What's Wrong with Alcoholics Anonymous?

What’s Wrong with Alcoholics Anonymous?

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No other addiction recovery treatment program is as widely known, or as frequently recommended, as Alcoholics Anonymous.

But, if AA’s methods worked for everyone: 

  1. There would be concrete scientific proof to support it. 
  2. AA members’ sobriety success rates would be much higher.
  3. It would rank higher as an alcohol treatment approach.
  4. Alcohol use disorder (AUD) would be decreasing in the US. 

So, why is AA the go-to alcohol addiction treatment in the US, and perhaps worldwide? Well, for one, it’s completely free to attend and join any of the over 115,000 AA groups around the world. 

A free drug and alcohol addiction treatment program available practically anywhere in the US at any time of day – maybe you’re wondering, what’s the catch? 

The truth is that AA isn’t the best treatment for everyone with alcohol or substance use disorder. In fact, AA is ranked 38th out of 48 methods in The Handbook of Alcoholism Treatment Approaches.

AA claims to have helped hundreds of thousands find, and keep, their sobriety. But the estimated success rate of AA actually ranges from 20% to as low as 5%. So why doesn’t AA work for the other 80-95% of people who have tried it? 

The simplest answer is diversity. Standardized addiction treatment programs aren’t always effective for everyone, because people are so diverse. Every person is a complex individual with different backgrounds, experiences, worldviews and needs. As the recovery journey is a deeply personal one, your treatment program should ideally reflect this. 

Have you ever gone to an AA meeting but didn’t feel like you belonged? Or maybe you actually felt like something was wrong? If so, that’s okay. 

Because yes, Alcoholics Anonymous does have some very specific problems. And as you’ll see below, though AA has helped many, it’s still a flawed system. Luckily, it’s not the only road to recovery available to you.

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Alcoholics Anonymous: Addiction Recovery for Some, But Not All

Doctors, treatment centers and judges regularly recommend and send people to AA or similar 12-Step programs. Alcoholics Anonymous is “prescribed” to thousands of people every day. It has become a one-size-fits-all addiction solution. In fact, it’s so common and so ingrained in our culture that hardly anyone ever questions it.

The problem with this approach is that AA becomes little more than a band-aid fix for many. If it works, it’s often a temporary solution that doesn’t last.

It’s important for you to know about AA’s flaws and how these could potentially affect AA meetings, its members’ motives and ultimately, your recovery experience. There are many reasons why AA might not work for a particular person. Below are some of the most recognized issues with AA.

What Are Faith-Based Recovery Programs?

AA began in 1935 as a “nonprofessional attempt to grapple with the alcoholism of its founders,” writes Lance Dodes, M.D. in his novel The Sober Truth: Debunking the Bad Science Behind 12-Step Programs and the Rehab Industry

Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith, AA’s founders, were members of the Oxford Group, a fundamentalist religious organization founded in the early 1900s. The Oxford Group’s main principles directly influenced the creation of the 12 Steps, which AA is famous for. 

Though it has recently tried to promote itself as more nondenominational, AA’s religious foundation is still very evident. The clearest example of these religious roots are in AA’s reliance on a “higher power.” 

In AA, people seeking recovery must seek help from a “higher power,” or “a power greater than ourselves,” in order to overcome their addiction. This “higher power” is typically synonymous with God, Him, religiousness or spirituality. In fact, these words appear 497 times in the first 164 pages of the Big Book, the main text used in Alcoholics Anonymous. 

Today, most AA groups encourage members to define what their personal “higher power” is, if not a deity like God. Concepts like nature, love or music are some alternative suggestions. 

No matter how neutral AA might try to be, prayer is still the main method of treatment. Five of the 12 Steps directly refer to God “as we understand Him.” Step 12 states that following the Steps will result in a “spiritual awakening.”

“If AA were simply presented as a religious movement dedicated to trying to comfort addicts through faith and prayer, the program would not be so problematic,” states Lance Dodes, M.D, in his novel. “What is troubling is how resolutely – and some might say disingenuously – AA has taken pains to dissociate itself from the faith-based methodology it encourages.” 

Today, 50% of all US states have declared AA to be “highly religious.” Religion and spirituality do help many people in their recovery. But faith-based addiction treatment isn’t for everyone.

What Is the Disease Model of Addiction?  

Most 12-Step programs, including Alcoholics Anonymous, are based on the disease model of addiction. This defines alcohol use disorder as a chronic, progressive and incurable disease. Today, this idea has been so widely promoted that it’s accepted as common knowledge and truth.

Viewing and treating addiction as a disease creates a disempowering mindset. This viewpoint subliminally tells us that we’re incapable of controlling and healing ourselves. And ultimately, it teaches us that we’re powerless to change. 

Many people might understandably think, “What’s the point of trying if I can’t change?” Or, “Why should I try to change if I can never be healed or free from this disease?” 

In the past few decades alone, two fields of science have given us new information on how the brain, and addiction, works. These are: 


The study of human genes, and how those genes are affected by more than DNA, is called epigenetics. Today, we know that our parents are not the only factor influencing our genetic expression.

