Alcoholics Anonymous and the “Recovered” Movement: When the 12 Steps Turn Toxic
By a deeply held Alcoholics Anonymous tradition, I am not supposed to identify myself as a member to media. However, this tradition eliminates a layer of public scrutiny which would give prospective A.A. members useful information about how actual members turn out. After thirty years in and out, mostly in, I turned out an A.A. apostate. Part of my “story,” that lingua franca of A.A. speak, follows, along with a cautionary word about “turning your will and your life over” to any entity besides yourself.
I joined AA in its heyday, the 80s, when celebrities and politicians and everyone who was anyone was getting sober. In tolerant New York City A.A., a library of information was discussed alongside the official program literature, Alcoholics Anonymous (known as the “Big Book”) and The 12 Steps and 12 Traditions of Alcoholics Anonymous. We shared about dysfunctional families, child abuse, therapies for body and mind, and a range of opinions on god, atheism and agnosticism among them. A.A. helped me by providing a community where sobriety was normative. Some brainwashing was helpful in that regard, but the insistence upon unquestioning acceptance of other “truths” became pernicious.
I first became cognizant of the Recovered movement in 2013. This subgroup of A.A. is named after the subtitle on the “Big Book’s” title page, “The Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism.” Ordinary alcoholics in the Fellowship sometimes identify themselves in meetings as “recovering alcoholics,” to underscore the idea that recovery is ongoing and never ending. Recovereds believe that, upon finding god, the alcoholic is fully recovered through grace, and point to the past tense word on the title page; if the title page says “Recovered,” once and for all, then that is how this must be.
At a vulnerable time in my recovery, I began noticing that, suddenly, more sponsors became available for service, where there had been a dearth before. “I’m X, a Recovered alcoholic, and I sponsor from the Big Book,” I began hearing. Listening to these individuals, I heard stories of a tremendous liberation from craving, a genuine spiritual awakening that had trounced a half dozen character defects at a blow. They spoke with certainty and with joy. I had to learn more and asked a member of the group to sponsor me.
I noticed first off that Recovereds held separate meetings and were disdainful of the recovery of other alcoholics. The problem, according to my sponsors, was that they focused on sobriety, a matter of the First Step, they told me: What of the other Steps? Weren’t they still wallowing in a godless mass of defects? Weren’t they in A.A. kindergarten?
I mentioned the A.A. Tradition that said the only requirement for membership was a desire to stay sober, that A.A.’s primary purpose was to help members stay sober and to help others achieve sobriety. No! I was told roundly. A neophyte, I had not gotten the true message, written loud and clear in the Big Book: The purpose of “The Book” was to find god.
Big Book “Recovereds” fundamentalists say the purpose of the organization is not to find sobriety, but to find god.
So began my Big Book tutelage: Go to God.
Recovereds did not spring up sui generis – there is much in the A.A. soil that supports unquestioned belief.
As a racist president tweets hate, particularly glaring is the A.A. injunction against political action in the routinely cited "Acceptance" paragraphs. This writing abjures members not to concern themselves with outside causes and to focus exclusively on bettering themselves. This philosophy is brought home by the constant repetition of the slogan, “I am powerless over people, places, and things.
The fellowship is now overrun by fundamentalist Christians and "Recovereds" who do not tolerate any questioning of the Big Book. As a racist president tweets hate, particularly glaring is the injunction not to become political, the oft cited "Acceptance" paragraphs that abjure members not to concern themselves with outside causes and to focus exclusively on bettering themselves: “not to address what is wrong in the world, but only within me.” This philosophy is brought home by the constant repetition of the docile slogan, “I am powerless over people, places, and things.” All power is god’s and personal powerlessness is a holy state. God must deal with everything outside the member’s spiritual status.
Any mention of politics, of any cause, or outside organizations (exceptions are made for churches) is strictly forbidden in the A.A. culture. This apolitical environment is meant to welcome members of varying persuasions. But it is a policy that failed the Oxford Group, the group Bill Wilson closely modeled A.A. upon. In a fit of hubris, Oxford Group leaders tried to appease Hitler—and it was the end of them. The narrow-minded “Recovered” movement, unable to adapt to the complexities of modern life and tacitly affirming the status quo, may also spell the end of A.A.
The program, while claiming it is not a religion, is strongly pro-church—members are exhorted to join or rejoin theirs with alacrity. Creationism is favored over science, as in the Second Step in the Twelve and Twelve which mocks the theory of evolution with humankind "rising majestically from the primordial ooze." In the A.A. meeting rooms, also largely in churches, in place of science are beliefs designed for people who do not understand science; meetings resonate with new age philosophies cast as laws, such as the “law of attraction,” a version of positive thinking. Hopeful ex-drunks strive to “vibrate” at prosperous “frequencies” as they chant Orwellian affirmations opposite to reality and in place of action: “I am rich, I am thin, I am loved.”
Beyond the drink: Is rock bottom the best time to choose your life philosophy?
My novel, Patient Women, is a love letter to the program, which certainly saved this alcoholic’s life, but at what price? And being recruited when at rock bottom, as all members are, and being told that A.A. was my only hope, what other options might have been open to me besides the hard-selling program? And beyond the drink: Is rock bottom the best time to choose your life philosophy?
