National Geographic News
A bible being read by an individual struggling with addiction.

A bible being read by an individual struggling with addiction.

Photograph by Juan Carlos Ulate, Reuters

Jarret Liotta

for National Geographic

Published August 9, 2013

Science has never revealed as much about addiction—potential genetic causes, influences, and triggers, and the resultant brain activity—or offered as many opportunities and methods for initial treatment as it does now.

Even so, the grassroots 12-step program remains the preferred prescription for achieving long-term sobriety.

Since the inception of Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.)—the progenitor of 12-step programs—science has sometimes been at odds with the notion that laypeople can cure themselves.

Yet the success of the 12-step approach may ultimately be explained through medical science and psychology. Both offer substantive reasons for why it works.

Climbing the Steps to Recovery

The "miracle" of A.A. can be traced to the evening of June 10, 1935, when a struggling alcoholic named Bill Wilson, fighting to stay dry while on a business trip to Akron, Ohio, met with an apparently hopeless drinker named Bob Smith in order to quell his own thirst.

It had been suggested to Wilson, through a religious organization called the Oxford Group, that talking to wet drunks about his experiences and trying to help them get sober would, in turn, help him stay dry. Smith, once a respected physician in the community, was referred to him as someone at bottom, beyond help.

Their discussion sparked the insight that the best hope for sobriety was a daily reprieve from alcohol, which stood with the singular practice of helping others.

Over the next five years, a non-denominational program emerged that drew much of its spiritual doctrine from Christian practices. It embodied an action plan in the form of 12 "steps" that are essentially guidelines for right living, including taking a personal inventory of one's strengths and shortcomings, making restitution for past wrongs, and helping others find sobriety.


The AA book and the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions book.

Photograph from Corbis


A.A. reports that more than two million members worldwide currently stay sober by regularly attending meetings and implementing these steps.

In recent decades, the 12 steps have been applied to other addictions—everything from drugs, food, and other substances to various compulsive behaviors around gambling or sex.

Psychic Solution

Most addicts receive less than 30 days of inpatient treatment. But they must also accept that they need ongoing outside help.

The 12-step approach, said Paul Gallant, an interventionist with 27 years of sobriety, is "so popular with treatment centers because it's proven to work. When a person completes treatment, they have a place to go.

"Self-knowledge is not a sufficient treatment for alcoholism," continued Gallant. "I've worked with people who have had years and years of psychotherapy and intensive analysis, but it's brought them no closer to ongoing abstinence."

However, experiencing what Gallant called a "psychic change," which in the 12-step world is linked to the marvel of a "spiritual awakening," often results in a distinct personality and behavioral transformation that leads to long-term sobriety.

"The not-drinking is really just a part of it," Gallant said. "It's not drinking and changing as a person. That psychic change needs to come from a program of spiritual development, and so far the greatest success has been Alcoholics Anonymous."

Community Spirit(ual)

Established treatment facilities like Sierra Tucson offer everything from traditional medicine to such alternative approaches as equine therapy and healing circles.

According to Nia Sipp, staff psychiatrist with Sierra Tucson, the goal is not just removing the substance or behavior but also facilitating self-reflection and creating social systems. "Oftentimes people feel that it's about God and other things," Sipp said. But she believes that the A.A. concept is more about "the spirit of community."

Rev. Jack Abel, director of spiritual care at Caron Treatment Centers, agreed. "When we say spirituality, we're talking about connection. People who are addicted become disconnected. And spirituality, as it's emphasized in the program of the 12 steps, is profoundly reconnecting."


Three residents of the Impact Center, a residence drug treatment center, pray during a group meeting.

Photograph by Todd Bigelow, Aurora


According to Marvin Seppala, chief medical officer at Hazelden and sober 37 years, attending 12-step meetings does more than give an addict warm, fuzzy feelings.

The unconscious neurological pull of addiction undermines healthy survival drives, causing individuals to make disastrous choices, he said. "People will regularly risk their lives—risk everything—to continue use of a substance."

Addicts don't want to engage in these behaviors, but they can't control themselves. "The only way to truly treat it is with something more powerful," he said—something, like the 12 steps, that can change patterns in the brain.

Left Brain, Right Brain

Andrew Newberg studies neurotheology—the science of how spiritual practices affect the brain.

He avoids theological opinions, noting that the positive mental and emotional effects that might come from believing in God are real to the individual. "Irrespective of whether God truly exists or not," Newberg said, "the brain is less interested in the accuracy of reality than the adaptability of how we respond."

Bill Wilson had a famous "white light" experience in a hospital room, where he was recovering from what would be his last alcoholic bender. He claimed it was a spiritual awakening that not only changed his outlook but also removed his desire to drink.

Newberg said that "large-scale, existential-type crises" such as Wilson's can bring instant changes to the brain. New neuronal pathways are activated or reactivated. This instant rewiring, Newberg said, generates a sudden and intense "aha" moment.

