Alcoholics Anonymous: The Good, The Bad, and Corvallis’ Alternatives

For those in Corvallis desiring recovery—or already on the way to recovery—from a potentially incapacitating dependence on alcohol, support from others who’ve experienced similar situations can be tremendously welcoming. For some, the personal support offered by Corvallis’ local Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) may—or may not—be the very thing needed to permanently step away from a debilitating addiction.

In Corvallis, different AA groups meet at multiple times every day, offering a range of choices for those with time or travel limitations. Each meeting has its own theme, including “Living Sober,” and “Experience, Strength, and Hope.” And each is designed to provide non-judgmental support, as well as a discussion platform for attendees’ thoughts and issues regarding alcohol addiction and the difficulties of achieving lasting sobriety.

The 12 steps of AA, used by Corvallis’ and most other AA groups, are specific ideals that need to be accepted in the process of recovery, but are written in a broad tone that can be used for any addiction. They can be used to self-treat other addictions, and are often applied by a wide variety of treatment groups. The sense of community afforded by Corvallis’ AA is hugely gratifying for most members. And group therapy seems to work well for a wide variety of emotional and mental ailments—psychologists suggest that it may be this group atmosphere more than any other aspect of AA that helps some members successfully recover from alcoholism.

A possible setback in the 12 steps is the dependence upon the belief in God, because there are many people now who don’t believe in God or even organized religion. But while Corvallis’ AA meetings are held in churches—including the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Corvallis—it does not mean that the meetings themselves have religious undertones. Corvallis’ local meetings are about sharing personal stories, sharing what has helped you, and discussing aspects of AA’s Big Book, one of the most important pieces of AA literature. The meetings here are more modernized for those people who do not follow a religion and who would not benefit from a group that preaches that God will be your savior from addiction.

However, regardless of the fact that you can participate in the program without a religious belief, AA is still a society that requires full participation and belief in the program itself to be effective. The people that receive the best results from the group are the ones who can fully commit themselves to the AA culture, just like a person must do when accepting a religion into his or her life. It works when you can be open to the words of the text, to the stories of the people, and most importantly to the idea that you must let go of your preconceptions and doubts about the group.

As one local Corvallis member made sure to point out, “The most important thing is to make sure that you are looking for similarities, not the differences. If you keep finding differences, you will always think that you had an excuse for the habit.” If you drink to prevent panic attacks, and no one else tells a similar story, you might think that you are different and perhaps aren’t an alcoholic. Instead, find all the ways you can relate to the stories of others in the group. If someone in the group says they feel tense when they don’t have a drink, and if you’ve felt that way too, then you just found one way to relate to other members.

Ultimately, the question is does AA work? It seems the answer is: only if you are willing to do the work to let it. AA isn’t a miracle pill that will do the work for you. You can’t go into it halfheartedly. If you go with skepticism in mind, you will only listen to the stories of others and find reasons why that isn’t you and why you don’t belong there. But the more connections you can make, the easier you’ll find it to be helped by your experiences in Corvallis’ AA.


AA Alternatives in Corvallis

For those who want to try a non-AA approach to recovery from alcohol dependence, Corvallis offers a variety of great programs. Students on OSU’s campus have access to programs such as IMPACT, offered through OSU’s Health Promotion Department, which encourages student discussions about alcohol and drug use. It’s available to all students, including those sanctioned by the Resident Hall System, Benton County Circuit Court, and others. IMPACT uses multiple levels of intervention, depending on an individual’s need and referral source. Student Affairs is also currently in the process of building a collegiate recovery community.

OSU students can get private therapy appointments through Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) to connect them with the resources that best suit their alcohol-dependency situation. CAPs also has a Smart Recovery program, which is a supportive drop-in recovery group that provides space to discuss personal stories, struggles, and issues related to drug and alcohol dependence—drop in whenever you want, and participate at any point in your recovery.

Off-campus, Benton County Mental Health (541-766-3540) offers alcohol and other drug treatment programs with variable levels of care based on an individual’s needs. Treatment sessions can be held on an individual basis or in a group setting. If you don’t have insurance (including Oregon Health Plan), fees are assessed on a sliding scale based on income.

