The absolute last place I wanted to end up was in Alcoholics Anonymous. It was, I knew, a place for the dregs of society—chain-smokers who drank black coffee and pined for the good old days when they could drink. I chain smoked and pounded coffee at the time but I figured I was so much cooler than them that this didn’t matter (my definition of “so much cooler” apparently included holing myself up for days at a time drinking and doing coke alone). I figured that when the people who gathered in these dank, depressing, Jesus-worshipping rooms could no longer stand the tedium of their lives, they’d be like, “Let’s do something crazy and fun—like go to a play!” (With some exceptions, plays in LA ain’t that great.) I bought a bunch of anti-AA literature and harshly judged the meetings that I was dragged to reluctantly by friends who’d gotten sober—friends with real addiction problems, not people like me who just tended to like coke a little too much.
Then, when my relationship with alcohol and drugs made me want to die, I went to rehab. For the first few days, everything went the way I’d known it would: I hated the people there because I thought they were idiots. But then something weird started to happen: I started to like them. They were the first people I’d really talked to in years—unless you count coming up with world-changing plans with a bunch of fellow cokeheads at 4 a.m. as talking. These people were sharing solutions to problems I’d never been able to admit to myself I had—the reasons behind why they drank and did drugs and continued to even when they desperately wanted to stop. They talked about the way they thought—how they felt like the piece of crap in the center of the universe, how they never stopped thinking about themselves, how they blamed everyone else for their problems—and I soaked it up the way I’d been soaking up alcohol weeks before.
So there I was in group therapy, sharing with the best of them, feeling better than I had in a decade. And before, between and after group, they put us in something we cheerfully called the druggie buggie and carted us off to meetings. I remember those first few ones I went to while in rehab very well—the enormous Sunday morning one in the sunny room filled with hundreds of bright, shiny, gorgeous people and a piano player for the endless rounds of Happy Birthday; the tiny one in the cramped room where a few depressed folks said things that only sort of made sense. But I liked the meetings, even the one with the few crazies who didn’t make sense. I felt comfortable there. I felt better there than I had anywhere else in years. And it turned out that all the best stuff I’d been hearing in group had been cribbed from AA meetings. In meetings, I kept hearing revelatory things—about how resentments were like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die, how rejection was God’s protection and more that may sound clichéd now as I write but which literally changed my life. Basically, I fell in love with AA before I remembered that I hated it.
But here’s something I understand now that I couldn’t have then: I was intrinsically set up to like the program. I like sharing in front of groups of people, the bigger the better. I process my feelings by writing them out. I usually know how to identify how I feel and think and am grateful when there’s someone there willing to listen. I like the camaraderie that comes from being a part of a group with a shared purpose. I like suggestions for improving my life. If success in AA required doing math problems or even giving people driving directions, I’d have been screwed.
But more important than any of that, I knew that I desperately needed rules for living because I’d failed at all the ones I’d been raised on, which consisted primarily of go to an Ivy League school, make six figures and will your way into the most successful life possible. Possibly even more important than that: I believed in a Higher Power already and was already comfortable calling that Higher Power God so I didn’t have the immediate aversion to the program that so many people do. I didn’t know anything about a God that could be punishing or cruel—only one that I could turn to for help. (Even if I hadn’t—any many words have been spilled on this already—you don’t actually have to believe in God to do the program, there are plenty of atheists there and it’s a spiritual and not a religious thing, but I fully understand that this is hard to swallow for those who balk at anything that has any suggestion whatsoever of religious.)
I also got so very lucky in terms of the rooms I walked in. My counselor in rehab was gentle and wise. I was in treatment with cool people I would have wanted to be friends with anyway. And the meetings I started going to regularly were filled with people I would have wanted to befriend anyway, all of whom seemed to share brilliant, inspiring, hilarious things.
