Sunday, November 30, 2014

Why I quit AA

This is a piece I wrote some years ago while I had a blog on Open Salon. It drew an unexpectedly large response, almost all of it negative. The only comment that really sticks in my mind is, "Where did you go to meetings - in a mental institution?" I should have thanked them, for the surliness and blistering sarcasm in these responses neatly proved the point I was trying to make. You can't step outside the bounds of AA convention without severe and rather nasty consequences from the AA mafia. But now I wish I'd kept those responses, perhaps paid a little more attention to the emotion and loyalty behind them rather than reacting with so much anger and offense. I didn't change the piece much, because except for the dates - my granddaughter is now eleven! - I still stand behind everything I said.

My sobriety date, which I will never forget, is November 30, 1990. Today I celebrate twenty-four years of sobriety.

The other day I was lurking around in the children’s section of my favorite bookstore, trying to figure out what a four-year-old grandgirl might want for her birthday. Flipping through the $30 board books and propaganda about toilet training and environmentalism, I heard someone call my name.

I looked up. Oh, hi, Jim. Oh, I’m doing OK. Yes, really. Just doing a little shopping here. No, really, I’m OK. How are you?

It’s hard to be looked at with a mixture of embarrassment and pity, but that’s what I was seeing in Jim’s eyes. Clearly he didn’t want to run into me, as he had been making certain assumptions: that I had either “gone back out” and was drinking again, or else was in such a state of “dry drunk” rampage that I was making myself and everyone around me miserable.

Welcome to the wonderful world of an ex-AA. As with an ex-con, the sense of ensnarement never ends, at least not without a Velcro ripping-away and endless guilt.

There was a time when I needed AA like I needed to breathe. Yes, I am a real alcoholic, and I didn’t fully realize it until I crawled into a meeting on my belly in 1990. Scared sober, I became enmeshed in an organization that quickly took over my life. Moreover, the more embroiled I became, the greater the praise heaped upon me. If I went to a meeting every day, I was a “good” AA member; more than once per day, and I was a spiritual giant.

It’s often said at meetings that you never graduate. This might be OK if I at least had a sense of moving on to another level, but this is discouraged. People with 20 years sober are supposed to say at meetings (whether they feel it or not) that they are at exactly the same level as the newcomers, and are only one drink away from disaster.

I agree with this part: I’ll never be safe to drink again, and I’d better not forget it. After years and years of having this fact jackhammered into my head, I think I’ve accepted it (for after all, “acceptance is the answer to all my problems today”).

From the very beginning, I was disturbed by certain pervasive beliefs in the organization. Conformity is one. Don’t ever speak outside the pre-set AA rhetoric, or other people will assume you’re not doing it right, fighting the mighty and immutable truths of sobriety. There is such a thing as AA dogma, often promoted by what is called the elder statesmen: one elderly man, a veteran of World War II, came to the same meeting at noon every day (supplementing it with evening meetings nearly every night) and talked at length about The War. He talked about The War as it applied to AA, of course, about how he drank his way through the horrors of the battlefield (who wouldn’t?), came home to a wrecked life, and began to set himself straight on the Road of Happy Destiny.

I can’t begrudge an old man the comfort and safety of sobriety, but why do exactly the same dynamics have to apply to a 15-year-old kid? In AA, one size fits all, and if it doesn’t fit, YOU are made to fit yourself to it. If you ever hear a criticism, it’s always couched in terms of “well, I used to object to this and that” (I once was lost, but now I’m found, was blind, but now I see). But glory hallelujah, now I see the light.

The 12 steps, forged in the ‘30s by a failed stockbroker and an inebriated doctor, are all about breaking the will, surrender, and absolute reliance on God “as we understood Him”. Though the founders were in some ways quite spiritually evolved, leaving the door open to diverse interpretations of the divine, the actual practice of the program involves the God of Sunday school and revival meetings and “that old-time religion”. As usual, the practice is light-years removed from the original text.

We constantly hear things like “ninety meetings in ninety days”, “it works if you work it”, and reams of other cute sayings (my favorite of many acronyms: sober stands for “son-of-a-bitch, everything’s real!”). None of these are found in the main text of Alcoholics Anonymous, usually known as the Big Book. Though many members preface everything with “the Big Book says”, their interpretations are often pretty far off the actual content.

