12 Step Program of AA
Thoughtful Critique & Analysis
Excerpted in part from Get Sober Stay Sober
Most people are unaware that the 12 step program of AA that has become the treatment model for all addictions has its roots in an evangelical cult called The Oxford Group. In spite of the fact that we have overwhelming scientific evidence that tells us that addiction has its roots in the neurotransmitters of the brain, we attempt to treat alcoholism and other addictions with a religious, cult-like, shame based support group, instead of an effective treatment approach for a serious medical condition.
Additionally, most people are not aware that Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous and the 12 step program, was still actively addicted to nicotine, caffeine and sex and engaged in destructive addictive behavior his entire life. He had not discovered a cure for alcoholism or addiction, he had only switched his addiction from alcoholism to sex, nicotine, caffeine, women and fanatic religious practices. He also fought intense cravings to drink right up to his deathbed.
Bill Wilson was a sex addict who used his position of power in Alcoholics Anonymous to take advantage of and use vulnerable women in the AA community. His sexual behavior was the cause of great controversy throughout Alcoholics Anonymous, but was kept secret so that it wouldn't have a negative effect on the movement. It created a lot of conflict between him and other members as well as himself. The Big Book and the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions are filled with references to the struggles he went though with his sexual obsession. Bill's insights were not divinely guided by God, they were the result of his struggles with deep shame and powerlessness.
AA has contributed to saving the lives of many people, including myself, however, we need to be honest about what AA does and does not achieve. We need to recognize its limits and be realistic about its effectiveness. Although the 12 step program of AA may provide people with a variety of benefits like social networking with similar people, emotional support, others who understand your plight, validation, hope and awareness, it is not an effective or complete approach for dealing with the true physiological roots of alcoholism.
The 12 step program of AA is essentially a support group. However, unlike other support groups, it demands that you attend for the rest of your life and engage in a variety of religious practices to be an accepted member. Like other support groups, attendance in AA should be voluntary and used as a transitional phase for early stages of recovery, not something you're sentenced to for the rest of your life. AA should be like a parent -- teach and raise the child and then release them into the world.
When Bill Wilson was still drinking, he was repeatedly treated for alcoholism in a hospital called Town's Hospital by a Dr. Silkworth. Dr. Silkworth shared with Bill that he believed alcoholism was the result of an allergy to alcohol, not character defects or weak will. It was the allergy that resulted in uncontrollable cravings to drink and that to avoid the cravings you must never touch alcohol again. Bill W. felt that Dr. Silkworth was right and this is how the "alcoholism is a disease" concept came about. What we know today, is that Dr. Silkworth was headed in the right direction, allergy to alcohol is actually one of the crucial components involved in the addiction process.
Bill tried repeatedly to not touch the alcohol again, but was not able to succeed. His drinking progressed rapidly and grew so out of control and destructive that he was faced with the possibility of being committed to an insane asylum. Around this time Bill met another alcoholic who had obtained some sobriety by joining the Oxford Group, an evangelical Christian cult. He tried to convert Bill, but Bill was resistant. However, as Bill's drinking grew more out of control and he became increasingly distraught, hopeless and desperate he began to be swayed by the principles of the Oxford Group, which included admitting defeat, taking personal inventory of sins, confession, making restitution, helping others, prayer and passing the message on. (Don't these look strikingly similar to the 12 step program of AA?)
Once again Bill was hospitalized, enduring severe delirium tremors and being sedated with a cocktail that Dr. Silkworth used on alcoholics that contained a mixture of morphine, psychoactive drugs and a hallucinogen called belladonna. Shortly after his friend from the Oxford Group paid him a visit, Bill had what he described as an intense religious experience that convinced him God was now his higher power. The reality of the situation is that Bill was probably experiencing hallucinations, not having a divinely guided experience.
