Is Alcoholics Anonymous Bad? Why or Why Not? When most people think of rehab, they think of Alcoholics Anonymous or AA, and its 12 Steps of recovery. Since its creation in 1935, AA has been the most well-known and most recommended program for addiction treatment in the US.
AA is a global, community-based program. It offers a support system of peers for anyone who wants to get sober. According to its website, AA is “nonprofessional, self-supporting, multiracial, apolitical, and available almost everywhere. Membership is open to anyone who wants to do something about his or her drinking problem.”
The group claims to have a high success rate of helping people recover from alcohol abuse and maintain their sobriety. But is it really the best way to treat substance abuse?
Are the 12 Steps Right for You?
The simple truth is that AA and 12-Step addiction treatment programs do help some people maintain recovery from alcohol addiction. But for countless others, they only somewhat help or don’t help at all. Researchers have referred to this as the “rule of thirds.”
Over the past 85 years, AA and the 12 Steps have become an integral part of professional rehabilitation and treatment programs. Studies show that more than 70% of addiction treatment facilities in the US are based on the 12 Steps.
“Years ago, the field seems to have decided that AA is the best way to treat addiction. And unfortunately, because the scientific community has seemed to accept that, the general population has,” states Lance Dodes, M.D., in the documentary film The 13th Step. “It is the de facto treatment for addiction in this country.”
The question really is, then: are the 12 Steps really the right road to recovery for you?
There are great alternatives to AA. So if the 12 Steps don’t resonate with you, don’t give up! Keep reading to better understand the benefits and drawbacks of AA and the 12 Steps, and to learn more about holistic non-12-Step addiction treatment.
Alcoholics Anonymous and the 12 Steps: The Facts
AA meetings promote the 12-Step approach. Members are encouraged to work through and follow the 12 Steps, or the guidelines to achieve sobriety.
Beliefs About Addiction
Both AA and the 12 Steps are based on the disease model of addiction. This model says that people struggling with alcohol or substance abuse are sick with a chronic, progressive, and fatal disease. Under this belief, a person’s biology, neurology, and genetics are what causes addiction. Environmental factors can also impact their experience with addiction.
The disease model asserts that you’re essentially powerless over addiction unless you get help. In the case of AA, that help comes in the form of surrendering to a higher power and using 12-Step meetings to maintain sobriety for life.
How to Recover
According to AA, there’s only one way to achieve complete, lifelong recovery: practicing total abstinence from alcohol. AA teaches that all it takes is one drink of alcohol to trigger your addiction and addictive behaviors, which is why you can’t drink at all.
In order to recover, you must work through and follow the 12 Steps. The general structure of the 12 Steps is: surrender your ego, accept that you are “powerless” over alcohol, make amends to those you’ve wronged, and pray to your “higher power” for healing.
Who Leads AA Meetings
One common misconception, from television and movie portrayals, is that there is a guidance counselor or “leader” in charge of each AA meeting. Every meeting is simply a gathering of local community members who are either already in recovery or are working towards recovery. The “chairperson” of the meeting, who is simply a member of the AA community, changes every day or every week.
As Monica Richardson, recovery activist and director of The 13th Step, says, “It’s a fellowship of laypeople. There’s no one in charge. There’s no training, no background check, and no facilitator. There is no social worker leading an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.”
What to Expect in AA Meetings
Meetings are usually held in churches or community centers and are mostly run the same way, following an informal, general agenda. To start, the chairperson or different members will read passages of AA literature, typically from the book Alcoholics Anonymous (also called the Big Book) for encouragement and guidance. Sometimes members will discuss one of the 12 Steps.
This is followed by the sharing or a chance for any member to share a story or something on their mind. The meeting ends with the group reciting the Lord’s Prayer, which is optional to participate in. After the prayer, members often stay to mingle and socialize with one another.
The “Good,” or Things Some People Like About AA
For some, going to AA meetings and following the 12 Steps is enough to achieve and maintain sobriety. Science still hasn’t proven if this is because of AA or because of members’ individual efforts, background, and desire to recover.
Either way, there are a lot of benefits that many people get from being involved in Alcoholics Anonymous:
People struggling with alcohol use disorders and addiction are often very isolated in their day-to-day struggles. Loneliness can be a big trigger for alcohol or substance abuse. Meetings give both experienced members and newcomers an opportunity to connect with others who can probably relate to them better than most people in their life. At AA, it’s easy to meet new people and create a sober social network. This is especially important if your current friendships are based on drinking or are harmful for your recovery.
Every day, there are hundreds of free AA meetings happening all over the world. You can usually fit an AA meeting into your schedule because they’re offered at various, convenient times throughout the day. Its no-cost format means it’s often a crucial lifeline for those who can’t afford other forms of treatment.
One of AA’s main traditions is giving sobriety coins or chips to members who stay sober for specific amounts of time. This tradition gives members an incentive to keep working towards their goals. Plus, there are also more than 2 million AA members worldwide. Being a member of such a large group can help you feel like you’re part of something bigger than yourself.
AA’s main purpose is for people already in recovery to help others on their path. The entire program is built on this network of mentorship. It gives people with alcohol or substance abuse problems the chance to help others. And it also creates the opportunity for newcomers to think about and address the issues in their life from a new perspective.
