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  • Writer's pictureDanielle Amerena

Alcoholics Anonymous: Breaking the Myths and Revealing the Truth

Updated: Apr 20, 2020


Introduction

A Place to Belong

I wasn’t sure what I was looking for when I entered the church basement where a meeting was held. Panic overwhelmed me. What if I saw someone I knew? I didn’t want them to know. I sat towards the back, trying to hide from the fifty pairs of eyes. I was convinced that I didn’t have a problem with drinking; I didn’t belong here. This was just an obligation that needed to be filled. Just another checkmark in my ‘to-do’ list. I was prepared for the worst as I fidgeted in my cold metal chair.

For the next hour, I sat in my chair listening to stories like my own, and my outlook on the experience slowly started to change. It was as if my thoughts were being spoken at the front of the room. It was different than what I was used to. None of my friends understood what I was going through. They’d buy me rounds of drinks until I couldn’t see straight. My parents only saw it as a handicap that needed to be fixed; something unacceptable. But here, everyone had the same issue. Everyone struggled when an open bottle of cheap wine sat on the counter top. Most importantly, everyone was ready and willing to change and wanting to help other change; and that was more welcoming than a handshake at the door.

When I first began closely looking at Alcoholics Anonymous, I started looking for patterns in the group. But, it felt like I was searching for a stereotype. Some clear cut standard that everyone followed, and aside from alcohol, there was nothing. That is the beauty of AA. Everyone comes from different walks of life, has different stories, and different views. The one thing we all have in common? We are powerless to alcohol.

I skimmed all the books, read the stories, and interviewed a former sponsor. It wasn’t until I looked at it from another point of view that the patterns began to emerge from the “outsiders”. Their views were skewed. I found books devoted to outing AA as a cult, blog posts deeming it a failure. I heard people complain about the religious aspect being the only important part. Nobody seemed to understand the true meaning of AA. From there my work was clear: breaking the myths and revealing AA for what it was. The path to sobriety.

Cult or Cure?

The Debate

Contemporary anarchist writer, Charles Bufe dedicated an entire book trying to prove whether or not Alcoholics Anonymous is a cult. Not once, but twice. Bufe wrote two lengthy books of the same name on the subject. In his first book, Bufe concludes that no, AA is not a cult. However, in his second book, he concludes that it is. It’s not that Bufe doesn’t make a decent argument in his second book; he certainly states his facts in a concise way. It’s what he leaves out that fails him. It’s the wording he chooses that shows his bias. It is important to note that I am in no way trying to ‘bash’ Bufe’s work. I only want to disprove his theory by pointing out his downfalls.

The preface of his second book shows his bias when he mentions his “outrage” about people’s reaction to his original findings. He begins by talking about radio talk shows. “Many of the AA members who called during my interviews were polite and respectful, and wanted to discuss issues. But a fair number of others were just the opposite. They had no interest in discussing issues—all that they wanted to do was to attack me personally” (Bufe). He begins to insult some of the people who argued with him, even claiming one of the callers was drunk when he called. He continues, “At about the same time, newspaper and journal book reviews began to appear, and I fairly quickly noticed a pattern: those written by addictions "professionals" were extremely negative, and in two cases, it seemed to me, deliberately misrepresented what I'd said. As well, from their assertions and phraseology, I felt quite sure that the authors of these reviews were members of AA, but hadn't revealed it to their readers. I felt outraged by this. It seemed to me that their behavior was simply dishonest. I considered it— and still consider it—cowardly and deliberately deceptive. Taken together, these two things—the sheer hatefulness of many of the pro-AA talk show callers and the hatchet-job reviews by AA members who hid their affiliation with AA—caused me to begin to question my own conclusions about AA's relative harmlessness. I started to wonder whether there was more to AA than had met my eye; and I planned to investigate AA further” (Bufe). Bufe’s blatant insults of his critics start his book off with a clear bias. It proves his anger towards them transferred into anger towards AA, as he blindly claims that the critics must be members of AA. Bufe’s inability to take criticism takes away from his credibility.

Upon further investigation, I found that Bufe went to meetings with a stereotype in his head. The other AA members he spoke to were only friends. The meetings he did attend were the same. AA has a variety of meetings; no two will ever be the same. Bufe stereotypes a “typical” meeting must be like the few he went to. However, it’s the exact opposite. He claims it’s full of smokers, middle aged men, and held in a dingy basement. The meeting I went to had all ages, more women than men and not one person was smoking inside. This stereotype leads me to believe he did more reading than actually spending observation hours in various meetings.

I won’t sugarcoat it. Alcoholics Anonymous may have cult-like tendencies. Yes, there is a religious aspect in certain sections of AA. However, there are sections geared towards atheists and agnostics as well. Merriam Webster gives us three separate definitions that could define a cult.

  1. a small religious group that is not part of a larger and more accepted religion and that has beliefs regarded by many people as extreme or dangerous

  2. a situation in which people admire and care about something or someone very much or too much

  3. a small group of very devoted supporters or fans

According to these definitions, AA is only a cult in the fact that it has devout supporters. AA has no leaders, no one religion and is in no way extreme or dangerous to its members. The only thing AA is really guilty of is a variety of stereotypes that follow its name.

As for a cure, there is none. There is only sobriety. Alcoholics Anonymous has 2 million successfully recovering members in more than 180 countries (Alcoholics Anonymous). The success rates are judged by amount of years being sober.

