Its faith-based 12-step program dominates treatment in the United States. But researchers have debunked central tenets of AA doctrine and found dozens of other treatments more effective.
J.G. is a lawyer in his early 30s. He’s a fast talker and has the lean, sinewy build of a distance runner. His choice of profession seems preordained, as he speaks in fully formed paragraphs, his thoughts organized by topic sentences. He’s also a worrier—a big one—who for years used alcohol to soothe his anxiety.
J.G. started drinking at 15, when he and a friend experimented in his parents’ liquor cabinet. He favored gin and whiskey but drank whatever he thought his parents would miss the least. He discovered beer, too, and loved the earthy, bitter taste on his tongue when he took his first cold sip.
His drinking increased through college and into law school. He could, and occasionally did, pull back, going cold turkey for weeks at a time. But nothing quieted his anxious mind like booze, and when he didn’t drink, he didn’t sleep. After four or six weeks dry, he’d be back at the liquor store.
By the time he was a practicing defense attorney, J.G. (who asked to be identified only by his initials) sometimes drank almost a liter of Jameson in a day. He often started drinking after his first morning court appearance, and he says he would have loved to drink even more, had his schedule allowed it. He defended clients who had been charged with driving while intoxicated, and he bought his own Breathalyzer to avoid landing in court on drunk-driving charges himself.
J.G. says it was this message—that there were no small missteps, and one drink might as well be 100—that set him on a cycle of bingeing and abstinence. He went back to rehab once more and later sought help at an outpatient center. Each time he got sober, he’d spend months white-knuckling his days in court and his nights at home. Evening would fall and his heart would race as he thought ahead to another sleepless night. “So I’d have one drink,” he says, “and the first thing on my mind was: I feel better now, but I’m screwed. I’m going right back to where I was. I might as well drink as much as I possibly can for the next three days.”
He felt utterly defeated. And according to AA doctrine, the failure was his alone. When the 12 steps don’t work for someone like J.G., Alcoholics Anonymous says that person must be deeply flawed. The Big Book, AA’s bible, states:
Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path. Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves. There are such unfortunates. They are not at fault; they seem to have been born that way.
J.G.’s despair was only heightened by his seeming lack of options. “Every person I spoke with told me there was no other way,” he says.
The 12 steps are so deeply ingrained in the United States that many people, including doctors and therapists, believe attending meetings, earning one’s sobriety chips, and never taking another sip of alcohol is the only way to get better. Hospitals, outpatient clinics, and rehab centers use the 12 steps as the basis for treatment. But although few people seem to realize it, there are alternatives, including prescription drugs and therapies that aim to help patients learn to drink in moderation. Unlike Alcoholics Anonymous, these methods are based on modern science and have been proved, in randomized, controlled studies, to work…