Does AA Really Help People to Stop Drinking?

Does AA Really Help People to Stop Drinking?

how to stop drinking alcohol

There is quite a bit of debate about whether or not AA is truly the best solution for the struggling alcoholic in today’s world.

Depending on who you ask, Alcoholics Anonymous can be heralded as “the only solution that could possibly help a real alcoholic” or it can be vilified as “a misguided organization that actually has success rates that are worse than that of spontaneous remission.”

Who are you to believe? What is the real truth?

I would like to take a shot at answering this without creating too much additional controversy.

My bottom line is that I believe most struggling alcoholics should try to give AA a chance. They should try it out. There are reasons for this that I will discuss below. But in the end I do not believe that AA is the only solution, nor do I think that it is the best solution in every case. It is not a good fit for some personality types (of which I am one).

So I do not push people to go to AA, but I do urge them to give it a chance at least once. In my opinion, AA is worth exploring. But more on that in a minute.

The default solution for alcoholism

If you want to stop drinking in this world and you ask for help then there is about a 75 percent chance or greater that the solution offered to you will include the 12 step program of AA. There are a few alternatives out there but they are few and far between. Actually there are several different approaches to recovery but none of them have anywhere near the recognition or foundation that AA has built up.

AA is the current default solution (at least here in the U.S., I cannot speak globally as I have no experience with that). So there are alternatives but if you just call up a random treatment center then there is at least a 75 percent chance that they will say that they have exposure to AA meetings, or that their treatment philosophy is 12 step based.

This is the solution that is entrenched right now. It is what is available.

Furthermore, there are AA meetings everywhere. When you get out of rehab, when you get through detoxing your body and the rehab puts you back out on the street, what is your plan to stay sober?

This is why I recommend that everyone at least give AA meetings a chance.

You leave rehab, you are suddenly sober, and you have no idea how to really live your life without drinking. The odds of you relapsing within the next year are strikingly high (most estimates would say upwards of 90 percent relapsing in the first year). So what can you do to help insure that you are in the 10 percent who maintain sobriety?

Going to AA meetings consistently is indicated by the data to be a fairly good indicator of sobriety. Now it is not a perfect correlation, I do realize that. I have known many chronic relapsers who continue to attend AA meetings, for example. And I know many people who have drifted away from meetings (myself included) who continue to stay sober without issue.

But for the most part, if you have just left rehab after being detoxed and spun dry, your best bet is to get to an AA meeting the first day that you walk out of rehab. And they of course will suggest that you attend 90 meetings over the next 90 days and not drink in between those meetings.

How exactly could that be bad advice for someone who is struggling to get sober and turn their life around?

It is actually pretty funny that I would advocate for this approach because I have not been to an AA meeting for over a decade now. I don’t necessarily believe that AA is the best path for everyone, and yet I firmly believe in the suggestions that I just made above–that newcomers should give AA a chance in their life.

Why is this? Why am I not being consistent?

It has to do with timing.

I believe that AA meetings have their place in recovery, and that place is primarily in EARLY recovery.

This is a dangerous opinion to have, I am told.

For example, when I stopped going to meetings roughly 9 years ago, I was told that I was inviting certain relapse. I was told that I would drink and eventually come back to the meetings. This has not happened, and for that I am grateful. I have found other ways to motivate myself and to grow in my recovery.

In early recovery I did not have the perspective and stability that I enjoy today in long term sobriety. In early recovery, meetings were important to building my foundation of sobriety.

But after you have gone to meetings every day for a year or two, you have to ask yourself: “Am I moving forward? Am I getting stronger in my recovery, or staying the same?”

I have heard people in AA say that they depend on daily meetings for their sobriety. To me this was a flaw, a weakness. If you are making progress in recovery then you should get stronger, no? That was my take on it anyway. So I pushed myself to experience enough positive change in my life that I no longer depended on daily meetings.

Not that there is not any value in AA meetings, because there certainly is. I just did not want to depend on them every day for my continued success. I wanted to go beyond that pattern.

