What's Good about A.A.?

I have been listing a lot of the negative characteristics of A.A.. There must be some positive qualities to A.A. for it to continue to exist. It must be giving its members something, or they would quit going to meetings. I would suggest these benefits:

  1. Social group.
    The A.A. group is obviously a social group, almost by definition. It supplies companionship and familiar faces, and the opportunity to make some friends in the group. Some groups also sponsor social events like alcohol-free dances and picnics.

    Some ex-alcoholics are very lonely people, having lost all of their friends from too many bad things happening during too many bad years of drinking, except for some other hard-core alcoholic drinking buddies who won't quit, and who are now the worst possible friends to hang out with. So the A.A. group may be the only social group that some ex-drinkers have left. Just the companionship alone is enough to keep them coming back.

    Best of all, many of the people you will meet at A.A. meetings are wonderful people, not religious fanatics. Unfortunately, it's the old-timer true believers who run the show. The harsh, dogmatic fanatics ruin it for everyone, and the philosophies of the Twelve-Step organizations themselves are fatally flawed, but there are still a lot of good people who go to those meetings. And they go for all of the reasons on this list.

    And I should mention the feeling of brotherhood. It's real. There is a feeling that "we are all in the same boat, we can beat this together."

  2. Moral Support.
    The social group can provide lots of moral support and encouragement. You get to brag about your milestones in staying sober, 30 days, 60, 90, 6 months, a year, multiple years... And they give you little coins or keytags to mark the occasion, and applaud you. Every little bit helps. In fact, this can help so much that lots of people just use the group and the moral support, items 1 and 2 here, for their therapy, and that is what helps them to get ahold of themselves and break the addiction. And they don't even really bother with the Twelve Steps.

  3. Group therapy.
    Every A.A. meeting features people "sharing" something: their past experiences, current feelings, thoughts, hopes, you name it. Nobody directly answers anyone else; that is called "cross-talk", and it is forbidden. Nevertheless, the meeting acts as a sort of one-sided group therapy session. So the meetings give people an opportunity to blow off steam, and vent frustrations, and get advice, help, and sympathy afterwards.

    Often, the real meeting happens after the official meeting. That's when some alcoholics can get together and actually talk like normal people, with cross-talk and feedback, and trade experiences, advice, and encouragement.

  4. Understanding and acceptance.
    Often, nobody but another bunch of alcoholics can understand what it is like to be an alcoholic, or can hear the war stories and drunkalogues without freaking out. An alcoholic will quickly learn what things most "normal" people can't handle, and can't stand to talk about, and when he feels the need to talk about such things, a meeting is the only place to go.

  5. Advice and Experience.
    Sometimes, if you get lucky, you can find some people who know what they are talking about, who aren't full of bull, and who can really give you some good advice, and share their experiences, the way the group was supposed to work.

    My favorite advice is simply,
    "Just don't take that first drink, not ever, no matter what."
    If you make that your First Step, and really follow it faithfully, then you don't even need any other Steps.

  6. A Feeling of Safety.
    The A.A. meeting is one place an ex-drinker can go, and know that he won't have buddies twisting his arm to just have one drink with them. And the A.A. meeting is one place where he won't be able to get a drink, even if the cravings get bad and he really wants to grab one.

    [Unfortunately, A.A. meetings are not necessarily really safe places. They are often frequented by sexual predators and cultish counselors who dispense large amounts of untrue cult dogma, misinformation about alcoholism, and bad advice.]

  7. Structured program.
    The much-ballyhooed Twelve Step program may not work, it may be totally useless, but it is still something to do. It is an answer to the command, "Don't just stand there, do something." It does indeed give the new ex-drinkers something to do, giving them a sense of purpose, and it keeps them busy.

    [But unfortunately the A.A. program is not necessarily harmless. It can lead to more binge drinking and a higher death rate.]

  8. Accumulated status.
    The more clean and sober time you have, the more status you have. The old-timers have a lot of status, so they will keep coming back if only to be big frogs in a little pond. But even relative newcomers can feel a lot of pride in accepting their 3-month and 6-month coins. (Not to mention a Year! Break out the Birthday Cake!). And the more accumulated Time you have, the more you want to keep it. So that can help to keep some people from nibbling, slipping and relapsing.

