Back in September of 2009 I visited Stinkin' Thinkin', a blog which "muckrakes the 12 Step Industry."
To say that they are not fans of Alcoholics Anonymous, or anything 12 Step, is putting it mildly. Still, they had some nice things to say about Mr. SponsorPants, and as I am shallow enough to be seduced by any crumb of praise or flattery always interested in a spirited debate, I read through some of their postings, found one called "The 12 Rights for Newcomers to 12 Step/AA" which I especially admired, wrote a bit about it and posted it here.
The other day, when perusing the "who's visited the site" blog thing (it doesn't show you as an individual person, but if someone has visited from another blog or website sometimes that address will show up) I noticed that there had been some recent visits from the Stinkin' Thinkers to Mr. SP again, and, hoping to find more nice things about myself curious to see what might be the current topic, I swung over to take a look.
They are as passionate in their views as ever, and without any silliness I want to say that I respect that, and would remind any AA who either visits their site for themselves or encounters those opinions in the world that "love and tolerance is our code." It's not much of a program of attraction if we cannot keep a civil tone (as they have with me, for the most part, I
hasten to point out -- and by 'for the most part' I mean that some
turns of phrase are less flattering than others, but that is hardly
being abusive, or even discourteous) when disagreeing with people about addiction in general or Alcoholics Anonymous in particular.
One of their contributers posted a video with several provocative questions, the one on the title screen being:
"I would like to pose a question to all members of AA: Would you allow anyone that has managed to get their lives back on track again without using AA to chair one of your meetings?"
I confess my first reaction was kind of a "what would the point of that be?" -- not in a refusal to allow differing viewpoints (I've been to meetings where some peoples' entire share was basically "AA sucks and I hate all of you." My experience in those meetings is that they have their say, they finish, people clap politely -- if it's a clapping meeting -- and the meeting goes on. No one is ejected or censured for "disagreeing" with AA) but more along the lines that it would be like having a representative of the beef industry speaking to a vegetarian convention. We're just not on the same page is all.
Here is a link to the video and the blog itself.
And, for whatever reason, most likely equal parts a desire to have a true dialog and probably some bit of ego as well, I posted a comment there in response to the video.
There were then comments in response to my comment. So I responded to them, they responded to me and ... oh never mind, here is the heart of it:
My comment to the video:
You *do* ask provocative questions. In a few instances you then go on
to answer them with what “people in AA would say” — which is kind of a
zero-sum game I think. Just as many people who don’t like AA, or have
had bad experiences there, might give a variety of answers to a
provocative question about why “AA is bad,” so, too, would many AA’s
offer a variety of responses to the question of someone who stopped
drinking without AA, beyond just the one you model here (I’m really
thinking of the response you offer “from AA’s” that if someone can stop
without AA then “they weren’t really an alcoholic.” A paraphrase, but I
think a fair representation of what you said.) Sure, SOME would say
that, but others … not. I wouldn’t. The longer I’m sober in AA the
more open minded I feel I’ve become about addiction treatment.
People in AA can be very reactionary when they think Alcoholics Anonymous is being “attacked.” (And the general level of literacy in comments across the internet on every and any topic is depressing, frankly. For every anti-anything commenter who gets ‘to, too and two’ wrong I’m sure you can find a pro-the-same-thing commenter making equal gaffs.)
People get reactionary generally because they are afraid. For some people in AA it feels like Alcoholics Anonymous is the first thing that has worked for them, and they are perhaps overly protective. That’s no excuse for being rude, I offer it only as a consideration.
*sigh* Already this comment is longer than I’d intended, your larger question about chairing meetings would mean I might go too long in a comments section, so I will only add that I believe some of your issues are a matter of interpretation or context, BUT I encourage you, and anyone, who feels AA is not right for them to keep searching for whatever they might need outside of or instead of AA. AA has worked for me, but as with all diseases and treatments, there can be a lot of factors involved in what makes a particular “medicine” work, and what is the right course for one may not be the right course for another.
I hope you keep questioning, and making your videos. (As a bit of a codger, I would offer that a music track with lyrics as background for something I am reading does tax my synapses a bit, but I’m not the sharpest mind on the planet. It’s probably an excellent cognitive exercise!) Obviously we have different philosophies, but we’re all trying to use this medium to help people who might need it — how can that be a bad thing regardless of whether we are on the same side of something or not?
