Leaving AA, staying sober: new perspectives on recovery

Contents (updated August 2018)

1. Introduction
2. For the suffering alcoholic and those unhappy in AA
3. What it was like, what happened, what it’s like now
4. The truth about Alcoholics Anonymous
5. God, as we understood Him
6. We agnostics
7. Secular alternatives to AA
8. Does the success of AA obscure other options?
9. AA and transparency
10. A hundred forms of fear: AA and anxiety
11. A vision for you? New perspectives on recovery
12. Disclaimer, references, feedback

August 2018 Update: I finally finished my PhD “Dylan, Lennon, Marx & God” at the University of Southampton.  So I’m now called “Dr. Jon” … although, as one friend said, “he’s not the kind of doctor that actually helps people”.  My research explores the same links between evolutionary psychology, religion and culture I discuss here, and will be published in book form in 2019. Now I have the time I’ll be doing more public speaking, which I’ll also announce in these blog updates.

big_book_first_ed 1. Introduction

I stopped attending Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings in January 2014 after fourteen years of committed fellowship.  This is not something I’d necessarily recommend, but it felt like the right thing for me at the time.

Writing this essay helped focus my thoughts. It may also be helpful to others.  I’ve updated it regularly and included links to the most useful books and YouTube sites discussed below.  Please let me know if any URL links aren’t working.  All the books, videos or organisations cited can be reached via Google, too.

I learned a lot in AA, and would still recommend problem drinkers and alcoholics give the fellowship their very best efforts.  AA’s a great place to get sober.  It combines a useful programme of recovery and a supportive environment where you can connect with a wide range of people in a similar situation.

Mutual support groups help people find recovery, and AA is the biggest and most successful of its type in history.  Continuing to attend meetings also helps people maintain long-term abstinence, and numerous studies support this.

Thousands upon thousands of active participants in AA have enjoyed twenty or thirty plus years of continuous sobriety, and it can be very inspiring to meet such individuals. The positive benefits of AA are also felt by the many family members of recovering alcoholics who no longer have to suffer their destructive and self-centered behaviour.

However it’s also true that, after a period of sobriety in AA, many members drift away from the fellowship.  If you’re not content in AA, and you’re not sure why, this page offers something different to the folklore we all hear in meetings: viable alternatives and an account of some positive post-twelve step experiences.  tcrn710_hiMost readers are from North America, so a special welcome to anyone from the USA and Canada.  I’m British so my spelling and accent reflect that.  Some web links point toward “.co.uk” addresses so please just redirect your browser as necessary.

Please note I’m not suggesting anyone reading this should quit AA.  This essay is based on nothing more than my personal experience.  It’s just my story and the results of some ongoing research.  It is not a “how to” guide for leaving the fellowship, does not constitute medical advice of any kind, and should not be treated as such.  

There’s a more detailed disclaimer at the foot of this web page.  Here you’ll also find an opportunity for feedback.  All comments and critiques are appreciated.  Please email me if you’d like to get in touch: jonsleeper[at]btopenworld[dot]com

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2. For the suffering alcoholic and those unhappy in AA

Alcoholics Anonymous has over two million participants globally.  It is a friendly and welcoming organisation with many caring and helpful members.  AA offers companionship, empathy, and a free programme of recovery that is also remarkably effective.

If you think you have a drinking problem and haven’t tried AA yet, stop reading this essay and go to a meeting.   Ongoing regular attendance in mutual support groups helps many alcoholics find recovery.  Plus AA is anonymous and non-professional so won’t affect your medical or health insurance records.

It works.  Check it out for yourself.  Here’s a link to a well informed and well-balanced article describing the fellowship for anyone who is new: Your First AA Meeting

Of course in lots of locations across the USA and around the world AA is also the only active support group for alcoholics seeking help – meaning there’s often no effective choice in that matter.

However, a growing number of options are slowly becoming available.  Some of these are outlined in section seven: “Secular Alternatives to AA”.
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If you’ve been in AA a short while and are not yet confident in sobriety, peer support such as that found in meetings can be a crucial factor in early and ongoing recovery.  In the absence of an alternative, please think twice and use the fellowship to put some serious distance between you and your last drink before even considering any dramatic changes.

AA members with longer periods of abstinence should be mindful that AA’s disease model of alcoholism and its associated dogma of powerlessness can become a catastrophic self-fulfilling prophecy.  Quitting the fellowship is not a decision to be taken lightly.

If you’ve been active in AA for many years you will almost certainly be far more dependent on the meetings and the steps than you can possibly imagine.  Don’t leave before deprogramming.  Remain vigilant and actively “in recovery”.

I quit abruptly, for personal reasons, but most folks I speak to seem to find a “one foot in and one foot out” strategy more appropriate.  On reflection that’s probably also the route I’d suggest,  but for anyone thinking of reducing their involvement in the fellowship I strongly recommend putting alternative support networks in place.

By nature this is always a personal journey.  It’s not easy and takes a fair amount of work.  Tread carefully and remember that AA’s a truly welcoming environment, so former members can always go back if they don’t feel good about life outside the fellowship.  No-one will mind.  The door, as they say, swings both ways.

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Here’s a summary of my approach:

a) I researched the cultural history of alcoholism to find out how our fellowship became the dominant self-help organisation in this field, and whether the success of AA now obscures other means of recovery.

b) I reclaimed my original atheistic and naturalistic worldviews.  AA literature heavily and repeatedly emphasises the requirement for recovery “on a spiritual basis” – I was no longer comfortable with that notion.

c) I read up on the subject of evolutionary psychology to learn more about the causes of alcoholism, to explain why so many people in twelve step recovery suffer from ongoing anxiety, and to better understand the power behind AA’s in-group thinking.

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Having learned more about alcohol abuse and gained a more realistic understanding of how AA really works, the prospect of quitting seemed much less intimidating.

I’ve tried to hang on to the good stuff (don’t take the first drink one day at a time, be grateful, be helpful, be honest, keep in contact with other abstinent people, integrate recovery activities in your daily routine) and jettisoned the less helpful elements.

