Inside the world of Alcoholics Anonymous:
December 5, 2000 6:08 PM   Subscribe

Inside the world of Alcoholics Anonymous: John Sutherland has a long piece in the London Review of Books on how AA operates and why it works well for some. The article purports to be a review of a biography of Bill W., one of AA's co-founders, but there is very little review in it; it's mainly a discussion of what AA is all about for a British readership. I am not an AA member, but have attended open AA meetings, have AA friends and belong to a different 12-step group so I can say it's a fairly accurate piece, though colored with some quirky opinions and a few opinions I think are wrong. An occasional line is humorous: "If you accept the modest estimate that 10 per cent of the adult population of this country are problem drinkers then you will conclude that the LRB readership will contain some 10,000 of them. And that 1.5 contributors per issue might have to be so classified." Yes. I'd be willing to wager a few quid that 1.5 contributors to almost any periodical have an alcohol problem! Sutherland correctly observes that the anonymous nature of AA means no one will ever be able to track how many people the program has truly "reformed" (an old-school AAer would say no one is ever reformed, they're only recovering a day at a time). The main beef I have with his piece is his statement about other organizations: Weight Watchers is NOT based on AA, though Overeaters Anonymous is; also, I don't think it is fair to say Al-Anon, OA and Narcotics Anonymous are weak imitations of AA.
posted by jhiggy (22 comments total)
If I might ever so gently point this out ... this is a very long post. Too long, really. Perhaps in the future you might post extended comments as a response to your initial post.
posted by argybarg at 6:25 PM on December 5, 2000

I don't see a problem with the length of the post. In fact, It almost adds a nice full look to the page. Anybody agree with me? I think if this site is going to have standards for posting, the standards should be agreed upon by the majority of people, and also posted somewhere so new people can read over them. Just a couple of my thoughts on the subject.
posted by howa2396 at 6:35 PM on December 5, 2000

"The main beef I have with this post is that it's so damn long."

Oh no wait - *I* said that. =P
posted by ookamaka at 6:57 PM on December 5, 2000

AA... *sigh*

Can we sign up our new "President" (quotes in place for 4 years)?

Oh, wait, I forgot...Jesus already saved him...or at least his liver...
posted by rushmc at 7:04 PM on December 5, 2000

There's a very good piece in Gregory Bateson's Steps towards an Ecology of Mind on AA. And I'd guess that the proportion of alcoholics in journalism is much higher than the rest of the population: it comes with the job...
posted by holgate at 9:07 PM on December 5, 2000

I thought it was a GREAT post. I don't care about the length -- but then I bought one of those expensive computers with a scroll bar.
posted by grumblebee at 5:06 AM on December 6, 2000

Great post and interesting article, though a bit too twee to really take all that seriously. Favorite part:
Organisationally, AA resembles nothing so much as a terrorist network. There is no central organisation as such, just a honeycomb of cells on the ground, none of which communicates directly with any of the others, with HQ or with the outside world. This is fundamental: 'AA has no opinion on outside issues; hence the AA name ought never be drawn into public controversy.' It has no views on politics or on anything (even alcoholism); it's pure praxis. On the ideological level, it remains faithful to its founder Dr Bob's dying injunction to the faithful: 'keep it simple' - empty, that is, of complicating doctrine or confusing theory.
Made me laugh!
posted by elgoose at 8:20 AM on December 6, 2000

David Foster Wallace's huge novel Infinite Jest has quite a bit about AA, which I thought was really good & quite insightful.

Of course, I've never been to an AA meeting myself, so I cannot judge how closely it matches the actual goings-on.

The point is, it's a fascinating and deep treatment of the topic, at any rate.

My SO The father of my daughter is currently going through AA, and has been for almost two years now (er, *this time*). They give out neat-looking little coins.
posted by beth at 9:41 AM on December 6, 2000

As an atheist, I've always been scared that there's no agency that would help me if I became an addict.

