AA has long gotten pummeled in the press—either by those who are invested in other forms of treatment for addiction or from those who’ve been exposed to the former group’s gripes and don’t have enough information to believe otherwise. And this lack of information exists, of course, because, unlike any other organization or institution which gets attacked, AA cannot clarify gross misconceptions and outlandish accusations due to its tradition of anonymity. What this has increasingly meant is that the only press AA gets is bad press. And contrary to certain cliches, bad press is not actually always good.
These people have their reasons for tearing AA down—some went and didn’t like it or went and met terrible people there, while others feel so violated by the concept of it that they don’t believe they need to go to take their stand. And there are many, many people in the middle—addicts who just don’t like the sound of all the spiritual stuff.
“The God part makes me super uncomfortable,” they’ll say. Or: “God doesn’t exist. Why would I go to a program that says I have to believe otherwise?” It doesn’t matter how many times you try to explain that we all felt this way initially, that no one forces you to believe anything, that plenty of people find amazing work-arounds to this very issue and that maybe it makes sense check it out before crossing it off the list of possibilities. People seem determined to believe what they want to believe about it all.
So I guess, between the anti-AA-ers and the anti-but-not-vitriolic AA-ers, I’d started to assume that I wouldn’t ever read anything positive about AA in the mainstream press, despite the fact that I get daily if not hourly evidence of the good it does and the lives it saves. And then this week happened. This week where I saw this piece in the Guardian about Mark Gilman, England’s “addiction recovery champion,” who has been championing AA and NA to his local health commissioners and providers. In the article, he perfectly sums up the sort of responses he has gotten to his mission by saying, “I bet those doctors wondered what the hell I was talking about: ‘What, Public Health England thinks the answer is to go to meetings which have been going since 1935? That are free? Duh!’ But actually, yeah.”
Gilman’s story is powerful; it basically details how, when he worked for the National Treatment Agency, he was disappointed by how many addicts he saw remaining in the treatment system even after being treated using harm reduction. And then he began checking out what the article refers to as “mutual aid groups.” As he says in the piece, “I’ve seen miracles…[There was] a woman I’d convinced myself was dead, because the last time I saw her, at Christmas, 1980-something, she was being carted into an ambulance having had a massive overdose, injecting heroin into her groin. And then she’s there, brand new. Any doubts I had then were gone. If you can get where she is from where she was, well anybody can.”
Not only can anyone get well, as it turns out, but even greater miracles can happen: one week can produce two pieces of positive AA press. The second one was in Psychiatry Online and it focused on Dr. Marc Galanter (a longtime advocate for recovery who’s much admired within treatment circles) and in particular a lecture he recently gave in which he broke down the spiritual awakening aspect of 12-step programs—that is, the part that seems to get so many up in arms.
According to this piece, in his lecture, Galanter explained that two 2003 studies found that “engagement in AA was not associated with prior motivation or religiosity. But interestingly, while spiritual beliefs at baseline did not predict abstinence at three-year follow-up, a ‘spiritual awakening’ by three years was associated with three-times higher abstinence rates.” In other words, turns out AA isn’t made up of religious zealots. AA doesn’t even make you into a religious zealot. But being open to a new way of thinking about it all has helped many stay sober.
Even more compelling, perhaps, was the information that a survey of International Doctors in Alcoholics Anonymous found that “among those who claimed to have had a ‘spiritual awakening,’ 79 percent reported having no craving for alcohol, compared with 59 percent who had not had such an experience. And those who claimed a spiritual awakening had an average of 155 days sober, compared with 83 for those who had not.” We’re talking about doctors, people! Doctors finding solutions for problems that they couldn’t find through pills or surgeries or anything they can prescribe but through opening their minds to the possibility that there may be something bigger than all of us out there.
Here’s another bit I loved: “Some studies suggest that self-disclosure of the kind that occurs in AA meetings when one has a strong sense of belonging may be intrinsically rewarding by activating areas of the mesolimbic dopamine system.” To which I say: Dopamine! My favorite neurotransmitter of all! (Actually, it’s tied with serotonin for first place.) Still, activating dopamine by sharing in a meeting, as opposed to the old ways? Sign me up.
Finally: “’Successful improvement with participation in AA is not correlated with religiosity at the outset or with greater motivation,’” Galanter explained. ‘So clinicians shouldn’t have to be concerned [about referring]their patients who are not religious or highly motivated. In fact, the best outcomes are associated with greater severity.'” Which seems to hammer home the previous idea that AA is not made up of religious freaks or people who skipped their way into the folding chair singing, “Pour me a cup of that terrible coffee, please!” Instead it’s made up of people who once felt very much like all the doubters but found that things were not at all what they expected them to be.
While these two articles don’t of course mean that the anti-AA advocates will be slowed down any—those folks seem to be tireless and more into sharing their opinions via anonymous comments on articles than any group of non-teenagers out there. But perhaps these two pieces hint at the fact that though AA cannot defend itself, some of those who’ve witnessed its benefits will pick up the slack.