The real truth about sobriety is that if you are depending on daily meetings to keep you sober then you are probably not pushing yourself enough in other departments. For example, if you work through the 12 steps and really apply them in your life then this would in turn reduce your dependence on daily meetings. Some people just prop up their feet at AA meetings and sort of coast through sobriety. Others “do the work” and that means working the steps. You can guess who has a stronger recovery and who is less likely to relapse.

What you should do if you have never been sober before

If you have never been sober before at all then I strongly urge you to get help at a professional rehab center. There is a strong chance that going to a random rehab will introduce you to AA meetings as a solution. This is fine, go with the flow. That is my suggestion to you. Go to treatment and take their advice, follow their suggestions. They will push you to go to AA and I believe that you should give it a chance.

When you leave treatment it is up to you to take action. If you fail to take action after leaving rehab then chances are really good that you will relapse very quickly. The most critical time after leaving treatment is the first 30 days. The entire first year after treatment is very, very important.

My advice if you have never been sober before is to treat this project like it is the most important thing in your life. You should also treat it as if it is the most difficult thing that you have ever done before. Ever! That means that you should dedicate the maximum amount of resources that you have to recovery. So when they suggest that you go to 90 meetings in the next 90 days, that should seem like nothing at all. That should seem like a minor commitment, because you need to be willing to dedicate even more of your time and effort than that. You need to be willing to really dive in head first and give recovery a supreme effort.

I like to take about taking “massive action.” You are trying to change your life from being addicted to alcohol and that is a major undertaking. It is not a small thing and it is not a small change. They say in recovery that you have to “change everything” and they are right. You really do have to change nearly everything in your life. This is huge.

To someone who has never even tried to sober up, it may seem simple. But it is not so simple. You can’t just eliminate alcohol. By now you should have tried to do that in several different ways. If you haven’t, then go ahead and try to just quit drinking. If your life becomes instantly better and you have no problems then congratulations, you are probably not even alcoholic! Go live your life and be happy.

On the other hand, you are probably reading this article or seeking help from a rehab because you have tried and failed to stop drinking on your own. It hasn’t worked for you. You need help.

So the solution is to become open to that helping hand. You must be willing. You must ask for help and then follow directions.

These things do not sound like fun, I know. Believe me I know what it feels like to become humble. To be at your rock bottom and to need to be shown how to live.

If you cannot ask someone for help and say “show me how to live” then you are not ready to get sober. A certain amount of desperation is necessary for success in recovery.

This is why I think AA is a pretty good option for early recovery. If you are not willing to go then you are probably not ready for help anyway. Does this mean that AA is perfect for everyone? No it does not. I went to AA for a year or so then drifted away to do my own thing. That was over ten years ago. But I am grateful that I finally became open to AA as a solution, even though it did not become a permanent solution for me. I had to be willing to give it a chance, because at the time that was the only thing available to me. No one was offering me alternatives for recovery.

AA may not be perfect but it is probably worth giving it a fair chance to work in your life

AA is not perfect but is probably better than nothing, at least if you are a struggling alcoholic.

There are some people who believe that AA actually does more harm than good. Such people use statistics to try to show that the rate of spontaneous remission is actually about the same as the success rate of AA. In other words, maybe 5 percent stay sober who first walk into AA, and they can show data that roughly 5 percent of alcoholics also sober up on their own without any outside help.

I don’t buy this argument though. I still think that AA has value for the right people, and that it is worth exploring to see if you are one of those people. I have been to a lot of different AA meetings and I have known many recovering alcoholics who are part of the AA program. There is definitely value there for certain people, it just isn’t for everyone.

You can start in a 12 step program and evolve into more holistic recovery later on

My path to living sober started with long term rehab and daily AA meetings, but it quickly evolved from there. After 90 days I dropped to 3 AA meetings per week and then after a year or so I quit going entirely.

What I did when I left the AA meetings was to focus on personal growth and holistic health.

I said to myself “I know that there is risk of relapse when I leave the daily AA meetings, and I want to minimize that risk. How can I do so while still leaving the meetings?”