Newberg speculates that such an event may occur because of differences between the brain's left and right hemispheres, which approach problems differently. The left side struggles to work through a problem from an analytical, black-and-white perspective.

But the right side may suddenly kick in and apply a very different, more holistic solution. In such a moment, the neurons of the brain are immediately realigned, spurred on by intense emotion relating to the crisis.

This same experience, sometimes described as a "eureka!" moment—or a cognitive insight phenomenon—is often referenced in relation to creative breakthroughs.

One 2008 study found that when the left side of the person's brain dwells on a problem, it produces an excessive amount of obstructive gamma waves. The more the person ruminates on the problem, the harder it becomes to solve.

Conversely, when concentration is relaxed—or as Newberg said, when the person manages to quiet the left side of the brain and involve the right—the sudden appearance of new answers and insights can feel profound.

Neglected Realm

David Shurtleff, acting deputy director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), described addiction as a mainstream medical problem suffering from a lack of coordinated efforts.

The first four years of medical school routinely provide doctors with only a few hours of instruction on addiction. Shurtleff said his agency would like to see more training for primary care physicians, including equipping them with a standardized assessment to diagnose addiction. "We do the best we can," he said, "but it's an uphill fight."

Meanwhile, brain science marches on. Understanding of addiction at the cellular level continues to yield revelations that seem to cast light on why 12-step meetings succeed.

Power of Dopamine Receptors

D2 dopamine receptors connect dopamine, a key neurotransmitter, to neurons. When these receptors are not functioning—or there are too few of them available to connect the dopamine to neurons—memory, mood, and thinking may all be impaired.

A shortage of D2 receptors, some researchers surmise, could predispose a person to addiction.

Nora Volkow, NIDA's director, led two studies that involved artificially increasing the number of D2 receptors in rats by administering adenoviral vectors directly into their brains. Viral vectors transmit their genetic material and makeup into foreign cells, in this case increasing the number of D2 receptors in the new cells to match their own.

In one study involving rats and alcohol, the increased number of D2 receptors led the rodents to consume less alcohol, compared with their baseline intake.

In the other study, the D2-receptor increase caused rats to significantly reduce their intake of cocaine.

Michael Nader, a researcher at Wake Forest School of Medicine, is investigating ways to raise D2-receptor levels naturally. One experiment he helped conduct focused on five separate groups of four monkeys. Each had been self-administering cocaine to the point of habit and were then deprived of the drug for an eight-month period. To create a picture of D2-receptor availability, the monkeys were given a radioactive tracer that competes with dopamine for receptors.

The monkeys were then randomly put in social groups of four and given the opportunity to self-administer the drug again.

Positron emission tomography (PET) imaging of the monkeys over time showed fluctuations in dopamine levels, which allowed the researchers to estimate the changing numbers of available D2 receptors. After only three months, the socially dominant monkeys in each group had naturally increased their numbers of D2 receptors.

There was no increase in the subordinate monkeys. Further, the subordinate monkeys reverted to using cocaine at much higher levels than the dominant monkeys.

"There is an interesting relationship between D2-receptor numbers and vulnerability to drug addiction," Nader said. "It appears that individuals with low D2 measures are more vulnerable compared to individuals with high D2-receptor numbers."

Why did the socially dominant monkeys show D2-receptor increases? "One hypothesis," Nader said, "is environmental enrichment." For the monkeys, it seems, being dominant was the enriching trigger.

One physiological consequence of involvement in 12-step meetings, therefore, could be an increase in the natural production of D2 receptors. "That's another whole area to be studied beyond the animal world," Shurtleff said.

Need for Attachment

Philip Flores, author of Addiction as an Attachment Disorder, said the human need for social interaction is a physiological one, linked to the well-being of the nervous system.

When someone becomes addicted, he said, mechanisms for healthy attachment are "hijacked," resulting in dependence on addictive substances or behaviors.

Some believe that addicts, even before their disease kicks in, struggle with knowing how to form emotional bonds that connect them to other people. Co-occurring disorders, such as depression and anxiety, make it even harder to build those essential emotional attachments.

"We, as social mammals, cannot regulate our central nervous systems by ourselves," Flores said. "We need other people to do that."

While it's commonly understood that early childhood attachments to parents and family are necessary for healthy development, Flores maintains that emotional attachments remain necessary throughout adulthood.

This is where a 12-step program becomes valuable.

It's not enough, Flores said, to remove the addiction, which in itself has become an object of unhealthy emotional and physical attachment. To achieve long-term well-being, addicts need opportunities for forging healthy emotional attachments.

"What A.A. does on the basic level is what good psychotherapy does," Flores said. It provides "a community for people to break their isolation and to start to connect on an emotional level with other people."

