Hi, my name is Clarkson FlatBed, and I'm an alcoholic.
12-step programs by design don't "fight back" against inaccurate attacks. It's written into the AA code of "attraction, not promotion," and never engaging in controversy. That's part of the official "traditions" that are roughly adhered to by the few million people who avail themselves of AA meetings, literature, online groups, Narcotics Anonymous, Marijuana Anonymous, Al Anon, the Debtors, Sugar, Gambling and Sex programs and many others. There are no membership dues. Anyone can go to a meeting anytime they like, and can call themselves a member whenever they like, go or not go, get seriously into it or hang on the edges. No one is forced to do anything, or believe anything, though most meetings and sober AAs express some form of spirituality as part of their journey back to physical and mental health. At some meetings there are as many belief systems represented as there are people. I love meetings; I'd go to more if I could. I really can't imagine having gone so long without a drink without the help of literally hundreds of people, people from all walks of life - races, creeds, orientations and economic circumstance. It's been not just a tool for sobriety; it's been a remarkable eye-opening life affirming experience. And no, I don't believe in god, but I do believe in the power of community and service.
Clearly, people are getting something out of it. If you are truly an alcoholic, and I'll discuss that word "truly" in a minute, and you stop drinking, life will undoubtedly get better, or at the very least "easier." That's because no one goes to AA when life is bliss. It's generally the last house on the block. Most AAs tried myriad ways to get sober, from shrinks to drugs to yoga to switching jobs or locales, or switched from wine to beer or whiskey to vodka, tried counting drinks, tried hanging out with different people, tried drinking only on weekends, meditation, moderation, medicines, drying out, the list goes on. Granted some people get mandated to AA, but that rarely works. It's the seriously desperate alcoholic that's AAs best customer. And there are many satisfied customers indeed, who haven't paid a dime beyond the cost of a bad cup of coffee and an oreo cookie or hundred.
Why dump on AA then? Gabrielle Glaser likes to, and she makes tons of good points, though none of them seem to understand AA in the least. I just heard her on this week's On the Media podcast. Her "Irrationality of Alcoholics Anonymous" is one of the most read articles in the history of that magazine. Hmmm. I wonder why? Could it be that people desperate to mitigate the negative effects of drinking are looking for anything, ANYthing other than sitting in a church basement with a bunch of (god forbid) OTHER people one or more times a week? I sit in a circle and gab with strangers and friends a couple times a week, listening to the most outrageous and heartbreaking stories of depravity, abuse and redemption - better than any you'd read in books (actually a lot of them ARE in books - recovery lit is quite the popular genre). People cry, they laugh (a lot) and after a meeting I tend to feel lighter, more ready to face a world that seems cold, closed and spiteful.
If you struggle with addiction, by all means, avail yourself to the medical and scientific treatments available. If they don't work, there's still a way out, and that's the promise of AA, not some sort of guarantee or probability of outcome. Words like willingness and honesty and hope and identification don't grace the bottle of any prescription medication I know of. But AA also doesn't forbid the use of science and medicing as part of recovery. Where does this nonsense come from? Often from alcoholics themselves who have good reason not to want to get sober, or for whom the deadly malady hasn't fully overtaken them.
Alcoholism is a lonely disease. Not all full-blown alcoholics are physically isolated. But the booze, and one's unnatural relationship to it, can make one feel utterly alone, even among others, others who may in fact love the drunk dearly. Such isolation is deadly for the problem drinker, since it feeds the narrative of worthlessness and shame that leads to ever-more drinking, even suicide. I'm not making this shit up, by the way. I've been to a few thousand meetings myself, and to a number, ex-drunkards speak to this isolation as the most debilitating and deadly aspect of the disease . The booze or drugs, which are often personified as friend or foe by the addict, WANTS you alone. And no worry if you don't want to call it disease if that terms bugs you. I use the term broadly - it's a condition if you will, or a physical and mental problem if you must. It's a killer, that's for sure, and maybe (probably) you know someone who succumbed to this "not-a-disease," if not via alcohol then through opiates or some other addiction, or suicide resulting from the hopelessness of the depression and isolation the sickness causes. The current opioid crisis kills far fewer than alcohol, by the way, though it's a better media story I guess, and certainly has grown too fast to ignore. To me it's all the same - seeking relief, one becomes dependent. Same for binge eating, gambling, unhealthy sex, overwork, under-employment, over-spending, even smoking, porn and gaming.
