Is AA Harmful?

Author: Tom Horvath, PhD, ABPP

Is AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) potentially harmful to 90% of over-drinkers?

The best way to determine whether AA might be helpful or harmful to you is to attend one or more meetings. Keep an open mind. You might be surprised by what you experience. Remember to try several meetings if you are uncertain, as meetings can vary considerably. If you find AA (or any other 12-step group, such as Narcotics Anonymous) helpful, then I encourage you to continue for as long as it is helpful, a lifetime if you want. If you find AA less than helpful, you already know there are alternatives.

That 90% estimate comes from a recent book by Lance Dodes, MD, The Sober Truth: Debunking the Bad Science Behind 12-Step Programs and the Rehab Industry.

How could AA be harmful? You might start to believe some of the misleading ideas that you typically hear there.

1) You might be told that AA is the “only way” to recovery. It’s not. Most people who overcome drinking problems don’t attend AA.

2) You might be told that moderation is impossible. Moderation is possible for many. You will need to try it to find out. You may need some intensive assistance to be successful at moderation, but many people succeed on their own.

3) You might be told you have a disease. Although this disease idea is helpful to some, for most it makes matters worse. They give up working on overcoming addiction just when they need to be working the hardest. “After all, I have a disease, right? Why really try?” If you do think of yourself as having a disease, then make sure to stay focused on what you need to do, and not let the “disease” became an easy explanation of why you are not succeeding.

4) You might be told that even if you have a year without drinking, and then you slip (drink), you are again at “Day 1 of abstinence.” You are considered to be just like the person who was drinking for the entire past year but is now also on Day 1. It is hard for me to believe that anyone outside of AA would believe the idea of not giving someone “credit” for a year of success. From a treatment perspective, that year of success is important for identifying what was working. The slip is important because you can learn what else you need to pay attention to (which might not come up that often). You don’t need to start over, but you do need to pick yourself up and keep moving.

5) You might be told that recovery is all about following AA’s spiritual path, and that it is not especially important to learn about yourself and your existing coping methods. However, in a self-empowering approach you can learn a great deal about yourself, improving your capacity to resist craving as well as your capacity to have better relationships and be more productive.

If you want a well reasoned and tightly documented summary of the above ideas and many more, check out The Sober Truth by Dr. Dodes. I suspect you will find it enlightening!

AA is a great resource if it works for you. If you don’t find AA helpful (and most people who drink too much won’t), then try other approaches!