Reader Mailbag – Does the Program of Alcoholics Anonymous Really Work for...

Reader Mailbag – Does the Program of Alcoholics Anonymous Really Work for Everyone?


A reader writes in and says:

I have another addiction and I go to a 12 step program for that. I also go to an AA meeting once a week, even though that is not my addiction. My feeling is that AA is clearly not for everyone, but it does work for some people. It is not, as someone wrote (in a comment), a one-size-fits-all program. But there are honest people in the program who have clearly been helped. I just think it is not for everyone and does not work for everyone.

Well I tend to agree with this reader, and I want to expand on some of his thoughts.

Like him, I do not necessarily believe that AA is a failed path, I just believe it is not the right choice for some people. The problem comes in when most people in AA try to present it as the only viable solution, with all others choices leading to relapse and death. Such people do not realize what they are saying and are basing it all on their very limited experience in recovery. They think they know something, and they clearly do not. My website is largely an effort to set that record straight. There is recovery outside of AA!

The usual disclaimer: do what works for you

First and foremost is the idea that you should absolutely do what works for you in recovery.

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If this means that you go to AA meetings every day and share about how your day went, then keep doing that. If it is keeping you clean and sober and you have no objection to the method that you are using to pursue sobriety, then by all means, keep doing it. Don’t rock the boat. Sobriety is precious and you should achieve it any price, so long as you are happy in your pursuit of it.

There are a great many people who are not satisfied with the AA program, or who do not feel that they fit into the social solution that is AA, and so they might seek an alternative. This website is largely written for those people–recovering addicts and alcoholics who are already looking for another way to recover.

The Spiritual River is not “on a mission to destroy AA” or anything like that. I am just trying to provide alternatives to people who are not happy with the standard recovery programs that are typically offered to them.

Part of the reason that this is such a problem is that the 12 step program is almost universally presented as THE solution for addiction and alcoholism. If you attend a hundred treatment centers at random, you will find something like 95 of them or slightly more will be urging you to attend AA meetings as the core of your recovery program. They are not just saying that AA is part of the solution, they are really relying entirely on AA in order to keep people clean and sober. The vast majority of rehabs are basically saying “this is how it works; go to AA.”

This is fine for most people and if people try hard and put in a serious effort they can, and do get good results from the AA program. But clearly this is not the right approach for everyone and the thing that is really upsetting to me is that people in AA typically present their own program as the ONLY solution. They might say something in a meeting such as “If you leave AA, it is only a matter of time before you relapse, as the AA program is your only hope.”

This is what is so dangerous. Not because it keeps the wrong sort of person stuck in AA, but because it prevents people from finding their true path in recovery, and discovering the life that they were truly meant to live. While it may be a decent solution for most people, it can also stifle some individuals who are meant to be on a different path.

This website is all about finding that other path. It is an holistic path, one that is broader than the AA program (which focuses on spiritual growth only).

The stand-on-your-head theory

There are some people in AA who argue that everyone should just give up this struggle and accept AA as the ultimate solution for recovery. They are frustrated in particular because they know that the AA program worked for them, so they believe it will work for anyone. But then what they do is they make this mental leap between willingness for recovery and “willingness for the AA program” and they mash them into the same idea.

This is unfair and misleading. Let’s take a closer look at it.

When you are still using drugs and alcohol in your active addiction, you must develop the willingness to give abstinence a chance and try to change your life. This is the moment of surrender and your initial push into sobriety. Until you surrender, you cannot begin any sort of recovery, because you will still be hanging on to the idea that you might be able to control your drinking or drug use some day. So you have to become willing to surrender, willing to try a new way of life, willing to go get help at a rehab. Willingness is key.

But then people who are pushing the AA program on others take this a step further and say that you have to become willing to accept AA as your solution. They say “until you accept AA as your solution, you cannot make any real progress in recovery.” They will go on to point out that mere abstinence is not enough in recovery, and that you need the 12 steps in order to realize a new life and find peace and happiness in your sobriety.

So they have taken the idea of willingness and then applied it to their program of recovery, rendering all other paths to sobriety obsolete. Well, those other paths to sobriety are still valid and a person can become just as willing to give those avenues a chance rather than AA.

