When you feel as if you have a drinking or drug problem, most people will tell you to go to a meeting. They say AA is free and it works. When you go to your first AA meeting, it is likely you’ve already heard a lot about it. Friends, family, doctors and mental health professionals and even the media have made you think that you are attending the most successful program for alcoholics ever invented. You may feel you are “unique” and “special” and for some people, they begin to feel a certain amount of pride for being included in a secret group.

Being a part of a special group staves off the inherent loneliness that often comes with heavy drinking and drug use. You stick around for a while because you feel a part of something important. It can be quite alluring when you’ve been drinking and drugging for years and you are deeply lonely and desperately in need of love and socialization. Your membership to this “special” club may pull you temporarily out of despair.

But within a short time, usually within one year (most within 30 days), more than 9 out of 10 new AA members leave the organization and don’t come back. Some leave because they want to continue to use substances, while others feel no need for the meetings anymore, and some begin to see through the ruse of AA. They see it for what it is, a cult, and they reject it completely. Approximately 5% will stick around for more than a year and this is where the greatest damage is done.

You may be wondering, if more than 90% of people leave AA, then how has it continued to have such a large membership to this day. That is because there are literally thousands of vulnerable people funneled into it every day by the treatment industry and the legal system. It’s pedaled by treatment as “free aftercare” and used by the courts as an alternative to jail so it never runs out of members regardless of its extremely high rate of attrition. This keeps the cult flush with new bodies who will purchase the “AA approved” literature and place their donation dollars in the basket at every meeting they attend. This keeps the parent organization, AA World Services, Inc., funded with tens of millions of dollars in revenue each year. Their corporate structure is ingenious. It keeps the parent organization with a constant stream of revenue while having absolutely no accountability or responsibility for its members. It’s a wildly successful pyramid scheme.

Along with the dollar placed in the basket at each meeting, there is a much higher cost being paid by its long term members; it is the cost of a lifetime allegiance to a disease of addiction that does not exist. Without the disease concept being promoted, and without the newcomer’s ardent belief in it, there would be no way to keep the newcomer attached to the meeting structure of AA. There would be no fearful motivator in place to drive sales and increase membership. And so the disease propaganda is hammered home at every meeting regardless of the lack of proof of its existence. In these ways, AA is not free – you pay with a limiting and fear based existence that can only be “cured” or kept at bay by perpetual AA meeting attendance and defining yourself as both an “alcoholic” (even though you no longer drink) and as a “person in recovery”. This price is immense, and I watched the cost of being a member slowly destroy my family.

My 11 siblings and I lost our mother to the cult many years ago. Her “recovery” quickly became her most important mission. It was a fear-based mission so compelling to her, that she spent no time at all with her twelve children after jumping into AA with both feet. She was told that her sobriety needed to be her top priority, which meant the fellowship (AA) had to be her top priority, and she bought into it fully.

Eventually she left our home and divorced my father. Her AA lifestyle and her sobriety overshadowed all her other responsibilities. That isn’t free – that is a remarkably high price to pay, especially since the need to put “recovery ahead of her children and marriage” was based on the lie that she needed to do so, or else drink again. And she was told that to drink again, meant jails, institutions or death. Blind allegiance was the order of the day. Her “recovery” defined her.

Sadly, our mother never came back to us. She became an addiction counselor, and every conversation was centered on “dysfunction”, “recovery” or self-help buzzwords that were the order of the day in the cult and her new “recovery centered life”. Even as the youngest sibling, I knew something was terribly wrong with all of it, but I was naive about the actual workings of AA at that young age so I couldn’t place what seemed wrong. I would have to experience it myself years later and become immersed in the cult of AA, to learn just how unnecessary AA is to curb a drinking issue, and just how harmful it is.

As was expected by everyone but me, by eighteen I too became stuck in the AA and treatment trap. A DUI and a lifetime of cult indoctrination pulled me into the mire, and I fell for the message of disease and hopelessness. I had to; the legal system required it. AA became the center of my life for many years.

Like my mother I, too, believed I had to immerse myself in it. I left behind what few friends I still had and worked hard to do what I was told. Here’s the thing, when you attend your first few AA meetings you don’t question the method. It’s a strange experience even for those like me who grew up in it. Yes, there are times it feels like a cult. Yes, people identifying as “alcoholics” and “addicts” while abstinent seems strange. But you are so scared, depressed and wanting a solution that you are willing to ignore the warning signs. It’s not unlike the time you bought your first car. You’re so obsessed with feeling the freedom and status afforded by owning a car; you’re willing to ignore the used car salesman’s obvious bullshit in exchange to get behind the wheel. You concentrate on the nice paint job, the new rims and tires, and you wish your dad wasn’t there questioning the now sweating salesman about the maintenance record and Carfax report. Just buy the damn car, you think to yourself. That’s the AA newcomer – they want desperately to change. They want the craziness and depression to end; they want their family back; and they want the “AA Promises” to be true. They want AA to fix them, so they ignore the cultish talk, the group think, the nonsensical disease-based rhetoric, and the Santa Claus God that’s promised to make it all better.

You end up focusing on platitudes that make a little sense: “Just don’t drink and go to meetings.” I can do that, the newcomer thinks to him/herself. “Meeting makers make it.” I can go to a meeting every day I suppose.  “Take the cotton out of your ears, and put it in your mouth. Then maybe you can learn.” OK, I haven’t been running my life very well, so maybe it’s time to listen, I can do that. And the foundation of losing yourself to the cult begins. Group think replaces your ability and your willingness to think critically and direct your own life.

For those who stay for several months and then years, many pay the highest price of all. They give up thinking for themselves. They give up their freedom to think and do what they want. Many leave their families and friends. Some leave behind lucrative careers and loving marriages. And sadly, some pay with their physical and mental health. And when they take the powerlessness idea to the extreme, and helplessness becomes a way of life, there are those who pay with their lives.

There is a terribly high price for taking on a belief that you’re powerless and allowing a program and total strangers to do your thinking for you.