An introduction to these "Backlash" email questions here.
Dear Mr. SponsorPants,
I heard an interview on NPR not long ago claiming that AA only has a 5 to 10% success rate, and in another interview I heard that as many people with drinking problems are able to eventually, spontaneously stop on their own as claim that AA is how they stopped. Is this true? Why should I, or why do you, do AA if it doesn't work?
Want to Know
I'm going to address the NPR interview which caused such a fuss (and was, surprisingly I thought, heavily featured on the NPR Website for a while) in another essay.
I'm not marshaling arguments to attack either it or the person who was interviewed. It's the intermingling of AA and the recovery industry, two very different things -- even if the latter makes some use of things in the former -- put forth in that interview that I'd like to look at a little more closely in another post.
If you don't mind, WtK, I'm going to walk through your questions in reverse order.
Why should you do AA if it doesn't work? My experience is that it does work, but if you have a drinking problem and you want to try to deal with it via some method that is NOT AA, you should absolutely do so. Give that a full court press. Alcoholics Anonymous does not now say, nor has it ever said, that it is the ONLY way to treat alcoholism. Some zealous AA members can come across that way, I know that's true, but I chalk their zeal up to a combination of giddy relief for having found a solution to their addiction coupled with the deep (and real) fear that their addiction will twist their thinking yet again and pull them out. And down. But the book "Alcoholics Anonymous," AA's blueprint, in a number of places is quite humble about what AA offers. "We realize we know only a little..." it says. "We do not have a monopoly..." it says. "If you are not convinced you are an alcoholic, try some controlled drinking..." it says. AA does not represent itself as the sole course, nor is it against trying to manage your drinking. The point it (mostly) makes is that if you've tried everything else and nothing has worked then maybe what AA has to offer can help you, if you are able to be honest and if you do the whole deal.
(In the interest of full disclosure the Big Book also suggests people "raise the bottom," in other words, look to see if there is an inevitability to the way they drink, and if so, what does that mean in terms of whether they should try to get sober via Alcoholics Anonymous. But I find the spirit of this discussion to be as even handed and open minded as the rest of the book.)
There may well be lots of effective treatments for alcoholism. For years I actually treated my alcoholism with the liberal application of alcohol. I found that to be strong medicine and I was pretty happy with the results of that program for a good long while. When that eventually stopped working, I had to find a different solution. For me, it was AA. But if you want to do something else, including "controlled" drinking (sometimes called "drinking in moderation" -- not a concept I've ever really understood the point of, actually, but then, I'm a pretty far gone case) by all means, have at it.
If you can stop on your own (assuming that you do, actually want to stop) then do so. If you need help, then maybe AA is for you. If you want to try something else, try something else. There's a fair amount of "something else" out there now. In fact, there's a TV commercial in heavy rotation where I live which touts a kind of spa recovery thing, and the big catch line in the ad is that it has NO 12 Step program affiliation in any way. Personally, I think that's great! Who doesn't want to go to a spa? And who doesn't want to go to a spa if you've got a hangover, and want to maybe take a break from partying? Especially if you've had a hangover since roughly 2009 or something. If you can deal with whatever your drinking situation looks like with a cucumber wrap, a little acupuncture, some light yoga and those hot stone things laid out across six or seven chakras then go for it. I assure you that will be a lot more fun and sexy and chic than even the nicest church basement and the finest in folding metal chairs we can find. I guarantee you the coffee will be better, too.
Not trying something because you heard it doesn't work actually sounds fairly logical. AA has an expression -- a quote, actually -- which it uses to describe what this might really be though: Contempt prior to investigation.
But if you have a problem with alcohol and you think other things will help you then I seriously, sincerely, urge you to try them, and having had a bellyfull of the pain and misery that drinking problems cause I also seriously, sincerely hope those other things work for you. If they don't, the doors of AA are always open. For free. For anyone who wants to even just visit. No dues, no fees, no insurance coverage required.
As for the spontaneous ability to stop drinking... well, it's of course tempting to wonder if those people were real alcoholics, or in fact just heavy drinkers who developed a habit which, while it may have required a little effort to break, were not true addicts. But as much as I think there's room for real consideration there, I also think that's a pretty self serving thing for a man like me to give a lot of air time to. Because, sure, maybe some weren't addicts and just had a kind of heavy habit, but surely some of these spontaneously manifested abstainers were addicts. Or might have been, anyway. So what about them? What about them just spontaneously stopping on their own, as the NPR interview and some other sources like to cite?