There is a joke in AA about willingness and desperation, and it basically says “you have to be so desperate and so willing to recover, that if the people in AA told you to stand on your head all day long in order to not drink, you would do it.”

This is meant to be funny and it is meant to point out that you have to be desperate for change and be very willing to do “whatever it takes” to recover.

The truth is, though, that the stand-on-your-head program would work just fine, if you actually did it. It’s awfully hard to go buy booze (and then drink it!) while standing on your head.

This concept brings up a good point. Abstinence is implied in AA (the steps do not actually advise you not to drink).

So the assumption is that everyone in AA is going to remain abstinent and avoid alcohol and other drugs at all costs.

Then, they are going to work the 12 steps of AA, and this will bring them to a new life in recovery, one in which the urge to drink will be removed.

My point here is this:

Any program that is based on abstinence from drugs and alcohol CAN be successful.

So if the 12 steps would be just as effective if they were actually 3 steps instead that stated something like:

1) Don’t use addictive drugs or alcohol no matter what.
2) Pursue holistic health in all areas of your life.
3) Take positive action every day to try to improve as a person.

This three step program is completely different than the 12 steps of AA, but I am confident that it is just as effective. In fact, it pretty much summarizes what I do in order to remain clean and sober.

So assume for a moment that AA does not exist, but that a large program is in its place that has these 3 steps.

You would still have a mix of people who are successful with the program and those who relapse frequently.

You would still have people who are saying “this program works just fine so long as you dedicate your life to it and do exactly what it tells you to do!”

So really the steps are arbitrary. There is no magic in them. There is no magic in the 3 steps that I listed above. It is not some secret formula that results in long term sobriety. The 12 steps are not some secret formula either.

The secret formula is actually the IMPLIED ASSUMPTION about abstinence. AA uses this and I guess you could call it “step zero.” The 12 steps do not actually advise you to avoid alcohol, which I think is stupid. That should be step one: “Don’t drink!” Would have made more sense to me. Anyway, the concept of abstinence is implied in AA.

And that is the “secret formula” that everyone seems to miss about the program. It is based on total abstinence. What comes after that implication (the 12 steps) is actually sort of irrelevant, all the 12 steps do is attempt to fix your life in some ways, but it is by no means comprehensive. This is why they still have meetings, so that people can discuss the details.

And this is what I believe is so misleading about the way that AA is typically toted as being an ultimate solution. It is just the implication of abstinence followed by some suggestions for how to live. This is not a program of recovery, it is simply a suggestion for abstinence followed by “try to clean up your act.” There is no magic in the steps, nothing revolutionary in them.

The stand-on-your-head theory actually does work. If you use the implication of total abstinence (no drinking allowed) and then stand on your head all day, then you really will remain sober. But so what? That is not necessarily very useful to people, nor will it help them to enjoy their life much. But it does make a point: it would actually work. And so will AA. But so will any other program that has the implication of abstinence as the first assumption.

For example:

Get clean and sober in detox, then go join a church community and get actively involved with a church. This is one of the “religious paths” to recovery. It can and does work for thousands of people. The implication of total abstinence is there, of course. The person must make sobriety their number one priority. After that, their solution is involvement in the church, and all of the positive stuff that comes along with that.

Does this actually work? Of course it does, it is working for thousands. But is it the only path to sobriety? Of course not, thousands of people in AA shun the idea of organized religion and churches (sort of funny, no?).

Again, what is important here is the implication of total abstinence. The church involvement that follows that is not critical, it is not so important, what is really important is the commitment to total abstinence. But most people do not see this correctly, they look at whatever comes AFTER the implication (of abstinence), and they think that this is the real solution. They see the religious path and the church involvement and they believe that this is what is keeping someone sober. Or they see the AA meetings and the sponsorship and they think this is what is keeping someone sober.

It’s not. It is the person’s commitment to sobriety that keeps them sober, period. That is the one true program of recovery. All of this other stuff (AA, religious recovery programs, holistic recovery programs, etc.) are just ways to deal with life now that you are living clean and sober.

But the point here is that it is the commitment to sobriety that does all the heavy lifting, that actually works the magic in recovery.

