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The Bucket of Crabs, or Why AA and Alanon Are Bad For Your Health

The “Bucket of Crabs” is one of our favorite analogies. Pulling crabs out of traps on Kodiak Island, we’d just toss them into a big bucket – no need to put a lid on the bucket.

Why not?

Because as soon as one crab would start to climb out, the other crabs would drag him, or her, right back down into the bottom of the bucket. There’s no escape to life back in the ocean.

And that keeps happening until all of the crabs end up in the steamer.

The point?

Pick your support group with care. Most so-called alcohol support groups are, in fact, merely a bucket of crabs that will keep dragging you back down to their level. Try and escape and you’ll be warned that it’s too dangerous to get a life, or to mingle with “normies,” or grow up. It’s too dangerous to stop building your life around alcohol.

So you stay in the alcohol bucket, drinking or not, or complaining about your spouse, or parents, or children, or……

And what’s the point of all of this?

Obviously the point is to avoid actually making any real change. That’s what groups like AA and Alanon and Alateen do best, they help you maintain the “security of familiar miseries” – as we termed it 25 years ago – instead of fixing your life.

But why would you want to trade the illusory security of the crab bucket for an actual life out in the real world?

Remember, despite all of the con men and hucksters, alcohol abuse is a choice and you are free – not powerless – to make a different choice at any time. If you’re the spouse, parent, or child of an alcohol abuser, you are also free to make choices, including the choice to get a life of your own. Not a life focused around another’s alcohol abuse.

You can always choose to be recovered, not in crippling, life-denying, “recovery.” You can choose to be an ex-drinker just as many of us are ex-smokers. You can also choose to be someone who used to waste you life on a drinker but got a grip, got over him or her, and got a life of your own.

Please, alcohol abuse is a choice, not a disease, and you can escape the AA/Alanon Bucket of Crabs. Don’t let the doomed continue to drag you back to share their misery and their fate.

By |2010-05-12T10:18:01+00:00May 12th, 2010|For Families|74 Comments


  1. Corrina April 25, 2018 at 6:07 am

    I went to an Al-Anon meeting, 4 codependent meetings, and I also supported a friend by going to his AA meetings. I totally believe you have to figure out what is not working and on making a change to do something different. But to sit there and listen to everyone go on and on about their problems, it’s a drainer. If they had a more structured meeting with clinical help to make firm boundaries with people that are there, keeping their sentences short and to-the-point, and problem solving what a better reaction might be, it would be helpful. I seen a lot of people there just want validation for what they’re going through and to be able to discuss it. I would like to see actual problem solving and change.

  2. Ann April 27, 2018 at 4:41 pm

    I have been attending al-non for several months. AA years ago. This description of the crabs in the bucket is not only dead on its dangerous. I’ve been seeing regulars actually getting worse. They look suicidal at times. It helped me at first knowing others were struggling however the organizers in my opinion are lining their pockets. It’s not a lot of money but they sure are like wolves. Checks made out to them personally. And money is the topic for the first 30 minutes. Some people get singled out and reprimanded others (men) who have been regulars are permitted to do and say whatever. I was selected to be talked to like a child for a comment I made about CRAFT another type of support and she went on to say maybe al-non isn’t for me. I was so shocked. She said people who read a lot don’t always work out here. Meaning having an opinion or a brain is not permitted. I highly recommend anyone considering al-non choose the meeting carefully. Get recommendations and seek counseling also. Even reading there are tremendous books on copdepency, addiction, and books on tape.

  3. Monica May 5, 2018 at 1:45 pm

    I am an AA spouse, and mother of addicts. I totally get what you are saying. Does anyone else see a perverted sense of pride that these aa folks have towards others. “Other people are not like us” “We are different.” “Only another alcoholic can understand.” It drives me nuts!

  4. John May 8, 2018 at 6:29 am

    AA has worked for me for 15 years.

  5. Susie May 9, 2018 at 3:15 am

    Not all Alanon groups are the same. A healthy group will not focus on the problem and we know we have choices. I’ve been a grateful member of Alanon for 6 years. I haven’t experienced what you mention. Nor has some of the things you mention been endorsed. What I do know is I am a better person today because of the 12 steps and the action I had to take from it. Much better. I’m sorry your experience wasn’t that positive. But for me it’s been a life changer. In my marriage with my son, in my job, in all aspects of life.

