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"I have benefited from AA and the 12 Steps... Very much so!"

Harrison (with commentary by Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.)

blurred image of a moving crowdComments continue to roll in on my essay Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is a Cult ?, first published about two years ago. I didn't realize it at the time, but the essay topic struck a nerve or fracture point, and as people have contributed to discussion, two positions have more or less become clear. On the one side are people who have experienced AA as a helpful positive force, and who have difficulty understanding others criticism and cries of abuse. On the other side are people who are disenchanted with AA and the 12 steps either because they have felt themselves to have been victimized within the rooms, and/or because they have philosophical and religious issues with the nature of the 12 steps. People embedded in either of these positions tend not to understand why people coming from the other, position talk the way they do. Each side tends to dismiss the concerns and the strengths of the other as a sign of sickness or at least as something alien, in a manner most reminicient of Robert Kegan's Institutional self-concept stage.

I'm not immune to this sort of embedded perspective and prejudice. I personally used to dismiss complaints about the philosophical and religious issues as excuses people were making to continue drinking, but now, two years on, I'm thinking that these issues are quite real and can easily become a serious problem for people of a secular persuasion as they engage AA culture. While AA is plenty fine for many people and all in need should be invited to explore it, it is also not a "one-size-fits-all" enterprise, and IMHO, alternative programs based on different philosophical principles ought to become more built out, and more needs to be done to educate people as to their existence. Subject matter for a future essay, I think.

Today, an essay-length comment, very much defending what is good and useful in AA and 12 steps was submitted by a reader calling himself Harrison. I thought it a reasonable experiment to publish it, in its entirety, as a free standing essay on which people can comment directly. I have modified the text only slightly to enhance readability:

(Mark, I recognize this is pretty long. Perhaps you'll find it interesting. I do believe that the preponderance of one-sided comments about AA deserves to be rebutted.)

I have benefited from AA and the 12 Steps... Very much so!

What I have learned in AA over the last 3 1/2 years has become the basis of a quality of life and a sense of personal well-being that I would not have thought myself capable of experiencing before I "embraced the Program". So it has been somewhat painful to read the comments of so many people who have had what appear to be overwhelmingly negative experiences with AA. Painful and sad. And alarming if these comments might turn away someone who could benefit from AA.

I was especially surprised to encounter comments from individuals who considered themselves AA members for several years, but have decided to leave the fellowship behind due to the unhealthy and unattractive behaviors of other members. These individuals mentioned that AA had helped them, but they have since tired of the nonsense (and worse), and so are going their own way. All well and good. But I wish those individuals had stopped to recall the shape they were in (mentally, emotionally and socially) when they first got to AA, and perhaps had something more encouraging to say about the aspects of AA they had found beneficial.

And then there are the large number of comments that are vitriolic in their criticism, suffuse with blame, scorn, anger, fear and wild generalization -- like the comment quoted in the main post. I believe these comments reveal more about the state of mind and inner being of the person making them than shed any light on what they presume to judge. If you were sick and/or dysfunctional enough to find yourself going to AA in the first place, and then had a very bad experience, there is a high degree of likelihood that your experiences in AA were deeply distorted or otherwise primarily reflected your own damaged psyche.

This is not to say that there are not some (or even many) people in AA doing some very "bad" things. But before we indulge in unconstrained criticism about AA, let's be sure we understand what AA is.

First, there is no single AA. There are many, many AA meetings and many AA groups, and many, many, many individuals who attend AA meetings who may consider themselves "members" of AA. At the group and meeting level, there is no access to a "central authority" that serves as any kind of mediator or arbiter what constitutes "good AA". So yes, it is unregulated and there are any number of pretty sick people who will present themselves as some kind of authority -- if you let them.

However, and this goes to the question of "the process", the idea of "submission", and the potential for "abuse": no one in AA can or does force you do to anything. There are no prison guards or parole officers. No principals or hall monitors. No one with the least coercive authority whatsoever. There is not, to my knowledge, a pervasive pattern of kidnapping, forced drugging, or torture. There is no Kool-Aid. The only thing that happens to you in AA is what you allow to happen to you. And yes, it's probably a good idea that you have the wherewithal to be able to identify certain individuals that you shouldn't trust and otherwise be able to tell those people to "get lost" if they are bothering you. Of course, this is a useful capacity to possess if you're an alter boy, on the NYC subway, or have a creepy uncle. There is at least a proportionately tiny number of human beings who are damaged beyond repair and behave in sociopathic ways. They make their way into schools, churches, hospitals, government agencies, the military, and every other type of organization and institution. AA is not immune to this.

