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Seeking Help in AA Because It’s Free? Think Again!

You may be thinking, but going to AA can’t hurt, and after all it’s free. Well that’s where you’d be wrong, on both accounts.

If you ask 100 people what you should do if you think you have a drinking problem, it’s likely as many as 80 of them will say, you should go to an AA meeting. Most people, even those with little or no personal experience with substance use problems, believe the group Alcoholics Anonymous is very successful in helping people to overcome a serious drinking problem. Addiction help professionals, physicians, and other health professionals typically send people to 12 step meetings as aftercare and for help and support, in spite of research that shows participation in 12 step groups has failure rates at 80% and higher.

You may be thinking, but going to AA can’t hurt, and after all it’s free. Well that’s where you’d be wrong, on both accounts. A few years ago I was contacted by a very nice woman, we’ll call her Emily. She was seeking help for a serious drinking problem. She told me that she’d been in and out of AA for the better part of 20 years. As she entered her 50s, she started a cycle of heavy drinking, hospitalization, detox, rehab, then back to AA meetings. When she called she explained that she had been stuck in that cycle since losing her husband a few years earlier.

As we talked I asked her about her experiences in rehab and AA. She explained the rehabs seemed to help for a little while, but she was never consistent with AA so she would relapse within a few weeks or months. After her latest rehab stint she said that she found a very nice woman to be her sponsor named Mary. Mary made sure she kept going to meetings. Emily told me that recently Mary had left her job to move in with her and care for her. She explained that her health was declining rapidly due to her drinking, so she was no longer comfortable living alone.

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I asked Emily if having Mary in her home was helping her to stay sober, even though I already knew the answer. I could tell from our conversation that Emily had been drinking. That’s the point in our conversation when Emily began to cry. She said that no, even with her sponsor now taking care of her, and bringing her to daily meetings, she was drinking more than she ever had in the past. She felt like a total failure; a burden to her sponsor, her AA friends, and her children. The more I talked with Emily the more concerned I became that Emily was in real danger, and not just from her heavy drinking.

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Many people have heard about the culture of sexual predation in AA, but there is another kind of predatory behavior that’s rampant in AA, and that’s financial predation. You don’t have to look far to find hard-working, otherwise very successful people, who have lost their life’s savings, retirement funds, and been ruined financially not because of their substance use; but instead by the very people offering to help them.

Preying on the weak and vulnerable is nothing new. It’s exactly how cults develop, how people get lured into abusive relationships, and why scam artists seek out the sick and elderly. I was taught at a young age by my mother to always make my own money, have my own way home, and be cautious who I let into my inner circle. She explained that I don’t have to live my life in fear, but that I should walk into any situation with my eyes wide open. If something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

So when Emily explained to me that she met Mary at a meeting and knew her only a few weeks when Mary offered to leave her job and move in to take care of her, it piqued my suspicion. It sounded too good to be true. However, I have also learned that sometimes people are truly kind and good, and their motives are pure, so I did not relay my suspicions to Emily and continued our conversation with an open mind. Perhaps Mary was genuinely kind and helpful, and her motives were pure, and Emily was just stuck in the addiction and recovery trap.

I asked Emily how she thought I could help her. She said she wanted to try something radically different. It was clear to her that everything she’d been doing wasn’t working. She wanted to get off the multiple psych meds she’d been prescribed at previous rehabs, stop drinking, and figure out how to live and be happy again. She really loved Mary and didn’t want to hurt her because she felt Mary had done so much for her, but she knew it was time to start taking care of herself again. And she couldn’t deny that Mary wasn’t helping her to not drink. To the contrary Emily could see that her drinking escalated when Mary moved in with her.

It turns out that Emily’s daughter hadn’t spoken to her in years, and out of the blue she sent her Steven Slate’s TED Talk where he explained about how he got over a serious heroin problem. As it was the first time she’d heard from her in so long, she watched the entire video. She was elated that her daughter had contacted her and wanted to help. What intrigued her most about Steven’s TED Talk was that he said he wasn’t an addict and that he was completely free of the problem.

Emily was intrigued and began to research Steven Slate. He was saying things she’d never heard before. She found Steven’s blog site, TheCleanSlate.org, and couldn’t believe what she was reading. He said that addiction isn’t a disease at all, and that most people get over the problem. Much of what he said made sense to her. It hit her like a ton of bricks that she may have just wasted the last 20 years of her life on a program that didn’t actually work for most people. She became deeply saddened thinking about the last years of her husband’s life and how tumultuous she had made them needlessly.

