Is it really fair to talk about AA "success rates"?

I realize there are already a couple of debates touched off by Charlie Sheen’s latest rant, so I would like to limit this thread to AA and its alleged “5% success rate”.

First, I put my cards on the table. I an an alcoholic in AA and I have been 100% sober since April 17, 1993.

I really do not understand where this 5% figure comes from. If you know AA, you will realize it is like trying to quantify something that cannot be quantified because it is highly personal and varies with each individual.

To me, the “5%” figure about AA is as bewildering as a figure that says that 10% of mothers love their children too much, while 12% do not love them enough.

What exactly did this survey define as “success”? If you have info on it, I would like to see it.

You see, nobody in AA, including myself with 18 years of sobriety, ever says “I will never drink again”.

Our only objective is to draw strength from one another so we can remain sober TODAY. Being sober TODAY is the only success any AA member can ever really claim.

Do you consider me a success because I have not touched a drop in 18 years? What if I never drink until the day I die? Would I still be a success? What if I started drinking tomorrow and stayed out of control for 6 months? Would I then be a failure? What if after 6 months I realized what I had done, got back into AA, and remained sober for the rest of my life? Would I be a success then?

I have AA buddies who remained sober 10 years, went out and drank like fish for 3 years, and then came back and stayed sober for the last 20 years of their lives. Success or failure?

I even wonder how you would track “success”. AA has no membership lists, does not know your last name, does not record who goes to meetings, does not issue membership cards or control members in any way. Most people have one or two “favourite” meetings, but if a person suddenly stops going to their regular meeting, they may be back on the bottle, or they may just have moved to another part of town, or they may have found another meeting they like better. AA has no leaders, no authority, no power over you, no way to track you or monitor your sobriety.

I am completely baffled by hostility to an organization that is a purely voluntary association of people who have tried and failed to overcome their drinking problem alone and now get together with other people who have the same problem so they can lend one another strength.

If you are not an alcoholic and you do not need AA, fine and dandy. Most people who drink are not alcoholics. Have one for me. Have a nice life. Why do people like Sheen get mad at AA?

A friend of mine in the program answered ‘the question’ by saying how would anybody ever know? He said people are free to go to as many or as few meetings as they like, and people move from town to town, and there are no central records kept on how well anyone is doing.

Precisely my point. The organization is total “anarchy” in the original, political sense of the word, not in the sense of “chaos” but in the sense of “no rulers and no authority over you.” I could no more follow you up than you could follow up the people who were on the freeway with you yesterday. Once a month, someobody agrees to be the chairperson for the coming 4 meetings, and somebody agrees to be treasurer to handle the $5 to $50 a week most meetings take in, and buy coffee, milk and sugar.

There is a sort of record. There is a book at the front where you are welcome, IF YOU WISH, to enter your dry date and your first name. If you want, the group will take a bit of money out of the kitty once a year to buy you a cake and a card to celebrate your sobriety at the next meeting. If you don’t want a celebration, just don’t say anything and nobody will note it.

Stop coming to meetings for a year, and AA will not call you because they don’t even know your phone number.

My friend told me just about the only major annoyance he has ever had in ‘the program’ was when someone else offered an unsolicited opinion on how well he was doing. I gather the individual is in charge of rating their own ‘success’ and having someone else ‘weigh in’ with an evaluation is ‘bad form’.

My guess would be guilt. Success in AA requires a certain strength of will. While others will support you and will help if you’re feeling weak now and then (this is, as you’ve said, pretty much the entire point of the group), you still need to have a good core personal will to succeed. Sheen does not, and ragging on AA makes him feel better.

Your explanation is pretty much what I was trying to say in one those other threads, but I think since you’re in AA you explain it better. You can’t really quantify something like this. Probably the only way to test AA is to find out how many people sincerely tried AA and failed, and THEN tried something else to go on and get sober. Even then, though, it woudn’t be very scientific.

I don’t really know much about this Charlie Sheen guy, but I just read about him in the L.A. Times today, and really, he seems to be bitter about a whole lot of other things (money, mostly), and probably just took a jab at AA because his producer is in it. He–and I think probably others here who are so against it–don’t like AA either because you have to say, “I’m an alcoholic (or drug addict)” and they don’t want to to that, or because they think it’s a religious organization, which I don’t think it really is.

