AA Unmasked

The Premier 12-Step Program Has a Killer Drug Problem

According to AA's GSO, "There is only one definition of sobriety" in AA, and it's the one Bill W. gave in the 1958 AA pamphlet, "Problems Other Than Alcohol." It reads simply: "Sobriety—freedom from alcohol." And the program is limited by it, since AA cannot tell anyone they are not sober if they use drugs, although AA members generally may believe otherwise. An AA spokesperson told me, "It's an outside issue. They are free to decide if they're sober or not. We talk about drinking. That's it."

The main reason given for talking only about alcohol is "identification," a concept argued forcefully by C.I. With 42 years of sobriety, C.I. is a powerful AA figure in the mold of Bill W. He founded in L.A. what may be the single largest AA group in the world, boasting 1200 members, with a reputation for sobering up the lowest of low-bottom drunks.

Says C.I., "Since AA is based so much on identification rather than information, it is imperative that alcoholics talk about their experiences" and that alcoholic-addicts should "glide over their drugs" when they share. For more than 27 years, he has worked with skid-row addicts, and says, "I still get no empathy from hearing a guy who talks about shooting up drugs. I understand it intellectually, but when a guy gets up and talks about why he drank and what drinking did for him, that brings an empathetic bond."

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.

But what of the alcoholic who shared in a meeting that he "shot whiskey and drank morphine." Would C.I. identify with him?

The basic thing we all have in common is not how we used drugs or whether they came in a glass or a needle; it's the similar behaviors we manifest and the feelings that motivate them: the isolating, lying, denial, and unmanageability. It's the mental and physical cravings, obsessions, and compulsions—and these cross substance lines.

Otherwise, how could a wealthy wine connoisseur identify with a beer-drinking truck driver? Or a movie mogul who snorts cocaine relate to low-income crack users who prostituted themselves? As one addict accurately noted, "The disease doesn't care if you're from Park Avenue or a park bench—and it also doesn't care if you drank it, shot it, snorted it, or smoked it."

In NA, they prove daily that alcohol addicts, heroin addicts, cocaine addicts, and others can identify with each other and recover together. They urge everyone to identify as an "addict," regardless of their drug of choice, and they stress listening for similarities instead of differences since "Our stories may be different, but the feelings are the same." And what they find—what we all have in common—is the experience, as Bill W. most aptly described it in "The Big Book," of "incomprehensible demoralization," which is where all our addictions take us regardless of drug of choice.

Smoke and Mirrors

I'd like to see who would be left if you took all the addicts out of AA—just crotchety old men smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee, and no newcomers! —K.W.

In 1983, 31 percent of AA respondents said they were also drug addicts. By 1989 it was 42 percent. After that, the General Service Office stopped asking. Said a GSO spokesperson, "We don't ask that question anymore. It's not in keeping with our singleness of purpose." Another GSO spokesperson said, "Finding out how many addicts are in AA serves no purpose to serving the alcoholic."

Talk about needing a reality check: A 1998 federal study found that just 26 percent of clients in treatment for substance abuse related only to alcohol. When the Betty Ford Foundation opened in 1982, 72 percent of its clientele named alcohol as their sole drug of choice. Today it's 10 percent. The same trend is reflected across the country, from Gracie Square Hospital's detox on Manhattan's Upper East Side to the C.L.A.R.E. Foundation in West Los Angeles, which serves 90,000 people a year—90 percent of whom, according to a spokesperson, are dually addicted.

As Terry R. puts it, "AA is like the King's English. It may be the purest form, but it's not what the majority of people are speaking."

A section of Chapter 5 from "The Big Book," which is commonly read at the beginning of every meeting, says, "Some of us have tried to hold onto our old ideas and the result was nil until we let go absolutely." Bill W. is referring to the change in thinking necessary to recover, but the principle applies to the program itself.

Following the recent move at the New York conference, the GSO staffer attempted to focus the issue: "Sharing about drugs—that's a problem. AA is looking for some way to solve this problem." Though how they'll ever do this by censoring the majority of their members is a bigger problem.

In addition to AA's self-inflicted wounds, the fact that many addicts are now finding homes elsewhere is limiting the program's growth. Given these developments, NA may well be in the 21st century what AA was in the 20th.

M.T. is a screenwriter and producer, and the author of the book A Sponsorship Guide to 12-Step Programs, published by St. Martin's Press. She was born and raised in Manhattan, where she got clean in 1988. She now lives and works in Los Angeles and is an active member of the NA and AA fellowships.

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