To those who would rant on about the horrors of AA and the truly horrific experiences they have had therein, I do question your wild generalizations and your dramatic, self-pitying accounts of what you claim to have experienced. While you ask other to accept at face value what you have to say, and while you attempt to present "testimony" to the awful and unhealthy ways of AA, it is far more likely that you are simply and sadly sick and damaged individuals who have little or no capacity to see things clearly for what they are. Least of all yourselves. Your sourness is ample evidence of your continued illness, your dis-ease. This is something one would ordinarily refrain from stating. It is generally not "good form" to point to someone and say, "You’re sick, so shut up." But sometimes, such as in the present case, when in your existential delirium you threaten to do damage to the potential for something like AA to do the good it does, it seems somewhat warranted to just be blunt.

From what I can tell and from what I have directly experienced, it is the overwhelming experience of people coming to AA that you encounter something wonderful and remarkable. If your drinking has reached the point where you are making yourself physically and emotionally sick, if you have tried to stop drinking on your own and despite every rational reason to not take that next drink, you do so anyway, you may conclude that you need help with what has become your problem with alcohol. And while the path to AA is almost always tortured (a self-inflicted torturing, to be sure), and while one’s arrival at the AA portal is never at the time a cause for celebration, what many millions of people will simply and unpretentiously report if you ask them is that in AA they found people just like themselves who once could not live with alcohol and yet could not live without it. People who once they stopped drinking for a day, a week, or longer discovered they didn’t know how to live. People who had to learn to live, indeed learn how to be, as if starting completely from scratch. People who needed to learn how to think, feel and act from the ground up, because the only way they knew how to think, feel and act had made them miserably unhappy.

The most constant and universal theme in human history and in the human condition is that of suffering, and the people in AA are deep in their humanity because they suffered deeply. What they found in AA is a way to overcome the crippling hopelessness, despair, dishonesty, self-centeredness, loneliness, anger, resentment, fear, impatience, arrogance, intolerance, and deeply misguided sense of self-sufficiency that gave rise to that suffering. And once they were able to overcome that condition, they were grateful and privileged to help someone else do the same if asked to do so. There are so many warm, helpful, healthy, decent, kind, thoughtful, fun, inspiring, good people in AA that to see none of that and to see only something dark and twisted and frightful is in itself truly and frightfully sick.

Yes, we come to AA as very sick people. And yes, newcomers to AA can involve themselves with individuals who have not benefited from the program, who do not possess good mental or emotional health, and who will act in unhealthy and dysfunctional ways toward and with them. However, nobody forces that newcomer to interact with that person or persons. When you come into AA, you choose who you spend time with. If your internal radar is so damaged that you choose to hang around really sick people, and behave in really sick ways, unfortunately no one can stop you. But to later turn around and blame all of AA as if AA itself endorsed your choices and encouraged your behavior is to maintain a pattern of not assuming responsibility for your own behavior, i.e., it is a way of remaining sick. There is nothing inherent to the AA "process" that lends itself to being blamed by people who "feel abused". AA is not responsible for anyone’s really bad judgment.

AA cannot and will not protect people from their own weaknesses or failings. For people who recognize that their problems with alcohol and life stem from their own weaknesses and failings, AA offers a way of changing who you are. But AA as an organization does not and cannot act to stop anyone from behaving in a self-destructive way or submitting to the unhealthy attentions of certain nominal members. People who are healthy enough respond to abusive attitudes and individuals by ignoring them. I personally do not interact in any way with anyone who is abusive, and of the several hundred people I have met in AA, I can’t think of anyone I would label as abusive. I personally cannot be abused because I would never allow anything abusive to happen to me. And that is the experience of everyone I happen to know in AA.

