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Why You Don’t Really Hate AA

I’ve seen too many people attack the program that saved my life—often in comments fields on The Fix. But their problem isn’t AA itself; it’s some of AA's members.

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By Anna David

02/28/13

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I got sober because of Alcoholics Anonymous. I believe with every pore in my body that had it not been for the program, I wouldn’t have been able to put down drugs and alcohol over 12 years ago and wouldn’t be able to live the life I do today.

For a long time, out of what I then considered respect for the 11th tradition, I didn’t publicly identify as a member. In my first novel, Party Girl (which was so autobiographical, I didn’t even bother to act coy about it), I actually switched various AA-related words to protect the program: I used “guidelines” for “steps,” and “apologies” for “amends.” And when I went on TV to promote that book or to talk about the addictions of various celebrities, I always explained ahead of time that if the story they wanted to focus on involved AA, I couldn’t go on, because AA was an anonymous program.

I said the same thing in late 2010, when I was hired by The Fix.

And then, slowly, my perspective changed. As my years of sobriety—and talking and writing about addiction—continued, I began to realize that my desire to not mention AA had less to do with respecting the 11th tradition than with protecting AA from any more of the judgment was being heaped upon it.

From what I hear—mostly from anonymous commenters on The Fix—AA is a harsh, religious, recriminating cult.

Before I came to AA, I considered it a cult for Jesus-worshipping freaks, who had nothing better to do with their time and needed something—anything—to cling to. Whatever I heard about the program (they hold hands! They pray! In unison!) I used to fuel that preconception. And that preconception kept me buying books about how AA didn’t work, while I slowly annihilated myself with years of drinking and cocaine.

There seem to be as many ways to interpret the 11th tradition as there are people in AA. Some swear that it means we should never give our last names when we talk about being sober; others say it means we’re allowed to say we’re in AA, so long as we’re not doing it in the press, or on the radio or in films. Still others preach that it means not outing someone else as a member. And there are those who insist that it means never telling anyone anywhere that we’re sober. AA-history obsessives will often tell us how necessary the 11th tradition was, back when alcoholism and addiction were considered horribly shameful; some insist that we still need to honor this tradition, while others say we should scream about our disease from the rooftops, to eradicate any left-over shame.

My own feeling is this: AA’s founders couldn’t have predicted the Internet or the world we live in now, where everything is everyone’s business. Bill and Bob didn’t know that one day anonymous online commenters would attack their program. When the traditions were written, AA was small, young and fragile. Today, it isn't. And while many have tried to ignore, defame and destroy it since then, the fact is, they haven’t had much success.

But still, because AA doesn’t have a spokesperson, it can't fight back or respond to the criticisms that are constantly hurled at it. So at a certain point, it seemed like it was okay—in fact, better than okay—to start being open about the program on this site, and allowing those who felt their lives improved by it to share that.

In short, I didn’t want to give people out there who were like me—that is, judgmental and alcoholic—any more reason to judge AA than they already had. Maybe, I thought, if we publicly shared how the program had saved us, we’d help open people’s minds. Whether that mission has been successful, I have absolutely no idea.

Trust me—my positive reaction to AA shocked the hell out of me at first. I honestly couldn’t believe that I didn’t encounter a bunch of glassy-eyed cultists, or tie-dyed followers of some New Age guru forcing newcomers to hand out flowers at the airport.

Well, let me clarify. I did encounter some people who lived up to my preconceptions—or were even worse—but they were not the majority. No, the overwhelming majority were the sort of people I’d been seeking my whole life: funny people, smart people, self-aware people—people who suffered from the same problems I did, but who knew how to talk about and deal with them in ways I hadn’t yet learned.

The last person I ever thought I’d be was Susie AA—the girl sitting in the front row of the meeting, or at a coffee shop highlighting her favorite passages in the Big Book. But that’s who I became. Turns out, I’d always been waiting for someone to give me rules for living beyond those my family had presented—which were mainly about going to an Ivy League school, making six figures at your first job and suing people before they sued you. Though I didn’t know it consciously at the time, I’d been seeking out information about how it was my self-obsession—well, self-obsession plus stimulants and depressants—that was making me so miserable.

I'm well aware that this is apparently not most people’s experience when they come to AA. From what I hear—mostly from anonymous commenters on The Fix—AA is not the welcoming, loving, non-judgmental solution to a miserable life that I discovered. Instead, it’s a harsh, religious, recriminating cult, filled with controlling assholes who are determined to believe that their way is the only way.

In some ways, I understand. After all, I have met, in AA, horrible, judgmental people, who are determined to believe that their way is the only way. And I’ve met, as you’d expect, people who are mentally ill.

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