Alcoholics Anonymous: Its Value and Danger

[Written around 2004.]

Alcoholics Anonymous has helped millions to stop drinking, which is a vital step for everyone on the spiritual path, but its inherent limits as a program prevent its members from becoming fully enlightened. AA allows alcoholics a fellowship of peers, but it philosophy denies the full truth – and thus cannot provide fully enlightened guidance. As such, if its members go too far in expressing their true selves, they will not be loved by the group.

AA has a cult mentality. Just like the child in the family, the AA member experiences massive social pressure to conform and to buy the denial of AA. If he speaks against the family at the core level – be it the family of origin or AA – he is suspect, and if he rejects the family outright he is criminal. He is expected to stay a child forever, and thus never leave AA, never call it on its lies, never betray its sick social order and conventions.

AA falsely believes that alcoholism is a disease, not a symptom. This may be comforting for some, but it is not true. Alcoholism is not the disease: the unenlightened family is the disease. Alcoholics were not born so: they were created. They drink themselves into oblivion not because of bad genetics but because of the traumas resulting from childhood abuse, neglect, and rejection. No one raised in a truly loving home – whatever his chromosomes – could become an alcoholic. No one who had full connection with his true self – a fully non-traumatized person – would ever even want to experience even the mildest of dissociative pleasures of drinking alcohol at all.

By denying this reality AA protects the abusive parents, many of whom are its members. But more so it protects alcoholics themselves from feeling their deeper pain, because anyone who learns the full truth of his parents’ cruelties is in for a horribly painful ride. Denying this horrible truth may prevent some from relapsing, but it will prevent everyone from becoming fully enlightened.

Avoiding the deepest levels of pain is part of the AA mentality. They replace the depression of the alcoholic with the grandiosity and dissociation of so-called recovery. This is a spiritual step backwards (See The Four Stages on the Path to Enlightenment). AA believes that full spirituality is attainable by simply admitting the damage you’ve done to others and making amends. This is untrue. Admitting your past wrongs does lessen the cycle of guilt and shame, but does not resolve your own traumas – the damage done to you by your parents. Traumas must be addressed and fully grieved and mourned for deeper healing to take place.

Any program, AA or otherwise, that thinks you can heal without fully exhuming, grieving, and ultimately healing your traumas is siding with your abusive parents and perpetuating the addictive cycle of self-delusion.

(For more, view my critique on AA’s twelve steps.)

16 thoughts on “Alcoholics Anonymous: Its Value and Danger

  1. Hi Daniel. I remember you mention somwhere that discontinuing acting out, or addictions is the first step in healing. Isnt 12 step programs teach you to stop acting out and be more responsible? I know they are limited when it comes to trauma and holding parents responsible. But If you act out or are addicted, you cannot work your feelings out either. Some people say that you need to be sober for like 6 months to start to work out your deeper feelings. And some say that grieving will stop you from compulsive acting out or in. Its hard to make sense of it sometimes.

  2. This is a totally inaccurate portrayal or AA and what’s in the book. Alcoholism is a disease of the brain due to the brain damage caused by persistent drinking, but the alcoholism stems from the larger and original disease of our minds. So ultimately alcoholism is a symptom of our f-ed up way of thinking. Whoever wrote this never suffered addiction I’m sure of it. In terms of questioning and challenging the program, sure go for it… but it’s not doing any good for a hard-headed addict looking to totally transform his way of life and way of thinking. No one forces them into AA but if they want it to work they have to buy all in

    • hi Lou,
      I just re-read my essay (it’s been a while), and while I would change some things if I re-wrote it (like my use of the word “enlightened,” which I don’t like very much), I think the essay itself holds quite nicely and is not inaccurate. I think in many ways I may have understated my case. Also, some people most definitely are forced to go to AA — and I know that because I’ve met them. They get mandated by various legal entities and go quite against their will.

      • I’ve been in the fellowship for some time and think your essay is extremely accurate; twelve step recovery, when wielded by unhealed people, causes great harm to often vulnerable individuals. Daniel’s approach is touched on in the fellowship literature and sometimes discussed by more enlightened 12-steppers such as Bob Earll (books: ‘Turning the Light On’ and ‘I got Tired of Pretending’). Sadly, the self-acceptance approach is rarely discussed in the meetings which is a shame as it robs newcomers of the opportunity to recover and grow.
        Thankfully my sponsor recognises that the ‘disease’ is essentially a pernicious form of self-rejection/self-abandonment brought about by unresolved traumas. The program coupled with outside help (as recommended by the big book pg 133) can promote a deep level of self-acceptance and reintegration of various disowned parts of self. The Big book discusses ‘acceptance is key’ and the ‘God’ that lives within. I’ve heard God go by many names e.g. higher power, higher self/consciousness, inner child, authentic self, source/origin, the universe etc. I feel my ‘God’ speaks to me through my inner child. Stopping drinking is the easy part; staying stopped requires genuine healing. Learning to live ‘life on life’s terms’ requires the appropriate conditions that allow a person to mature emotionally (e.g. books by Gabor Mate, Charles L Whitfield, John Bradshaw, Melody Beattie etc). The trick is to find a sponsor that has actually had a spiritual awakening (i.e. somebody who has learned how to live the steps, is no longer ‘faking it to make it’, done the inner child work, family of origin work, resolved underlying co-dependency issues and other necessary self-healing). All too often I come across unhealed people doling out abuse to newcomers who fail to comply with their demands (‘suggestions’) and accusing anybody who disagrees with them of being in denial (aka the stage director). This abuse is hidden under the auspices of ‘they weren’t willing, ready, didn’t want to take responsibility’. Remember the Big Book was meant to be a guide not a bible to be followed verbatim and length of sobriety doesn’t necessarily equate to emotional sobriety and you can change sponsors.