A response to my comment:
AA is not a treatment nor is it a treatment for disease. Any medical treatment that has you praying for a daily reprieve to keep a disease in remission is not a medical treatment. You might as well insert your head between your knees and kiss your ass goodbye. AA is a religion and until I hear its members tell me that it is a religion I will take no prisoners.
I use the word “medicine” metaphorically, and perhaps I should do a
better job of making that clear. It feels like medicine to me, so the
metaphor is apt. To speak in clinical terms (though I am not a
clinician) AA’s suggestions are a course of treatment which combine
suggestions for practical behavior modification, peer review and
support, and yes, a spiritual component which includes prayer and
meditation. Any picture of AA’s overall plan for recovery which does
not include all three is perhaps somewhat skewed. In addition, AA is
pretty clear that if you’re dealing with what the literature and the
fellowship generally refer to as “outside issues” that you should get
busy finding “outside help” i.e., prayer is a good way to become willing
to go to a trained psychologist or psychiatrist and address past trauma
or brain chemistry imbalances, but prayer alone is likely not enough.
There’s a lot of interesting research now on what they’re calling the “neuro-plasticity” of the brain (not sure if the scientific “they” hyphenate that or not). Prayer AND meditation, whether there is an actual Anything out there or not, seem to have a positive impact on brain chemistry and can even change the actual physical structure of the brain to SOME degree. (Obviously only after sustained practice). What I personally got from AA was a message of “pray, but get busy.” I’m not comfortable with the word “religion” but I can see how to some it looks that way. As with anything, AA can be used well or abused, and while there will always be problems within it — rampant ego, abuse of custom or tradition, etc. — I personally have found much good there, too.
I yield the field on further commentary on this posting, it is not my intent to visit here and incite acrimony of any sort.
Another response from the other side of the aisle:
Several US Federal Circuit Courts of Appeal have ruled that AA is
religious in nature, and AA cannot be mandated by a governmemt authority
on that basis. As far as I am concerned, that settles the matter.
“pray, but get busy” is very interesting. The important part is “get busy”.
First is to quit drinking : no matter what happens, do not drink.
Second, busy doing what? getting your life in order — determine what you want to do with yourself and set about doing it.
Third, get professional help if need be.
And another response from a contributor to their blog:
Hi Mr. Sponsorpants, I am really happy to see you here. We appreciate the dialog — and it doesn’t happen often. (Usually, we get serenity bombs or real hardcore nutbags.) You’re definitely welcome here. We can be civil… I think.
I am interested to know what you think about the fact that 12-Step has become institutionalized in this country… about the fact that most addictions treatment is based on AA’s model; that people are sentenced to attend AA, that people who attend AA are treated as though they had somehow mitigated their crimes.
If you know that it’s not for everyone, do you think maybe we should be doing more in this country to treat addictions?
And another thing, you are a really really good writer, and your blog is so engaging, and so it drives me crazy that I disagree with everything you write.
This same commenter went on to add this:
Ben, I am with you on this: AA is a religion and until I hear its members tell me that it is a religion I will take no prisoners.
Specifically, what I want is for AA to acknowledge that it is not treatment. It is a path to a spiritual awakening, and, as such, it should occupy a different niche than it does. Whether or not prayer or mediation has been shown to have benefits, that is not enough to justify it’s current position as the only game in town, or to justify the fact that when someone is coerced into treatment (say, via an intervention or through the courts), they will end up in this spiritual program, which acknowledges that sobriety is just a benefit of it’s actual purpose, which is a spiritual awakening.
Also then this from another commenter there:
FTG says: “ Specifically, what I
want is for AA to acknowledge that it is not treatment. It is a path to a
spiritual awakening, and, as such, it should occupy a different niche
than it does.”
Exactly. If AA was honest about its being a
program whose main aim is to find God and achieve a spiritual awakening,
I don’t think anyone would argue with that – or care much. They could
even say that some addicts (albeit a tiny minority) might have
incidentally found that finding God has helped them overcome addiction,
just as, say, Buddhist meditation or Islam, or a physical exercise
regime, might help others.
