How to survive/thrive in AA when you don't really "believe" in the AA program?
January 17, 2010 1:35 PM   Subscribe

AlcoholismFilter: Members of AA who “take what you want, and leave the rest”. How exactly do you DO this? What do you “take”, and what do you ignore? How can I benefit from the mutual support and encouragement of an AA group, and help others and myself, while there are many things about AA I disagree with? (Non-AA groups not available in my area).

I first went to AA a couple of years ago and loved the social and personal support network I found there. I tried to practise the program as suggested, and had short periods of successful sobriety. After a couple weeks I began to spend time with a strict or so-called ''AA fundamentalist'' home group and sponsor, who had a very disciplined, rigid and time-consuming approach. Their whole lives were basically consumed with AA service and study (which I don't judge necessarily, however it's not the way I want to live) and they had no non-AA friends (people they referred to as "those normies"). I was required to synchronise clocks with my sponsor and call her not even one minute late; phone five newcomers a day; my character flaws were repeatedly brought to my attention and so forth.

Now that i look back on it, it was an instructive but also somewhat punitive and humiliating experience. I also met a few wonderful AA people outside of this clique who were far more relaxed and flexible, however I was persuaded to view them as "not doing the program properly". Ultimately I rebelled against all this, I suppose, and in general just couldn't be bothered with all the work that sobriety seemed to require. I take full responsibility for this, and am not blaming anyone else, by the way. I returned to my drinking lifestyle, drifted out of AA and moved to another city for work reasons.

Fast forward three years. I have occasionally had short periods of sobriety with the aid of therapy, medications, exercise and self-help books, but in general continue to struggle with my drinking. Since my AA experience I have actually become an atheist (not as a direct result, but for other reasons.) I have also developed a fascination for research on addiction and alcoholism, and have discovered that many of the so-called "truths" of alcoholism, as propounded by AA, are not supported by the evidence. In fact I think some of the things I learned there actually did more harm than good and gave me a somewhat warped perspective on certain aspects of life and self-identity. To this day I disagree with many facets of the AA program and also the idea of being “in recovery” forever. (This is just my personal opinion and interpretation.)

HOWEVER. I am SO incredibly lonely in trying to deal with my drinking. My therapist is great but obviously that’s necessarily a limited source of support. I live in a small Australian city in which all of my friends and acquaintances are heavy drinkers. In theory, I could do non-drinking activities with them and ask for their support with my problem, but deep down I don't want to as I suspect I don't actually have real connections or things in common with them, except that we enable each other’s drinking. I have thoroughly researched non-AA support groups for alcoholism, however there is not even one option available in my city. So it is with some desperation I realise that I can no longer do this alone and would prefer to be with AA people, than no-one at all.

My question is, how do I reconcile my current beliefs (and, IMHO, well-researched, evidence-based opinions) about alcoholism, addiction and “the recovery industry”, with all the stuff I hear in AA? I need these people’s support, and I would like to support them also, but I don’t want to “work the steps”, get a sponsor, or “put cotton wool in my mouth” and, quite frankly, I don’t believe that some “Higher Power” is what will stop me drinking. I really just need the human companionship and support. I’ve heard some AA people say that you can “take what you want and leave the rest” – my question is please can you suggest some tools and strategies I can use to DO this? Should I share in meetings or keep to myself? Should I tell anyone my true suspicion that a lot of AA stuff is [no offense] BS, but I need it anyway, cause the meds and the books and the therapy just aren't enough?!
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (14 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I have zero experience with AA or anything, so please ignore this advice if it is not helpful.

But it sounds like you would benefit (regardless of what you do in AA) by joining new groups, and finding new people. Are there clubs in your area that do anything you are remotely interested in? A sports team, a knitting club, a book group, anything that would widen your social circle in a way that is not alcohol-focused. This will, in and of itself, take research and work, but it seems to me that regardless of your decisions and your actions with AA, you would benefit from having a wider, non-drinky social structure, and thus have some people to hang out with outside of heavy drinkers and former heavy drinkers.
posted by brainmouse at 1:43 PM on January 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

you might find some good advice about recovery from Jennie Ketchum (formerly, porn star Penny Flame). she's an atheist that participates in the anonymous programs. she gets around the higher power stuff by replacing God with Gravity. she talks some about it here.

