April 5, 2022

Alcoholics Anonymous & the Unhealthy Practice of “Learned Helplessness.”


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I received a phone call on Friday that reminded me about everything that still annoys me when it comes to Alcoholics Anonymous.

I hadn’t heard from Becky (not her real name) in a long time. Now maybe it was my own feelings of guilt or paranoia, but when she asked, “How are you doing?” it did not sound like the benign greeting that we usually hear from our old friends.

It sounded like, “I read that article you wrote a couple of weeks ago about drinking a glass of wine on a long plane ride, so I want to see if you will be honest with me.”

Well, apparently, that was not what she meant. According to her, she simply meant, “How are you doing?”

Regardless, she is a psychologist and has been steeped in the culture of Alcoholics Anonymous for decades, so it was probably the right time to tell her my story. And I did. After I finished, there was a deafening silence. It reminded me of one of those entrapment calls you hear on “Dateline” when the cops try to get one friend to make another friend admit to a crime on tape so they can get a warrant or something.

I should’ve enjoyed the silence while it lasted because it was then followed by predictions of my obvious demise from a fentanyl overdose (no, I’m not exaggerating) in a dark alley that I’ll probably be living in after I stop paying rent on my apartment and drift quite naturally into the seedy part of town. To use the word “alarmist” would be similar to using the word “miffed” when you find out your best friend and your wife ran away together after hooking up behind your back since the week after your wedding.

I have been questioning the 12-Step mindset for a couple of years now, and this phone call did nothing to change my mind. As a matter of fact, it further solidified my contempt.

The “all or nothing” belief that if a person struggled when they were younger, they will go right back to the same struggle in middle age is tiresome and exaggerated. I mean, I’m not saying that isn’t the case with a percentage of the population, but it is the cocksureness these A.A. devotees possess that gets under my skin.

The whole “we know you better than you know you” attitude. The way they infantilize every single person who has ever attended a meeting. The way they try to remind you that you are a “sick” person and will be until the day you die—which, by the way, is only moments away now that you have stopped raising your hand every night and calling yourself an alcoholic. I mean, what could possibly be worse than not drilling those happy thoughts into your head every day?

But what is even worse is the fact that after 20 years, Becky and I are no longer friends. I mean, I’m sure I could probably rekindle what we once had. All I would have to do is admit that alcoholism is an incurable disease over which I have no power and attend meetings regularly for at least a year. At that point, her sponsor would probably suggest it’d be okay to talk to me as long as she keeps strong boundaries.

To me, there’s a certain amount of learned helplessness in that belief system. There’s a rule in A.A. that once a person has relinquished their membership by taking a drink, you must implore them to stop and get to a meeting. In the event of even the slightest pushback, the advice is to cut ties immediately. “They will get you drunk a lot faster than you will get them sober,” says the age-old wisdom.

As far as I’m concerned, if one’s sobriety is so tenuous that they have to attend meetings every week for decades and shun friends who no longer do, then how effective could A.A. possibly be?

The term “learned helplessness” was first coined by the psychologists Martin Seligman and Steven Maier. They did an experiment where they gave dogs electric shocks (a couple of really warm-hearted folks, I’m sure) so many times that the dogs stopped trying to avoid them altogether. The dogs just reached a point where they decided they were powerless over the situation and simply stopped trying.

Powerlessness is the major component of 12-Step philosophy. As soon as a person begins to believe in themselves, they are in severe danger. Some of the crustier old-timers actually reached out to me when I was shopping for my book to warn me to give up on the whole idea. Individualism, pride, ego—these things are seen as poisonous.

Free will is another idea that people in 12-Step programs see as destructive. The idea is that, not only are you powerless to change anything in your own life, but you must also always remember that, should things start to improve, you owe it all to God’s will. You have nothing to do with it.

But here is my rather complicated caveat: this program worked for me. I managed to stay sober and abstinent for a long time. This program gave me a precedent to look to when I decide I want to stop again. However, I simply cannot agree that the only two choices on this planet are to continue going to meetings and accepting my wholesale powerlessness forever or be relegated to “jails, institutions, and death.”

Humans are more complicated than this. I begrudge no one who decides this is how they want to live. I kind of wish I could get the same respect for how I want to live. Unfortunately, there is no room for nuance in A.A.

And at this late stage of my life, I no longer deal in absolutes.


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