It is the way that it is presented first and foremost as a program for treating alcoholism that is so scandalously deceitful. People seeking help for an alcohol problem want just that – help in overcoming an alcohol problem. They should not then be subjected to attempts to convert them to a religion and be told that this is the only way they will ever recover (or indeed, that they will never actually ‘recover’). It is hugely immoral that a fringe religious group should recruit vulnerable and often desperate people in this way. And it is much worse, and what my grandmother would have called ‘a sin that cries out to heaven for vengeance’, to tell people that they will inevitably fail in what they are desperately and sincerely trying to do if they don’t conform to this very weird religious program which has nothing whatever to do with overcoming addiction.
It is so full of mindfuck, it’s difficult to step back from it and take a cool rational look at what’s really going on. If the 12-step program and the big book were introduced today as any kind of approach to treating addiction, it would be laughed out of court. No-one would take it seriously at all. But because it’s somehow managed to establish itself, undeservedly, as the only answer, it has been allowed to go largely unchallenged. It is appalling.
The worst thing is that people get into AA’s clutches when they’ve already recognized they have a problem and want to do something about it. And then AA exploits that very real desire on the individual’s part to stop drinking or using to literally put the fear of God into them and threaten that if that person doesn’t conform and become a believer, all their genuine efforts to overcome their addiction are doomed to failure. I really can’t think of anything more cruel and self-serving.
But obviously I’m preaching to the converted here. The main challenge is to expose what the real agenda of AA is to society generally so that people can make informed choices about it. 12-step practitioners, especially those in the rehab centres, take great pains to conceal what they are really about – presumably because they know that most people would avoid them like the plague if they knew that the ‘treatment’ they are selling is completely bogus. It’s unlikely that AA will ever voluntarily be publicly honest about what its program really entails, so I guess the rest of us will just have to try and do what we can.
(Despite this rant, MrSponsorPants, I’m glad to have you here on this forum. But I really hope that you don’t tell your ‘sponsees’ that if they don’t become spiritual, don’t follow the 12 steps, etc. they will inevitably fail in their attempts to stop drinking and stay stopped. This is really not very kind.)
And one more from yet another:
I too would like to thankyou for your comments. As I hope you have noticed, the forum is treating you with civility, as I will.
I do have some questions though.
Do you think the 12 step organization has been hijacked? There is a 17 BILLION dollar industry out there, made up of AA members, that promote, MARKET, and prosylitize for the AA faith professionally. This is done in direct violations of the organizations stated traditions. Do traditions become suggestions when there is a dollar to be made?
How do you, as an AA apologist feel about the forced and coerced participation in the AA faith with regard to incarceration, loss of child custody, loss of employment, and at the demands of organ transplant teams?Do you feel that AA has become a dumping ground for the judicial system and social services?
Do you think that AA headquarters should do something about this? In the 70’s and 80’s AA high command sent notifications out to the rooms to request people not to tell newcomers to stop taking prescribed medication. Do you think this was the proper thing to do? Do you think it was a suggestion or does anything from the head office matter?
And finally, would you support the idea of AA publicly accepting and recommending actual medical treatment for addiction, such as the wonderdrug naltrexone, that the AA faith has been very outspoken against?
So, since I had been specifically asked, it seemed like I should address some of those questions, and I tried to:
Please remember that I am only a member of AA, there are no official spokespeople, and anyone who represents themselves as such should be viewed with deep skepticism. All of my responses are solely from my own experience, be it direct or observational.
Wow! Okay, where to begin…
Firstly, thank you for the civility in the exchange. It’s clear from all of your writings (the all of you and the all of the writing) that you are as passionate in your beliefs as I am in mine — I appreciate the ability to talk about these things — even if neither of us move one jot towards the other position I believe everyone is helped in these exchanges.
Secondly, thanks very much for the kind words about the blog and my writing — if the people that disagree with you vehemently speak well of how you put things, well, that’s high praise indeed, so again, my thanks.