Gravity is my higher power. It is stronger than me and certainly more consistent.

realize that people cling to myths about recovery for the same reason that people cling to myths about god - they help them, true or not. try to approach it like people believing in santa claus. you wouldn't bust into a primary school and show the kids how impossible it is to go to every house in one night, but you can still take some good from the season of winter solstice. just because you know they're wrong about addiction is no reason to ignore the power of socializing with a group of people who really only have one goal - to stay sober - same as you.

others will come in with suggestions of actual groups, i'm sure, but you might want to supplement AA with an online atheist recovery group. that way you can have the in person group building with the intellectual stimulus you need to get and stay sober.

good luck.
posted by nadawi at 1:48 PM on January 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

Actually, I think you *do* want to go back to AA and you *do* want a sponsor. You just don't want a hard-liner. You want sponsor with years and years of experience and who was just like you when he or she joined up. They will show you how to get the most out of AA without being overwhelmed or driven away by the components that don't work for you -- because they've been there, and done that. I know several athiests who attend AA meetings -- and they've found a way to make it work quite well for them. You need to talk to someone with your frame of mind who's made it work. Don't worry -- there are plenty of them. Go to some meetings until you meet that person.

Also, in my understanding, the "higher power" thing is not what "makes you quit drinking". It's what helps you face your control issues, remember that you are human and not all-powerful, and that alcohol is not something you can overpower. The idea that there is something, anything, that is simply more powerful than you in every way and you could not fight it -- one friend of mine chose the ocean. There's a reason that they call it a "higher power" and not "God". Some people's "God" can magically fix things for them. That's not the point at all. I actually think this is a useful concept for all folks (including the "normies") to carry with us at all times. The notion that while we have control and power over much of our lives, there are things with which we would be foolish to try to conquer, for it would kill us; to learn how to feel empowered, in control and excited about our future with that reality every day is tricky indeed.

Good luck to you -- you sound very self-aware, strong and thoughtful and you have what it takes to make it out of your current situation.
posted by pazazygeek at 1:53 PM on January 17, 2010 [12 favorites]

A good friend of mine found (and still finds) the AA model to be very helpful by using the "take it or leave it" approach you're describing.

She doesn't see the meetings as a setting for iron-clad repetition of the 12-step mantra; instead, she sees them as a network of support. This network means that on any day and at almost any time there, if she needs some kind of contact or solidarity, there's a group of people who are struggling with some of the same things she is, and that she is welcome to join them, even if it means just sitting in the back and not saying much.

She also has her own take on the "higher power" part of AA: she sees it as acknowledging that there are some things that are in your control, and some things that aren't, and that part of recovery is recognizing the difference and using it to make the changes in your life that you want to see happen.

Good luck and best wishes in your path to recovery.
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 2:05 PM on January 17, 2010

You are not required to do anything in AA.
You are not required to do anything for AA.
You are not required to do the steps of AA.
You are not required to follow a sponsor's instructions in AA.
You are not required to have a sponsor in AA.

The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking. That is AA's official, and sole, statement on what you need to do to be a part of AA.

Everything AA offers is suggestions that were helpful for a lot of people and have been written down as a set of good suggestions. All of them aren't necessarily for everyone. Or maybe not at this time. If you, like me, find the fellowship aspect to be useful go there and make use of it.

No one there has any right to tell you what you must do. No one I respect from my AA experiences would ever try to tell you what you should do. If they are approaching you it should be to tell you what they did that worked for them. Not to instruct you on what you should do.

