Are you sure?
I’m sure enough. I’m as sure as I can be. I’m as sure as I was when I decided not to drink 15 years ago.
My skepticism started with my first AA meeting. I never went to a meeting until I was 12 years sober. I know AA has been a pivotal part of some friends’ recovery, so my expectations were high.
I wrote a post titled more than an alcoholic the day before that first meeting. And then I went.
I loved the truth telling of the people there.
I questioned the truth telling of the Big Book.
The claims in the Book - which serves as the bible for AA - were bold. The theology veered toward Calvinistic total depravity at times, and it stressed how we are wrong so much more than how we are good. The history was mostly accurate. The science, though? It struck me as suspect.
It was then - in 2016 - that I began to research the roots of alcohol abuse treatment in the US. I found, not surprisingly, that AA has strongly influenced how we discuss and treat alcoholism. When I told a doctor that I was newly sober in 2004, she quickly said, “you know, right, that you can never drink again because you’ve struggled with alcohol like this and have a family history of alcoholism?” I nodded, having never considered any other approach.
I’m glad I didn’t consider any other approach at the time. I needed to make a clean break. I needed to learn in action that life doesn’t have to be saturated in liquor. I believe strongly that this is the ideal long-term approach for many, and I believe strongly that it was the ideal path for me at the time.
I don’t doubt the benefit of the Big Book or AA program in reaching a needed sobriety for many. I don’t want to lay out an argument against that. Some people will go to the extreme to dismiss the program altogether, but I’m not an enemy of Bill’s. I also think it’s important to acknowledge that every AA group is different.
That said, I look at how we treat almost everything else, with treatments tailored to the individual (as this Harvard paper suggests for alcohol abuse), and I consider this excerpt from the Big Book to be utter bullshit:
Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path. Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves. There are such unfortunates. They are not at fault; they seem to have been born that way. They are naturally incapable of grasping and developing a manner of living which demands rigorous honesty. Their chances are less than average. There are those, too, who suffer from grave emotional and mental disorders, but many of them do recover if they have the capacity to be honest.
I might give the shaming language a pass if that passage rang true, but it doesn’t. The books Sober Truth in whole and Critical Thinking, Science, and Pseudoscience in parts discuss this in detail. (A review of Sober Truth in The Atlantic can be found here.)
Sure, AA can work, but so can other approaches. For me, intensive therapy - which I recognize as a privilege afforded by insurance and income - has been the best approach, both early in my sobriety and now. (One reason AA is so popular is because it’s free, it’s available, and it’s a community, which I acknowledge is not true for therapy.)