Helping Heals

Lee Ann Kaskutas, a scientist with the Alcohol Research Group, has faced skepticism from colleagues for studying A.A., in part because of the numerous spiritual references that go with the 12-step program. It puts A.A. on "the fringe" in the minds of many scientists, Kaskutas said.

Kaskutas, a self-proclaimed atheist, said that the 12 steps bear fruit regardless of one's spiritual beliefs. "If you don't believe in God, the way it weasels in is in the help and behaviors that the 12-step group inculcates."

Helping others, Kaskutas said, "is the internal combustion engine of A.A. I think that is the connection to spirituality."

People feel better about themselves after helping someone else, Kaskutas said. "So it's reinforcing—when you help somebody, I think your brain chemistry changes."

—Follow Jarret Liotta on Facebook.

Thomas Byrn
Thomas Byrn

Wow Jack, Laura, Eliza you guys put forth a compelling argument at discrediting AA. I will have to give you that. My question is what is your solution? Please share with us what has worked for you. Lets not bash everybody else and what does not work. Share with us what works.

Eliza Blackwell
Eliza Blackwell

This is more propaganda from the  ASAM, Like-Minded Docs and Federation of State Physician Health Programs.  All you have to do is look at the names involved-these people have been claiming the 12-steps are based on science and evidence for years by offering biased opinion pieces making data fit the hypothesis.     It is not science and it is not medical treatment.  The goal is to force this on others through AA "facilitation" (i.e. coercion) by convincing regulatory agencies and professional organizations they are successful.  They are not.  AA needs to be recognized for what it is --the Bill Cosby and Jerry Sandusky of the Medical Profession.

Jon Stewart
Jon Stewart

This is a really good piece. It's great to see someone finally try to reconcile AA with science. 

AA itself will, of course, never do that as the programme is divinely inspired so such things are basically seen as "outside issues". 

The real problem here lies instead with this issue of Higher Power. From what we now know, there's no such thing and any suggestion that there might be is just another form of denial. 

So while group therapy is undoubtedly useful in the short term, AA seems to have cornered the market here using a methodology that is actually not a healthy way to live in the long term. 

That's possibly why there are so many sober suicides in AA and why so many people with years and years of sobriety are still clearly quite neurotic. 

I left AA after 14 years as a happy customer early in 2014 for precisely that reason and blog about my experience "Leaving AA, Staying Sober" at

Chuck Novak
Chuck Novak

That was one of the the most bias uneducated article I have read on AA.   By AA's own admission it works for less than 5% of people who attend the meetings. And it begs to ask of those 5 %, how many succeeded not because of AA, but despite AA. It is awful one-sided and seems to have been penned at an AA meeting by brainwashed AA zombies.  Yes, you Nora Volkrow and Marvin Seppala are nothing more than clueless brainwashed AA mouthpiece zombies.

Addicts don't want to engage in these behaviors, but they can't control themselves?? "The only way to truly treat it is with something more powerful," he said—something, like the 12 steps. How many people have stopped without AA or any steps? The article states there are 2 million people in AA. There are 20 million people in recovery. That means some 18 million people have done what you just said can't be done. Oh, I forgot you have a financial interest in sprouting your nonsense. You need to justify the $60,000 Hazeldum charges to advise people to go to a free program. Your statement is malpractice.

 What A.A. does on the basic level is what good psychotherapy does???" Flores said. NO! No it is not remotely the same as psychotherapy. 

What AA provides is  "a community for people to break their isolation and to start to connect on an emotional level with other people."  Exactly that 'community could just as easily and effectively be a bridge club. 

Lindsay Leimbach
Lindsay Leimbach

Good article on the Brain, addiction, and the 12 Step Program.

Pamela Hemphill
Pamela Hemphill

I have 34 years sober and I worked in the Substance Abuse Treatment field for over 30 years.  Something I heard a long time ago.. If it is working don't fix it.  

I love AA for saving my life.  I agree that no one should be mandated to treatment or a AA meeting, but I do agree that if God started this program, then no is going to be able to end it, even if they want to. 

rebecca farrell
rebecca farrell

 I'm doing research on AA. I don't know anything for those of you with your ph D's. I'm not even an alcoholic for those of you recovering. I have sat in on meetings with my Mom since I was 3. And this is just my opinion.

I live in Texas in a conservative town. I do believe in God. So maybe I am a little prejudiced in the way AA serves people. I won't go into that.

My father hated AA and that has always made me scrutinize this program harshly. I won't go into that.

AA has never improved my financial situation. But it can change the way you think and that can change your surroundings. But I'm not going into that either.

I've seen the flaws of AA.
 Flaws really do make us human. And they have good intentions for you there. But I really shouldn't go into that either...

In the end, these are just broken people. They have problems, not answers. They cry in front of others because they hurt. So it works for them.

No matter how many nasty opinions or facts you throw at AA, it doesn't change the fact that it was started by desperate people for desperate people. So put it under a microscope or beat it bloody. It still has a function. One persons opinion doesn't change any of that. Even mine.