In any case, I know several people who attest in no uncertain terms that they have completely turned around their own lives by going to AA (or NA), and they aren’t in any way religious or cult-like. Maybe it wasn’t really just AA, but that’s what they say, and if it works for them to think that and go to meetings, why knock it? No one forces them to do it.

And you’re right, it’s possible that any of these friends of my mine might go back to the bottle or using after 5 to 10 years. Does that mean that AA doesn’t work at all? That it didn’t work at least for 5 or 10 years to give them sobriety?

I think much of the hostility is displaced: the actual anger is with loved ones and/or judges who would like to take the “purely voluntary” part out and order (either through emotional manipulation or outright legal orders) people to go to AA. But since it’s too scary to be angry with your sweet little Mawmaw, and utterly useless to be angry with a judge, people get angry at AA instead.

Me, I’m not exactly hostile to AA, I’m dubious. I’m dubious about whether it “works” any better than any other system (as you say, tracking would be antithetical to the organizational structure), and I’m both dubious and annoyed at the tapdancing around religion within the organization.

Two points to ponder:

  1. AA does not make any money. There are no dues or fees. You can belong to it for 70 years, and never give a cent, and nobody will know or care. (It would be sort of weird never to give a cent over 70 years, but you can do so if you want.) So if someone can find another way to stay sober without AA, or if they discover they can stay sober on their own after all (which proves they are not alcoholics) then GOOD FOR THEM!

  2. AA was founded by people who believed in God in the 1930s, so the word “God” appears in the steps. I happen to be an atheist, and there are several other AA members who are as well. All you have to do is trust in a “higher power”. It can be the group, or your sponsor. For me, it is the power of love when people help one another. BTW, I actually became an atheist AFTER I joined AA, belive it or not. And nobody has EVER criticized me for it. NEVER!

Court-ordered attendance at AA is fairly rare. I have seen maybe 1 or 2 cases over 18 years of meetings with hundreds of alcoholics. That is here in Canada, though. Maybe there are more in the US. AA does not really like people being forced to attend, but what do you want us to do? Throw the guy out? And when he asks the chairman to sign a court document that he attended, what is to poor chairman supposed to say? Go back to jail, I refuse to sign?

As for the religion part, see my postting above. I am an atheist and it has never been a problem. To recover, it is only essential not to believe that YOU are God (which most addicts do, deep down.) What you define as “higher power” is your business.

Here’s something that gets me.

People will often rag on AA because it only works 10 percent of time, while some other method works as well or better (numbers totally a made up here).

And, offhand, if true, that certainly makes AA sound like a waste of time or a bad idea. But that ignores two things. First, its not like a person can only chose one or the other. Secondly, some alternate method might NOT work for a given person, but AA might.

Whatever your problem, you keep at it till you find SOMETHING that works for you.

Oh no, I don’t want AA to do anything, really. Just trying to offer insight, since you were wondering where the hostility came from.

In 2007, it was decided that court mandated AA attendance is unconstitutional because while it’s not “a religion” there is *enough *religious content in AA to make coerced attendance a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of our Constitution. From what the patients tell me, it’s been switched to “mandatory 12 step program attendance”, instead of naming AA specifically, but I couldn’t swear to it from personal knowledge.

Second-hand info (I have never been to an AA meeting) but one of my closest friends has 10+ years sober, largely thanks to AA, and he says that around here, having a judge order a 1st time drunk driver to attend a dozen or so AA meetings happens all the time, and at least to him, this is a huge waste of time for both those serious about sobriety (who are at the meeting because they want to be) as well as the guy who got a DUI after a few too many, but is not actually an alcoholic.

It seems to cause resentment in both parties; I guess the bad feelings from the true AA people stem from having people who don’t identify as alkies sitting in the back, bored out of their skull and making light of the whole scene…

After years of threads trying to get solid data on AA’s success rate from those that claim it is successful, we now get a bizarro 180 degree spin in which the claim is that AA is successful because solid data can’t be collected?

I don’t believe I said that AA is successful because solid data can’t be collected. But I would need to know your definition of “successful” before we can debate it.

What is this 5% success rate I keep hearing about?

Does “successful” mean that the person never touches another drop from the moment they attend their first meeting until the day they die? If that is the definition being used, maybe the statistic is correct. But there is no way to check.