  6. Deborah May 15, 2018 at 9:16 am

    Al-Anon is making my spouse selfish and treating everyone like they are the alcholic or drug addict; he says to me that his feelings come first, and he demands my 100 percent attention and when I cry I am a cry baby because it’s not a mature thing to do, I think my husband needs help and A
    AL-ANON IS ONLY MAKING HIS PROBLEMS WORSE; He shows no empathy and puts him first before everyone; even his children and making his sponsor ( his crazy 12 step brother) who has deserted him numerous times in life the only thing that matters. He is 53 and I think he has s
    One to his brother 20 years only yet he is now his Al-Anon mentor, He walks around saying he is in recovery but from what….. he isn’t the drug addict or alcholic , He states he isn’t there for them anyhow n it has nothing to do with them it’s about him. His recovery ;
    , I think he has lost his mind and I know he is loosing his marriage. It’s so sad and I don’t know how to stop him and help him. I am not the enemy. I just wish he would listen to me and together we face the world. I am the one that has been with him for years n when he struggles I want to help not walk away:::: it’s helpless. I am fighting a war with him that I cannot win, I’m afraid for him and Fraid for us. It’s so sad n I wish he would realize how much I love him and just want to hold his hand. His heart and help him. Help us. Help me. He thinks I am the enemy n I’m scared when he realjzes I’m not it will be too late. He needs to see that it was his brother that left a long time ago n he is only on your side now cuz it’s his craziness he is listening toooooo. I promise him if he turns a inch his brother would be gone. I want to be his best friend. Inside n out. And he just don’t trust me. I have only loved him n been a devoted wife n mother. Everyone thinks he is crazy but Al-Anon and his brother. It’s so sad to watch. Heartbroken in new york

  7. Susan June 3, 2018 at 8:12 am

    Obvious this article was written by someone who has not lived in the world of alcohol and drug abuse – the ignorance of the article is astounding. Raised in an alcholic environment, married an alcholic, ever single sibling on both sides of the family are alcholics and or drug addicts, daughter is 2 years clean and the only addict one in the family to EVER be clean and sober is by AA, other relatives have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on recovery centers and still no success. Alanon has literally saved my life, for those who the program has not worked it means they are not working the program as it is meant to be worked.

  8. Sally A Helmerich June 17, 2018 at 2:06 pm

    I really despised AA and Alanon. For my daughter, it was a 14 year experiment that failed horrendously. She found a good therapist and psychiatrist, and she went on MAT, which she’s now tapering off of. She has no desire to drink or use. I found Alanon to be harmful. There were people there who’d been attending for 20 years and had gotten nowhere. The stories were depressing and unhelpful. I disliked everyone I met, and I tried a few groups. All the same trash.

  9. D Jones June 22, 2018 at 9:58 pm

    I was also singled out and reprimanded in front of the entire group by a regular. I was new to Alanon and the topic was meditation. I thought it would be helpful to suggest an iPhone app that has guided meditation. You would have thought I was trying to sell the app to everyone there!! I was talked down to like a child. I’m 64 years old !!!! and I was just trying to be helpful. I would have appreciated a private suggestion after the meeting, this would have been more respectful and kind which is what Alanon “says” it is supposed to be. I think they are mostly victims complaining about their alcohoholics without leadership or someone present that can actually help them heal.

  10. Oscar July 9, 2018 at 8:48 pm

    Al-Anon can really be awful, or awe-filled. A lot of negative things as mentioned here. Self-centered people focusing 0n becoming more so. Bit has galore
    ..controlling, dishonest, people. Great people too. But beware, and read the comm ent of other people here

  11. Silver Damsen September 16, 2018 at 8:50 am

    And what was true in 2010 is still true today. What this article doesn’t mention is that while 12 Step is emotionally damaging for for those that don’t drink that it has a higher rate of death for heroin and other opioid users than continuing to use street heroin and not even attempt to stop.

    I think it is useful when those in 12 Step, especially those who with a heroin or other opioid use disorder (Note: I don’t like the term “addict” because it suggests that people can’t change but just as an Al-Anon can actually make it out of he bucket–even if it might be hard–so can those with a substance abuse disorder).

    It’s also relevant to point out when people say that 12 Step works for people because people will say that it works for them, but this ignores all the accounts that the group culture is actually damaging and if you analyze how it functions it is clear that it functions exactly as the crabs in the bucket–except, of course, beause we are people and not crabs, we have a chance of getting out.

  12. John Jones September 22, 2018 at 7:24 pm

    Went to Alanon.
    Apparently, I didn’t say it right – was basically attacked, so, I left.
    I’ve been recovering (from all things worldly) for over 25 years.
    Adding Alanon to the list.
    The book is pretty good — people way to controlling.
    They need to bring fly swatters (or paddles) to the meetings.

