The Atlantic Was Wrong About AA: Part Two

by Joshua B. Hoe

Last April, the Atlantic published an article called: The Irrationality of Alcoholics Anonymous by Gabrielle Glaser.

A few days ago I started my rebuttal. Today I am finishing it up.

Again, a caveat, I speak in no official capacity and identify myself with no particular program.

Let’s start part two with Glaser’s description of the program:

“Alcoholics Anonymous was established in 1935, when knowledge of the brain was in its infancy. It offers a single path to recovery: lifelong abstinence from alcohol. The program instructs members to surrender their ego, accept that they are “powerless” over booze, make amends to those they’ve wronged, and pray.”

This is more than a bit of a misreading of the program’s path.

The goal of recovery is to reach and maintain sobriety (abstinence from alcohol).

Recovery IS the path not the goal.

In other words, by showing up and admitting you are powerless over alcohol, you are in recovery.

There are probably hundreds of times where the literature distinguishes between recovery and sobriety.

So, it doesn’t offer a single path to recovery. Recovery is NOT SOBRIETY.

This conflation of sobriety with recovery is a common but tragic mistake. It would be pretty hard to grasp the method if you conflate the two main parts and make them the same.

Recovery offers the hope of eventual sobriety, and if the addict is lucky, a lifetime of abstinence (sobriety).

The rest of what she says is more or less accurate, but this is a HUGE misunderstanding.

The 12 steps do not say, if you stop drinking now and stay sober, you will recover.

It promises that if you enter recovery and work the steps you will make PROGRESS towards sobriety.

And if you continue to make progress and work the steps, you can maintain your sobriety which gives you the gateway to a better and happier life.

She is also missing that it is a support group not a judgement group. When people relapse, we embrace them, we don’t jettison them and call them failures (which she suggests several times).

The literature is very specific about:

Relapse is part of recovery

Recovery is not sobriety (and sobriety doesn’t guarantee good recovery)

We seek progress and not perfection.

Why Repetition Matters

Ms. Glaser next starts to talk about repetitive rehab, she says:

“Amy Lee Coy, the author of the memoir From Death Do I Part: How I Freed Myself From Addiction, told me about her eight trips to rehab, starting at age 13. “It’s like getting the same antibiotic for a resistant infection—eight times,” she told me. “Does that make sense?””

Last time I checked 12 Step Programs are not rehab, and while rehab programs might use 12 step methods, I am pretty sure getting sent to rehab is a totally separate thing.

But, she does talk about frustration with repetition. This is probably as good a time to bring up something important.

Adherents of the 12 Step Method do not think the 12 Steps are a cure or believe that they have magical powers.

We do not go to be cured of addiction, we go to learn to cope with addiction.

We work the steps over and over again throughout our lives.

Repetition forms a structure, a safety net, and a method that helps us clear our decks, continue to reflect on our triggers and mistakes, and make amends to anyone we hurt.

Like many, Ms. Glaser seems to think it is a one time swim.

I would say it is more like a diabetic getting insulin daily. Addicts go to meetings, make calls, and work the steps. We do this throughout our lives.

I myself am grateful for this repetition because it keeps me alert, aware, and searching for red flags and rooting out my resentments and triggers.

My repetition is the foundation that lets me allow the rest of the good things in my life.

So, at least for me, keep on giving me my insulin.

Addicts Use Many Tools

Another big part of the article is pushing the notion that somehow 12 step methods oppose the inclusion of other tools (like taking drugs like naltrexone).

She says:

“But many in AA and the rehab industry insist the 12 steps are the only answer and frown on using the prescription drugs that have been shown to help people reduce their drinking.”

I have been to thousands of meetings and hung out with many hundreds of addicts. It is certainly true that many 12 steppers think it is the only answer.

But that does not mean we tell anyone not to use other tools. The only statement (we don’t really have rules in 12 step programs) the literature or meeting agenda guidelines make is that we should not discuss other programs or approaches during meetings.

Virtually every addict I know is also in therapy and most take some form of antidepressant. I have no idea where she gets the idea that people are told not to use other methods to supplement the 12 steps.

Since we have no officials, and no officers, I am not sure where she is getting this from. Nobody can dictate anything to anyone (aside from asking them not to violate the meeting guidelines). We explicitly cannot even ask people not to come (no matter who they are or what they have done).

Most people in recovery I know think they are collecting tools and using them each in their proper place. I myself use (or have used) the program, calling, mindfulness meditation, prayer, the steps, my sponsor, exercise, therapy, group therapy, SSRI’s, all kinds of tools.

(BTW, Naltrexone is only one of many chemical options for dealing with alcoholism).

I will have to say at best this is contextual and at worse it is a straw person argument.

Are All Drinkers Problem Drinkers – No

Glaser then starts to take on the question of forcing everyone into the AA Model.

She says:

“Part of the problem is our one-size-fits-all approach. Alcoholics Anonymous was originally intended for chronic, severe drinkers—those who may, indeed, be powerless over alcohol—but its program has since been applied much more broadly. Today, for instance, judges routinely require people to attend meetings after a DUI arrest; fully 12 percent of AA members are there by court order.”

