Reader Mailbag – Question About the Success of the Alcoholics Anonymous Program

Reader Mailbag – Question About the Success of the Alcoholics Anonymous Program


An anonymous reader writes in about the success rate of AA and says:

Hello friend.
I have a theory into why AA’s success rate is so poor. I have come into AA many times to either been force fed the steps or told to make more meetings or call my sponsor or whatever else and have failed in remaining sober. I couldn’t understand it twice in the past nine years I had accumulated significant time in the program but couldn’t keep my sobriety. I would even sit in meetings and plot my next drink. The funny thing with honesty is when your lying to yourself you start to believe it as the truth, but becoming honest was only a turning point. And quite frankly just a small reason why the success rate is low.

I do believe sponsorship has changed. Sponsors are more like drama coaches or referees or whatever also they push sponsee’s into step work with out looking at the very specific instruction in the big book. The sponsee is supposed to read the book first. It actually makes perfect sense if you think about if you had a instruction manual or recipe wouldn’t you read the whole thing before you started??? If the big book is our text book if you were in college wouldn’t you read it before going to class?

Maybe the person doesn’t want what’s described in the book or maybe he’s not an alcoholic??

What are your thoughts?

Well you bring up several issues there and not all of them are necessarily just about the AA program, some of them are about recovery itself, and would apply to anyone who is attempting to become clean and sober–with or without AA.

- Approved Treatment Center -


So let’s take a closer look at your questions and we can see if we can learn anything. Everyone reading, be sure to jump in on the comments down below if you have any additional thoughts or ideas about anything being discussed.

Lying to yourself and believing it is the truth after a while

This is always going to be tricky no matter how you approach it or deal with it, because like you suggest, when you are lying to yourself for long enough eventually you start to believe your own lie. AA attempts to deal with this in a few different ways, one of which is to eliminate all secrets by suggesting that you share everything with a sponsor in recovery. There is definitely therapeutic value in doing this in my opinion, though it is tough to do and as you can guess many recovering alcoholics never actually do it (and share their life story with someone they trust).

If you attend lots of AA meetings you will definitely hear this theme come up over and over again, as it is fairly important. “You are only as sick as your secrets.” The reason it is important to share your secrets is because then the person that you share them with can tell you IF you are lying to yourself. Because unless you become willing to open up, take a risk, and share all of your secrets with someone you trust, then no one will be able to tell if you are just fooling yourself or not.

If you keep your ideas, thoughts, and desires all trapped inside of your head, there is no one to help you evaluate your ideas and tell you when you might be way off base.

One of the most popular examples of this is in AA when someone is considering an experiment in “controlled drinking.” The person may have been sober for a while and they start to feel good and they are confident that if they were to take a drink that they would be much more in control than they used to be, and that things would be different. They might even have heard an example of someone else in their situation who was able to successfully control their drinking. So they get this idea in their head that they are no longer an alcoholic, that they have been sober for long enough that they can learn to drink successfully, and that the old rules no longer apply to them.

This is exactly the type of secret that we need to be sharing with others in recovery. This is the exact scenario that is so dangerous to our recovery, and it is the ultimate lie that seeks to subvert us. Having thoughts of using drugs or taking a drink is exactly what we need to share most with others. If we tell others these kinds of thoughts or plans, they can tell us how crazy it is and convince us that it will not turn out well.

If you do not share such a secret with others then your mind will continue to build evidence for your case to take a drink. You can easily find support for the idea that moderation works and is a good choice in life. But moderation will kill an alcoholic, because we are wired differently.

There are other things that we might lie to ourselves in recovery about, but this example is the ultimate lie and all others are based on this concept or lead up to it in some way. A therapist in a treatment center once commented “secrets and getting drunk go well together.” You have to become brutally honest if you want to stay sober for the long run, and sharing your secrets with someone you trust is a good way to maintain full honesty in your life. If you have secrets that you are withholding from others then that is a clear sign that you are not being fully honest in your life.

Has sponsorship changed?

There are some great sponsorship lines out there if you are diligent enough to look for them. They are people who are:

* Trying their hardest to follow the simple instructions laid out in the Big Book.
* Trying to study the historical roots of AA and how things were done in the past and how the program has evolved.
* Very action oriented and willing to invest time in a struggling alcoholic to genuinely help them.

