This was in The Guardian in November and is an interview with Jon Stewart from Sleeper (second from left).
My first day of sobriety was the first day I prayed. I’d always been a staunch atheist; I grew up in Yorkshire during the miners’ strike, and was raised on left-wing politics. When I went to my first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, 15 years ago, God was and always had been the opium of the people. But AA’s 12-step programme demanded, or at least strongly suggested, that I relinquish myself to a higher power. It didn’t have to be God per se, but I was assured that, if I didn’t find something, I’d probably drink myself to death. I was in my early 30s. I’d spent the previous decade as the guitarist in Sleeper, a successful band, touring, partying and, well, drinking. By the early 2000s, I was so desperate to get sober that that “something” could have been anything. I would’ve prayed to Lord Xenu, if that’s what it took.
I had just been your regular steady drinker. In AA, they call it “topping up”. I started when I was a teenager. It was nothing particularly out of the ordinary – I discovered booze, I started going to parties, I had a good time. Although I always seemed to be having a slightly better time than everyone else. I now know that this is to do with the way my brain responds to reward chemicals. Around 10% of drinkers, it’s thought, are overly sensitive to the pleasure stimuli in alcohol, and I happen to be one of them.
It’s generally, though quite simplistically, understood that before you start AA you need to hit rock bottom. Most people with a drinking problem have moments where they wake up and think to themselves, “I’m never doing that again.” I’d had hundreds of them.
But if I were to pinpoint my absolute low, it would be in the summer of 2000. My band had split up and I was living in Los Angeles, playing with other bands and doing session work. It was around this time that I realised I needed, and very much wanted, to stop drinking. In my mind though, I was still on tour, and I was behaving as such. I went along to a couple of AA meetings in the area, but I couldn’t get on board with the God thing. It grated. At the same time, I was coming into contact with people who had been just like me and were now 10 years sober. And that was seductive. Or perhaps just inspirational.
Eventually, my American work visa ran out and I moved back to the UK. I couldn’t seem to organise anywhere to live. I had money, but it seemed like my whole life had ground to a halt. I’d run out of options and, acting on the advice of my doctor, I decided to give AA another try.
In the beginning, I went every day for a month, but I still couldn’t stop drinking. Then at one meeting I met a guy who’d been sober for five years. I asked him to help me and he agreed to be my sponsor. AA has an informal system of “sponsorship”, where newer members are buddied up with more senior ones who look out for them. My sponsor asked me if I was praying. Of course, I wasn’t. He reassured me that AA doesn’t expect you to find God straight away and that I should just keep an open mind. So, initially, I accepted music – something that seemed accessible to me – as my higher power. Then, more specifically, the Beatles became my deity. When I heard that Ringo Starr had “found God” while struggling with his own addiction, I started exploring more structured forms of faith. Eventually, I accepted God myself.
From that point onwards, I was a 12-step evangelist. I prayed every day for 14 years. And I was also sober. I’d be lying if I said that AA didn’t save my life, but it also – towards the end – left me in a state of overwhelming cognitive dissonance. When you’re a hardcore believer in AA, as I was, it’s very easy to block out other possible solutions to your problems. In meetings, seeking outside help is encouraged when necessary, but it’s often another spiritual method, such as mindfulness or reiki. Sometimes, in the more doctrinaire pockets of AA, methods other than the 12 steps are frowned upon.
In AA I met lots of other people who, like me, couldn’t cope with life without a chemical support. This has its pros and cons. There was an intense feeling of camaraderie, which is something I truly needed at the time. These were people who understood this very strange and contradictory thing about alcoholism. That is, when you have a drinking problem, you feel like the drink is the only thing holding you together. I now realise that the rush I felt from being in a room full of people in the same boat as me – the sensation of peace, of God entering in through the ceiling – was simply oxytocin (the human bonding hormone) triggered by the familiar rituals of the meeting. I was mistaking a chemical experience for a religious one.
Then again, I was sober, I felt spiritually awakened and I was spending time in the company of loving people who understood and cared about me. Eventually, probably inevitably, I hit a brick wall in recovery.
AA was founded off the back of a 1930s Christian revivalist movement in the United States. Its doctrine hasn’t changed since that time, meaning that its approach to mental health is now, in my view, severely outdated. The AA programme makes absolutely no distinction between thoughts and feelings – a key factor in cognitive behavioural therapy, which is arguably a more up-to-date form of mental health technology. Instead, in AA, alcoholism is caused by “defects of character”, which can only be taken away by surrender to a higher power. So, in many ways, it’s a movement based on emotional subjugation. The first of the 12 steps insists that you recognise that you are “powerless over alcohol and your life is unmanageable”. So, anything you achieve in AA is through God’s will rather than your own. You have no control over your life, but the higher power does.
