Independent Media Centre Ireland

Alcoholism: Busting the AA Monopoly

category international | consumer issues | opinion/analysis author Thursday October 13, 2005 15:10author by "John"

Is there really only one true faith?

Alcoholism is a bad thing, right? Anybody who makes any attempt to eradicate it deserves our gratitude and encouragement. Well, that’s not the story at all, as it turns out. There is only one way to do it and it’s the Alcoholics Anonymous way. At least according to AA themselves, that is. Theirs is the only thing that works and they are 100% infallible in what they say and do. Jesus Christ had more self-doubt than the AA.

This article is written by an alcoholic, a person who progressed from a glass or two of wine with the evening meal to a minimum of one bottle a night. Holding it at just the one bottle is something of an achievement, in fact. At this rate, I’m not long for this world. This is a shocking state of affairs for a parent of two suffering children in what should be the prime of his life, as a husband whose partner is at her wits end and as a member of the community in which my participation is unreliable and self-centred. I am failing significantly on all three counts because of this problem. More than that, I am a burden to everyone who knows me. But the demon has gotten hold of me and, along with many other alcoholics, I seem utterly powerless over this situation. I alternate between a remorseful and hung-over drunk in the morning and a blithe, carefree ‘it’s-only- a- drink- and- it- makes- me- feel-so-nice why- shouldn’t-I’ evening tippler. This is the remorseful me speaking. Anyway, that’s the personal history over with, just so you know where I’m coming from and that I’m not monkeying around with this subject. Do I want to do something about all this? Is the Pope Catholic?

And here is the crux of the problem that I bring to you. Alcoholics Anonymous and its 12-step system simply doesn’t work. Not for the vast majority of drunks who go to them for help.

Let’s understand one thing, before we continue though: AA didn’t make me or any other alcoholic become alcoholic and they have many things to say about alcoholism and alcoholics which are painfully true to confront at times. Whatever is said below, their literature is worth reading if you are a drunk.

But for many people, fact is, they make the situation a lot worse. Here is a statistic that non-alcoholics may not be aware of: AA doesn’t work for 80% of the people who try them out. And that’s AA’s own figure – other people say the figure is as high as 95/98%. If this was a drug we were talking about, it wouldn’t even get off the ground. But the exact opposite has happened where AA are concerned and they have grown to a worldwide organisation of 2,076935 transient members in 105,294 groups. The number of alcoholics around the world far exceeds that and many of us are floundering; desperate to get this compulsion under control. And in a country where alcoholism has practically become our way of life, this situation needs urgent reassessment. Ireland, the home of the alcoholic. ‘Give me two drinks bar-tender, one for me and one for the road.’

So how does something which is so unsuccessful become so well-established? AA has insinuated its way into the hearts and minds of every profession, that’s how. From judges in court recommending treatment ‘programmes’ for offenders, to marriage guidance counsellors looking at red-faced, bleary-eyed men and women, AA are the automatic port of call wherever the alcoholism problem raises its head. Some of these professionals will be members of AA themselves of course.

I am writing under an assumed identity and everyone knows about the fabled anonymity of the AA. A cast iron secret never, ever to be shared with anyone or even discussed outside of group meetings. Members however are free to associate in certain ways and there is actually something very sinister about this aspect of AA. There are networks of AA members everywhere that most people are not aware of. The influence which AA members have is unknown and unkowable unless someone breaks ranks. When you consider the true success rate of the AA programme against its pheonomenal power and influence as an organisation, it seems logical to at least ask how the latter was really achieved.

According to the AA, recovery is restricted to those who are ‘emotionally capable’. And that it seems is only between 2-20% of the millions of ‘the stream of despair, illness, misery and death’ who pass through AA each year. AA have the explanation for their lack of success neatly sewn up: it is not, it turns out, your physical disposition that is responsible after all, when it comes to recovery, it is the fault of the alcoholic themselves.

