criticism of AA

My Thoughts On Huff Post Therapist’s Criticism Of Alcoholics Anonymous

Laura Tompkins is a “certified addiction specialist” who blogs at the Huffington Post. She just penned a slam piece against all that is “negative” and “wrong” about Alcoholics Anonymous, entitled, appropriately enough, Is Alcoholics Anonymous Negativity Based?

Ms. Tompkins repeats some of the same tired arguments about The Program and offers some truly frightening advice as well — that some alcoholics may indeed be able to drink in safe moderation under the careful guidance of a — you guessed it — a certified addiction specialist such as herself. This is Rational Recovery meets Smart Recovery with a sprinkle of Stupidity.

Of course, she’s entitled to her opinion, but Ms. Tompkins is not an alcoholic and therefore has no idea what it’s like to be one. She obviously has very limited experience with AA because her statements are, in large part, completely untrue. And like most critics of AA, she offers zero alternatives or “solutions” to what she perceives as the problem with AA — other than “don’t go to AA. It sucks.” The fact remains, and will remain, that with a meeting in every community in the country, AA remains the most available and affordable recovery program in the history of the United States. The program has historically been subject to criticism, but has saved millions.

With that said, allow me to critique Ms. Tompkins’ critique of AA based on real, personal experience. (Oh, by the way, I went to Hazelden too, where signs with all those AA slogans Ms. Tompkins mocks greets new patients on the ride in. I’m sure they are mortified at her article because Hazelden was founded on AA principles). Ms. Tompkins writes:

If you go to an AA meeting they will tell you the only requirement is a desire to stop drinking. They will then require you to announce and declare to the room and God that you are an alcoholic. You are an alcoholic who will never recover. You must never pick up a drink again. They proceed to put you in a no-win position of pronouncing that you are an alcoholic at the beginning of every meeting, and every time you speak at all for that matter. Even if you are announcing that the cookies are running low and you need more money for the bad coffee everyone is swilling, you must announce that you are an alcoholic. A paragraph from Chapter 5 of the AA book is read aloud.

This is what most of my clients hear: Follow us or you will fail. If you do not recover, you are a dishonest and unfortunate idiot, and you were born a dishonest and unfortunate idiot. You will die painfully, full of shame for your innate inability to be honest with yourself. Even worse, if you are mentally and emotionally ill (which is highly probable), you will only recover if you follow our path completely and do not rock the boat.

First, there is no requirement in AA that you announce yourself as an alcoholic, although for most, like myself, it’s the first time that an entering alcoholic becomes honest with themselves. I say, “Hi, I’m Dick, I’m an alcoholic” with pride and courage, knowing that I’m facing up to my disease and my lifetime struggle with it. I’m sure my wife doesn’t mind that I fess up to reality a few times per week at AA meetings. The reference to God is purely gilding the lily. As the literature makes clear, you don’t have to believe in God. The suggestion is to find a Higher Power other than yourself.

Second, having graduated from Hazelden (where I attended its amazing 30 day program) Ms. Tompkins should know that alcoholism is an incurable, progressive, terminal and ultimately fatal disease that lasts one’s lifetime. Just ask the American Medical Association. She says AA promotes the notion that alcoholics will never recover. That’s just pure b.s. It’s more like “we’re always in recovery.” For an alcoholic to believe that she is “cured” and no longer needs any form of recovery is a very dangerous place indeed, and a sure path to relapse and using. Just ask all those who “came back” to the program. Most will say that they stopped going to meetings, stopped doing recovery related activities, and that first drink started to look real good.

The second paragraph is just pure inflammatory rhetoric. No one in the rooms would ever call anyone a dishonest and unfortunate idiot — unless they deserved it! I’m just kidding. No one talks like that at meetings. But I read somewhere that addicts do tend to lie once in a while….

But Alcoholics Anonymous also pushes members into believing that any deviance from the program is a slippery slope, and a relapse is a slow death. Negative? You betcha. Many of those who end up in an AA meeting recover on their own; many are even able to practice drinking in moderation. But AA meetings would never hear from these people since members are not allowed to talk about successful moderation.

This statement demonstrates that state licensing authorities should consider revoking Ms. Tompkins’ certification. A true alcoholic can never, EVER, drink in moderation or safety. Those folks Ms. Tompkins refers to were never true alcoholics in the first place. Maybe “problem” drinkers, but not real alcoholics who are powerless over their consumption of the spirits. And why in the world would Ms. Tompkins ever counsel a patient with a drinking problem, however severe or not, to go back to drinking? That’s pure reckless advice.

Entrusting a complete stranger who has no training or competency in mandated confidentiality is ill-advised, and yet it is encouraged and practiced every day in AA. That is, if the person gets to the fifth step at all. The majority of people with whom I work do not make it past step three, and they are vilified in AA for not completing all 12 steps. Why stop at step three? The rest of the steps are about personal morality, confession, removal of character defects, discovering personality shortcomings, making amends, and continually turning your will and life over to the care of a higher power. The steps are negative affirmations that keep the alcoholic always in a state of blame and dependent on a higher power, the group and AA meetings.

Ms. Tompkins ends her critique with a self-serving argument about confidentiality and sponsorship. Your sponsor is not a “complete stranger.” For most AA’s, their sponsor is one of the closest people in their lives and will surely respect the confidentiality. You can also do a 5th Step with a clergyman, rabbi, spiritual adviser and even a therapist like Ms. Tompkins. But perhaps Ms. Tompkins is looking for new patients by attempting to scare potential AA’s from the program.

In my experience, no one is vilified in AA for not completing the steps. I know a lot of folks who have strong sobriety and have never formally done the steps. I know some who have done some but not all the steps. And I know folks who are very into the Steps. No one cares. They care only if you are struggling or drinking or can’t get to a meeting. Just getting to a meeting is plenty for most folks.

Lastly, if Ms. Tompkins truly believes that taking a personal inventory, admitting one has been wrong in the past, making amends to those we’ve hurt and seeking help in a higher power is a negative, she is truly delusional. Ask any family member of a recovering alcoholic if those steps are a negative, and they will laugh in your face.

Of course, Alcoholics Anonymous has survived since 1935, and will continue to survive and grow, despite such criticisms from the likes of Ms. Topkins. Pursuant to its tradition of not commenting on anything publicly, you will never hear the AA organization defend itself in the media and social media. And they don’t have to. The program speaks for itself. However, for those of you who are in recovery and have benefited from AA and feel so inclined, feel free to comment on the article in support of AA.

One day at a time…



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