And:

“Whereas AA teaches that alcoholism is a progressive disease that follows an inevitable trajectory, data from a federally funded survey called the National Epidemiological Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions show that nearly one-fifth of those who have had alcohol dependence go on to drink at low-risk levels with no symptoms of abuse. And a recent survey of nearly 140,000 adults by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that nine out of 10 heavy drinkers are not dependent on alcohol and, with the help of a medical professional’s brief intervention, can change unhealthy habits.”

I don’t mean to question your police work Ms. Glaser, but, if you are in front of a judge for doing something that endangers the public health, AA might be helpful to you.

AA (and other 12 Step programs) explicitly state that this program is “not for everyone” and as you mention say that is ONLY for people for whom “no other method” has worked.

AA is no more responsible for what judges do than you are, but, I know that judges orders expire. If you do not want to continue to attend AA meetings after the judges order expires, don’t attend meetings.

I get that you are trying to suggest that by being exposed to AA by force, drinkers who might recover through other means will believe that they are alcoholics and diseased simply by being exposed to AA, but that is insane.

Every single meeting, every AA group I know of reads the passage that says it is ONLY for those for which other methods have not worked.

This is just another straw person argument. Maybe this article should be called “The Irrationality of Things That Could Theoretically Happen In A Bad AA Meeting” instead?

You talk about funds, AA (or any other 12 step group) doesn’t accept funds from the Government. So, any dollars used to push AA sure don’t go to AA.

The Value of Sharing

After talking about people paying a TON for rehabs (again not AA) that use AA methods, she turns to the question of sharing at meetings.

Ms. Glaser says something truly bizarre:

“The problem is that nothing about the 12-step approach draws on modern science: not the character building, not the tough love, not even the standard 28-day rehab stay.”

What the heck is she talking about?

12 Step Programs do not use tough love. I suspect she is again referring to her awful misreading of sobriety and recovery.

12 Step Programs do not prescribe or support 28-day rehab stays.

I have no idea what she means by “character building.” But if she means admitting you have a problem, taking moral inventories, recognizing triggers, and/or making amends, I would have to vociferously disagree that there is no science behind these.

Perhaps she is familiar with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?

Anyway, she then goes off on another tangent about rehab. I actually agree with her that there are a TON of charlatans running a multi-billion dollar rehab industry, but I have no idea why this means AA is “irrational” (or honestly what the heck this has to do with AA at all).

Finally, she finds fault with the sharing people use at 12 Step Meetings:

“The whole idea made Jean uncomfortable. How did people get better by recounting the worst moments of their lives to strangers? Still, she went. Each member’s story seemed worse than the last: One man had crashed his car into a telephone pole. Another described his abusive blackouts. One woman carried the guilt of having a child with fetal alcohol syndrome. “Everybody talked about their ‘alcoholic brain’ and how their ‘disease’ made them act,” Jean told me. She couldn’t relate. She didn’t believe her affection for pinot noir was a disease, and she bristled at the lines people read from the Big Book: “We thought we could find a softer, easier way,” they recited. “But we could not.””

The last part tells the tale, “we thought we could find a softer, easier way…But we could not.”

Exactly, AA is for those who know they have a problem and that no other method has worked.

In other words, Ms. Glaser is back to building straw men.

But I do want to talk a bit about the value of sharing in groups.

For many addicts, sharing has never been possible. For years, and sometimes decades, we have kept everything inside terrified that if we ever told anyone our stories or experiences they would reject us.

Often addiction starts NOT because of an attraction to any specific substance or behavior but because of trauma (often when we are young). We tell ourselves that we experienced the trauma because there is something “wrong” with us.

We keep the wrong and different inside and we start to build our masks.

We have our social selves and the self we never show anyone else.

Everything we experience gets filtered through this insecurity, and it magnifies our fear, resentment, and anger.

Eventually, when we are hurt or angry we start turning to acting-out behaviors instead of using healthy methods of resolving emotional responses.

For many addicts, sharing is the first time they have ever been able to really tell their stories to anyone.

For many addicts, sharing gives lie to the idea they have held close for a very long time that they would be rejected if they ever told anyone what they were really like.

Yes, for some people sharing is not something that they are comfortable with. Guess what, there is NO rule that you have to share, in fact, explicitly we always say that people have the right to pass.

But sharing, for many, and certainly for me, was a transformative moment in my recovery. And every time I have something I wouldn’t normally share, I try to make sure and share it at the next meeting.

For me, being able to talk about my feelings and urges, to no longer have to keep everything buried inside is a blessing.

I have no doubt that Ms. Glaser has met many people who have frustrations about 12 Step Methods. Heck, I have some myself. But, I think the vast majority would be shocked by her description of their program.

Shocked because what she describes is NOT what we practice.

I think the information she shares about the value of using other tools is very valuable, but her mostly anecdotal and mistaken “takes” on AA are unfortunate at best.

However, I am willing to listen to people who have had vastly different experiences with AA.

What do you think of The Atlantic Article? Have you felt what she describes at your meetings? Would love to hear your opinions, leave a comment!

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