But that’s not what made me quit.

Though there was one defining crisis that caused the actual split, there had been a steady accumulation of episodes that disturbed me. No one seemed to be willing to talk to me about any of this, as they were too busy going on and on about humility, surrender and the “incredible journey”. (Many AA members I knew literally had no friends or even business associates outside the program, and had brought their spouses and children on-board. Those who didn’t usually ended up divorced: AA widows abound, and affairs rage in spite of the organization’s unrealistically pure motives.)

Item: I was a couple of years in, doing well, stable, sober, and going to five or six meetings a week. Anything that bothered me about AA and its principles was relegated to some sort of seething pit of doubt that was without question my fault, due to my arrogance, lack of surrender and refusal to absolutely rely on God.

For you see, “everything happens for a reason”, everything happens “the way it’s supposed to happen”. (When my son’s roommate was savagely kicked to death outside a bar, an AA member I knew said it was “all part of God’s plan.”) You hear this at nearly every meeting. Though I didn’t voice my objection, because you don’t do that at meetings, this seemed like passivity to me. “Self-will run riot” was the ultimate evil, but it often seemed that having any individual will at all was somewhere between a sin and a crime.

My friend Louise told me this story: she had been horribly abused as a child, bullied by a sexual tyrant who was now beginning to abuse his grandchildren. As she sat around a campfire meeting, an exclusive club in which your deepest feelings were expected to be revealed, she finally shared the agonizing decision she had made: “I’m going to lay charges against my Dad.”

There was a brief, embarrassed silence, followed by this from the meeting’s ringleader: “Louise. . . I believe you have a resentment.”

There followed a long discussion (or rather, a series of uninterrupted soliloquys: AA doesn’t do “cross-talk”) about how Louise had to surrender, let go of her anger, forgive. This was what she “should” do. I met her several months later and asked her how she was doing. “Much better. I’ve left the program. I was tired of twisting myself into a pretzel.”

Another episode, even more harrowing, involved a young woman who had been systematically tortured by her father. Her sponsor told her she must pray for the person who abused her, and wish for him everything she would want for herself. If she forced herself to keep doing this for long enough, she would actually want these things for him and feel mercy and forgiveness towards him. She was also told during her Step 5 (the confessional step) that she must always look for her part in everything that ever happened to her. She wrenched her brain around trying to figure out what her part was in being sodomized at five.

She stood up at the meeting, looking fragile as glass, with tears running down her face. “I just don’t know how to make amends to my Dad. My sponsor says I’ll feel so much better if I do. But I feel like killing myself. I guess I’m just a lousy AA member. This is supposed to work! I’m not supposed to feel this way. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong.”

I would have talked to her after the meeting (God knows what I would have said) except that a phalanx of members swarmed her afterwards, eager to make her case fit the unquestioned (and unquestionable) model. I wonder what happened, if she ended up like Hannah whose background was similar. Unable to endure what had happened to her, she committed suicide. Members talked about “people with grave emotional and mental disorders”, and carried on.

If I am painting AA too darkly, if I am leaving out the tremendous compassion I found at those early meetings, then I apologize. But as time went on, I found I couldn’t keep the dogma fresh. Except for some of the stories in the back, the Big Book has not changed since its first printing 70-some years ago. What other self-help program wouldn’t update itself in so many decades?

What about all the discoveries we’ve made about family dynamics, about heredity, about mental illness? What about issues of race, of gender, of sexual orientation? (There are a few “gay AA” meetings in which members are held in quarantine. But in the general assembly they have to keep their mouths shut. I once saw a man at an open meeting refer to coming out, prompting an old geezer to literally stomp out of the meeting saying, “I didn’t know this was a meeting for fags.”) No, it’s all swept into the great gulf: obviously the program “works if you work it”, so why make any changes?

But I have come to believe that if the program works, it is because people sublimate their individuality, their power to differ, discern and object. The fact that the 12 steps have been applied to every addiction and disorder in existence alarms me, as if the steps truly are the holy grail of recovery, unassailable, irreplaceable, and beyond question.

My irritability mounting as the years went on, I finally hit a real crisis in 2005. I had suffered from some kind of psychiatric disorder all my life, and in spite of years of good remission I feared a return, but was repeatedly told in AA that it would never bother me again if I stayed sober and constantly relied on God. It was obvious to them (though not to me) that it had all been caused by the demon alcohol.

