Tag Archives: AA

“A New High” Proves AA Is Not The Only Road to Recovery

When most Americans think of addiction and overcoming it, Alcoholics Anonymous, more commonly known as AA comes to mind. For most of the country, AA is often seen as the punch line of a joke and conjures up images of a meeting in a church basement with a circle of chairs and complimentary coffee in paper cups. But as the new documentary “A New High” shows, there’s a new recovery program that’s hoping to give AA a run for their money.


“A New High” is a documentary exploring the idea of rehab in a non-traditional way. The film chronicles the lives ofthose addled by addiction, some with shattered lives who have had multiple unsuccessful attempts to rebuild their lives and themselves. These people have found themselves in the care of Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission and dynamic former Army ranger, Mike Johnson. Johnson recruits a group of addicts to climb the 14,400-foot Mount Rainer, in hopes that the climbing of the physical mountain will help them to be able to climb and overcome their own personal mountains within.


“This climbing thing, it gives them a chance to write a new story, a story of success, a story of hard work, the chance to be part of the team,” says Johnson. “It’s up the mountain, or it’s down into the grave.”

Johnson isn’t exaggerating the severity of the situation these people are in.

“The only thing that’s going to happen if I ever relapse is death,” said one of the climbers. “It’s not the way I was raised, it’s not who I am.”

Johnson’s program is so exciting, because it is potentially offering new opportunities to addicts who feel that rehab at AA may not be the right path for them. A growing movement is mounting, rejecting the idea that AA is the only road to recovery and millennials might be the leaders of this charge.

Recovery That’s Outside The Box

Creative, entrepreneurial, and accepting, millennials have made the gay/straight question about as exciting as left-handed or right-handed. They are playing jazz with tired definitions and assigned boxes and they seem to be doing the same with recovery.

According to AA there are 2,040,629 active members worldwide. In the grand scheme of a problem like addiction that number seems low. According to a study done in 2014 by the New York State Office of Alcohol and Substance Abuse Service (OASAS), there are 23.5 million Americans who describe themselves as being “in recovery”. That’s roughly 10% of the American population and 21 million more than AA’s global membership. That proves that AA must not be the only treatment available.

“You just feel so different from everyone else,” said another one of the climbers. “I just never did anything like this, I never thought I could.”

But this documentary begs the question; can an alternative program like this one work? Dr. Scott Bienenfeld, MD, a psychiatrist specializing in addiction says he thinks it can.

“Setting a goal to reach the summit of a mountain would require many of the things we suggest for people attempting to stabilize an addiction,” says Dr. Bienenfeld. “Vigorous physical activity, commitment, accountability and above all, peer support are all necessary requirements.”

Dr. Bienenfeld, who founded Rebound Brooklyn, a medical recovery program for people with substance abuse problems and addiction treatment, goes on to explain more about why AA’s success varies depending on the person.

“The reason AA works for some people is because they are doing something with other people and without intoxication,” says Dr. Bienenfeld. “Being a part of a team, training, goal setting and reaching those goals with other sober people is the kind of mutual help that can keep someone clean.”

Be a part of something bigger

It appears that the reoccurring theme and key when it comes to recovery is to feel like you are a part of something bigger than you. Reading a book in a church basement doesn’t seem to have a monopoly on active participation.

“AA is a great organization but it only works if it works for you,” says Dr. Bienenfeld. “If it doesn’t work, find something else that does.”

With the millions of American families, individuals and communities decimated by addiction when it rears its ugly head, certainly mountain climbing can’t be the solution to a complex and ancient problem. The take away from the film is inspiration, but Johnson sums it up the best:

“I choose joy. I’ve never found myself able to give up on anybody, because I believe in change. Because I saw it. You can do this and if you do, you will never be the same.”

A NEW HIGH will be screened on Saturday, Nov 14, at 9:15pm as part of DOC NYC at the IFC theater. Tickets available at www.docnyc.net.