What Glaser gets so wrong by pointing to the myriad other ways to get sober or manage one's drinking is that drunks KNOW ABOUT THIS STUFF ALREADY. What self-diagnosed problem drinker hasn't tried one or dozens of the other available treatments? I would agree with her that State sponsored treatment facilities should not rely on AA, nor should judges and jailors. I recently went to Rikers Island to bring a meeting, and of the three dozen inmates in one ward who were there for drug and booze-related offences, only three showed up for our informal twelve-step meeting. And I can guarantee you, there weren't a lot of other options for entertainment that hour! Even just for shits and giggles you'd think a few more would join the circle, but hey, they're mostly young, and haven't been beaten down enough yet. AA is definitely for those who've reached the very end of their rope.
So three final points. One, Glaser and others say that abstinence is not the only result worth shooting for, and abstinence lays out unrealistic expectations of the drunk. Yes!! Couldn't agree more. In fact, AA agrees too. And yet (here's the kicker) the true drunk doesn't WANT a two beer buzz! That's not the point, neither is the taste. It's the effect we're after, so moderation is like Drinker Blue Balls (sorry for the vulgar analogy). It's actually easier not to drink at all than to become one of the "glass of wine at dinner" folks, the ones who often least understand why the drunk keeps refilling that glass beyond the point of reason.
Two, Glaser cherry-picked her problems with the not-perfect AA literature. She looks for the mistakes and contradictions. But what about the part in the book that practically BEGS the unconvinced alcoholic to try some controlled drinking, or drink like a gentlemen, and if you succeed AA says "our hats are off to you!" Such a person who can still learn to moderate is not the hopeless alcoholic then, or hasn't become one yet. Even though the Big Book of AA was written 80 years ago, today's alcoholic or drug addict is suredly aware of other options for treatment. In fact, the way I learn about them is from AA meetings! No better place to hear the honest stories of people struggling. AA has never been the treatment of choice for the not-yet alcoholic. If we could drink normally, we would! In fact, if I could drink normally, I'd drink normally every hour of the day 24-7!!
I guess Glaser is on a crusade, and I admire that. She wants more people to find a solution not fewer, and AA wants the same thing. She's trying to provoke AA to respond here, which of course, it won't do, as a matter of rule and tactic. Why fight with the haters when even AA itself doesn't run "studies" or compile useful statistics? For good reason, AA will remain (mostly) under the radar thank you very much. Except for the occasional pseudonymous blogger who's hoping he's not running too far afoul of the tradition of anonymity. Clarkson. That's my name. Clarkson.
But the big, big problem with the Glaser perspective is that it misses the single most important aspect of 12-step groups, more important than talk of higher powers and one-day-at-a-time, the twelve helpful steps, and all that jazz.
Community. Friendship with others who live and work nearby and help with problems small and big. Pulling for one another. Stories and listening. Camaraderie. Traveling to far off lands and meeting fellow "travellers" on the sober train. In short, it's the very opposite of isolation, which as I said is the major defining fact of the alcoholic's existence, beyond the drunkenness and hangovers of course. Are we really so scientific-minded that we can't acknowledge one of humans' most basic forms of therapy - companionship and encouragement?
So. If you've tried every one of those other methods that Glaser suggests are better than 12-step recovery (she claims that 37 forms of treatment work better!) then I will tell you what Craig Ferguson once said in this most astounding of monologues. Go to a meeting. See if it's for you. If you're feeling desperate, stick around for a bit. Then decide to move on to other 37 MORE effective treatments, many of which you will likely have tried already. And then come back if they don't work. All misery gladly refunded if you leave.
FYI, there's a great meeting right here in the neighborhood on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 7pm at the Jan Hus Church on Ocean btw Parkside and Lincoln right near that traffic light. Which is a great metaphor for green - keep drinking; yellow - moderate your drinking or; red - stop drinking. For the true drunk, red is often WAY easier than yellow. Only you can judge for yourself. Good luck, friend. Or feel free to forward this post to a friend in need of the one thing hardest to come by in the depths of addiction. Hope.
The Q at Parkside
News and Nonsense from the Brooklyn neighborhood of Lefferts and environs, or more specifically a neighborhood once known as Melrose Park. Sometimes called Lefferts Gardens. Or Prospect-Lefferts Gardens. Or PLG. Or North Flatbush. Or Caledonia (west of Ocean). Or West Pigtown. Across From Park Slope. Under Crown Heights. Near Drummer's Grove. The Side of the Park With the McDonalds. Jackie Robinson Town. Home of Lefferts Manor. West Wingate. Near Kings County Hospital. Or if you're coming from the airport in taxi, maybe just Flatbush is best.