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I woke up feeling zombie numb.
I had to use my last personal day to attend a needless and idiotic wake for my friend who really had no business being dead in the first place.
My friend (we’ll call him Morgan) was a sweet kid who had the misfortune of growing up in a world he could never really understand. His parents struggled with alcohol until he was in middle school, at which point they found Alcoholics Anonymous.
By the time they came to embrace the program, his formative years were long gone and try as they would to make honest amends with him, they found themselves tasked with the unenviable job of building a skyscraper on a bed of quicksand. The foundation was always going to be shaky at best.
It wasn’t too long after they received their “first year coins” that Morgan picked up where they left off. It began innocently enough. It always does. We were hiding in the woods, in the brisk autumn air, building pit fires and drinking beer, although I never really had a taste for it. I would hang out and nurse one or two, but having chronic stomach issues made beer a poor choice for me to escape with. He, on the other hand, made up for what I didn’t drink. Eventually, he began making up for what everyone didn’t drink.
As time went on, his parents noticed the telltale signs and wanted more than anything for him to join them at the Presbyterian church where the local AA meeting took place every day of the week. But let’s face facts: the last place a rebellious young person wants to be is with their parents. At a church. Attending an AA meeting. Is it worth even mentioning that TSF (12-step facilitation) did not relieve Morgan of his compulsion to drink too much?
I was engrossed in the TSF culture at the time and the issue with Morgan was driving me crazy, but after taking another look at his experience and tragic death, especially now that some time has passed, I’m beginning to ask myself some valid questions:
Would he still be alive if he had access to better options?
Why was he put in a position where his life hinged upon religious tenets whose roots predate the Victorian age?
I’m pretty sure the overriding attitude was that that was his only choice. And the only problem with that was…everything.
Remove all that you have been told about Alcoholics Anonymous from your mind and try to look at the situation rationally and scientifically. We have been led to believe that alcoholism is a disease. How would you react if you went to the doctor with early onset diabetes and in lieu of medication, she prescribed nightly meetings with other people suffering with the same illness and a set of 12 principles to follow—half of which require the sufferer to appeal to God for assistance? Does this not seem outlandish?
Truthfully, it struck the American Medical Association as such when the AA founders submitted their “Big Book” text for review. The exact words to describe the AMA’s reaction to Alcoholics Anonymous basic textbook can be found in the Journal of the American Medical Association:
“The book under review is a curious combination of organizing propaganda and religious exhortation. It is in no sense a scientific book, although it is introduced by a letter from a physician…who knows the anonymous writers who have been ‘cured’ of addiction and seek to do the same for others with ‘a kind of religious conversion.’”
I have not the time or space to explain what the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous had to do to gain not only the acceptance of the medical community, but the complete monopolization of the recovery world, but I can assure you, none of it was based on scientific efficacy. And as much as the members will almost violently swear up and down about how effective 12-step facilitation is and how many millions of lives have been saved by it, there is no scientific data to back that up. Conveniently, it is nearly impossible to prove anything within an anonymous society.
If you are interested in how Alcoholics Anonymous fought their way into prominence using marketing techniques, I suggest picking up the book: The Sober Truth: Debunking The Bad Science Behind 12-Step Programs and the Rehab Industry by Lance Dodes, MD, and Zachary Dodes.
And this leads us to what still makes me sad about Morgan’s death.
I was leaving my therapist’s office the other night in utter amazement. My therapist has the kind of rare talent that only comes from a combination of natural ability and years of experience. I have spent decades listening to so many off-the-cuff explanations by non-professionals about why I am who I am and what causes me to do the things I do or engage in the patterns I engage in, but she—because she is qualified to be a psychologist—has taken a much different approach.
She has not once thrown some slick Dr. Phil diagnosis at me after four sessions. She is currently in the process of collecting enough data to decide how best to proceed. I can not explain how it makes me feel to have someone who is finally trying to see who I am as an individual. Relieved and joyful barely scratch the surface.
It has become my firm belief—and there is much tangible science to back this up—that people who suffer with any substance use issue can get much further with this type of care than with Alcoholics Anonymous and TSF. I have nothing against God, but I have to admit that there is something about being listened to by an educated, empathetic, breathing human being that fills me with the kind of hope I have never gotten from meetings.
Even with 11 years of sobriety, I was still repeating all of the same mistakes I had been making since childhood, only without alcohol or substances. I consider myself fortunate, though. There are a lot of people like me—like Morgan—who don’t survive long enough to seek other avenues. Especially since most of these avenues are blocked off to so many people.
The judicial system, law enforcement, and the media seem to be fixated on the 12-step “cure.” The results are prisons clogged and overcrowded with non-violent drug offenders and ineffective and ridiculously expensive rehabs with ceaselessly revolving doors. Many of the 93,000 who died of overdoses in the U.S. in 2020 have resided in one or both of those places at one time or another.
Yes, Alcoholics Anonymous enjoys a solid place in American culture and institutions. Unfortunately, ubiquity does not always equal efficacy.