I love the way you break down the misconceptions. I just started going to AA about a month ago. One of my best friends has worked through the whole program and is ready to be a sponsor, so I'm going to begin that process starting this week (so reading this piece is very timely for me!). My father was an addict in a broad sense, and I have his leather bound Big Book (he died in 2021). I'm spiritual, not religious, and there's something very spiritual about looking through his highlights and notes, especially as I begin the journey myself.

I also agree wholeheartedly that the addiction is the symptom. I refer often to Gabor Mate's quote "Ask not why the addiction, but why the pain." If anything, I haven't seen much if any reference to this idea yet in the meetings I've attended, but perhaps it's there and I've just yet to be exposed.

Thank you for being vulnerable in sharing your personal journey and thoughtful in how you dissected the nuances that people often get wrong about a program that helps millions.

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Agree, Andy. Well said my friend. AA since it can’t publicly defend itself is an easy target. But it’s changed a lot of people’s lives for the better. Myself very much included.

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Mar 17Liked by Michael Mohr

Hey Michael, Thanks so much for taking a much closer, from experience, look at IMHO a hugely misunderstood "program". You kind of demystified the mysteriously enigmatic phenomenon called AA (and 12 step programs in general). I totally agree tha the majority of the critics of AA I have come across are not members, and or have not completely surrender to their own powerlessness of curing themselves by intellect, rational thinking, logic, working harder at achieving a predetermined goal without the help and support of others (HP, community, something out side of ones self and most importantly a spiritual practice, what ever that is for that individual) and... at some point to "admit" that they don't have all the answers, all the time. The interesting paradox for me is... it's all about the inside job of self acceptance, and then being present, warts and all in an attempt to help others.

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Mar 16Liked by Michael Mohr

We have similar lengths of sobriety, and also somewhat similar experiences in AA. The thing with AA though is that the quality of the fellowship varies far and wide. I often say that alcoholism is largely about control and the Steps are a process of letting go. So what gets me is the degree to which sponsors try to control sponsees. I am not saying this is all sponsors but it seems to be mostly the case. It is indeed a program of suggestions, but there are many who play semantic games to twist the definition of “suggestion” to facilitate control. They’ll say things like “any suggestion you don’t take you’ll regret” or “the definition of suggestion is ‘subtle command.’” I see sponsors playing as if they are the sponsee’s HP. So I suggest to newcomers to find a sponsor that sticks to sharing their experience and doesn’t tell them what to do. As for the BB, it is a very good book but there are fundamentalists in AA who leverage it for indirect control of others (as in pretty much every fundamentalist organization I can think of.) So all that said, AA works, AA can drastically improve your life, but be very careful who you associate with in AA. Also there are rules in AA, the desire to not drink being the strictest one. Then there’s things like not compromising another person’s anonymity, which while won’t get you kicked out, is heavily frowned upon.

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Mar 16Liked by Michael Mohr

AA truly is a great program. My best friends mom was in it and while we poked fun at the cultish part of it she stayed sober. Whatever works right? We used to say "everyone's an alcoholic they just don't know know it yet". So many people try and find the answers @ the bottom of the bottle to soothe their tortured souls . It's a rough desease that runs deep in families. Unfortunate that AA still comes w a stigma. Thanks for sharing your story. I'm still blown away by that 60 page list..

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Mar 16·edited Mar 16Liked by Michael Mohr

I appreciate the piece Michael, and I respect your experience with AA. I'd love to hear your further thoughts.

I know there are a lot of myths and misconceptions about AA. I personally don't have any direct experience with it, other that it never resonated with me because of (mistakenly or not) what appeared to be a lot of religion mixed in there, as well as this very confusing idea that giving up power is somehow supposed to be empowering.

I commend you for highlighting what is in my mind the fact that it's not the substance that's the problem, it's always something underlying that—which brings me to another problem that I've always (again, mistakenly or not) ascribed to AA, which is an emphasis on abstinence at all costs. Perhaps that's not true, but it's often seemed to me to cause folks that I know in AA to focus more on not drinking than on digging into what caused them to drink in the first place. Sure, it's better if you don't drink (I mean, that's pretty much just generally true for everyone, just from a basic health point of view), but if you become obsessively attached to not touching a drop and never do any other work on yourself, well, you've just substituted one (less damaging) obsession for another.