A growing number of reliable and well-formulated techniques for ongoing sober living are now available via the internet, and there are lots of useful FaceBook recovery groups.  You’ll find links to some of the best blogs, books and online videos throughout the remainder of this essay.

3. What it was like, what happened, what it’s like now

As a daily drinker who experienced a wretched rock bottom, AA saved my life.  I have probably attended over 1,600 meetings over the years.  Active in service and sponsorship, I held great faith in the fellowship’s core text Alcoholics Anonymous (the “Big Book”).

I practised the programme in all my affairs, had a spiritual awakening as a result of working the twelve steps, and helped many others do the same.  After all, that’s the basic idea.  Isn’t it?

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Then, another invisible line.  Despite all best efforts, nothing seemed to help.  “It works if you work it” … stopped working.

Eventually it transpired that while the fellowship helps separate many alcoholics from their immediate source of discomfort, its programme of recovery doesn’t always encourage sound long-term mental health.

For some, such as myself, AA simply replaces one form of dependency (alcohol) with another (the meetings, the programme, your higher power).

Truth is my new higher power.  Understanding is my new programme.  I practice it through research and critical thinking.

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The ideals that have lighted my way, and time after time have given me new courage to face life cheerfully, have been Kindness, Beauty, and Truth.

Albert Einstein, The World As I See It

4. The truth about Alcoholics Anonymous

AA’s founders took great pains to emphasise their links to, and endorsements from, the leading addiction treatment professionals of their time.  However, the fellowship’s programme of recovery was not grounded in any formal medical research.

Bill Wilson, the author of AA’s twelve steps, was a dedicated spiritualist who became sober only after a moment of divine inspiration.  His methodology was largely drawn from the tenets of The Oxford Group, the long forgotten evangelical Christian movement where AA formed.

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Faith-based revelatory knowledge is, by nature, extremely difficult to update.  As a result the fellowship’s core text remains almost entirely unchanged since first published in 1939.  Arguably, it is now somewhat outdated.

For example, the book’s famous statement “physicians agree there is no such thing as making a normal drinker out of an alcoholic … science may one day accomplish this, but it hasn’t done so yet” (Alcoholics Anonymous, p. 31) has been obsolete for some time.

The Sinclair Method is an evidence-based and extremely successful means for achieving this once incomprehensible goal.  Of course it’s never mentioned in AA meetings, not least because clients can keep drinking during their treatment.  If you want to know more check out the ground-breaking independent documentary movie One Little Pill, Vimeo, currently available on Vimeo.

SMART Recovery, which uses Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), invites another interesting comparison.  CBT is built on evidence-based principles revised over time with the benefit of practitioner experience.  What’s more, unlike AA’s twelve step programme, CBT does not ask participants to declare themselves powerless and insane before praying to a higher power.

We’ll come back to these and other alternatives shortly, after more about the importance of spirituality in AA.

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5. God, as we understood him

“God is dead” (Nietzsche, 1882)  …  “Nietzsche is dead” (God, 1900)

As the central thesis of AA’s core text is that alcoholics must find a higher power of their own definition (“God, as we understood Him”) without which recovery is impossible, what follows may sound horrendous to any “Big Book” adherent.

Unfortunately your higher power, or indeed any sense of spirituality, is imaginary.  It doesn’t exist.  Neither did mine. Spirituality is a human construct with no basis in reality, the product of our evolution over millennia as social animals.

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Here, in a video that provided a significant turning point in my own twelve step deprogramming, Dr. J. Anderson Thomson (Why We Believe In Gods) uses evolutionary psychology to gently and logically explain away any sense we might conceive of a higher power and all our spiritual impulses.

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Interestingly, each of the mechanisms Andy Thomson outlines in this talk can be mapped against our experiences in AA: from an instinctive need for guidance (a higher power, a sponsor) to the persuasive forces of fellowship ritual and in-group mentality (alcoholic self-identification, the stylised language, common meeting formats).  It’s compelling stuff.

So where does this argument leave  “Chapter 4: We Agnostics“, Bill Wilson’s eloquent defence of faith and spirituality in AA’s core text?  However hard you try, you just can’t make it stand up (much like me when I drank).  Ultimately Bill just substitutes one form of denial, or self lie, with another.

It’s the 21st century.  Alcohol use disorders continue to cause massive social problems.  Is this the best we can do?

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6. We agnostics

Atheists and anti-theists are in a particularly invidious situation here.  Many simply choose to tolerate the fellowship’s overt religiosity.  Some try to ignore it as best they can, or seek out freethinking AA meetings.

AA Agnostica and AA Beyond Belief are brilliant online resources on this subject, and it’s fantastic to see the recent growth in “non-prayer” meetings across the USA and UK.  I’d encourage any atheist and agnostic alcoholic to make use of this support.

This new outcrop of atheist AA meetings, both face-to-face and online, is a welcome development that will only continue to grow.  If you’re a non-religious person thinking of joining AA I’d strongly recommend getting involved in that aspect of recovery.  You’ll meet some great people and it’s very exciting to be involved in such a rapidly expanding part of the recovery community .

Others make an honest attempt to “fake it ’til you make it” and do their best to get spiritual.  This is earnestly and repeatedly requested in the literature, and even required by some twelve step sponsors.

Still others, however, find such obstacles insurmountable.  The longer I’ve been away from the fellowship, the more people I meet who lost a relative or friend simply because they “couldn’t get the God bit”.

Traditional “spiritual” AA has few real answers to this beyond the slightly insulting notion that these “unfortunates” didn’t try hard enough or weren’t sufficiently motivated.  As the fellowship’s core text argues in “Chapter 5: How it Works” the only reason such people can’t recover is because they are “constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves”.

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I’m sure AA co-founder Dr. Bob Smith was a great guy.  He certainly helped thousands of other drunks get sober.  Yet even Bob proffers only condescension with his final words in the “Big Book”:

If you think you are an atheist, an agnostic, a skeptic or have any other form of intellectual pride which keeps you from accepting what is in this book, I feel sorry for you.