As to the question of there being submission to a higher power without abuse taking place – what a strange question! I am not familiar with any "AA directive" that mandates "submission" to a "higher power". Yes, we talk about "surrender". Yes, we talk about "powerlessness". Yes, we talk about "turning our will over" to a "Power greater than ourselves". And OK, maybe there is some nuance here, but that’s not submission. Described analytically, I am "disengaging" one aspect of my being. I am learning to quiet and relax what is denominated as my "ego" or "self-will". I do so only in a way that helps me experience significantly less fear, anger, resentment, and other highly corrosive and, to an alcoholic, dangerous feelings and states of mind. The primary way to do this is to seek guidance from some conception of a power great than myself. Basically, I'm asking for help from whatever conception of a personal god I choose to fashion. That's it.

So, we're talking about a type of subordination in one's thinking process to a Concept here, not an actual power relation. The "power greater than myself" that I seek to access and utilize is an IDEA or set of ideas….not another person, group, or controlling authority. Nobody in AA has any power over me whatsoever. The idea that I might in any way be coerced or pressured by anyone to believe or do anything is completely alien to a healthy experience in AA.

What AA does, what AA is, what AA offers, what AA provides is this: a resource and opportunity for very sick people to take themselves through a process that amounts to a wholesale cognitive restructuring. The Twelve Steps are that process. It doesn’t succeed in every individual, and where there is success it is in varying degrees. But by initially doing the Steps, you are simply taking yourself through a new way of thinking, feeling, seeing and acting for the first time. For many of us, doing so opens up aspects of our (existential) selves that are so much more healthy and vital than what we had hitherto known. The process at its best creates something similar to what William James describes in his The Varieties of Religious Experience, what he calls "the religion of healthy-mindedness". We learn to access, develop and maintain certain innate healthy, nurturing, sustaining ways of thinking, feeling and acting. And in doing so, adhering to a program of spiritual development, we follow in the footsteps of many people long before the advent of AA.

In all this, we are doing what ultimately feels good, for what we want and what we seek is a good measure of comfort in our own skin.

It feels good (First Step) to get honest about your condition as an alcoholic, to admit to yourself what has been objectively totally obvious for a long time to anyone and everyone but yourself: that you can’t control your drinking and your life is a mess. Yes, it feels better to finally acknowledge that, rather than to keep on pretending otherwise.

And then (Second Step) it feels good, by fiat and out thin air, to start telling yourself that by reaching out and asking for help and by availing yourself of resources (call them powers, or even a Higher Power if you will) outside of yourself, you might actually get to the point where you have a decent life and stop hating who you are and learn to appreciate being alive.

And then, what the hell, it feels pretty darn good to (Third Step, and the one that few of us truly figure out how to do) abandon all your fears and worries, and for no good reason simply begin to trust that everything is going to be alright because that is the total opposite of what you’ve been doing for as long as you can remember and look where that got you. So you search inside yourself for some basis of feeling that things are going to be OK, and you begin to let go of your chronic and acute anxiety. You learn to trust. And to that end, you fashion some conception, any conception, of a "Higher Power" you can trust in and seek guidance from (which for purposes of convenience and because ultimately it feels silly to do otherwise you end up calling "God").

Getting back to that honesty thing again, even though it is enormously frightening and difficult to do so, it ultimately feels truly fantastic to (in the Fourth and Fifth Steps) take a long hard look at what you are as a human being, and to identify the many aspects of your personality and mentality that have played a causative role in producing so much of your unhappiness, and seeing how you could begin to respond to the situations you find yourself in in a different way, a way that is consistent with taking responsibility for who you are and how you are going to experience life, and to go through all this with another person.

And then (in the Sixth and Seventh Steps) there’s humility, and recognizing that as much as you want and need to change and grow out of and away from the very unhealthy propensities of personality you’ve identified, you’re never going to be able to completely do so and certainly not on the basis of your own individual resources.

Followed by (in the Eighth and Ninth Steps) facing up to the harm you’ve caused others, and acknowledging those wrongs to the people you’ve harmed.

And then (Tenth, Eleventh and Twelfth Steps) maintaining that honesty, hope, trust, responsibility, humility, and reliance on a "power" other than yourself while seeking to be helpful, kind, loving and tolerant of others for the rest of your life.

I don’t know of any better alternative.