12-Step Thinking: Let’s Talk About AA and the C-Word (Uncovering Alcoholics Anonymous)

woman in Alcoholics Anonymous meeting
Some people believe that Alcoholics Anonymous encourages a cult mentality.

No, not that c-word! To be clear, we’re talking about the word cult here.

If you’re familiar with the world of addiction recovery, then you’re no doubt acquainted with Alcoholics Anonymous—or AA as it is more commonly known.

And if you’ve had more than two or three AA-related conversations, it’s highly likely that someone compared AA to a cult in at least one of those discussions.

Guilt and fear are powerful motivators for people in recovery. AA’s 12-step thinking instills a unique fear of the outside world. You’re programmed to believe that, if you leave the safety of the group or buck the rules, you’ll be shunned and destined to fail.

“By the end of your second year, you are definitely cured of your physical addiction, but not the underlying causes – and AA does nothing about this. It merely replaces one dependency with another,” says Dr. James.
Similar to a cult or gang, AA is meant to create life-long members. Psychologist Oliver James says that a large part of AA’s problem is that people are encouraged to stay for life. “At some stage, you have to break away.

Once you’ve been clean for, say, two years, you should move on to therapy. People use addiction as a substitute for intimate relations and AA cleverly provides an intimate relationship.”

But, does AA deserve to be labeled as such? Let’s break down 5 Myths about Alcoholics Anonymous and the C-Word.

Follow Your Leader

AA’s founders, Bill Wilson and Doctor Bob, have reached what some say is “deity” status in the 12-step world. Wilson’s Big Book, which is actually entitled “Alcoholics Anonymous,” is referred to as the ultimate answer for everything… a new Bible of sorts written just for contemporary alcoholics.

Some hardcore AA faithful even believe that Wilson’s writings were inspired by God. In 1963, Harpers published an article by Dr. Arthur H. Cain. In it, he claimed AA had become “a cult that many men and women reverently call ‘the greatest movement since the birth of Christianity’” and asserted that the group had “become a dogmatic cult whose chapters too often turn sobriety into slavery to AA.”

To active AA members, however, the Big Book serves as a trusted guideline for navigating life without drugs or alcohol.

The group and its founding principles serve as a source of help and support. Participants are encouraged to “work” the 12-step program, fully integrating each step into their lives before proceeding to the next.

Surrender of All Personal Power

One of the keys to keeping cult members in line is to strip them of any personal power. As such, AA teaches that its members are powerless, weak and unprepared to take on the beast of addiction.

According to Wilson’s writings, we are brain-damaged addicts who will never be able to recover…without the support of AA, that is. Surrender slogans like “AA is perfect; people are imperfect” or “AA never fails; people fail the program” are often thrown out during meetings.

On the flip side of that argument, many AA members feel a sense of relief and empowerment after admitting they are powerless to conquer addiction. For some, laying down that heavy fighting armor lightens the load and snuffs out the “I’ll do it my way” thinking.

Destruction of Personal Identity and Independent Thought

Another cult comparison is AA’s tendency to discourage personal identity and the need to challenge traditional 12-step thinking. Glancing through Harvard’s Community Narratives publication, you’ll find personal AA stories that highlight the notion that, if you disagree with the steps, it somehow means you are in denial and destined to fail.

Members are asked to constantly admit their faults, work on “character defects” and relive addiction-related problems. This constant spotlight on personal failures tends to reinforce negative self-image.

Again, those who are pro-AA subscribe to the idea that working on personal issues is just another way to work toward bettering oneself. Self-examination and a sense of collective consciousness can improve the quality of bonding within the group. Some compare it to the military’s theory of “build them up, break them down.”

Blood In, Blood Out

Again, proponents of the AA ideology say that the notion of having life-long support from sponsors and the group is just another perk of membership. “This suggests that AA members offer types of social support that differ from those typically offered by nonmembers,” says Lee Ann Kaskutas, DrPH.

A lot of people in recovery have no ties to family members or friends (at least none that are sober), meaning the AA group can eventually fill those gaps and serve as your sole support system.

Embracing the Mindset: “Conform… or Else”

While “outsiders” may not understand or agree with the AA philosophy, long-time members not only get it, they choose to embrace it. In fact, most AA members attend meetings for a minimum of three years after initially joining the program.

Further, a 16-year study of problem drinkers was conducted by psychologist Rudolf H. Moos. He found that, of those who attended at least 27 weeks of AA meetings during the first year, 67 percent were abstinent at the 16-year follow-up, compared with 34 percent of those who did not participate in AA.

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