Feel free to take what you can from AA. Don't let anyone else's idea of the correct approach keep you from making of use of what you find useful. There is no one at any meeting who has any more right than you to be there.
posted by Babblesort at 2:09 PM on January 17, 2010 [4 favorites]

The fact is that if you're a total atheist and listening to people talk even nominally about a higher power drives you crazy you are going to have a rough go at AA. In fact, my best friend is seriously struggling with it and has for a long time. Especially right now, there seems to be a culture war going on in the rooms that is reflective of the those in faith traditions between fundamentalists, as you put it, who think very literally and more progressive types who think more broadly and interpretively. I am very much part of the latter group and feel that simply turning to a group of people with experience in living life clean and sober and asking them for help more than satisfies the conditions of finding a higher power. I consider myself agnostic but have and do happily sponsor atheists from this perspective because I think it's better for people to get help under conditions they can tolerate rather than continue to suffer and possibly die from addiction. There are people in the rooms who will tell you that if you aren't ready to find God you should keep drinking until you are. This idea is pulled directly from the literature. I think there are a lot of bad ideas and a lot of bad writing in the literature; big surprise, Bill Wilson was a drunk stock broker, not Gandhi. I also think there's a lot of truth in the literature, and a tremendous amount of wisdom in the people who comprise the fellowship; some of these people are closer to me than my family ever has been and I credit them with having saved my life. There are also lunatics in the fellowship who are essentially running their own cults of personality in the rooms, as was documented in Newsweek a while back. It's a big mix of people, with no rules, only guiding principles with no enforcement body to curb bad behavior. You may have a bad experience and come away permanently hating AA, you may meet people who will love and support you through anything life throws at you. This is all just my experience, not any kind of official statement, others will share vastly different opinions, I'm sure.

A couple practical suggestions that may help at first. Go to Living Sober meetings, they are discussions based around topics from a piece of AA literature that is comprised of practical advice on quitting drinking, not the spiritual living program of the 12 steps. These meetings tend to have the least amount of Higher Power reference and fundamentalists typically avoid them because they don't even consider them real AA meetings. Some of the advice in the Living Sober book is dated and corny but a lot of it is extremely useful.

Also, look at the group's traditions, they are your ammunition against those who will tell you that you are doing it wrong as an atheist. The group's 1st Tradtion opens pretty unambiguously about this issue, it's a totally strong and supportive statement about the individual's right to think and believe whatever you want:

The unity of Alcoholics Anonymous it the most cherished quality our Society has. Our live, the lives of all to come, depend squarely upon it. We stay whole, or A.A. dies. Without unity, the heart of A.A. would cease to beat; our world arteries would no longer carry the life-giving grace of God; His gift to us would be spent aimlessly. Back again in their caves, alcoholics would reproach us and say, "What a great thing A.A. might have been!" "Does this mean," some will anxiously ask, "that in A.A. the individual doesn't count for much? Is he to be dominated by his group and swallowed up in it?" We may certainly answer this question with a loud "No!" We believe there isn't a fellowship on earth which lavishes more devoted care upon its individual members; surely there is none which more jealously guards the individual's right to think, talk, and act as he wishes. No A.A. can compel another to do anything; nobody can be punished or expelled. Our Twelve Steps to recovery are suggestions; the Twelve Traditions which guarantee A.A.'s unity contain not a single "Don't." They repeatedly say "We ought..." but never "You must!"

Again, this isn't an enforceable rule, but at least should lend some strength to the argument that anyone who is giving you prescriptive orders about what you should or shouldn't think, say or believe either as a sponsor or a group member is flat out doing it wrong.

Also, I second the idea of supplementing with other recovery groups that aren't spiritually based. Mefite Maias wrote a book called Recovery Options that lists a number of other types of groups. As an AA member I understand that while AA has worked very well for me for number of years now it's not for everyone and there should be many different options for everyone and anyone who wants help.
posted by The Straightener at 2:23 PM on January 17, 2010 [6 favorites]

I'm sober for coming up 11 years in February. I know many people like the ones you describe - their entire lives revolve around nothing but AA. All they read is AA literature, they do nothing socially other than go to meetings and then to coffee with other AA members. They spend their vacations at AA conventions. They've replaced one obsession with another. If that was me, well, shoot me now.

I have a very full life outside of AA, with a fulfilling and demanding job, lots of friends and plenty of interests. But to get to the point where I was able to live a life that didn't revolve around drinking, I had to spend a fair amount of time immersing myself in a sober way of thinking, and the best way of doing that - for me - was in AA with long-time sober old geezers (& geezettes). I look on that time now as a sort of AA boot camp - it kept me safe and it trained me in sober living.