I could be lying right now when I say I have not had a drop in 18 years. Maybe I have a big bottle of scotch right next to me right now. We never know if a person is telling the truth. Actually, there is no “we” who needs to know. If you want to drink and go to AA meetings every week for years, and claim you have been sober all that time, go ahead. I fail to see why anyone would do that, but it doesn’t bother me if they do!

**I **know for a fact that I have been 100% sober since 1993. I know that the way I drank before AA was going to kill me for sure. And I know I could not stop by my own will alone because I tried and failed over and over and over for 20 years. The doctor tells me I am in wonderful health for a 63-year-old. Am I a success, according to your definition? What if I started drinking tomorrow and killed myself with booze by the time I am 73? Would the 18 years of healthy, happy, sober prosperity enjoyed by my spouse and I between 1993 and 2011 be of no account?

I knew girl who grew up with a seriously alcoholic father. She remembers ONE good summer in her youth when her Dad went to AA. It stood out as a golden time she will never forget. Dad stopped going in the fall, and then died of alcoholic diseases 15 years later. But was that one summer a failure? Did AA fail Dad? He could have returned any time he wanted.

Every day in which I do not drink is 100% success for ME. That is all the success I need. One day at a time.

Actually, some of my fellow atheists in AA go to “Rational Recovery” (RR) a 12-step program that never mentions the G-word. As an atheist, I would go, but I have a course that night. So I go to the regular meetings, of which there are several dozen to several hundred in every major city in North America.

By the way, I suspect that most AAs welcome that court decision. People sitting in our meetings who don’t want to be there does not ruin the meeting, but they are not really gettinmg much help if they have not brought themselves there of their own free will.

Does anyone know who did the study that resulted in the 5% number? It’s not as if you’re pointing out things that people conducting the study aren’t aware of. Research scientists are very good at figuring out how to try to quantify things that are tricky to quantify, and if you can read the methodology of this study then it should answer your questions.

If I were the AA people in Utah I would protest to the judges who are filling their meetings with people who don’t want to be there. The trouble is that one of the 12 Traditions says AA has no opinion on outside issues. There are no leaders and no spokespersons. Yes, yes, I know, there are times when an AA person gets quoted in the media. Even the Traditions are not laws, just suggestions. Individuals can express their opinions (I am speaking as an individual right now, NOT on behalf of AA).

But I stronmgly suspect most AAs are relieved at the 2007 court decision saying you can’t be ordered to attend AA.

This may sound horrible, but in a sense I am just interested in the origin of this 5% because I have heard it often. As long as I can use AA to remain sober, I really do not care, except that it seems to be trotted out to attack AA.

AA is successful for me, SO FAR. It has been successful for my sponsor for 40 years. I have seen HUNDREDS of people at meetings with 10, 20, 30 years of sobriety. Will some of these people someday go back to the bottle. I don’t know.

I have seen people who came to one meeting or two, stayed sober for a week, and then we never saw them again. Did they move? Did they go back to drinking? Who knows?

Was their one week of sobriety better than nothing? Probably. Did it plant a seed that will lead them back to AA or some othert treatment. Maybe. Or were they totally lying, even about the one week of sobriety. Who knows? We AA members don’t know.

If we can’t know then how can anyone honestly tout the benefits of AA and be taken seriously?

That’s an interesting question.

I understand that AA emphasizes that you are powerless before John Barleycorn and therefore cannot abide by even a drop of liquor. Alcohol abuse doesn’t happen any time someone drinks it happens when someone continues to drink despite it being detrimental to them. So getting drunk once in a while doesn’t necessarily make you an alcoholic. If someone starts drinking after quitting AA with no detrimental effect to their life would you cite them as a success or a failure?

I’m not exactly hostile towards it but I have no reason to believe that attending AA really and truly helps people who are alcoholics any more than either just deciding to quit on one’s own or joining another program.

In the episode of Bullshit in which they slam 12 step programs (YouTube), Penn and Teller describe a 1989 internal AA survey as showing that the program has only a 5% success rate over twelve months. From context, it seems likely that what the survey actually says is that 95% of participants stop attending meetings within their first year.

I don’t know if this survey is the actual source of the 5% claim seen elsewhere, but it seems likely.