Dr Bob Smith, Alcoholics Anonymous, (4th Ed.), p. 181

It might have been possible for a damp, desperate, soft-edged sceptic like me to suspend their judgement on the subject of a higher power back at the turn of the millennia; but the years since passed have witnessed stratospheric advances in our self-knowledge.

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As Alex Rosenberg posits in The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, “science fixes all the facts.”  There’s no room to hide on this topic, and the issue is not going away. If you don’t believe me read Dan BarkerRichard DawkinsDan DennettChristopher Hitchens, A. C. Grayling, Susan Jacoby, or J. Anderson Thomson Jr.  Seriously.

A personal loving higher power, even just a vague sense of spiritual guidance, may once have been a useful tool to help suffering alcoholics find recovery – but it’s also no longer a valid world view. Where might that come from, if AA’s core thesis has become redundant?

7. Secular alternatives to AA

We desperately need accessible, rational, reliable and safe alcoholism and addiction treatment. Methodologies applicable by anyone, not just those willing to believe in a higher power. Fortunately several effective non-faith based alternatives to AA are gradually gaining ground.  They have far fewer face-to-face meetings, but each enjoys a growing online presence.

SMART-Recovery

SMART Recovery offers self help for alcoholism and addiction using Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). It didn’t exist here in the UK back when I was trying to get sober, but there are now 200 weekly face-to-face meetings in Britain, and virtual groups running 24 hours a day online.

LifeRing-Signature-Empower

LifeRing Secular Recovery helps participants design their own boutique Personal Recovery Program.  It offers face-to-face meetings in many parts of North America, Europe and the UK – including Greater London. There is also a great deal of online help available. Literature such as the excellent Empowering Your Sober Self, can be also purchased from LifeRing’s website.

LifeRing Martin Nicolaus

In this excellent and informative talk LifeRing co-founder Martin Nicolaus discusses the history of alcohol treatment.  It’s a real eye-opener for anyone who wants to know the truth about how our fellowship defined and shaped the medical response to alcoholism that provided another turning point in my own deprogramming process.

Those who struggle with abstinence may find The Sinclair Method helpful.  Here patients are actually required to keep drinking during a therapeutic process that, over a short time, effectively extinguishes their alcoholic cravings.

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One Little Pill is a truly impressive independent documentary on this subject available on Vimeo.  Incredibly The Sinclair Method has been used to treat thousands of alcoholics in Finland since 1994..!  How many alcoholics have died over the past twenty years whose lived might have been saved by this simple treatment?

It’s cheap and extremely efficacious, with a great deal of support from peer reviewed research, and a demonstrable long term success rate as high as 78%.  While participants initially keep drinking during the first phase of treatment, many also find this method an effective route to long term abstinence.

It’s been encouraging to hear from some real Sinclair Method success stories since I first posted this essay.  NickyKatz has created his own blog and is also live tweeting an online drinking diary of his experience (@NickyKatz).  You’ll find lots more useful information at www.the-sinclair-method.com

8. Does the success of AA obscure other options?

AA is certainly helpful during the vulnerable early days or months of sobriety.  However as our “Big Book” reiterates in the strongest possible terms, and as you’ll often hear in meetings, it works most effectively for people who surrender entirely to the programme.  Alcoholics with the so-called “gift of desperation” who have become “teachable” because of their suffering.

In the summer of 2000 I’d have done almost anything to get sober, but according to that logic might other forms of peer support not work equally as well?  Is it possible that the widespread media endorsement and public acceptance of AA has begun to obscure more accessible, up-to-date, evidence-based means of recovery?

12 Step Groups

There are now over 50 AA meetings a week plus dozens of other twelve step fellowships such as Cocaine Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous active in my home city of Brighton.

SMART Recovery, which uses science-based CBT rather than a spiritual programme, has only two weekly gatherings in my town.  (These are great sessions and definitely worth attending if you’re looking for an alternative to AA.)

Sadly, there’s never been any representation for LifeRing or The Sinclair Method.  That’s not because these alternatives don’t work.  It’s simply that no-one knows about them.

This is a real shame, particularly for atheists seeking help. Like many other rationalists I had to hit a real hard rock bottom before I could swallow the spiritual emphasis in AA literature and meetings.

Why was that necessary?  Is the quiet voice of scientific progress being drowned out by the media endorsement and public acceptance of faith based recovery?

Marty MannDon’t believe that line about “attraction rather than promotion” in the fellowship’s traditions.  AA’s founders and early advocates such as public relations guru Marty Mann quickly became adept at using movies and newspapers to spread their message.

The result, either accidentally or on purpose, is AA’s seeming ubiquity across all forms of media in the USA and UK. Since the ground breaking 1945 feature film Lost Weekend, AA has featured in countless movies from Hannah and Her Sisters to Finding Nemo and Wreck-It Ralph.  

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AA has also been endorsed in dozens of TV shows, including Dr. Drew, Intervention, Celebrity Rehab, Cagney and Lacey, Hill St Blues, The West WingThe SopranosThe Wire, Breaking Bad, House of Cards, MomEastEnders, EmmerdaleCoronation Street and even BBC Radio 4’s The Archers.

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AA doesn’t just dominate the media.  The Sober Truth by Lance Dodes documents the huge vested interests controlling the addiction treatment industry in North America and here in the UK – the overwhelming majority of which is based on twelve step practice.

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Dodes’ work is only the latest literature protesting the preponderance of AA and it’s associated fellowships. Some of the best are now almost thirty years old.  Stanton Peele’s prescient classic The Diseasing of America is one example.  The Codependency Conspiracy by Dr. Stan Katz and Aimee Liu is another.

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After four decades working in the field of addiction Dr. Peele now runs his own web based recovery program for those seeking alternatives to AA.  Subscribers can access the Life Process Program service directly via interactive education materials and personal coaching.