AA is still the default treatment for alcoholism in the UK, the US and many other parts of the world. Thousands of people struggle every day with this condition, tragically some even die, without ever hearing about the alternatives. During my 14 years in AA, I saw people come and go largely for two reasons: either they “couldn’t get the God bit”, or they couldn’t maintain abstinence. It’s well known that the 12 steps aren’t about learning to drink in moderation; they’re about never drinking again, one day at a time. Actually AA has somewhat hijacked the word “sober”. To most people the idea that you could have one drink and remain relatively sober is completely reasonable. After all, in most countries you can still legally drink a small amount before you drive. For members of AA, however, “sober” actually means completely “abstinent”. In fact, that’s the only requirement for membership, a desire to stop drinking. The majority of alcoholics, those who may never be able to give up the booze entirely, desperately need to be made aware of the other options now available.
The Big Book (AA’s core text) says: “there is no such thing as making a normal drinker out of an alcoholic. Science may one day accomplish this, but it hasn’t done so yet.” Well, actually it has. In the mid-1990s, an American doctor, David Sinclair, began using an opiate blocker called naltrexone to treat alcoholics. Naltrexone inhibits the euphoria alcoholics get from drinking and allows them to drink normally. This is called “pharmacological extinction”. It means that, eventually, the drinker no longer associates alcohol with a high. (According to AA, that association is never lost.) What became known as the Sinclair Method has now been used to treat thousands of alcoholics in Finland, where he worked. In the rest of the world, naltrexone is largely unheard of (although nalmefene, a similar treatment, is available on prescription in Britain). What’s more, it’s out of patent, which means it’s unattractive to pharmaceutical companies who can no longer profit from it – so they’ve no reason to promote it. Sadly Sinclair died earlier this year, without the international recognition he deserved.
Right now, in the US, a debate is raging over the effectiveness of AA, largely inspired by Obamacare (the Affordable Health Care Act) and its implications for the funding of a “spiritual” remedy for alcoholism and addiction. This in a nation where church and state are constitutionally separated, yet the overwhelming majority of rehabs use 12-step methods.
Last year, retired Harvard psychiatry professor Lance Dodes released The Sober Truth: Debunking the Bad Science Behind 12-Step Programs and the Rehab Industry. In his book, Dodes examines data surrounding AA’s success rate and concludes that the programme is effective for as few as 5-8% of people. We’ll probably never know the real figure, but it’s certainly less than that of naltrexone. In 2001 Sinclair reported a 78% success rate in reducing and, sometimes, cutting out patients’ alcohol consumption altogether.
AA’s apparent ineffectiveness isn’t the only aspect of the fellowship now being called into question. This year Monica Richardson, an American filmmaker and ex-12-stepper who was sober in AA for more than 30 years, won best documentary at the Beverly Hills Film Festival with The 13th Step – a feature-length critique of hidden sexual predation in AA, and the fellowship’s apparent inability to do anything about it.
“Thirteenth stepping” is AA slang for seducing a fellow member. This is usually, though not exclusively, practised by men who take advantage of their immediate access to vulnerable women. There is no formal safeguarding in AA, and everyone is anonymous so there’s no vetting process. Consequently an innocent young women trying to come to terms with a drink problem can find herself sitting in AA next to a man with a serious criminal history, whose record might include violent or sexual offences, and who has in some cases even been court ordered to attend meetings.
So, while AA certainly offers inspirational guidance to help separate the alcoholic from what ails them, it also faces a number of difficult “21st- century problems”. I quit AA when I realised that, for some people, the 12 steps are perhaps no longer the most reliable route to sound long-term mental health. My last meeting was in early January 2014.
Aside from no longer believing in a higher power, I’d developed chronic OCD. My doctor told me that AA wasn’t helping. Fourteen years earlier, a medical professional had suggested that I needed AA. Now one was insisting that it was damaging my health and, what’s more, that I should leave. Soon after, I discovered cognitive behavioural therapy. Whereas AA actively encourages obsessive thinking, CBT challenges it. I finally realised the extent to which AA had in fact been nurturing my anxiety. SMART Recovery is a group that helps alcoholics using CBT rather than the 12 steps. It’s slowly growing here and in America but, unfortunately, is still dwarfed by the size of AA because so few people have heard of it.
It may seem like I’m anti-AA. That’s not true. I prefer to consider myself pro-choice when it comes to treating alcoholism. I owe my life to AA, but that puts me in a very small and very lucky minority. What so many alcoholics don’t know is that there are other options when it comes to treatment. I don’t regret joining AA, but 14 years of it, I now believe, may have been unnecessary. We need to look at why, when our fellowship’s success rate is apparently so low, it still dominates the public discourse on alcoholism and recovery.
The media’s near universal uncritical endorsement of AA may be a factor in this, although things are gradually beginning to change thanks to the power of the internet. It’s never been so easy for people with shared interests to connect, and many bloggers and online activists are working to promote progressive secular options in recovery. I’d encourage anyone with an alcohol problem to try AA, but also to spend time researching the secular alternatives.