Common Complaints About AA and Other Spiritual Based Programs


Spirituality has, perhaps, been one of the most misused and misconstrued of concepts and over the years, it has acquired diverse and somewhat conflicting meanings. In the recent past, there has been a growing interest in spirituality among academicians as well as practitioners of management and organisational behaviour. In fact, attempts are still continuing to clearly define spirituality by de-linking it from religion and also identify the quintessential facets, indicators or dimensions of spirituality. “

Skepticism is fundamental to being successful in recovery. If we just blindly walked into an AA meeting trying to get sober, and absorbed every idea, many would call this “brainwashing.” The truth about many spiritual recovery related programs is that they often become exploited, at least in the case of AA, and identified as religious or cult like. It is never wise to approach anything as powerful as a group of people with a certain set of ideas blindly. This can lead to something many fear about taking guidance from others, which is the erosion of one’s personal identity and sacrificing who they are in order to “get better.” If you are a stubborn addict such as myself, chances are you would rather die than give up the one thing you cherish most, which is the true essence of who you are. We bring this topic up because the word spirituality is often confused with being religious - this leads me to the following set of concepts that I have heard many times. I identify this line of reasoning as the “sound board argument.”

Following is the transcription of an anonymous conversation between two friends:

Friend 1: Yeah I mean honestly my recovery consists of making memes and doing a lot of random “fun” stuff, sprinkling in other spiritual and creative activities, and just trying to get out of my comfort zone honestly. Just being alive was stepping out of my comfort zone when I first started this whole thing. Literally everything seems daunting once you take the drugs away.

Friend 2: I feel that. I basically had to move away and start all over again.

Friend 1: Haha yeah, I did that like 9 times. Relocation never seemed to work. It just followed me everywhere.

Friend 2: Well yeah, for me, I figured out that the majority of my problems were external. I’m not mentally ill or anything, I was just being severely abused and dealing with massive amounts of trauma. So I was using the coping mechanism I picked and it made sense, you know? But once I removed myself from that environment and learned to function properly (which was very challenging for at least a few years), I eventually go to a place where I’m more or less fine. I can drink and do all sorts of drugs without any problem now.

Friend 1: Absolutely. I think it is also interesting and where a lot of the controversy stems from is that not everyone who is getting sent to treatment is necessarily an addict or alcoholic. Like there are totally people who can use hard drugs, get off of them, and continue to do them casually or drink a beer here and there. But yeah, man I envy you in that regard (being able to drink or use). For me personally, everytime a drink or a drug enters my body I literally go insane. Like I become possessed in a way it seems like, and within days or hours even, my sole mission in life is to destroy myself. I’ve been hospitalized numerous times because of it. Did you ever go to rehab or anything?

Friend 2: Tons of times. Jail, rehab, NA, AA, the whole nine yards. I did it all, and most of my friends died in the process. I also overdosed numerous times, did sex work, and was in and out of homeless shelters. Oh yeah, and I got Hep C in the process.

Friend 1: Damn well it definitely sounds like this whole thing put you through the ringer. It sounds like you have a powerful story though, I feel like you could help a lot of people by sharing what you’ve been through and give them hope that it’s possible to make it out alive.

Friend 2: Yeah? By doing what?

Friend 1: I guess just by sharing your story and showing people where you’ve been and how far you have come. So many people trapped in that state feel so hopeless, it helps a lot to see people who are happy and free. That’s what helped me personally at least, hearing stuff like that I could identify with or relate to. My story is much different, but the theme is the same. Absolute fucking despair and demoralization.

Friend 2: That’s all recovery people do though, is share their stories. I don’t want people to think I’m part of a cult or religion by doing the same thing.

Friend 1: Well, I mean you don’t have to be in recovery in order to share your story. Programs like AA just give people a platform to make it easier for when people want to do. I would also say it’s less about sharing the story itself more so as it is about sharing hope.

Friend 2: Yeah, that’s cool I guess. But there are millions of people sharing their harrowing stories literally right now as we speak. And millions of people are still going to die. I just don’t see the point really.

Friend 1: Here’s my perspective, and it’s really just that nothing more. Say there are thousands of people telling stories like that, even if there are numbers like 5 or 10 connecting with it and questioning whether or not it makes sense to be trapped in such a state of despair, if one story reaches one person it makes it all worth it.

Friend 2: No I totally feel you on that. Haha you sound like you are so deep in the scene. I don’t say that in a mean way, just saying.

Friend 1: Well, in a way you could say that. I just do a lot of reading and stuff though and have pondered this topic a lot. Honestly I’m close with like two or so people from AA, that’s truly all I needed. It took me many attempts and when I finally found “my people” it clicked. So yeah, it’s not my life or anything. What I’ve taken from it is that spiritual principles are there to teach you how to have a life worth actually living. I try not to identify with any particular scene though as there stigmas coming from every possible side about these things. Everyone is judging everything and the spiritual principles I have learned have taught me to see that.

Friend 2: Well what I meant by that is more like… you sound like every recovery person. “Share your story. Take the good leave the rest. It’s not for everyone. Once I start I can’t stop. If it helps one person, etc.” and using keywords like path, spirituality, powerful, story, connection, recovery, etc.. I’m not trying to be mean, it’s just like you spend enough time in rehab they really start getting to you.