Skip Herdon
Skip Herdon

It is nice .. it is interesting to see that people are still reading this article and interested enough to continue to comment about it.  AA continues undaunted to assist those who want to stop drinking one-day-at-a-time to do so.  Do some of you think that the hundreds of thousands of sober alcoholics in AA is a myth?  Have you attended any of the International Conventions (held every five years) and seen for yourself some tens-of-thousands of sober members? Is AA perfect? Does AA have flaws? Of course. AA can only help people who want to stop drinking do that.. The problem becomes dual-diagnosis people .. those whose real issues surface when they stop drinking and can no longer blame the alcohol and find out that the real issue is some form of mental illness.  As the AA Big Books clearly states (page 23 lines 5 and 6) the problem centers in the mind and not the body.  Sign me Four Decades and Counting ..   

William Cooper
William Cooper

I've been a grateful member of AA for 37 sober years. Alcoholism is somewhat different than other addictions. Give a 100 random people heroin daily for a month and you'll have 100 heroin addicts. Give 100 random people a 1/5 of vodka daily for a month and you'll have maybe 10 real alcoholics. What I'm saying is the true alcoholic is genetically predisposed to the disease of alcoholism. Not only does the program of AA and 12 steps work, it has changed my outlook in life. It has enabled me to show tolerance and love for my fellow man. The spiritual proof is beyond our sobriety but the mysterious and positive changes occurring in our lives one day at a time.

Rick Stevens
Rick Stevens

I started going to an AA meeting a few months ago (Back to Basics in Richmond Hill).  I have never been around such self-absorbed people in my entire life. I haven't' been to other groups but if they are all like this, than this thing is really terrible and they are screwing with peoples lives. I've seen newcomers come in there in pretty rough shape hoping to get some help, but never get any and never return after a meeting or two.  These long time members who are "supposed to carry the message to the alcoholic who still suffers" are way too busy socialising amongst themselves in their cliques.  Their meeting is more like a social club  and their open meeting is basically a mini dinner with lots off snacks where they host people from other groups to show off how great they are and how great their meeting is while the person who is there at his first meeting and is desperate for help never receives any and just leaves and never returns.  I've seen this week after week.  Somehow I've managed to stick around here for a couple months with these selfish people, but they are so unwelcoming that I have decided to leave.  I don't want to be like them.

Stephen Andrews
Stephen Andrews

I have read this thread and I have to say, lots of hatred against AA and NA.

All I can really say is, if you were an alcoholic, or an addict, and you're clean now, then good for you. Addiction ruins lives.

As far as the most common "problem" I've seen with AA -- "God." You know what, I'm a member of NA/ CA/ AA and I have to agree with you all. Not because I think AA really promotes "God" like you guys think he does, but because so many people really do think that's what the program is about.

It's easy to see why, too. Although I personally haven't been to a meeting where they read the Lord's prayer, I have heard of it happening. Certainly the program evolved from a Christian background. Nevertheless, the program does not necessarily need to be "Christian" or even religious. I think most people that stay clean understand this.

I heard one commentor reference AA as a program that relies on a "wish dispensing God" or something to that affect. That's not how it works. NA does a much better job of distinguishing between religion and spirituality. They don't even allow the term "God" in NA, they use the term "higher power." I think a better word for spiritual might be mental health.

Here's the nitty gritty of what the AA/ NA program really is about in this addicts view. Do you believe lying is wrong? How about theft? Murder - certainly you believe murder is wrong. Well why do people lie, steal, or (in some cases) murder? Because it fits in with their self-centered plans. "I need to make this sale, so I'll lie to the client." "I want this new movie so I'll steal it." "This bitch cheated on me, she's dead." etc.. We become addicts for the same reason. "I don't like feeling sad, I'm going to shoot up." 

"God" is really better explained as a higher power. Just as we know there to be wrong (lies, murder, etc...) we know there to be good. Helping other people, that's good. Living for each other, that's good. I once heard someone say, "If you don't like the word God, that's ok, just add an 'o' to it and make it good." It is the recognition of what is good (" a power") and that surrendering to that power ("Higher") will bring about change.

My girlfriend is a stunning, drop dead beautiful blonde that is also in the program. People try and hit on her, or manipulate me to try and steal her from me all the time. I hate it. I couldn't agree more that it's one of the really negative things about the program. I hate it, and I can't begin to explain how much I agree that it hurts the program -- not because the program CAUSED the behavior but because the behavior PREVENTS people from finding out about the program....BUT after about a year clean, as a rule of thumb people usually stop doing that kinda s***. Some never do, and that sucks. But let's be real here guys, it's not like running game on girls and having double motives is unique to AA. Nobody claims to be perfect in the rooms.

Two years ago I was shooting heroin into my arms and pimping my friend's girl out to dealers to get my fix. I had no real friends, my family hated me, and worst of all, I hated myself.

