-newsletter subscriptions. Our Facebook and Twitter feeds serve up personally-algorithmed news items between posts from our personally-constructed list of cyber-friends. From our social media silos, we see, hear, and click on hyper-customized content — our own little gated communities in the World Wide Web. For God’s sake, even our sleep is customized.

We do exactly what we want, when we want, how we want. We ultra-individualize, then wonder why modern society is so uber-fractured.

And then, those of us with addiction get too high or too drunk for too long, and need help. Suddenly, we uber-individuals need help from… well… ourselves.

And when we walk into the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous, that’s exactly what we get.

AA Pluribus Unum

Despite its imperfections — including those noted by yours truly — nothing has ever made me feel so simultaneously special and ordinary as my early experiences in Alcoholics Anonymous. As a newcomer, I was told I was the most important person in the room; but as a person in the room I was told that, though our experiences may be vastly dissimilar, we were all here for the same reprieve to the same disease.

First and foremost — before I ever considered that I may have found a solution to my compulsive, destructive drinking — AA provided a cure for my self-diagnosed tragic uniqueness. I wasn’t sure I could quit drinking but, after just a few meetings of identifying with the similar compulsions of fellow alcoholics, I was damn sure that I wasn’t the only one who had this affliction. A lot of acronyms get thrown around in AA; perhaps one should be Alienation Antidote.

For me, this prerequisite to recovery — this normalization of my abnormality — was an immediate and amazing upside to AA, one that fortunately superseded or masked some of my preconceived concerns.

Like most people, I skidded along the bottom before finding recovery. Months before my eventual sobriety date, I’d been warned by peers during an unsuccessful rehab stint that AA was a cult or, at least, cultish in its groupthink. I was told that there would be a lot of people spouting a lot of nonsense and, worse, telling me what to believe while they did it.

And you know what? They were partially right. AA did indeed ask me to set aside some of my individualism — my preconceived notions, my longstanding perceptions, the personal penchants that made me me — in favor of a program that, I was told, had a well-established track record of helping alcoholics achieve sobriety.

AA encouraged me, a sauced snowflake loaded on liquor and individualistic narcissism, to put aside enough of myself to embrace two traits required to curb my alcoholism: discipline and structure.

Structured Settlement

I came into AA a stone-cold atheist and remain a skeptical agnostic, and for a long time I thought AA’s first requirement for newcomers was that they develop faith in a higher power.

I now realize that this isn’t true. Before AA asks for anything enshrined in the 12 steps (the higher power concept is introduced in Step 2), AA asks us to stop having complete faith in ourselves — or, at least, the drunk and desperate versions of ourselves that, alone, simply cannot stop drinking.

The salve for this outsized self-reliance comprises some of the very same group-centric activities many AA-haters find cultish: chants like the Serenity Prayer offering a simplified perspective; readings like "How It Works" providing experience-driven direction; ubiquitous signage with familiar phrases and, of course, the ever-present Twelve Steps.

As someone who entered AA as the Smartest Person on Earth (an unofficial title, it turned out), I fully understand how threatening this can seem. Even as a scared newcomer in desperate search of a solution, I didn’t want to trade my hellish life for a post-apocalyptic Zombieland. Despite the attraction of folks who’d clearly found a way to stay sober, I’ll admit to checking the coffee machine for Kool-Aid during my first few meetings. 

But what I soon realized was that there was a simplistic beauty to AA’s anti-individualism that, for me, was extraordinarily effective in early recovery. My rehab roomies, I found, were just so full of themselves that, when confronted with a different approach, they reflexively labeled it full of shit.

Are there cultish aspects to AA? Absolutely. Even Catholic masses don’t end with everyone standing in a circle holding hands. Anyone wondering why some people duck out of meetings five minutes early should re-examine that ritual.

But by and large, AA’s so-called groupthink offers newcomers a keep-it-simple structure that — as fledgling sobriety becomes longstanding recovery — can be selectively shed. It asks spiritually disarmed newcomers to buy the whole standardized toolset… then allows us to return some piecemeal as we acquire new, more customized tools.

I for one needed some discipline to replace the chaos my life had become. I also needed certain concepts — powerlessness over alcohol, the hurt I was causing others, the incredibly alien concept that there was, in fact, hope — beaten into my brain. In hindsight, I realize AA is repetitive for a reason.

I see a lot of newcomers enter the rooms as customized as they are clueless. For them as for myself, rigidity en route to freedom is an entirely worthwhile tradeoff. There is value in a traditions-based organization with agreed upon rules that, when adhered to successfully, work well for many people.

How has AA's emphasis on the group helped you? Let us know in the comments.

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Christopher Dale is a recovering alcoholic and freelance writer who frequently covers sobriety, parenting and politics. His work has appeared in Salon, The Daily Beast, New York Newsday and Parents.com, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter at @ChrisDaleWriter.