The Oxford Group's primary belief was that humans were completely powerless and that all our problem were the result of sin. The only way to solve any of our problems was to completely submit our will over to God. Members consisted of the educated and elite and held meetings in hotels around town or in the member's homes. It's message was spread by the elder members teaching the newer members. This was the philosophy that Bill now adopted as a way to stay sober.
He then convinced another alcoholic, Dr. Bob, who became the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, that this was the necessary path to remain sober. The two of them then proceeded to preach this message to other desperate and broken alcoholics. The very first meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous consisted of a group of alcoholics who were members of the Oxford Group that Bill had managed to convert.
After a while the Oxford Group didn't want the alcoholics in their meetings because they didn't fit in with the elite and educated crowd they were targeting, so Bill W. and Dr. Bob took their alcoholics and formed their own Oxford Group, which they called Alcoholics Anonymous. They took all the principles of the Oxford group and presented them as the 12 step program of AA. They replaced the word "sin" with character defects and shortcomings.
Most people are also not aware, that the 12 step program of AA is not very successful, as a matter of fact, the 12 Step program of AA is pretty much a failure. Statistics that are reliable and consistent are difficult to find, because they are heavily influenced by an unwillingness to share the truth about drinking behaviors and who conducts the research. However, the most reliable research reveals that the success rate ranges somewhere between .01 and 2.5 percent for long-term sobriety. Long-term sobriety is defined as more than five years. Other research teaches us that approximately.05 percent of all alcoholics quit drinking without any type of treatment, so this means that the 12 step program of AA is not even as successful as spontaneous remission.
Alcoholism is a physical disease. Even traditional treatment centers acknowledge this fact to some degree; however, they continue to treat it as if it were a spiritual or psychological disease. Why is that? We don't send people with cancer or heart disease to meetings and suggest they work on their character flaws as their primary method of treatment. We may suggest a person with cancer or other chronic health conditions attend a support group or get some psychological counseling to help them cope and provide emotional support throughout the treatment process, but that would be in addition to treatment, not in place of it. To use a support group or psychological counseling as the sole source of treatment for a physical disease is absurd.
We don't tell anyone with cancer, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, arthritis or cardiovascular disease to get right with God or blame their condition on the state of their morality or spirituality. When was the last time anyone with one of the aforementioned conditions or any other physical disease besides alcoholism or addiction was told they must give their will and life over to a higher power, make a list of their sins, confess them to a group member, make restitution and engage in community service if they want to heal their health issues? When was the last time any of them were told the treatment protocol did not work because they are incapable of being honest, just not sick enough or in denial?
When the 12 step program of AA does work, which is rare, it is largely because it always feels better to have others who are like you to support, accept and encourage you. This is true of any challenge or hurdle in life. We can overcome many things with love and support from others who understand us. However, like any physical disease, since the physiological aspect of addiction has never been addressed, relapse is almost certain.
Additionally, the 12 step program of AA sometimes works because it provides someone whose life has been shattered by alcoholism with structure and direction. It's similar to the placebo effect, in that it doesn't really matter what the program consists of, it could be 3 steps, 2 steps, or whatever, it's simply a matter of being given a clear-cut path to follow that instills a false sense of protection and certainty in an unsafe and uncertain world.
People who are in severe emotional distress, personal or physical crises, or an extreme state of desperation will radically change their belief systems and grasp at straws by adopting views they normally consider irrational or ridiculous and may experience a religious conversion. However, once the immediate crises pass and the desperation weakens, it's difficult to continue to justify their participation in the activity and they drift away. Which is why we see so many people come into the 12 step program of AA who initially look like they will make it, or "get the program," but then walk out the doors. Some people are able to be shamed and guilted into staying sober for a period of time, but since shame is also at the root of perpetuating addiction, this method does not work in the long run.
Powerlessness is Counterproductive
In the 12 step program of AA, you admit you're powerless, you give your power to God, list your sins, confess your sin, make restitution, engage in prayer, meditation and service to the program. We're very clearly talking about a religious conversion here -- not a treatment for addiction. The sole purpose of the 12 steps is to induce guilt and shame in attempt to change and control behavior; which is another contributing factor to why so many people can't succeed through 12 steps. Shame and guilt only produce low self-esteem and encourage self-destructive behavior like drinking and drugs rather than healthy, loving behavior towards self.
