Sometimes I Worry That AA’s Media Fan Club Won’t Be Enough to Secure Our Addiction-Free Future

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Sep 12 2016

Sometimes I Worry That AA’s Media Fan Club Won’t Be Enough to Secure Our Addiction-Free Future

September 13th, 2016

We heard last week how Arianna Huffington, running her eponymous publication, bravely fought against criticism of 12-step programs in a report on heroin addiction in Kentucky that was eventually nominated for a Pulitzer.

Should that surprise us? Of course not! Our media titans have long known that Alcoholics Anonymous and its spin-off fellowships are humankind’s greatest discovery for overcoming the age-old bugaboo of addiction.

To take a couple of earlier examples, in an article titled, “Bill Wilson’s Gospel,” even a libertarian skeptic like The New York Times’ David Brooks indicates that AA is the nonpareil resolution for alcoholism. Brooks’ tribute is itself based on a paean to AA by the infinitely cool Brendan Koerner in that cutting-edge technology bible, Wired. Koerner’s piece is titled “Secret of AA: After 75 years, we don’t know how it works” (but it sure works!).

When these thought-leaders laud AA to the sky, who would question its efficacy? Who would want to?

But let’s interrupt the celebrations a moment to address one small hitch. Although AA was organized in 1935, and has by all accounts proved itself infinitely effective in the intervening 80 years, our drinking problems haven’t diminished. If you ask anyone (and I often do), in recovery or not, “Have addiction and alcoholism been reduced since the 1930s?” or even, “Are alcoholism and addiction declining currently?” nobody says yes.

Indeed, we are currently undergoing a narcotics addiction scare—reflecting record levels of heroin-, painkiller- and tranquilizer-related poisoning deaths—unrivaled since Harry Anslinger was tuning up America’s drug hysteria to a fever pitch in order to pass the Harrison Act of 1914.

And that’s not all.

The United States conducts a massive national survey of drinking and drug problems called NESARC. NESARC interviews 30,000 Americans in its various waves. In the decade between 2001-02 and 2012-13, NESARC found, Americans’ past-year alcohol use disorders increased from 8.5 percent to 14 percent. That’s a jump of over 50 percent!

So what to do? Clearly, despite the near-universal recognition of AA’s effectiveness, we simply need to confront more people with the necessity of entering AA (we’ll have more courts mandate it, if necessary!) and lifelong 12-step recovery.

It’s true, of course, that the 65 years since the release of Days of Wine and Roses comprise a nonstop propaganda campaign for the world’s greatest fellowship. Nonetheless, surrounded by alcoholism and other forms of addiction, let’s keep re-upping the “AA uber alles” message!

Thank goodness, then, for AA’s Elizabeth Vargas and her new book, Between Breaths: A Memoir of Panic and Addiction, which yet again presents that disease in its true light.

Vargas was interviewed on Good Morning America about her alcoholism by George Stephanopoulos a couple years ago.

“I am an alcoholic,” she declared.

Stephanopoulos’s reaction: “You and I have spent literally hundreds of hours this far apart on live television and I would never have guessed this in a million years.”

“I would think, I’ll only drink on weekends,” Vargas recounted. “I’ll only have a couple of glasses of wine; I won’t drink before morning broadcasts.” However, “Those deals never work!”

Vargas began by drinking wine nightly, and inevitably it escalated. “As everybody knows,” she lectured us, “alcoholism is a progressive, deadly disease.”

Vargas attended a rehab that specialized in trauma (this emphasis is AA tuned up, à la Gabor Maté, who travels the world boosting AA).

One strange development: “When Elizabeth Vargas came home from a Tennessee rehab in 2014, she had no idea her husband would leave her just days later.” He lived with an alcoholic all those years, and only split with her when she quit drinking?

Vargas is now 54. How can we avoid a tragedy like this evolving over so many years? Why did it take her so long to see that she was an alcoholic and to enter rehab and to accept 12-step recovery? Could it be, as indicated by this hesitancy and resistance, there is something not quite perfect for her about the 12-step approach?

Actually, as is very usually the case, Vargas was in and out of a number of 12-step rehab programs, she reveals in Between Breaths. These programs are so right and good, but it seems people often have a hard time grasping and accepting their message.

Clearly, we need to thrust more people into AA at earlier ages. As Vargas describes it, alcoholism is a disease of denial, so that she really had to be forced to accept the program.

I have already described in The Influence how, in our Recovery Nation, children now attend recovery high schools and adolescents live in recovery dorms in college.

Clearly, this just isn’t enough.

Read more from The Influence:

Yes, I’m Actively Addicted to Heroin—And Shaming Me Doesn’t Help

Mike Pence Is the Real Extremist on the GOP Ticket—Here’s How He Left a Trail of Victims in Indiana

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We need recovery universities where every single student and faculty member takes a vow never to drink.

Let’s have recovery employers, government agencies, churches, baseball teams, choirs and beaches!

Indeed, why stop at the confines of an institution? Let’s declare entire time zones to be in recovery! And what if the Eastern, Central, Mountain and Pacific zones could all be included? Wouldn’t that be swell!

To Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton: While we’re at it, here’s my foreign policy.

Many nations fail to grasp AA like we do. Yet international data show that such nations—including Portugal, Spain, Italy, France and Greece—have fewer drinking problems than us.

Obviously, entire countries are in denial!

The solution? First, spread AA to all countries around the world.

And finally, get militant: End alcoholism—bomb Spain!


Stanton Peele is a columnist for The Influence. His latest book, with Ilse Thompson, is Recover!: An Empowering Program to Help You Stop Thinking Like an Addict and Reclaim Your Life.  He has been at the cutting-edge of addiction theory and practice since writing, with Archie Brodsky, Love and Addiction in 1975. He has since written numerous other books and developed the online Life Process Program. His website is Peele.net. Dr. Peele has won career achievement awards from the Rutgers Center of Alcohol Studies and the Drug Policy Alliance. He is currently working on his memoir. You can follow him on Twitter: @speele5.

  • I didn’t read the book and don’t plan to, but middle age women typically blackout drink nightly to avoid sex with the husband. E.g. Heather Kopp – Sober Mercies. (Mother of Colorado Springs shooter Noah Harpham.) Don’t believe it? Well just head down to your local AA meeting and listen for yourself.

  • Tom

    Sarcasm at its finest.

  • Knog Knebronson

    Well written. Well said.

  • We are talking about the most brilliant cult religion of all time so… No. Nothing will ever change as long as people like Vargas and Huffington keep guzzling that 12 step BILLs*it koolaid.

    • SusanJones2007

      Has nothing to do with it. There will always be addiction, Bill or no Bill.

  • andre louis

    One of the worst aspects, is our cultures naive acceptance of 12 steps as viable treatment. Families of those in need of help, think AA’s legitimate.

    Until our culture changes their attitude, addiction treatment will be left in the dark ages. It will never receive ANY science based medical research.

    Might as well leave addicts to blood letting and applying leeches.

  • Olmy Olm

    Love the headline, haha.

  • massive

    Thank you Stanton for writing this piece. It was so hard to watch her 20/20 commercial for a non spoken anonymous AA program. We all know that she went to an AA rehab by her “Language”. I watched her talk on FACEBOOK today for 20 minutes. I’m not sure that faith has anything to do with recovering from any real disease. It feels like such a MEDIA pushback. We need more Gabrielle Glaser’s to get the media talking. Again – keep up the good work.

    • SusanJones2007

      What, a non-alcoholic talking about how she didn’t want more wine? No one needs to look far to know that Vargas goes to AA. She’s said so. It works for her so why take that away from her?

      • AA works for the people it works for.
        Dementia work for the people it works for.

        AA works for dementia fighting moderation.

  • So… turns out Huffington’s new venture “Thrive Global” is an EAP – 12 Step front group.

  • FranktheMc

    A recovering friend of mine has been sober in AA 35 years. When I went to her anniversary, there were five other people in the room who topped her (by 5 to 10 years). How can I discount that when I lobby for harm reduction programs?

    • Lucylou

      You don’t have to discount that AA works for some people. Just allow some hope and treatment for those it doesn’t work for.

      • FranktheMc

        Absolutely. Anything the individual finds effective is the way to go.

    • Jim Barns

      Do what Stan does, avoid mentioning people like that under any circumstances and hope no one will notice.

  • Lucylou

    Thanks for what you do Stanton.

  • Jim Barns

    I’ve seen quite a few people get sober for a few months/years in the alternative programs I’ve been involved with. About 8 have reached 20 years. A few who sobered up in AA and then went to the alts are around 30 now. Most sizeable AA meetings include more of these old timers than the alts have worldwide.

    If people want to become temporarily sober, there are endless choices for them to pursue for that. About anything will work for a little while, and it’s better for all concerned if they engage with something other than AA, which involves ongoing and inconvenient commtment.

    I applaud Stan and his recent ghost writer, the ’70s comic book expert, for helping to keep some of the unwilling diverted long enough to allow their continued drinking to open the minds of those who survive that. The quality of newcomers has gone way up in the last years. Had there been less information born of ignorance out there, they may have not been aware of other ways to play at staying sober, before reaching the awful and neccessary point of being willing to do whatever it takes to get over this condition.

    Modern AA, and those who survive long enough to recover owe it’s critics a great debt. All I ask is that they try harder to raise the quality of humor offered above the painful level Stan’s limitations have placed on display here.

    • Chuck Gathard

      Bravo, well said. 12 step programs are not for people who need them, but for people who want them. It’s a choice, until it’s not a choice, until it is a choice. As we used to say back in the day: Try 90 meetings in 90 days and after that we’ll be happy to refund your misery. For those who resent AA’s prominence as a “recovery model”: devise something better, prove it works, promote it responsibly and if you’ve got a better model it will gain traction, you will help people, feel fulfilled, be of service and perhaps cure yourself of meaningless sarcasm and relapse precursive resentment. Cheers!

  • Walt Garage

    I was really struggling with this article until I got down to the end and saw Stanton Peele had written it. The problem is, if you don’t know who he is, you may not recognize this as satire (many, many people never click through to read the links).