TODAY I run a successful mortgage company, I made $200,000 last year, I have a beautiful girlfriend who I love, we don't fight -- we discuss problems. I have friends that I truly love and who I know truly love me for no reason other than they enjoy my company. I workout every day and am in great shape. My business partner is my dad and twin brother and I am very close with everyone in my family. I love others, and most importantly, I love myself.

Now for all the people here that hate AA, would you suggest I go back to my old life because of how bad AA is? Or perhaps you have a different program you would like to introduce me to? My only real beef with everyone hating on the program is that I KNOW some addict is going to come on here and read all your comments and NOT go into the room because he has the wrong idea about it. So, please, if you are going to say AA is bad, tell me what is good.

jeanne Smith
jeanne Smith

If you want to discredit any ability you have at scientific reporting you did it.  Report the success rate of AA by what AA deems success. Do you see the conflict of interest there? You are citing members of a support group who can only provide anecdotal evidence which should not be confused with empirical evidence. 

The nature of the program makes it hard to measure its efficacy. How do control for variability of different meetings? How and when does the drop out rate factor in? Why would you cite Hazeldon who makes money off of a regressive addiction treatment industry? 

You can spin some drug induced spiritual awakening by Bill W. as the foundation for treating suffering addicts. Grasp at bunk science. Throw in the left/right brain simpleton logic. 

Do realize how much you are doing a disservice to further the research of addiction. This is not how we treat cancer. AA is not seeking a cure. It is endless. 

To equate a support group to professional help is utterly ridiculous and plain wrong. Why do members of AA make up the employees of treatment facilities? What are their qualifications? No offense but being a drunk does not make you an expert on anything. 

I am someone who actually seeks progress. No leaders means no accountability.  The real success rate is 5% which is the same as people who quit on their own which is 5%. 

Of course you should trade self destructive behavior with healthy habits.  That does not leave you with the AA option of endless whining and non-sensical drivel . Join a gym, learn how to play an instrument or a new language, volunteer for any group. Do something productive.  

If this works for anyone and you are happy that is great. Please do not be so arrogant to think that this is a real treatment for everyone. 

For the AA's who want to pick apart my healthy anger and question my serenity, then do what you do best judge people who are not one of you in your self righteous manner. I did not leave my brain at the door because that is not my job.

This is a shame and sham piece of garbage. 

jeanne Smith
jeanne Smith

The nature of this support group makes measuring its efficacy impossible. How can a study conducted on the success rate of AA be reported by AA? Do you see the conflict of interest in that? How can you control for the variability that occurs in meetings? Did you factor in the drop out rate? It appears that the sources cited like Hazelton make incredible amounts off the addiction industry. What is the relapse rate? What do you do when you relapse? You go to a bunk science program and back to meetings. It seems like the only people who really benefit from AA are the "sober" people who can only get jobs in AA treatment facilities. To suggest this is as good as actual therapy is forgetting the fact that support groups are not meant to replace professionals. They are for support and since there are no leaders there is nobody accountable for anything that could be legit dangerous. The success rate is 5% just like the 5% who quit on their own. You can replace self-destructive habits with healthy ones, like a gym, like a book club, volunteerism, learning a new language, playing an instrument, etc. AA is crazy people running the asylum. The awful grasping for something of any actual scientific credibility like left/right brain whatever is a disservice to the progress of real science. The science that actively does research and seeks out cures for things like addiction. The reason I have healthy anger is that people die because they are thrown into a lions den. You can spin this anyway you like but there is only anecdotal evidence not empirical so lets stop pretending this is science. If it works for you great! If you want to act like you are making a  meaningful contribution to the study of addiction you are not. I'm utterly embarrassed by whoever wrote this garbage. Go ahead AA, self righteous hypocrites and tell me how I lack serenity because that is what you do best. 

Tim Jackson
Tim Jackson

This is an excellent piece. The convergence of brain activity and social connectivity underlines what many in AA have come to understand in practice:We need company and a sense of purpose. Beating addiction alone is nigh on impossible. Believe in God, believe science or worship a rock at the park; AA works and all you need to to be a member is a desire to stop drinking.

Mike Kercher
Mike Kercher

Excellent article on the 12 steps.  I very much agree on their assessment of it centering on right brain/ left brain phenomenon, but I believe it is opposite of what they theorize.  And nothing in this article changes my personal opinion of that.  Still an excellent article though!

Tiffany Lakoda
Tiffany Lakoda

My sister was in bad shape, we tried a few different methods of helping her but eventually we just had to send her to a drug rehab in arizona. We didn't know what to expect but she is now clean and sober 8 months, and I have my sister back! Thank you

Aaron Allen
Aaron Allen

Rehab Centers help a large number of people to abstain from drinking. This should be the thing which should come in mind first if anybody is looking for getting over his/her drug addiction.

