I Don't Believe a Word They Tell Me in AA, But I'm Still Grateful. What Gives?

Feb 08 2016

I Don’t Believe a Word They Tell Me in AA, But I’m Still Grateful. What Gives?

Take what you need and leave the rest. It’s a motto often relayed to newcomers to Alcoholics Anonymous, or anyone finding difficulty adhering to all of its tenets and suggestions, its Steps and Traditions.

I’m glad of the flexibility it suggests. Because when it comes to my own approach to AA, I definitely leave more than I take. In fact, I leave most of it. I have to.

I once heard an old-timer say that going to meetings without actually working the Steps is like going to the gym and just spending the whole time at the juice bar. That’s me—the spiritual equivalent of a chick in designer yoga pants and full makeup, sipping some green drink while everyone else busts their ass in SoulCycle.

My meeting routine is as follows: I show up, perhaps half a dozen times a month. I catch up with my friends. I sit and find myself uplifted while I listen to a speaker talk about pulling themselves out of the morass of dependency and degradation and embracing a seemingly miraculous new beginning, thanks to the program. I listen to some other shares. Then maybe I go out to eat with a few friends and head home.

Sometimes I take on a service commitment. When I can help my friends or someone in need, I do my best to show up and support them. But that’s the extent of my relationship with the program. I don’t work the 12 Steps. I don’t sponsor people.

Still, I don’t drink. That’s the important thing, right?

Some AA members will say that the sobriety of people like me isn’t as “real” or “good” as that of people who have fully immersed themselves in the program. Or better yet, that I’m “white-knuckling it.” Some will even say that I’m not sober at all, but “dry”—aka, as sick and damaged as ever, only not drinking.

That’s kind of obnoxious. And it’s that tendency to scoff at people who get sober without working the Steps—as if they couldn’t possibly be happy or well-adjusted—that makes me feel conflicted about AA.

Well, it’s one of the things.

Let me backtrack a little.

In my late twenties, I found that what used to be just binge-drinking on the weekends had taken a turn. I started picking up six-packs after work, then sitting in my room, drinking beers and watching old X-Files episodes. I was declining invitations to hang out with my friends in order to cloister myself away in my apartment with bottles of whiskey. My own personal trajectory had flatlined. Each day was a sad, grey Groundhog Day, where I’d wake up, go to a dead-end permalance job with a crippling hangover, pick up some booze on the way home, and drink till I passed out.

What shook me out of this drunken Mobius strip was an incident where I blacked out in public and woke up in the ER with a few bruises and no memory of how I had gotten there. That’s when I became painfully aware that the way I was drinking had consequences. Fortunately, fear has always been a great motivator for me, and it motivated me to prize the bottle out of my mouth.

Four years after waking up in the ER, I have a career doing what I love, working in journalism, instead of an underpaid temp job. I stopped getting calls from bill collectors. I don’t wake up with pieces of dried barf in my hair. In short, I live like an adult and not a perpetually hungover college sophomore.

But I can’t really say AA got me sober. I suspect that I knew I was done drinking when I woke up in the hospital. I didn’t come to meetings because I couldn’t stop drinking. I came because my life had withered away to the point where I craved social contact, practically living in the detritus of old beer bottles and Chinese takeout containers, like a lonelier version of that trash-pile monster from Fraggle Rock.

In AA, I formed relationships with some kind, brilliant and empathetic people who are still my friends to this day. But I also found myself increasingly alienated from the dominant ways in which AA members framed the experience of being an alcoholic.

A few years before quitting drinking, I underwent treatment for panic attacks and anxiety. Being paralyzed by bouts of stress was a new experience for me, and a key part of what got me through it was friends and therapists telling me that what I was experiencing was common and that I could manage it—that feeling overwhelmed was normal.

The attitude I encountered in AA—where everyone seemed eager to pathologize every garden-variety quirk and neurosis as part of an insidious, chronic disease—was the opposite of this. In fact, “my disease” was commonly blamed for any uncomfortable feeling or behavior, no matter how benign or commonplace.

Did someone get frustrated or impatient in line at the DMV?

“Hey, that’s just my disease.”

Did they spend all day watching a marathon of The Wire instead of going out in the sunshine?

“That’s just so alcoholic of me!”

Did someone get struck with a bout of social anxiety when walking into a party full of people they didn’t know?

“My disease wants me to be lonely.”