The Sanctuary’s Founder Dean Taraborelli explains: “Epigenetics says it’s a proven fact that what you think about, how you feel and what you believe in is going to affect your genetic blueprint.” What this means is that our lifestyle plus environmental factors can directly affect our genes, therefore influencing our behaviors, like substance abuse and addiction.


Neurogenesis is the science of the growth and development of new neurons in the brain. Studies of neurogenesis have proven that the brain can regenerate. In fact, our brains can even create new neural pathways that don’t include a predisposition to addiction. 

“All of these sciences point to the fact that we can get better,” says Dean. “There’s a body-mind-spirit connection. How we feel actually determines how our body is going to express itself.” Treatment programs can apply this new scientific knowledge to help us overcome our alcohol or substance use disorders. 

12-Step Dominance

Alcoholics Anonymous, and the 12-Steps, are the most accepted mainstream treatment program in the US.

Every year the courts in America and Canada order nearly 165,000 people to go to AA, according to AA’s own survey results. “AA and rehab have been codified into our legal system: court-mandated attendance, which began in the late 1980s, is today a staple of drug-crime policy,” says Dodes.

In addition, every year, our state and federal governments spend over $15 billion on substance-abuse treatment services for nearly four million people. The majority of these are 12-Step programs. 

But if the 12 Steps are outdated and unsupported by science, then why are they still the go-to addiction treatment? 

In the early 1900s, when AA began, there weren’t many medical advancements in the field of neuroscience, much less addiction. Our collective scientific knowledge of the brain, and of how addiction works, was minimal. The first freestanding neuroscience department wasn’t founded until the 1960s, little more than 60 years ago.

As Lance Dodes explains, at the end of Prohibition and in the middle of the Great Depression AA really “spread like wildfire.” And, “despite the absence of any scientific evidence of the approach’s efficacy,” science turned away and AA became the top treatment for addiction.

In addition, the medical profession in general undervalues the science of addiction and its treatment. In the US, only 582 out of nearly 1 million doctors identify as addiction specialists, according to the American Medical Association’s estimates.

Furthermore, only six states required alcohol- and substance-abuse counselors to have a bachelor’s degree. In 14 states, there are no license requirements for addiction counselors at all; not even a GED or introductory course.

The science behind addiction has changed. But the general format of AA and the principles taught by the 12 Steps have stayed the same for the past 80-plus years.

Today, there are many evidence-based and scientifically proven alternatives to AA. They just aren’t as widely known.

The Blame Game

In general, if AA doesn’t work for you, people say that you only have yourself to blame. Phrases like, “You’re not working the Steps enough,” or, “You just haven’t tried hard enough,” are common. Maybe people have even said this to you before. And frankly, that’s not helpful to anyone, and it’s simply not okay.

No other field of medicine blames the patient if the treatment doesn’t work. If chemo doesn’t work for someone diagnosed with cancer, we don’t say it’s that person’s fault for not trying hard enough. In reality, doctors would try different medications or treatments to still help the person overcome the cancer. Why don’t we do the same with treatment programs for alcohol and substance use disorder? 

The “it works if you work it” mentality is fundamentally flawed. If AA doesn’t work for you, it’s not your fault – and you’re not the only one. The truth is, the 12 Steps have proven an incomplete journey for many others, too.

Why the 12-Steps aren’t effective is less important than finding something that may be more effective,” says Dean when talking about alternative addiction recovery.

There’s More Than One Way to Recover 

The main problem with the 12 Steps isn’t even AA. It’s the rehab industry at large.

Americans need to demand better, just as they did with breast cancer, HIV, and mental illness,” said University of Pennsylvania psychologist, Tom McLellan.  

If AA didn’t work for you, it doesn’t mean you have to give up on getting the help you need. And anyone seeking treatment outside of AA and the 12-Steps should know what alternatives there are to help them.

There are many paths to recovery. We’re here to help you find the one that’s best for you.

The Sanctuary: Holistic Healing for All 

Surrounded by the nurturing natural environment of Sedona, Arizona, The Sanctuary is a holistic non-12-Step treatment center for anyone struggling with addiction, anxiety, depression or trauma

What makes The Sanctuary different is that we don’t just help you face your addiction. We help you discover and begin healing the root trauma driving your desire to use substances.  

As our Program Director Kelley Alexander describes, “Trauma is anything that affects our system to the degree that it interferes with our ability to be able to process information, to be able to live life and to be able to feel good.”

We all have unresolved trauma from our pasts that affects our present. At The Sanctuary, we guide you towards healing with an integrative treatment program of diverse healing methods that evolve with you throughout your healing journey. 

“What we mean when we talk about being a holistic program, we talk about being a whole person – whole physically, mentally, energetic and spiritually,” explains Girvani Leerer, The Sanctuary’s Clinical Director.

Complete healing within your entire being from alcohol use disorder is possible. All it takes is the desire to change and the knowledge that you can. 

Contact us today to learn more about our non-12-Step alcohol addiction treatment programs. 

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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]