Regarding the “institutionalization” of AA:
As I understand it, when the courts started sending people to Alcoholics Anonymous there was a strong reaction within AA that this should be “fought.” That is apocrypha, but my sources are pretty credible (Well, they were. They’ve passed on now.) While there was a tradition from the very beginning of AA to send members to the courts and offer assistance to people who wanted it (and that’s the key there) a “sentence” flies in the face of the foundation of AA, that is, we offer help to people who ask for it. AA itself is not selling anything. And I don’t think it is splitting hairs to delineate between an organization saying “we are here if you need us” and one which says “you should try us.” AA has done the former over the years, but assiduously avoided the latter, imho. Ultimately this fight was abandoned shortly after it was begun, in part because AA had no real influence over the judges and a core Tradition is that AA does not engage in public controversy, nor do we “fight” for or against things. Ultimately, I’m not sure that there is anything other than economics and an overburdened court system at work when it comes to this issue. The courts found a cheap (free) short term solution for the glut of alcohol/drug related offenders, and sometimes it even worked! And please, let’s note that the people standing in front of a judge have (generally) committed a very serious crime — I’m not talking about the casual pot smoker here, I’m talking about people who drive under the influence. This is not a scenario of hapless innocents being rounded up and force-fed AA. I have no doubt that if you said, “No, Your Honor, I object to both this system and being forced to attend these free 12 Step meetings at a time that works best in my schedule, that is, before or after work, and would rather you just send me to jail” that the court would indeed accommodate you. (Yes, yes, you may also be sentenced to “classes” and there is money involved, but that’s not AA.) Personally, I have deeply mixed feelings about it. I count among my close friends people who came to AA on a court card and it turned out, by their estimation, to be a life-saving thing. No doubt those that didn’t think so merely counted themselves lucky that they didn’t have to do time.
Are “most” rehabs based on a 12 Step model? I guess. I know (and
wrote about on the blog) a rehab that’s whole advertising angle was that
you *don’t* have to go to AA. People who have an intervention done on
them and are “coerced” into treatment are generally people that are in a
lot of trouble, and need SOME kind of help. No one is rounding up
happy innocent atheists who just enjoy getting snockered on occasion and
forcing them to do anything. If you watch the show “Intervention,” as
one example, these are people in real trouble, a danger to both others
and themselves. At least someone is doing SOMETHING. If anyone offers a
better solution I am open to it. PART of this debate is the question
which is represented by the Motorcycle Helmet Laws. Does the government
(or an enlightened society) have an obligation to protect people, in
essence, from themselves? Regardless of your answer to that question,
the issue becomes more complicated because of the diminished capacity of
the addict (thanks “Law and Order”!) And then there is the issue of
minors in the care of active addicts… no one in our little discussion is
anywhere close to saying the issue is a simple one, I know that. But
(to me it seems that) some of the language you are using paints people
who find themselves in the court system, or on the receiving end of an
intervention, as the victims of some horrible miscarriage of
circumstance or justice, while I would offer that very, very rarely does
one find themselves arrested for using, dealing, driving under the
influence, or standing in the HR office of their company, as part of
some baroque plot to force a spiritual program upon them.
Phew! Long answer to just a start of the questions. Please forgive me for having to break my answers up into other responses I will get to in a short while.
My immediate question in response to all this, though, is would anyone involved in this (excellent) back-and-forth object to my copy/pasting our exchange onto the Mr. SponsorPants blog? (and if you do object, I certainly will continue to respond, and also respect your wishes…)
Other answers to the other questions coming up — forgive me if I am
going on too long, these are questions that deserve considered
responses, and I am trying to give you that.
Again, I’m not here to hijack the comments section, or cause any problems… but you *did* ask… <chuckle>.
Response to my comments:
Sponsor P. – I also appreciate you willingness to openly dialogue. As a
matter of perspective, I am not an atheist and I was never harmed while
in AA. I don’t consider myself an AA hater and strongly support the
right of AA members to peaceably meet and practice their religion.
1. AA members routinely (i.e. daily) troll the detox wards of hospitals (with the approval of hospital administration) and patients are coerced by hospital staff into attending AA meetings in these wards (in fact, attendance is sometimes taken). Thus, AA members are actively supporting coercion by chairing AA meetings that are mandated by hospital staff. It is certainly not attraction.
2. AA members (often the secretary) routinely sign slips (both court and rehab) attesting that the person has attended an AA meeting. Providing proof that a person has attended a meeting is a clear violation of their central principle of anonymity, even if a person requests a signature.
A simple solution to these issues consistent with AA traditions/principals would be for AA members to stay out of hospital wards and stop signing slips to verify attendance. This will never happen voluntarily.
