Alcoholics Anonymous do extraordinary, brave work for people who are in need. But my journey to sobriety shows their technique isn't for everyone

Our writer, who has been dry for three years now, on the fabled Twelve Steps

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January is, for moderate and ‘normal’ drinkers, traditionally a month of abstinence to detox after a fuel-filled Christmas and New Year, and this year brings with it the first ever ‘Dryathlon’ January, when people are giving up booze for charity. Leaving aside the issue of why it took a cancer charity to raise this issue rather than a responsible drinking advocate, it highlights a big problem in our social dependence on, and subsequent relationship with, alcohol.

Before I continue, I want to be clear that I’m not a mercenary anti-drinking maniac – everyone is entitled to do whatever they like, and if that includes drinking, so be it. I can’t drink, but that doesn’t mean I think everyone else should stop too.

My third anniversary of getting sober came and passed at the beginning of last month. I won’t lie (it’s an incredibly reflective period for me): the time around my anniversary brings with it, as milestones are want to do, mixed emotions with, thankfully, the over-riding one being happiness and relief.  But my sobriety meant I lost a large part of my old life, and I have a big issue with the regret at wasting so much of my short time on this planet behaving like I did and doing so much damage – until I realised I was ill and needed help to get well.

Get sober, get well, get safe

This year, I’ve had more on my mind though, especially that around the role Alcoholics Anonymous plays in addiction recovery, and especially that for alcoholism. The problem is, the more I ponder it, the more negative my feelings toward it becomes.

My aim, when finally getting treatment in a rehab centre, was very simple: get sober, get well, and get safe. Central to this was getting an understanding of the illness and learning long term strategies for maintaining sobriety once achieved. To this extent, I’ve done what I needed to do – and my life is infinitely better, more contented and more bearable than it was when in the throes of addiction. For this I am truly grateful and thankful on a daily basis – as are the others I was with ‘inside’ and who remain sober too.

Ironically, some of the only critics I have had in addiction circles have been those in Alcoholics Anonymous, who disapprove of me not having undertaken the Twelve Steps in full, and my having simply stood – very happily – at the first step: admitting you have a problem and are powerless over alcohol. This is a central tenet to accepting that I cannot drink, and so do not.

Now, before I go on, this does not intend to slight anyone for whom AA is key to their own successful sobriety – anyone who has beaten addiction, or at least got to a stage where they are in control, deserves the utmost respect.

However, the remainder of the Twelve Steps builds on this tenet of being powerless, and indeed proceeds to a complete personal breakdown and restructuring – something that I don’t want to do. I’ve achieved my goals, and I’m at a far happier place in my life – why should I feel compelled to perform a total deconstruction of myself?

This deconstruction is centred around forgiveness and a cleansing – as if addiction is a punishment and the only way to overcome it is to be truly, humbly sorry. It’s not a punishment, it’s a disease. I’ve apologised to the people I hurt, and God knows I still get flashbacks of the stupid, irresponsible, unpleasant, selfish things I did drunk and to get another drink; but I don’t need a total character assassination and breakdown to overcome it.

When I’ve said before, to AA groups, that I have no desire to take the full Twelve Step program, it’s been met with a mixture of disdain, disgust, horror, incredulity, and outright scorn – “how could I be so stupid?”, “don’t you realise you’ll simply relapse?”, “there is no other way to maintain sobriety!”.

AA has helped, and continues to help, millions worldwide, and I in no way want to suggest it does not do any good in the recovery from addiction. However, its dogma that it is the only way to remain sober is, in my view, something which may cause some people to relapse. The fear it strikes into recovering addicts if they fail to adopt its processes and adhere to them is counter-intuitive to success.

Paul Carr, author of “Sober is my new drunk”, wrote a superb piece in the Wall Street Journal on his own methods for staying dry and healthy, and came in for genuinely shocking abuse from those in AA, including accusations he was a dry drunk, a liar, a charlatan and doomed to relapse unless he atoned for his mistakes – as if he wasn’t ill but being punished. Even doctors piled in. Like me, he wasn’t saying that AA was wrong, but that it wasn’t right for him.

To me, this AA reaction is extremist sobriety, yet is accepted as the norm by the groups. It’s simply not done to get sober and be happy with it – AA dictates (in its truest form) that you perform a set of strict rites, with no room for interpretation or individualism.

Who's the big guy now?

Throughout these rites is the mantra that the addiction is bigger than you are, more cunning (this word crops up frequently) and more powerful than you will ever be. Indeed, this is the driver behind the ‘Higher Power’ in AA, the God (of your own understanding) who will help and guide you through difficult times. Without going off on a religious route, this is an understandable and reassuring element of the course, and indeed, many people have their comforting Higher Power each and every day. It helps.

However, constantly referencing the addictions’s sheer scale and force seems to me to be counter-intuitive. Building something up to a state of near infinite power is no way to tackle it – it breeds fear, anxiety and doubt. Yes, it’s demonic, but it’s not The Devil. There seems to me a fundamental flaw in building up an illness to become an insurmountable object that just needs keeping at bay, rather than positioning it as an illness which can be managed (if not cured – there’s no such thing) in the same way as someone manages their diabetes.

Generals have never waded into battle sobbing at the size of the armies facing them, talking in near heroic overtones about how amazing their opponents’ weaponry is; how cunning their Commanders are; and how overwhelming their ability to fight might be. Why perform the same ritual with addiction?

I’ve been to several AA groups, and yes, they help tether me, they help remind me that I can’t become complacent – but most importantly they remind me I’m not alone and there are others who are in control of the same illness and enjoying their lives. This is a comfort and helps remind me how to stay sober, and why. However, there have been many groups which have almost become forlorn mourning sessions for alcohol and alcoholics’ now distant addiction fuelled lives.

I won’t lie, there were fun times with booze – but there were some truly horrible, arduous, near-suicidal times and the loss of the former at the removal of the latter is a great trade off. If I dwelt on the good times, I’d constantly want to return – yet this seems to be the theme for some AA groups and those attending them.

It’s like a wake for a dear departed spouse – albeit a wake that aligns with the maxim that alcohol is an alcoholic’s best friend, but also their worst enemy. But surely acknowledgement of this relationship – and, most importantly, its ending – is all that is needed, rather than constant sorrow at its loss. Understand, and move on – don’t dwell.

AA tells you it is the only way to stay sober, fall from the path and you will relapse, and it is this, coupled with the focus on aggrandising the addiction beyond all proportion into an unbeatable foe, a demon you cannot defeat, only keep a constant watch on, that grates.

I want to feel positive (and I do), and be pleased I’ve conquered my addiction – my family and friends are, certainly. However, each time I try another AA group, I’m berated for not undertaking the Twelve Steps, and made to feel maudlin about the loss of alcohol from my life. I’m told that I cannot defeat alcoholism unless I return to the AA fold, and without it I’m nothing but a ‘dry drunk’.

What kind of support is that?

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