This post originally appeared on MillennialMagazine.com

Recovery Madness. Can Recovery and Legalization Coexist?

“Recovery” is a broad definition but only if you look. On the surface, the accepted cultural definition is “totally abstinent person in AA”. As an added bonus “became a drug counselor and now helps others”. It’s a beautiful story and representative of almost nobody, there are a few outliers and exceptions but for the most part, that story is a cliched folk lore. Abstinence is a nice ideal, especially for the people around the individual who “needs to be sober” but in the grand scheme, like most ideals, it’s rare. The recovery community is much like the tea party, rigid, opposed to science, locked in their beliefs with no room for interpretation. When the framers wrote the constitution “we the people” meant “we the white male people” it’s been centuries and many growing pains to expand that definition to include everyone else. Recovery is the same. At the moment “recovery community” means “totally abstinent folks in AA” While AA claims “2 million members”, SAMHSA says “20 million Americans are in recovery”. Who are these other 18 million people?

Founded in the 1930s AA has changed little if at all since then. The beat goes on, knowledge has increased, medications can help, other forms of treatment exist but AA remains it’s stagnant and judgemental self. The reliance on a “spiritual shift” and denial of “requiring a belief in God” is but one of the holes through which one could drive a truck. There are many others and yet millions claim AA saved their life, the great irony is, I am one of them. AA has been a great experience and organization for me to which I owe much. One of the things I think I owe AA is unmerciful honesty and the truth is, AA is like the orthodox Jewish enclave on the south side of the Williamsburg bridge, the difference being, Williamsburg Jews aren’t claiming their way of life is the only way of life. So while AA works for me, that doesn’t mean it works or can work for all. I’m also a devout Catholic but 700 million Hindus don’t quite see it my way. They aren’t wrong and neither am I. At the moment, AA sits in judgement and futility, effectively asking millions of Hindus to join their party and believe that a virgin gave birth to God.

Marijuana Legalization and Harm Reduction

One of the cultural trends in the recovery community is to demonize legalization of marijuana. It’s like folks who are pro life, rather than focusing on how to reduce abortions, they chose to focus efforts on criminalizing abortions. Same with drug policy. The truth is, we could reduce the use of lethal dose substances with the legalization of a substance with no known lethal dose. Whatever one thinks of marijuana, it is categorically not crime. Like skateboarding, “weed is not a crime”. Maybe it’s a good health decision for some conditions, maybe it’s not but crime it’s not. Maybe people like to get high and like Pope Francis “who am I to judge?”.

20 years ago, I gave up intoxication in all forms. It was the right choice for me although there are days I wonder if that is true. While Monday morning quarterbacking goes nowhere, I can say that I have had an amazing life, rife with adventure, fun, highs and lows. In terms of lives, mine is a great one, far from perfect as the average 12 stepper will claim, but I have much for which to be grateful and I am. One of the hardest aspects of my weird life is having to watch people knuckle under to the plague of heroin addiction. It’s heart wrenching as anyone who has experienced will tell you. The hopes of “being better” with the rug pulled from under the hope. Sadly, many don’t make it out of the mire of opiate addiction. I have experienced it, I’ve watched people drink themselves to death and then listened to the “danger” of a dispensary rhetoric with no mention of a bar. Huh? What did I miss? In America, 120 people a day drop dead of an overdose, ZERO of them while using cannabis. Where is the compassion of the recovery community? Where is the advocacy for saving lives even if ones version of recovery doesn’t match mine?

Rehabs are largely AA indoctrination camps, while some are progressing away from the act of providence model, most aren’t. Patients are told 12 step life is their way out and while it may be for some, for most it isn’t. On the off chance that someone finds their way into an AA meeting post treatment, he likelihood that they stabilize for life is negligible. There are land mines all over AA, one of them is finding a sponsor who refutes medication. “My sponsor says I have to come off my medication” is an all too familiar refrain I have heard often times from young guys looking for leadership. “Your sponsor? The plumber? Tell your sponsor you’ll follow advice of your doctor, the doctor” is my general response.

