The Misinformation about Alcoholics Anonymous and Sobriety by Veronica Valli

The Misinformation about Alcoholics Anonymous and Sobriety by Veronica Valli


2020-01-12 21:44:04

In my almost twenty years of sobriety, I’ve been privy to hundreds — maybe thousands — of debates about the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous, otherwise known as AA. 

As someone who has found recovery through the program almost twenty years ago because there were simply no other options available, I am both a beneficiary and a proponent to be sure. As a former psychotherapist, I also recognize that there is, of course, no one path to recovery. I know that any body of thought and organization has its flaws, and that AA is is no exception. I have seen people in the program misinterpret the text as justification for abuse of other members; I have come across unhealthy practices and people; I understand where things can go and have gone awry. 

Throughout the years, when given the opportunity to have an open discussion about the criticisms of AA with people inside and outside of the program, I do. My intention is never to change minds or convince anyone to change their mind; I have no problem with disagreement or rejection (nor am I the spokesperson for AA). I only aim to provide accurate information about the program’s principles when it’s clear the criticisms stem from gross misinformation or a fringe experience.

The arguments against AA typically center on a few core themes, which I’ve attempted to lay out here. Although I’ve long wanted to write this piece, I’ve consistently put it off, opting for in-person discussions versus online debates, which are typically futile. A recent piece in The New York Times, “The Patriarchy of Alcoholics Anonymous” by Holly Whitaker, prompted me to finally get it down.

Before we begin, I’d like to establish a few things.

 

Rules of Engagement

–       Trolls will be blocked

–       Read the entire piece before commenting or offering feedback

–       I speak only for myself; I am not representing anyone

 

The  AA “fellowship” and the AA “program” are two entirely separate entities.  The fellowship is simply the people who attend meetings and consider themselves members. The program is the 12 steps, which are laid out in the basic text (commonly referred to as “the Big Book”) of Alcoholics Anonymous. For this piece, I am only going to use the Big Book as my source. Why? Because it is the basic text of the program. All the other books are accompaniments to the program and I want to stick to the source material for clarity.*

 I am not going to sugar-coat this: much of the misinformation about the program comes from the fellowship itself. There are many reasons why what is heard in meetings is so different from what the program actually teaches. 

I wish to be clear here. The program is not necessarily something you have heard a member repeat in a meeting or have seen online.

To understand what the program is and isn’t, and what it does and doesn’t do, you have to go to the source material: you have to study the Big Book. Please note I said study, not just read. It is a spiritual text. I would also argue the program is experiential only and can only truly be understood when you have taken the action of the twelve steps. It is an action program, not a theoretical one. 

Currently, we have a lot of confusion as information is just passed from meeting to meeting (like a game of telephone), which then becomes misinformation, which is then repeated elsewhere. This misinformation is then taken as fact.  Worse still, this misinformation is then criticized by visitors, who make assumptions about the program that are entirely inaccurate.

The best example of this is how members introduce themselves at meetings. “Hi. I’m Bob, and I’m an alcoholic.” No one knows how this tradition started. But it started in a meeting somewhere and was repeated, and now it is very hard to find a meeting where it’s not done (although there are a few meetings that purposefully don’t use this greeting). Needless to say, it is not a requirement of the program to identify yourself as an alcoholic or even to use the term. But people commonly assume it is necessary because the fellowship repeats it.

This misinterpretation has also, unfortunately, led to abusive practices within the fellowship, where elements of the “program” have been distorted and misrepresented to cause various forms of emotional abuse and harm. I will address some of these throughout this post.

 

The “alcoholic” label, and Alcohol Use Disorder as a spectrum

While the only qualification for attending a meeting and calling oneself a member is “the desire to stop drinking,” alcohol use disorder actually exists on a spectrum. Alcoholics Anonymous is a program for people who identify as having reached a point of internal unmanageability in their life as described below, which may mean that they drink a lot or a little. Throughout this piece, I will be using the term “alcoholic” to describe someone who self-identifies with this state of unmanageability, although I recognize this is not a chosen label for many — nor does it have to be. 

