AA and Special Needs


This is the fourth and final essay in a series that life-j wrote for the “AA Grapevine.” My last communication with life-j was on November 3, 2019, and at that time he wrote that his health had declined and he was admitted to hospice. I have not heard anything more and I don’t know how to contact his family for an update. Sadly, my sense is that he must have passed away. 

Thank you life-j for your friendship and for your many contributions to this site and to the Fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous. I miss you. We all miss you.


AA and Special Needs

by life-j

While AA as such has always made a point of including all who suffer from alcoholism, there have been instances where the inclusivity hasn’t always worked well, either because of human limitations of our members or because of some aspects of our program which may not serve certain subgroups as well as it was intended.

Men in early AA were leery of including women in the meetings, and while AA was more open-minded than society at large, there were issues of racial discrimination.

The LGBTQ crowd has had some discrimination to deal with though, again, less in AA than in society at large. Agnostics, atheists and other non-believers, on the other hand, were generally met with considerable patronizing: “You’re welcome to be here, just keep your thoughts to yourself, until you find god, as we know you will”. It has been an untold story until recently that tens of thousands of alcoholics have obtained decades of good sobriety in AA while hiding in the agnostic closet.

The Grapevine book One Big Tent has brought some of that story out into the open, and with the help of websites such as aaagnostica, aabeyondbelief, and secularaa, and of course, the three international conventions for secular AA members (ICSAA) which have so far been held, the last one in Toronto in 2018, AA is finally becoming as open-minded in this respect as Bill, especially in his later years, intended it to be, and the non-believers no longer have to hide in the closet. Their sobriety without a higher power is as good as everyone else’s is.

Goodwill among AA members is doing a lot to resolve all this.

Somewhat more problematic are issues where the program itself puts limitations on the recovery process, and I will just bring up one thing which I have become aware of lately. With our dedication to helping each other, we may discover other issues that need to be addressed along the way. 

A lot of people come into AA after a long string of abuses which often started in early childhood, sexual or otherwise, carried on throughout our school years, and over into abusive adult relationships. This typically resulted in the abused person having seriously low self-esteem, and alcohol at one time became our solution, not yet our problem. I see many people in AA like that, I see a lot, maybe more than half of us, and I am one myself, though after I had been in AA 15-20 years I started getting over it. Why that long? Because the 12 step program really has no good way of addressing this problem.

Bill Wilson was an egomaniac early on, and when he with three years sobriety wrote the Big Book he had not yet discovered that all alcoholics were not just like himself: White, male, well educated, well-to-do (at least formerly), selfish, powerful, Type A personalities. These people had a lot of opportunities to wreak havoc in their path. They did have a big ego that needed to be taken down a peg or two, and so a lot of recoveries got to be about ego deflation.

But people who come into AA with broken self-esteem, people who needed a drink just to feel like they had a right to be in this world are not helped by some of the prevailing messages in the 12 step program. They sound too much like the destructive messages we got before we came here:

Let’s talk about your character defects ( – I was told about my defects since I could walk)

  • Quit playing god ( – don’t try to hide from that beating you have coming)
  • What was your part in it? ( – when you were raped at 8 – thankfully personally I wasn’t, but I know a lot of people in AA who were)
  • Take the cotton out of your ears and put it in your mouth ( – whatever you have to say is worthless)

Really – how is ego deflation going to help? We’re just all stuck being told to do it because Bill Wilson 80 years ago figured that’s what he, personally needed.

Granted, a lot of us, when we first got sober had a hard time stringing intelligent thoughts together, and nobody gets much out of listening to a bunch of babble, and many of us at first all we want to do is make excuses for our bad behavior. 

And further, it is a good thing in many ways that we in AA try to focus on what we can do here and now, to change our lives instead of being stuck in the past, working with what we have, but so many people with broken self-esteem simply are stuck in the past, and no amount of talk about focusing on the solution rather than the problem is going to help them. All it will do is increase their cognitive dissonance. Professional help is often needed, and we don’t provide that, but our focus on ego-deflation can be outright damaging, preventing us from being effective with the help we in AA do provide, and we need to make some changes to our program to reflect this problem. I realize that for many people the program is working fine, but that does not help those whom it doesn’t work fine for.

