AA and What Really Works

Introduction and a message from life-j, conveyed by John S.  

I received an email from life-j with some information he asked me to pass on to you. Those of you who know life-j, or follow him on our site and at AA Agnostica may know he was diagnosed with liver cancer several years ago, and about two years ago, the cancer metastasized to his lungs. Despite the return of the cancer, life-j continued writing, attending secular AA conferences, and doing his best to push AA into the 21st Century. 

Sadly, he wrote, “I’m finally coming apart.” He went into hospice care last week where he is being well cared for, and he told me that while it’s not time to write his obituary, he wanted you to know what’s going on. 

What follows is the third in a series of articles that life-j wrote for the AA Grapevine, but were never published by that magazine. He graciously allowed us to post them here at AA Beyond Belief. The first in the series “The Thing About AA” was posted on August 4, 2019, and the second in the series, “Does Everyone Need a Higher Power”, was posted on September 1, 2019.

AA and What Really Works

By life-j

I had liver cancer surgery a couple of years ago. It was a big deal. When I went for my pre-op consultation with the surgeon, I said, “can you please do the operation the way they did it in 1939, because that was a really great year.” The surgeon, a bit bemused said, “sure, but you’ll have a 5-10% chance of survival. I was about to say, “sure, that sounds like great odds, I’ll take it,” when he added, “though we could apply all our modern science, do things the way we do them now, and I can pretty much promise you 99%.”

That was a hard choice. After more than 25 years sober in AA, I was so used to doing things the 1939 way, and I had become used to seeing a 5 or 10 percent success rate among those around me as really good, I almost went for it.

In the end he talked me out of it, so I’m still around to tell you about it, if only for a little while longer. But in AA we don’t so readily welcome modern science. Don’t fix it if it ain’t broke, an old saying goes. And that’s the one we live by in AA. We don’t seem to care that medical, psychiatric, and addiction science has made great progress. We have our 12 step program, and it works for us. We pray to god to heal us, just like people did when a child was ill a hundred years ago. And it works. Those of us who are here are living proof that it works. Never mind the 20 million who at one time or another walked through our doors, but didn’t stay. We say they weren’t ready to do it our way. If you don’t want help our way, the way they did it in 1939, don’t count on us. Here, one size fits all.

It seems it is more important to some people to protect the purity of the program than to consider what we could perhaps change in order to try to help more people. If our program was perfect, and never needed any real change, it would be the first one ever, – ever – in all of history. Even the various Christian churches go through major changes.

But that’s what I would like to talk about, so I’m going to get serious now. To me, what works in this program is one alcoholic helping another. An alcoholic will trust another alcoholic before they trust just about anyone else. And by helping each other we help solidify our own sobriety. There is more to it, but what exactly? Just because Bill Wilson wrote at three years sober that something or other worked doesn’t mean that that is indeed what actually worked.

Let me give an example of what I mean: A friend in AA wrote a story comparing our program to diet pills, and how they work: You take the diet pills and, as instructed by the manufacturer you also eat a healthier diet, you don’t overeat, and you exercise. If you do that, the diet pills make you lose weight. Never mind that the diet pills didn’t do anything – the healthier living did it, but you give the diet pills the credit.

In AA you pray to God, and you don’t drink, you participate in the fellowship, and you start living by the 8 principles of AA: Honesty, open-mindedness, willingness, humility, service, acceptance, gratitude, and living by the golden rule. And then you recover. The steps are one good way of doing that, of course, but it is those 8 principles for right living which are embedded in the steps that really matter. Not the steps exactly as written. Not the prayers, at least for me.

Why would I want to dig into what at bottom really works? Why am I not happy to just trudge along in my admittedly very good sober life? It’s for the sake of those 20 million that we didn’t help, they keep bothering me, and it’s for the sake of the next 20 million who haven’t come to us yet that we really ought to have an honest look at it. Just like as individuals if we don’t change something, we won’t stay sober – if we don’t, as a fellowship, change something, we will be no more effective than we have been. It is great that we, two million strong have helped each other, but I don’t think we can be satisfied with that if there are so many we didn’t help.