According to the article, "Alcoholics Anonymous has grown into the largest SECULAR self-help organisation in the Western world." [emphasis added]. But the article also says that AA members "'admit ... we were powerless over alcohol [but] came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity' (in the original 1939 formulation, the salvationary word was 'God', not 'a Power greater than ourselves')"

I don't get the difference between "God" and "a Power greater than ourselves." I guess calling it a "Power" opens the organization up to people of all sorts of religions, but we atheists are screwed. Is it possible to get sober without believing in God. I can't control my lack of belief, so I'm in trouble if sobriety rests on faith (not really, because I'm not an alcoholic or even close, but potentially...)
posted by grumblebee at 9:45 AM on December 6, 2000

Beth, can you give us the gist of Wallace's insite?
posted by grumblebee at 9:46 AM on December 6, 2000

grumblebee --

The powerlessness of the addict is the inextricable core of 12-step programs; therefore, the only _possible_ way to recover is for the powerless addict to rely upon a higher power for the grace not to drink / gamble / overeat / whatever.

The key is not WHAT/WHO in which you believe, but what you GIVE UP believing: that you, yourself, possess the ability / willpower / intelligence to keep yourself from engaging in your addictive behavior, if only you were strong or determined enough.

Rational Recovery is commonly cited as the "AA for atheists" but really rejects the entirety of the AA philosophy, not just higher power.

Many, many people have succeeded in 12-step programs despite their atheism or agnosticism by identifying their higher power far from God: the power of human charity; the love of one's family, community, etc; the community of fellow 12-steppers; nature; etc.
posted by MattD at 11:46 AM on December 6, 2000

Okay. I guess that makes sense, though I pretty much identify the term "higher power" with a non-denominational deity.
posted by grumblebee at 12:39 PM on December 6, 2000

Think of it as 'a power greater than yourself' then go to a costal beach and try and push back a wave.
posted by Jeremy at 1:18 PM on December 6, 2000

Well, I was the biggest cynic in the world and really didn't want to have a god and some would argue I still really don't, and AA works for me. It is so simple that it looks really stupid [or I always thought so], but once you get into it you realize how it works. If you need it, try it, even if it sounds stupid or you're an atheist.

Also, at the risk of autoblogolalia, if you are already in AA and are interested in joining a blog, come visit us at ex-drunk blog. We haven't made it to the directory yet.
posted by jillmatrix at 2:47 PM on December 6, 2000

The key is not WHAT/WHO in which you believe, but what you GIVE UP believing: that you, yourself, possess the ability / willpower / intelligence to keep yourself from engaging in your addictive behavior, if only you were strong or determined enough.

That is truly evil.

posted by rushmc at 5:52 PM on December 6, 2000

It certainly sounds paradoxical. I don't see how anyone could fix something in their life by believing they don't have the power to fix it. Even going to an AA meeting requires you to take initiative in recognizing that you have a problem and doing something about it. AA doesn't come to you, you have to get off your butt and go to them.

I could buy a statement like "I cannot handle this problem on my own and need the help of others, and the first step is to ask them for the help I need" (which would be a difficult enough admission for lots of people, such as myself).

Frankly, the more I hear about 12-step programs, the more they begin to sound like cults. I do not mean that in necessarily a negative sense -- I would not sit in judgment of anyone who is faced with a choice between being a happy and functional member of an actual cult, if AA were such a thing, and letting an addiction destroy his or her life. But I feel definite cultlike vibes emanating from some of this stuff. Possibly the AA folk have stumbled on a way to use the same natural mental processes that turn people into cult members for self-improvement. But I still find something vaguely creepy about 12-step programs.

Not intended as an attack on anyone, just some observations.
posted by kindall at 7:32 PM on December 6, 2000

Kindall's argument (and, implicitly, rushmc's) is much the one raised by Rational Recovery -- that it is somehow wrong, or at least incongruent with proper intellectual and moral autonomy, to accept the 12-step premise that one cannot rely upon one's self to change one's behavior -- and that the organization which promulgates such a premise, and demands lifelong participation, must be a cult.