For many, the purpose they find and the connections they make in AA make the difference between achieving recovery or staying caught in the cycle of addiction.
The “Bad,” or Things Some People Don’t Like About AA
Many people have found healing and success on their journey to recovery through AA. But it doesn’t work for everyone.
There can be several drawbacks to the philosophies of AA that stop people from being able to work towards recovery:
AA does have a religious foundation. One of the main practices of the 12 Steps is to turn to a “higher power” for help. In fact, five of the 12 Steps directly mention this “higher power.” In the first 164 pages of the Big Book, there are 497 direct references to God, a higher power, Him, religious, spiritual, etc. And 50% of all US states have deemed AA “highly religious.” All of this could be a deterrent for many agnostics, atheists, or non-theists seeking secular addiction treatment. It can even be triggering for those who have had traumatic experiences in religious settings.
Originally, AA was intended for chronic, severe alcohol users. Since then, though, AA has been applied much more broadly. For example, judges often require people to attend AA after DUI arrests. Today, nearly 12% of AA members are there by court order. Some experts believe there should be different treatment options other than AA available for mild to moderate alcohol users.
Rigid, Non-scientific Teachings
AA isn’t actually based on any kind of scientific evidence. The hyperfocus on relapse can also lead to the dangerous cycle of binge drinking. This is because of the idea that if you have one drink it is as bad as having a dozen, so there are no allowances for small missteps. Some people believe that, if used, AA should be used in conjunction with other evidence-based therapies. “If we’re going to argue, as the 12-Step people strenuously do, that addiction is a disease, it cannot be the only disease for which the treatment is confession and prayer. That’s just not acceptable,” says addiction journalist and author Maia Szalavitz.
Lack of Supporting Data
Because the very nature of AA is anonymous, it is incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to gather meaningful data about the true effects of AA. There isn’t actually any empirical evidence on the success rates of AA and the 12 Steps. Most data in favor of AA comes from anecdotal evidence that cannot be proven or disproved.
AA doesn’t have a central authority. Although there is a general meeting format, each meeting is autonomous and could function quite differently from other meetings. The atmosphere and effectiveness of the meetings is highly dependent on where they are located and who’s there. For example, AA meetings may be LGBTQ+ friendly or not simply because of where they’re based.
Any of these can become a huge roadblock for a lot of people on their path to recovery. Many people simply want something different.
Alternatives to Alcoholics Anonymous and the 12 Steps
Through the years, AA has unofficially become the “one-size-fits-all” program for anyone with substance abuse problems. The 12 Steps and AA meetings can be an important tool in the recovery journey for many. But they shouldn’t be the only options available to those seeking recovery from alcohol and substance abuse.
There are many nonreligious, science-based alternatives to AA, even though they may not be as widely advertised or known. You can still achieve a lifelong recovery even if you don’t go to AA or follow the 12 Steps.
Some of the free non-12-Step alternative treatment programs include:
- SMART Recovery
- Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS)
- Women for Sobriety
- Moderation Management
- HAMS: Harm Reduction for Alcohol
- The Sinclair Method
Today, there are increasingly more rehab facilities that offer alternative programs to the 12 Steps.
Holistic Non-12-Step Addiction Treatment
The Sanctuary is a non-12-Step healing center in Sedona, Arizona. Our beliefs about recovery and our approaches to healing are very different from AA.
We don’t view addiction as a lifelong disease. In fact, we don’t believe your substance abuse is the source of your problems. We believe it’s actually a symptom or a manifestation of other, deeper unresolved traumas in your life. As Lance Dodes, M.D., says, “A behavior cannot be a disease, because there’s something that causes the behavior.”
We also don’t think you’re powerless against your addiction. The idea of being a lifelong addict is a limiting belief. It stops you from reaching your full potential for healing. But if you address and resolve the source of the trauma, freedom from addiction is possible.
Our goal is to empower you to achieve complete healing in all parts of your being – the energetic, spiritual, mental, and emotional. This empowerment comes through a variety of science- and method-based healing methods, from brain mapping to nutritious eating to CBT.
The Sanctuary is a safe, welcoming space open to people from all different backgrounds, cultures, religions, and belief systems. We’re here to help you achieve lasting recovery no matter where you’re at on your journey to an addiction-free life.
Contact us for more information or to begin your non-12-Step recovery journey today.
He is the Founder, Administrator, Counselor at the Sanctuary at Sedona. He has a BA in Political Science and is currently Senior teaching staff at Four Winds Society, an international school of energy medicine. His credentials also include being an Ordained Minister; a Certified Shamanic Breathwork® Facilitator; a Founding Member Society for Shamanic Practitioners; a Member of Association for Comprehensive Energy Psychology; a Member of the National Institute for Holistic Addiction Studies. [email protected]
He is the Founder, Administrator, Counselor at the Sanctuary at Sedona.
He has a BA in Political Science and is currently Senior teaching staff at Four Winds Society, an international school of energy medicine. His credentials also include being an Ordained Minister; a Certified Shamanic Breathwork® Facilitator; a Founding Member Society for Shamanic Practitioners; a Member of Association for Comprehensive Energy Psychology; a Member of the National Institute for Holistic Addiction Studies. [email protected]