9. AA and transparency

Here’s a question not yet asked in the critical literature, or even in the fellowship itself.  As the “go-to” source of self help for alcoholics, one that benefits incalculably from uncritical universal media promotion, wouldn’t it be a good idea for AA to provide some information about the viable alternatives?

AA’s General Service Office (GSO) publishes a wide range of official literature for special interest groups such as newcomers, women, young people, old people, gay men and lesbians, Native Americans, African Americans, members of the armed services, non-English speakers, alcoholics formerly or currently in prison … and so on.

AA Pamphlets An authorised “Alternatives to AA” leaflet would sit neatly alongside such works.  Sadly, as anyone who knows AA will tell you, this is never going to happen.

Instead the alternative options are either ignored, dismissed out of hand, or even belittled by AA members.

As is frequently recited in the fellowship’s most well read section of text: “We thought we could find an easier, softer way.  But we could not”.  (Alcoholics Anonymous, “How It Works”, p. 58)

Maybe one day a rainbow of recovery options comprising AA, SMART RecoveryLifeRingThe Sinclair Method and others will be equally available for those seeking wellness.

As the predominant peer support group in the USA and UK, one that enjoys widespread public awareness and benefits from near-unanimous uncritical media endorsement, AA and its members are uniquely positioned to expedite this process.

They could avert incalculable suffering and save many lives by adopting a more honest and open approach toward sharing such information.

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AA’s reluctance to change is understandable, but it may also be storing up problems for the fellowship.  Deb Roy’s 2011 TED talk (“Birth of a Word“) and Dan Dennett’s TAM!2014 keynote address (“Can Churches Survive The New Transparency?“) show how conservative faith-based organisations like AA may be forced to evolve in an age of digital information transparency.

10. A hundred forms of fear: AA and anxiety

Fellowship in AA allows many alcoholics to get back on their feet, but the twelve steps can also engender underlying neuroses and manufacture a state of learned helplessness.  For some, this doesn’t necessarily lead to robust long term mental health.

Here’s where the bucket of crabs analogy becomes relevant.  When you’re beach combing and have collected more than a couple of these critters you don’t need a lid on your bucket – because whenever one tries to climb out the others pull it back in.  Is this the role ongoing low level anxiety plays in sustaining twelve step recovery?

Contemporary mental health technology knows better, kinder, tools to encourage well being.  Here’s a question I’ve never heard in fourteen years of fellowship: what is the difference between a thought and a feeling?

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Thoughts and feelings are distinct mental processes.  They don’t have to follow on, one from the other.  We’ve known this since the mid-1950s, when pioneering CBT practitioners began to treat self-defeating behaviour by distinguishing between unhelpful thinking and unhealthy emotions.

However that’s not the message of the fellowship and the twelve steps, which were conceived two decades prior to these discoveries.  So while AA’s core text takes great pains to separate an alcoholic’s thoughts from their actions it makes no distinction whatsoever between their thoughts and their feelings. Instead these are entirely interchangeable and synonymous concepts.  Alcoholics are “restless, irritable and discontented” people whose “main problem centers in the mind” because of dishonest, resentful, self-centred, fear-based thinking (Alcoholics Anonymous, pp. 32, xxviii, 67).

This is often referred to as “the sober condition” of alcoholism in meetings.  It originates from spiritual “defects of character” and moral “shortcomings” that haunt the sufferer’s world view like the ghost of Jacob Marley.

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This is why those in recovery “share” their thoughts and feelings in public at meetings, and in private with their AA sponsors.  Such people are ideally positioned to empathise, because they too are burdened by the same phantoms.

Newcomers are encouraged to immerse themselves in this cycle, sometimes by attending ninety meetings in ninety days.  This fosters an ingrained mental conditioning that becomes difficult to break.  Eventually it seems inconceivable anyone could stay sober without the ongoing support of AA.

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11. A vision for you? New perspectives on recovery

So imagine my consternation when, after spending a couple of thousand hours in AA meetings, I learned thoughts are not the same as feelings in my first twenty minutes of CBT. Twenty minutes..! Try it yourself.

Feelings don’t necessarily have to follow thoughts.  You don’t need to share unpleasant feelings, be overwhelmed by them, or worry about drinking because of them.  You don’t even need to feel them, if you don’t want to.

Reading something other than AA’s “Big Book” is a good start, so here are some more up-to-date texts that I found useful:

Visual CBT

– Avy Joseph and Maggie Chapman’s Visual CBT uses simple, easily assimilated line drawings to help readers incorporate and implement healthier thought patterns and behaviours.  It’s an excellent introduction to contemporary evidence-based therapy and a useful update to AA’s old fashioned twelve step “defects of character” model.  If you’re sponsoring someone and really want to help them with “the sober condition” of alcoholism, put away your old fellowship literature for five minutes and read Visual CBT instead.

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– Peter W. Soderman’s Powerless No Longer is a superb interpretation of the CBT used in SMART Recovery groups across North America.  Also available as an audiobook.

– Jack Trimpey is arguably one of the more controversial figures in the contemporary recovery movement, but The Small Book (Rational Recovery Systems) is another excellent guide to self empowered recovery. Also available as an audiobook.

– Melanie Solomon’s AA: Not The Only Way presents a useful list of alternatives approaches and is particularly helpful for readers in the USA and Canada

– Marcantonio Spada’s Overcoming Problem Drinking is a useful CBT guide produced by a doctor here in the UK.

The Chimp Paradox / Hardwiring Happiness

– Steve Peters’ The Chimp Paradox is indispensable, the single most important text I read while de-programming from AA.  It explains alcoholic thinking using science rather than supposition, and offers an accessible interpretation of evolutionary psychology that dovetails neatly with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.  Also available as an audiobook.

– Rick Hanson’s Hardwiring Happiness is a brilliant follow-up read that explains how and why some of the helpful suggestions heard in AA (such as manufacturing gratitude, meditative quiet time and peer support) actually work, then outlines means of applying them more effectively and efficiently.  Also available as an audiobook.