    • I didn’t even have to read too the end of what you wrote. In your opening statement you wrote, “alcoholism is a disease of the brain due to the brain damage caused by persistent drinking.”
      Our brain, after an individual experiences some form of trauma rewires, damaged, especially when the child is exposed to violence, sexual exploitation, abandonment, or physical abuse repeatedly, on a daily basis. A child’s brain is still in the development stage and having to undergo these types of trauma daily, with no escape, if you don’t think that will do damage, interfering with the growth process and pattern of that kids brain, think again.
      Alcoholism and any form of addiction stems from their experiences to which they had no say or control over it. As a addict/alcoholic, my husband passing from it, it our coping mechanism, just want the hurt and the memories of it to stop. Because our brain was damaged by the events and we were unable to process and learn healthy coping skills.
      Personally I didn’t like A.A./N.A. rooms and I was in many all throughout Canada. I just couldn’t understand why some are still going after 50 or so years, telling the same stories. Now it’s not about their drug of choice, now they are addicted to those rooms.

  3. Hello Daniel.
    I dont have experience with AA, but I attended few of ACoA groups. I have mixed feelings. I find that some people there are honest and I felt drawn to them, but I find also many people who themselfes are parents and are not recognizing damage their done to their children and are still doing, and that is what put me off from the groups. Also, there was certain push to not bragg about parents and what they did, tho not from everyone. Mixed people and mixed feelings.

    I also attended few meetings of AO, becouse of my problems. And I find that these groups are more like a cult, focusing on the disease rather than feelings and traumas. What put me off was also that they are organized from top to bottom, like hierarchy.

    But I still am thinking, is there any value in just maybe focusing on the people, finding right ones and putting aside all the bullshit things that I dont like about these groups. Do you think that there is difference between groups like AA/AO, and groups like ACoA, which focuses more on trauma and wounds(in theory). I would appreciate your thoughts.

    • Sory. I planned to reread some of essays you wrote, and as usual I pick one that I know someting and I am playing expert. Illusion of competence. Its my shorctoming. I know, that I dont know that much really.

  4. I agree that AA is a dangerous cult, but you are quite uniformed if you think alcoholics only come from broken homes and parents. That’s not science based, that is opinionated and that is no better than AA. Little loony.

    • hi elskidor,
      well, i guess it’s a question of how you define broken homes and broken parents. my mother became an alcoholic and was from a seemingly very normal and functional home — much more functional than most. it’s what happened under the surface, on an emotional level, that set her up for her problems later. i’ve seen things like that a lot. so maybe you’re reading a little black-and-white into what i’m saying. what i wrote in the essay was this: “They drink themselves into oblivion not because of bad genetics but because of the traumas resulting from childhood abuse, neglect, and rejection. No one raised in a truly loving home – whatever his chromosomes – could become an alcoholic.” i still stand by what i wrote. i would be curious to know what you think causes alcoholism. daniel

  5. Yes, AA is great for learning how to get honest with yourself and stop drinking initially but when people make it a lifestyle you can get stuck. AA says there is nothing wrong with the world and the alcoholic has all the problems. They also speak of a God but it you believe in the God of the Bible (Jesus) you get in trouble. It is the god of AA that is preached which makes it a classic cult. AA is full of people with no boundaries who are not being taught how to set those boundaries. The best thing that happened to me in AA is that I met a Christian woman who taught me the true God is the God of the Bible. Since then I have been healing with His help. It is not in us that we find our power, it is in God. He gives us our power when we give Him our weakness. It is not an effort of will, but a surrender to Him.

    • I was atheist since childhood due to convictions I had developed on my own but when I had to face unprecedented trauma due to sudden self realisation my intellect could not cope. Thinking and thinking fails and submitting to Him was an impossibility to me too because of my cemented belief and hurt I felt at letting such a change into me. But I have managed to believe in Him or nature and it has helped me.

  6. Well put, though I don’t think one has to avoid 12-step recovery in order to still deal with deeper issues. I see many people in the program dealing with deeper traumas and still getting the benefits of the fellowship, myself included. I think most people in recovery eventually come to realize the impact their parents had on their drinking. But at some point it is also time to not dwell there and to grow up.

  7. I used to go to Al Anon, which is for people affected by, “Alcoholics.” It was good to go for a long time. But when I wanted to get angry about they way my step mother had treated me they were very disapproving.

    I think anywhere that you can go to talk about how you are and what has been going on and people sympathetically listen can be useful. But if people want to stop you expressing certain emotions then it stops being useful. Being angry, and especially being angry with Parents is actively discouraged in the 12 step programes I have participated in.

    These days I question the term, “Alcoholic.” I read that it medicalises habitual excessive drinking. It thereby lets the alcohol industry off the hook. Every society needs to control psychoactive substances and medicalising abuse of them makes the problem an individual one and not something that society as a whole needs to deal with. While it is true that only the seriously traumatised drink regularly to excess it is also true that minimum price for alcohol, licensing hours and other restrictions on it’s sale and consumption reduce the damage that people can do to themselves or others.

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