Sorry, AA; Alcoholics Aren’t Spiritually Diseased

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“I’m just a selfish alcoholic,” someone will say from the podium at an AA meeting. I heard this line countless times during my eight years of involvement in Alcoholics Anonymous, and the sad truth is that I said it myself during various shares. “I’m selfish, self-centered, and full of self-pity. I have a spiritual disease.” I really meant it, too, and I felt so happy to be certain about something. This planet is confusing and unpredictable and frightening, and I myself can be confusing and unpredictable and (sometimes) frightening, so it was super comforting to reduce all of my problems, my drinking, my emotional distress, and my existential angst down to “I’m just a jerk.”

Today, I find this idea hugely problematic. Before I go further, I’d like to say that I am not out to argue that AA does not help people; to do so would be not only fallacious but also disrespectful and to some degree cruel. My own journey in sobriety, however, has taken me away from 12-step culture. I began nursing misgivings about the program a year or so before I left, and I did some research about efficacy and alternatives—in addition to contacting people who had left AA and remained sober—before walking the plank.

One of my chief complaints was the continual assertion, in both the literature and at the meetings, that people with drinking problems have a unique spiritual malady, one not that does not plague the normal drinkers among us. Alcoholics, according to AA, are especially selfish, self-centered, and full of character flaws. On page 123 of the Twelve Steps and the Twelve Traditions, Bill Wilson writes that some doctors of his time (who are not named) deemed alcoholics “childish, emotionally sensitive, and grandiose.”

To claim that those struggling with alcohol are morally (or even mentally, as the literature dubs alcoholics “insane”) inferior to the rest of the world is at best untrue and at worst very dangerous. The world is full of people without alcohol use disorder who suffer from childish and maladaptive behaviors and thoughts. (Many might argue that the current President of the United States is an example of such an individual.) After I began attending AA and learned a bit about AA’s prototypical alcoholic (no one is “unique,” according to AA lore), I remember being perplexed. I knew plenty of people in the program, some who just rolled up to their first meeting a few days earlier, who bore no resemblance to the “actor” described in pages 60-62 of the Big Book, the drunk who will go to any length to get her or his way, even if it means manipulating people or going on tirades.

The assertion that the alcoholic has greater stores of fear, selfishness, self-pity, anger, depression, pride, or any other liability cannot be backed by any kind of empirical study. Still, if you hit a meeting you’re liable to hear a speakers go on and on about their selfishness, about how flawed they were or are to this day and why that affects their life in a negative way.

One time, in the middle of my own self-deprecating share, it dawned on me that I had some good qualities that might be worth noting. I voiced them out loud. “Well, I’m also a really sensitive and empathetic person with a lot of compassion,” I said. As it came out of my mouth, I realized I had always been this way, even during my drinking days. Sure, I’d tear it up and get into a lot of trouble, but I’d listen to my friends and family when they were hurting and give advice and give rides to friends who didn’t have cars, among other generous acts. I did charitable volunteering throughout my youth and into adulthood. Was I truly a jerk? Was being a spiritually sick person truly the root of my drinking?

Many specialists in the addiction field argue that addiction often has its roots in trauma, but this concept goes against the AA conclusion that alcoholics and addicts are spiritually sick. A victim of parental abuse or neglect who’s convinced her problem hinges on an extreme case of selfishness or spiritual sickness isn’t in fact going to find a solution to her problem until she deals with that trauma, and the selfish or spiritually sick label stands a chance to make things worse. I know that when my first sponsor told me that the pain I experienced as an eight-year-old after my parents’ divorce was “selfish” during a fifth step inventory, it didn’t help me stay sober.

Unfortunately, AA uses a one-size-fits-all formula for treatment when in reality people use and abuse alcohol or drugs for many different reasons. Dissecting someone’s character isn’t going to help everyone put down the drink or the drug.

Since leaving AA, I’ve begun attending many workshops on Buddhism, a philosophy I consider nontheistic. One of the central teachings of the Buddha is that all of the character defects mentioned in AA literature are simply the result of being human; they are part of the human condition. I’ve seen poor choices and bouts of indulgence plague my non-problem-drinking friends and family in life-destroying ways, and in my 38 years on this planet I’ve noted that even the most ostensibly well-adjusted people have their own sets of demons and vices and shortcomings. Over-simplifying the plight of the alcoholic into a matter of character might be comforting at first, but after some time this concept begs a closer look.

If we see all of our problems and pitfalls through a narrow lens of selfishness and self-centeredness, we stunt our growth. We cannot explore the real roots of our suffering, nor can we grow legs to get out there and participate as fully realized people, if we walk through the world as though we’re badly-behaved children in need constant need of moral calibration. A moderate and measured degree of self-reflection is, of course, extremely beneficial, but to put our lives under a moral microscope every single day is a recipe for both neuroticism and discouragement.

I don’t know about you but neither of those states have ever kept me from picking up a drink.

[DO YOU DISAGREE WITH TRACY? PLEASE SHARE YOUR OPINION IN THE COMMENTS. AND LOOK OUR FOR OUR REBUTTAL NEXT WEEK.]

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Tracy Chabala is a freelance writer for many publications including the LA Times, LA Weekly, Smashd, VICE and Salon. She writes mostly about food, technology and culture, in addition to addiction and mental health. She holds a Masters in Professional Writing from USC and is finishing up her novel.

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