The Soapbox: Railing Against AA Does A Disservice To Those Trying To Get Sober

This post was originally published on After Party Chat and republished with permission.

We’ve all got at least one Facebook friend who just can’t stand Alcoholics Anonymous and needs to let the world know it every chance that they get. I usually politely ignore them. But the latest anti-AA screed to show up in my newsfeed was too irritating to ignore.

First off, let me start by saying that I’m not a member of AA, lest my opinion be dismissed as coming from a member of “the AA cult.” Have I been to meetings? Yes. Tons of them. Do I attend meetings today? No, I don’t. At one point I attended regularly, and it helped me. At a certain point,  it no longer helped me and so I stopped. Simple as that.

I’m a writer, not to mention an alcoholic, and so sure, I could make anything complicated. And yet, I don’t. I don’t pick apart a program that has existed for nearly a century, that’s all over the world and that has helped an uncountable number of people. I may think my opinion’s important, and that they trump other people’s opinions, but the fact is that AA works for a lot of people. Even if it didn’t work for me, that fact would give me serious pause before I wrote anything that might discourage another from trying it.

But, in fact, AA did work for me. For the first six years of my sobriety, I found attendance at meetings essential. And it worked for the author of this annoying article, too: “AA saved my life,” author Ginger Hale begins, then spends the next 1200 words discouraging people from attending. The arrogance of that just blows my mind.

Hale claims AA’s teachings are antithetical to her political beliefs—a line I might’ve used to defend myself against having to attend my first meeting had I read a piece like this prior to giving it a try. She claims that the program “employs practices and ideologies that are not congruent with [her]personal, political, or philosophical beliefs”—but, having once been a member, I know from my experience that the only practice that AA “employs” is the practice of one alcoholic encouraging one another, one day at a time, to abstain from alcohol; the only “ideology” required of a member is a desire to not drink.

In typical alcoholic fashion, Hale acts as if she’s the only one who’s smart enough to feel challenged by the spiritual aspects of the program or irritated by the sexist language in the literature, such as the use of “He” in reference to a Higher Power or the chapter in the program’s primary text that is written to the partners of the alcoholic, and entitled “To The Wives.” This is pretty minor stuff to quibble over when you have no solution of your own for drinking and your thinking is so out of control that you want to die. But okay.

She goes on to tell a story about how whenever she expressed resistance, she felt continually rebuffed. “I learned early on in AA that you do not question the AA hegemony,” her story begins, “so I kept my head down and counted my days.”

What is she talking about? In AA, you’re allowed to be critical. Of course you are. In AA, you’re allowed to be anything you want—even drunk (remember, it’s a desire to stop drinking, not a mandate to be sober). Yeah, sure, you have blowhards that think they know how it’s supposed to work for everyone, but in the great tradition of anything goes, even blowhards are allowed to be blowhards.

In my experience, AA is about finding what works for you. It’s just weird for this author to claim she was the only one who had issues with “problematic” stuff. And it’s outright offensive to read someone say they felt “silenced” in AA, a program built around a practice of sharing whatever you want, without censor or cross talk (defined as one member speaking directly to another member, or commenting on what someone has said).

Listen lady, we’re all “terminally unique.” I’m a feminist and an advocate for social justice, too. I’m a former sex worker and a survivor of trauma. I, too, have felt different—in and out of the rooms. My last essay showed that I, too, am smart, just like you—just like every alcoholic in that room. Thinking I was different, and superior, better than others and better than AA did not make me happy. What did? Learning to speak honestly and not intellectualizing my pain. Twelve step programs are the first place I ever felt free to be all that I was without fear of rejection and without shame, and to say my experiences out loud and to begin to heal.

Let’s be clear for anyone unfamiliar with the program: the claim that you can’t disagree with things you might hear in meetings, or challenge what you read in the literature, is absolutely wrong. Members are encouraged to actively question the Traditions, and to see how other people’s experiences relate to their own (or not). To be sure, various AA meetings conduct themselves differently—and maybe I was spoiled, living in New York City, where I had a handful of meetings to choose from, at any given hour of the day. Still, it was never my impression that we all had to agree on everything, including how to get and stay sober. To borrow a slogan you’ll hear again and again at meetings, “Take what you want, and leave the rest.”

But no, AA didn’t work for Ginger Hale (even though it saved her life??) and AA’s to blame. AA’s to blame for her relapse, too. Even though it’s not, she says. But it was, she goes on to imply. But it wasn’t, she then says.

I see.

Actually, I do. In some ways, I’m a lot like this author. In the beginning, AA was a method that worked for me. These days, other methods work better. Here’s where we differ: when I stopped attending meetings, I felt no pressure or judgment. It seems that Hale does. But that pressure, and shame, is not coming from AA.  Perhaps the main reason I don’t write essays justifying why I no longer attend AA is that I don’t need to justify my not attending, which is all that anti AA screeds like this one seem to do. They’re written by people for whom AA didn’t work (at least, not the way they wanted it to) and so they’re looking for someone to blame.

Five years after she stopped attending meetings, this blogger still feels the need to write article upon article defending her decision. She says she’s sober and insists she’s “very happy.” But if rants like this are any indication of her sobriety, no thanks.

Check out more from After Party Chat below: