Do we avoid having conversations with loved ones that may help educate them in how we recovered and why it works for us?

In the Living Sober book by Alcoholics Anonymous we’re told: “Our shaky emotional condition also affects our feelings towards old friends and family.  For many of us, these relationships seem to heal promptly as we pursue recovery.  For others, there arrives a period of touchiness at home; now that we’re sober, we have to sort out how we actually feel about spouse, children, siblings, parents, or neighbors, then reexamine our behavior.  Fellow workers, clients, employees, or employers also require such attention.”

As most people who know me know, friends and family included, I follow the basic outline of the HAMS program:  This means I am conscious of how I treat others as well as how I perceive them to be treating me and I do not drink anything alcoholic in response to others’ unusual, angry, or frustrating behaviors.

HAMS is an acronym for Harm Reduction, Abstinence and Moderation Support.  I don’t go to any meetings, although there are plenty online available every day.  However, I have basic tools I can use 24/7 with or without another person’s support.  In AA, anytime another person, place or thing bothered me I was urged to call a sponsor or another member.   On my own, I was left with a feeling of general uneasiness and distrust of my own choices.  Today, because I am not dependent on outside support for each little thought that crosses my mind, I feel stronger.

The only one real tool I use every day is hardly ever mentioned at an AA meeting:  Making sure I eat well.  I guess, HALT (hungry, angry, lonely, tired) is the comparable AA alternative to the harm reduction advice that one should make sure they have eaten before mistakenly thinking they’re in the throes of cravings for alcohol.  I do not experience outrageous cravings for alcohol.

When I do drink I drink at home, I use set limits on the amount.  I practice restraint and self-control from going over limits by only buying the amount of alcohol I will want to drink; and sometimes, I drink less than that amount.  If there’s a six pack at home, I may only drink one.  I may drink three.  I may even drink all 6 on rare occasions.  However, if my goal is to only drink no more than three times in a month then sometimes it’s just six beers in one month; maybe even less.

Even though NESARC data puts me in the majority of people recovered, I am still slammed for not being "abstinent."
Even though NESARC data puts me in the majority of people recovered, I am still slammed for not being “abstinent.”

Of course, because I am not abstaining, I am not working the AA program according to many opinions.  Others have the opinion that the only requirement to be an AA member is a “desire to stop drinking,” therefore there is no set rule in AA that one must quit drinking to be a member.  Likewise, there is actually no rule about practicing HAMS, Moderation Management, or SMART Recovery while also practicing AA’s 12 Steps; therefore, there is no right way to work an AA program.

I learned in AA meetings throughout the last decade that no one was above or below other members because there is no leadership or ruler in AA.  The Living Sober book confirms this with “AA is not an organization in the usual sense of that word.  Instead, it is a fellowship of equals.”  Which means, a member who relapsed today is equal to the member with twenty years of abstinence.

Unlike my beef with the misogynistic, outdated, AA Big Book and 12×12, the AA Living Sober book may well be the most compatible companion book for any AA member who is failing at abstinence but is looking for suggestions on how to abstain and also have periods of non-abstaining.  Whereas Living Sober is meant to be used exclusively for “alcoholics” there is no definitive proof that a “low bottom” alcoholic exists; there is far more proof from the NESARC data that 75% of problem drinkers recover, whether they abstain or return to non-problem drinking, without any program at all.

NESARC stands for the National Epidemiological Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions, in which 43,093 adults were studied and successful recovery was measured by both abstinence and non-abstinence recovery results.  Nearly 30% reported having been in remission from alcoholism for over 5 years, as reported by expert researcher in addictions, William L. White, MA.

Alcoholics Anonymous, which came into fruition in 1935, did not use any of the studies White also cites in “Recovery/Remission from Substance Use Disorders: An ANlysis of Reported Outcomes in 415 Scientific Reports 1868-2011.”  Specifically, AA doesn’t cite any studies prior to 1935.  For instance, from 1868 to 1959 the national average in the US was approximately a 50% recovery rate from alcoholism.

Hence, before and after the involvement of AA in treating alcoholics, the natural inclination for people is towards recovery and natural remission with or without any program at all.   More importantly, recovery is not limited to complete abstinence.

Like the HAMS program states clearly: Recovery is harm reduction whether its through abstinence or moderation or lower risk drinking.
Like the HAMS program states clearly: Recovery is harm reduction whether its through abstinence or moderation or lower risk drinking.

As a woman, my exposure to Alcoholics Anonymous was detrimental to my natural recovery because of constant exposure to sexism, sexual harassment, and a set of steps designed to deflate an inflated, grandiose self-esteem as opposed to encouraging me to develop, and build up my self-esteem.  My own counselors seemed inept in developing a trauma-informed, individualized treatment program for me that could resolve my drinking problems as well as resolve my issues from previous abuse.

The Big Book, for one thing, only addresses women in recovery in one line, on page 33:  “This is particularly true of women.  Potential female alcoholics often turn into the real thing and are gone beyond recall in a few years.”  Sexism in AA is just an additional stigma of being a woman in recovery, and the only thing AA tells women is they are, essentially, even more hopeless than men in AA are.

Yet, in the later part of the 20th century, addiction itself is considered as social disease, not a lifelong incurable disease; in fact, the NIAAA (National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism) has reported since the 1970s that once diagnosed alcoholics were drinking normally again.   Nearly every report touching on remission rates have contradicted AA’s assertion all problem drinkers are alcoholics for life.

So the rule is there really is no solid recovery rule.  Either one is still addicted or they are in a stage or recovery or consider themselves recovered.  For our family and friends who are wondering the best way to treat someone in their lives with addiction, it would be best to educate them in the facts:  75% recover with or without any treatment.  AA has a 5% success rate.  And abstinence is not the only recovery method that works.

10 thoughts on “There are No Rules only Suggestions

  1. Every day folks like you and I prove that moderation is possible. I once had a horrible time with alcohol, but I was able to quit and occasionally I smoke a little weed. I have no problem going without for months at a time, and have no plans to do it in the future, but who knows? I’m not gonna beat myself up because I like to get high every once in a while. I’ve spoken about this on various blogs and forums, and every time the AA freaks try to gaslight me because of it. Those people don’t own me anymore though.

    1. I actually on the side where I think weed is better than alcohol surely by comparing the effects of weed compared to the dangers of alcohol. Unfortunately, weed isn’t legal here but if it does I’ll be likely to smoke weed and possibly likely to drink even less than I do now. Because of being a former AA member I didn’t choose moderation/harm reduction without a lot of thought. The change came from shifting the thought and shame of using the word “relapse” to mapping out when I drank, how much, and seeing on paper how non-problematic my use was. Then, I began looking at HAMS materials earlier this year. Thanks for leaving a comment and glad you read my blog. I agree, also, there are a lot of gaslighters commenting online. And none of them ever owned any of us to begin with.

  2. “Like” isn’t a strong enough reaction!
    Food. How many times did I imagine myself in the midst of a dark, existential crisis? “It’s all over! It’s useless to keep trying, I can’t do this!” Then I learned to ask myself the question: when was the last time I ate a good meal? Or much of anything, for that matter? Invariably the answer was that I hadn’t eaten yet that day. A couple of pots of coffee apparently don’t count as a well-balanced meal. Huh! So I would eat, and all of a sudden, the world didn’t seem so bad nor was my situation so dire. Fancy that!
    A moment of silence though for those who are trying to get by on government assistance: I know all to well that towards the end of the month a reasonably healthy diet just isn’t gonna happen…
    Keep writing!

    1. Lol I can relate to the coffee thing. Eating right seems so obvious yet when I get busy it’s one of the first things I put off.

  3. Eating well really does make a huge difference. I’ve been vegan for a year now, but in the last few months I haven’t been eating healthy vegan and I can tell it makes a difference in how I feel not just physically, but mentally and emotionally.

    I think it’s a good thing that these lawsuits have taken place by people forced into 12 step treatment because it may force treatment centers to tailor treatment options for the individual. There is no one size fits all treatment model. Thank goodness that things are beginning to turn around on that front.

    Of the different treatment options, I am particularly interested in the Sinclair Method which involves the opiate blocking pill that eliminates the craving for alcohol. Dr. Sinclair has his patients take the pill one hour before drinking and his studies show that it’s been successful. However, I’ve read that another doctor doesn’t recommend drinking after taking the pill, but to use it to reduce the desire for alcohol. I wish that pill had been around when I was first getting sober, because I would have definitely opted for that route. I would not want to try it now at this point in my life, and I have to admit it’s fear that keeps me from investigating any further.

    As an actively participating AA person, I know you did not enter into the Harm Reduction method without giving it a lot of thought. It’s a perfectly acceptable form of treatment and apparently they’ve been using it in Europe for years. It’s good that you are writing about it. Someday, a person will find this, try it and it will make all the difference in the world to them. I’m all for whatever works.

    I must tell you that I’ve finally reached the point where I believe that I dislike the Big Book and Twelve and Twelve as much as you do. It took me a long time to arrive to that conclusion. Honestly, I feel kind of embarrassed trying to prop that idiotic book up for so long. Oh well, better late than never.

  4. I enjoy eating vegan although it’s not my entire diet. But I find it does help with my energy and how I feel also. Treatment centers are in the business of individualized treatment and best results but instead they’ve been lazy and use this all or nothing approach with the 12 Step programs— and worse, they charge money to offer a program that is essentially “free” on a walk-in basis (AA/NA meetings!)… Why the public isn’t outraged is beyond me.

    And you’re right things are beginning to turn around yet there needs to be more dialogue between recovery people and non-recovery people so the general public is informed about the treatments used today and the better treatments that could be presented to clients when AA fails them. (Would we give more penicillin to a person who is allergic to it because it didn’t work the first time? No, we’d try a different medication!)

    The SInclair method is interesting and also harm reduction, or Moderation Management, SOS or SMART etc. The issue I have with AA members (not all of them) is their closed minded approach to helping other alcoholics and problem drinkers… Telling them it’s AA or they can leave is not helpful advice— how about encouraging members to be informed about other treatments they don’t use just for the sake of having that knowledge? (Since AA neither endorses nor opposes any causes it shouldn’t be opposed to having information, right?)

    I understand and encourage you to give yourself credit for your abstinence instead of giving all the credit to AA. What I mean by that is AA teaches nothing useful about handling a slip/relapse. Instead, AA teaches any slip is a disaster therefore all slips are potential disasters. What AA could be doing is helping to change a person’s reaction to failure instead of only teaching paralyzing fear. Harm reduction teaches that when you slip you get back up again, it’s not a personal failure because quitting is hard, and staying quit is hard, and it’s only human to make mistakes. Harm reduction encourages having a relapse prevention plan and a safe drinking plan (hide your keys, don’t drive, only buy the amount of alcohol you’ll drink and don’t get any more, etc…) and AA doesn’t teach any of that. This isn’t saying harm reduction ENCOURAGES drinking again for abstinence-only people, but at least HR gives reasonable advice that can save lives. Again, AA does not teach anything useful like that. Instead, it’s AA, or jail, or institutions, or death. And of course, one is powerless so what use is making any type of plan that may help prevent harm?

    AA can become more like the opposite of harm reduction— a self-fulfilling prophecy based on the belief and fear that a slip equals death or near death— it’s harm creation almost at that point. Where is the “don’t ever drink” but… “if you do, take the proper precautions. There is recovery after a slip. You’re not starting from step one all over again. The time you put in before a slip still counts!” It’s sad that advice is not in AA and it should be.

    I’m not against you or your active participation in AA, I was there and it was my life once as well. And you sound like someone who does think for themselves, and you understand that Harm Reduction isn’t something one does willy nilly. Glad to hear that from an active AA person! But ultimately, my hope for you would be to be ruled by your own belief in yourself, not a belief in AA’s fear inducing logic (that is not even based on fact.)

    I find it encouraging anyone could dislike the BB or 12×12 as much as I do if only because those books are not based on facts and are very heavy on the dramatic testimonials and flowery language— emotional appeals. I believed in all of it once and I’m not embarrassed that I thought it was “truth” more than I am miffed I was so easily duped by health care professionals and other professionals that AA was a legit, fact based organization. There is a divide in the program and I do hope one day the freethinkers and believers in helping others even if it isn’t AA will use their open minds to cut ties from the original AA and use the already existing fellowship to keep helping others socially and emotionally. Support groups are great. But the AA doctrine is not very supportive for all. Like I heard a lot in AA, sometimes the best meetings happen before and after the meeting.

  5. You rock, Julietroxspin. This essay is really to the point. It’s given me insights into my own struggle with 12 Step, and also the struggle of my friends and family. Thank you for this post.!

    1. Thanks otterblogger, I appreciate your comment. When we find strength that works for us, and works in all our relationships in life, it is worth holding onto. It’s also nice to know one isn’t alone in a struggle with the 12 Step program.

  6. Hi Julie, Thank you for this post. I’m a member of AA and working through how I feel about the Big Book and AA itself. Love the people, hate the patriarchy embedding in its bones. I think I’m pretty good with the take-what-I-need-and-leave-the-rest model and I find the steps themselves really helpful. May I ask a weird question? How has moderate drinking gone for you in the past five years since you last commented? Are you still able to both control and enjoy drinking? Some days I think I could do this. Other days I think I could only manage a reduction of harm for a couple of years and then it would get out of control again. (I’m a full-time author working on a novel about a recovering alcoholic, so I’m googling around quite a bit.) I know this is a really private question and feel free to email me if you’d prefer not to leave an answer here – yarnagogo at Thanks so much for any time you can spare to answer! I really appreciate it.

    1. First, my apologies for your AA membership (just kidding)— AA will never change. There is a gender-neutral BB but it’s not “conference approved”… Since I stopped framing my life with drinking/not-drinking the focus of my life is no longer about alcohol. The primary issue with AA is that is the entire focus. Not doing something (action) while constantly talking about it (drinking) is dysfunctional thinking. I know no other therapy that encourages constant thought of not doing something you used to do and having it work. To answer your question- it’s been well over 5 years and I’m not keeping track. To drink or not to drink is an individual decision, and if a person thinks alcohol is a problem I don’t think AA deals with any of the problems that causes a person to drink away their problems. In fact, AA calls them all “outside issues.” The semantics and word play of the program are dizzying, if not nauseating. It is very hard for a person to go from AA to drinking again without a fear of spiraling out of control- that is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The kind of “brainwashing” AA does is dangerous in that respect, people believe what they are told and when they “go back out” they “lose control” and almost seem to relish in having permission to do so- AA said they would.

      So, Rachael, I think it’s due time people stop saying they’re alcoholics when they haven’t had a drink in 5/10/20+ years. And I think it’s past due time to call AA what it is- a fraternity that welcomes women in it that likes to sit around and self-congratulate one another on a near daily basis for not doing something, while changing little to none of any past problems that led to drinking. Because those issues are “outside issues.” Now that may sound pessimistic. Some people do seek outside help, but that help is on top of AA and it’s all this extra work and it often is contradictory messages. Mixed messages. Therapists want empowerment, AA wants powerlessness.

      Thanks for your comment sorry it took me so long. And you are beyond correct about the patriarchy. My worst day now without AA is better than my best day in AA- I no longer have to make concessions or shut up about patriarchy, sexism, and my firm beliefs that AA simply fails more than it ever helped. And I think that’s always been the intention- AA was built to work by perpetual failure- which feeds the multi-billion dollar rehab industry. If AA actually worked- come on, now, people wouldn’t need it for “life”… People are bamboozled. I’m not against support groups. I’m against this new “addiction” of “I need a meeting.”

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