Destroying the AA myths
By Lilian MacDonald
You will no doubt have gathered by now that I disagree with much, if not all of the basic philosophy behind Alcoholics Anonymous, but I want to outline some of the reasons for this fundamental disagreement.
Before I do so, let me first say that I realise that AA provided a place of safety for many people who, if they had carried on in the same way, would have drunk themselves into prison, a psychiatric hospital, or even a premature grave, although there will be others like me who faced the same fate, as a result of finding the AA doctrine completely unacceptable.
Also, I have no quarrel with the founder members. Back in 1935, when the movement first started, there was no other help available, and they did the best they could.
When they published the first edition of Alcoholics Anonymous (the Big Book) in 1939, they admitted that they didn't know the answers:
"Perhaps there never will be a full answer to these questions. Opinions vary considerably as to why the alcoholic reacts differently from normal people. We are not sure why, once a certain point is reached, little can be done for him. We cannot answer the riddle.
"In all probability, we shall never be able to touch more than a fair fraction of the alcohol problem in all its ramifications. Upon therapy for the alcoholic himself, we surely have no monopoly."
One of the points of disagreement that I have with the movement today is that it has done just that - it has assumed a monopoly status in the treatment of alcoholism.
They assume that everything that they say is correct, and tolerate no discussion. And society in general, and the media in particular, have gone along with this so far, by affording them the right to be sole spokesman on the subject.
One of the unacceptable and unproven premises upon which the AA philosophy is based is that "alcoholics" are "mentally and bodily different" from other so-called normal people.
In the chapter of the Big Book entitled "The Doctor's Opinion", Dr William D Silkworth, a New York specialist in alcoholism, says:
"The body of the alcoholic is quite as abnormal as his mind."
I say that, both mentally and physically, alcoholics are essentially the same as everybody else - where they do differ is the way in which they react to and deal with their problems, (or don't deal with them!).
AA also maintains that alcoholism is a illness, and not just an ordinary illness, but one that is threefold: mental, physical and spiritual.
And in 1951, when the American Public Health Association presented its Lasker Group Award to AA, it praised the movement for recognising alcoholism as an illness, which meant that "the social stigma associated with the condition is being blotted out".
Having myself suffered from chronic so-called "alcoholism", and come out the other side, I can see clearly now that alcoholism is certainly not an illness in the sense that AA means it - but rather a symptom of underlying psychological damage.
This damage can be repaired through understanding, as I have demonstrated in my book.
But AA insists on treating the symptom rather than the cause, so it is hardly surprising that its members claim that there is no cure, and that they will be in recovery for the rest of their lives.
Dr Silkworth also goes on to say:
"...the action of alcohol on these chronic alcoholics is a manifestation of an allergy; that the phenomenon of craving is limited to this class, and never occurs in the average temperate drinker. These allergic types can never safely use alcohol in any form at all; and once having formed the habit and found they cannot break it, once having lost their self-confidence, their reliance upon things human, their problems pile up on them and become astonishingly difficult to solve."
How anybody, let alone a doctor, could come to the conclusion that alcoholism is an allergy I do not know, but even more amazing is the method the founder members (one of whom, Robert Holbrook Smith, was also a doctor) chose to treat it.
Bill Wilson, after speaking to an alcoholic friend who claimed to have been helped by a evangelical Christian movement called the Oxford Group, became convinced of the need for moral inventory, confession of personality defects, restitution to those harmed, helpfulness to others, and the necessity of belief in and dependence upon God.
The early members then proceeded to construct the 12-Step Programme of Recovery on this basis.
The eighth and ninth steps read as follows:
8. (We) made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
It is obviously true that many or most alcoholics will have physically or emotionally hurt at least one other person during the course of their out-of-control drinking. Making restitution might make you feel better, but to make this the basis of a "recovery programme" from an illness is surely to miss the point.
As I hope I have demonstrated in my book Phoenix in a Bottle, "alcoholism" is caused by other people - your family, those who brought you up, or were responsible for your childhood welfare - and their treatment of you.
Your treatment of other people, however regrettable, is a symptom of how much you have been hurt yourself.
The third point of fundamental disagreement that I have with AA centres on Step 3 of the Programme of Recovery:
"(We) made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him."
And in chapter 5 How It Works" of The Big Book, the reason for this is explained:
"Selfishness - self-centredness! That, we think, is the root of our troubles.. our troubles, we think, are basically of our own making. They arise out of ourselves, and the alcoholic is an extreme example of self-will run riot, though he usually doesn't think so. Above everything, we alcoholics must be rid of this selfishness. We must, or it kills us. God makes that possible. And there often seems no way of entirely getting rid of self without His aid."
Again, the exact opposite of what AA says is actually the truth.