As to the issue of the government having an obligation to protect people from themselves the answer is simple – No. One could fill volumes on this issue. Plus, helmet laws suck.
Please feel free to put this response on your blog..
I go on, and now I am trying to be clever. Often a mistake for me <sigh>:
To the use of the word “religion” as in, “AA is a religion…”:
I’m not familiar with the court rulings sited, that “AA is religious in nature…”
To that I would respond that a penguin is aquatic in nature, but it’s a bird, not a fish.
I do not consider it a religion in the “classic” sense, but certainly we could construct a definition which encompasses traditional, organized religion and also the happy anarchy which is Alcoholics Anonymous.
If, by religion, you mean an organization which has a text which records its core beliefs, meets regularly, incorporates prayer in those meetings, suggests its membership consider that there is some kind of Higher Power, then yes, I guess AA is a religion.
However most religions assert one particular belief system, one
particular definition of god, and many go even further and condemn other
religions’ beliefs. Most religions require ceremony and/or
“certification” by a church authority of some sort to consider oneself a
member. In AA you don’t even have to say you’re an alcoholic, only
that you have a desire to stop drinking, and you can consider yourself a
member. AA is non-profit. It is completely voluntary. It is open to
anyone who wants to explore it. If, by religion, you mean an
organization which dictates one particular way of thinking, I would
dispute that. Saying “this is what we think” is not the same as saying
“this is what you should think.” Saying “Why don’t you consider things
in light of this information” is not the same as saying “If you don’t
agree you are wrong.” Some members of AA may speak in absolutes, or
take AA’s suggestions and treat them as dogma. Okay.
Some phrases in the Big Book can be pulled out of the text and offered as proof that AA has a specific belief, or warns people that they will die if they “leave AA.” I think that is a distortion of the spirit of what AA says. I think the Big Book suggests that if someone is a real alcoholic, trying to address the issue on their own is dangerous, and if they don’t get help they could die. That’s a very different thing from saying “if you leave AA you will die.” The Big Book also says stuff like, “… we realize we know only a little…” and “… God will constantly disclose more to you and to us…” and “… we can only clear the ground a little bit…” (and if you don’t believe in God, fine, but the point here is that AA literature mitigates what it says with statements offering room for asking questions and for critical thinking.)
To the point that we, as a country, should be
doing more to treat addictions:
Well, as a country we have an awful lot of challenges. Here’s what I think has been happening which is pretty good: Institutions have been trying to understand and treat addiction from a medical standpoint, rather than a moral one. Different forms of treatment are being evaluated in different ways. Just throwing addicts in jail and using a solely punitive model has been replaced with an effort towards prevention, education and treatment. Even if you do not agree with the content of those efforts, I would propose that this represents a form of progress beyond the “just put ‘em in prison” model. I believe, after many years of sponsoring people and staying sober in AA, that saying “addiction” is akin to saying “cancer” — and by that I mean there are many, many types of cancer, some of which can be treated with the same medicine, and some of which does not yet respond very well to any treatment we currently can offer. Already there is research (for example) into the idea that there are “chemical” addictions (alcoholism, addiction to heroin, crystal meth, etc.) and “process” addictions (eating, gambling, shopping…) and that sometimes some of this overlaps. Can/should we do more? Absolutely, but I think we are still learning.
And then this person comes along and gives it to me right between the eyes. D'oh!:
Mr. Sponsorpants – You seem to be under the impression that a multi-deitistic religion is not considered a religion, which is not the case. So, if your AA is the “pick any god you like” AA, then that is still a religion. Even the court (I cannot remember which specific case) cited this particular argument as lame. Now, if you are of the old-school belief that there is a specific AA God, which is what the ‘Big Book’ teaches – “God as we understand Him”, not “god of our understanding” – then that is also religion.
Your penguin analogy is a good rhetorical device, but it is just another way being insincere about what AA really is. AA is not “religious in nature”. It isn’t even “religious”. AA is religion in itself, and its teachings are specific. Because there are some in AA who choose to rationalize their way around the teachings – i.e., the “take what you want and leave the rest” crowd – does not make it less a religion; anymore than the fact that some Catholics, Jews or Muslims choose not to follow the teachings of the Bible or the Koran to the letter. It simply waters down, bastardizes or rationalizes (as you are doing here) the teachings from the ‘Big Book’. An atheist may attend mass regularly, and may not ever come to believe in the teachings of the church, but that does not make the church itself a “non-religion”. There might be AAs who don’t believe in the higher power hocus pocus, and who rationalize their way through the steps or never really drink the kool-aid. Many readers here fall into that category. Just because they don’t buy what you are selling, does not mean you aren’t selling religion.
