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Is Alcoholics Anonymous Negativity-Based?

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You are only as sick as your secrets.
Sit down, shut up, and listen.
I have to change only one thing -- EVERYTHING.
My name is (insert name here), and I'm an... alcoholic.


This is a minuscule sample of the popular sayings you'll hear at an Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meeting. Negativity, blame, and confessions disguised as recovery inventory and amends are the common thread.

I am an addiction counselor trained at Hazelden Graduate School for Addiction Studies. I read Russell Bishop's article, "Soul-Talk: You Don't Have to Be an Addict to Recover," and I am moved to comment.

If you go to an AA meeting they will tell you the only requirement is a desire to stop drinking. They will then require you to announce and declare to the room and God that you are an alcoholic. You are an alcoholic who will never recover. You must never pick up a drink again. They proceed to put you in a no-win position of pronouncing that you are an alcoholic at the beginning of every meeting, and every time you speak at all for that matter. Even if you are announcing that the cookies are running low and you need more money for the bad coffee everyone is swilling, you must announce that you are an alcoholic. A paragraph from Chapter 5 of the AA book is read aloud.

This is what most of my clients hear: Follow us or you will fail. If you do not recover, you are a dishonest and unfortunate idiot, and you were born a dishonest and unfortunate idiot. You will die painfully, full of shame for your innate inability to be honest with yourself. Even worse, if you are mentally and emotionally ill (which is highly probable), you will only recover if you follow our path completely and do not rock the boat.

Mr. Bishop declares that he is not an expert in addiction in a clinical sense. I am an expert, and these are some of my educated and experienced thoughts.

One of the more positive mantras of AA is "Live and Let Live." It does not diminish that AA worked for one if it did not work for another. If it worked for you, cheers! If it did not work for another, does that have any relevance on your success? Why the need to force your way onto another? Most of us know the famous quote from Shakespeare's Hamlet, "The lady doth protest too much, methinks." Methinks the devotees of AA doth protest too much. Perhaps Mr. Bishop has answered his own question as to the most sensitive of us being more prone to addictive behavior. ("Live and Let Live," remember?)

But Alcoholics Anonymous also pushes members into believing that any deviance from the program is a slippery slope, and a relapse is a slow death. Negative? You betcha. Many of those who end up in an AA meeting recover on their own; many are even able to practice drinking in moderation. But AA meetings would never hear from these people since members are not allowed to talk about successful moderation.

A vitally-important concept is the idea of living your life as a label that you and others place upon you. You shackle yourself to a negative label and you can only live as that person, job, or behavior. Who you are is very different from how you behave at any given moment or what job title you currently hold. Just because you are unemployed right now certainly does not mean you are forever unemployed -- at least let's hope not. If you tell a lie or keep a secret, does this mean you are forever labeled sick or a liar? If labels stuck with us, we would all be doomed for there is not one among us who has not left an office with a pen. One of the most common phrases in AA is "Keep Coming Back." This phrase can produce shame, inferring that they are somehow responsible for the program not working. Those struggling with addictive behaviors are consumed with guilt and shame already.

The steps tell members they are powerless, their life is unmanageable. They must then take a moral inventory, confess to a stranger not qualified to keep confidences, turn their will over to a God of their understanding and ask this God to remove defects of character. They then make a list of all the horrible things they have done to others, make direct amends to said people, continue to admit whenever they were angry, jealous, hurt, or full of self pity, and to sponsor a new member of the program after having a spiritual awakening.

Entrusting a complete stranger who has no training or competency in mandated confidentiality is ill-advised, and yet it is encouraged and practiced every day in AA. That is, if the person gets to the fifth step at all. The majority of people with whom I work do not make it past step three, and they are vilified in AA for not completing all 12 steps. Why stop at step three? The rest of the steps are about personal morality, confession, removal of character defects, discovering personality shortcomings, making amends, and continually turning your will and life over to the care of a higher power. The steps are negative affirmations that keep the alcoholic always in a state of blame and dependent on a higher power, the group and AA meetings.

I look forward to any comments on this and will respond with respect and dignity.

Laura Tompkins is a certified addiction specialist with a private practice in Pacific Palisades, Calif. She is also a writer, director and actor, and chef. You can comment here or to learn more about my work write to ldyluk47@yahoo.com.

For more on addiction and recovery, click here.

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