My Alcoholics Anonymous experience: Part one

I was instructed — as per an assignment for a graduate-level course I am currently enrolled in — to attend two AA meetings and write a short informal reflection paper sharing a summary of the meetings, what I learned, personal insights, and how the meeting helped me “in learning to understand the disease of addiction.”

While the meetings were interesting and, at some points compelling (because of the stories attendees shared), I had serious problems with the meetings and do not have many positive things to share. The criticism in my post, though, should be interesting for readers – especially those who have not attended AA meetings or are otherwise unfamiliar with AA. Below is my short reflection (no longer than two pages double-spaced) I will turn in for course credit.

Have you had experiences with Alcoholics Anonymous as either an observer or one who elected to attend or was mandated to attend? Have you, if you are a secular individual, found AA meetings to be beneficial? What do you think about the religious overtones in AA?

This Alcoholics Anonymous meeting opened with – presumably as all [in this location] open — a serenity prayer, a reading of the AA preamble, a daily reflection, and various other readings. Following the opening readings, persons told personal stories of their struggles with alcohol use and abuse from their past in addition to their struggles to remain sober. Included in the opening statements — and referenced throughout the stories told — were references to the Christian god, prayer, spirituality, miracles/divine intervention, God responding to prayers, God’s will, God’s plan, and the soul. The meeting closed with an ‘Our Father’ prayer which was conducted with attendees, forming a circle, holding hands.

Aside from talk about religion and religious references, attendees described how they could not just drink ‘one drink’ – one drink, for some attendees, would lead to more drinking and drunkenness. One member described alcoholism as “a feeling of uselessness and self-pity” and eventually was jailed – the only way, this person said, he could be separated from alcohol. Another member, who ‘should have been in jail’ because of DUIs, said he learned humility and gratitude through AA and was able to break away from the many alcoholics in his family through attending AA meetings.

One member, speaking about the program of AA, described people who relapsed as ‘incapable of being honest with themselves’ (similar to comments made in the opening statements) and said that the program can work for people who practice the AA principles. “If we liked who we are,” this member said, “we wouldn’t be here.” This statement received much approval from the room.

Another member said he “had no clue what alcohol could do” and was “thrown out of everywhere.” This person said he found it “impossible to look at [himself] as a drunk” and was “depressed for months” and angry.

I had never previously attended an AA meeting and was largely unaware of what occurred at AA meetings. While I was aware AA had a large religious component, mainly because of its foundation and ideas of a ‘higher power,’ I did not imagine members would focus so much on religion to the point of AA being indistinguishable from some sort of ‘faith healing’ meeting in which members relied on God, rather than some sort of treatment plan, to cure them of whichever maladies. Members, though, at least according to the stories, have seemed to have taken great personal efforts and have demonstrated restraint. Might it be the case that personal effort and the help of others, rather than petitions to God or a divine intervention, has led to the sobriety of members?

The element of ‘story sharing’ seemed to be quite compelling and perhaps the most effective part of the AA meetings. In hearing others’ stories, members have found that people have similar problems and experiences. New members can likely see that sobriety (over a long period of time) is possible for many and have some hope.

I find the religious elements, and heightened focus on the ‘powerlessness’ of members facing alcoholism to be unhelpful for several reasons although – for certain members – it can be helpful. If members are going to exclusively rely on a divine intervention and pray, rather than looking for some sort of evidence-based secular treatment options (or otherwise not exert much effort aside from the reliance on God and prayer), this may lead to a poor outcome (more drinking). Perhaps the prayer element, even if it has no efficacy as far as supernatural healing is concerned, can be effective in the same way meditation can be effective (relaxation, focus, concentration, etc).

Members discussed the great damage alcoholism has contributed to their lives – damage which they would have liked to have avoided. In addition to this, members voiced a strong desire to quit drinking but were unable to maintain sobriety at various points in their lives. This seems to cohere with ideas of physical dependence which is the result of alcohol abuse.