(Alcoholics Anonymous) Ask any alcoholic what they believe success is and I can guarantee that they won’t give you an arbitrary number of years. The true success? They’re still alive. Even though each day is a struggle, they strive to live free of alcohol. Some days they make it, other days they don’t. The only difference is their lives have changed for the better, and that is the greatest success of all.

The Twelve Steps

Searching for Sobriety

One of the biggest misconceptions about Alcoholics Anonymous is the importance of religion. It’s true that the original twelve steps seem to have a heavy focus on God. However, AA has greatly evolved from its founding days and a closer look at the word choice proves that the focus is more on an individual’s idea of spirituality. The twelve steps mention the belief in a higher power. Each member’s idea of a higher power may be different. For some, this may take the form of God; for others, it may be a belief in the Universe itself. While many associate AA with its Christian history, people from all different religious backgrounds participate in AA. The main purpose is that alcoholics are not looking to themselves for the power or strength, they are looking to an entity that is great than themselves.

The original twelve steps are outlined on the AA website.

1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.

2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.

4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.

12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs. (Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc.)

Although the twelve steps are a major part of the program, most meeting do not focus on them. As mentioned earlier, certain meetings are geared towards those who either oppose religion or are unsure of their beliefs. Upon further research, I found that other versions of the twelve steps are available. The website AA Agnostica offers several versions of the twelve steps; catering to everything from atheism, to humanism to Buddhism. The twelve steps are a vital part on the road to recovery, but they are up to interpretation, which is specifically explained in AA’s main book. “When, therefore, we speak to you of God, we mean your own conception of God. This applies, too, to other spiritual expressions which you find in this book. Do not let prejudice you may have against spiritual terms deter you from honestly asking yourself what they mean to you” (Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. ).

Interview

“Bullshit is the best excuse for not getting sober.” – Frank

I recently sat down with a good friend of mine to discuss some of my findings and to get his take on Alcoholics Anonymous. I’ve known Frank for years, but it was only recent that I began to confide in him about my struggles with alcohol. It turns out that Frank had been through it all, and had even been a sponsor in his earlier years.

It is important to mention that Frank has no filter. One of the great things about him is that he will always speak his mind. I have decided not to change his wording in order to keep the honesty of his ideas in tack. Frank’s true wisdom shines in his words.

I asked Frank what his thoughts were on AA as a cure. His explanation was simple. “There is no cure, only sobriety. The answer is in you.” AA can give you the tools to help you on the path to sobriety, but it up to you. “You are the cure, the cause and the path ahead. We have all hit a brick wall in our lives that leads us to look for a solution. AA can be the solution only if you work at it.” He told me that the key part of AA is the overwhelming idea that we are not alone; AA is a room of equals. “Only one factor is relevant, we are addicts.”

Frank was a strong proponent of the twelve steps. When I asked if he thought that AA could still be successful without going through the steps, he concurred that it was impossible. They are a way of paying back, of admitting to be being powerless. They are the actions one must take to find sobriety. He mentioned that the twelve steps is not a “quick fix”. Sometimes it can take years. “AA is a process. Stop bullshitting yourself. All actions have consequences and now it’s time to make amends.”

He explained how important it was to get a sponsor. “A sponsor is no more than another addict that you share with and answer to. It’s like having an untrained therapist on your side that can through all the lies and the bullshit. We’ve been through it before.” He recalled that being a sponsor was rewarding and he was able to share his experiences and help someone else to be successful.

When our interview was nearing its end I asked Frank to open up on sobriety, and what he said resonated with me that night. “Sobriety is not a cure. We learn to be grateful for our sobriety. But we must understand that every day is a new challenge regardless of how long we have been sober. What set you of ten years ago can set you off tomorrow. No matter how long you’ve been sober, you can always fall off the wagon. What’s important is learning that you can start over if you.” Frank is right, and I mentioned this in my earlier sections, but his words bring it home. Frank left me with one final phrase, “bullshit is the best excuse for not getting sober.” It’s up to us. The higher power is in us. Only we can decide when enough is enough; and only we as individuals can reach a personal sobriety.

Conclusions

A Different Outlook

It is without a doubt that my views of Alcoholics Anonymous have greatly shifted since my journey began. I fully admit that I used to believe every stereotype. I thought that my first meeting would require me to stand at the front of the room and say “My name is Danielle, and I’m an alcoholic.” I wasn’t ready for that, and going through AA helps in the admittance of that. The power behind that statement has been revealed. We are truly powerless to alcohol and the age-old saying that admitting a problem is the first step, couldn’t be more right.

I’ve said it before, and I will say it again. Alcoholics Anonymous is not a cure. There is no cure to addiction. I will always be an addict. AA has certainly taught me that. But what AA is, is a path to sobriety. A path to a happier life free from alcohol. AA is about community, getting help and getting sober. And that alone is the true beauty of it all.

Bibliography

AA Agnostica. AA Agnostica. 2014. Website. December 2014.

Alcoholics Anonymous. 2014. Website. <www.aa.org>.

Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. . Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism. New York City: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc., 2001. eBook.

Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, Inc. "The Twelve Traditions." 1981. Alcoholics Anonymous. Document. December 2014.

Alcoholics Anonymous World Servies, Inc. "The Twelve Steps." 1981. Alcoholics Anonymous. Document. December 2014.

Bufe, Charles. AA: Cult or Cure. Second Edition. Revised and Expanded . Tuscon: Sharp Press, 1998. Print.

Frank. Interview. Danielle Cooper. 14 December 2014.

Freedman, Samuel G. "Alcoholics Anonymous: Without the Religion." New York Times 21 February 2014: A14. Print.


Copyright © 2020 by Danielle Cooper


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