  13. Nancy Leffel November 23, 2018 at 12:52 pm

    I went to my first alanon meeting this week. I didn’t see how reading a list of steps/principles over and over helpful. I also didn’t love that you had to stick to the theme (this one was forgiveness) and not just talk about what you came there to talk about. I really didn’t love all of the rules that MUST be followed. Some of those folks have been reading those lists over and over for years. It’s like a picture that stays in the same place. After while you don’t see it anymore. I also didn’t like that the steps were the same as AA, for example, ‘I am powerless over alcohol.’ Shouldn’t it, if be more like ‘I’m powerless to change the behavior of another person.’ Why admit to being powerless over alcohol, when you couldn’t care less about drinking?

  14. Cindy W. February 1, 2019 at 11:28 am

    I have been attending Alanon for 2 years. I have worked the steps. I am beginning to question myself because all of the members in my group do not want to give more than a dollar as a contribution. In reality it takes alot more money to run a small group of ten. There is the responsibility of rent, literature, traveling expenses for area and district meetings. There is also a donation recommended for the Word Service Center. Yet all of these members (all 10) want all of this to be accomplished yet there is nothing they give but a dollar! Really. I mean really makes no sense here. For me, I have decided to stick with my psychologist (who is a professional of course) and as said in those Alanon meetings “take what you like and leave the rest.” I am leaving this group and Alanon. Thanks Alanon for teaching me to leave the rest. And I did just that. Leave

  15. Uday B April 6, 2019 at 5:00 pm

    I tried Alanon for a few months and went to about 20 meetings. I am an atheist/agnostic but was promised this was not a religious group. Bullshit. The religion is Alanon, the 12 steps are the 12 Commandments and instead of working out how to truly help yourself you have to submit to God (Alanon) and ask Him(!) to absolve you of any responsibility and freedom of thought. The meetings made me slightly uncomfortable but it was when i got a sponsor and did step1 I realised this wasn’t for me. I tried to explain to my sponsor that I was struggling with praying to an external all powerful being that controlled my life (Higher Power/God/Guardian Angel). His response was to tell me that my only hope was Alanon and to accept God as my salvation. A discussion ensued where he insisted science was not to be believed, the Earth was 6000 years old as the Bible said and fossils were put in rocks by God to test our faith! Then he said even if I didn’t believe I should pretend I do and carry on with the Steps/Commandments. So basically living a lie is what he proposed. Alanon is not a way to get rid of the causes of your problems. It is a way to alleviate the symptoms through delusional beliefs that an external divine being will magically solve everything. There is no interest in you truly getting better because as they say they want you to “keep coming back”. As for not being money oriented, they pass round a collection plate every meeting and then encourage you to buy as much of their tedious literature as possible. So far so cultish. And all the while all you hear are stories about how great Alanon is and yet how miserable everyone is – at no point any practical advice on how to actually improve your situation other than to learn to accept you are powerless.
    I get that people find solace in Alanon but it is one based on self delusion, absolving yourself of freedom of thought and responsibility and worst of all claiming that your addict partner is blameless and suffering more than you are because they have a disease and what you have is a lack of faith.

  16. TA April 9, 2019 at 5:18 pm

    I can’t stand Al-Anon. Honestly. Everyone speaks in generic phrases, and is a victim. A bunch of people sitting around a table with an excuse to vent, not about the specific details, because that’s outlined in the rules, but about their own philosophical understanding, and how they are handling it, and how they are focusing on themselves, and their ‘growth’ and their ‘progress’ and ‘self-care’. And when they have worked themselves into a corner…. BOOM! THEY PULL OUT THE GOD CARD! Well, that’s not fair! You can’t just do that; it’s not an answer for everyone.

    I don’t know about the rest of you, but I came to a meeting to get some answers. I just ended up with more questions. The fact that these have been attending for years and years…. isn’t that a no-no? A sign that, well, maybe it’s not working and you’re just in a group that will listen to you (sorry, but it’s because they’re forced to). When I spoke, i brought up how i didn’t know how to tell my husband that I was attending these groups; I didn’t know the protocol. Do you keep it a secret? Do you tell them? (No really, I’m really asking). I just got nods, and understanding “mmm” ‘s. Obviously this rant is a little aggressive, and I apologize for that, but … this has been an excruciating and frustrating journey. I need help knowing what actually qualifies as an alcoholic? I need to hear suggestions (not advice, I know… the ‘rules’) but i need to hear pragmatic situations.

    at the end of one of the meetings, I asked someone who has been there for a while, what if i have questions about this and this? Who can I ask? but the meeting was over! Poeple were heading to their cars, or chatting about other things! I ended up listening to a story of how one day, she found herself on the floor, ‘on her knees’ looking for something she misplaced, and then that same day, she entered a church, and knew that that was her sign she should “let go and let God”. Thank you, but that helps me with nothing. sorry I’m so bitter.