I also got clean in LA and I’m a shallow person so the fact that the rooms were populated with attractive, articulate, often successful, occasionally famous people who all knew how to tell stories like it was their job (and sometimes it was) had a lot to do with why I fell so hard for AA. Look, I get that liking a meeting because you can flirt with a famous guy there is messed up. But who cares what keeps you coming back? As they say in the food program, come for the vanity, stay for the sanity.
Here’s how the sanity came: as I started doing the steps, leaning more on a Higher Power, discovering the ways fear had ruled my life and getting out of my own way, I realized I had no interest in doing coke or drinking. I had been trying to stop doing these things for years and had found quitting so impossible that I thought suicide would be the only way to escape. And yet by following simple but not easy suggestions, my interest in the things I’d been more interested in than anything in my life evaporated. If staying sober was about willpower, I’d be screwed; something happened to me that I can’t understand or explain and I didn’t need any more proof that AA worked for me.
For many years, I took this for granted; we gravitate toward people with similar experiences and so I know many others who’d gone through the same thing. And for a long time, I thought the only way to tackle alcoholism was through AA. I was wrong. AA does not hold the monopoly on dealing with alcoholism; there are many alcoholics and addicts who do not participate in AA, don’t end up in jail or dead and seem to live happy, productive, fulfilling lives.
The problem with those who insist that 12-step is the only way is exacerbated by the fact that many people have shown up at meetings, dying for help, and encountered incredibly sick folks who have driven them away from the program. This fucking sucks. There are sick people everywhere but the fact that a desperate alcoholic can come to a room hoping to have his or her life saved and then encounter someone who turns them off to 12-step altogether is a tragedy. But how can this be helped? Statistics say one in three people are mentally ill. We can’t rein them in globally; how the hell would AA?
But here’s what can be helped: the people who have terrible experiences with someone in AA could open their minds to the fact that one person does and cannot represent an entire program. If you go to a restaurant and someone eating there is flinging their food across the table, you don’t conclude that this is a restaurant where everyone tosses food around. But people feel fine doing this with AA. I’ve encountered nutters in the program too—and I’ve gone in the opposite direction.
And this is basically my point: people, even people who are vulnerable and at the worst time in their lives, are still responsible for what happens to them. Everyone wants to blame someone or something for addiction and what it does. I fully understand why people would hate the meetings, detest the steps, balk at the idea that they’ll end up in an institution or dead if they don’t follow the program, flinch at the pressure they may feel to identify themselves as alcoholic before they’ve even had time to process what’s going on and rail against the idea that God is mentioned. But no one is forcing them to show up and do everything that’s suggested; if the program doesn’t work for them, they should find a way that does.
Still, the most severe damage comes from those who, for reasons undisclosed, have chosen to base their careers around railing against AA—say, the author Gabrielle Glaser, who admits in her anti-AA polemic (link is external) in The Atlantic that she “encountered disbelief from doctors and psychiatrists every time I mentioned that the Alcoholics Anonymous success rate appears to hover in the single digits” before explaining why she knew more than them. She claims that no “conclusive data exist on how well it works” before getting the AA-works-for-5-% stat from Lance Dodes (link is external) (something she could have gotten from Charlie Sheen during one of his many rants (link is external)). But here’s the thing: there is data on this sort of thing, including a 2006 study by Rudolf H. Moos and Bernice S. Moos (link is external) which showed that those who participated in AA for 27 weeks or more had better 16-year outcomes. There was also a 2009 study which proved that (link is external) “alcoholics reported elevated depressive symptoms before initial AA-related helping, lowered depressive symptoms at the start of AA-related helping, and similarly lowered depressive symptoms in the interval following initial AA-related helping.”
But studies only have so much an impact when personal feelings are at stake and, as I said, I completely get why people who have tried AA could hate it. What I don’t get are those who have no firsthand experience with AA, are not (as far as we know) alcoholics and just seem to have stumbled upon a juicy controversy to stake a career on would rail against something they could never understand.
So here’s what I wish: that those with first-hand experience hatred would consider the fact that maybe they’re enraged by alcoholism and not a program that can save people from it.
By Anna David