“What are you talking about; of course it’s a disease!” “Once you start drinking you just can’t stop!” “You must keep going to meetings to stay sober one day at a time!” “Yes, I go to meetings every day, but this disease is killing me!” “Well, yes, that first drink is a choice…now you are just trying to confuse me!” “Geeze, you really need to get to a meeting!” “I’ve known people with 20 years of sobriety who picked up right where they left off. Why?…because they stopped going to meetings.” “You can never feel too good; that’s a trigger, too!”

I heard all this and more last week during one conversation with a nice man who has been going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings for nearly 20 years. He has never put more than a few weeks of sobriety together in all that time but he could quote the Big Book verbatim and knew all the slogans. He said he has done all of the steps over and over again, and he just can’t figure out why he’s not staying sober.

Like so many others who struggle with alcohol problems, his binge drinking has become more severe during the 20 years he has been going to AA. Now he and his family are concerned he might kill himself or someone else in a blackout. His sister found the St. Jude Retreats online and thought maybe we could help her brother. She showed him the website and encouraged him to call us. And when he did last week, I got the opportunity to talk with another tragic example of how damaging 12 step indoctrination really is to those seeking help.

He has attended traditional alcohol treatment programs multiple times in 20 years, and is convinced that he is one of the few who just can’t get “this simple program [meaning AA].” He is concerned that he is “constitutionally incapable of being honest with himself” [another quote directly from the book Alcoholics Anonymous] so now his thoughts literally go in circles; powerless, insanity, God, AA, powerless, insanity, God, AA. His fellow AA members under the guise of helping him have effectively convinced him that the problem is him and if he would just do the program better, he would succeed. The real irony of our conversation was that he called me for help and throughout our conversation he bestowed the virtues of the AA program while simultaneously admitting he has not succeeded in that program in 20 years.

Double talk, harsh criticism and judgments, slogans and platitudes, program doctrine and dogma; these are all designed to make people believe they are absolutely powerless without AA. Whether they stay sober or not, members believe AA is the only way and if they can’t seem to get it, it’s because there is something terribly wrong with them, not with the program.

I spent some time in rooms many years ago and I would ask these questions… Do I have a choice to drink or not drink or do I have a disease rendering me powerless over that choice? And if I am powerless, how do I choose not to drink one day at a time? Is it that the first drink is a choice, but the rest are not choices? Is my ‘ism’ doing push-ups in the parking lot, just waiting for a moment of weakness or temptation? Are there triggers I should avoid, or can one pop up on a moment’s notice that will reinstate powerlessness over the first drink? Exactly when and where do my responsibilities end and the disease takes over? And if the answer is, “just don’t drink and go to meetings” how exactly do I just not drink? And if I could figure that out, why do I need meetings? My questions are endless.

12 Step Programs starting with the original, Alcoholics Anonymous, are filled with these inconsistencies and experienced members can talk around them all day long. If you ask too many questions or have an analytical mind at all, you are told, sometimes not so politely, to take the cotton out of your ears and stick it in your mouth! Keep coming back; it works if you work it. And don’t over think it. Then there is one of my personal favorites, keep it simple, stupid. The stupid is added to the end of that slogan for those like me who question everything. When Charlie Sheen said the word, cult, this is exactly what he meant.

This nice man, who asked me so many questions and then expressed his concern for my ongoing sobriety admitted he was intrigued by the St. Jude Retreats philosophy. I gave him some food for thought toward the end of the conversation; I said, “What if the struggles you have had these past 20 years have not been your fault? What if the AA program itself is the problem? And what if, there really is a better way?”

He then asked two really great questions, “If what you are telling me is true then why isn’t everyone doing it? Why hasn’t AA and the 12 step program been systematically replaced?” It’s very simple, paradigms exist to perpetuate themselves, and the disease theory has become a well-entrenched, 100-year-old, socio-cultural paradigm and a multi-billion dollar industry. The not-for-profit organization, AA World Services Inc. reported more than $10,000,000 in revenue last year with $1.6 Million in pure profit. It would seem this is not very much money for a worldwide organization, but they did this selling $10 books and taking donations from AA members. With only a handful of people on payroll and relatively low operating costs, I would say that’s a great year financially during a terrible recession. But that is also a drop in the bucket compared to the thousands of drug and alcohol treatment facilities around the country, the multiple government agencies at all levels devoted to the “addiction epidemic”, and pharmaceutical companies whose livelihoods are directly tied to addiction being a chronic, progressive, incurable disease. The money to be made on a pseudo-chronic illness like “addiction” is well into the trillions of dollars.

I assured him that Baldwin Research Institute and the St. Jude Retreats were working diligently to spread the good news that there is no disease that renders people powerless to change their lives; and that anyone and everyone can change when given the right information and the freedom to choose. I then let him know that I was happy to help him anytime, and that he could rest assured I would give him concrete solutions, not platitudes or slogans and I certainly would not judge him as so many had done in AA.

Our conversation took just 20 minutes, and some might think I dread these calls, but in fact, they are the reason I do what I do. We are here (and I am here personally) for those that have been a victim of the indoctrination of learned helplessness as promulgated by 12 step programs and the addiction treatment industry. Hopefully, during our conversation his mind opened just a bit and a seed was planted that he has the power and ability to finally overcome this problem. The real first step in this process is realizing just how powerful you really are.