Because AA (and other 12 step programs) have been around for several decades now, the role of sponsorship certainly has changed a bit in most cases. Things are different now because the world has changed and the AA program has not really been rewritten to adopt to any changes. And, maybe it does not need to. There are sponsorship lines in AA today that would argue that nothing needs to be changed in AA, that the world can continue to change and AA will be able to keep doing what it does best without any significant changes so long as they maintain their singleness of purpose.

To some extent, modern AA can easily be worked in a much different manner from “the old days.” This is not good or bad, it is just based on what changes have occurred. Now you might have thirty or forty meetings each and every day in a major city, and a recovering alcoholic could potentially attend an AA meeting nearly non stop if they wanted to. When AA first started, most towns and cities may have only had one or two meetings every week, if that. So there is certainly a different dynamic going on today simply based on the widespread proliferation of 12 step meetings. Someone can camp out in meetings quite a bit in modern AA in a way that they never could have done back in the old days.

Another interesting point is that there were no treatment centers back when AA first started. Again, modern recovery is different because of widespread meetings AND because of the rise of drug and alcohol rehabs. People no longer just go to AA….they go to rehab first, sometimes several rehabs. And they learn things in rehab and so the role of sponsorship may be less significant based on modern recovery and all of these additional resources that we have available these days.

Certainly if someone wanted to recover in our modern world WITHOUT a sponsor they could do certainly try to do so. Perhaps when AA first began the notion that you needed a sponsor was very critical, and you may have been totally lost without one. But today we have drug rehabs, tons of AA and NA meetings, outpatient rehab and therapy, counseling, online recovery, and so on. There are so many more resources in modern day recovery that the need for sponsorship is, in my opinion, greatly diminished.

I know that the purists will be up in arms over such an idea, saying things like “Do you even know what a sponsor is for? That they are required to help take someone through the steps? That they are a spiritual guide of sorts?” And so on.

I am sure some people would respond with that sort of argument, but I do not buy it necessarily. Like I said, modern day recovery is different than when AA first began. The path of overcoming addiction is not as mystical or mysterious as it used to be. We can recover today based on positive action and creating positive change in our lives. The AA program may still be an integral part of your path to recovery, but there are many more resources for you to learn and explore that path. There are even those today who have found sobriety using nothing but online recovery resources.

So yes, I believe that sponsorship has changed over time, and that is not necessarily a good or a bad thing. I know that there are still some sponsorship lines out there that try to keep it simple and that genuinely care about people and try to do the right thing. Like with anything else in life, you are going to get some bad apples mixed into any bunch. Our job is to evaluate and choose someone who is living the values that we want to live.

The sponsee should read the Big Book first….

Well now this one is rather debatable because I have some knowledge of historical AA and how it evolved, though I am by no means an expert.

However, I know in some cases that “in the old days of AA” that a newcomer might find the program of AA one day, and the very next day they would be taken through all of the steps of the program. All of them! All in one day! And in some cases, such people who were given this crash course actually stayed clean and sober, and were doing 12 step work just a week later, trying to help other struggling drunks to get clean as well.

These days you are not so likely to hear of such a quick timeline. These days in modern recovery, you are more likely to hear people say that we should not rush through the steps. They would argue that no one who has a mere week of sobriety should be sponsoring others or doing intense 12 step work in reaching out to struggling alcoholics. It is too soon, much too quick, they would argue…..let them get a few months of sobriety under their belt at least before you send them out to go save the world, right?

But if you study historical AA you will see that the timeline used to be quite different. They would sober someone up, run them through all of the steps, and put them to work as a new AA sponsor and try to get them helping others who needed it right away.

So where in this old timeline is there a pressing need to read the literature? Sure they still pushed the Big Book I am sure, but if you are running people through the 12 steps in the first day and pushing them to go do 12 step work on the second day then I do not think they really emphasized the reading as much as you are suggesting. It was all about taking action, finding God, and then putting in the work to help other struggling alcoholics.

Now this is all based on what I have been told “AA used to be like when it first began.” Perhaps I was misinformed? I don’t know for sure. But I have been told that it was no-nonsense, action oriented, and that newcomers worked all of the steps in a single afternoon. AA has evolved since then into something a bit softer, a bit more thorough, and tries to be more practical (we have years of recovery to look forward to, why rush through the steps? etc.)

I have a couple other comments on getting people to read the Big Book first before they attempt to work the program and recover.

First of all, the Big Book needs updating in my opinion, especially since it is going to be more difficult to get the younger crowd to study the literature. The language in the actual writing is very archaic and very dry and boring. It is a very tough read compared to, say, the more modern NA basic text. AA refuses to update the writing because they argue that it is “good enough.” If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Because it works for some people then it must work for everyone, right? So they refuse to update the awful writing in the book. I feel this is a mistake and a shame.

Second of all, reading is not that useful for recovery. Seriously. It is just not that helpful. I am a voracious reader myself and I can tell you that my success in recovery was NOT based on ideas that I gleaned from recovery books. Instead, my success was based on the actions that I took, the positive goals that I set for myself, and the interactions that I had with the PEOPLE in my life and in my recovery. The literature is just not that important, in my opinion. Learning the concepts is only 10 percent of the battle, applying them in your real life is the other 90 percent. Focusing on the 10 percent part is just silly and not even necessary.

Third of all, I do not think this approach is realistic at all. When people get to recovery they are not in a position to be able to study. They are scrambled and their brains are fried. They are just getting sober! Can we really expect to hand them this archaic book about alcoholism and expect them to read the whole boring thing and retain all of it? There are no great secrets hidden in the Big Book that need to be sifted through be each individual alcoholic. It is not as though they have to read the Big Book just to have faith in the idea that recovery is even possible for them. They can get that reassurance based on recovering alcoholics that they meet in person, live, in meetings and in rehabs.

The Big Book was much more useful in “the old days” when it was a useful vehicle of information in a world where AA and recovery were not so widespread. The modern world has little need for a book at all, period! We have the Internet. We also have thousands of AA meetings around the globe, drug and alcohol rehab centers, etc.

It used to be that a book was the major vehicle for transferring ideas. They can still be used for that but I would not stake the future success of AA on getting people to rehab a book. Heck, just think about the current crop of children and what they will think of a bound book in the future! They will probably regard it as an ancient artifact. Read a whole book? You’ve got to be kidding! I can skim the core ideas from Wikipedia in twenty minutes…..etc.

Maybe the failures just do not want the promises as outlined in the Big Book?

I have another suggestion–that the people who fail in AA do not BELIEVE that the promises could come true for them at all. They do not believe that the promises are even possible, period. This is because that is the exact situation that I was in during my first two stints at rehab.

I did not believe that the AA program could work for me, period.

The truth was that it COULD, if I was willing to let it. The truth is that ANY program based on abstinence could have worked for me, if I would have been willing.

But I was not willing. I was in denial, and I believed that I could not be happy in AA, or sober, period.

And so I failed. I tried AA (and rehab) twice, and I failed both times. I failed–not because I did not WANT the promises in the Big Book–I failed because I thought them to be impossible to attain. For ME. I thought “maybe other alcoholics can attain those promises, but I am different, I am unique, I cannot.”

So I believe this is very possible, that people will believe that they cannot achieve the promises that AA lays out for them. I used to be one of those people. And I was in such a state of denial that I do not think anyone could convince me otherwise (at the time). I had to go through more chaos, more pain and misery, and arrive at my own personal bottom, my own surrender, before I could start working towards real recovery.

Maybe the failures are not really alcoholics?

This is a dangerous argument and I urge you to be careful with it. Here is why:

You must be careful to dismiss people who leave AA or who fail in AA as not being “real” alcoholics. Be very cautious of this, because it can easily blind you from the truth.

I am a real alcoholic. I have been through years of chaos, misery, and uncontrollable drinking. And yet there are people who believe that I am NOT an alcoholic, simply because I can stay sober without the help of AA.

This is absurd. Do not define the disease based on a recovery program. Alcoholism existed long before AA came along. There were people who found sobriety and real recovery BEFORE AA came along (not many, but they were some).

Never try to label someone else as either “alcoholic” or “not an alcoholic.” We can only put such labels on ourselves, not on other people. Worry only about your own condition, and if alcohol is dangerous for YOU.


Anyone have any thoughts on these issues? Please let us know in the comments!


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