We have to presume there is a problem with our program. There has been for a long time. In our individual programs we can’t blame “the others” – so how can we as a fellowship blame the newcomers? We need to look at our stuff.

Yes, dear reader, I believe you when you tell me it worked for you. It worked for me too, I’m 30 years sober, but that doesn’t mean that the same program that worked for you and me will help everyone. We can be complacent and say, “oh well, at least we did offer them our program,” but I think that is a cop-out. We need to bring AA into the 21st century, we need to listen to medical science, and we need to look at what really works, how we can make it work better. Not just praise the diet pill. And that may mean making some changes to parts of the program which by now have almost come to be considered sacred. Whatever it takes: Change the steps, change “How it Works,” maybe even make some altogether new literature. Step out of our comfort zone with an open mind.

I am responsible. When an alcoholic, anywhere reaches out for help, I don’t just want the 1939 program of the Big Book to be there for them. I want anything and everything that could help us help more people. I don’t want any more sacred cows. And for that, I am responsible, and I think all of AA is too.

About the Author

life-j got sober in Oakland in 1988. He moved to a Northern California coastal mountain village in 2002 and helped wake up the sleepy AA fellowship there. He’s been involved in service work of every kind all along, but now thinks the most important work is to help atheists and agnostics feel safe and welcome in AA.

Events in the fellowship conspired to make him become way more radicalized than he ever wanted to be, and he finds it difficult to settle back down to focus on his own program again, for better or for worse. He’s spent parts of his life as a building contractor, part as a technical translator, and has dabbled a bit in artwork and writing. life-j is now semi-retired on a five-acre homestead together with his sweetie, and his dogs, chickens, and gardens.

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Jack Blair, Vancouver.
Jack Blair, Vancouver.

Hello moderator-
I do not know if you have the ability to contact life-j at his email address but if you do and, of course, if he agrees, would you please ask him if he’d accept an email from me?

Thank-you very much,

Jack Blair.

John S

I sent him an email and asked if that would be okay. I’m sure it would.

Joe K
Joe K

Thank you so much for this. I completely relate in wanting to drag AA into the 20th century. I get frustrated when I’m at meetings when people say science doesn’t explain addiction, when nowadays it kind of does in great detail. I hate the victim blaming of how it works. I don’t see why an addendum to the 164 pages can’t happen. Always enjoy reading your work. Makes me feel less alone in the community and helps give me the strength to speak to recovery from a secular place.

Jack B.
Jack B.

Hello life-j, I’m going to say some very complimentary things about you here so you may want to skip ahead to the next paragraph. In a few words then; I’ve always found your writings here to be not only well written but very enlightening. I will continue to look forward to seeing your name here. Thanks so very much, Jack. Now to a subject that has bothered me greatly: the subject of carrying coals to Newcastle. It is beyond discussion today that AA as it stands is in very great need of revision and the adoption of modern medicine and… Read more »

Rachael O
Rachael O

Life-j, thank you for this posting, but more especially for your work as an activist on behalf of the secular sobriety community, which I have found helpful and inspiring, reading from afar. Indeed, colleagues and I recently founded a secular meeting, and have already run headlong into the buzzsaw of AA tradition that has confounded so many (our intergroup won’t list us). We learn from and are empowered by you and others who have traveled this path and courageously spoken out about the struggle. For that I thank you, and wish you peace.

Jack B.
Jack B.

You have written words of respect and encouragement that are completely accurate.
life-j is one of the brightest stars in the secular recovery galaxy. And we will always learn from and deeply respect his words of intelligence and great kindness.

I wish him well in any future endeavor – my library and life have gained much from him.

Peace and love to you life-j,

Megan F.
Megan F.

Thank you so much for sharing your work with us. Your thoughtful insights and experience has reached more people than you know and your legacy will continue. You’ve helped pave the way for the non-believers to find sobriety and a peaceful life without the need for a deity and without the need to throw AA completely out the window (as tempting as that is at times). Your contribution will not be forgotten. Peace and love.