This is a pretty neat psychological trick to be playing on vulnerable people. You are first of all taught to excoriate yourself, reduce yourself to an object of utter humiliation and virtual self-loathing. Nothing that has ever gone wrong in your life is ever the fault of anyone or anything else but you - the whole sorry, god-awful mess is down to you alone. Any idea that well, yes, you’ve been an awful shit a good bit of the time but maybe you were a victim yourself occasionally will be immediately stamped on as evidence of your lack of ‘emotional stability’. There are no other bad people in the world - except other alcoholics. You must do ‘a fearless and searching moral inventory’ to ascertain the full extent of your awfulness. Your poor, unsuspecting friends and family will, subsequently, be confronted and generally embarrassed by apologies for incidents and accidents that may have taken place 20 years earlier. And when you have stripped away every vestige of self-respect you are then ready to replace your mental faculties with the contents of ‘The Book’ – the AA bible. AA have a lot of neat psychological tricks, since I am on the subject. ‘Analysis paralysis’ is a term they use to describe those who are struggling with questions that AA don’t seem to be able to answer. Thinking is to be discouraged. Your intelligence is redefined as supidity and unpleasantness in the AA world.

The AA philosophy is full of contradictions and paradoxes like these. When you try to talk to one of the long-term members, you are basically talking to ‘The Book’. Virtually everything they say to you will be a quote from it: maxims and bon-mots with a cutesy-clever ring to them that divert you from your question and throw you back, always and ever, on the idea that it is not the answer that you need to worry about but that you shouldn’t actually be asking the question in the first place. A lot of people commit suicide. AA reserves its bitterest contempt for those people – so that even this evidence of the organisations failure amounts, in the wholly self-serving AA logic, only to proof of the person’s disgusting state of emotional incapability.

But alcoholism is an addiction, right? So how can the above be true at the same time? It is high time that responsible state bodies or others who are in a position to do it, looked very carefully at the suicide rates among former AA members. This is not a benign organisation for many people – in fact for most of us who come into contact with them, they do nothing but make you feel a whole lot worse and a lot less able to deal with the drinking. The idea that you are a piece of dirt, really, takes hold and where once you felt at least some optimism about making the attempt, now you feel so awful about yourself that you wont even try for fear of failing and the renewed and increased sense of self-loathing that goes with it. We need to start prising the deeply embedded claws of the AA out of the body politic and put them back in the corner where they rightly belong. At the very least let’s know them for what they really are: an organisation with a negligible track record of actually curing alcoholism. (Cutesy AA response to which is ‘there is no cure’! You need to stay with us for life!)

Something is wrong here, surely? At AA meetings you will meet a representative sample of the general population: cleaners, pub owners, doctors, teachers, wives, college students – everybody is there. One thing that strikes you after a while is how much intelligence there is in evidence. Alcoholism is a condition that forces you to cut to the chase, to get your brain fully onto the job in hand. There is no room for stupidity when dealing with it and there are very few displays of emotional incapability at those meetings, in reality. Our stories are horrendous in almost every case and the atmosphere is one of intense, quiet remorse.

This drinker would like to know how much money is spent on researching alcoholism? Curious that we don’t seem to have much information about how alcohol acts on us to create this dependency. Call me paranoid (and I admit I’ve got a hangover) but isn’t there a massive alcohol industry out there which is making billions of dollars of profit out of this misery every day? What percentage of that profit is made from alcoholics? Most of it, probably. The industry is adamant there is no harm in drinking modestly. But alcohol is an addictive substance, just like cigarettes, or heroin and we don’t advise that it’s OK to have a little of what you fancy where they are concerned. There is one well-known alternative therapist who says that basically, we are all alcoholics to the extent that we drink at all. It is only a question of degree. Everyone who drinks is involved. We’ve made alcohol so central to our lives – from birth until death literally - that unless we do a radical rethink the problem is in danger of undermining our society. On any given day the number of people out there who are affected mentally and physically to a greater or lesser extent by alcohol is huge and this must be having an enormous impact on our society, not just in terms of the typical drunk but of more subtle things that are not attributed to it at all. Even three glasses of wine will impair the judgment of the drinker the next day.

For all these reasons we need to look much harder at ways and means of tackling this problem once and for all. A tough and objective analysis is needed where AA are concerned. If it works for a few people, fair enough. But let’s stop this lunacy of pretending that it is the only solution or that is even a good one.

The AA website:
Updated websiite

AA Success Rates (by the AA)

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