Alcoholics Anonymous is a nonprofessional, community, and peer support organization dedicated to helping people solve their common problems of alcoholism. Or so the famed AA Big Book says. But AA does not work for everyone. Why does AA not work for some people? There’s a long answer to that question. I hope to answer your questions and dispel some myths and provide you with some straight talk about AA and its program of recovery.
First, I want to issue a disclaimer. I’m an active member of Alcoholics Anonymous. I’ve seen the program work for many people but also not work for many others. I hope to give you an honest look at AA, its successes, and where the program needs some changes. I struggled for several years to get sober, and with some of the tenants of AA’s 12-step program. It should be noted I’ve intentionally left my name off this article because the AA Traditions state that members of AA must maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio, and films and never lend the AA name to any related facility. So I’m writing this anonymously to help explain why AA does not work for everyone.
How Did AA Start?
AA began in 1935 in Akron, Ohio, as the result of a connection between two alcoholics. Bill W., a New York stockbroker, and Dr. Bob, a physician in Akron. Before meeting, both men had been somewhat affiliated with the Oxford Group, a Christian fellowship that emphasized religion and spirituality, and its six steps to cure alcoholism.
Bill got sober and stayed alcohol-free by helping other alcoholics. Dr. Bob’s experience with the Oxford Group hadn’t worked for him. When the two met, the effect on Dr. Bob was immediate. He was finally able to speak with someone who knew and understood his struggle with alcoholism. Dr. Bob soon got sober and never drank again.
Both men began to speak with other alcoholics at Akron’s City Hospital, where one patient quickly achieved complete sobriety. Alcoholics Anonymous did not yet exist, but the three men had formed the first group of AA. In the fall of that year, the second group of people suffering from alcohol addiction took shape in New York. In 1939, a third group spring up in Cleveland. In the four years since Bill and Dr. Bob met, 100 sober people comprised the three groups, and they would craft and publish AA’s Big Book (formally titled “Alcoholics Anonymous”), the group’s guide to achieving sobriety.
What is AA?
Alcoholics Anonymous is a 12-step-based guide for achieving sobriety and a guild to living life. IT’s 12-steps are well known and have been adopted by dozens of other similar groups, such as:
- Narcotics Anonymous (NA)
- Heroin Anonymous (HA)
- Cocaine Anonymous (CA)
- Gamblers Anonymous (GA)
- Overeaters Anonymous (OA)
- Sex Addicts Anonymous (SAA)
Given the sheer number of members and other groups whose programs are similar, you might be asking, “Does AA not work for everyone?”
Does AA Work For Everyone?
The short answer is, no. AA does not work for everyone. There are many reasons why some people might not take to the 12-steps of AA nor its spiritually-based systems of recovering. As an avowed atheist, I was not at all receptive to any ideas of God or religion. And that fundamental misunderstanding about what AA is kept me from embracing the program for many years.
Is AA Religious?
AA is not religious. That might be difficult to swallow if you read any of the Big Book or the 12-steps. The word “God” appears quite often. You’ve probably heard that the only requirement is a belief in a higher power. Most AAs (members of Alcoholics Anonymous) will tell you that. I take another position: you don’t need God or a higher power to be a successful member of AA. The only thing you need is some concept of spirituality. You don’t need a bible, Koran, incense, or a Buddhist chant. For me, spirituality is as simple as living an honest life and being of service. That’s it. I don’t lie and I try to pay it forward. That’s it.
Another key aspect of AA is the 12-steps. For AA to work, one must go through the steps with a sponsor. Think of a sponsor as an advisor. Someone who’s been in your shoes, done what you’ve done, and come out the other end sober.
There are a few steps that, in my opinion, are critical to making AA work. The first is step four. It involves taking an inventory of all the shitty things you’ve done in your drinking career. Sounds like a blast, right? It’s not the most fun thing I’ve done, but it is helpful. When conduction an honest examinator of our behavior, part of the process is to identify what role you played in it. The key part of this is accountability. Stepping out of the victim, pity-party mentality and realizing that yes, some people have wronged us, but usually, we were not guilt-free. Recognizing that we are usually somewhat culpable is a great first step (pun intended).