However, if you were an addict, or knew an addict, you would know that regardless of their (or your) belief about what people are capable of doing for themselves, the FACT is that they are totally out of control and utterly incapable of helping themselves.

AA didn't proclaim that self-control wasn't the road to recovery -- the course of the addiction had made it clear that self-control simply doesn't work for the addict, with respect to that which they are addicted.

12-step doesn't say that self-control and autonomy don't exist. After all, plenty of AA members have no trouble with gambling, and plenty of compulsive gamblers are svelte and _never_ touch the free drinks the casinos offer, in order to play better.

You probably have to "hit bottom" -- be surrounded by the unmistakable evidence of the damage your addiction has caused -- before you are ready to accept, at least with regard to your addiction, the obvious fact of your helplessness.

This is why 12-step programs don't work, or work with dramatically less effectiveness, in the case of addictive behaviors which don't tend to cause wrenching, acute damage to people's lives and families.

No one would argue that tobacco isn't terribly addictive -- but because the damage is so limited and takes so long, smokers just aren't in a mindset congenial to the 12 steps. I don't even think there is a Smoker's Anonymous or a Tobacco Anonymous.

Overeating has even less effect on others, and except in extreme cases, has negative short-term effects which are not that severe -- so Overeaters Anonymous is quite limited in its success. (OA is filled with active members who remain physically obese year after after year -- AA long-term active members are all "dry")

NA -- Narcotics Anonymous -- works in very similar terms as AA for cocaine and heroin addicts, but it doesn't do very much for marijuana addicts. Smoking weed just tends not to push people to the "bottom" and leave them crying out for help.
posted by MattD at 11:06 AM on December 7, 2000

I think it's wrongly extremist to take the view that one can solve all of one's problems oneself. If I need open heart surgery, I'm not going to get a kitchen knife and cut myself open. So I have no trouble buying--in theory--that many alcoholics need help beating their addiction. My guess is that some can do it by themselves, some need help, and some will never beat it (by them selves or with help).

I probably WOULD need help. And I'm somewhat heartened to hear from some of you that AA's steps don't need to be interpreted with a religious bent. However, I still am a little skeptical, because the language SOUNDS so religious. No one calls a human authority a "higher power." That term is almost exclusively used for God.

When you go to an AA meeting, does someone ask you what higher power you're submitting to? If they do, can you say "the people in this group" or "my doctor"? Will such answers be accepted.

To Jeremy's cute assertion that I try to "push back a wave." I'd agree that I can't do that, but that doesn't make a wave a "higher power" anymore than it makes Mr. T a higher power. I couldn't push them back either.
posted by grumblebee at 12:25 PM on December 7, 2000

As far as how groups go with respect to specifying who your higher power is -- it really depends. An AA group that meets in a evangelical church in a small town is likely to have a very explicitly Christian orientation and talk in very specific terms about how only Jesus can save you from the bottle. An AA group that meets at a YMCA on the Upper West Side of Manhattan is likely to be vague to the point of disappearnce about higher power...
posted by MattD at 5:15 PM on December 7, 2000

Actively seeking help when something is beyond your ability to successfully resolve alone is a far cry from giving up all claim to being able to exert control over yourself.

The fact that many people are able to stop their addictive behaviors proves that it is, in fact, within the realm of human ability. Or would those seeking to ease your burden of responsibility by substituting blind commitment to a "higher power" argue that those who solve their own problem must be deemed, ex post facto, not to have been true addicts in the first place?

If so, many of those who had to deal with them during their addictive period would strongly disagree.

posted by rushmc at 6:07 PM on December 7, 2000

I drink therefor I am
posted by druadh at 6:13 PM on December 7, 2000

But it does make it a 'power greater than yourself'... :)
posted by Jeremy at 3:27 PM on December 8, 2000

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