Every possible feeling and behavior was grouped under a broad umbrella as “alcoholic”—as if drunks hold the monopoly on emotional pain and insecurity. Every neurosis was a byproduct of an odious spiritual infection actively trying to kill its host, instead of a reaction that is part and parcel of the human experience.

But these feelings aren’t unique to alcoholics. The only difference is that alcoholics have a much greater tendency to drink over them than other people.

Which brings me to an even larger reason that I ultimately feel alienated from 12-step dogma.

According to AA literature, alcoholism is a “threefold disease,” meaning that it is physical, mental and spiritual. The first two make sense to me—especially the mental part. Of course conditions like depression and anxiety would drive someone to drink.

But it was the spiritual aspect that I was never sold on. I mean, it’s not something that shows up on an MRI scan. I gave the program a try. I worked Steps with a sponsor, but the notion that I drank because I was inherently damaged on a spiritual level, and needed a higher power to intervene, never quite sank in. Is that something you would tell a patient suffering from bipolar disorder, or cancer?

Sure, the idea of an omnipotent Higher Power that looks out for you is comforting, and the faith that the universe will always take care of you probably keeps people from making a lot of bad decisions motivated by fear and panic. But still.

After a while, my sponsor asked me why I hadn’t started picking up sponsees of my own and taking them through the Steps. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I couldn’t endorse a program to someone else that I wasn’t sure I believed in myself. And then it became more and more of a chore to go through the motions of step-work towards which I was wildly indifferent. I abandoned it a year into sobriety.

Despite taking just a little and leaving a great deal, I’m eternally grateful for the existence of Alcoholics Anonymous. The fellowship brought a lot of great friends into my life. Any time I’m feeling lonely or depressed, I can walk into a room full of warm, supportive people and instantly feel better. That aspect alone is invaluable. And even if the 12 Steps aren’t for me, I’m glad they’ve given other people exactly what they need.


T. R. Wexler is a pseudonym for a journalist and AA member living in New York City.

  • Twelve step programs would be great if it wasn’t for the steps (and courts mandating people to attend and rehabs co-opting a free resource)

    • issueman

      i used to feel the same about the court mandated attenders, but after a few years & sponsoring many I see it as an opportunity to help those that want it.

    • Stephen-in-DC

      you’re an idiot

      • Ad hominum attacks beat data every time. You win.

      • mbunker2007

        he is not an idiot

  • Theresa Fox

    I soo agree with you. I don’t know how many times a religiously 12-stepper (family member) told me that after almost 5 years of me not using cocaine anymore, that because I didn’t work the steps I was doomed to relapse. How about I’m happy. I’m greatful my bills are paid now. I’m not hungover and seeking my next dose to feel normal again. I’m not suffering anxiety and depression anymore. And, I’m more fearful of the long slide down that a relapse would involve? I didn’t work the 12-steps, but AA is great and supportive. I don’t believe the 12-steps are for me, but I know for a fact that cocaine abuse/addiction was horrible. I believe people can grow up and not depend on any “steps” other than just growing the hell up.

  • D. Smith

    Nice piece. I’ve thought about returning to AA just to be around a group of sober people; however, other than admitting that I’m “powerless” only once I start drinking and not before, I can’t reconcile my personal and spiritual beliefs with AA’s spiritual and pseudo-psychological dogma. So working the Steps or ever sponsoring anyone is something I won’t do.

  • What has kept me sober? Is it meetings, introspection, an unsuspected inner resource, help from a higher power of my own imagination? After decades in the rooms. I don’t know why I became alcoholic while other party-hounds didn’t and I don’t have irrefutable evidence as to what stopped me when I had tried and made promises before. I have a narrative that can give addiction meaning and describe this process or another as being the life-altering factor. But it’s just s story, not a fact.
    So I identify with our writer; I wonder why some need to assign explanation to phenomenon. That’s not so important to me. I wonder if those who assign agency to Step work or fellowship or “God consciousness” find comfort in feeling certain. An examined life and becoming social and helpful is a better way of life in addiction that was backing me into a corner. There wasn’t one X factor so it could be one thing, another, a combination or none of the above. I will take the incertainty over sounding like a zealous fool.
    Good for you for saying how it is for you without bumper sticker clichés.

