Cover Story: Alcoholic Autonomous

No 12 steps, higher power or support group

Oct 1, 2003 at 2:06 pm

Alcoholics Anonymous (a.k.a. AA) is like religion and golf. I don't even begin to understand it, but if it works for you more (higher) power to ya.

A big drinker for more than 20 years as well as a drug addict for much of that time, too, I've approached AA and Narcotics Anonymous doctrine many times from innumerable angles. It didn't work for me.

I've gone to meetings alone, with relatives and with friends. I've called sponsors in my time of need. I've intently read the "Big Book," the entertaining collection of stories from people with bigger problems.

I've said, "My name is Mike, and I'm an alcoholic," more times than I care to remember. And absolutely nothing stuck.

If, like me, you've gone to one-on-one therapy for addiction troubles nine times out of 10, you're told that the 12-step program is the only way. If, unlike me, you've been arrested for a drug-related crime, the judge might invariably tell you it's AA or the slammer or AA and the slammer.

I've been to a government-funded treatment center and was forced to attend 12-step meetings. No options. It's touted as the only system for sobriety that will work.

Study the steps and you're belittled with the fundamental, unquestionable decree that you are powerless. Powerless.

A big sticking point for many drunks unable to grasp the steps is the commandment that says that you must give yourself over to a higher power. If you — troubled atheist or agnostic — express concern over that issue, you're assured that a "higher power" can be anything you want it to be.

Isn't that nice?

I'd always think, "OK, my higher power is a doorknob." Or, better yet, a shot of Jagermeister.

The 12 steps are the little cousins of the Ten Commandments — there's some good life-guiding morality tips in there. But if I can't extract the fairy-tale religious aspects from it, does that mean I'm hopeless?

No matter what anyone tells you, AA is a religion-based program. Infidels are left for Skid Row.

In my 20s, I managed to stay sober for a year or so. I went to a few meetings, but I didn't keep coming back, as attendees are gleefully told to do at the end of every session. I loved the meetings at first, but mostly because they satisfied my morbid fascination with drug culture.

Like the "Big Book," AA meetings gave me a thrill similar to reading Jim Carroll or Charles Bukowski, seeing Trainspotting or Killing Zoe or listening to early Lou Reed songs. Hearing mind-blowing stories about hitting rock bottom is wildly entertaining to me.

But after a while, after one too many "I passed a Budweiser billboard on the way to work and almost thought about drinking" stories, I'd had enough.

It's great to get things off your chest and undoubtedly healthy to talk about your woes instead of bottling them up. But, to paraphrase some Rock star or other in a recent magazine article, if I lost my arm in an accident I wouldn't want to sit around for the rest of my life with armless people talking about how I lost my arm.

Fatalism is my biggest pet peeve about AA.

Sure, there's the underlying theme of hope. But not only are you deemed powerless, you're told this program is the only way out.

You're told it can be genetic. You're told that most people fail to stop drinking.

All of these factors make handy excuses when drinking opportunities pop up. "Well, they were right. I'm powerless. My grandfather was a drunk. And I have a disease. Poor me! Or rather, 'pour me' ... a double." And then you get to start all over again.

In my mid-20s, I made a somewhat unorthodox move to purge my heavy drug addiction by participating in a study/experiment at a local hospital. The program — involving another drug that, like methadone, would make detox easier — did the trick.

At least with the hard drugs I was hooked on. I still drank like a proverbial fish.

While there, I asked a counselor about a sobriety system I had read a little about called "Rational Recovery." To my shock — after being told by others not to bother because it doesn't work — the counselor provided me with a stack of information about this incredibly logical answer.

I was first drawn to the program simply because of its fierce deconstruction of AA logic. While I read clinical social worker Jack Trimpey's book, Rational Recovery: The New Cure For Substance Addiction, I was incredibly encouraged, but for the wrong reasons initially.

I was frustrated with AA, and the way drug/alcohol addiction was painted as a stumbling block (and not the potential end of the world) was life affirming. But I missed the most important part of the book — the actual solution.

About a year ago, I finally finished Trimpey's book. At that time, I hadn't hit rock bottom but I was renting property nearby. I had health issues and I'd gained as much weight as Carnie Wilson lost.

Relationship problems and a lack of focus in my day-to-day life finally led me to decide to stop drinking again.

The Addictive Voice Recognition Technique (or AVRT) was the little trick I'd been missing. It's nothing hard, and you don't have to compromise any fundamental beliefs to do it. It's the simple act of recognizing "The Beast," that little voice in your head that helps you take a drink.

The book offered different ways of dealing with The Beast, which would ultimately lead to its submission.

For example, you're at a bachelor party and all of your buddies are getting plowed on coke and whiskey. The Beast is that voice that says, "Ah, what the hell." Recognizing that voice has made it easier to deal with such situations. I don't get chips for my sober stretches, but by my count I've been booze-free for 11 months.

I'm in my early 30s now, and I have no desire to drink at all these days. It really wasn't that hard. And, best of all, it's amazing to not feel powerless.

Rational Recovery can sound almost as ridiculous as religious dogma. But it worked for me. And I have to imagine that if even the smallest percentage of the millions of people in this country who have substance abuse problems had Rational Recovery as an option, there would be far less drug-related trouble in America.

So if you've hit that wall and are only handed a dozen laws and a god you don't think exists as a means out of a lifestyle you no longer want to be a part of, go to the library or get online. Seek out Trimpey's work or any other related literature.

And if you're a judge or a drug counselor, I urge you to do the same for the health of your constituents and patients.

By all means, if you're going through hell due to drugs and alcohol, go to AA. It's worth a shot. It's worked for millions.

Rational Recovery ( might very well not be right for you. But the value of weighing all of your options — and employing pure and easy logic — is highly underrated, especially when it comes to addiction processes. ©