Alcoholics Anonymous Does More Harm Than Good

Posted: February 26, 2014 in Addictions, Livin' in the USA, Psychology
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Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure? front coverby Chaz Bufe, author of Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure?

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is, arguably, America’s most sacrosanct institution. Its promoters (often AA members hiding behind “anonymity” while they promote AA) present it as an unalloyed good: effective, “spiritual not religious,” supportive, nonjudgmental, purely voluntary, based on “attraction not promotion,” and leading to personal growth (being “better than well”). Some even state that AA has no negative aspects whatsoever and that AA with it’s 12-step approach is the only effective approach to addictions problems.

All of this is wrong. The rate of recovery via AA is no greater than the rate of spontaneous remission. AA was part of a Protestant evangelical group for the first several years of its existence, and its 12-step program is blatantly religious by any reasonable definition of the word. AA is supportive–as long as you parrot its party line. It’s nonjudgmental–again, as long as you parrot the party line. AA is not purely voluntary; over a million Americans per year are coerced into attending it via court orders and employee assistance programs, as a condition of avoiding jail or keeping their jobs; and many of AA’s promoters insist that AA doesn’t promote itself, even as they do exactly that. As for AA members being “better than well,” attend any meeting and see for yourself. And AA does have serious negative aspects, both for its members and those merely exposed to it.

Let’s first look at the harm AA does to its members, those who come to it voluntarily for help, and those who are coerced into attending it.

Even for the small percentage of attendees for whom AA “works” (approximately 5% according to AA’s own triennial surveys–roughly the same as the rate of spontaneous remission), there are negative effects. The first of these is that many AA members adopt “alcoholic” as their primary identity. They identify their very beings with a past, self-destructive behavior. They stay stuck–focused on the past. It’s both strange and sad to see someone who hasn’t drank for twenty years identify him or herself as an “alcoholic.”

(What would we think of someone who gave up cigarettes twenty years ago, yet still identifies him or herself as a “smoker”? The only reason it doesn’t strike us as equally bizarre for long-time nondrinkers to identify themselves as “alcoholics” is the constant self-referential use of that term by AA members. Endless repetition desensitizes us to the  strangeness of this very odd usage.)

Another negative aspect of AA is that it keeps members dependent upon it. According to 12-step dogma, “alcoholics” are always “recovering,” and that the only way they can maintain sobriety is to attend AA for the rest of their lives. The way my late friend Vince Fox defined alcoholism and 12-step alcoholism treatment neatly encapsulates the 12-step approach: “Alcoholism is a phenomenon characterized as physical, mental, and emotional, and treated in medical settings by nonmedical personnel with a religious program in which the patient is admitted as diseased, discharged as diseased, permanently recovering, and never recovered.”

So, AA members consider themselves “diseased,” adopt the “alcoholic” label as their identity, and (at least in theory) remain dependent upon AA for life. Many “old timers,” who have been sober for twenty or thirty years, still go to several meetings per week, some daily. This, of course, is a severe time drain. The amount of time wasted by American AA members on AA meetings is probably second only to the amount of time wasted in the U.S. by Mormons–in another lifelong “program”–on LDS meetings.

Another major downside of AA for its longtime members, those who come to it for help, and those coerced into attendance, is AA’s insistence that “alcoholism” is a “progressive disease,” that drinking inevitably worsens barring abstinence, and that “alcoholics” have no control once they start drinking–that their only alternatives to AA are “jails, institutions, or death.” Leaving aside the absurdity of labeling a behavior as a disease, all of this is simply wrong. But for those who buy the assertions that drinking inevitably worsens and that they have no control, the results can be disastrous. These pernicious assertions often become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Other AA assertions–notably that, according to AA’s “Big Book,” alcohol is “cunning, baffling, powerful!” and individuals “powerless”–only exacerbate this problem. So, when AA members start to drink, they think they have no control, so they don’t even try to control their drinking–they binge.

Research seems to bear this out. What is still probably the best scientific study of AA’s effectiveness (Outpatient Treatment of Alcoholism, by Jeffrey Brandsma, Maxie Maultsby, and Richard J. Walsh, Baltimore: University Park Press, 1980) reported that those assigned to the AA group (with its “one drink, one drunk” dogma) binged more than four times as often as the no-treatment controls.

As well, since AA meetings are so unattractive that only (again according to AA’s own triennial surveys) five percent of those who “walk through the door” are there a year later, millions of people have been exposed to AA’s pernicious assertions and, at least in some cases, their drinking likely worsened as a result–and many undoubtedly don’t even try to find alternatives, because of AA members’ insistence that AA is the only thing that works.

These are only the most obvious negative effects of AA upon those exposed to it.

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Comments
  1. Earl Lee says:

    AA is a religious system, It doesn’t have to prove that it is true, moral, or even medically effective.
    At my father’s funeral I had to listen to a fire-and-brimstone sermon from another redneck idjit
    going on and on and on. He frequently mentioned himself and his own wonderful personal relationship with Jesus. For me it was another proof of why this crap is so vile.