Emergence Addiction Counseling and Education Services (541-758-8022 in Corvallis) offers low-cost programs to help individuals overcome various addictions, including alcoholism. Emergence’s Threshold program, which “can help you get untangled with the problems alcohol and drug use can cause,” states, “We empower the individual to make decisions about themselves and support them as they make changes.” Emergence programs are incredibly helpful for those who have experienced legal consequences of alcoholism.

Milestones Family Recovery (541-738-6832) offers a variety of programs for youths and adults, and accepts Oregon Health Plan and most other types of health insurance. Milestones has both inpatient and outpatient programs, and its “primary goal is to provide chemically dependent persons with the tools to achieve a lifestyle free from addiction to alcohol and other drugs.”

Lines for Life is a non-profit organization whose mission is to prevent substance abuse and suicide by “promoting healthy kids and communities through drug and alcohol awareness, prevention programs, and 24-hour crisis lines for treatment referrals and suicide prevention.” Their five 24-hour crisis lines receive more than 35,000 calls each year. The HelpLine (800-923-4957) provides crisis intervention treatment referral and chemical dependency information. Linea de Ayuda (877-515-7848) is a Spanish-speaking crisis line for drug and alcohol problems, and YouthLine (877-968-8491) helps teens deal with substance abuse, depression, self-harm, dating violence, and other issues.


The 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous

1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.

2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of

God as we understood Him.

4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.

5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.

6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.

7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.

8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.

11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.

12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.


The Big Book

Stories told during AA meetings often end in a member’s reliance on the words of The Big Book. Just as a Christian might turn to certain words of the Bible in times of difficulty, true believers in the power of the AA program will grab their book for help as well. Although it’s certainly not perfect, The Big Book is filled with true stories, helpful tips, and methods of coping. Some Corvallis members said they kept the book in their locker at work so they could always refer to it in times of stress; others said it was in their purse, and some keep it in their car. For many, the book is a physical item that keeps them grounded in tough moments. This idea is somewhat similar to when a smoker quits and starts chewing gum so that there is a tangible replacement for the addiction.

One of the most awakening parts of The Big Book are the stories that are shared: “Over the next two years I sickened rapidly. The enlargement of my liver degenerated into cirrhosis. I vomited every morning. I could not face food. I suffered frequent blackouts. I had severe nosebleeds. Bruises appeared mysteriously over my body. I became so weak, I could barely drag myself around.” Stories like these make the consequences of addiction real. The more someone reads them, the more they are going to think about them every time they have a drink in their hand.


What About the God Thing?

Some worry that the religious nature of AA drives away non-religious alcoholics who would otherwise benefit from membership. And in some cases they may be correct—it’s easy to see how the required submission of each member to a “higher power,” while well-intentioned, could potentially be abused. Critics claim that AA takes on a cult-like atmosphere, or one of indoctrination, rather than support. While it’s highly abusive and entirely against AA guidelines, groups in Washington, D.C. were accused of pressuring members to cut all ties with non-AA associates, stop taking various medications, do chores for more “senior” members, and date or become sexually involved with certain members.

For some members it seems that an addiction to God, via AA, has simply displaced alcoholism. Although this is certainly not ideal, one can’t claim that it’s necessarily a bad thing given the alternative. For these people, it’s about doing what works.

But be at ease in Corvallis, where the “higher power” referred to in every AA meeting is flexible and open to interpretation—AA literature refers to this power as “God as we understand him.” Some members say their higher power is the indescribable scientific complexity of the universe; for others it’s the desire for a productive life. AA’s own literature states, “The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking. There are no dues or fees for AA membership; we are self-supporting through our own contributions. AA is not allied with any sect, denomination, politics, organization, or institution; does not wish to engage in any controversy; neither endorses nor opposes any causes,” and Corvallis groups truly take that to heart.