Dudley Drunken Monkey

– Robert Dudley’s The Drunken Monkey: Why We Drink And Abuse Alcohol presents fascinating contemporary research into the real causes of problem drinking.  This has nothing to do with AA’s notion of “character defects” – it’s a one time evolutionary advantage that is now out of place in the modern social order.

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– Australian Academic Misconceptions: Alcoholics Anonymous is a detailed discussion paper prepared by an AA member with over 17 years of recovery offering a fearless, thorough and even-handed critique of our fellowship and its steps.

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Thank you for reading this essay.  Please don’t think I’m anti-AA.  I’m not.  I’m pro-choice.   Balance is important here.  It’s often hard to find, probably because we’re all so emotionally invested in the issue of recovery.  It’s precious.  Quite rightly.

There’s more helpful, measured and reliable information for anyone exploring alternatives to twelve step orthodoxy at the blog RecoveringFromRecovery.com and its associated podcast Alcoholism Recovery Radio.   Anyone interested in moving on from, or augmenting, their experience in AA will find these sites helpful.  The proprietor of Recovering From Recovery also runs a thoroughly researched site on The Sinclair Method: The-Sinclair-Method.com.logo.pngRecently I guest-hosted an Atheism Recovery Radio show and interviewed Bob K., author of Key Players in AA History, about his experience as an atheist in recovery.  It was a great conversation and is really worth checking out: http://www.alcoholism-recovery-radio.com/atheism-in-alcoholics-anonymous-with-bob-k/

I found Monica Richardson’s Blog Talk Radio Show “Safe Recovery” to be a useful listen while deprogramming from the twelve steps, particularly the early episodes.    We eventually talked on her show in July 2015.

Monica also made her own award-winning feature-length documentary about sexual predation in AA, The 13th Step, which is now available on demand at Vimeo.com and Amazon.com.  This hard-hitting movie has drawn much-needed attention to a significant problem in the fellowship.The-Guardian-Logo-Font.jpgIn 2015 an interview for a small New Statesman blog ended up being published, with my permission, as a longer piece in the UK’s Guardian newspaper.

In 2016 I spoke with the wonderful John S from the AA Beyond Belief podcast for atheists and agnostics in AA, and with Aron Ra for his Ra Men podcast.

I’m a big fan of ex-Scientologist Chris Shelton’s YouTube channel.  We discussed whether or not AA is a cult on his Sensibly Speaking podcast in 2017.  (It’s not, but it has some “culty” members and practices.)

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I also contributed to Seth Andrews’ The Thinking Atheist podcast on 12 step recovery programmes in 2017.  I love Seth’s channel and found it really helpful in my journey out of faith in AA.  It’s a long show but Seth tackled the nuanced issues around AA and secular recovery remarkably effectively.

I like to test my ideas in public via Skeptics in the Pub and Humanist Society meetings.  It is a balanced, humorous and informative talk that is always well received.  I’ve done over twenty around the UK in the last couple of years, and hope to visit Bedford, Eastbourne, Sheffield and other Skeptics groups in the coming months.  I’ll post the dates here when they are confirmed.  All are welcome including, of course, current AA members.

Here’s a link to one I gave a year or so ago at Dorset Humanists.

Bnmth 1

“I can thoroughly recommend Jon’s brilliant talk on this subject.”
(David Warden, Chair, Dorset Humanists)
“What a great talk. Informative, humorous and to the point.
One of our best events ever!”
(Adrian Rox, London Atheist Activist Group)
“F*cking excellent.”
(Rob Millar, Maidstone Skeptics in the Pub)

Finally, a word to anyone who’s new or struggling.  If you’re having problems with alcohol, you don’t need to do this alone.  

There’s never been a better time to reach out for help.  

You’ll be very welcome in any AA or SMART Recovery meeting.  They’re extremely friendly places, so give it a go and find out for yourself.

If you’re interested in the growing range of options for people trying to quit or control their drinking, I hope you find some of the suggestions on this site useful.  Remember, there’s no reason why anyone shouldn’t combine various approaches.

If I can get sober, anyone can.  So please give it your best efforts and see what happens.  You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Stay safe and very best wishes.

Jon S CHI-01-RK0086-08P 12. Disclaimer, references, comments

Please note that, for the avoidance of doubt, I’m not a doctor or therapist.  This website contains general information and personal opinion provided “as is” without any representations or warranties, express or implied.  It is not advice, and should not be treated as such.  Do not rely on the information herein as an alternative to advice from a qualified medical practitioner.  If you have specific questions about alcoholism or any related medical matter please consult a professional healthcare provider.  You should never delay seeking medical advice, disregard medical advice, or discontinue medical treatment because of information on this website.

Books:

Dr. Lance Dodes, 2014,  The Sober Truth: Debunking The Bad Science Behind 12 Step Programmes and the Rehab Industry

Dr. Robert Dudley, 2014, The Drunken Monkey: Why We Drink And Abuse Alcohol

Dr. Rick Hanson, 2013, Hardwiring Happiness: The Practical Science of Reshaping Your Brain – And Your Life

Avy Joseph & Maggie Chapman, 2013. Visual CBT: Using Pictures to Help You Apply Cognitive Behaviour Therapy to Change Your Life

Dr. Stan J. Katz & Aimee Liu, 1992. The Codependency Conspiracy: How to Break the Recovery Habit and Take Charge of Your Life

Dr. Stanton Peele, 1989. The Diseasing of America: How We Allowed Recovery Zealots And The Treatment Industry To Convince Us We Are Out Of Control

Prof. Steve Peters, 2012. The Chimp Paradox: The Mind Management Programme To Help You Achieve Success, Confidence & Happiness

Prof. Alex Rosenberg, 2012. The Atheist’s Guide to Reality: Enjoying Life Without Illusions

Peter W. Soderman, 2013. Powerless No Longer: Reprogramming Your Addictive Behaviour

Melanie Solomon, 2014. AA: Not The Only Way: Your One-Stop Resource Guide to 12-Step Alternatives

Dr. Marcantonio Spada, 2006. Overcoming Problem Drinking: A Self Help Guide Using CBT

