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So you're questioning AA?
Scary, even frightening, are the words that come to mind when I look back on that phase of my life. That fact alone is shocking considering how much AA encourage us to challenge ourselves; and yet asking questions about the program is frowned upon. If you are anything like me before you read anything about anything you will ask yourself two questions; who wrote it and why?
Bill Wilson was the arch social engineer – not only did he retrieve the information he needed from people in order to shame them, he also created a culture, or a group, where it felt 'normal' and 'acceptable' to reveal these personal details. If it is the job of a hacker to break into a system in order to take control of it, it seems that it was Bill Wilson's purpose to break into the person. If we were to use an analogy, the password needed to access sensitive information is a little like the secrets we all feel a need to hide – once known we become compromised. In Steps 4 and 5 Bill Wilson effectively gets us to reveal our 'password' – and in doing so we lose any sense of security once afforded by this natural defence mechanism. Secrets are not automatically bad; we often hide them for good reason.
I never really understood why so many people who had never had addictions would congratulate me for being clean. Was being clean that great an achievement? Eventually I concluded one of the things that made getting clean so difficult was actually that idea it was such a struggle. If we think something is going to be tough we will make it so, rather like a self fulfilling prophecy. This assumption plays into the hands of AA by forcing its members to rely on it, or at least think they need it to stay sober. Staying sober is essentially a pretty easy task, just don't drink. Anyone with a drinking problem knows deep down that the only thing keeping them sober is themselves – even I knew this when I was attending meetings, and yet I would credit the rooms for it. People get sober when they have had enough; when the negatives outweigh the positives. It baffled me how AA insisted on a desire to stop drinking for membership – if people wanted to stop drinking, they would; surely? I could be wrong here, but it is my belief that the majority of people that end up in their first AA meeting do so because they hope AA will make them want to stop drinking – not because they actually want to stop. In other words, they want to want to stop drinking.
Do you remember being told to forget all you think you know about addiction and just listen? On the surface this might appear a reasonable request until we make the connection that AA defines the person by their addiction – so when we are asked to forget what we know about addiction, we are in fact being asked to ignore what we know of ourselves. If AA is successful in doing this they will in turn have a blank canvas to mould and shape the person. Think about the conversations you have with your friends in AA – they are all so stale, and everyone says the same thing in accordance with the principles set out in the program. Everyone says what they should say, and those most 'on the program' are also those most respected or revered. Members are praised for mirroring what the group demands; individuals are shunned. When I was in the midst of my AA indoctrination I was able to rationalise this loss of self, but having stepped out of the AA fray for a while, I can now see how tragic and sterile this practice really is. I went to AA to find the person I once was, not to become an altogether different person; one I no longer recognised. Further I did not go to AA for a new personality, I arrived hoping to learn how to remain sober, full stop. Believe it or not I actually quite liked the person I was save my addiction. To that end I was more than willing to follow any suggestions offered, but I was not happy to hand my entire will and life over to something I could not understand. As humans we have a tendency to fill in the blanks when we are starved of information. In AA the guise of anyone's Higher Power is irrelevant, hence it can be anything other than ourselves – all AA is concerned with is that that HP tells us to follow the program, which in raw terms makes AA our real HP. In a nutshell the Steps are designed to program us to ignore ourselves and to act on AA's 'suggestions'. In my case the end was absolute confusion; a confusion that led to stagnation. For the average person making a decision is hard enough, but for those of us with effectively two consciences, AA's and our own, that task becomes even tougher – talk about a Jekyll and Hyde effect. When I took a snapshot of what the people in one of the meetings I attended were actually doing with their lives I soon realised the answer for most of them was not that much other than attending AA. This fact is not that surprising considering that AA encourages its members to stall – progress is measured by clean time and nothing else; something in complete contrast with the real world. It is acceptable to do nothing in AA as long as you are still sober and following the program. This begs the question; is that really living? I would even go as far as to say that any achievement outside of AA is met with an air of caution. For example a new relationship, or a promotion at work – both of which require our attention thus reducing the attention we give to AA. If AA was a lover, it would be one of the most suffocating – reducing Co-dependents Anonymous to nothing more than an example of hypocrisy. It is almost as though taking the very risks needed to have the chance of a better life are discouraged by the program. There has to be more to existence than becoming a clone – there must. Before I was introduced to AA, people used to comment to me that I needed to find a purpose in life; like a good job, or a hobby, or even a relationship – perhaps they were right – and perhaps that is what AA offers – a new job (12 th Step), a new hobby (meetings) and a new controlling relationship (sponsor), all in one. Again for the average person this might not cause alarm, but on closer inspection it is hard to deny what is truly evolving – a new dependence and reliance on one entity, AA. AA does not eradicate the problem, it gives the illusion of removing it by replacing it with a bigger one that Bill Wilson manufactured – it then makes the member place all their eggs in one basket.
