Read an Excerpt
As little as two decades ago rigorous scientific research on the Alcoholics Anonymous Twelve Step program of recovery was all but non-existent. It was so lacking, in fact, that a panel of experts convened by the Unites States Academy of Science’s Institute of Medicine (IOM) published this conclusion in 1989: Alcoholics Anonymous, one of the most widely used approaches to recovery in the United States, remains one of the least rigorously evaluated.
The IOM report went on to call for well-designed research studies aimed at evaluating the AA program. That is when fate crossed my path. Having gotten some training in the Twelve Step model of recovery, I had developed an adolescent treatment program rooted in that model of recovery, and subsequently had a book published based on that experience. I then had the good fortune to be invited to develop a parallel program for adults for use in a major national treatment outcome study. That study and its results will be included in the research to be looked at here.
Suffice it to say that since the IOM report and the first published results of that national study, research on the AA program has proliferated, to the point where it is no longer true that AA is the least rigorous studied (or objectively evaluated) approach to recovery in the U.S. However, to date much of the hard evidence regarding AA has of necessity been reported in academic journals, where it remains largely inaccessible to the general public. This book aims to remedy that situation, thereby shedding light for all to see about AA and how it works.
Problem, or Solution?
It is hard to find someone who does not have an opinion about Alcoholics Anonymous--from those who will say it has been their salvation to those who dismiss it as a harmful cult. Many people remain either skeptical or downright critical of AA. I know this from reading the critics, and also from the responses I sometimes get to the blogs I have posted on sites such as the Huffington Post and Psychology Today.
I’ve come to divide these critics into two broad categories: those who claim to criticize the Twelve Step model based on “scientific” evidence; and those whose criticism is merely their opinion--sometimes based in disappointing personal experiences. Here is an example:
Subject: Do you ever 'frontload'?
Then maybe you're an alcoholic. Another item to add to the alcoholism self-assessment checklist. You might have a 'problem' so go to AA.
Well, seriously we don't need more reasons to send people to AA, which is an unproven treatment and often just makes the problem worse (by requiring that the attendee admit 'powerlessness' to their 'cravings' among other things).
Frontloading is often just a way to save money, like the above commenter says, or to arrive at the party in a better mood, which is a perfectly good reason to drink. The real problem is chronic excessive drinking (front, back, or mid-loaded), which is normally a sign of an underlying psychological issue. In most cases it's just a phase that young people go through and does not lead to 'alcoholism.'
The above was written in response to a blog I wrote about how some college students drink heavily before going to a party (“frontloading”). In the blog I never mentioned AA; nor did I suggest that these students were destined to become alcoholics. Rather, I was writing about the increased risks associated with frontloading, such as fights, vandalism, and sexual assault. That did not deter this commenter, however, from gratuitously asserting that AA is an “unproven treatment that makes the problem worse.”
Here is another typical criticism:
I would like to start by saying that I have attended a lot of 12 step meetings; in fact, the more 12 step meetings that I attended the worse my drinking became. I finally realized that AA was doing me a lot of harm when I had to check into medical detox so as not to die of the DTs. It was at this point that I left AA and started getting better.
Again, the idea here is that AA and the Twelve Step program is actually harmful. Over the past several years I’ve read many such comments--some of them very biting, even bitter. I’ve sometimes wondered exactly what kind of meetings these people attended, what their expectations were, and how sincere they were about wanting to quit drinking in the first place.
Then there are those--some of them credentialed professionals--who claim that AA does not help based on “scientific” evidence. As an example, let me summarize a piece titled AA is Ruining the World:
Here are four reasons AA is harmful and will hurt societies:
AA denies reality
AA overemphasizes its own success
AA rules out other, often more effective, approaches.
AA’s underlying temperance message actually creates alcoholism and addiction.
By this last criticism the writer is arguing that advocating for abstinence actually promotes more drinking. Moreover, he asserts that he has evidence for this claim, though he does not cite that evidence.
Here is another criticism of the Twelve Step program, this also from a professional--no less than a psychiatrist who was in charge of a major substance abuse treatment program:
AA has the worst success rate in all of medicine.
And here is one more typical critique of AA:
How much of the following do you recognize from AA?
The official response of the Alcoholics Anonymous central office to a steady stream of criticism like the above about its Twelve Step program of recovery can be summarized in one word: silence. That is because AA by tradition identifies itself as a “program or attraction,” meaning, simply, that if you work its Twelve Step program sincerely, it will work; conversely, if you don’t like it, then by all means don’t try it. AA has never asserted that “it works for everyone," only that “if you work it, it works.”
Anonymity lies at the core of AA, for two reasons. First, it serves to protect members who may be concerned that being publicly identified as an AA member could be detrimental to them in some way. Privately they may indeed think of themselves as an “AA member” yet they are loathe to be identified publicly that way.
The other reason why personal anonymity has remained so central to AA is that it stands as an impediment to personal ambition or a desire to stand out, or to accrue power, influence, or even financial gain through AA. The result is that AA has remained steadfastly decentralized--and consequently very adaptable, as it is a bottom-up as opposed to a top-down organization. At the same time those traditions mean that no one individual speaks for AA. Unlike a corporation, a government agency, a political party, or even an organized religion, AA has no spokesperson, no “press secretary.”
AA’s stance in this regard may not matter much to those whose personal experience of AA is that it has worked for them. They may simply regard these critics as ignorant. Yet AA’s policy of silence has given its critics license to freely criticize both what AA is and how effective it is. Say what you will about AA--and AA will not offer a rebuttal.
So what do we say to all those men and women who may be concerned right now about their drinking and are contemplating what to do about it? What would we say to those men and women who've been told that they must quit drinking or risk dire consequences in one form or another? What would these people be likely to conclude if they read only stinging criticisms like the above, while AA itself offers no retort? They may indeed conclude that AA either doesn't work, that it lies about its effectiveness, or that it may even be some sort of cult.
This book aims to address critics and criticisms like the above. It directly addresses the underlying question: Is AA and its Twelve Step program a cult, or does it represent a solution for a very vexing problem that has plagued society for centuries? It will do so not through opinion, or even via testimonials, but rather through a wealth of real facts about AA that have been accumulated through actual research. It will describe that research and that data, so that you, the reader, can decide for yourself what the best course of action is if you or a loved one has a drinking problem.