Peter Bayh
Peter Bayh

It has worked for me for the past 12 plus years, but what you get out depends upon what you put in, like anything in life.

You usually get what you give

Skip Herdon
Skip Herdon

Thanks Jarret Liotta for your article.  I really enjoyed reading it.  Whether people like your article or not .. you seem to have stimulated a vigorous climate for many varied opinions.  As member of AA for over three decades I love to stimulate debates within the fellowship myself.  I will give back to AA all that I have to give BUT I WILL NOT GIVE BACK MY SOBRIETY.  Doctor Bob himself is quoted in the AA Book .. Doctor Bob and the Good Oldtimers .. as follows: IF you love everyone in AA you have not been going to enough meetings!     

Isaac Joyner
Isaac Joyner

AA only works if and when you work it I personally know this to be true for the 12 Step programs

Skip Herdon
Skip Herdon

Why all of this angst and anger and hostility and vitreol against A.A. I ask myself.  What exactly is wrong with hundreds of thousands of alcoholics staying sober in A.A. and not driving drunk and killing people?

Jon Stewart
Jon Stewart

@Thomas Byrn

Hi Thomas. SMART Recovery, The Sinclair Method, LifeRing, all these methods work. I'm not bashing AA, it helped me get sober 14 years ago. However I also feel it is outdated 1930s mental health technology. There are links to SMART Recovery, The Sinclair Method, LifeRing, and other more up-to-date recovery methods to help people such as myself interested in "Leaving AA, Staying Sober" on my blog at

Laura Tompkins
Laura Tompkins

@Thomas Byrn Seriously?  First of all, a religious 'program' at all is counter-productive and an AA cult invention designed to keep the cult filled since 95% of people who enter 'the rooms,' leave within the first year and never look back.  It's the years of deprogramming and binging due to the all-or-nothing BILLshit of your beloved cult. A life sentence in a cult religion is certainly not the answer to a behavioral disorder.  Addictions are NOT diseases.  

It's such a typical stepper rant to make the false claim that this cult 'works' when it does nothing but harm.  

Do you research rather than just stick your head into the sand of a dangerous cult religion.  It must be difficult to breathe down there.  

Solution?  ANYTHING other than a dangerous cult religion.  CBT.  Mindfulness. EMDR.  REBT.  Meditation.  Low Dose Naltrexone.  Acamprosate.  

It's not our job to do your thinking for you.  You are obviously fully capable of either learning the truth ... ooooor, keep your head in the sand.  Your choice.  

Laura Tompkins
Laura Tompkins

Who are you trying to convince? Go be 'happy, joyous and free' and stop defending what is a deadly dangerous cult religion for the vast majority of people who are so unfortunate to end up like you -- using faith healing to avoid any responsibility to your real family.

Oh no ... go to a mind-control meeting where you can cry and hear others cry about how shitty their lives are and live forever in your 'character defects.'

Fake compassion, while ignoring your real family by replacing them with a pseudo family who -- and you damn well know this to be 100% true -- would drop you like a hot rock at the slightest hint of your questioning your 'powerless disease spiritual awakening' brainwashing is no compassion at all.

No matter how you slice it -- you are not well and are terrified of becoming 'one of the unfortunates.'

Angela Sullivan
Angela Sullivan

@rebecca farrell AA doesn't need to be put "under a microscope" in order to see there is something horribly wrong with the entire concept.  The ONLY thing a "desperate alcoholic" that led to their recovery is make one singular decision and THAT is to NEVER EVER UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCE drink alcohol.  THAT is what made the difference because it gave their brains to bounce back to normal so the compulsion would eventually go away.  There is a vast difference between a desire and a compulsion and, SCIENTIFICALLY, what "alcoholics" are dealing with is a compulsion.  Science has proven that the brain gets rewired all the time due to environmental influences, both for the good and for the bad, depending upon the circumstance.  Science has proven the brain has plasticity and can change, both for the good and for the bad, depending upon environmental inputs.  Science has proven that even genes can be rescripted through environmental inputs.  Please do at least a LITTLE reading in the field of epigenitics.  While I can certainly see how having the support of a group of people who have done the incredibly difficult thing of battling their compulsion to the point they no longer have a compulsion to drink, that is the only thing about AA that is really useful.  Even then, you have to be really careful about who you associate with in AA since it takes quite a bit of time for an "alcoholics" brain even to begin to clear to the point they can think straight on matters and have good judgement about much in life.  AA heavily asserts that one needs to get a sponsor as soon as possible and in an organization whose 12 traditions tell them that anyone no matter how - and I quote - "dangerous and twisted you are" - is welcome in their rooms.  It is not a good idea for anyone in AA to get a sponsor right away as again, it takes time for the "alcoholic's" brain to even be in a condition to make decisions like getting a sponsor.  Ultimately, there is so much that is wrong and dangerous about AA it is not funny.  It is too bad that you prefer to ignore facts that are nasty about AA although they are true.

