AA Can Drive You to Drink


Kenneth Anderson is the CEO and founder of the support group HAMS: Harm Reduction for Alcohol. The group helps individuals responsibly manage their drinking habits. In this article, Anderson discusses why the Alcoholics Anonymous program does not work for everyone and provides alternative, scientifically proven methods for addiction recovery.

Over a decade ago I had a huge alcohol problem and I tried treating it by going to AA because, like most Americans, I didn't know that there was anything else. And like most Americans I assumed that AA had to be evidence-based since it was recommended by therapists and doctors. However, I was wrong.

AA's constant repetition that I was powerless and that alcohol was powerful had the effect of making my drinking much worse than it had been before going to AA. Because logically, of course, it is impossible for me to stop drinking if alcohol is more powerful than I am. AA's message that I would be rescued by God was not helpful in the least and eventually I wound up checking myself into detox so as not to die of alcohol withdrawal. It was at that point that I decided that I had better start investigating the evidence base for AA and see if there was not something more effective out there if I wanted to save my own life.

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The Dark Side of AA

In fact, after cutting through all the hype, I found that there was no scientific evidence for the effectiveness of AA and that countless individuals had been harmed through AA attendance. I heard many individuals tell me that they felt they had to get drunk after every AA meeting they were forced to attend. Moreover, I found that there were evidence-based approaches to dealing with addiction, and I started putting them into practice for myself.

Sure one can hear countless testimonials from AA members about how AA saved their lives, but testimonials do not constitute scientific evidence. One can also go to the Church of Christian Science and hear countless testimonials of how prayer has cured people's cancers. Moreover, before the introduction of the FDA testimonials were what was used to sell snake oil. But testimonials are not scientific evidence and can always by the result of the placebo effect. One has to compare the outcomes of an untreated control group to the treated group in order to actually demonstrate effectiveness.

Much of the reason that America has bought into the myth of the effectiveness of AA is that AA very dogmatically preaches that addiction is one hundred percent fatal unless treated by AA. However, the scientific evidence tells us that the normal result of addiction is that people overcome it on their own and there is no evidence that going to AA has any better outcomes than quitting on one's own. A huge study by the US government found that three fourths of all people addicted to alcohol recovered; moreover, three fourths of those who recovered did so on their own with no treatment and no AA. Half recovered by quitting drinking and half recovered by cutting back. The Cochrane Review conducted a huge meta-analysis of studies of 12 step programs and found that there was no evidence that they were more effective than other treatments, and in fact there was no conclusive evidence that AA was better than no treatment at all.

Alternative Methods for Recovery

There are scientifically validated evidence-based approaches to addiction which we know are effective. These include Motivational Interviewing, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and Harm Reduction. And there are free-of-charge support groups which incorporate these evidence-based strategies such as SMART Recovery and HAMS Harm Reduction; I am the founder of the latter which I created to save my own life.

So if going to AA is making your drinking worse, why not try one of these evidence-based alternatives instead? The life you save may be your own.


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