Why is AA So Ineffective?

A Quora answer by Mark Urso, Author of “A Candle Lit”:

The problem with AA is something that happens very early, when a person, a “sufferer,” is first introduced to the idea, sees a pamphlet or checks out his first meeting … the system can easily lose its credibility and feel either like it’s extreme, or members are jumping to conclusions …

People are simply scared away before they join.

In my book, “A Candle Lit,” I call them “leavers-before-they-enter.”

The three biggest problems are …

Ambiguous Permanence: It’s never been proven alcoholism is permanent, but members commonly insist it is. This is a credibility hit if the new person thinks about it … To make matters confusing, the words “alcoholic” and “alcoholism” are used as if they’re interchangeable, but they’re not; they have different uses, which constantly create logically-impossible arguments. For example, alcoholism is possibly permanent, possibly not. Who knows?

Alcoholism may not be permanent. Just as cancer might not be. But there’s a good case for saying being an “alcoholic” is permanent. Hanging still undetermined, might be whether the condition is inheritable.

The ambiguity of the words is unavoidable.

A successful person who might say he no longer suffers from it, would probably not go to an AA meeting and declare he’s cured, since the idea that “that never happens” is fundamental to AA’S philosophies, and he would be disbelieved, but worse, almost certainly shunned, only to learn, possibly late in his recovery career, what’s possibly the worst face of an otherwise well-meaning program, it’s hypocrisy. There is no statistic on the books, for the person shy of returning to AA to tell them he’s doing fine but not following their principles.

The hypocrisy is supported by ambiguity (in a program based on slogans), because, to complete my example, it’s very much medically-viable that once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic … The words alcoholism and alcoholic are not interchangeable. A person can be an alcoholic, but not presently suffering from alcoholism. The concept feels confusing, I know, and that’s the point; because of subtly-different purposes of the words “alcoholism,” “alcoholic” (as in “he’s an alcoholic!), and “alcoholic” (again, but used as in “alcoholic behavior”).

But it’s not a huge leap to see the problem. “Hi, new guy, nice to meet you! You’re definitely an alcoholic, just like us, just because you showed up today! We’re not doctors, but we insist you change your lifestyle based on the fact you’ll never be cured.” The individual who’s shown up to hopefully recover might think he doesn’t stand a chance, doesn’t qualify, doesn’t need the whole package (which includes spirituality), or just doesn’t want to be declared sick for life, by strangers … and that happens even if he desires to “have what they have.” The curious sufferer is typically stubborn, and the delivery of the message on a tray of “if you don’t do what we say, you will certainly be sorry” only feeds his hidden decision-making.

Wishywashy Dogmatism: The ambiguity, I think, also causes AA to feel like a clique. This doesn’t help, once again, the new arriver, who never ends up joining. It’s no-one’s fault, but if the logic isn’t rock solid, but you really need help, or you know you’re going to continue to suffer and die, you’ll make a decision. The decision, in this case, is to just simply go along, smile, and do your best to support and appreciate the concepts in a friendly way, whether or not they’re right in every way … and hopefully one day “have what they have.”

The program essentially lives on this ambiguity, but it’s the basic reason why its numbers are so small, relative to the number of people worldwide who would benefit from (most of) its teachings, and the reason why members are so stubbornly dogmatic. It was life or death, after all. Logic wasn’t a big part of drinking. AA seems to work. Will my child also have alcoholism, non-doctors? … The idea is, don’t look for the logic holes if you want to be a member … you have to “let go unconditionally.”

The minor number of actual alcoholics who end up going to meetings for a year or more, really reaping the benefits, are not particularly interested in being actual doctors, but the program works! That, for many, is enough.

No healing posture: Just because you may always suffer cravings, based on simply remembering what using alcohol felt like (memory is powerful in the alcoholism dynamic), does not mean those cravings cannot be reduced, over time, to be meaningless. If enough time goes by, what happens? Were we not here to get better? The hereditary nature of alcoholism – whether you give it to your kids – is passed over in a pseudo-medical, yet innocent, well-meaning, way, adding to the thorough-thinker’s skepticism. You can’t go back to AA if you feel you’ve “gotten better.” Why not? Generally, total abstinence is logical for the safety of the group members, but the way AA would typically treat the question is by insisting you are lying to yourself, but admittedly speculatively. Your choices end up being – not caring about the wishy-washiness, or being guilty of thinking.

In Summary: People die because AA didn’t present itself (hypocritically) as an open-minded organization, and that’s because the phraseology is ridden with ambiguity, underscored by violent, dangerous histories that require the crowd be sober when meeting, and cause the language to be dramatic; this simply turns into, in the “may-be-a-newcomer’s” mind, more possible failures. It’s clear what’s being asked. The first thing a newcomer will learn is that his “disease” is permanent, and he better listen to them, because the dangerous problem has to stop forever. The extreme, no-exceptions policy is based on crowd control, supported by the lack of the need to make perfect sense, or have sources beyond anecdotes.

The smarter a drunk is, the quicker he’ll see this, but, frankly, it’s obvious to everybody. Is there not an easier way? I’m stealing the words from the Big Book – it says you’ll fail if you think there’s an “easier, softer way.” This, while inspirational to some, is a failure setup, based on an assumption, to others.

AA helped me for many years, and I’m dedicated to it, and recommend it as the best alternative out there. Many of my best friends for life I met in the halls, and I attended reliably for over 20-years, even traveling and attending several world conventions. I started an archival recording company, and was the official “taper” at annual statewide AA conventions for ten years. I know enough about AA, from personal experience, and listening, to promise you it’s a good program if you, as they say, “take what you need.” It’s a room full of drunks, after all! There’s no need to take everything everyone says as gospel.

I wish you the best, and hope my answer was helpful!

Mark Urso


My blog and more information about my recordings and books: Nothing

The original question was: “Why is A.A. so ineffective?”

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