There in lies the explanation as to how AA might encourage its members not to drink. If AA provides all those things with the condition that the member does not drink, it also builds the foundation of yet another consequence. I am not a fan of any organisation that attempts to control its members by fear or threats. The result might mean they can stop their members doing certain things – stopping people doing something is one thing, but it is also a very limited solution – on the other hand encouraging people to engage in positive action is a far greater purpose. The promises in AA temp us with a 'life beyond our wildest dreams'; an enticing promise indeed. But when Bill Wilson referred to 'dreams', was he talking about those dreams we had before we entered AA or those 'dreams' that AA instilled in us? AA does not only seek to change our method, but also our purpose.
I started this essay by talking about hackers, and I want to return to that analogy now. I see the 12 Steps like any program used by hackers to hone in on the vulnerability of any system. But that program is only as good as the information you feed it with; information that can only be acquired from people. And how do we get that information? By building trust with those people. At our first meeting we are exposed to how trusting AA's members are through their sharing – this is a very powerful tool – you'd be surprised how much people are led by example especially in a group dynamic. If everyone else is doing it, then we are far more likely to as well. Add to this the fact that people getting sober are suddenly exposed to their feelings again including a sense of shame, of guilt and general unworthiness, the need for approval soon takes precedence – in fact the latter is often our only means to feel good about ourselves. AA offers a method to achieve that, that I do not doubt, but at what cost? Before we know it, it is not only our AA friends that approve of us because we attend meetings, but also our friends and family. This creates yet another barrier to exit for those wanting to escape AA.
When I chose to leave AA I knew I would have to cut ties with my acquaintances in AA because there was no way they could remain in contact with someone that had rejected the program. I could live with that; I even understood it. But cutting ties with my friends and family was not an option. Ironically the things I had to do to secure the approval of AA and its members, had also become the benchmark for how my family and friends judged my 'wellness'. This did not happen by mistake; it is the result of Step nine. Through the process of amends I had not only apologised for my errors, I had also persuaded people that AA was essential to my recovery. Remember how we never took credit for our sobriety? If we were not responsible for it, then what did 'outsiders' see as being so? AA, of course. Imagine the effect the following statements have over those people that care about us? 'AA is my lifeline; if I drink I will die; I owe everything to AA, etc.' But it does not end there; in our amends we are encouraged to admit how manipulative we can be, how controlling we are, how sick we became, and crucially, how we should never be trusted. If we put all those revelations into one, the moment we reveal any doubt of the program, is it any wonder that we become doubted ourselves? Whether we like it or not AA is seen as beneficial by the masses which tends to mean they conclude anyone questioning it must either be wrong or in denial –this knee-jerk reaction is easily explained. Those people that have only ever been subjected to AA through a third party only learn about AA from that members point of view. Any process of learning that stops at the point we think we have gathered all the information on a subject is not learning at all; it is indoctrination in its most subtle form. A thorough mode of learning would then require us to reflect on that information, absorb it, research opposing views, critically analyse both stances, reach a conclusion based on investigation, and not assumption, and then finally apply what we have learned. Sadly the majority of people outside of AA take it at face value, and to be fair this makes sense; it would be impossible for them to carry out the most important process of learning, to apply the program to their lives. This leaves them with no option but to base their opinion of AA on what they are told about it – and those most likely to talk about the Steps are those that are 'working' them and practicing the 12 th Step by carrying the message.
In contrast, those that choose to leave AA tend to do so as quietly as possible, and I sense this is because they are left with a permanent scar inflicted by the program that makes them feel they failed the program, and not that the program failed them, or even that the program was not for them. Many of the people I speak to that have left AA still praise it, and refuse to speak badly of it – but I cannot help but feel this is born out of a misguided loyalty. Or, and perhaps more sadly, they are too frightened to openly challenge AA for fear that they might become questioned themselves – it is easier to agree than to disagree. It should also be added that Step five might come into play here, whether consciously or subconsciously. It does not seem unreasonable to suggest that a constant worry for anyone leaving AA is that the secrets they shared might one day be revealed. Or their rejection, but subsequent approval of the program is simply the result of wishful thinking – i.e. they feel more comfortable believing that AA benefited them for a time, but they no longer need it. When you invest a significant amount of time in anything, it automatically means more to you – to destroy AA entirely would also be to belittle themselves by admitting they wasted whatever time they spent in AA.