Many people come to AA with a lot of shame and guilt. Ego deflation will not fix that. There may not even be an ego to deflate. Trying to foist ego deflation on people with a lot of shame is likely to either chase them away or do further damage. And indeed many come to a meeting or two and realize that AA, as it is, will just make their problem even harder to bear. Many of us, rather than a list of defects – we already have a list a mile long – what we need is empowerment. We need positive affirmation. When we in AA say we will love you until you can love yourself, that’s indeed what’s needed rather than what feels like more shaming, even if it isn’t supposed to be.

I am aware that many who read this will want to jump to a loud defense of AA. That is really not necessary, I’m not attacking AA. I love AA, it has given me a new life, but it has done so way too slowly because some things which worked quite well for others were of no help, or were even counterproductive for me. There were certainly times I resisted help and was dishonest both to myself and others, but it took me 15-20 years in this program to become a reasonably normal person with reasonably normal self-esteem. It took 2-3000 meetings and a lot of work.

Nothing should keep those who are happy with it from working their program the way Bill did it in 1939. But we need to not be met with so much resistance when we’re trying to expand the ways AA can be made to work for more of us. Bill himself tried to point this out in his later years, 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.

This Post Has 9 Comments

  1. AndyMc

    Life-J, if indeed you are no longer with us, you shared your spirit with me. Thank you for your contribution in my life. I miss you:-(

  2. Roger C

    John, we both got this email from life-j on November 9:

    I don’t have energy right now to say all the nice things I would have liked to say to you guys from all our time together.

    We have started a movement, and we have made friends. Can’t ask for more, except maybe a bit longer life for some, though mine is getting tiresome now.

    Word about life-j now would be very helpful.

    1. Bob K

      The beauty of those words is countered by the underlying sad message being conveyed. If those were parting words, they’re about the best I’ve ever seen.

  3. CathyM

    Thanks for sharing that email….his words pretty much sum up the palliative experience – even while being cared for, he would be drained.
    Thankfully he poured out his thoughts and heart with us in his writings.
    What a guy, such a character in our midst forever.

  4. Michelle L.

    I heatd from friends of Life J that he passed away. I don’t have an exact date.

    1. John S

      Thank you for the information.

    2. Roger C

      Michelle, could you kindly contact me at aaagnostica@gmail.com? Perhaps I could be put in touch – via email or whatever – with some of these friends of Life J. That would be much appreciated.

  5. Bob K

    Metropolitan Toronto is quite a mixture of ethnicities. Non-whites (not my term) recently passed 50% of the population, and yet, AA meetings do not reflect the cosmopolitan nature of the general population. There are minorities represented, but perhaps at 5%. So, the Toronto population is 49% white, and the Toronto AA population is 95% white. What’s wrong with this picture?

    A sociologist could come up with multiple reasons to explain this disparity.

    One key factor is the comfort level for minority group members who come to AA. I interviewed a 45-year sober Chinese-Jamaican man who is an AA fundamentalist, and an AA lover. When he came to meetings in the 1970s, several members told him to fornicate elsewhere. Fortunately, others stood up for his right to stay. Was racial prejudice 45 years ago just from a few guys? Or was it lots of guys? I’d say it’s down to fewer folks today, with higher percentages as we look further and further back.

    Bill and Bob were pretty liberal, at least based on the surviving stories, but AA’s early history isn’t too “spiritual,” let’s say. All AA meetings in the early days were what we call “special interest,” that is to say WHITES ONLY. Women were unwanted — you can read about that in Dr. Bob and the Good Old Timers.

    Every minority group has had to fight for its seat at the recovery table. The LGBTQ community still fights a battle at least as challenging as the heathens. AA has a way to go.

  6. Jack B.

    If it is indeed true that life-j has died then our world has become dimmer. I’ve always looked forward to his intelligence and extraordinary kindness.
    We’ve lost one of the brightest stars in our secular universe.
    Farewell life-j.

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