    Liked by 1 person

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  4. […] Alcoholics Anonymous Does More Harm Than Good […]

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  5. I tried AA before and you’re right, there is this Protestant work ethic mentality. Anything that is so ideologically rigid should be questioned. Also, if you notice, everyone is addicted to caffeine and tobacco, so much better.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s sad that AA keeps people dependent on it (and, in many cases, caffeine and nictine–which for some reason steppers don’t consider drugs). There are few things stranger than hearing someone who’s been sober 20 years say, “I’m an alcoholic.”

      Liked by 1 person

    • Mgarcia says:

      Good point, I’ve been going to meetings for about three months and the smoking bothers me. Numerous studies have shown that smoking is far more harmful than alcohol but we have members who are on oxygen tanks still smoking

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      • RonB says:

        Stand on a cliff edge, jump or don’t. That is your choice. Some say it is a choice of fredom. Smoking is 99% jumping of the cliff, self harm. But alcohol is responsible for kiolling many others, it is therefore more of a problem to society. AA Agnostica, AA Atheist, AA Unbelievers are all growing and do a tremendous amount of good. Even one leg in religious AA and the other out, maintains the fellowship which is excellent.

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      • I mostly agree with you, especially about the useful aspects of the AA fellowship. The problem with the groups you mention is that while they’ve jettisoned the religiosity, they still buy into some demonstrably false and harmful AA dogma, especially individual powerlessness with its concomitant “one drink one drunk” belief that very likely leads to bingeing.

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      • RonB says:

        I agree with you that AA non religious groups still have a long way to go, but at inception 95% of Americans were Judeo-Christian and today less than 30% practice any form of religion, a huge change in seventy odd years. Even so, the opposition by AA is enormous, so these groups are doing very well. It will take time for a new generation to displace the hard set religious ruling body. The “one drink one drunk” stigma is interesting. I can only say that I tried many times to get sober, using other groups than AA and failed. Today, I am sober but fear taking one drink, as it is probable I will once again become a drunk. I’d love to prove them wrong, but I’m too scared to try, there is too much to lose. I have, however, disproven the notion that you can’t go to a bar, play pool and have a soft drink, I do so every week. There is a fine line between courage and stupidity.

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  6. Janice Wald says:

    Hi,
    I think your points are well taken. I’ve wondered why they are recovering alcoholics forever. Interesting perspective.
    Thank you so much for visiting my site Reflections today. I’m glad you liked my post about how to use Twitter to get more site traffic. Nice to meet you.
    Janice

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    • For more than one reason. The first reason is simple repetition. There’s huge pressure at AA meetings for people to identify themselves as “alcoholics,” so they do.

      The second is that AA dogma insists that an unfortunate past behavior is a chronic “disease” (in much the same manner as HIV or herpes) that they can never overcome, just stave off through abstinence, and the only way to achieve that is through strict adherence to AA’s “program”–which insists that they have a disease they can never overcome, and that being “honest” requires that they identify themselves as “alcoholics” (with the chronic “disease”).

      A third reason is that loneliness is a terrible plague in American life, and AA provides a ready-made social group. For many people it’s their only social outlet. So, because of peer pressure, constant repetition of dogma, and the desire to fit in with that social group, a lot of people adopt “alcoholic” as their identity, sometimes their primary identity.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. AA trades religion for alcohol, gains minions. Narconon trades “religion” for drugs, gains minions. Minions are profitable. Just ask Universal Pictures.

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  8. […] Alcoholics Anonymous Does More Harm Than Good […]

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  9. Butch says:

    I’m an alcoholic in AA and in that spirit I am open-minded and take what fits and leave the rest. You have some good points but I definitely disagree with you on many. Alcoholism is a disease and the AMA classified it as such 60 years ago. I know first hand the overwhelming physical craving that sets in with each first drink. And the craving doesn’t stop until I’m drunk. I don’t see or hear that from non-alcoholics. I also know the progression of physical tolerance to alcohol. Perhaps 3 drinks got me drunk when I was 20, but that same effect requires a full quart of liquor 40 years later. So it isn’t just a behavior thing. It is a physical difference to the effects of alcohol that means we shouldn’t drink. Where you are probably right is that it isn’t healthy to totally define ourselves as alcoholics forever. In the beginning it is a practice in being honest with ourselves because alcoholism is a disease that denies itself. It is stated many times in the program that AA is “suggested” as a program of recovery, and that there are other ways. The unique thing about AA is that it has grown so large that an alcoholic can find a familiar meeting of support almost anywhere in the world. There are many alcoholics whose life centers around AA. Your observation is correct but your reasoning and conclusion are wrong. Many of these people have shattered their lives so badly that family and old friends will have little to do with them. They find life-long friends in AA who don’t drink. And AA is much more than meetings. Hundreds of events and activities grow out of the groups. I hunt, fish, BBQ, travel… all with people in the program because drinking is never an issue. And your “coerced” members are simply a recognition that locking people in jail hasn’t worked. You would be surprised how many with long-term sobriety came to their first meeting only to get a drivers license back, but stayed after they liked the people they met. The 5% success rate is sad (I thought it was 10%, still sad). I think this is due to a failure of members, rather than the program if it were worked as written. We say that the newcomer is the most important person at every meeting, but we don’t act that way. A first meeting is strange, intimidating, uncomfortable… Until members step up to the plate to make newcomers feel welcome and comfortable we will continue to fail them. Many of your observations are correct, but your explanations are not. It seems as though you are analyzing AA from the outside, like looking up at the moon with the naked eye and trying to decide what it is made out of. Also, I don’t see that money plays any part in AA. Each group is entirely autonomous. Nobody is paid, and most groups are lucky to have an extra $100 to buy coffee or cookies. Events are always potluck. Maybe there is some money at the headquarters, but they have absolutely no say in what our groups do, which is where all the action is. The structure above the individual groups exists only to disseminate literature & information and to organize conventions. AA is a rare opportunity for people to learn about not judging others, forgiveness, caring for others, giving freely, spirituality… In the process we discover a way to live and enjoy life without blocking it out with booze. It is a group of imperfect people trying to improve, so I guess you can criticize it easily by only pointing out the imperfections.

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    • Sam says:

      Well stated. “More harm than good…” comes from a person who has met AAs who have angered him. He has not separated them from the program as the program says: ‘principles over personalities”. Note: “suggested program”, “each group is autonomous”, “take what fits & leave the rest”, and again “principles over personalities”. This is far from dogma from the top down. Also, recovery does not happen by osmosis. We cannot simply attend meetings and just sit there hoping we will recover. It requires 1.) a true desire to quit drinking 2.) action.

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  10. […] Alcoholics Anonymous Does More Harm Than Good […]

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  11. […] Alcoholics Anonymous Does More Harm Than Good […]

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  12. RonB says:

    I try to go to an AA meeting every week, it’s my choice and my right to that freedom. I doubt if there is any institution or organization not open to criticism of some sort but that is all about negative personalities. There are also a lot of positives in every institution and organization, so it’s all about individual perspective. AA has a lot of caring people who get together in friendship and help each other, they perceive alcohol to have damaged their lives and it helps. That is reason alone to say AA is good. If you choose to follow the 12 steps, get a sponsor, and do other things mentioned in Chaz’s article then that is your choice, blame none other than yourself. If I wrote a book advising people to take cyanide to become perfect, then it’s not my fault if your stupid enough to believe it.
    AA is religious and spiritual but you take from it what you want, there are the old timers who advocate the 12 steps being the only way but they are generally lonely people looking for purpose in life that don’t appreciate the difference between caring and interfering. They only can do harm if you choose to let them indoctrinate you and even that indoctrination is miniscule compared with the social indoctrination we are raised by, nicely called socialization.
    AA has its parts I like such as letting go of past resentments, great advice. On the other hand I have said many times that the perfect result of following the book is a brain transplant from a sheep! Ever heard of a sheep being an alcoholic? We do have brains that are analytical and do think, some at AA forget that.

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  13. Lou says:

    I totally agree with this passage. I’ve been working with AA for over 15 years. It’s a so called “we” program when everything is rosy. However once an individual relapses it’s his /her fault. Meanwhile I relapse because the “we” took me to the people places and things. And, kept telling me if you follow a perfect AA program its ok to be with people places and things???? Then the “we” became an “I”. Too much Co dependency not enough individual resiliency.

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    • Yes, that’s right. The reasoning is circular: the program is perfect, so therefore it “always works, if you work it”; so, when it doesn’t work for someone (an awful lot of someones, in fact a large majority of those who come to AA for help), the problem is _always_ with the person, not the by definition “perfect program.”

      The fact is, when people buy the AA b.s., try to toe the AA line, and then fall off the wagon, they tend to blame themselves (because they were, somehow, not working “the program” correctly), come crawling, guilt-ridden back to AA, where they’ve lost respect and status, believing what they’ve heard in AA — that there is no alternative to AA. And then, in most cases they’ll start drinking again, and the whole destructive blame-guilt-despair cycle repeats itself.

      AA members do a lot of harm by insisting that it’s either AA or “jails, institutions, or death,” and by insisting that “the program” is perfect.

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  14. […] Alcoholics Anonymous Does More Harm Than Good […]

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  15. […] Alcoholics Anonymous Does More Harm Than Good […]

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  16. […] Alcoholics Anonymous Does More Harm Than Good […]

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  17. Sam says:

    You begin your article with something I really agree with, the identity thing. I recognized after a couple of years of sobriety that I had beat myself up enough attempting to recover. It was necessary and good initially to take this hard look at my part in why bad things had happened in my relationships and life in general.

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