Can I Get Sober Without AA?
©Tom Moon, MFT, 2006

Q: I’ve been an alcoholic for several years, and it’s starting to mess up my life. I‘m less effective at work, and I’ve had some fights with my boyfriend about my drinking. I went to a few AA meetings, but what they do isn’t for me! You see, I was raised in a strict fundamentalist Christian home, and my parents disowned me when they found out that I’m queer. I’m an atheist and a humanist. I won’t have anything to do with religion (including when they call it “spirituality”). I can’t deal with the idea that I have to turn my life over to a higher power in order to get sober, which is what they push in those meetings. But people keep telling me I’m doomed to fail if I won’t get into “the program.” I’m not having any luck on my own, but there must be something else I can do besides AA. Got any suggestions?

A: I do. Let me say, first, that I personally have great respect for Alcoholics Anonymous because I’ve seen it transform the lives of many problem drinkers. But while it’s the oldest and most often utilized recovery program, it doesn’t work for everyone, and it isn’t the only option. Solid evidence exists which refutes the notion that AA is the only successful approach to problem drinking. An analysis of more than 12,000 randomly chosen adults in 1996, for instance, showed that three quarters of those who had recovered from alcohol problems had done so without AA. It is possible for you to get sober without having to compromise your own deeply held convictions in the process.

My first suggestion is that you read Sober for Good, by Anne Fletcher. In this book, the author summarizes what she learned from 222 men and women who successfully solved their problems with alcohol. Her “masters,” as she referred to them, had stayed continuously sober for an average of over 13 years, and more than half of them did it without using AA.

Her book challenges many popular notions about the nature of chemical dependency, such as the idea that those who are active in their addictions are in “denial.” Like you, most of her masters were well aware that they had a problem with drinking long before they quit. For some, the biggest challenge was not accepting that they had a problem, but convincing their friends that they did!

Her findings also called into question the notion that you have to “hit bottom,” i.e., suffer devastating losses, before you can finally quit. Fletcher found that, for many in her sample, what turned the tide was a conscious process of taking stock – of weighing the negative consequences of drinking against the pleasures – and deciding that it was time to quit. She found that “many masters reached a turning point without having their lives fall apart or losing all that was dear to them.” In addition, many of them didn’t accept the idea that having a problem with alcohol meant that they were “powerless” over it, or that their lives were unmanageable, as AA’s Step One states. Some found that the idea that they did have control, and could make and carry through conscious decisions regarding alcohol use, were important elements in achieving sobriety. For some (but not all), trust in their own personal efficacy was what helped, not “admitting powerlessness.”

Her most startling finding challenged the idea that, once you have a problem with alcohol, your only option is life-long abstinence. She discovered that a small number of her masters were, after a period of abstinence, able to allow themselves to have an occasional drink without again escalating into problem drinking.

This book casts doubt on the belief that there is a one-size-fits-all disease called “alcoholism,” which is always progressive and always fatal. Rather, there seems to be a continuum of problems with alcohol, from mild to life-threatening, and many ways of coping successfully. I believe you’ll find this book both eye-opening and helpful.

You should also be aware that programs do exist which help people deal with their drinking problems using non-spiritual approaches, and that some of them have been around long enough to have impressive track records. You’ll find these programs more compatible with your beliefs, and you may finally find the help and the support you need to quit. I suggest you investigate two in particular. The first, called SMART (Self-Management and Recovery Training) offers a four-point program based on the scientific principles of cognitive-behavioral modification, rather than on spiritual principles. This program currently sponsors more than 300 face-to-face meetings around the world and 16 online meetings per week. You can learn more about them at www.smartrecovery.org. The second, Secular Organizations for Sobriety, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, offers meetings and literature based on the group’s foundational principles of secularity, sobriety, and self-help. You can learn more about them at www.cfiwest.org/sos/index.htm.

Good luck!