What about them? I don't know what about them. I do know that some people's cancer spontaneously goes into remission, but that fact isn't used to suggest that people shouldn't seek treatment for their cancer. There may be a vast and passionate difference of opinion as to what that treatment should be, but I'm not familiar with too many people who hold the spontaneous remission examples forth as an argument against treatment altogether.
But I have heard this chain of reasoning used when discussing addiction, recovery and AA more than once over the years.
If I had just decided to wait and hope to be struck sober spontaneously, I suspect my story would have had a much more grim and cliche ending. Critics might say there's no way to be sure, but I hope they will forgive me for feeling that I know myself a little better than they do -- and that I'm pretty reluctant to go with that plan now.
As for statistics... 5%? 10%? AA has, over the years, done its own membership surveys to try to get a mathematical picture of who shows up, who gets sober the first time, who slips but comes back, etc. Due to the anonymous part, and also due to the fact that alcoholics, when it comes to this stuff, are notoriously lazy and/or intractable on the whole "head count" thing, I'm not sure how reliable these statistics are. Now naturally, if you're a critic, you're going to be pretty unhappy with me for calling into question the veracity -- the methodology -- of the statistical sample. But even if we work from the assumption of a sound statistical model, I'm not sure the measurement cuts across all aspects of sobriety.
If you are a chronic relapser, if you keep coming to AA, you find both some relief and some recovery -- even some sober stretches, in between the relapses. That's no small thing, for an addict. How do those people fit into the statistical model? I know -- and love -- some people like that, and I have to tell you, I can't quite see them as evidence that AA "doesn't work." And what about the "slipped around for a while at first" people? If you come and you slip around for several years and then you get and stay sober, what part of the statistic is that?
You know, not to beat the cancer analogy to death (is that phrase in poor taste? possibly, now that I think of it) you can Google "Does Chemotherapy Work?" and before you even finish typing it, you not only get that suggested search phrase but you are also offered "Does Chemotherapy really work?" People have some doubts, I guess. And in the first list of answers is a link which claims that chemo does not work 97% of the time. That's a pretty staggering claim. If you poke around and search just the suggested links to address this question, you'll see a lot of discussion. Some controversy. Phrases like "fallacious cherry picking of data..." and "confusing primary versus adjuvant therapy..." start to show up. And this is for chemo, a fairly "traditional" form of treatment for some common malignancies.
The only point I'm trying to make is that as I've gotten older I've learned to look with some degree of skepticism at ALL statistics, as they are somewhat vulnerable to being used to justify a conclusion maybe a little after the fact.
Some people really hate AA, and think it is a dangerous, old fashioned, somewhat superstitious and very much over-recommended model of treatment from a bygone era. Some people really love AA, and think it's an open minded, open hearted, life-saving program which can do a lot of good in the world, one person at a time.
If you're worried about your drinking, then maybe the best thing for you to do is to just try it for yourself with as open a mind as you can summon.
What they told me when I was new was that I should try it for 30 days, and if I wasn't fully satisfied my misery would be cheerfully refunded.
I don't know if you're miserable, WtK, but if you are, then at least it's something confidential and free to try, with a commitment to helping you if you want help, and as non-judgmental as any group of humans is able to attempt to be.
Getting sober -- if that's what you need to do -- can be a painful, confusing and vulnerable time. I wish you the very best in your journey, and if you have any other questions please don't hesitate to contact me.
As AA's profile -- for a variety of reasons -- has continued to rise, both as a treatment for alcoholism and as a larger 12 Step "movement," it has understandably -- even appropriately -- come under greater scrutiny.
From the 50+ year old film "The Days of Wine and Roses" (released in 1962, and no doubt at least partly responsible for that classic image so many of us had in our heads of what an AA meeting looked like: sad, unshaven almost-bums in raincoats, staring listlessly into the distance or earnestly into the camera. Watch for Jack Klugman as Jack Lemmon's sponsor! Trippy!) to the currently-showing "Mom" (CBS sitcom which debuted in 2013 and is so full of AA it almost counts as going to a meeting.*) there's been a growing awareness of AA in the public consciousness. (AA history credits the then-famous Jack Alexander for his article published in the March 1, 1941 edition of the Saturday Evening Post for initially putting us on the map.)
On the one hand this is all right and good. While we maintain (and promise) anonymity so that people who wonder if they are alcoholic -- or if AA is right for them -- can come to a meeting and check it out without fear of stigma or reprisal, AA is not a secret society. Over time anonymity has also served an important spiritual purpose within the rooms; that which helps tamp down our often rampant egotism. It is a great equalizer. I don't want to know, when you're sharing, if you're a doctor or a hooker, as I will inevitably -- even if it is unwillingly -- have a bias which colors how I hear what you say. (I trust hookers more than I trust doctors. No offense to any medical professionals reading along at home. I didn't say I didn't trust you at all, just that I trust sober hookers more.) Of course regular attendees eventually get to know each other, but as a larger framework anonymity is a key element to what makes the whole thing work.