I secretly took two drugs to control my whatever-it-is (and in all that time I’d never had a correct diagnosis, because the psychiatric system is so incompetent, abusive and full of shit that it deserves to be torn down forever). Suddenly I learned over the ‘net that both these drugs had been recalled at the same time. My doctor had no idea this had happened. So I was left with a choice: try something new, as my doctor recommended, or go “drug free”, as all my AA friends had been urging me to do.

My first reaction was a huge flush of euphoria, of tremendous energy, and an eerie turning back of the clock. I had never had so many compliments about my appearance: I looked ten years younger! Looking back on photos of that time, my eyes were like pinwheels and I was constantly beaming, but apparently no one thought there was anything wrong with this.

Oh, and the compliments on finally being “clean”! “Oh, thank God you’re finally off all that stuff.” “I knew you could do it!” “See, you don’t need to lean on pills because you have God in your life.”

My sleep was whittled down slowly, but by the time I was down to two hours, strange things were starting to happen. In deep hypnosis (by a friend who didn’t know what he was doing), I had an encounter with the Divine that was completely shattering. Almost at the cost of my life, I learned that “meeting God” isn’t at all peaceful or pleasant. The ancient belief that we will die if we see God face-to-face turned out to be true.

The sickening free-fall that followed, the dive into a depression that pushed me below ground, is beyond my powers to describe. It was three years before I began to feel like a human being again. I am now on five drugs and have finally found a decent, competent psychiatrist on the recommendation of a friend. I no longer take medical advice from people who aren’t doctors or try to “heal myself” on milk thistle or coffee grounds But when I think how close I came to giving up and committing suicide, it makes me shudder.

AA did not help me during the most harrowing time of my life. All I got was more unhelpful rhetoric. I wasn’t surrendering, I wasn’t practicing the principles, I wasn’t adhering to the tenet of “no mind-altering substances” (another thing that’s not in the Big Book, but often “quoted” by members with a cigarette in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other).

In other words, it was my lack of commitment that had made this happen. Almost everyone assumed I had “slipped” and was drinking again (which I wasn't – I had a healthy terror of the stuff by then). At first it was subtle, but then I felt roped off, excluded, unable to strike up a conversation with anyone. I stood in the crowd after meetings looking at a lot of turned backs. Even my sponsor always seemed to be busy.

I had been a loyal, sober member of the program for 15 years.

It didn’t really occur to me, because I had been so thoroughly indoctrinated, that there were other, equally effective ways to be peacefully sober. So I ventured out. I rediscovered a close friend who had also dropped out, and we compared notes. I began to realize that in any other case, if a human being were relentlessly exposed to the same simplistic information over and over and over again, it would be reasonable to assume they “got it” and wouldn’t need any more exposure. Do we go to Sunday school until we’re 47? Do we need to have the Golden Rule blasted into our ears by loudspeaker every morning?

OK, I realize that if AA no longer means what it used to, I don’t have to attend. But the guilt still sometimes jabs at me like pinpricks, even two years after I left. The pity in Jim’s eyes, the sense of “oh, she’s going to fly apart at any minute” was palpable. In his view, there is simply no way that an alcoholic can ever stay sober and be happy and productive (though the program is not very big on “productive” and even seems to discourage normal ambition) without relentless exposure to the principles of the program.

I hope I don’t drink again, but I know there is no guarantee I won’t. I am profoundly committed to the sober life. I do appreciate what I was able to learn from my many years in AA, but I don’t think I’ll attend meetings again unless my view changes or I find myself in a dangerously slippery place. And if I do, I will not expect “fellowship” or any kind of a welcome. I can imagine what they would think if they saw me again: some smug or even pitying version of “I told you so”.

I no longer see AA recovery as real recovery: as with “that old-time religion”, no one questions the tenets, assuming they are infallible. Longtime members creep me out. They are broken records of recovery, parrots fed on the same bland diet, grateful to be huddling together in a place where everyone accepts them and nothing ever changes.

But that’s not life. Things don’t stand still except in old Jimmy Cagney movies, forever frozen in time. Life necessitates constant adaptation to change which is often unexpected, wrenching and unwelcome. But we are not taught that in AA. We are taught to rely absolutely on God “as we understood Him”, to believe that everything happens for a reason. When adversity hits, we’re told it’s “all in God’s plan”.