Friend 1: Well the truth is I am technically a “recovery person” and it took me many, many trips on the merry go round between life and death to understand why they say things like this and choose to use such terms. I’m sure to you it sounds like I’ve been “indoctrinated,” and I often wonder the same thing. But I also believe that this is where self-awareness becomes really important. I was fully indoctrinated into a culture of using drugs, and I couldn’t manage to escape that one, so why not try a different, less deadly indoctrination of the sorts? We are all indoctrinated in some form or another, be it consciously or subconsciously. The truth is, I’m less indoctrinated now, however, than I was when I was using. Hell, if it takes switching from one indoctrination to another in order to find freedom, sign me up.

Friend 2: That makes sense. Have you ever seen the video about addiction and human connection? It’s cool because it shows that you don’t need to be indoctrinated in order to be healthy. I’m glad you are clean and feeling better though. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing though, you feel me? Like you said you jumped from hardcore using into hardcore recovery. I wouldn’t want recovery to become my entire life.

Friend 1: Yeah, totally valid ideas there I think. At the end of the day though for me it’s like this. I made a conscious decision to buy into a positive framework of reasoning, which I viewed as really dumb, trivial, and lame for a long long time (sounds to me like mind control to be honest), but after grasping the depth of of what was trying to be conveyed to me my perspective started to change. I feel happiness now for the first time in many years, something therapy, medication, and nothing else has ever been able to do for me. My way of thinking was just so entirely fucked up, and I was delusional about it. So yeah I also did jump into hardcore recovery at first. It’s similar to using drugs and how they medically detox people with tapers.

Friend 2: Definitely. and that’s great. But like encouraging me to share my story and stuff. It’s just super 12 steppy sounding.

Friend 1: Honestly I would tell anyone with a past like yours that if they were comfortable with it, to share their story and try to spread hope. Doesn’t have to be addiction, it could be depression, mental illness, anything really.

Friend 2: Well yeah, but it’s like there is a “soundboard” so to speak for recovery. And you’re just randomly clicking buttons on it.

Friend 1: Well yeah, and that is an extremely interesting point. Recovery, being a collection of people and seen as a “group” sort of has to have a soundboard of some sort, or else the message would become diluted. It’s funny though, because you sound exactly like me years ago. I used to say the same exact thing. I bet that also sounds like a soundboard for recovery though.

Friend 2: Yeah it definitely does. Haha. “I used to be just like you before I joined the program” is just button number 15.

Friend 1: Well what’s wrong with a button though if what I’m telling you is something I identify with as true? If I chose not to share a concept with you just because some other random people say the same or similar things, I would be no better than angsty or non-conformist teenager trying to be rebellious solely for the sake of being rebellious and nothing else.

Friend 2: I guess the reason I’m being critical is that it feels superficial. I would say all the same stuff, sponsor people, lead meetings, be on committees, the whole nine yards. But it wasn’t real, I was just being programmed.

Friend 1: Well I would say I understand your perspective, which I do, but I don’t want to sound like a soundboard for AA. But therein lies the problem of the soundboard logic, something as simple as saying I understand your perspective, which is a secular idea belonging to the world, is reduced to parroting the concepts of a group of people. And add on the stigma of how many view it, and then boom - all the sudden by me saying I understand where you’re coming from I’m a religious fanatic trying to manipulate or convince you to buy into my line of thinking.

Friend 2: Yeah, and when I said it felt shallow.. I finally realized I was just saying things just to say them. I didn’t actually mean it, feel it, or connect to it in any way. I thought I did but I was just in very early recovery and unable to access my true feelings. I didn’t know how I felt, but the Recovery People told me how I was supposed to think and feel for me. So I went with it because it was easier than connecting with myself. I was vulnerable.

Friend 1: Yeah that is a very common thing I think. Haha again, this is going to sound soundboardy (haha get it?), but I did that exact same thing. Eventually, however, I broke through that threshold of shallow parroting and recycling of ideas. Sadly, I have seen people get caught in the mindset of exactly what you are describing, that trap of rhetoric so to speak, keeping them disconnected from who they truly are, say screw this, and die not even two weeks later. Your concern about the matter is very valid though. I think the truth about it is that anyone who walks in or tries this thing is rolling the dice. This aspect of things really boils down to the question of how do we become completely honest with ourselves, though? I know that sounds super AA, but it is also a worldly idea, they converge.

Friend 2: I just think addiction can be treated in ways that are less extreme than AA for a large amount of people. It is definitely a great jumping off point, though.

Friend 1: Absolutely. Personally this is how I see it. Recovery from drugs and alcohol is like a fingerprint, everyone’s is different and it is extremely dumb for anyone tapping into a set of spiritual principles to be of the mindset “this is the only way.” For some people, however, that rings true because if they are like me, they’ve literally tried every other alternative - SMART Recovery, therapy, medicine, literally everything. So those people believe that, but they are saying it is the only way for those who have tried everything else, not that it’s the only way for everyone. I know that sounds like I am utilizing shallow ideas often used by people in the program, but I would feel dumb to not share something just because other people identify with the same truth. For me it’s honestly just about soul searching, nothing more, nothing less. Which, ironically enough, I thought I was doing while I was using drugs and alcohol. I was delusional though. I bring that up to parallel what you mentioned about the shallow indoctrination into a set of ideas and just recycling the mindlesslly, because that’s literally exactly what I was doing before i gave this thing a sincere shot. I think there is bullshit recovery, which admittedly is a large part of this entire scene and industry / group of people, and then there is real, honest, unadulterated work with others and on ourselves. It’s just a matter of deciding which side you want to be on.