 

++

 

None of the 12 steps can exist in isolation. Rather, they are like mechanical cogs that all turn together to achieve a result. When taken out of context, they become distorted and are open to abuse and misinterpretation, as I shall explain below.

Powerlessness

The most common argument against AA — and the most common misperception of the program I see — is that it aims to strip people of their power. For example, Holly Whitaker in the aforementioned piece stated, “I worry that any program that tells us to renounce power that we have never had poses the threat of making us sicker … There’s no question that we need help. But we don’t need to give up our power.” 

 The word “powerless” is used in the first step as follows: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable” (Step 1, page 59). This only means admitting powerlessness over alcohol, which is the first step one must take before continuing. It does not assert that we are without power, and nowhere does it ask that we renounce or “give up” our power.

 It does ask us to acknowledge that when it comes to alcohol, we cannot drink safely, which is a fact. Science has taught us that the brain chemistry of an alcoholic, or of someone with alcohol use disorder, has changed to the point that they can no longer control their alcohol intake.

 I have certainly seen this concept twisted into an abusive one. One example is when someone is told to focus on all the ways they are powerless. I’ve heard of members being asked to write out all the things they are powerless over, such as their boss, their kids, the government, their neighbors, etc. While it may be true that none of us is “in charge” of such things, this type of practice doesn’t achieve anything other than extending the person’s sense of powerlessness. It is not helpful — and more importantly, it is not the intent of the first step to state that someone is powerless in every aspect of their life. The 12 steps are actually a method for reclaiming and owning one’s power, as I will explain further on.

 

++

 

A Note About “Unmanageability”

 It is often assumed that the reference to unmanageability in Step 1 refers to external factors, such as a DUI, divorce, debt, accidents, lost jobs, etc. This has caused confusion because external factors vary. What is actually being implied — and what the program of AA aims to resolve— is the ‘internal, or the emotional unmanageability. This state is described in ‘The Doctor’s Opinion’ as being “restless, irritable, and discontent.” It is also further elaborated on in ‘The Bedevilments’ on p.52:

  “We were having trouble with personal relationships, we couldn’t control our emotional natures, we were a prey to misery and depression, we couldn’t make a living, we had a feeling of uselessness, we were full of fear, we were unhappy, we couldn’t seem to be of real help to other people.”

These two descriptions describe the core of alcoholism in my experience. Note that no drinking behavior is described. They instead describe the emotional unmanageability that manifests and is thus known as the “spiritual malady.” A ‘dis-ease’ of the spirit. This is a very important distinction as the program is asserting that alcoholics have a spiritual problem, and therefore the answer is a spiritual program. We drink because of how we feel (how our spirits feel). If we are “prey to misery and depression,” and “full of fear,” then we will, of course, look for an anaesthetic of some kind. 

I would also like to briefly address the concept of ‘recovering’ versus ‘recovered’.  As this is a source of contention within AA. You will often hear within the fellowship that we are ‘recovering alcoholics.’ When actually the Big Book tells us we ‘recover’ and what we recover from specifically is the spiritual malady as described above. The 12 steps are a process with which we can recover from this emotional unmanageability. We no longer experience life from this state of being and then, therefore, our need to use alcohol to cope, leaves us.

 

 “AA is the only way to get sober” (and a note about AA and feminism)

I’m sure you’ve heard it before, either as a statement of fact or implied, that ”AA is the only [real] way to get sober.”

 First, let’s be clear that if someone says this, it is abuse. It is fear-based and it is false. The program doesn’t teach this, but it is, unfortunately, one of the most serious cases of misinformation that is perpetuated inside and outside of the “rooms.”**

This notion stems from Chapter 5 of the Big Book, where it is said,, “Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path” (page 58).

 While it is a long stretch from that to “AA is the only way to get sober,” it does happen. Why? To explain this in full, we need to discuss the origins of the 12-step program.

 The 12 steps are ancient spiritual wisdom. They are not remotely original and have been passed down through generations. We can trace their origins not to Christianity, but to the Gnostic religions that Christianity evolved from. The Gnostic practice of spirituality is much closer to the 12-step spiritual program than the Christian religion is (although the Gospel of Mary Magdalene also demonstrates principles aligned with the 12 step). There is a strong argument that the Gnostics were feminist in nature. Women were priests, the Goddess was seen as part of the divine, and there is much feminine imagery in their teachings.

