OPINION: Alcoholics Anonymous needs an update for the modern age

Mar 24, 2022 | Editorials, Featured six | 1 comment

//Alcoholics Anonymous has a heavy undertone of Christianity, despite claiming they have no affiliation with any particular faith, sector, denomination. Graphic by Madison Lauterbach | mlauterbach@msmayhem.com

“My name is Keegan, and I’m an alcoholic.”

Thinking back to that first time I uttered those words in front of a group of other people in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous almost four years ago, I remember how challenging it was just getting myself into the room.

I was well aware that I had an alcohol problem I had to deal with. What truly felt like a hindrance was reckoning with the thought, “Does a person like me have a home at AA?”

I’m a queer, nonbinary person; I’m also an atheist with a storied childhood of Sundays in Catholic masses and Sunday school. Bringing myself to church basements, for a program that already carries a subtle woo-woo religion-adjacent spiritualism, didn’t necessarily sit well with me, both as an atheist, ex-Catholic, and as a queer person. 

Once I made it to a meeting, the first step was simple: Be honest about your alcoholism and step up. The second step of AA, coming to believe that a power greater than ourselves will keep us from drinking, caused me to abandon the 12 steps altogether. I knew my peers in the program seemed mostly open-minded surrounding the “higher power” element, though it felt like you had to have one to “properly” work the program. 

There’s a certain flexibility most meetings liked to preach about an individual’s approach to step work. The rigid nature of the foundational text, “Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How More Than One Hundred Men Have Recovered from Alcoholism,” or The Big Book, along with the prayers mentioning “God” at the end of each meeting seemed to say otherwise.

Most people I talked to with AA experience referenced the quasi-religious aspect as a clear drawback. For people without a history with recovery or the program, my participation was often met with, “Isn’t AA kind of a religious thing?”

On the surface, my queer home group seemed to accept that AA was a tool for me, not my main focus: I wasn’t working the steps and would take what I needed, and as long as I didn’t pick up a drink, I was meeting the ultimate goal. But it was always in the background, and I often felt othered for my alternative approach. It’s a reason I haven’t made it back to a meeting in more than two years, as nice as it is speaking candidly among fellow alcoholics.

When I was still attempting to give step work a shot and pursued my first and only short-lived sponsor, I recall her initial hesitance, because she’s a woman and I’m not. It’s a very gendered and binary rule of the program, enforcing same-gender sponsors and sponsees, though she ultimately she decided it shouldn’t matter, especially since it was a queer group. 

This opens a broader conversation around the program’s outdated tenets and who AA was truly “for,” back when The Big Book was originally published—a group of white men addressing fellow cisgender, heterosexual men with alcoholism—in 1939.

The infamous Chapter 8, “To Wives,” starts by directly addressing this, “With few exceptions, our book thus far has spoken of men. But what we have said applies quite as much to women.”

The chapter in itself is often skipped and cited as one of the worst of The Big Book, authored presumably by a group of non-alcoholic women married to alcoholic men. With sentences like “We want to analyze the mistakes we have made” or the general, condescending tone, speaking down to women, “the wives,” about bringing their husbands back to their power, it’s widely known that Chapter 8 was most likely written by The Big Book author, Bill W., who mentioned it was included to increase potential buyers. 

The AA General Service Conferences have repeatedly refused to update The Big Book, and with that in mind, this entire chapter hammers in the book’s erasure of women, not to mention transgender, nonbinary and queer people. 

LGBTQ+ folks are especially susceptible to greater substance use and alcoholism. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, gay, lesbian and bisexual adolescents are 90% more likely to use alcohol and drugs than their heterosexual counterparts. Lesbians and bisexual women appear to be at an even higher risk than other LGBTQ+ folks. Approximately 44.6% of LGBTQ+ people between 18 and 28 reported binge drinking at least once in the past month. 

Chapter 8 was updated three times, though they were small choices like changing “every girl” to “every woman” who has an alcoholic husband, or small words and grammatical choices. There’s no mention of sexual assault or the health threats alcoholism holds for women and people with uteruses.

This conversation is fairly common among the queer AA circles I navigated. Most of the time I spent in AA—chatting over post-meeting coffee with my sober friend, a lesbian, or folks in my queer Denver home group—was dominated by talks surrounding the program’s rigid lack of inclusion.

I have to nod to those local groups that create these spaces within AA. I found a bi-monthly meeting near my new home in Los Angeles that specifically prioritizes the safety of BIPOC, women, queer and trans people. On the Denver Area Central Committee of Alcoholics Anonymous, there are built-in filters to find local meetings for nonbinary and trans people, LGBTQ+ folks and women, along with a number of other meeting “types.”

Having a queer space to go made it immediately easier. That said, to no fault of the people running the meeting, it was still a room dominated by men. 

In those early days, I often supplemented meetings with podcasts and conversations with sober friends. I found that these other tools still allowed me to take the things I absolutely needed from AA—the teachings around coping without alcohol and moving forward in this challenging, unfamiliar path—without the extra baggage.

Empowering myself to tackle this problem in the way I needed to was what kept me sober, not relying on a higher power or something I didn’t believe in to do this for me. Some of the teachings of AA helped, but this was my problem.

This is the core of one AA alternative, Self-Management and Recovery Training, or SMART, Recovery, which helps folks to maintain motivation; learn to manage their urges; handle their own emotions, thoughts and behaviors and strike balance in life. 

I love my life in recovery, which is a very personal and individual experience. I still hold some AA teachings around coping without alcohol close, but I’ve found ways to fill in the rest of the gaps. Not everyone does. I also recognize, as great as these alternatives and inclusive AA iterations are, we need to think bigger. 

AA is the main gig. It’s the most accessible no matter where you are. I struggle thinking of all of the folks who stray away from recovery, who may be similarly reluctant to enter those doors and pursue steps in a program that, at its core, doesn’t feel open to them. 

It’s past time for the program to step into the modern age to ensure people of all identities and backgrounds seeking recovery are met with genuine inclusion and acceptance, not only from their fellow group members but from the program as a whole.




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1 Comment

  1. Jonathan

    Hi! I’m also a former alcoholic (had my last drink in January 2019), and recently stopped attending meetings for similar reasons to those you’ve outlined.

    I’m 30, gay, and an atheist. I live in Northern Ireland, which isn’t the best place to be any of those things, and I’m often the youngest, most atypical person in the room at an AA meeting. I’m also a philosophy student, after deciding to pick up education where I left off when I started drinking heavily at 17, to the detriment of my own health/development.

    As a naturally inquisitive, admittedly cynical person, it’s almost impossible for me to follow any sort of ‘groupthink’ blindly, but I made an exception for AA because it seemed to be the only solution left after trying everything else (psychiatric admissions, rehab x3, therapy, suicide…). Lots of people credit AA with getting successful recovery, but I feel like I got sober despite AA, not because of it. Its programme is dated, the literature is too misogynistic/religious, so you’ve got to bend over backwards to make it work. Plus, the whole atmosphere is far too reminiscent of the evangelical cult I grew up in (think Westboro Baptist Church).

    Now, none of this is to say I don’t appreciate the work that AA does for suffering alcoholics, and indeed it has saved countless lives. But it’s nice to know that I’m not some sort of enigma, and that others are successfully maintaining their recovery & living a life of fulfilment without the exclusionary dogma of AA.

    Dare to be yourself.

    Jonathan x


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