But there's a ton of stuff in AA that I don't agree with, follow or subscribe to - the main one is that I don't believe in any kind of deity. For me the 'Higher Power' is the programme of AA - because I could not stop drinking by myself. For me learning to live my life in such a way that the 'fuck it' switch didn't go off all by itself, through living the principles of the AA programme, is the 'power greater than me' that I need to stay sober. It's as if I was born without the manual on how to live like a normal human being, and the AA programme gave me that.

If you live in a big city, you'll find there are loads of AA meetings, many of them very different from the ones you describe. Find one you like. AA is intended to be 'a bridge to normal living', not a replacement for it.

Case in point: I walked into a meeting one night and 300-year-old Terry said "I didn't see you at X meeting on Wednesday night". "No", I replied, "I was watching the football, my team was playing in the Champions League" "You won't get sober watching football!" "I got sober so I could watch football"

However, unlike you, I am aware that I need to be "in recovery" forever. I don't drink like normal drinkers. Before I got sober, I hung around with people who drank like me, so I really didn't understand how bad or abnormal my drinking was compared with most people. It's only now that I'm sober and I spend time with people who drink normally that I can see how different from theirs my drinking was. It still amazes and baffles me that someone can sit with half a glass of wine or beer and then get up and walk away from it.

Once a pickle, never a cucumber again. If you're like me, you can't drink safely. You might find life is more fun if you can get through a few months of 'boot camp', learn a new way of living and then start living it.
posted by essexjan at 2:30 PM on January 17, 2010 [10 favorites]

Just like anything in life, there are good AA groups and bad AA groups. There are extreme AA groups and there are non-traditional AA groups. They can tend to mold themselves around the philosophies of the most outspoken members, which can be unfortunate, because what Babblesort says above is the bottom line.

If the town you live in is small enough that there is only one AA group, then obviously you are limited, but keep trying different groups until you find the support and personalities that meet your expectations. There isn't a right way or a wrong way, there is the trying our best to stay sober a day at a time way. Personally, because of success I found within AA, I have a biased attitude, but I will say that hard-core groups that bludgeon you with traditions and steps wouldn't work for me; but neither would totally non-traditional "clubs" that are constructing their own rules, regulations, and values systems.

My Higher Power? Was the AA people themselves. They were there for me when I hurt. They taught me how to be one of them, and one of the "normals," and they demonstrated through practice the importance of helping others. Nothing did a better job of keeping me sober than spending and hour or more with an active alcoholic who desperately wants to quit, but can't find anything within themselves to do so. That experience is what higher power is all about.

Wishing you all the best. You have a good start. Feel free to contact me any time. My email is in my profile.
posted by netbros at 2:37 PM on January 17, 2010 [3 favorites]

I went into the program when I was younger and failed miserably. It took me ten years to get back. Back in the day, it was an intellectual ride -- the big book was stimulating, i had deep exploratory conversations with others, some i dug, others i didn't. But I wasn't willing to do the work. I hit my first real assignment, to take my personal inventory, and I bailed. It just wasn't my time. I don't beat myself up for it. But as I drank more, my problems got worse, not better.

You're not alone. Of course you should share in meetings. A lot of people who think the same things you do, tend not to share them as well. You speaking up will have a positive effect on others. "Take what you want and leave the rest" is not a static concept; it will mean different things for you at different times. Can't handle the Higher Power? Put it on a shelf for now. Stay sober. Get some numbers. Start talking. Express your doubt. Be of service. Be willing to try new things. If you've happened across a bunch of bible-thumping rednecks that don't suit your fancy, find another meeting to go to. There is no wrong way to work the steps. I say that as someone who used to think the opposite. I repeat, there is no wrong way to work the steps. Do them all in day, do them backwards, do them in your sleep, who gives a shit. They will prevail.

Also. You're not going to think your way into sobriety; you're going to think your way out of it. Frankly (and apologies for the tough love?), if you're so responsive to "well-researched, evidence based opinions" that coincidentally tell you that AA is bullshit, what are you doing with a drinking problem in the first place? How's your research going in that department? The evidence of how well that's worked for you..? Sounds like its going fantastic.