On the other hand, this elevated profile for AA really spooks me. I get uncomfortable with it. I cannot easily dismiss the feeling that, while the spotlight does indeed illuminate and communicate, it can also just as easily distort. Or burn. (I am not talking about an organization's transparency regarding what it is and how it operates. That's an illumination of an entirely different spectrum. I'm talking about attention from the media, in all its Hydra-like, many headed forms now.)
There are people who are rabidly anti-AA, and some of them have what sound like reasonable concerns, though the intense level of their antipathy always makes me both a little puzzled and a little sad. And there are people who are dogmatically pro-AA, whose passion is laudable for their own recovery, but I feel is sometimes strident and off-putting when talking to newcomers or people not in the program.
As AA's profile -- and representation -- has risen (I swear, there was an entire season on TV not long ago where at least one supporting character on every single show I tuned into -- or even channel surfed by -- was sitting in the ubiquitous church basement holding a Styrofoam cup of coffee, wearing an expression of intense sympathy and nodding) I have gotten many more emails asking for my thoughts regarding what I'll call, for shorthand purposes only, "backlash."
And by using the term "backlash" I'm not talking about honest inquiry, general curiosity, or even the very worthy open-minded challenge to some of what AA suggests as a treatment for addiction. I am referring more to talking points or disingenuous questions which I feel are either misinformed or misrepresent AA.
This is a good time to say yet again that I AM NOT A SPOKESPERSON FOR ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS. There is no such thing. As always, all I offer here is my experience from being an active, sober member of AA for close to 30 years now.
With all that said (I promise when I started I told myself, "Mr. SponsorPants, keep this little intro brief." Ah well, I try... or, as some have suggested, I'm trying. Very, very trying.) here is an email with a common question of late:
Dear Mr. SponsorPants,
My brother heard a story in the news about AA and he says that one of the things the story said is that it's bad for me to constantly call myself an alcoholic. What would you say to that?
Dear Bad Label,
Is it "bad" for you to call yourself an alcoholic?
My first answer to that is... maybe. That has not been my experience, but I understand where the question comes from. (I want to stay open minded about all points in these discussions, and not come back with a defensive, knee-jerk response.)
There is merit to the idea that I don't want a disease to "become my identity" -- and we can look to any of our brothers and sisters who are long term survivors of cancer or HIV for counsel and experience on this.
But the point (for me) when it comes to regularly identifying as an alcoholic is not that it's about making it "who I am" so much as it is reminding me "what I have."
A diabetic should probably remind themselves pretty firmly that they are in fact, a diabetic, every time they are considering the tasty dessert section of a restaurant menu. Is that making the disease their "identity" or keeping important information uppermost in mind when confronted with, for lack of a less biblical term, "temptation?" They have a medical condition and under a variety of circumstances they need to remember that fact so they make better, health-based decisions. I think the analogy is a good fit.
From my own personal experience I believe that AA's Big Book is right when it suggests there is a "curious mental blank spot" which happens in the mind of an alcoholic when we consider taking a drink. We can't seem to remember with sufficient clarity or force why taking that first drink is a bad idea. Or, conversely, we vaguely admit that it's not smart, but we're able to rationalize away whatever concerns we have with insanely trivial reasoning. No matter how bad things were yesterday, (and if you're an active addict of any stripe things can be very, very bad yesterday) today is a different story, and drinking or using is an option again.
So when I regularly identify as an alcoholic, it's not that I am affirming a negative identity -- I am remembering my diagnosis.
I'll go so far as to say that there were times when I thought about drinking and though I could not remember why it was a bad idea, I could at least remember that it was a bad idea.
And while it took more than that knowledge alone to keep me from walking into the bar that night, I think it likely that, because I'd spent a good amount of time over the course of my recovery reminding myself of my diagnosis, I was able to keep my thinking within a certain framework.
I hope, somewhat at least, that answers your question.
Lastly, for what it's worth, sibling relationships can be fraught and contentious (in fact I think two of my siblings should actually be named Fraught and Contentious), but consider that, even if your brother is not communicating in the most supportive manner, he still may only be trying to look out for you.
Ultimately, it's not anyone else's job to understand AA or what or why it suggests what it does.
Cheers, and keep coming back!
* I said almost.