Dr. J. Anderson Thomson Jr. and Clare Aukofer, 2011. Why We Believe In God(s)

Jack Trimpey, 1995. The Small Book (Rational Recovery Systems)

Videos:

Claudia Christian, Adam Schomer, 2014. One Little Pill: The Treatment for Alcoholism They Don’t Want You to Know About (Vimeo)

Prof. Daniel Dennett, 2014. Can Churches Survive the New Transparency? (The Amazing Meeting)

Dr. Robert Dudley, 2014, The Drunken Monkey: Why We Drink And Abuse Alcohol

Martin Nicolaus, 2010. A Medical Model of Addiction (Psychiatric Grand Rounds, Eric Martin Institution, Victoria, British Columbia)

Monica Richardson, 2016, The 13th Step (Vimeo)

Dr. J. Anderson Thomson Jr., 2009. Why We Believe in Gods (American Atheist Convention)

Websites:

RecoveringFromRecovery.com

Alcoholism Recovery Radio

Australian Academic Misconceptions: Alcoholics Anonymous

AAAgnostica.org: For AA Atheists, Agnostics and Freethinkers Worldwide

AA Beyond Belief: A Space for Agnostics, Atheists and Freethinkers in AA

Monica Richardson’s Blog Talk Radio: Safe Recovery

SMART Recovery (UK)

SMART Recovery (USA)


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31 comments

  1. AA Apostate · 26 Days Ago

    A great piece. I left AA following a brief relapse 4-5 years ago, and ‘converted’ to Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy. Whilst I take full responsibility for my actions, my continued AA attendance, which had long since ceased being a solution for me, forced me into a bit of a corner, and eventually contributed to my picking up again. I too am a critical thinker, and this is one of my greatest assets, yet many members warned me off this when it came to AA. Eager to please, and not wanting to be ‘that’ member that’s never asked to share, or who is ‘re-educated’ either via cross-sharing or after the meeting, I tried to deny my concerns. I was too frightened to leave because all I had heard for 8 years was that only jails, institutions and death await those who do. At the same time, attending had become a nightmare; I hated it. I felt completely trapped. My whole sense of being had revolved around recovery, and the very thing I had essentially given eight years of my life to was making me ill. I was anxious and depressed, it was inevitable that I would pick up: keep coming back or drink and die, right?! Fortunately, my relapse actually turned out to be a ‘blessing’ and the wake up call I needed. I left AA. I haven’t been to meetings, AA or otherwise, for over four years, neither have I drank. I don’t have any daily rituals, I don’t celebrate dates of abstinence, and I don’t define myself by, what I have come to term a maladaptive behaviour (i.e. drinking) I once engaged in. Am I anti AA? Absolutely not. Some of my fondest memories are of my time in the rooms. AA is still a viable framework of recovery, but it’s not the only framework of recovery. As this former AA Nazi (yes, I was that guy: a big book bashing, intolerant, dogmatic, small-minded member who preached honesty, open-mindedness and willingness as long as it was congruent with the core tenets of AA) can testify, AA is not the only way, and leaving does not necessarily result in jails, institutions and death. It’s safe to say that AA has been a mixed bag for. On the one hand it saved my life, on the other it helped foster a helpless, anxious individual who was too frightened to face the truth even though it was making him ill. No difference to when I quit drinking really……… but for the grace of choice go I.

    Like

    • jonsleeper · 25 Days Ago

      Thank you for reading and for commenting. I’m familiar with your “AA Apostate” page, too, and think it’s a great contribution to the discussion. Good luck with everything. Jon S

      Like

  2. The Treatment Specialist · November 9, 2017

    AA works for some people and doesn’t work for others. However, AA has helped thousands of people stay sober so it is better to have AA than not. I know that now there are many other non 12 step options that are available such as Smart Recovery and evidence based treatment modalities. Everyone is different and what works for one person may not work for another. I think the main point is to find what works for you to stay sober. Non 12 step Outpatient therapy is a great option for people because it is non AA based program. Best wishes to all to do well.
    Source: https://phoenixrisingbehavioral.com/therapy-near-me/

    Like

  3. Keri H · October 31, 2017

    I’m not sure, as I don’t know you, but it seems you have read much more into my post, than what I actually said.
    Why would I need to defend AA?
    I didn’t find God, either inside or outside of AA, if I had, I would probably have given either AA or my self the credit. He found me, indescribable and amazing, He found me.
    It isn’t a boy grandchild, it is a girl, one of my my granddaughters. I didn’t make the comment, my son did, and to expand, his reasoning was that had I not been sober, decisions that were made, may not have been. By relocating for work that I wouldn’t have been able to do drunk, he met her mum. We don’t shut people down around here, young or otherwise. Critical thinking skills are a most valuable asset.
    To clarify, I didn’t claim to not even be an alcoholic, “initially I knew that me and alcohol were not a good mix, but didn’t consider myself to be an alcoholic. Today I understand that simply having an issue with alcohol at any given time, or over a period of time, doesn’t mean that I am an alcoholic.”
    There are so many treatment options, and so many variations on those options available, why limit people to any.
    AA will never work for many, will help a little for some, will combine with other options for others, and be really helpful in some situations.
    Why blame anyone?
    Ultimately, each person chooses, each person has their own right of decision, the dignity to stay or go, or stay for a while and then go, or to look and not stay, or never to look.
    Are you saying that those who think and act differently to yourself have in some way been brilliantly brainwashed?
    That somehow your capacity to interpret, discern, reason and decide for yourself is greater than others?
    Human beings are amazingly adaptive, complex, varied, skillful, intelligent and able.
    We all live, we all die. Life impacts each of us in a myriad of differing ways. Some things we get a choice, some things we don’t.
    With respect

    Like

    • 12 Step Cult Religion Exposed · October 31, 2017

      That’s a leading false equivalent fallacy of an argument. You can sling ad hominem attacks disguised as “thinking differently” all day long but that in no way excuses the truth. My personal feelings are none of your business. Stop dismissing the harm your cult does to you and your family by making it about anything personal covered in “respect.” You are too brainwashed to be taken seriously. Hopefully your grandchildren will learn better.

      https://12stepcultreligionexposed.wordpress.com/2014/11/17/alcoholics-anonymous-destroys-self-esteem/

      Like

      • Keri H · November 1, 2017

        Once again it seems you have read into, misunderstood and misconstrued.
        I haven’t slung anything, or intruded into your personal feelings, yet you continue to speak for me and try and tell me what to do and what to stop doing. Then you express hope for my grandchildren, again who you do not know and assume they also need to learn something which is better, some unarticulated truth. Then you demean my thinking ability with an insult about not being taken seriously.
        Whatever truth you think you have, is expressed in a disrespectful and abusive manner.
        Many thanks for your comments, alternatives are useful.
        With respect.

