As the pandemic hit the UK last March, disrupting people’s lives and pushing everything from work to parties online, one small group of the population had to learn to deal with things in a completely new way. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) – one of the most popular recovery programmes for alcoholics – was forced to take meetings online.
Getting this right was paramount. Alcohol abuse in the UK has increased since the onset of the pandemic, with one in five people telling Alcohol Change UK that they were concerned about the amount they’d been drinking since coronavirus restrictions began. While the move online worked for some members, others found themselves looking to other methods of recovery in the absence of face-to-face meetings.
Luckily, Alcoholics Anonymous isn’t the be all and end all of recovery. In fact, without the weekly meetings, some found themselves rejecting the AA ideology altogether, forging a new path for their own sobriety.
Claire, 59, from Merseyside, was nine-and-a-half years sober when AA moved online in March. Her name has been changed to protect her privacy. “I attended three online AA meetings on Zoom, which I hated, because it was distracting. I was used to attending meetings in a neutral place so being in my home made me feel self-conscious and intruded on,” she says. “I was active on two local recovery groups on Facebook and I stumbled upon a different Facebook group by mistake, thinking it was another generic 12 step recovery group, like the ones I had been a member of for years, but it was very anti-AA.”
Claire stuck around and listened because the things people were discussing “resonated” with her. People in the group shared resources, like Monica Richardson’s revelatory documentary The 13th Step, which exposed a culture of sexual harassment and abuse within the 12-step AA programme, and The Freedom Model: Escape the Treatment and Recovery Trap, a self-help book offering an alternative solution to addiction.
These led to her turning away from AA entirely. Contrary to popular belief, leaving AA did not mean relapsing for Claire. In fact, she says she feels “better than ever” and has embarked on a journey of moderate drinking and plans to address her past traumas with a trained professional - something which AA didn’t give her a chance to do.
“AA encourages you to look at your past resentments and look for your part in them, then tell everything to your sponsor who is untrained and often not well themselves,” Claire says. “I told my sponsor about deeply traumatising things that had happened to me in my past, but what I really needed was real therapy for closure – not to be told that those things were partly my fault because I was drunk.”
Claire isn’t alone. Facebook groups like the ones she mentioned earlier have seen an uptick in members since the first lockdown began. One group, named Deprogramming from AA or Any 12 Step Group, saw an uptick of 400 new members in the last year, growing from 600 to just over 1,000. Another group called Fighting the 12 Step Delusion grew from 1,000 to 1,600, a sharp increase after three years in action.
Such groups are a place for people to share their gripes with programmes like AA and gain support to explore the prospect of leaving without relapsing into alcohol dependency.
“The pandemic may have been a catalyst to my leaving AA,” London-based John, 45, tells VICE. His name has also been changed to protect his identity. “However, I’d been unhappy in AA for a while, despite having a few good friends and a couple that I would describe as close.”
Like Claire, the pandemic gave John “more time to study, read and collect my thoughts”. He eventually began to dial down his attendance of AA meetings and did “recovery-related” activities during the times he would have usually attended a meeting.
Unlike Claire, John has decided to remain abstinent, as this is what suits him best. As an atheist, the religious and controlling aspects of AA are what eventually turned him off the programme. He says that “AA has a sacred text: the book, Alcoholics Anonymous, also known as the Big Book,” which was written by AA’s prophet-like co-founder, Bill Wilson.
“I'm not suggesting that all members view Wilson as a prophet but it is a common belief that his inspiration to write the Big Book was divine. This is problematic to say the least.”
He went on to say that members are told they “need to believe in the power of prayer” and treat their diagnosis (i.e. of alcoholism as a disease) as an unwavering fact - something that other forms of recovery don’t always agree with.
Dr Charlie Orton, the CEO of UK SMART Recovery - another well-known recovery programme focusing on “behaviour, harm reduction and empowerment” - believes strongly that addiction recovery is not a one-size-fits-all.
“Twelve-step fellowship programmes are well known because they have been around since the 1930s. They are proven to be highly effective but tend to adopt the following approach: view addiction as a disease; focus on the substance; strive for complete abstinence; believe in a higher power to make people get better,” says Dr Orton.
But addiction isn’t necessarily a disease, she adds. Substance misuse is often a matter of “learned behaviours”. While addiction is characterised by the specific biological and physical mechanisms that occur when somebody has become dependent on a substance, the acts that perpetuate substance misuse to the point of being problematic are, Dr Orton says, these repeated behaviours.
“These learnt behaviours usually come about through experiencing trauma or distress and provide a protective, soothing or relieving effect that is unique to the individual and their lived experience,” she tells VICE. “It is a way of the brain protecting itself from trauma, anxiety or fear.”
AA’s dogmatic approach to recovery, then, can be damaging to people like California-based Tim*, 48, who continued to relapse while following the 12 steps. Like Claire and John, his name has been changed to protect his privacy.
“I didn't realise how unhappy I was in AA until I attended an outpatient drug treatment program after a hospitalisation for alcohol abuse,” he says. “Several of the counsellors had doubts about AA, to my eternal gratitude, and recommended an alternative grounded in psychological techniques and is non-judgmental, non-hierarchical, non-shaming and very empowering.”
Tim left AA when the pandemic began to stop face-to-face sessions last year and tried out SMART Recovery instead. “I was on the fence about leaving AA because I believed what I was told - that if I left I would relapse and eventually either lose everything or die. This message is said at every meeting, in the passages that are read and spoken by its members. It can even become a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.”
He no longer blames himself for relapsing in the past. “[AA] members will always, always believe that any failure is their own fault and never [a fault of] the 12 steps. This kind of dogmatic, rigid thinking does not work for me at all.”
While AA definitely works, it doesn’t work for everyone and it’s important to remember that recovery from an addiction can take many forms. As Dr Orton says: “Everyone in recovery is an individual with different lived experiences, different motivations, mindsets and cultures. However, they all want the same thing and that is to break their cycle of unhelpful or damaging behaviours in order to lead a more healthy, balanced life.”