Is Abstinence the Best Approach?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “harmful use of alcohol results in the death of 2.5 million people annually,” more than HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis. Alcohol-related economic costs are also significantly higher per capita in the US, where AA is the most popular, than in many other developed nations that don’t subscribe to AA as frequently. Critics of AA suggest that its abstinence-only approach is not the healthiest, and 2011 WHO statistics show that nations supporting moderation rather than complete abstinence from alcohol experience fewer drinking-related deaths annually. But this is a tricky issue—most current AA members suffer from drinking without restraint, and moderate drinking is simply impossible. An alcoholic might pound a few beers in a bar bathroom while seemingly only “nursing” a drink in front of friends.

While it’s important to consider each individual on a case-by-case basis—and to emphasize abstinence for those who simply cannot indulge in moderation—it seems that a healthy nation-wide approach to alcohol stressing moderation would be more effective than emphasizing abstinence only.


The Blame Game

AA’s Big Book, which is generally supportive, still 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.”

While most Corvallis AA members are hugely supportive of one another and of the recovery of alcoholics still “out,” this aspect of AA’s national literature is disturbing. It essentially states that those who are unable to complete the program are entirely to blame for their failure; the program itself is not at fault whatsoever. Where is the statement that AA doesn’t work for everyone, but maybe another approach will? And let’s not forget that AA members, in all their legitimate, real-life experience-derived wisdom, are still not trained therapists; AA is a self-help group. Is it truly someone’s fault if their attempts at recovery through AA fail, when they actually need more in-depth psychological treatment? Rational, thinking people will be able to disconnect the diversity of living, breathing human beings from the Big Book’s sometimes judgmental black-and-white approach. But for some, AA has earned a general reputation for being condemnatory of those who do not succeed in the program.

AA’s 12 steps may not be ideal for every individual struggling with alcoholism. In fact, AA doesn’t work for the majority of people who try it without any other treatment. Perhaps it’s time to make some changes to the The Big Book.


Anonymity Is Not Shame in Corvallis

Anonymity is an important aspect of AA—but not because Corvallis’ AA members need to feel ashamed of their histories, although for many anonymity is also a safe haven. AA’s Understanding Anonymity publication reads, “While the stigma has lessened to some degree, most newcomers still find admission of their alcoholism so painful that it is possible only in a protected environment. Anonymity is essential for this atmosphere of openness and trust.” But anonymity in AA is also simply an expression of humility; it’s about being humbled by your life’s experiences. With humility comes equality—no person in Corvallis’ AA is better or worse than any other person. Anonymity is also flexible; most Corvallis AA members willingly share their positive AA experiences with others who they think may benefit from the program. And it’s often helpful when members let friends and family know about their desire to strictly avoid alcohol consumption. Such disclosures are always the choice of the individual member.


The AA Identity Crisis

Many successful AA members continue to go to daily or weekly meetings for years, sometimes decades after their last drink. For Corvallisites this may be entirely healthy—they are part of a supportive community, they’ve built friendships, and they feel at ease among other local AA members. But critics of AA suggest that some groups encourage dependency rather than healthy independent personal strength—without the group you are incapable of managing your alcoholism. For some members this may be true, but for many an approach promoting inner strength and personal willpower—essentially the ability of one to achieve great things for oneself—rather than dependence on a group for success would be significantly healthier in the long run.

Defining oneself as an alcoholic for life is also not necessarily a good thing. While some people need help overcoming their alcohol addictions for lengthy amounts of time—in some cases for life—critics state that AA implants the notion of “I’m an alcoholic” directly into members’ brains, and works hard to maintain that perception—“Hi, I’m Joe and I’m an alcoholic.” And some members are never able to identify themselves as anything but.


By Cristina Himka and Genevieve Weber



–        Official AA website

–        AA in Oregon’s Willamette Valley

–        Brendan Koerner’s AA article in Wired Magazine

–        World Health Organization global alcohol statistics

–        Benton County Mental Health

–        Lines for Life

–        OSU alcohol and drug abuse resources

–        Milestones Family Recover

–        Emergence Addiction and Behavioral Therapies

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