Alcoholics Anonymous: Wildly Successful?

alcoholics anonymous

What is success, and who deserves the credit?

Most times when I discuss my alcoholism recovery with folks, they ask me about Alcoholics Anonymous.  They want to know if I went through, did it work, what did I like about it, etc.?

Some people think AA is synonymous with recovery the way google is now synonymous with searching the Internet.  Some think it’s an annoying religious brainwashing cell; some think it’s too simple and simplistic; some think the sponsor component is the best part of the deal. Some think that it just doesn’t put up the numbers for it to be considered a smashing success.

I’ll start with my own story, which is something all of us have and something that shows us some things we just couldn’t learn any other way.  From there, I’ll do some data crunching for you quantifying types.  The first question one might pose would be how did I choose AA to begin with?  Why not just go it alone?  Why not go through an individual who specializes in withdrawal and recovery?  All good questions.  I’d been going it alone for about five months before going into AA, and this includes a few months that were marked by going back and forth, stopping and starting, failing.

I’d heard a few good stories about AA, but was skeptical.  When I got into the program, I found the thing that I was looking for.  I wanted to be part of a community, at least in one way or another.  I didn’t want to just white-knuckle it in my apartment, staring at the absence of liquor bottles, just me and my will power alone, not really liking each other very much but trying to get along.

I enjoyed hearing the stories of others—you know, the whole My Name Is and I’m an alcoholic thing.  It’s one of the facets of AA that causes it some ridicule.  There are a lot of little –isms about AA that cause it to seem cheesy or somehow less than admirable.  But however people introduce themselves,  their stories were beneficial to me.  When you’re around so many words, it’s inevitable that you’ll find some phrases that will resonate.  I found a few different words, phrases, and ideas bouncing around in my head that helped me.  There were so many things I could take from the folk wisdoms of the people and their various personalities for me to take.

As for the program itself, was it sure-fire?  Was all the information perfect?  Well, I don’t think it needs to be that way.  I think it’s a matter of taking what you want and leaving the rest.  It’s twelve steps, not the ten commandments.  I didn’t agree with everything, and I’m not religious, so the God references weren’t up my alley.

What I liked the most were the things about asking forgiveness for our wrongs and for taking inventory or our flaws and taking responsibility for them.  I dived into that whole-heartedly, making lists, checking them twice, contacting a lot of people and righting wrongs, repairing relationships.  I spent time inventorying flaws and coming up with methods for addressing them.  These are detailed throughout the blog.

Universal Results: The Numbers

A study by Stanford U. and the Department of Veterans Affairs (2006) showed a 33% higher success rate for participants of AA than non-participants.  This was very similar to AA’s own internal study of 2007, which showed that fully 33% of its participants were sober more than a decade after finishing.  The only problem is, that there are all kinds of studies, and they conflict with one another.

This Spring, Dr. Lance Dodes and Zachary Dodes published the book The Sober Truth: Debunking the Bad Science Behind 12-Step Programs and the Rehab Industry that looked at AA.  The Dodes argue that these numbers are skewed because they measure just the people who finished the program, not counting those who started  A big issue is a large number of unfortunates who try the program and don’t like it.  If you count the percentage of people who start AA, the Dodes argue, only between 5 and 10% meet success.

A lot of people perceive that AA is not tremendously successful, and what that what makes matters worse is that it’s synonymous with recovery—in other words, hype without enough substance, the beneficiary of a reputation that it does not deserve.

A article quotes the book on that reputation:

Folklore and anecdotes are elevated to equal standing with data and evidence.  Everyone’s an expert, because everyone knows somebody who has been through it. And nothing in this world travels faster than a pity turn of phrase.

The article goes on to pursue the other side of Dodes’ criticism, suggesting that people seek out communities like AA as a sort of backlash against the demonization of addicts in our culture.


In March, printed an excerpt from the book which contains the sentence “For now, I will simply state that there are indeed better treatments for addiction…”  I’d imagine the Dodes mention these treatments somewhere, but not in the part of the book that was excerpted.  They do say that many knockoffs of AA are actually much worse.

One criticism included is that AA tends to blame the person who fails for his or her failure, not the program itself.  It’s kind of an ugly approach, the mark of a program that is a bit touchy-feely.  You don’t want to let yourself get sucked in, and my approach all along was to stay in the program as long as it took to feel I had the material to move out on my own, so that my recovery wasn’t unguided and based on whatever I could dream up.

Defining Success

Some things to consider when evaluating studies and any other information you may glean is what constitutes success.  It could be that relapses are counted as failure, or going into moderate drinking.  Perhaps use of a drug, as opposed to alcohol, is what populates some of the statistics.

However, I will say that those who are able to stay sober after leaving AA deserve just about all of the credit for it.  In my experience, I worked very hard to stay sober.  I used some of what I learned in AA, yet feel it was mostly my doing.

Therefore, I wonder how responsible AA is for what happens to the recoverer six months, eighteen months after she or he leaves.  While blaming someone who backslides might sound a bit callous, it remains slightly justified, since it’s absolutely up to the individual to make it work.

I think that some of the backlash against AA comes from the people who tout it heavily and become a bit preachy.  People who do this may be reacting to some of the religious aspects of the program, and may be ultimately undermining it.  I’m not here to completely advocate AA or any program.  If you don’t like it, you may leave it, using some of the twelve steps on your own, communicating with your sponsor, etc.

You may ignore some of what you’ve learned and do roughly the opposite.  Or you may stick with it quite thoroughly.  As for me,  I feel that it gave some good community and some good structure.

How many people who go it alone succeed?

Photo Credit Thomas Hawck and Kay Vee on Flickr