When criticizing 12 Step groups and treatment based on it, people will often tell me that they know it works because someone they know got sober in AA. I don’t doubt their experience as I, too, know people who still attend meetings and have maintained decades of sobriety. In order to understand that AA does not work – not even for those who got and stayed sober while attending AA meetings – one must understand how people stop drinking. The question is, do people stop drinking because of participation in AA or in spite of it? Here’s an analogy:

Whitetail deer see predominantly in a gray scale. Basically they live in a black and white world. Humans see in the full spectrum of color. To make up for their lack of color vision, a deer sees anything in motion within their environment with amazing ability and clarity. Their acuity for motion is how they observe and escape from sources of danger (in addition to their acute sense of hearing and extraordinary sense of smell).

In the 1950’s camouflage came onto the deer hunting scene because man believed deer saw what humans saw – in color. We hid from other humans in wartime using camouflage, so it was thought that the same would work for deer. The myth that wearing camouflage was needed to hunt deer gained popularity because of this misconception. Camouflage is now a multi-billion dollar industry, and yet, scientifically speaking, camouflage is unnecessary to hunt deer. What makes a deer hunter successful is luck, stealth, staying quiet, cleanliness (so you don’t smell like a human) and taking your time in your pursuit so the deer does not see your motion. Whether or not you are wearing the latest camouflage has nothing to do with your success as a hunter, yet the camo myth keeps rolling.

So how does this apply to AA? Well, when hunters successfully bag a deer, many believe that “their camouflage worked.” They don’t realize that camo is unnecessary. Credit is given to their camo for their success, when it should be given to the hunter’s abilities or to his luck, or a combination of both. But because there are generations of people that believe the camo mythology, credit is given to the pattern they wear in the field. How unfortunate, when in fact, their hunting prowess was the true reason for their success! AA is a similar scenario.

People go to AA seeking a way to stop their substance use. For many people seeking help, they went to their first AA meeting after they decided to quit for good. After all, that is why they went to the meeting, because they decided to stop. For them the meeting was simply a formal act that punctuated the decision they had already made. Then as they attend meetings and choose not to drink, AA is given the credit for the decision that they already made.

Because I was raised in an AA family, I believed throughout my drinking career, that at some point in the future, I would need to go to AA “when I was willing and ready” to quit. So when I decided to stop drinking, I did that first, and then went to AA to formalize my commitment to my new lifestyle. I’ve since spoken to many thousands of people with the exact same stories.

When asked how they “got sober,” they too would say “I went to AA.” Nearly everyone completely left out their decision and choice to change in their explanation for how they stopped drinking heavily. Ask yourself, can someone stop drinking without making the decision to do so first? The answer is no; there is absolutely no way anyone can initiate a change in their drinking habit if they are unwilling to do so. Each person must first make the decision to stop drinking.

This seems like common sense, right? Yet, AA is given credit for the 5% who get and stay sober while attending AA meetings. If the power of personal choice is not the driver in the change process, how can AA do it for someone? Is there some magic that AA imbues that can take over your will in a meeting? Does this magic direct your mind and your physical being and keep you from going to a liquor store, bar or drug dealer? How exactly does AA stop you from ingesting substances? The answer is obvious, without personal choice driving the change, no change is made; not ever, whether you attend meetings, do the steps, do your service work, or not. For those who stay sober while attending meetings, AA is merely a social queue that formalizes what they have already chosen.

This is also true for people who go to AA and continue to drink and then “eventually get the program” and choose to abstain. They don’t really “get the program and achieve sobriety” by means of the meeting’s magic, they come to believe they can be happier making a change and then make it.

People who make the claim that AA made all the difference, give credit to the AA meetings because of their belief system. That does not mean the meetings actually created some internal change as that can only come from within the individual.  Whether you choose to say AA changed you, or you accept the fact that you preferred a new path for yourself, an internal choice to change was initiated by you.

You can choose to give credit to an outside entity called AA for your choice to stop or reduce your use, or you can be more accurate in your statement and tell it like it is – you decided to change because you came to a place like most everyone does at some point, where your preference for heavy use changed. Anything beyond that explanation is giving credit where it does not belong. The Freedom Model for Addictions approach to moving beyond alcohol use is the most effective approach to date, and yet doesn’t take credit from those who’ve found success within its approach. Quite the contrary, The Freedom Model for Addictions gives all the credit and power back to the individual and empowers the individual to make the choice for themselves as to what they feel is the best route happiness.

You may be wondering why this point is so important. It’s because while AA takes credit for very small numbers of people who go to meetings and stay sober, they do not take responsibility for the vast majority who go to meetings and continue to struggle. They do not acknowledge that participation in 12 step groups leads to worse outcomes than doing nothing at all. And they fail to see how damaging taking on a belief system in personal powerlessness is for everyone.

If you have changed your substance use habit, whether you went to a treatment program, AA or not, you did that. That’s your accomplishment. Own your choice and cherish it. AA is just a distraction to the fact that you are in control of your choices and always have been. Maybe it’s time to let go of the AA magic show and home in on what you personally prefer and want for yourself. Do you want to continue to use heavily? Do you prefer it? Do you want to adjust your level of use, or do you want to stop using altogether? Those are the questions that initiate real personal change, and no AA meeting is needed for you to answer them. You really can leave AA without being fearful that doing so will result in perpetual life filled drinking and misery.