Wait. Does AA Work or Not?

Wait. Does AA Work or Not?

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This post was originally published on July 1, 2015.

AA is a subject of hot debate not only in the blogosphere but even publications like the The New York Times, The Atlantic, Scientific American and Forbes. Depending on who you talk to—or what you read—AA can help millions of people stay sober and saves lives or it “fails” most of the time and can lead people who relapse to feel shitty about themselves. Some claim it gives them happiness, joyousness and freedom while others claim it bullies, brainwashes and gets them sexually harassed by lascivious sober people.

So who’s right and who’s wrong?

Hot Topic

Recently an AA member and blogger hashed out his ideas on Alcoholics Anonymous on RealDeal.com, which drew the usual AA-bashing comments. He focused on the illegitimacy of “studies” that supposedly reveal AA doesn’t work or that if it does work, it only helps a very small percentage of people stay sober.

This guy’s a blogger, not a social scientist or researcher, and he doesn’t even link to the study he references in the title Sorry, that AA “study” is bullshit, so his piece basically opines without much factual substantiation.

Still, he does make a few valid points.

There are various surveys and studies out there on AA’s efficacy, and many of them contradict each other. But contradictory studies can be seen in almost any field, whether they’re on if that “one little pill” Naltrexone works, whether clean coal is a good idea or whether Diet Coke gives you brain cancer.

So can we please put the kibosh on the AA hysterics and concede that there might not be a black-and-white answer?

Get Out The Ruler

This author, who goes by the elusive username Norcross, says it’s nearly impossible to gather hard data on members of Alcoholics Anonymous, and he’s right.

I’ve been in the program for eight years, and I’ve certainly never filled out any sort of questionnaire, even though AA supposedly conducts surveys every three years. Personally, I believe if AA is going to be tangled up in judicial policy and the medical community—and it’s the court system, medicine and the treatment industry that encourages people to go to AA, not the other way around—there should be well-known controlled studies. Otherwise, just let the program do what it’s doing. If no one is forced to attend, people can decide for themselves whether hard data matters more than anecdotal evidence.

But it’s not easy to have a controlled study. Most studies to date have only consisted of randomized trials, and many of these have given AA the thumbs up. Still, they can’t account for those who relapse over and over (yours truly), only to finally get and stay sober after years of trying. Does that mean AA failed us? Someone would say “yes” if they saw me relapsing seven years ago.

But they certainly wouldn’t say so now.

Gabrielle Glaser, Lance Dodes and other AA critics use the term “anecdotal evidence” as a pejorative, as though hearing from your father that AA has kept him sober 25 years is somehow not a testament at all that AA works.

If this is true then it follows that any oral testimony, be it on the witness stand or reporting a rape to 911 or an audio confessional from a serial killer, is not legit.

Seems our legal system takes anecdotal evidence pretty seriously.

Beating a Dead Horse

There are a lot of factors that determine whether AA works or doesn’t work for someone. A firm resolve to get sober helps tremendously, but mental health and dual diagnosis complications can make even those determined to stay sober slip up, which is why many of us need psych meds and to see shrinks (yours truly).

Hormonal fluctuation in us chicks can really fuck up our moods (nearly all my relapses were during a hellacious stint of PMS), and that can’t be trivialized. Add to all this family traumas, personality disorders, chronic fatigue syndrome or other physical complications and whether you’re a Scorpio or a Leo and it’s clear there’s no straight answers.

It might work for some, it might not. It might stop working for someone, and it might start working for someone else.

One thing is certain: AA has worked for me, but this anecdotal evidence is apparently worthless to the AA critics. They might not give a shit about my sobriety, but my friends, family and boyfriend are super-stoked that I’m alive, breathing and kicking ass.

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About Author

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 Master's in Professional Writing from USC and is finishing up her novel.