So at some point, your fancy thinking aside, you may be miserable enough with the life that untreated alcoholism has dealt you that you are prepared to turn it over to a higher power - and that higher power can simply be a group of other alcoholics. This is called a window of opportunity. They don't come that often. I hope that you find one and say to yourself, the only thing i know is that i have to jump through all the way.
posted by phaedon at 2:53 PM on January 17, 2010 [3 favorites]

Looking at this another way, could you start seeking friends within groups which don't have a strong culture of drinking? There are lots of places other than AA to find high concentrations of non-drinkers, or at least people who never drink to excess.

Buddhists, for example, often abstain from alcohol. You don't have to become Buddhist, but you might benefit from having contact with the community by taking a meditation class with them. Yoga classes also tend to attract people whose philosophy on life precludes drinking.

Observant Muslims generally don't drink. Maybe there is an organisation you can volunteer with or a multicultural group you can join that will put you in contact with them.

Bushwalking clubs tend to go easy on the booze, in my experience. So do members of other groups where physical fitness is a priority - road cycling, marathon running, personal training 'bootcamps'.

Maybe you'll still need to rejoin AA, but you should definitely start out by finding new friends.
posted by embrangled at 4:39 PM on January 17, 2010

You're not smarter than the accumulated knowledge of thousands of recovering alcoholics. Listen to a lot of AA tapes from iTunes and you'll be convinced, I bet.
posted by bleeb at 11:25 PM on January 17, 2010

It is a rather "unpopular" stance, but I believe, (as you do), that AA does more harm than good. I believe (as you do) that it is absolutely ridiculous to count chips, white knuckle, "need" a sponsor (seemingly forever)...You are a perfect candidate for Rational Recovery. Rational Recovery proffers the idea that AA is cult-like in it's zeal for following their rules. If you are a logical type (and an atheist, to boot)..I strongly suggest you look into Rational Recovery. It is a simple book..(you don't need to sign up for instruction--just read the book).

I read it twice and I have not had alcohol in the ensuing years...I don't even remember how long it has been, but I think it is around 8 years. It was easy and my life is a thousand percent better than when I drank to excess. (understatement). Another similar version of Rational Recovery is Smart Recovery--both educate people about why the "disease model" doesn't wash.. and how to stop drinking without a bunch of rigamarole. An exceptional book is "Addiction is a choice". (Although the Rational Recovery book is a better guide for describing what you need to do). Google authors Jack Trimpey and Jeffrey A. Schaler for more information and to get you looking at alternatives to AA.

Bottom do NOT need other people who are constantly thinking and talking about drinking in your life in order to stop drinking. Au need no one but yourself.
posted by naplesyellow at 11:39 PM on January 17, 2010

Be careful naplesyellow. If what you said worked for you that's great. But you are bordering on dangerous territory when you tell someone else what they "do NOT need". Especially someone you've only know as a couple paragraphs. I'm all for the OP trying out whatever is comfortable for them and going with whatever helps. If Rational Recovery or similar works for them then great. But when you make declarative statements about someone else's mental state and emotional needs you are making statements that you can't support. If you needed no one but yourself good for you. That wasn't what I needed. I wouldn't presume to tell you that you were wrong about your own needs. Why are you presuming to inform me that I didn't need what I needed.

This was exactly the point I was making in my first response. I am in no way qualified to tell the OP what they need to quit drinking. Nor are you. You are qualified to say what was helpful for you and why. You should by all means do so. Just be cautious about blanket statements about how other peoples' minds work (or don't work).
posted by Babblesort at 7:54 AM on January 18, 2010 [5 favorites]

An alternative to AA (and Rational Recovery) for some folks is pharmacological extinction of drinking behavior - the Sinclair Method. I know of a number of people who have had success using the Sinclair Method. The method does not require counseling - although there does appear to be an informal group online with people providing useful reality checks, 'real life' experiences, and a bit of mutual support.
posted by cairnish at 10:47 AM on January 19, 2010

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