Should the Courts Sentence People to AA?
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Should the Courts Sentence People to AA?

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I go to a lot of speaker meetings in AA, and often hear folks at the podium say, sometimes enthusiastically, sometimes by rote, “I’m sober through the grace of God.” And while that may or may not be the way I would actually describe my entry into the fellowship, I certainly wouldn’t be telling the whole truth if I did. For me, it was not a burning bush, a bolt of lightning to my ass or even a moment of clarity that got me coming to AA. It was the Higher Power known as the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, or more accurately, the court system of the state. I wanted to stop drinking, but I wanted to do it on my own, and I absolutely did not want to go to AA.

But I ended up in AA because much like many, many drunks and addicts like me, the court system thought it would be a much better idea for me to attend meetings rather than send me on an all-expenses paid vacation in the can. I had just gotten my third arrest (but first real conviction—long story) for a DUI, and if I flunked the breathalyzer administered by my probation officer, I would be sent to the aptly named Driving Under Influence of Liquor (DUIL) program at the Tewksbury State Hospital. So for me, going to AA was a very good alternative, even though I was loaded at my first 100 or so meetings (and drove drunk to a lot of them) before I got—and stayed—sober over a decade ago by continuing to go.

I also have a brother who was sentenced to treatment by the courts after a drug trafficking conviction. The night before he was to enter a halfway house, he elected to shoot a couple of bags of dope, because he didn’t really want to get clean and thought he was only delaying his inevitable sentencing anyway. But after three weeks of not getting high in the program, the realization crept in that his life as drug dealer/dope fiend was not as awesome as he once believed, and he got sober. I also have a friend in my group who went to a halfway house to avoid a drug trafficking conviction that also unexpectedly got sober (he went away to jail anyway). When he came out of prison, he went back to AA, got sober again (he used in jail) and recently got promoted to a supervisory role at a financial institution.

I imagine you’re probably thinking that my point is that yes, the courts should sentence people to treatment. Right?

Wrong.

It’s a qualified no, but the truth is, just because it worked for me and a bunch of other people doesn’t mean it’s going to work for other people. In fact, it’s been my experience that most people who are forced into any kind of treatment (or even just mandated to attend meetings as a condition of probation) probably won’t stay sober for one very basic reason: if you’re really an alcoholic or an addict, and not just a “problem drinker” or a recreational drug abuser, it’s pretty fucking hard to stop—especially if you’re not willing in the first place. As one of the heroin addicts who helped me get sober used to say, “If it was easy to stop, I’d shoot dope every weekend and just get sober again Monday.”

It has been my experience after listening to literally thousands of drunkalogues that very few people actually get sober because they’ve smashed up their car, gotten fired from their job, been thrown out by their partner or were ordered into treatment by their job. But they do get and stay sober when the guilt and shame drives them towards that overwhelming desire to stick a gun in their mouths and blow their fucking brains out, but don’t actually pull the trigger. When desperation meets willingness, change is possible. But unfortunately, those things don’t usually occur simultaneously.

But my experience is my experience and I can’t speak for everyone. Leaving aside the religious-appearing aspects of AA (which initially kept me out) as well as the ethics of whether or not we should order people who don’t want to go into any form of treatment, does it really even work if someone is coerced?

Apparently it does, and about as well or better than voluntary treatment, according to a report that surveyed 11 studies conducted between 1976 and 1993. The studies all involved stipulations from the criminal justice system, which isn’t particularly representative of alcoholics/addicts, but certainly included people who were suffering consequences as a result of their addiction. And consequences seem to be the prime motivator for a lot of us.

Another clinical study concludes that the reason that coercion works is that the alcoholic/addict “must feel, face, or experience the ‘consequences’ of their alcohol and drug addiction before the denial of their illness can be penetrated and motivation for treatment to recover from addictive illness can be developed.” Which makes sense to me. Why would I ever stop doing my favorite thing if there weren’t any consequences? And for me, I was always willing to keep drinking and drugging despite the obvious consequences because the thought of never getting fucked up again was just too terrifying or depressing.

About eight years ago, my brother (who was also sober in AA) and I tried to 12-step my other brother because he was clearly drinking and drugging himself to death. And his response was this: “I hear it doesn’t work if you don’t want it to.” He never got into any kind of treatment and died two years later. The death certificate listed “chronic cocaine intoxication” as the cause of death, but he had stopped eating and was downing a quart and half of Schnapps every day too.

There are times when I feel guilty for not trying harder to convince him, or had him legally committed, but I always remember what he said about it not working if you don’t want it to, and I still believe him. I also take some comfort from a story that a friend who had seen him a week before he died told me. She was walking out of Friendly’s and he was coming out of the liquor store when they saw each other. He told her how proud he was of her for getting sober and getting her kids back, and she asked him why he didn’t join us in sobriety. “It’s just not for me,” he said.

Would he have stayed sober if he’d been court ordered? My instincts tell me no, but there are definitely days when I wonder.

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About Author

Johnny Plankton is the pseudonym for a freelance business and comedy writer/editor (and recovering alcoholic) who lives in Boston. He is also a grateful member of America’s largest alcohol recovery “cult” as well as Al-Anon.