AA Unmasked

The Premier 12-Step Program Has a Killer Drug Problem

 I came into Alcoholics Anonymous 15 years ago. I was always made to feel that I was not allowed to share about my drug addictions. There was an AA old-timer who would rap on the table to stop the sharing about drugs. So I shared as an alcoholic and didn't identify as an addict anymore. I was about nine years sober when I started relapsing. I did everything I could get my hands on . . . prescription drugs, alcohol, speed, coke, and downers. My drug use took me to depths I didn't know existed. I could have died. —Angela F.

For 66 years, AA has been the refuge of last resort for millions of desperate alcoholics who have hit bottom. AA has always been free for the taking, and as testament to its revolutionary Twelve Steps, its program has been successfully adapted over the years to over 40 12-step fellowships. But throughout AA's 66 years runs a history of mistreatment of non-alcoholic addicts and dually addicted alcoholics that is not in keeping with AA's own criteria for membership and the spiritual principles the program espouses.

Members wore masks: To protect their anonymity, members of the Dayton, Ohio, AA Chapter donned masks while posing for the press in 1942.
photo: Bob Doty/courtesy of Dayton Daily News
Members wore masks: To protect their anonymity, members of the Dayton, Ohio, AA Chapter donned masks while posing for the press in 1942.

Built into AA's Twelve Traditions, which are the spiritual guidelines for all AA groups, is a flaw, born of the limitations of its time. AA's Fifth Tradition dictates that each group's primary purpose is to help the "alcoholic who still suffers." Many groups follow this literally, not allowing dually addicted addicts to openly share (talk) about their drug use without relating it to alcohol. As a sign at a Boston meeting says: "We only talk about Alcohol here!"

Late last month, at AA's 51st annual General Service Conference held in New York City, the "issue of people sharing about problems other than alcohol" was at the top of the agenda. The Conference took action to emphasize in its literature to health care professionals (from whom AA estimates it gets 40 percent of its referrals) AA's primary problem: people coming in with addictions other than alcohol. As a General Service Office staffer speculated after the delegates departed, "A lot of groups . . . are at their wits' end about what to do about this issue. There are those who say if you keep letting these guys in here, AA is going to pot."

Recently, at a meeting I attended in Wilmington, North Carolina, a man—a regular at that meeting—raised his hand. He said he needed to share about problems he was having with a prescription narcotic he was taking for an injury. It had been stated at the start of that meeting (as it is at meetings throughout the country): "In keeping with our primary purpose, please limit your sharing to your problems with alcohol." The man was immediately interrupted by the leader and told he could not "share about drugs," and someone else was called on. He wasn't the only person in the room that night having an issue with prescription drugs, but after what happened to him, I decided to suffer in silence. (I had tried to find a Narcotics Anonymous meeting, but they weren't listed in the phone book or with the local police.)

This phenomenon is not exclusive to so-called backwaters of addiction enlightenment. For more than two years, I regularly attended a liberal AA meeting that caters to the Hollywood writing community. I was yelled at in the meeting when I shared about plans to do this piece, and was reminded that it was an AA meeting—"addicts" didn't really have any business there.

The irony is that people talk about everything in AA—all the ugliness and degradation that comes with the abyss of alcoholism and the struggles of living sober. As one member put it: "You can talk about wanting to kill your mother, but you wouldn't want to offend anyone by talking about marijuana!"

'Pure' Alcohol

Why are we insisting that people not talk about drugs if it's part of their problem? It's mass denial in AA, and it's faulty thinking. Most people in AA are dually addicted. Alcohol was just a symptom—it's a recovery program, for Christ's sake!—M.M., "pure" alcoholic, 22 years sober in AA

The policy that "The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking," which is stated in AA's Third Tradition, has wounded AA. Nothing demonstrates this as clearly as the organization's declining membership.

In 1939, cofounder Bill W. boasted in the AA bible, Alcoholics Anonymous (a.k.a. "The Big Book"), that "AA's membership is growing at the rate of 20% a year." According to the General Service Office, there has been no membership growth in AA for over 10 years, while Narcotics Anonymous (NA) has grown, and AA's most recent count indicates that membership is declining. Asked about this, a GSO spokesperson said, "AA's primary purpose is not changing, and it's not going to change. . . . We adhere to our historical and spiritual history. We will not adjust for fear of not being here."

Bill W. could not have known in 1935 that alcoholism and drug addiction are the same disease. To say someone suffers from alcoholism is like saying someone suffers from heroin-ism, cocaine-ism, or marijuana-ism. Alcoholism is not a disease separate from addiction. Says Dr. Milton Birnbaum, director of addiction medicine at STEPS and a member of the American Society of Addiction Medicine, "Alcohol is a drug. The basic behavior characteristics are the same for alcoholics and those addicted to other drugs. It's the same disease. There is no difference." In 1989 the American Medical Society on Alcohol and Other Drug Dependencies changed its name to the American Society of Addiction Medicine for this very reason (though AA still uses its oldest name, from the 1970s—the American Medical Society on Alcoholism—in one of its current pamphlets).

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