The whole powerlessness concept came from two places. It was a core concept of the Oxford Group that Bill had internalized and, therefore, it became one of his core feelings. There is no scientific evidence or even common sense that says admitting we're powerless is effective in healing any physical health disease.
Quite the contrary -- It is counterproductive. The powerlessness concept was what the Oxford Group (cult) used to control, manipulate and retain members by making them completely dependent upon the group and that's what it ended up doing in the 12 step program of AA as well.
Instilling a sense of powerlessness in an individual is destructive to self-esteem, teaches and perpetuates learned helplessness, perpetuates hopelessness, prevents one from taking personal responsibility and encourages a self-fulfilling prophecy that in the case of alcoholism or addiction often leads to binge drinking and justification for the binge. "If I'm powerless, I guess there's nothing I can do about it, so I might as well drink myself to death," is what the alcoholic mind concludes. Some studies indicate that the powerlessness concept actually increases binging behavior and relapse.
It is completely disempowering, which is insane, because what the alcoholic or addict needs more than anything is to feel empowered. They need to feel capable of changing their life. Not only that, it's a complete lie. When the alcoholic understands that the true root of alcoholism lies in biochemistry and there are ways to correct it, they are given all the tools needed to overcome their addiction and the shame so often associated with being an alcoholic. Being an alcoholic is no longer a moral issue, a character flaw, a spiritual illness, a defect in spirit or a personality disorder. It frees them.
Does an alcoholic have to admit they have a problem? Absolutely, but there is a very big difference between admitting you have a problem and submitting to complete powerlessness. It's impossible to overcome any problem if one does not admit it exists, so yes it is a crucial first step. However, powerlessness is not an essential component of that first step.
Another important point is that there is a very big difference between spirituality and religion and even though AA and 12 step treatment centers deny it vehemently, the 12 step program of AA is a religious program, not a spiritual one. Religion involves practices and beliefs that include a higher power or God, while spirituality is focused on finding purpose and meaning in your life, the relationship you have with yourself, those around you and the Universe. The 12 step program of AA is clearly categorized in the category of religion.
Cult-Like & Brainwashing Behaviors
Then there is the cult issue. "A cult typically refers to a cohesive social group devoted to beliefs or practices that the surrounding culture considers outside the mainstream, with a notably positive or negative popular perception." They engage in a variety of behaviors like mind control and intimidation, they thrive on creating a sense of powerlessness in the member, the operate as a closed system with, they are rigid, dogmatic and authoritarian, believe their way is the only way, require complete submission of the will to God, are built on a charismatic leader that is revered and worshipped and engage in elaborate religious rituals with a strong emphasis on prayer, to name a few. The 12 step program of AA fits this definition like a glove and engage in each and every one of these cult-like behaviors.
We also have the brainwashing aspect. Brainwashing (also known as thought reform or as re-education) consists of any effort aimed at instilling certain attitudes and beliefs in a person -- beliefs sometimes unwelcome or in conflict with the person's prior beliefs and knowledge, in order to affect that individual's value system and subsequent thought-patterns and behaviors.
This is a clear definition of exactly what goes on in AA and 12 step treatment programs. The whole success of the program hinges on whether the alcoholic will buy their beliefs and adopt them as their own value system and think and behave in a particular manner. Just like prisoners of war or others subjected to brainwashing, when the alcoholic is resistant, they are confronted with hostile, angry confrontations, threats of relapse, failure, accusations of being in denial, not ready, or incapable of honesty, rejection and even death.