  17. Araminta May 20, 2019 at 11:46 pm

    Wow I went to an Al-Anon meeting tonight and one of the members was totally unethical and controlling! I’ve been attending for two
    Years as a way to
    Cope with my sons behaviors as an addict to a schedule 1 drug. I have never intended to work the steps. The steps enable oneself to be a narcissist and lack empathy. They don’t help with emotional
    Healing or getting answers. It teaches learned helplessness and that’s very toxic.
    This lady tonight was abrasive and caused me to feel uncomfortable! I had needed to vent. No one else was talking so I spoke up. One of the members put her hand on my knee(totally unwanted and uninvited touch and told me to hush because others needed a chance to
    Y’all. I was 1 min into my venting session, I told the group their way of thinking was learned helplessness and very counter productive to positive growth. After she put her hand on my knee and shushed me I called her out on her bullshit and said, “what I said obviously triggered you, let’s explore that for you. Let’s get real For a second” she deny it and deflected, another gal began to talk and I stood up I looked at the lady who invaded my space and inappropriately touched my knee and said, “it is not polite to interrupt people. Also, FYI to touch someone with unwanted touch is never okay, ever! And to silence someone who needs to vent in a support group is not okay. It’s never okay and so I left the group. The group is toxic and the word you’re looking for is dubbed ,”learned helplessness” that’s what AA and Al-Anon teach you. They apparently do not go over physical boundary setting or empathy. I want to form
    A support group where we don’t chant a step
    Program or pray afterward. We sit and discuss issues and offer advice if a fellow group member seeks it, like a room full of Dr. Phil’s or Ann Landers.

  18. Raynjuls May 24, 2019 at 7:11 pm

    What a spot on analogy. The AS folks i know view it as a way of life, not a way to a better life. They stack sober days and collect their chips, and are generally the same miserable people they were before. My wife was sober 7 years without AA, and now drinks socially maybe once a week. There ARE other ways

  19. Percy97 June 6, 2019 at 4:20 am

    I am so grateful to have found this page! My husband has been an alcoholic for over 15 years and has finally stopped drinking. I went to an Al-Anon meeting and hated it. I already have a tremendous faith and love my husband. I am extremely independent and despise the idea of focusing on the negative past or victimizing myself. I appreciated the comment about both programs promoting narcissism as that is what I found as well. It was a cult like experience with a lot of unwanted touching – hand holding during prayers, hugging at the end of meetings….if that is what you need, then great. What I need is to focus on my love for my family – including my husband, my faith and my well being. Everyone at the meeting had been coming for over 20 years and were still “broken, healing etc”. I don’t intend be stuck. People have over come far worse and not had to go to weekly meetings to deal with life.
    There were a lot of comments about “only through this program…” total crap. What got me through the last 15 years was my sense of self, my faith, my love for my family and empathy. My husband didn’t wake up one day and say i’d Like to be an alcoholic. He turned to alcohol during a very terrible period of his life because he didn’t know what else to do. He needs specific coping strategies – not found in the meetings he went to either; and an empathetic loving family. He will be ok and so will I.

    I also found it unsettling that they wanted me to bring my children. They jumped on that like vampires. The last thing my 13, 12 and 8 year old need is to learn how to be victims.

    Thank you again for the honesty in these posts. I’m grateful I am not on an island with my feelings about AA and Al-Anon.

  20. Jonathan June 20, 2019 at 2:16 pm

    Most the people commenting went to AlAnon. They don’t like the program because it forces them to look at themselves and realize they are equally part of the problem. These recovery rooms are not supposed to be “fun.” You are there because you are playing a part in someones active addiction and that part can be incredibly harmful to both you and your loved ones.

  21. Lu July 9, 2019 at 9:29 pm

    I’m actually convinced that Al-Anon was mostly created to ensure that folks an AA continue to have a support system. I went pretty regularly for a few years and what really bugged me was that all of the people (mostly women) were frantically trying to fit a meeting in around all of the household responsibilities.
    Meanwhile their alcoholic (usually husband) got in as many meetings, massages, gym visits or coffees with the sponsor as they wanted. Al-anon meetings were always after the school buses came, on lunch break, or after dinner time so that the Stepford Wives could take care of the children, not miss any time at work and put everyone to bed before taking care of themselves. And going to a meeting for 45 minutes was progress in the scenario! The idea that my lot in life was to basically be a single parent with an extra kid who had access to all of the accounts was just depressing.