I know AA has helped a lot of people — and, it's also often been shown (as Maia Szalavitz writes in Unbroken Brain) that, to the extent that they do succeed for some people, "the supportive community that 12-step programs provide is the main active ingredient in their success." The statistics also show that "No experimental studies [have] unequivocally demonstrated the effectiveness of AA."

As for the magic of 'instimacy' (instant intimacy) with fellow AA'ers--it's been my experience that connection doesn't really require any magic. Pretty much _anything_ in common can serve as the seed of community. I've experienced it in groups of skateboarders, entrepreneurs, meditators, writers, and speakers of Italian, sailors, climbers, hikers, people in line for coffee. In my experience all it requires is that seed, and a declaration or intention to connect. I'm glad that so many people do find community in AA—but to me that points out the importance of community, which has often said to be one of the opposites of addiction (read Johann Hari on this, for example)—not some mysterious thing that all drinkers have in common.

Which brings me to another point. AA has long been guilty of promoting the idea that an "addict" is some sort of different person, and that once an addict, always an addict. I just can't get down with that. We all have the addictive mechanism in us—we form habits around things that feel good, or that alleviate pain.

I'm not replying with these points to knock you or AA... but I think it's important for folks who do find themselves wanting to drink less, or not at all, to look at the modern literature and methods as well as understand more of the nuances around AA, in the interest of finding a way forwards that works for them.

Some books I recommend are:

Maia Szalavitz, Unbroken Brain

Stanton Peele, Love and Addiction

Adi Jaffe, The Abstinence Myth

Annie Grace, This Naked Mind

David Poses, The Weight of Air

As well as my own writings on the subject of my own drinking from the age of 10-48 and then stopping, on my own.




My first piece of advice would be: If you have the feeling that it would be good for you to drink less, or not at all—pay attention to that feeling, and know that change is easier than it probably feels. It does help to speak the truth, and community is a key part of that. Do some reading—and some digging into yourself. The view from the inside always seems real—until it changes, and then that seems just as real. Cheers everyone.

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Mar 16Liked by Michael Mohr

Enlightening post, Mr. Mohr. In 1970 I had an editor who was an alcoholic. (She was also a friend.) I was newly married, fighting the good fight for civil rights (and feeling like we were losing). In 1971 I was petrified for my husband who had been drafted out of Grad School although he had been accepted in ROTC and I knew my anti-Viet Nam War demonstrating had been useless. She used to call me at 3 or 4 in the morning threatening to commit suicide. One morning when I was obviously exhausted at work, my supervisor took me aside to check on me. I found out two things. 1. He was an amazing human being. 2. He was 21 years sober and he suggested Al-Anon. I went. It was transformative. I started doing what they suggested. I got better sleep. I don’t believe most of what I read about AA. I shall, however believe you. Mostly because your description is not linear. I distrust groups in general, although I have joined them. I am grateful I am allowed to leave the Anonymous, anonymous. Even so, I believe I have a sukoshi more understanding. As always, I am grateful for the success many find in the program. Thank you. Good read.

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Mar 16Liked by Michael Mohr

Wonderful post, Michael. I especially liked how you pointed out the similarities among many alcoholics. One struck me--they tend to be good storytellers. That similarity is a powerful key--the use of language to process experience. We all have the never-ending voice in our heads, the dialogue that turns to shouting when we’re upset, angry, hurt. To be able to take that voice into a room of strangers and let it out, that is the healing part. I’m not an alcoholic, but I believe in the power of language to organize one thoughts. Writing is how I understand my experience, choosing the words, organizing the syntax. It’s why I prefer texting to phone calls. Going to AA takes courage, but storytellers, writers, are especially equipped to use the gift of language as the gateway to connecting with the world. You have created a community on SubStack. We all need community. It’s good to talk, to be heard, just what AA is offering. Your piece should read by the masses.

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This is fantastic, Michael. I’ve accepted some of the canards in the Atlantic piece. Appreciate the more nuanced perspective.

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