Harm minimization is the kryponite of the AA zealot. They hate it. It’s counter to their deeply held belief but the truth is, harm minimization saves lives. If someone shoots dope, binge drinks, or is caught in the holy trinity of death: cocaine, Xanax, and alcohol, and they switch to and maintain with marijuana, that’s a big win in my world. Who among us who has lost someone to addiction wouldn’t take that person back if they maintained with marijuana?

The recovery community needs to face some realities. Marijuana legalization is here and demonize get it wont change that. It’s also time to be honest about the potential strength that marijuana has to be an exit drug, exit from the looming death of egregious drug use. As an interventionist and a person in long term recovery, I am supposed to follow the herd and hammer the belief that total abstinence is always the goal but I won’t do that. It may be the best for some, others may benefit from an interim step on the way to total abstinence. As always, all drug policy is effective to the degree that it is infused with honesty. The honesty is, legalization is good drug policy at a macro and micro level.

Quitting Drinking Found to Extend Life and Ability to Dispense Unsolicited Advice

Quit Drinking

Success in AA Includes Ability to Dispense Advice to Virtually Everyone About Virtually Anything

AA is an organization that is riddled with holes and contradictions. It happens to work for me. The steps are something I found to be very useful as a focal point of effort and ideals for which to strive. The fellowship of mutual help and peers was critical to my success in sobriety. I am lucky. Very lucky. The first time I walked into an AA meeting and thought “these guys look like guys I could have known at USC” it was life altering, more than anything, it made being sober ok and as a young man, I needed that permission. That era of my life was fun. I had friends, we had a robust life exploring Manhattan in a pack with few limitations other than not getting drunk. While I have great gratitude for AA and the people who helped me, I understand it’s not a fit for everyone. What’s the big deal? Isn’t that why they make chocolate and vanilla?

For many, the AA experience can be misery. A lack of connection, not finding the right peers, it can feel like it’s little more than deprivation punctuated by really lousy coffee. This is the life for which I am supposed to stay sober? When I went to graduate school in a Midwestern land grant rural community, AA was a much different thing. Mostly older men, many were cold and unwelcoming to students, the access was restrictive. The mitigating factor was hardly the gossip about the price of corn. Had that been my introduction to AA, my story could have been dramatically different.

AA Slogans for Recovery

AA is nothing if not full of slogans, many that make no sense, some compounded with rhyme as an added layer of mystique and aggravation. Here is a list of some of the more blaring examples, along with the often forgotten component of their meaning.

  1. “You’re as sick as your secrets”. Yet, you’re not supposed to tell anyone about AA, thereby being asked to be part of a secret society. Never mind that it’s not a secret, the pods of people smoking in front of a church is really the cat out of the bag.
  2. “If you’re taking inventories, take yours”. Great advice, seldom heeded. There seems to be a caveat that if YOU were successful you have the right to critique others, endlessly as well as assume role of soothsayer, doctor, clergy and just about any other discipline one might need.
  3. “We know but a little”. This is written in the AA big book but often cast aside for apparently knowing everything that people should do without knowing them.
  4. “Live and let live” but first inform that by not living as we live, you will die. Live on!
  5. “This is a selfish program”. Accurate to be sure. So selfish, in fact, it leaves no room for an individual to self determine.
  6. “Be part of the solution, not the problem”. The problem is complex, deep, wide, and individual. Pontification that you have the solution is a big part of the problem. So be a part of our solution of which we approve or else you will die.
  7. “E.G.O. Edging God out.” For a program that has a minimal requirement of a “desire to stop drinking”, there is an awful lot that must be believed. While the rhetoric is “you’re higher power could be the doorknob” the truth is, you will be an outsider, judged, subtly and not so subtly coerced, patronized and preached to if you in fact dismiss God to the level of a doorknob, never mind if you are a person of questing faith or no faith.
  8. “Be nice to newcomers, one day they may be your sponsor”. Really? For an organization that is so invested in a hierarchy of time, deifying members for being around longer than others, this seems contradictory.
  9. “An attitude of gratitude”. Yes. The rhyme. If ever there were a group of ungrateful people it’s in AA. Humans are not what we say, we are what we do. While other diseases have enjoyed the fruits of community organization and hard work, alcoholism hovers at the same dismal rates of recovery it has for generations. Grateful people work to help the process. Compare alcoholism to breast cancer: Research, walks, fundraisers, pink ribbons, MLB using pink bats to raise awareness and funds. Alcoholism, “hey man, I set up chairs at my meeting”.
  10. “We’re not a glum lot”. Let’s see if this blog gets any eyeballs, then judge for yourself by the comments the level of “glum”.