    Also, one of the first things anyone attending AA probably hears is that “if you don’t drink you won’t get drunk”. Never once in Al-Anon did anyone say “if you ditch the drunk you won’t be living with a drunk” which seems fairly basic if the program were actually about folks who have been in the periphery of alcoholism getting better.

    All that being said, I don’t think that Al-Anon encourages selfishness. In fact I was a little put off by how much responsibility everyone still took on…like it was okay to be the only one adulting in the house… like it was their job to be over accommodating of their alcoholics recovery. It was just a different form of enabling as far as I can tell.

  22. Oscar July 19, 2019 at 2:38 pm

    Alanon can be harmful: especially for family members of people addicted to opiates, who need medicine usually. Alanon models irresponsibilty: past, present, and future. As well as abondonment. Of course, some people do need to just detach, and focus on self. For the others, alanon can be deadly abobdonmenr. A kneedle that needs to be tgreaded carefulky.

  23. Nurse Patchell July 29, 2019 at 2:30 am

    I am quite disconcerted by my experience of AlAnon. I’ll keep my distance from it for now. If the prise of both AA and AlAnon is that members of both are ill and in recovery, it should come as no surprise that what many who attend both groups come away further damaged. WE are not trained to cope with the outpouring of sick people, all the while accepting that we ourselves are in need of help.
    The group I attend has never grown, just a random assembly of 6 or seven bums on very old seats. The venue is a storeroom in an old church owned house. Two AA groups meet in much more accommodating rooms in the same building at the same time.
    I have the understanding that the chair is comfortable with the unchanging st-up, it may suit her and her experience of her illness.In the past year another member has joined – probably the most damaged person in recovery I have met. She has disclosed that she has a need for control. And so she controls. She reduces the small amount of floor-space available by bringing her bicycle into the meeting. Her physical and psychological presence pushes others out. She’s not going to recover this way and others are deprived from even trying. AlAnon needs to address its governance. Together with AA reform from the outside can’t be delivered. It has to come from within. Given both organisations memberships are spiritually, psychologically and, sometimes, physically damaged the resources required for reform and good governance are limited.
    it’s time for me to move on. Farewell.

  24. elaine August 21, 2019 at 7:05 am

    My father was an alcoholic and my husband was an alcoholic for the last 15 years of the marriage. I attended Al Anon for 6 years when he began his sobriety journey with AA. My observations about Al Anon women in attendance were: 1. those in attendance were financially dependent on their functioning alcoholic; or 2. she was the breadwinner; 3. most had young children and stayed at home, or 4. were retired and stayed at home; 5. lived an isolated life with the interaction of fellow Al Anons, 6. were hopeless about their own futures but filled with hope about the alcoholic. The six year experience made we question how things in the 2000’s were so different from the conception of Al Anon in 1953. The biggest difference was the financial independence of women in 2000+. And I was one of those women. My mom was financially dependent on my father thru the 1950’s, 60’s, and 70’s, until he was no longer able to earn a living and the marriage fell apart with my mom ending up homeless, and my dad living in a one room bedroom of someone else’s house. They both died by the time I was 27. Drunk, insanity, and eventually death were their choices they made. For me, during the 2000’s, I had a choice to make – remain with the anchor that was pulling me down, or cut loose the line and get to shore. THAT was the reality of my situation. No amount of meetings were going to safe either one of us. My true sanity was the doing the same thing every day expecting different results…living every day with the alcoholic and expecting my life and his to get better. Once I faced this insane thinking, I began to see clearer, and discern what my choices were for the future. Today, the alcoholics in my life are dead. Today, I surround myself with healthy people. Today, I am able to support myself in retirement. Today, I believe that God led me out of the alcoholic family life and into a more reasonable, productive lifestyle. And I have peace and serenity each morning. Something I never was able to capture when living in the alcoholic family and environment. The gals I knew from AL Anon 15 years ago, are still doing all the same things they were doing when I met them, and by now they’ve lost their homes to foreclosure, jobs have come and gone, the kids are grown and gone, but they have the husband they always wanted to control, instead of controlling their own future.. Al Anon needs to consider revisions to their program after 65 years of ‘change’ in the progression of women’s earning potential and job security. Makes a big difference when faced with decisions to be made about others lives (children) and their own. Time to rethink the Al Anon program, or perhaps an alternative program for support to move on and away from the alcoholic family problem and leave the alcoholic solve his own problem instead of Al Anon continuing to teach how to ‘wait’ for the alcoholic to find his solution.

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