 But it is their spiritual practices that I find deeply fascinating and are most telling here. Self-reflection (Step 4), Amends (Steps 8 and 9) and Service (Step 12) were all a core part of Gnostic teachings.

 As a woman and a feminist, I find it comforting and important that the 12 steps originated not out of patriarchal Christianity but out of the spiritual practices of the Gnostics.***

 In the Big Book, when it talks about those who have “thoroughly followed our path,” what is meant by “our path” is any method of getting sober that starts with abstinence and is based in spiritual growth. Self-reflection, amends, spiritual discipline, and service to others beyond oneself are all methods of spiritual growth. These concepts are not unique to AA (because the program itself is unoriginal). They can be found in multiple recovery modalities, including SMART Recovery, Refuge Recovery, Women for Sobriety, She Recovers, and more. I cannot emphasize this enough: The solution to the internal unmanageability that manifests itself in our behavior is a spiritual discipline. The 12 steps are exactly that. You will notice that out of the 12 steps, only one actually mentions alcohol. They emphasize living a spiritual life as a solution to all our problems, not just those related to alcohol. They start with the acceptance that you can’t drink safely and they end with a “design for living” rooted in growth and service. The beauty of them is their simplicity: they are very easy to understand and can be applied by just about anyone.

(For further clarification on spirituality, please see footnotes below)***

 

 Humility, Self-Obsession, and The “G” Word

Another common argument I see about AA is that pushing a message of humility on people who already feel like crap only adds insult to injury and is counterproductive. 

 From Holly Whitaker: “[Women] aren’t drinking themselves numb because they are awash in oh-so-much power, or because of some pathological inability to follow rules or humble themselves, or because their outsize egos are running the show, as AA’s messaging would suggest.” 

First: AA messaging does not suggest this. This is a misinterpretation based on a lack of inquiry.

My instinct is that a phrase like “be humble” has been taken in this context to mean “get smaller” or even “shut up.” The term “humility” comes from the Latin word “humilitas,” which may be translated as “humble,” but also could be translated as “grounded” or “from the earth.” In other words, it is intended to bring oneself back to the earth, back to a place of grounding and centeredness. Specifically, in AA, humility is meant as an antidote to the chaos of self-obsession that typically rules the alcoholic mind.

 What is “the obsession of self”? 

If you are reading this, you probably know what it’s like to experience “the obsession of self,” even if you wouldn’t call it that. 

 I liken self-obsession to being in a prison of your own mind. It feels like being consumed with what you want and don’t want, what others think of you, whether they like you, what you can do about that, and wishing things worked out the way you want them to all the time. It is a miserable, exhausting, anxiety-ridden way to live and is one of the primary blocks to accessing our true power.

 In my experience, humility is the solution to self-obsession. It is a spiritual practice and its definition is as follows: Humility is not thinking less of ourselves — it is thinking of ourselves less.  

 It is through this spiritual practice that we discover the absolutely freeing truth that nothing is actually personal. What anyone else does, says, or doesn’t do or say has nothing to do with us. Even our parents! Instead, their actions and words come through their own filters and limiting beliefs (just as ours do). This is part of the universal human experience and it is not, by any means, limited to alcoholics. The process of becoming humble is to understand, as Mother Teresa put it, that “it was never between you and them anyway.

The 12 steps are a “mechanical” process whereby we  can achieve this much-needed humility and be free of the prison I described earlier, so that we can stand tall and extend our hearts and minds outward instead of perpetually looking inside. When the program talks about “freedom,” it means “freedom in our minds.” This isn’t just freedom from obsessing about alcohol (although this is one part of it), it is freedom from obsessing about ourselves. This is a freedom which, once experienced, is impossible to forget. It is not about lowering ourselves, shutting up, or getting smaller. The Big Book makes this clear on page 83: “As God’s people we stand on our feet: we don’t crawl before anyone.”

It is by taking the action steps (Steps 4 through 9) that we remove what blocks us from our source of power. When we are full of fear, resentment, and self-pity (full of “self”), we are getting in our own way. We have no power.

