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A.A. isn’t the last stop on the train

Richard Hollett May 26, 2008


   There is a shift taking place in people’s perspective of addiction and recovery.  Thankfully, successful methods free of 12-step and AA philosophies for treating those with problems with alcohol and drugs (and other compulsions) are being offered and are proving to be more effective and more naturally compatible with those who suffer from such addictions.  These programs, alternatively, are being offered to people with specific consideration given to the individual and by honoring and respecting the addict’s intelligence, individuality and ability to make fulfilling and responsible choices.  The thinking behind this is that everyone who struggles with challenges including ones with drug and alcohol has a desire to change, regardless of how big or small the desire seems.  By gently and respectfully nourishing and paying tribute to one’s innate desire to create a healthy, peaceful and fulfilling life, free from addiction, it becomes a natural progression for the impulse toward substance abuse to diminish – essentially breathing life into a person’s organic impulse to face individual challenges and in turn create a successful, happy, productive life.  As opposed to the aggression and fear based tactics offered in AA and 12-step programs, many professionals are now recognizing the success and effectiveness of eliciting an individual, self-designed path toward freedom from addiction.  It is now being acknowledged that one’s personal challenges, which can manifest in many ways, one being addiction, is accompanied by a solution to overcome that same challenge.  In other words, treatment professionals can help unobstruct, elicit, and orchestrate an individualized path of recovery and personal growth and it is more effective than force feeding a “one size fits all” recovery program.  Additionally these more genuine approaches to addiction and other compulsions are more effective because they empower a person rather than force a person to deem himself as powerless. 

   Approximately ninety-five percent of existing treatment centers in the United States adheres to the 12-step philosophies.  Currently, the success rate of treatment is no different than the success rate of AA: between 3 – 5%.  One has to wonder since the success rate is so low, what propelled AA and 12 step treatment to become such an unquestioned and integral part of American culture, as well as a billion dollar industry.  Many claim that the path to national acceptance was paved by politics and personal agenda and continues to be motivated by enormous financial gain. 

   Substance abuse has existed for thousands of years.  AA was founded in 1935.  Among the hundreds of inaccurate and negative slogans espoused by AA and 12-step treatment programs are “AA is the only way”, or “It is AA or die”.  These are fiercely repeated slogans that are commonly and aggressively drilled into the minds of those in treatment, most of whom are very vulnerable and susceptible when entering treatment programs and the halls of AA.  To accept that “AA is the only way” and/or “It is AA or die”, one has to also embrace the absurd notion that prior to 1935, those who suffered from addiction never recovered or even had the means to recover in the absence of AA and the 12-steps, and therefore died from their addiction.  In addition, one would have to accept the equally absurd notion that subsequent to 1935, those who suffered and continue to suffer from addiction died and still die from their condition unless they follow an AA and 12 step recovery program.  This position would be laughable if it weren’t so ignorant and arrogant and blatantly irresponsible.  These slogans can have an extraordinarily negative and dangerous affect on people in treatment.  Research shows that more people recover from addiction outside of AA and 12-step treatment.  These previously stated and potentially detrimental proclamations, which are voiced as a matter of fact, are unfounded and often contribute to substance abusers’ deep turmoil and conflict and potentially fatal condition. 

   I have no problem with individuals who independently choose to follow a 12-step program or attend AA.  Each have my most sincere best wishes to create a well deserved, beautiful and fulfilling life, free of addiction.  How they go about it is not my business or concern.  Similarly, I have no problem with people practicing other philosophies, religions or rituals which do not reflect my personal beliefs.  Unlike the “preachers” in AA and treatment facilities, I do not believe that my way is the only way.  In fact, I believe that although there are universal truths, there are as many paths leading to those truths as there are people on this planet.  Therefore, I respect and honor people’s natural gravitational pull toward being true to and following his or her individual path.