So I respond to the above, and maybe start to get a little defensive passionate, but hopefully end well:
You are correct. A multi-deistic religion is still a religion. You are also very correct that an atheist in church does not make the church any more [SIC: I MEANT TO SAY "LESS"] religious, as an institution.
Also, your logic is excellent overall, and you have given me some food for thought. I will not argue that AA’s teachings are not specific, I concur, they are. AA offers a specific viewpoint, and “clear cut instructions” as to how the people who wrote the Big Book recovered from alcoholism, as an example to anyone who felt they had a problem and wanted to try what had worked for the book’s authors
Honestly, I feel like this has become a “storm of words” over the question of whether or not AA is a religion. I guess I got all caught up in the implication that a religion is a negative thing, along the lines of the famous “opium for the masses” and something which limits someone.
All I can really offer is my experience. My life as a drinking alcoholic was very limited, and after coming to AA and trying what it suggested I have found relief from my active alcoholism and a “design for living” which usually puts me in harmony with the people and world around me.
I can assure you there is no vast conspiracy on the part of the 12
Step world to dominate treatment options. Many meetings can’t even get
their act together to donate money to their central office, let alone
carry out such an agenda. As for the “billions of dollars” in the
recovery industry, I can only say that if that number is accurate
(billions? Okay. Maybe I should put the advertising back up on the
blog… hmmm…) that speaks as much to how big the problem is than anything
I don’t know about AA members “trolling recovery wards daily.” Dear God, who’s got time for such a thing? And have you been to one? Not fun. (And often smelly. Pee-ew!) I again come back to the idea that these are people in a recovery ward! They weren’t plucked from their church choir, or nabbed out of a changing room at the Gap, or snatched from their cubicle at the offices of Amalgom Incorporated. Even if you don’t like AA, and even if we *were* trolling daily, at least it’s someone trying to help.
Let’s say all of AA got together and chipped in and decided to take
out ads in all the papers — wait, no one is reading newspapers anymore —
okay, we bought time on “American Idol” and said, “You know what? It’s
been brought to our attention that AA is a religion, and we just wanted
to clear that up with everyone” and the courts stopped “sentencing”
people to AA meetings (the court cards that are signed, in my
experience, are not full name, just first name and last initial, and
attendance is generally taken by a hospital program, not the meeting
itself, and in any case, again, these are not poor innocents brought up
on sham charges, some supervision and consequence is in order by the
court or hospital, isn’t it?) — if those two things happened, what,
exactly then, should addicts do?
Throw themselves on the mercy of the pharmaceutical industry, hoping that today’s pill isn’t tomorrow’s liver tumor class action suit, and medicate for life? Or just “stop, no matter what!” ?
If I could have stopped no matter what, I wouldn’t have had to go to AA.
My tone has become argumentative, and I’m sorry for that.
We come back, I suspect, to agreeing to disagree. There are many examples of people in AA behaving badly. You site many of them here. There are many examples of people in AA behaving amazingly — I have coffee with them all the time. Your bad examples are your evidence that AA is a sham. My good examples are my evidence that AA is a force for good and of real help to people who struggle with addiction. *shrug*
My experience of AA has been overwhelmingly positive. I appreciate the many comments here that do not quarrel with AA in general — I think some of the points of contention lie more with the courts and the “rehab industry” rather than AA itself — though it can seem they are more enmeshed than I have found them to be, I admit.
I’ll keep working to have an open mind, and will certainly mull this all over as the days roll along.
(And I really liked my penguin analogy — I didn’t think I was being insincere at all. Oh well.)
I'm not trying to cheat it by having the "last word" here on my own blog. That's where it's landed, though no doubt more will be posted. It's probably best if I chill out on this now, though in the big picture I really do feel like it's good to read viewpoints very different from my own.
I know, I know, this post is ridiculous. What can I say? I'm still a man of excess. <sigh>