Emily explained to me that she was truly ready to make a change and asked about coming to the retreat to work with Steven and I directly. As we were going through the logistics of coming to the retreat, she said she would have to talk with Mary as she was now taking care of all of her finances. For several days I talked to Emily and she told me that Mary would be calling me to set up her reservation, but there was no call. Finally I reached out to Mary on Emily’s behalf, and when I got her on the phone, I could tell instantly that something was not right.

Mary was hostile that Emily was talking to me. She said she would not approve for her to spend the money to come to our program, and that she alone was all Emily needed. She asked me not to contact Emily because I was giving her false hope. She insisted that Emily was a severe alcoholic who would probably be dead soon and there was nothing anyone could do about it. Any hope that I had that Mary’s motives were sincere went out the window. It was clear this was a serious situation, and Emily’s life was most likely in danger.

I put in a few calls to Emily and didn’t hear back from her for several days, and I was very concerned. I had no other way of contacting her. All I had was her cell number, her first name, and her daughter’s first name. Thankfully about a week later Emily called back in rough shape. She let me know Mary told her that she was no longer allowed to talk to me and that she was afraid of what Mary would do if she knew we were talking. I asked her how I could get in contact with her daughter. She gave me her contact information, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Emily’s daughter traveled 500 miles to be with her mother. She arrived unannounced and surprised Emily. The house was filthy, and it looked as if Emily hadn’t eaten, showered, or left her room in days. It became clear that not only was Mary supplying Emily with alcohol, but she was not taking care of the home or Emily, and was systematically cleaning out Emily’s bank account.

Emily’s daughter came back into her life in time to save her mother’s life savings and her life. She had cut her mother off because of the “tough love” recommended in AA and treatment programs that Emily had been to through the years. Her daughter never felt that it was right. She loved her mother dearly, and just wanted to help her and that’s what she was told by the addiction professionals she should do. In this case, it could have very well cost Emily her life.

When the dust settled, Emily did come to our retreat, and Mary is now out of her life, but not before stealing tens of thousands of dollars. You may think this is an isolated incident, but after 30 years of working to help substance users, I can assure you it isn’t. While there are honest, caring people who will do whatever they can to help a fellow human being, within the recovery subculture, those people are rare. It’s far more common to find opportunists — maybe not outright criminals and con-artists (although they are there too) — but people who have been told they need to work with another “alcoholic” to maintain their own sobriety. These people believe they must serve other alcoholics to help themselves, so why not look for someone that has something more to offer? Why not make your service work really pay off?

By the time people end up in AA, they usually feel hopeless, isolated, and desperate. Many have lost close family and friends, jobs, marriages, and even their freedoms. So they are in the vulnerable position of having to get help and support from total strangers who are also struggling with their own demons. That is why so many people buy into the AA dogma and doublespeak. It is also one of the main reasons, aside from the anonymity requirement, that it is the perfect hunting ground for predators. Desperation makes people vulnerable, and the anonymity allows for predators to work with impunity.

From getting newcomers to do work for free, to selling them to the highest bidding rehab, to bilking them out of their life savings under the guise of helping them, financial predation takes all forms in the rooms of AA and the recovery world. Not only is the recovery world a perfect place for predators to find prey, it has the highest failure rates of any form of addiction help. Teaching people they are powerless over alcohol and other substances, and forcing already sad, vulnerable, hurting people to experience an ego deflation and stop trusting themselves and their thinking, and then isolating them from friends and family under the guise that no one but another “alcoholic” can understand you, is a recipe for disaster. Those are the 12 steps of AA in a nutshell. And now you know exactly how people get stuck in the revolving door of addiction and recovery, and become vulnerable to predators like my friend Emily.

Heeding my mother’s advice from so long ago saved me from many things, not the least of which was being preyed on in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous by people who claimed to want to help me.


Michelle Dunbar is the co-author of The Freedom Model for Addictions: Escape the Treatment and Recovery Trap and The Freedom Model for the Family. She is the Executive Director of the Saint Jude Retreat. If you or someone you know is struggling with a substance use problem, there is an empowering solution that has proven to be three times more effective than addiction treatment and twelve times more effective than 12 step meetings. Go to www.TheFreedomModel.org for more information or call 888-424-2626.

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