Although traditional treatment and the 12 step program of AA employ cult-like behaviors and practice brainwashing, I don't believe they do so with evil or harmful intentions. I believe that at the heart of the 12 step program of AA is a sincere desire to help others. I believe they think they are doing something good, but then again, I'm sure that's what other brainwashers and cults think. Regardless, the fact remains that whether it is done with good intentions or not, brainwashing and cult like behavior is occurring and many people are, rightfully so, uncomfortable with these methods. The problem is that it is misguided and the end result is the same. Most alcoholics and addicts end up without getting the help they need because they have been driven away by these practices that feel frightening or uncomfortable and because they're simply ineffective for a powerful physiological disease like alcoholism and other addictions.
The other issue at hand in regard to the cult like and brainwashing behaviors and the religion issue is honesty. In a program that demands rigorous honesty, let's at least be honest about who and what we are and the methods we employ and not attack the people who are uncomfortable with the methods and call it like it is. The 12 step program of AA is a religious program that uses cult-like practices; let's just admit that.
It's quite interesting that in spite of the fact that the 12 step program of AA and 12 step treatment centers claim to be an open-minded and accepting group, everyone defends this program to the death with angry, defensive, sometimes hostile, vicious and vengeful attacks against people who dare say anything negative about the program, question any of its methods or beliefs or express any doubts or concerns whatsoever. If it's not angry attacks, it comes in the form of subtle, yet clear, rejection and disapproval. The message is very clear that if you do not believe 100 percent, you are not accepted. I have come face to face personally with this experience many times.
This illustrates one of the cult-like behaviors very clearly. Additionally, this behavior serves to protect their reality. They need to feel validated and certain that they are following the right path, so voices of the non-believers cannot be permitted because they threaten their sobriety.
Last but not least, every principle and technique used in the 12 step program of AA not only promotes but also ensures dependence upon the program. One addiction is replaced with another -- alcoholism for meetings. Instead of helping the individual develop skills that they can apply to their life outside the program to live a full and productive life, they are brainwashed with fear tactics into believing they must attend AA meetings for the rest of their life or they'll get drunk. They discourage independent thinking and, thus, the alcoholic becomes completely dependent upon the program and other members for not only their sobriety, but living in general. They look to to the 12 step program of AA for answers to managing all areas of their life.
Scientific research tells us that the drive to self-medicate with alcohol, drugs, sex, food, etc., emerges from nutritional deficiencies, genetics, undiagnosed medical conditions and biochemical imbalances; not character flaws, mental disorders, weak will, personality disorders or spiritual deficits. Alcoholism is a physical disease with roots that lie in an imbalance of neurotransmitters in the brain. When the alcoholic tries to stay sober without addressing the physiological roots, then relapse is almost guaranteed, as the underlying biochemistry issues will push the alcoholic to seek relief in a drink. If relapse does not occur, it is temporarily soothed by engaging in other addictive behaviors like sex, sugar, caffeine, cigarettes or even the 12 step program of AA itself.
The biggest crime in this scenario is that there are actual treatment methods that are based on sound scientific evidence that can help the body repair these physiological issues and ensure a much better chance of achieving long-term sobriety. These methods come to us from the exciting field of orthomolecular medicine and have a success rate of 74 - 80 percent, and yet are totally ignored and dismissed by AA and traditional treatment centers who continue to use an outdated and ineffective 12 step program. If you would like to learn the truth about alcoholism and achieve craving-free sobriety that lasts a life time without AA or the 12 step program of AA, then I recommend you take a look at Get Sober Stay Sober: The Truth About Alcoholism.
Alcoholics have been lied to and brainwashed. We are not powerless over alcohol or the addiction process. You do not have to be sentenced to a lifetime of meetings and the 12 step program of AA. You don't have to struggle with never-ending cravings for alcohol or drugs. When you learn the roots of alcoholism and are given the tools to address them effectively, cravings completely disappear and drinking becomes a non-issue in your life. I can say this because I learned this information first hand. I achieved 24 years of uninterrupted and craving-free sobriety without AA or the 12 step program of AA and you can too by addressing the issue of addictive biochemistry.
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