A.A. is the last acceptable and mainstream faith healing organization; law courts routinely refer people to A.A. Shrouded in secrecy, with members told that they will die if they leave, dominated by fundamentalism, it remains the first word in referrals for alcoholics. But the humorous slogan, “We Are All Here Because We Are Not All There” is true – there is a veritable cornucopia of untreated emotional and mental illness in the rooms that rarely gets better on the A.A. program alone.
Members are constantly reminded that they are “diseased.” “The Disease,” the anthropomorphic avatar of addiction, is “cunning, baffling, and insidious,” and progressive even during periods of sobriety; only a lifetime of A.A. membership can save you from degradation and death. Cult thinking manifests in a vicious cycle: you can never be cured, you must attend every day, and you will die if you leave. Members cite those who left after 20 years sobriety and came back, hungover and back to square one. Without the program, relapse is inevitable, they say. But A.A. and its members do not track those who leave and remain sober, or even more horrifying to the program, learn to drink moderately. Dependence on drink is replaced with a dependence upon meetings, dependence upon god. Attending one meeting a week “makes you weak.” The meetings are your strength and you, a solitary meerkat, cannot make it outside the group or without constantly hearing the A.A. “message.”
Welcome to the Hotel 12-Step: You Can Never Leave . . .
Of course, A.A. will tell you that you can believe anything you want, but the group dynamics of the meetings make such intellectual independence impossible, especially when contrarian thinking is labeled “your disease speaking.” Argument and outside ideas are verboten—“Get off the debating society,” the Second Step commands. Another slogan insists, “Utilize, don’t analyze.” And defiance is a “characteristic of (unrecovered) alcoholics.” A prevalent wall hanging at meetings showing the word Think upside down prepares members for intellectual passivity. Intuition is in; thinking is out. Apolitical, anti-intellectual, and anti-science, what most A.A.s need is not the honing of their intuition, but a course in logical reason.
The 12 “Suggested” Steps: We Only Want Your Will and Your Life
The so-called “suggested” Steps are in fact mandatory if you wish to participate in A.A. life. The linchpin is the Third Step, which involves a decision to turn your will and life to the care of god; this effectively means turning one’s will and life over to the program. What then follows is a morbid fascination with character defects, the endless and thankless task of self-perfection (yes, this is the stated A.A. goal, spiritual perfection.) With perfection as the goal, there is never time for outside interests like joining a union or organizing a protest march.
Spiritual status trumps everything in A.A., and even trumps sobriety among the Recovereds; with the Recovered movement, sobriety is ancillary to meeting face-to-face with your maker. If you read the Big Book, which the Recovereds do to the exclusion of all books other than the Bible, you will see written that the point of the program is to help you find god. But, we are told, A.A. is not a religious program. It has an infallible “Book,” mentions god or a higher power six times in the Steps, devotes chapters to god in the literature, collects donations daily, and proselytizes, but is not a religion. It is, in Orwellian doublespeak, a “spiritual program.” But in effect, A.A. is a true religion in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The Lord’s Prayer is often said even when Jewish members are in attendance, as is the masochistic St. Francis prayer. Belief is ground in not in one weekly sermon, but daily, and, per the 12th Step, in all aspects of the member’s life.
The 12th Step enforces active proselytizing of new members. It is an A.A. dictum that “you can’t keep it unless you give it away”; this is what is called “carrying the Message.” This ensures that A.A. and its contributions and literature sales grow as amateurs undertake the treatment of very ill people. Along with the mission to convert is the hagiography of the founders, especially Bill Wilson, in whose case the program didn’t work. Never on his feet financially until the royalties from A.A. literature secured his fortune, Bill suffered from chronic depression and even took hallucinogens to treat it. He also was a philanderer who tormented his long-suffering wife Lois with his infidelity. Not cured by the program, Wilson experimented with arcane chemical treatments while other mentally ill A.A.s were told to have faith and not take medication, that they would not be sober if they did. Many came to disastrous consequences.
Epilogue: Breaking Anonymity
An atheist today, I believe that there is no higher power, and that I, Larissa Shmailo, the poet, with the help of other human beings and no paranormal forces, have to restore myself to sanity. In the parlance of the program, I “took my will back” by deciding to be master of my fate and captain of my soul and rejecting a closeted religious group that fosters superstition and wishful thinking. I believe the Steps create a slave mentality, make people obsess about their defects, keep them involved with dysfunctional people, knock the fight out of them. Most people after thirty years in are still active in some “ism.”
At its inception, John D. Rockefeller did not donate money to Bill Wilson’s pet project as the latter had hoped but saw immediately that the program’s “will-less,” undefiant people would make good subservient employees. But defiance, frowned upon in A.A., is the font of much if not all progress. And anger, which is to be eliminated completely per A.A., has survival value, lets people know when they must stand up for themselves, fight for their rights, as we must today. Apolitical, staunchly religious, moving ever further right, what is the value of A.A.’s will-less life in a world intent upon foisting its implacable will on people today?
Since the advent of Trump, I have been carefully re-examining the Steps, the fellowship, and the mindset they create. What may have been adaptive for me in the 80s may not be so today, what with medications for addiction and mental illness, and an urgent requirement for political action. Apolitical and anti-med, what is A.A.’s role today?
Larissa Shmailo is a poet, author, translator, editor, and critic. www.larissashmailo.com