My answer to that was to deconstruct successful sobriety. I looked at my sponsor, I looked at the old timers in AA, I looked at the “winners” in recovery who seemed to have what I wanted in terms of quality sobriety. So I looked at all of those people and I asked myself:

“What are those people doing in their lives other than going to AA meetings?”

I found out that some of those people (such as my grand sponsor who had 20+ years sober) did not even attend many meetings any more. This was exciting to me because it gave me hope that I could remain sober without attending daily meetings.

I found that these people all had a life outside out AA. Some of them went to school, some of them went to church, most all of them exercised, most all of them had quit smoking cigarettes at some point, and so on. I found some common themes. And these people all had motivation and drive to improve their lives. They worked on personal growth. They were active. They were not living passively.

I think this may be the whole point of a program such as AA–that it forces you to not live passively.

Because if you live passively then you will drink again. You will relapse. If you are not actively building a new life then you will return to your old life.

How could you not?

Your old life is the default. That is your baseline. Drinking is what you are used to doing. That is “normal” for you to be drunk. That is what it means to be alcoholic.

To overcome this, you have to reinvent yourself. Over and over again. So that you do not return to “the old you” that drinks.

In order to not return to “the old you” you have to take action. Massive action. Over and over again.

Going to AA may help you to do that. There are worse options out there. And AA might not be the right fit for you, which is OK.

But I think it is worth finding out. I think it is worth seeing if AA can help you to take massive action in your life. To see if AA can help you to reinvent yourself over and over again.

It is also possible to get complacent in AA. This happens when you get lazy and you stop pushing yourself to make changes. Complacency is a return to passive living. You stop taking action. You stop taking the actions that push you to improve your life.

When that happens it is possible for anyone to relapse, whether they are in AA or not. Complacency is a real threat regardless of what program you have in your life or whether you go to meetings or not.

The alternative to a strictly spiritual based program

AA is a spiritual program, and that works for certain people.

My belief is that if a strictly spiritual program is not working for you, then you should try the holistic approach instead.

The holistic approach, by the way, includes a spiritual component. But it seeks to go beyond that and include other forms of personal growth.

For example, you may find that daily exercise is as helpful to you as daily AA meetings may be for others (I did).

Or you may find that working with others in recovery is more helpful to you than attending daily meetings (again, I did).

You may be shocked to find that most people in traditional recovery are not really open to the idea of holistic recovery. They see such ideas as a threat, as a distraction to the core focus of their sobriety.

In other words, they do not understand why someone would suggest avoiding AA meetings in favor of daily exercise. This makes no sense to someone in traditional recovery. To them, the AA meeting is concentrated and focused on sobriety, whereas the exercise is not very specific in helping someone to avoid drinking.

But again, this is why I believe that timing is so important. Early recovery is not the best time to implement a holistic approach. Long term sobriety is when you will benefit most from expanding your personal growth options.

Early recovery is a good time for focus. That is also why I suggest that most people check out AA. It is highly focused. You show up somewhere and you discuss “how not to drink” for an hour. And you do this with other people who have the exact same problem that you have. That is highly focused.

Going for a jog every day is not nearly as focused as this. But in long term sobriety it may be just as useful, or possibly even more helpful at some point. This is what I found in my own journey. At around the 1 or 2 year point in my sobriety, an hour of exercise became more beneficial to me than a one hour AA meeting. So I switched.

But that does not mean that AA is not helpful. It just became less helpful to me over time, while I also found new ways to grow in my recovery.

What about you, has AA proven to be helpful? Or have you found value in the holistic approach? Or did you start out in AA and then drift away, like I did? Let us know in the discussion forums. It only takes a second to register!


  1. I believe that our American Justice system has practically ruined AA. Most people that you would find in a meeting today are not there because they want to stop drinking, but rather because of a court order and, because of that, meetings are now full of actual users and dealers. Thanks to our courts, the best possible place to find a new dealer is your local AA meeting.
    If you truly want to stop drinking I do not recommend hanging out with a bunch of users, stay away from AA. I do like the 12 step program, though, and recommend anyone apply that to their life.

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