When we have humility, the incessant chatter in our head is quieted and we can finally hear and see and do what we are brought here to do. When we get free from this obsession of self, we can access our true self and our power.

 

The “G” Word

Did I mention that? The purpose of the 12 steps as laid out the Big Book is to find God. The program comes with the very important clarification that it is “God as you understand him” — or her. The Big Book provides many different ideas of what God could mean, including such concepts as the Realm of the Spirit, the God of Reason, the Great Reality, and the Creator. My own personal favorite is on p.46: “Creative Intelligence, a Spirit of the Universe.”

 The G-word is difficult for many people who enter AA. Their personal experiences of religion have understandably shaped what this word means to them and these beliefs can be very hard to shake. For that reason, AA is often confused with being religious. It isn’t. It is a spiritual program, not a religious one, and these are two very different things (again, see footnote for further clarification).

 The good thing is that whether or not one believes in a higher power is irrelevant to the 12 steps. They are a mechanical process; what one thinks, feels, believes (or doesn’t believe) about the concept of God is irrelevant to the outcome. They will work for anyone.

This is an analogy I often use to underscore this idea.

Imagine going to IKEA and buying a self-assembly wardrobe. When you get home, you unpack it and lay all the pieces out on your floor. You may look at all the pieces and think to yourself, That’s never going to be a wardrobe. I’m never going to be able to build this wardrobe. I don’t even believe in wardrobes!

 Despite yourself and your beliefs, if you take the instructions and follow each one, you will, at the end, have a wardrobe.

 The 12 steps are exactly the same. They are a simple, mechanical process that creates a spiritual experience. Just like the wardrobe, the spiritual experience is impossible to avoid when you follow the ‘precise, specific, clear-cut directions’. This is why it is not necessary to hold any beliefs in God. What you believe (or don’t) is not relevant to the outcome. Step 2 requires that could you possibly believe something in the future, while Step 3 asks you to make a decision to follow God’s will (it’s a decision you still don’t need to believe anything, just take action and see what happens), which is to simply to do the rest of the steps. In this context ‘God’s will’ is that you self-reflect through inventory and make amends where we have caused harm – (I think we can all agree this is a helpful way to live). As a result of this action, a change occurs and we have a spiritual experience.

A spiritual experience.

What the hell is that? All a spiritual experience is, is a deep and profound “emotional rearrangement” (page 27). All an “emotional rearrangement” means is a shift in perception, or in plain speak, seeing things differently. It is actually very simple.

Page 25 of the Big Book states, “We have had deep and effective spiritual experiences which have revolutionized our whole attitude toward life, towards our fellows and toward God’s universe.” It is this “emotional rearrangement” or cognitive shift in perception that solves the problem of emotional unmanageability — the core driver of alcoholism. 

Character Defects

Another common argument is around the use of the language about “character defects” and the purpose of documenting them. This is an area where I’ve seen a lot of misuse, misunderstanding, and abuse in the fellowship.

I have seen people receive lists of “character defects” that number in the hundreds. They are then asked to check off all the ones that apply to them. This is just an exercise in making someone feel terrible about themselves (much like the powerlessness list). 

The truth is there are only four defects: selfishness, self-seeking, dishonesty and fear (self-seeking is an old-fashioned word for manipulation). They are not unique to the alcoholic — they are part of the human condition for everyone. The purpose of identifying when our character defects come out to play, so to speak, is to help us identify the real sources and patterns of our trouble so we can take responsibility for what we can change and get free. This is precisely how we get our power back. 

The method of identifying character defects is called a personal inventory. This is done through the fourth and tenth steps. These practices are similar to Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy, and the origins of a regular moral inventory can be traced back through Gnosticism to the Greek philosophers. It is a simple method to reveal a different perspective on an event. This is a core part of reclaiming one’s power because it puts the responsibility for one’s experience in their own hands. It is the ultimate path to freedom in our minds, freedom from self-obsession, because we “reveal ourselves to ourselves.”

For example, I may have no control over what you do or say, but I certainly have the power of choice in how I respond. And when I respond from a place of selfishness, manipulation, fear, or dishonesty, I can begin to see how my problems start.