Angela Sullivan
Angela Sullivan

@Skip Herdon What we think is that testimony is not evidence and twisting science to fit the AA paradigm is not good science.  The very structure of AA makes it almost impossible to do a controlled study of the effectiveness of AA but the most stringent studies that have done the best they can with what they've got to work with have demonstrated AA to have a higher failure and death rate than no treatment at all.  Yes, AA has flaws but it has flaws like a diamond has flaws.  When a diamond has flaws, it greatly reduces it's worth.

Skip Herdon
Skip Herdon

@William Cooper  I LIKE your comment .. somehow when I checked LIKE under your comment it registered as Unlike .. so much for technology .. I feel bad to see the Unlike up above .. because your comment is great .. Skip

Rick Stevens
Rick Stevens

@Stephen And

It'sa spiritual program yet you don't sound very spiritual to me bragging about how much money you make and your "drop dead beautiful blonde" girlfriend, etc.  Just sounds like ego-talk to me. Many of us are not so lucky that daddy will help us out with a cushy high paying job if we just stop taking drugs.  If anything you just proved to the real addict/alcoholic who are sick and/or have lost so much that AA is full of narcissistic people who only really care about themselves.

Stephen Andrews
Stephen Andrews

@jeanne Smith 

I understand the difference between anecdotal and empirical. I also understand that science runs on empirical, repeatable data and experimentation. 

With that said, I am a recovering addict. I regularly work the Step's and attend meetings. Like all addicts, I know many other addicts. Some are clean, most aren't. In my experience, if someone isn't "working the steps," then they are not clean. Period.

I understand that in the scientific sense my own observations don't "prove" anything. I am not saying that AA/ NA is the ONLY way; I'm quite sure it isn't. It doesn't claim to be; I hear people in the rooms say all the time, "we don't have a cornerstone on recovery." I heard a story of a "friend of a friend" getting clean via a Buddhist recovery center. 

In short, I am a reasonable man. I don't believe in the Zodiac or any hogwash claims that generally fool our impressively stupid population. I have a Psy. D, am a CAC III (highest level of addiction therapist in Colorado) and when I want to verify something, I usually look to peer reviewed journals. But even with my credentials, when I meet someone in my personal life, I NEVER say, "Go to a Therapist." I say, "Come to a meeting with me."

You can tell me all day that an experiment reduced all extraneous variable and has established a causative link between PIzza Hut's Cheese Pizza's being the best tasting Pizza out there (I'm not an idiot and I do understand that this would never happen), but all the data in the world won't convince me as thoroughly as eating a slice of pizza.

AA/ NA works. I think AA in particular relies on the notion of "God" a little too much, but oh well. The idea of a psychic change is really what it is all about.

Ray Watters
Ray Watters

@jeanne SmithYour last two statements say it all.  No AA person dares question your comment since you have already judged them to be self-righteous by your own self-righteousness.

That is the true shame.

Ray Watters
Ray Watters

@jeanne Smith "It seems like the only people who really benefit from AA are the "sober" people who can only get jobs in AA treatment facilities."

Sorry to disappoint, but I have been sober for 18 years and do not work in an AA treatment facility. 

 "Go ahead AA, self righteous hypocrites and tell me how I lack serenity because that is what you do best. "

And you call people in AA judgemental??

Jeanne, clearly something happened in your life that has caused you to be angry with AA.  That is too bad.  I hope you get over your anger before it causes you any further harm.

Jack Shuman
Jack Shuman

@Skip HerdonSuperficially it might sound like you're making a valid argument.

"Our real purpose is to make ourselves of maximum use to God". (The Big Book, 3rd & 4th Editions, page 77.) 

So is AA's purpose to keep people sober or to make themselves of maximum service to God, the one and only God, the AA God?

Was Bill W. making himself "of maximum use to God" when he 13-stepped newcomers?  If so, what kind of God is that AA God of yours?

Just curious.

And Danny expects to be taken seriously.  Amusing.

Darryl Keith
Darryl Keith

@Skip Herdon 

If you read all the comments I think you might  get an idea why.

I don't think anyone is suggesting that it would be good to have hundreds of thousands of people driving drunk and killing people - sober by AA or any other method - or even a "non-alcoholic" driving drunk.

Jon Stewart
Jon Stewart

Thanks Laura. I think the internet offers a new transparency, in other words lots of ways in which people can communicate recovery methods, what works and what doesn't. 

I left AA convinced I would drink and die, that hasn't happened. There are better ways to stay sober, and anyone with internet access can find and discuss them on forums such as this, or blogs such as yours or mine. 

That hasn't always been the case. The internet's a real game-changer in that respect.

