Overcoming Addiction

Healing through harm reduction

How the Media Misrepresents Alcoholics Anonymous

If the media portrayed AA accurately would people stop joining?

I would like to start by saying that I have attended a lot of 12 step meetings; in fact the more 12 step meetings that I attended the worse my drinking became. I finally realized that AA was doing me a lot of harm when I had to check into medical detox so as not to die of the DTs. It was at this point that I left AA and started getting better. AA is not for everyone. So it is very dismaying for me to see AA represented as a cure-all in the media. Not only is AA represented as a panacea in the media—the media also gets all of the details wrong and represents AA as being something very different from what it actually is.

The movie Days of Wine and Roses had a huge impact on shaping the general public's view of alcohol addiction and of Alcoholics Anonymous. If you have not seen the movie then I will tell you what happens—trust me you won't find this to be a spoiler. In this move Jack Lemmon plays a big drunk who marries a nice woman and turns her into a big drunk too. Eventually Jack Lemmon is saved by Jack Klugman who takes him to an AA meeting which changes his life for good and he never drinks a drop again. Meanwhile the wife who stubbornly refuses to attend AA meetings progresses on a downward spiral towards an alcoholic death. This is a great PR triumph for the AA program but it doesn't necessarily represent the truth about the necessity and effectiveness of AA, nor about the typical course of an addiction.

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The National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (NESARC) tells us that the majority of people with an addiction to alcohol will overcome this addiction on their own without AA and without any formal addiction treatment program. Moreover, the recent Cochrane Review of studies on 12 step programs tells us what all of us in the addictions field knew all along: 12 step programs have little effectiveness in keeping people abstinent from alcohol. Maybe it is time for Hollywood to make a movie called Days of Roses and Wine where the wife who refuses to go to AA gets and remains sober through her own choice to quit, whereas her husband who is committed to the AA dogma of declaring himself powerless and diseased remains in a constant state of alcoholic relapse. The research tells us that this is just as likely to happen as the other way around.

In the television series Breaking Bad, Jesse Pinkman undergoes treatment for his heroin addiction. Afterwards we see him attending a meeting which appears to be run by a professional who must be a psychologist or social worker or something to judge from his suit and glasses and general demeanor. Everyone else in the meeting is clearly a newcomer junkie loser from their dress and demeanor. When I saw this I thought that it must be his treatment aftercare group because this is what such groups look like. It was only after Jesse invited his two friends to attend the meeting with him that I realized that this was intended to by the scriptwriters' conception of a 12 step meeting. The problem is that no 12 step meeting ever looks like this.

If you have ever attended a real AA or NA meeting you will find that there are people there from all walks of life equally distributed in styles of dress from businessman to biker. There is not one guru in a suit with a degree who leads the meeting while all the losers follow. The fact is that it is just as likely that the man dressed as a biker will be leading the meeting and the man in the suit will be the newcomer with one day sober.

The media seems to have done a particularly good job of misleading the public into believing that AA meetings are led by professionals or clergy because almost every layman I have spoken to about 12 step groups has expressed shock and surprise when I informed them that AA and NA groups are not led by professionals, they are lay-led.

Another thing which is very conspicuously absent from 12 step programs as depicted in the media are the 12 steps themselves. At every AA meeting I ever attended the readings of "How it Works" and the 12 steps are mandatory. For those of you who have never attended an AA meeting here is an excerpt from "How it Works:" "Remember that we deal with alcohol—cunning, baffling, powerful! Without help it is too much for us. But there is One who has all power—that One is God. May you find Him now!" But I have never heard this read in a TV or movie AA meeting.

In an episode of The Simpsons, we hear Lisa Simpson say, "The first step is admitting you have a problem." In the movie Hancock we see the Will Smith character magically cured of his alcoholism when he admits he has a problem. Unfortunately this is neither the way AA works nor is it the reality of the situation. The first step of AA is admitting that you are POWERLESS; this is a word which I do not hear in the media's representations of 12 step programs. Moreover, people with drug or alcohol problems know that they have problems—what elicits denial is confrontational counseling as has been clearly demonstrated by Dr. William Miller.

I really think that it is past time for the media to stop representing AA as some kind of therapy group and to represent it as it truly is instead. Maybe they could also give some representations of SMART Recovery, Women for Sobriety, SOS, LifeRing, Moderation Management and HAMS Harm Reduction as well. This would truly empower people to make wise decisions about the kind of support group they wish to choose for themselves. Whereas the current state of misinformation from the media leaves people POWERLESS to choose what will suit them best as individuals.

 

Kenneth Anderson, MA, is the founder of Harm Reduction for Alcohol and the author of How to Change Your Drinking: A Harm Reduction Guide to Alcohol.
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