What we reveal in this process is always the same: we can only change ourselves.  When I understand this, I have liberation, because I no longer have to blame events or people for things not working out the way I want. I am not powerless or at the mercy of others.

 

Abuse in the 12-step fellowships

This should probably be a whole separate blog post; however, it is important to address here that there are many abuses within the fellowship of AA. From inappropriate behavior to “13th stepping” (sexual predators looking for vulnerable newly sober members), many of the abuses are done by men to women. Like society in general, AA merely reflects our wider culture. I don’t want to go into detail about what we need to do here (and there is lots that needs to be done), but I do want to say that for women, women-only AA meetings are essential. These can be safe spaces for women who want to learn about the 12-step program. I cannot help sometimes feeling slightly aghast when people come to AA get sober and then leave. One of the ways to address and change these abusive practices means that some people must stay and be the change they want to see. It is my opinion that if AA is the method you used to get sober, then you are in its debt. What if there was no one there when you needed help? Being part of the solution and creating safe spaces for other women within Alcoholics Anonymous is “service beyond self” and in my mind the very definition of feminism and spirituality. Be the change you want to see in the world. Particularly since AA is free, it is sometimes the last and only resort for many people who simply have no other options for help to stop drinking. 

As an organization and a fellowship, AA has practices and behaviors that its members need to address. I cannot emphasize this enough: Constructive criticism of the organization and fellowship is completely different from criticizing “the program.” And I would ask that if you are offering constructive criticism, you get clear on the facts first and do not base your feedback on stuff you have heard in meetings or read online. Separate what is the ‘fellowship’ and what is the ‘program.’

 There is so much more I could write, but I want to touch on a couple of things before I close. In the Big Book, the chapter “To Wives” is deeply problematic. It was written by Bill W., and his wife Lois was deeply hurt that he didn’t ask her to write it. The chapter is “advice” (written by a man, aimed at wives on how they should treat their alcoholic husbands). The chapter itself does not expand on the spiritual program of recovery. I chose to ignore the couple of idiotic statements within it and boil it down to “don’t try and fix your partner — instead, develop a spiritual practice for your own benefit; everything will be easier if you do.”

Other issues apart from alcoholism 

A common complaint about AA is that it doesn’t address trauma or other mental health conditions. The Big Book actually does this, but it’s important to note that spiritual work of this nature must always be done without financial reimbursement. For that reason and for its survival, AA has always remained peer-led. Its primary purpose has always been that there should be a free spiritual resource for anyone suffering from an alcohol problem. Trauma and mental health conditions should only ever be treated by qualified professionals. 

To imply that the 12 steps are a solution for every single mental health disorder and that someone isn’t working the program correctly if they have depression or anxiety would be another common abuse inside of the fellowship. Page 133 of the Big Book says, “God has abundantly supplied this world with fine doctors, psychologists and practitioners of various kinds. Do not hesitate to take your health problems to such persons.”

Very simply, this means please go and see a professional who can help with other matters. Being sober makes all of these other forms of therapy and help so much more effective. 

 

Tradition 11

Finally, one of the most damaging miscommunications is the confusion between anonymity and secrecy. The tradition of anonymity means that we don’t speak publicly as a member of AA. (I’m speaking as a representative of myself here, just so we are clear.) It never meant that we shouldn’t talk publicly (as the founders did) about alcoholism, sobriety and the 12 steps. This may seem very nuanced, but the tradition hinges on publicly claiming membership in AA when talking about alcoholism and recovery. I believe we have done untold damage because we haven’t had enough conversations about alcoholism in public. This has fueled the feelings of shame around alcoholism and being an alcoholic. This culture of secrecy has also allowed abuse to flourish in the rooms, which is one of the reasons we must talk more openly about these issues. 

Conclusion

This work is my rebuttal to the misinformation within the fellowship and the misinformed criticism online of the AA program (and in the recent NYT piece). I have long wanted to clarify what the program states particularly around spirituality, religion, and powerlessness. Are there flaws in the organization of AA? Most certainly. Can the fellowship be patriarchal in nature? Yes like most things in our culture.  Do we need to look more closely at the abuses in the AA fellowship? Of course.