    And conversely, members hate to have to admit in front of the whole group that they relapsed and lost all of their clean time, and that they are back in their first 30 days of staying sober. So the shame alone keeps some people from relapsing. Note that their success has absolutely nothing to do with practicing the Twelve Steps. It's just a very mundane matter of preserving status within a group.

  9. Absolution.
    I'm not going to debate whether A.A. is a church that can really grant absolution for sins, but A.A. gives the impression that it can. First, you perform a fearless moral inventory, finding all of your defects of character, wrongs, and shortcomings, and confess them to man and God, and then you make lists of all of the people whom you have harmed, and make amends to all of them. First you wallow in guilt, and then you are absolved. That has to relieve some people of their feelings of guilt, and make them feel better.

  10. It's there.
    There may be no easy, free, convenient, alternative support group available. A.A. is everywhere, almost all of the time.

  11. A feeling of better safe than sorry.
    Many A.A. members are just playing it safe. They have been told repeatedly that if they quit coming, they will relapse. They know that they may well die if they relapse, so they just keep on going to the meetings, rather than risk dying.

  12. Hope.
    The newly-quit drinker sees a bunch of people who have been dry for months or years, and that gives him the hope that maybe he can do it too.

  13. Bombastic ego trip.
    "We are special. We are on the Broad Highway, walking hand in hand with the Spirit of the Universe. We are God's chosen people. Only unto us did God give the gift of healing alcoholics. Only we are seeking and doing the will of God. Ordinary people think they have the right to just think and do whatever they please. We are better than that."

    These delusions of grandeur even go so far as members imagining that they have a guaranteed ticket to Heaven. This point is tricky, because A.A. theology does not talk about Heaven, not exactly. (Bill Wilson did say that practicing the Twelve Steps could give A.A. members "Heaven on Earth", but wiser members panicked over that because it would alienate too many other religions, so they erased that remark...) But members also maintain their old memberships in their former churches. Those churches talk about Heaven. Then the A.A. church convinces people that God really likes them because they are doing the Twelve Steps. Ergo: they are going to Heaven when they die, because they work the program.

  14. Church.
    Some people like going to church, and A.A. certainly is one.

  15. Placebo effect.
    The ex-drinker gets the comfort of a happy fairy tale. It can be very reassuring to a new ex-drinker, who is in great fear of relapsing, to be told that he or she is now in a program that always works, so just do this and that, and you'll be okay.

    Do not underestimate the power of a placebo. Medical doctors are very familiar with it, in both senses: The opposite of the placebo effect is the nocebo effect, or the psychosomatic illness. Psychosomatic illnesses really do kill people; some people just give up and die because they believe that they are so sick that they should die. That is a big problem for doctors telling patients that they have incurable fatal illnesses; sometimes, the patients will drop dead almost immediately, fulfilling the doctor's prediction. And the placebo effect really can heal people: they feel so positive, relaxed, confident, and high-energy about all of the "good, wonderful, life-saving medical treatment" that they are getting that they believe that of course they will recover soon, and they do.

    Do you remember the story of Dumbo, the Flying Elephant, as done by Disney Studios? Dumbo was afraid to try to fly, so the crow made up a story about magic feathers. The crow said that magic flying feathers are what really make crows able to fly, and if Dumbo had just one such magic feather, then he would be able to fly. Then the crow yanked a feather out of a friend's tail (without asking), and gave it to Dumbo, and told him, "This is a magic flying feather." Hey presto! Dumbo flew on the first try.

    And for the alcoholics, we have the Twelve Magic Steps, and they will make you able to quit drinking...

  16. Religious ritual.
    The meetings are just one long ritual. Like it or not, having a fixed ritual to perform gives everybody a great sense of familiarity and security. Everybody knows what is going to happen, and when it will happen, to the point that smokers look at their watches and know when they will get their next cigarette.

  17. A Boss.
    A.A. offers everyone a sponsor, a boss who will tell them what to do. People who are insecure and unsure of what to do next need not worry. A.A. will be more than happy to solve that problem for them.

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Last updated 16 July 2005.
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