But the overriding fear for me when I left AA was relapse. It would have been utterly foolish to think such a thing would be impossible. I feared that I would leave AA, be vocal about why I did so, and then relapse, which in turn would prove that I was wrong, and AA was right. Guess what? That is exactly what happened, and yet I am still here to tell the tale. But there is something not quite right about the conclusion that absolves AA of any wrong when a past member relapses. Not only is AA absolved, it is also credited with having kept the person sober before they chose to leave. Taking isolated cases like mine only serve to reinforce that erroneous assumption. To understand any theory, or model, we have to take the whole, and not one part, or one person's experience of it. If all we do is focus on those people that relapse having rejected the program, then the only conclusion we can possibly reach is that the program is faultless. But in doing so we ignore those people that relapse whilst 'working' the program and attending meetings. On some level members are led to believe it is acceptable to relapse as long as you are in AA; but any quick examination of that ideology reveals how farcical this whole thing is. The only conclusion that can be reached points to the fact that AA sees itself as infallible; those that relapse in the program are to be blamed, just as those that relapse outside of it are too, but the program itself is never scrutinised. But what frustrates me is how AA wins either way – those outsiders that relapse did so because they rejected AA, and those insiders that relapse did so because they were not working the program. Perhaps we need to stop and think for a moment; quit trying to find the answer to the question of addiction, and start questioning the answer that AA provides. As I said earlier, I believe the people that stay sober do so because they want to, not because of AA attendance – with AA's success rate exactly the same as spontaneous remission, 5%, this would make even more sense. If as a general rule of thumb it is acceptable to relapse whilst being a member of AA, but it is the ultimate humiliation to relapse outside of the rooms, is it any wonder why so many alcoholics are frightened to leave AA?
But leaving AA is the effect that arrives from the cause that is questioning it. But few ever question AA, even once they have left it; why? Because AA defines the person by their alcoholism, or addiction, and then they tell them that AA is the only thing that can save them from insanity or death. Once this belief becomes deep-rooted in a person, AA becomes a part of them, so to question AA is to risk shaking the rock they have built their lives on, and what is more shocking is how many members that question AA feel like they are in actuality questioning themselves. If AA is the aspect that makes up the majority of our 'new' identity, this would make even more sense.
In order to get clean all I have to do is not use – it really is that simple. AA did not present me with a remedy but rather created a greater problem and then provided a 'solution' to the issues it had given to me. Rather like a hacker that builds a virus just so he is able to provide the software needed to remove it – a lucrative practice indeed, not to mention an entirely unethical one at the same time. But the hacker cannot get his virus on your computer unless he can take advantage of your vulnerabilities, until he knows your weaknesses, those very weaknesses we reveal in Step five. And once the hacker gets you to see your problem, one that he created, just as Bill Wilson does in Steps 6 and 7, he is then in a position to offer the solution, which, somewhat irrationally, is often met with gratitude from the victim. Power is what drives the hacker, but their survival is reliant on their ability to conceal their techniques. Everyone knows they are able to take control of a computer; that is not their secret; how they do so is. As Emerson said, "Every thing looks permanent until its secret is known". The feeling of equality I enjoy with my closest friends boils down to one thing; I know their secrets and they know mine. I told AA my secrets, but AA refused to afford me the same respect. Each time I chiselled away at my so-called 'denial', AA added to its.
In conclusion, AA could have been such a wonderful creation, but its practices, inherent in the 12 Traditions, render it unable to evolve, to grow, or to learn – meaning it is unable to improve, or better itself. I love the notion of alcoholics coming together and supporting each other, but that is not what happens in AA – they end up promoting a program, not the individuals that make up the group. I am not angry with AA because of my experience within its rooms; I am most angry with AA for stereo-typing the alcoholic; by doing so AA covertly leads people to believe that it holds the only way to achieve sobriety.