AA is a great organization to be certain. It is part of Americana that has helped millions of families and individuals. What it isn’t is perfection and something for all who need to address their drinking issue. The truth is, most people “fail” in AA and that has a big by-product of shame. Alcoholism is a complex illness, and not everybody does well in AA, most don’t. I am unique in the AA world being both grateful to it and critical of it. My message is clear, AA works, if it works for you. I have clients who have done well with it and others who abhor it; both groups have achieved and maintained sobriety and both groups haven’t. As always, there are never easy answers. There is no wrong way to get or be sober, don’t let the fear of AA stop you from trying or exploring options.

Is AA the Only Way?

Finding Other Alcohol Recovery Options
This is an age old question and certainly depends on who you ask. AA old timers will say “yes, without God and AA, there is no hope”. While that may be true of their anecdotal experience, it certainly isn’t true from a scientific perspective. The truth is, AA doesn’t allow for any kind of scholarly research, that violates the tradition of “primary purpose is to stay sober and help others achieve sobriety” so nobody empirically knows what AA does or doesn’t do. AA has become a cultural sacred cow, a pillar of health, wellness, hope and healing–and it is but only if that is your individual experience with it. For every person who has become a zealot laden member of the converted there are untold numbers of people who AA just didn’t help. The AA literature will label them “unwilling to go to any length”. So what is the real answer? Like many things regarding addiction and recovery, nobody really knows. There are many self ordained gurus who will claim they know but their sample size is usually 1, themselves. Consider the perspective of SAMHSA,(substance abuse and mental health service agency) the largest research body available on the topic of addiction and recovery. Samhsa reports that “more than 20 million Americans identify as being in recovery” (samhsa.gov). AA reports a fraction of that as global membership. So, who are these other people and what was their road?

Somewhere long the way “recovery” and “AA” became synonymous. That’s a falsehood that permeates the entire culture. When I first launched “Thefix.com” I received numerous letters from AA asking me to stop because “it violates the tradition of anonymity”. It took them a while to get their heads around the idea that by writing about addiction and/or recovery, it wasn’t a site about AA, although there may be references to AA with regard to the traditions. The truth is, there is no wrong way to find what works for you as an individual, it may be AA. People find it a great irony that I am both critical of and a proud member of AA. As a system it’s been great for me and tremendously helpful, so is Catholicism but that doesn’t make 700 million Hindus wrong. AA works of it works for you. If it doesn’t, find something that does.

Finding Other Recovery Options

A new era in addiction treatment is offering more diversified options rather than a 30 day AA meeting. Consider the picture in this article, it’s from a era long since past and yet it’s an accurate depiction of modern 12 step life. There are many ways to go, including harm reduction. Total abstinence is one framework for recovery and it may be the best one. Just like losing 50lbs may be the best bet but losing 25 is a great start and inherently valuable in and of itself. If you’re resistant to 12 step programs, abhorred by them or just curious about options, I can certainly help with that. Don’t let “I hate AA” be the thing to keep you from getting solid help and a new life. This story originally from Salon.com offers the perspective from a leader in the 12 step alternative world.