  • I completely agree with a great deal of that. I’m not sure I could have gotten and stayed sober during my first year, if not for AA, but after that first year or so, I no longer felt a need for daily AA — it became more like weekly. After about 5 yrs, it became more like monthly. Now, after 23 yrs sober, I haven’t been to a meeting in several years — but I’m still sober. To me, AA provided tools that I needed in order to “get a life.” Now I have one, and I live it; I don’t need to substitute an addiction for 12 step meetings in order to refrain from drinking. I know EXACTLY where having even one drink would lead — back to active alcoholism. I’ll pass, thanks!

  • Joe Minella

    Something like 25 years ago, I found a small, non-smoking, non-religious, non-fanatic AA group that I really enjoyed for a few months. I still have two good friends that I met there. The group was about mutual support, friendship, fellowship. Everybody seemed to understand that we are all imperfect and therefore we could share our foibles, mistakes, and pain freely in a nonjudgmental environment. We laughed a lot (people would stare lol). So, I agree with the article. I’m not sure of the effectiveness of AA compared to any other course of action. Maybe a sugar pill would do just as well. But for ME, at that time and place in my life, when I really needed something, discovering and attending that particular meeting was a little miracle.

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  • Trip

    T. R…..sounds like you had a spontaneous remission. It’s amazes me how this term is never discussed in the rooms. In fact, I’d say 99.9% of the people in the rooms have never head this term. I never realized I had one until I had over 13 years sober. I just always assumed AA somehow magically got me sober. The spontaneous remission rate in alcoholics is 5%. The success rate of AA is 5%. Coincidence???

  • Jim Hart

    I really appreciate this article. I too have the same feeling about AA. I have found the fellowship and support to be the cornerstone of my participation. I dont swallow everything on blind faith. My primary problem was not alcohol or hard core drug use but several “behavioral” addcitions including a dependence on food tom manage my social anxiety and using Xanax as a night time only sleep aid. I had a lot of friends in the program and many of my personal training clients were old timers in AA. I already had a rich spiritual life ( buddhist meditator and reader of various liberal religious traditions) , a successful career and was doing ok, except for low self esteem and codependency and a constant feeling of missing out on life. I was also an isolator and lived puttin on a false front. So its hard sometimes for me to listen to war stories in AA about Jail, blackouts, DUI’s and all the other dysfuntion that hard core addiction creates. But as you said the people are warm and compassionate and I always feel pretty good after a meeting. I dont take on sponsors but will do occasional socila service commitments. Its good to know others have similar experiences

  • abobinmn

    I don’t believe that chemical dependency is a disease. I think people mistake addiction symptoms for a disease. And if chemical dependency is a disease, it’s the only one I know of that you create yourself. Engage some cancer patient sometime and tell him about your chemical dependency disease and see how far you get with that.

    I think of AAA much like the author of this article. I took a little and left a lot. The social aspect of AAA alone is worth the effort so you won’t hear me condemning AAA. I’ve been in a recovered state now for 17 years and now I have cancer. I’d trade my cancer for my old addiction any time.

    • Insert Name Here

      Instead of going to AA (not AAA), you would be better off improving your life by getting an education at your local college.

  • susan james

    I am an AA member and I must say, I am so tired of attending meetings with people who don’t believe in working the AA program. AA is not a social, group therapy fellowship program for people with drug problems, behavioral issues or lonely people just looking for friends (or victims). The only message of AA is recovery from alcoholism through the 12 steps, and fin ding and believing in a higher power is integral to the actual program. AA claims no monopoly on recovery, how ever, the 12 steps are our path to get there. If you do not or cannot “jive” with that, why do you insist upon inserting yourselves in our meetings? Using them for your silly selfish needs? Spreading stupidity, confusion and warped definitions of our text when your not spouting meeting hearsay as program fundamebtaks? In this day and age there is no excuse not to attend other programs, social gathering forums or clinical interventions/mental health services. Keep you dollar for the basket, spare us your 3 to 5 minutes share/verbal vomit and find a forum or place that best suites your needs rather than selfishly running amok in AA.

    • David J tieff

      Yes, this is JUST the attitude the author was talking about. AA is there to help people recover from alcoholism, and not everyone “works it” the same way. There are defined steps but the program is pliable. If you have concern about anyone “diluting” your own meetings or your own program, you should probably focus your attention on the courts that force people into the rooms whether they fulfill the ONE requirement for AA membership or not–a desire to quit drinking.

      I fulfill that requirement, and AA works as PART of my recovery, without working the steps or sponsoring people.

    • Nicole Bird

      “The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking.”