On a personal note, the hardest obstacle, or conflict, I had to contend with the moment I decided to challenge AA was the struggle to separate people from the program. As you are well aware I am not a fan of the rooms in any shape or form, but that does not mean I do not respect the members of AA, even the staunch supporters. I have failed to communicate this position to people on either side of the fence. I have no desire to show any individual up, or to expose their mistakes or 'sins' as Bill Wilson called them – people, whether for the program or against it, will be people, thank goodness, and being human means that we will inevitably make mistakes. My issue with AA has nothing to do with people; it is entirely with the program, with the model, the theory. Regardless of where you stand on this issue, can you imagine if the validity of your words, or opinions, were judged by your past, or clean time? No one in AA has led a saint like life, and neither has anyone that questions it. What I am asking in a long winded way is not to reach conclusions on these points because I have been struggling to deal with my addiction – I struggled with that in AA too. I have to add that I find it two faced that someone back from a relapse is given the most attention in a meeting – and yet myself, someone that has also recently become clean, will be ignored because I do not believe in the efficacy of this program. This practice alone exposes one of AA's most heinous lies, the one that states its primary purpose is to help the alcoholic that still suffers. One day I hope AA will be honest enough to admit the condition it places on its membership which is not a desire to stop drinking at all, but instead an absolute and unconditional reverence for the program.
What I have learned about the nature of addiction is in complete contrast to that; alcoholics, or addicts, or people struggling with substance abuse, whatever label you want to give them, do not need to respect a Higher Power; they need to respect themselves, and take responsibility. If the only thing that makes us look after ourselves is a belief in something else, we will forever remain vulnerable. However a belief in ourselves will provide us with the independence alcohol or drugs denied us. To see AA as either a good or bad experience in my life, as black or white, would be to stagnate my own progress. AA did me more harm than good, but despite this, I flatly refuse to ignore what I learned from it. Just as drinking taught me a lot about who I am, how I behave, what makes me tick, even though it was essentially wrong, so did AA. For that reason I regret neither experience in any given moment – the past cannot be changed; but we can choose how we use it to shape our future. After all, things could be much worse – I could be in a meeting instead of writing this.
This is a good piece. I know of no where where the effects on
non-members of amends is even mentioned, no less the ramifications
I don't know why you say you have no where to post it. It certainly
would be topical on 12 Step Free or any of the 12-Step critical lists.
Ken - www.morerevealed.com
After my last essay I received some very interesting emails for which I am extremely grateful. It has been a while since I have looked forward to reading my inbox. I was especially pleased to hear from people that I thought would never contact me again. As the haze settles, clarity is slowly forming; a nice place to be entering indeed.
When I focus on AA I think I am able to come up with some important points, so that is what I shall return to doing. Ken Ragge wrote to me: "I know of no where where the effects on non-members of amends is even mentioned, no less the ramifications discussed." This shocked me considering this is the precise reason I began to question AA in the first instance. A lot of the guilt the program intends to instil in us revolves around how we have hurt our family and friends, or non-members. In fact I would dare to suggest that many members arrive at their first meeting in a desperate attempt to appease these very people – AA even goes out of its way to replace that motivation with a more internal one – the desire to stop for ourselves, hence such slogans as 'You have to want this for yourself' or 'This is a selfish program'. I can only speak for myself here, but I have no shame in admitting that one of the most significant motivating factors for getting clean has been to either rebuild or maintain the relationships I have with my friends and family. The quality of my life is largely gauged on these connections. But I suspect AA's intention is not so much for our own wellbeing but rather to weaken those relationships in order to strengthen our dependence on the group and the program – 'My life is mortgaged to AA'. AA would have us believe that getting sober for sobriety's sake is an admirable endeavour, but that is blatantly not reality. A decision to sober up is based on the same conditions as any other choice; the pros and the cons, the benefits and the costs. So when I made that decision, one of the benefits was to have my family back again. However one day my sponsor told me to limit contact with them, as well as with anyone else that loved me, because the mere fact they loved a 'sick' person meant they too were sick. What a load of rubbish. Taking that one step further, I have to ask, why does AA see meetings as so crucial? By doing this it is effectively telling us that any relationship with an outsider is somehow inferior, or at the very least, not as worthy as those we have with members. If I take a moment to pause and think about that fact, a fact that even AA would probably not deny, it is very worrying. One of the messages in AA that has always had me questioning is the notion that only addicts will ever understand addicts; something that society has adopted as being the Gospel truth. Forgive me, but I want to return to the hacking analogy again here; hackers get a bad name in the press for the simple reason that they do not accept the status quo; i.e. if you tell them they can't do something, they will find a way to do it – they annoy the mediocrity by daring to push the boundaries. So when I was told only an addict can understand an addict, I set out to show how erroneous that assumption really is. When AA tells its members that only another member will understand them it is not based on fact, but purpose; one to isolate the addict from anyone that is not living their lives in accordance with the program.