People in AA often get so frustrated because they know that the program has worked for them, and they know that the AA program has worked for other people, and so when they see someone struggling or they see someone like me who is talking about alternatives it frustrates them in the extreme. Their thought is “Why can’t everyone just accept AA as their ultimate solution? If they would just surrender to AA and follow the program blindly, without question, then their life would get so much better, just like mine did.”

What such a person is failing to realize is that the AA program is not where the real magic happens. Their mistake is that they really believe that the 12 steps are the magic solution for addiction. In fact, their magic solution is 99 percent about their commitment to sobriety, not about the 12 steps.

It is like the old “finger pointing at the moon” idea. The 12 steps are window dressing, they are not the thing that people are trying to point to.

What people should more accurately say is:

“Just get clean and sober by making a total commitment to sobriety, make a promise to yourself that you are not going to use alcohol or addictive drugs no matter what, and then take action to try to improve your life as you maintain abstinence. If you want to use a 12 step program for that, this is great, but the thing that you have to really nail down and get perfect is the 100 percent commitment to total abstinence.”

Instead, they push the AA program, they push the meetings, they push the idea of sponsorship. All of these things are just fingers pointing at the moon; they are not the moon. The real moon is the total commitment to sobriety which comes from the total and complete surrender that the person must go through.

How successfully recovery is actually created

So we have seen what real recovery actually is: It is a commitment to abstinence, not a magical sequence of steps.

The various programs of recovery seek to improve life during recovery in order to help maintain this abstinence, but they are not the pivot on which successful recovery actually sits.

I believe that it is useful to separate recovery into two phases at times: Short term recovery and long term recovery.

Some might argue that AA is useful for living a new kind of life in long term recovery. I would agree that it is one possible solution for that, and if it works for certain people then I would encourage them to keep pursuing it.

In my experience, however, long term recovery is best attained with concepts and ideas that are not necessarily found in the 12 steps.

For example, the idea of complacency is not directly addressed in the 12 steps, but this is actually the biggest threat to people who have multiple years sober and are relatively stable in their recovery. If there is a major flaw in the 12 step program, it is that the steps do not directly address this threat which has turned out to be very real for people in long term sobriety.

It could be argued that step 12 addresses the threat of complacency indirectly, and that by working with other alcoholics and addicts on a regular basis, we can keep ourselves on a path of growth and thus avoid the fate of becoming complacent. This may work for some, but I have found in my experience in recovery that not every person in long term recovery is called to work with other alcoholics. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Most people that I know who are living in long term sobriety are still contributing, still making a difference, still giving of themselves to others or to a cause. It is just not necessarily giving back to struggling alcoholics.

Continuous growth is the key to long term sobriety, and it is also the key to overcoming complacency.

There is a balance that must be found in recovery. The balance is between two concepts:

1) I accept myself and my life today. I practice acceptance in order to be at peace, and experience serenity.
2) I push myself to make healthy changes. I do not settle for things. I push to improve my life and my experiences.

Those two concepts can be in direct conflict with each other. The serenity prayer attempts to resolve this conflict, pushing us to figure out what we need to accept and what we need to work on in order to make positive changes.

Most people in recovery work on the acceptance part, but they often fall short of working on the “making positive changes” part.

If you want to succeed in long term recovery then my theory is that you should shift your efforts to working on some of those positive changes in your life.

Recovery is nothing more than the accumulation of positive action.

You quit drinking or taking drugs, that is positive action.

You start doing good things for yourself and for your life, that is more positive action.

You keep doing positive things every single day for yourself, and this will produce amazing results as time marches on.

If you stop taking positive action then you will start to drift slowly back towards a relapse.

Thus there is this battle between your addiction and this positive new life in recovery, one that is filled with positive change.

If you go too many days or weeks in a row where you are NOT taking positive action, then eventually you will relapse.

If you need a program of AA in order to prompt this positive action, then go to AA.

If you need a religious based program of recovery in order to prompt this positive action in your life, then go seek religion.

If you can use a holistic and creative program of recovery as outlined here on Spiritual River, then do that.

Find a way to push yourself to keep taking positive action, and you will recover.

This is true both in and out of AA. Your path to recovery is mostly about surrender and commitment and positive action, not about specific programs.


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