        Like

      • 12 Step Cult Religion Exposed · November 1, 2017

        Bollocks. I state truth, you choose to take it personally and attempt to manipulate instead of admit to your extreme brainwashing. Typical born-again Stepper.

        Go with the AA god. Easy does it now. And keep coming back.

        Like

  4. kaislaheli · January 4, 2017

    Thank You very much for this wonderful blog. I have been leaving AA for some time, I was lucky to find this blog!!!!!!

    Like

    • jonsleeper · January 4, 2017

      Thanks for the kind words. There’s a great deal of research to suggest that regular contact with others can be helpful (particularly for the first four or five years) and, at the moment, AA is the best (sometimes only) means we have in many areas for this. So although I left abruptly I also think there’s a lot to be gained by a “one foot in one foot out” approach where, you can regain your confidence in the real world but not lose touch with AA and the peer support it offers. Finding allies in the fellowship who share this approach is also valuable, so you don’t have to buy into the more hard core mindset. Good luck with everything and I hope some of the resources I’ve collected are useful. JS

      Like

      • Keri H · October 31, 2017

        Hi, I’ve just come across this article, then the blog, and would like to add to the conversation, that is if it is still even open.
        I came to AA many years ago, seeking to discover some truth about myself.
        I knew that me and alcohol was not a good mix, but didn’t consider myself to be an alcoholic. Today I understand that simply having an issue with alcohol at any given time, or over a period of time, doesn’t mean that I am an alcoholic.
        My journey has been fairly long and full of ups and downs, twists and turns. Growth and change, challenge and stumbling, life has been in full swing.
        My first and only sponsor was and still is an atheist, I was raised on the principles of the program, minus God, I discovered where to go to find answers to daily living and how to apply what I learned to life as it happened.
        Acquiring a “Big Book’ and starting to read, it was apparent that it had been written by white, middle class, American, Christian, males.The book was put aside.
        I encountered most if not all of the of the issues, concerns, uncertainties, other treatment options mentioned in your article. I worked in the science department of a University, where one of the lecturers tried unsuccessfully to convert me to Christianity. A foray through feminism and some study of comparative religions, and research into other philosophical thought systems and ideals ensued.
        At around 12 years sober I left the rooms and continued life.
        I was never too big on the “social” or fellowship aspects of AA. So I wasn’t there for that reason, I wasn’t about to build relationships with others who had, or said they had similar issues as myself and didn’t appear to have found, developed and maintained sound or sane and consistent lifestyles.
        Life continued, children grew, and grandchildren came along and also grew.
        There are no religious people in my family.
        I discovered that me believing or not believing something, didn’t determine whether it was true or not.
        One day, a few years after I left the rooms, no alcohol, drugs, medication, and for seemingly no real apparent reason, God touched my life. I have no desire to convince anyone of that fact, just something indescribable happened to me and I was aware once and seemingly for all, that He was and is real.
        My previous understandings about life and reality changed. As did, of course, my attitude and understanding of A.A.
        Some time elapsed, and I returned to the rooms. My reasons for being there today are different than what they were.
        I don’t agree with much of what I see and experience in AA. I don’t agree with the fundamentalism, or the fear and anger driven arguments or opinions.
        My eldest son (44) has two daughters, one 17 asked him recently “why does Nan still go to AA all these years later, she doesn’t drink, I’ve never seen her, etc.” My son replied “If Nan hadn’t done what she did, then stayed, there is a good chance you may not have been born.” He is not in AA.
        When he told me, I reflected, and realised, it may or may not be true, however, it’s actually nothing I’ve done, as I have simply followed the path laid out before me, good bad or indifferent.
        So I go to give back, where and to whom I can, not to lecture, boss or theorise. I do what I can, where I can, that’s all.
        Lastly, the comments about the AA ideas etc being outdated, I had a little grin, human beings really haven’t changed all that much in quite a few thousand years, and if there is a God, who is who He says He is, then why would He need to change to suit terms and understandings limited by my very inconsistent humanness?
        With much respect ………

        Like

      • 12 Step Cult Religion Exposed · October 31, 2017

        “But wait!” Says the empowered, clear-thinking person. They chant “spiritual not religious” constantly at all theses meetings!

        Why do people feel the need to defend this cult religion? If you are truly “happy, joyous, and free” and you’ve “found god” why the need to defend that position with a lengthily post proving “how it works?” Everyone (with their cognitive abilities in tact), knows this “program” is a religion that lies about being exactly what it is.

        Why do people feel the need to give this religion all credit for their very existence on earth? The question the child asked is a good one and one that this Stepper (and her offspring afterall it’s a family “disease”), needed to defend. The son had to give all credit to the cult rather than just say that grandma like the religion. The answer is that grandma likes the religion that claims to not be a religion. The answer is NOT that YOU, YOUNG WHIPPERSNAPPER WOULD NOT BE ALIVE if not for her cult religion! What a load of complete BillShit.

        Why do people defend and give up all power to the 12 step cult religion? That’s their PATH in life… to recruit an convert others into their “way of life” and “carry the message” wherever they go, even at the expense of their own grandchildren’s lives. To give up all personal power to this religion that claims not to be a religion is necessary to sit through these soul crushing meetings day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. You hear threats of “jails, institutions, or death” if you leave the cult enough and you believe it. Rubbish.