This leads me on to Ken's point: amends (steps 8 and 9) reinforce this purpose further. Bill Wilson tells us that as part of step 9 we should inform people that we have joined a group of like minded people, alcoholics, in order to achieve sobriety and that our sobriety depends on our membership to that group. In other words, we may well be apologising for our past mistakes, but we are also placing a condition on not repeating them; that the person harmed accepts our participation in AA. The subtlety employed here is so fine that it is hard to explain it fully. Not only are we repeating the same message over and over again to people in step nine, we are also ingraining it in ourselves, believing it more the more we repeat it. If that is not consequence enough, if we are convincing in our performance, the recipient will also believe it, thus concluding that AA is our lifeline, a lifeline that needs the utmost protection at any cost, creating yet another immense barrier to exit. And should this be the case, it presents a gruelling prospect for anyone wanting to leave the program at a later date. Not only does the exiting member have to suffer the humiliation of admitting he/she was wrong, or duped, they also have to convince people that they should be trusted having told them they should not be. This is where I can sympathise with non-members – they are then put in a position where they have to pit the public relation machine of AA against the words of their loved one. Loyalty might force many of them to side with the person, but logic, albeit a logic based on lies, will tell them not to. At this stage we have to bear in mind the external representation of our membership to AA, and crucially not what we have been subjected to within it. When we feel shame, belittlement, loss of self, our loved ones see sobriety, order, and commitment. This is bolstered even more by the fact that AA abandons its members, considering its purpose is to help the alcoholic that still suffers, when they should be taking the most notice of them; when they reject the program, or relapse and do not return – but the fact that it turns its back on these people is evidence enough that it lies about its primary purpose. The external effect of this practice is for outsiders to determine that non attendance at AA is the cause and not the effect of the serial relapser's behaviour. They have no understanding of how much influence the idea of powerlessness can have over us; or how soul destroying it is to be totally rejected by a group of people simply because we will not hand our will and our lives over to it, or a higher power. In a nutshell AA has been very efficient in becoming credited with our successes when we are sober in the rooms, and even better at making us responsible for its failures when we are out of them. Forgive me for repeating myself, but that point needs repeating in context: can you imagine the effect this has over the other people in our lives? AA is always faultless, beyond doubt and infallible – whether we do well or not; but if we don't succeed, then AA is ignored and we are blamed – 'I owe everything to AA.' If we were to take this sentiment apart, even on the most simple level, if I had achieved anything in AA, it was because I achieved it, and at a push if I was to concede that AA had taught me some valuable lessons, that does not mean it also did the things necessary to harness those lessons. Talk about a loss loss situation – if we do well AA wins and if we don't we lose. But to stop at that would be to miss the most critical aspect of that ideology; what is meant by doing 'well'? If you are in AA you can relapse as much as you like, you can even be drunk day in day out, and you will still be patted on the back for showing up – but one slip post your departure to the rooms, and you are written off. Now I ask you, where is the parity in that? Based on this custom, I put it to you that AA is more concerned with attendance than it is with the betterment of the individual. It always amazed me how social workers, doctors, etc would continue to recommend AA to those people for whom it was clearly not working. That is the price we pay when we reduce ourselves to endorsing one method, and one method alone; if it does not work for individuals they become trapped in a system that is incapable, or perhaps more controversially, unwilling, to provide them with choices. Non-members that support AA in the false belief they are harmlessly promoting a well intentioned group fail to see the cost of doing so, which is that anyone that rejects it is also ultimately rejected. It is hard to think of any organisation, whether it be a charity, a religion or a cult, that has enjoyed the unconditional acceptance of outsiders with so little scrutiny that AA has been afforded.
With this in mind, as well as the effect that amends has on lay people, is it any wonder that so many ex members of AA appear obsessed with exonerating their choice to leave it? For some of us the quality of our most sacred relationships are determined by an unnecessary battle to prove that AA is not the only way – for us to compromise on that point would be to lessen ourselves. Any organisation that claims it has, and always will have, the only solution to any problem is antievolutionary. Should AA one day have the humility to openly, and consistently, admit that it is not the only way – that would be progress and would do much to pacify those most against it. Don't get me wrong, I have seen individual members forced to back down and concede that viable alternatives do exist; but they always stop short at accepting the efficacy of these alternatives – a discrete way of controlling people by shielding them from information. If AA's survival requires it to destroy those people that disagree with its methodology, then it is also guilty of the most heinous crime any group can commit in a modern and civilised modern society; it is guilty of being unable to coexist with opposing ideas, and people. In any other arena we would have no option but to call that practice extremism at its most ugly.
Okay, I read it to the end. Good. Really good. Now I need to dig up the
first half, and really read all of that.
Have a good day.
Orange - www.orange-papers.org