 Yet all of these are entirely separate from the spiritual program of the 12 steps.  From their origins and throughout the centuries, the fact that these principles have been passed down through generations can only indicate the deep human need for connection (some call this God/dess) that a spiritual experience can bring us. Which is why AA members become upset when they see criticism of the program. These deep and effective spiritual experience have resulted in a connection with themselves that they have searched for their whole lives. They are therefore very protective of the program. AA members have been described as ‘fragile’ when they express upset on reading misinformed criticism. Yes, most people who enter the rooms of AA are extremely ‘fragile’ they literally have nowhere else to go it is often their last resort. Please don’t ever forget that.

 This is why Alcoholics Anonymous and the Big Book exist. These spiritual principles and this need that humans have for them are universal. They are not exclusive to alcoholics. The Big Book (yes, with old-fashioned language) exists to lay out these principles in a way that alcoholics will respond to. I fear that the solution this program offers is being buried under misinformation both inside and outside the rooms.

Alcoholism, as described in the Big Book, is a spiritual problem (the “spiritual malady”). The solution to this is to have a spiritual experience (a simple shift in perspective) and practice ongoing spiritual discipline (steps 10 to 12). That’s because alcohol was never really the problem. The real problem was the emotional unmanageability that led to a disconnection from ourselves. The journey back to who we really are, for some people, is through the 12 steps.

In closing, there are no ‘sides; here. You don’t have to go to AA and do the 12 steps if you don’t want to. There are, thankfully, other methods to get sober, some paid and some free. Seek the one that fits you best and don’t settle for anything less than the freedom that is possible. Anyone who struggles with a substance use disorder is a warrior – and they need all the support they can get.

*The Twelve steps and twelve traditions were written by Bill W. and Tom Powers fifteen years after the publication of the Big Book.

 ** I’m aware that it does state this in the Twelve and Twelve.  This is one of the reasons that I am not considering the information written there as it is inconsistent and often contradictory to the spiritual program of recovery which is my focus of this piece.  Consistent messaging is one of the areas that the organization of AA can improve on.

 

***The reason we don’t know as much as we would like about the Gnostics is that when the Catholic Church was founded, it destroyed everything that opposed its teachings as heretical. Modern religion is patriarchal as the Roman Empire greatly influenced it, and the Oxford Groups that AA grew out of were no different. (I have a theory about the Roman Empire; it never fell, but just rebranded as the Catholic Church). But despite this, somehow the universal spiritual themes the Gnostics practised survived and are enshrined in the 12-step program.

 

*** *What is spirituality?

This is a big question. This chapter is my own and many other people’s understanding of the term. Remember, this chapter is about letting go of preconceptions.

Spirituality is not necessarily related to religion. It can be something else altogether, although confusingly it is the basis of all religions, if you accept that the explicit purpose of most religions is to take care of our ‘souls’.

Our spirit is that voice inside us that is there from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to sleep. It is the conversation we have with ourselves our entire lives.

Our spirit is the real us, the part not many other people see.

Our spirit is where our hopes, our dreams, our fears, our secrets, our shame, our joy exist.

It is our intuition, our gut instinct.

It is our sense of right and wrong.

Our spirit is intangible, but we all know it’s there.

It’s what makes you, you. And me, me.

Our spirit is unique to us. It is us.

How I feel about other people and the world around me comes from how my spirit responds.

When I fall in love my spirit is ignited. When I am hurt and broken my spirit is crushed.

When I die, for a while you can still touch my body, you can still see me. But I will be gone; my spirit – who I really was – will no longer be there.

You can’t touch or hold or control my spirit.

It is me.

That is what our spirits are. Does that make sense? I’ll give you an even simpler explanation of spirituality.

Spirituality is just being good to your spirit (your inner-self that no one else sees).  It is honouring who you really are.

 

From ‘Why you drink and how to stop.’ By Veronica Valli

 

 

Sources

The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous

 The suppressed Gnostic feminism Elaine H Pagels

The Gnostic Gospels Elaine H Pagels

Lost Christianities Bart Ehrman

https://www.thefix.com/content/Bill-W-twelve-steps-two-versions8676

AA.org


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