"Leaving AA, Staying Sober" at

Thomas Byrn
Thomas Byrn

@Laura Tompkins Wow Laura you sure are emotionally charged about this entire discussion. Did you have a bad experience with AA personally? Are you a person in recovery that has found a better way to live sober? If so I am happy for you but you sound so angry and non tolerant of the views of others. I am just interested why you are so emotionally invested in this. A those not sharing your opinion are belittled. Were you part of one of those "real families" that were neglected? Sean Sean

@William Cooper The thing is, you've been brainwashed for 37 years (it happens very fast) so you are blind to see all the fanatics that fill the rooms of this borderline cult.  But hey, if it helps you hopeless drunks (apparently only 5% stick around) then good for you.  And society is also much better with less winos stumbling around on our streets.  I hope I did not offend - but you A.A.'s are models of spirituality with love and tolerance after all so I'm sure I didn't.  Hahaha yeah right!   

Laura Tompkins
Laura Tompkins

Exactly. You do know how you know when a stepper is lying? They're moving their lips. (Or in this case his hands on a computer. ) What a load of 'how it works' dung.

Philip L
Philip L

@Rick Stevens 

It's easy to point your finger at anyone's faults.

Do you expect someone to be perfect after two years of recovery, after a life of shooting dope?

How about congratulating them on rebuilding their life and wishing them well in progressing further in the future.

Laura Tompkins
Laura Tompkins

@Stephen Andrews @jeanne Smith BILLshit.  That -- blame game  and all-or-nothing dogma of the 12 steps is what causes binge drinking and depression and suicide.  Robin Williams is an excellent example of "how it works.'  Promptly after leaving Hazelden, the mothership of the 12 step cult, he hung himself.  Coincidence?  NO.  

"If someone isn't "working the steps,: then they are not clean.  Period."  Crazy talk.  Most people with a substance use (DISORDER NOT DISEASE) DO achieve 'cleanliness' whether they worship your AA god or not.  You are brainwashed within an inch of your life.  Stop spreading this dangerous cult religion.  

Paul Peterson
Paul Peterson

@Ray Watters - Maybe Jeanne is tired of the self-righteousness of many A.A. groups and certainly the literature that they parrot:

"Unless each A.A. member follows to the best of his ability our suggested Twelve Steps to recovery, he almost certainly signs his own death warrant" - Bill W., 12X12 (Trad 9) p. 174

And the We Agnostics chapter that calls agnostics and atheists and other kinds of non-believers: 

"Cynically Dissecting Spiritual Beliefs" (p. 48), "Handicapped By Obstinancy" (p. 48), "prejudiced" and "unreasoning prejudice" (p. 48) "Rather Vain" (p. 49), "No Reasonable Conception Whatever" (p. 49), "Biased And Unreasonable" (p. 51), "Prey To Misery And Depression" (p. 52), "Couldn't Make A Living" (p. 52), "Full of Fear" (p. 52), "Our Ideas Did Not Work" (p. 52), "We Couldn't Quite Step Ashore" (p. 53), "Leaning Too Heavily On Reason" (p. 53), "Abjectly Faithful To The God Of Reason" (p. 54), "Whirling On To A Destiny Of Nothingness" (p. 54), "Fooling Ourselves" (p. 55), and on and on. 

Is Jeanne being anymore judgemental than that crap?

Mirek Lobasz
Mirek Lobasz

@Jack Shuman You need to read the Steps.  It's God "as you understand God. " There is no AA god.  Making yourself of maximum use to God "as you understand God" could be as simple as helping the next alcoholic and, thereby, helping yourself to stay sober, however that works.  

If you are against "helping" as a general principal, they I can see why you would be so vehement in your objections to AA.

One of the great things about the program is that AA does not judge if we are saints or sinners. AA lets you join if you are ready to quit drinking. If you want to drink again, there are no AA goons out there to prevent you, but there will always be someone to welcome you back if you decide to try giving up again.

Skip Herdon
Skip Herdon

@Jack Shuman Jack .. it does seem to be a fact .. that like it or not .. AA does help a large number of people to abstain from drinking.  I can agree with the detractors right-down-the-line as to their points.  Was Bill Wilson a 'saint'? NO!  Was President Clinton or Kennedy (as regards to the female population).  Bill Wilson acknowledged himself he was not. Is AA the only way?  How could it be because there was no AA when Bill Wilson got sober.  Does AA work for everyone?  NO!  Is AA for everyone? NO! Do the 12 steps work for everyone? NO! 

But it does work for some!  So why not just let-it-be?  This entire discussion is outside of AA's 10th Tradition.  AA boils down to this .. one alcoholic working with another alcoholic.  There was NO book and NO steps until the late 1930s.  Yet people were getting and some staying sober sans todays methods.   


Popular Stories

The Future of Food

  • Why Food Matters

    Why Food Matters

    How do we feed nine billion people by 2050, and how do we do so sustainably?

  • Download: Free iPad App

    Download: Free iPad App

    We've made our magazine's best stories about the future of food available in a free iPad app.

See more food news, photos, and videos »