        Why do people make the “last house on the block” excuse for attending these cult religion meetings? The escuse that this cult religion is the game in town is also complete BillShit. There are plenty of healthy religious groups to join if that’s your bag. In fact, there are plenty of social groups to join that do not expect one’s life to be all about converting others to your group. That excuse is yet another dangerous lie.

        I sure hope that young, intelligent boy asking the question that was shut down with disempowering lies can find his way in a family of brainwashed cult disciples. He deserves better than to devote his entire existence to the lies of the 12 step cult religion.

        This woman claims to not even BE an alcoholic and yet has heard the lies of “powerlessness” so much, she’s “come to believe” is this lie of a program and defend that which chants “take what you need and leave the rest.” That’s how it “works.” By recruiting people into a lifelong powerless existence where even their grandchildren exist because of their devotion. That’s one BRILLIANT cult religion! There is no “taking what you need”. There is only defend that which you have foolishly been brainwashed to believe “saved” you. Cult. Religion.

        (Cue the Steppers who dismiss this entire truth with the “anger and resentment” lie). Go with god and keep coming back!

        Like

      • jonsleeper · November 10, 2017

        Thanks for reading my essay and sharing your thoughts, Keri.

        I’m glad you’re still sober and happy. In or out of the rooms, God or no God, I’m on the side of whatever works. I appreciate you taking the time to have some input on this conversation.

        We may know more about alcohol, alcoholism, and evolutionary psychology than we did when AA was codified, but the basic principle of people sitting together and helping each other will never be outdated.

        Jon S

        Like

  5. Jacob · April 11, 2016

    Having just started discussing the lack of true lasting relationships outside complete submission to dogmatic 12-step BS, with my partner, I came upon your blog when I started researching staying sober and leaving AA. I’ve been a sober member for 8 years next week and I’m an atheist and frankly not unconscious or stupid enough to remain in AA for good. I’m not the type that can use things safely but I’m also not a zombie and it’s become more and more apparent that Alcoholics Anonymous is simply practicing unlicensed psychology and in some cases psychiatry (telling mentally ill members to stop taking medication etc) and it’s unconscionable and dangerous and I don’t want to be classed as one of their members any longer. That said, it’s not a small task. 90% of my friends are sober or addicts trying to get sober. Thank you for the resources and articulating some of my unease with the program that has taken over so much of my life.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jonsleeper · April 18, 2016

      Hi Jacob. Thank you so much for your comment. I think times have changed since the 1930s, and health care practice is certainly very different. However one thing remains the same, people in recovery benefit from mutual support groups. So I’d encourage you and anyone else reading this to keep actively in recovery. One foot in, one foot out – until you find another means of connecting with people and staying sober – seems a good strategy. I like FaceBook recovery today, and spend a lot of time connecting with others there – even current AAs. SMART Recovery and LifeRing can also be useful if available in your area. Best wishes, Jon S

      Like

  6. Pingback: Warning: you are almost certainly signing your death warrant – Alcoholism Recovery
  7. runamokinla31 · January 6, 2016

    Thank you so much. I have read this at least three times. Really love this. I have many reasons for leaving AA, but it doesn’t mean I have to drink or do drugs over it; it just means I have to find other support systems that work for me! Thank you thank you for writing this. Really helped me. I really have struggles and have been in AA for such a long time. If there are other ways to stay sober that I truely in my heart of hearts believe in; I’m going to try it! Really dont want to talk shit about AAA because it’s amazing. And helps so many people change their life, but Just not sure it’s for me.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. GuyJeb · September 7, 2015

    JonSleeper,

    I’d like to personally thank you for this Post. In a desperate attempt to fix my Alcohol addiction problem and failing to find a working solution for over 2 years, I discovered this post in Spring of 2015, and had not heard of Naltrexone, The Sinclair method, or any other alternative out side of Alcoholics Anonymous. On April 4th, I finally informed my Doctor of my condition and told him I was interested in Naltrexone. He agreed to it and prescribed me it. I got my Family on board by watching “One Little Pill” as well.

    When I started in April, I was 80+ Drinks a week. Today I am at 35 drinks a week and still droping. I am in therepy and will be attending my first SMART recovery session this month, as I actually want to go.. Something I never wanted to do before. I can actually see life without Alcohol now, something I never saw back in April.

    So,… I just wanted to come back here and thank you for having such a great, informative Blog post about this “hush-hush” topic. It literally saved my Marriage, my Job, & I am about to be Father of boy #2 (currently nicknamed Titus) in February 2016.

    Again, Thank you so so much! You changed my life.

    -Cheers
    Guyjeb

    Liked by 1 person

    • jonsleeper · September 7, 2015

      Hi Guyjeb.
      I’m so grateful for your kind email and so happy to hear that this blog might have been helpful to someone. Group support can be very useful, whether it’s SMART, LifeRing or AA, so I hope that works out. The C3 Foundation links on my site may also be able to offer ongoing support too. Please do let me know how you get on. Thanks again for getting in touch and best of luck with everything to you, your family, and especially Titus..!
      Jon S

      Like

  9. Marked One · July 24, 2015

    This was truly insightful, well thought out and well balanced. As someone who is 2 years into AA it was lovely to read such a nuanced view.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jonsleeper · July 24, 2015

      Thanks so much for your kind comment – good luck with your ongoing sobriety..! JS

      Like

  10. Freeman Tabag · June 23, 2015

    Keep working ,splendid job!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Pingback: Skeptability | QED 2015
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  13. Pingback: #076 – Question Explore Discover | The League of Nerds
  14. 情趣用品 · April 4, 2015

    Awesome! Thanks your sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  15. cougarblogger · November 19, 2014

    FANTASTIC blog! Keep writing please!

    Liked by 1 person

  16. lovinglife52 · October 1, 2014

    This is such a great post, and thanks for mentioning my site in it.

    Liked by 1 person

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