   On the other hand, I do have a problem with people who are in roles of authority or represent themselves as advisors or counselors of some sort or even sponsors, who make irresponsible and life threatening statements to people who are genuinely seeking help and support to recover from such a torturous condition.  Most of these people who are so gravely suffering are in a weakened physical, emotional and mental state and are especially impressionable and susceptible, particularly while detoxifying.  During these enormously vulnerable times being met with aggressive and threatening statements such as “it is AA or die” or “AA is the only way”, can at best be potentially damaging.  Those in need are also told in treatment that “you can never get well, there is no cure”.  I have personally witnessed hundreds of people who have found themselves deeply conflicted and tormented when such hurtful statements and treatments are imposed upon them while suffering in the throes of physical chaos, shame, guilt, self-doubt, loneliness, hopelessness, helplessness and so much more that accompanies the abuse of drugs and alcohol.  Since aggressive attempts are made to strip treatment patients of individual thought by forcing them to acknowledge their own “sick-mindedness”, for many, this becomes a terrible conflict and a catch 22.  While a person feels utterly and fundamentally incompatible with the practices of AA and the 12-steps, while in treatment it is unacceptable to rely on one’s own natural instincts or inner knowledge, which existed in humans long before AA was founded.  After all, there “is no cure” and "It is a lifelong disease that only progresses and worsens even as one abstains”, and “AA is the only way” and “It is AA or die”, combined with the powerful suggestion that they cannot rely on their own “stinkin thinkin”, many conclude that they will probably die…… and many have, including people who I have grown to care deeply about and love. 

   It is especially sad to me when young people, in many instances children, are exposed to the negativity of AA and treatment centers under the insistence of parents, judges, and doctors, most of whom do not have a proper and in-depth understanding of the very program which they are insisting someone attend.  And much like adult treatment patients or AA attendees, if these children resist AA/12 steps, (which can be a sign of the intelligence and the strength likely to support recovery) they are often attacked and accused of resisting recovery, while that is not necessarily the case.  This type of treatment can further frustrate an addict, perpetuate conflict and self-doubt and exasperate the painful struggle of an addict rather than contribute toward a solution and ultimate recovery.  Often it is one’s self-doubt and inner conflict which contributes to the pull toward addiction in the first place.  Further and aggressively challenging one’s innate strengths and ability to create change and make good decisions, despite current and past behaviors and tendencies, can deny a person the very solution that would otherwise free them from addiction.  Undoubtedly, this is not the intent of the parents, judges and doctors and I am deeply grateful that things are now finally changing and treatment philosophy is now becoming more expansive and honors the individual and empowers him to thrive rather than disregarding him. 

   Personally, when I come across an addict, recovering or otherwise who expresses a distaste for AA and/or 12-step programs, I am more hopeful for them in their efforts to not only strive toward freedom from addiction, but also to create a well balanced, fulfilling, responsible and self-empowered and self-directed life.   When someone recognizes that AA just doesn’t resonate with him, to me it is a positive sign that he already has at least in part, an awareness or understanding about truths that transcend AA and the 12 steps, and when honored will be the very source of his solid recovery and a much deserved, successful and vibrant life. 

   I look forward to the day when alternative recovery programs no longer refer to themselves as alternative, since currently, “alternative” has meant that it is not AA or 12-step based.  There is no valid or supportive reason, at least in terms of actual effectiveness or recovery successes, why AA and 12-step programs have been considered mainstream up to date.  It is my personal belief that we become more intelligent, more open and progressive and in general, wiser as time moves forward and we collectively evolve.  This is reflected in people’s natural desire to seek truths and find genuine resolution to the challenges we are presented with – related to addiction and otherwise.  It is further evidenced in one’s refusal to accept that which is contradictory to one’s innate wisdom and desire to grow and expand.  Although AA and 12 step programs have clearly had a place in this world, it is inspiring and relieving to know that it is finally beginning to be viewed and accepted as simply one of many programs to choose from rather than being an unknowing, knee-jerk reaction or response to those seeking addiction recovery for themselves, their children, loved ones, patients, or defendants. 


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