The second is the fifth step. In this step, we tell our sponsor what we’ve uncovered in inventory. It sucks to think about confessing our misdeed, but when you’re finished, you’ll feel like you’re no longer carrying a burden.
The last two are probably the most important. Step nine involves making amends for our past behaviors. Now that doesn’t mean you just apologize, and all things are forgiven. It’s more about acknowledging the sins of the past and making it clear to the aggrieved party that we recognize our error, have learned from it, and explain that we are no longer the person they once knew. Sometimes you will be forgiven and other times the damage done is unrepairable. Not everyone will forgive you. And that’s OK! You’ve done what you needed to do to move on.
Lastly, the tenth step is probably the most important. It reminds us that in order to keep evolving and being a reasonable adult, we have to pause once a day and examine how we’ve behaved. Where was it that I was unkind or could have handled the situation better? And when we were wrong admitted it. Think of it as instant amends. “Hey Adam, I realized I could have been a little more patient when explaining (insert work thing here) and for that, I’m sorry.” You’ll be amazed how people respond to the acknowledgment of their feelings and how you may have come across.
If you’re able to do these things, AA can work for you. If you haven’t liked the meeting or meetings, you’ve been to, try a different meeting. Some meetings are filled with crotchety old-timers who treat AA’s teaching as the divine word of God. It isn’t. Find a new one. There are meeting for all different kinds of people. There are women-only, gay, men’s, young people’s, and a few others. Keep looking until you like what you hear.
Just because I was able to put aside my feelings towards AA, doesn’t mean that it’s the solution for everyone! There are all sorts of community-based recovery programs that are suitable replacements. The key thing is that you need to get involved with one of them. Addiction is a cunning foe and is never fully vanquished. It’s always there…waiting for me to slip up. The involvement in one of these organizations is part of keeping those demons at bay. Look at alcoholism as a disease. A chronic, reoccurring condition that can be put into remission but never fully cured. Even someone who’s HIV positive needs to keep taking medication or the disease will come roaring back. Alcoholism is no different. But I get it. AA isn’t for you. Let’s explore some other options.
According to them, “SMART Recovery is a Self-Management And Recovery Training (SMART) is a global community of mutual support groups. At meetings, participants help one another resolve problems with any addiction (to drugs or alcohol or activities such as gambling or over-eating). Participants find and develop the power within themselves to change and lead fulfilling and balanced lives guided by our science-based 4-Point Program…” So, if the God thing is what keeps you always from AA, SMART’s science-based system may be a bit more in line with your thinking.
If you still think AA is a bit too Christian or Western for your tastes, the folks at Recovery Dharma have created a “peer-led, grassroots, democratically-structured organization. Our mission is to support individuals on their path of recovery from addiction using Buddhist practices and principles.
LifeRing Secular Recovery
The people at life ring get sober by believing individuals hold the power to control their addiction. Read no higher power stuff here. They believe each person is comprised of two people, the “Addict Self” and the “Sober Self.” LifeRing focuses on helping people weaker the addict and empowers the sober self. to weaken the former by strengthening the latter. Unlike 12-Step programs, LifeRing instead asks people to find strength and self-control within themselves.
If it wasn’t the God things that kept you away from AA, you might also consider Celebrate Recovery. They are a Christianity-based 23-step program for anyone struggling with addiction and other ailments.
Women for Sobriety
Since 1976, this group has offered support for women-only with alcohol addiction. It focuses on 13 acceptance statements focusing on positivity, responsibility for oneself, and emotional growth. Their Women for Sobriety “New Life” Program helps women positively change negative thought and behavior patterns to establish a healthier and happier life in recovery.
The Bottom Line – Why AA Does Not Work For Everyone
Because we’re all different. The point is, there are many options to find help. As my story goes, I tried AA for years and it didn’t work. I got to a place where I was willing to do anything to change my life trajectory. I did inessive therapy twice a week for about eight months and then I went to a treatment center that was 12-step-based. From there, I went to a sober living house, with AA there throughout my journey. Your journey will probably be different, and it’s supposed to be. Humans are highly complex and there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to treating an equally complex disease.
If you’re thinking about treatment, feel free to call us at (855) 281-5588. One of our client advocates can tell you about our treatment programs and help you figure out what to do next. We’re an all-pathways addiction and mental health treatment center, so you can find a program you like to support your recovery.