If this is so, then I think I’ll make a plan of my own.

For more on the subject of AA, click the link below to watch a 48 Hours program (including complete transcript) dealing with AA and the threat of violence against women. This is a subject the program has refused to touch and will still not acknowledge, claiming it's an "outside issue".

Visit Margaret's Amazon Author Page!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Do you ACTUALLY possess wings?

What Kind of Wings Do You Have?

What Kind of Wings Do You Have?

Which mythological pair of wings do you 
actually possess?

Harold, this isn't your fault

Every once in a while (not often, since I've been over this ground at least a million times) I find a new picture of Harold that I like. Here it's in two versions, though even the larger one has been cropped out of another one that had huge orange letters reading BRITISH PATHE at the bottom. Probably this means I'm not supposed to use it, but fuck them.

Why is it my enthusiasm is so flat today? I am sick of being chipper about the book. I have had no reviews, NONE, except for one sort-of review in a online magazine from Winnipeg that doesn't strike me as very literary. It was written by a 30-year-old standup comedian who, by his own admission (in a published article in the Globe and Mail, no less) admits he's unambitious, unemployed, a general layabout, and feels the world owes him a living. He also said he was only writing the piece for the $250 cheque.

I don't  know what happened, because my first two novels got nearly universally glowing reviews, even in publications in the U. S. which had never been sent a copy. The Calgary and Edmonton papers interviewed me, I got a full-page spread in the Montreal Gazette (complete with full-color author photo!), and the Vancouver Sun said I should be a contender for the Leacock Award. Both my hometown papers interviewed me at length and put out big spreads. The second book was favorably compared in the Globe and Mail to the work of Nobel-winner Alice Munro and Oprah pick Anne-Marie MacDonald.

My first publisher phoned me breathlessly to say, "Margaret, it's a miracle. We've never had so many reviews for a novel, even in places we didn't send copies to, and they're all positive. We can't believe it!" A miracle being a supernatural event not caused by human beings. Then she went on to say that my sales were worse than any book they had ever published before.

What happened? You tell me. Maybe I'm just too old and don't know what I am  doing. An act of love has become an act of poorly-executed, even disastrous commerce. 

I don't know how to invite myself to writers' events and seem to be getting no help from anyone. It seems as if you have to know some sort of bizarre secret handshake, like a Freemason. This did not happen before. They asked me. But because it got no reviews, my book does not seem to exist. It does not exist because it got no reviews. And so on. Begging is undignified and destroys my morale. Not having my emails answered is worse, giving me the impression that I don't exist, or, at least, I don't exist in their minds (or they would rather I didn't exist). 

I've sent out multiple copies of the novel to people whom I thought might be interested. I might as well have dropped them into the fucking Grand Canyon. The waste of money, the hundreds of wasted dollars isn't the half of it: it's the waste of hope, the wasted years of creative effort, out the window. If a story doesn't get told, it ain't a story. Isn't that true?

I no longer care about what will happen because no one will see this anyway. They never do. I am tired of the whole goddamn Facebook popularity contest and how many "likes" I get, all the simpering profile pictures with hair gently streaming in the artificial wind, and the phony modesty, feeling so "humbled" by winning a major award, followed by the usual "oohs" and "ahhhs" of the sycophantic Greek chorus who secretly want to kill them with envy. Fuck it. 

One day well over a year ago I got a phone call from Rich Correll in L. A. saying he was very interested in the book. This was more than a year after I sent some excerpts to an address I wasn't sure was valid. Rich Correll was like a second son to Harold Lloyd, almost one of the family, and was his filmographer and is in every documentary about him.

When we talked, he told me he thought a feature film about Harold's life was long overdue. My God, this was what I had been thinking about from the start, and now a major Hollywood director agreed with me! Could it be he was seeing potential in my work? An adaptation? A SOMETHING?

I wasn't just excited, I was walking on the ceiling! How could this BE? How could Rich Correll be interested in my work? Well, it can't be, folks, because he stopped answering my emails some time ago, and like an idiot I don't know why. In fact, to this day I don't even know if he got his complimentary copy because I haven't heard from him. Like an even worse idiot, I phoned him and left a message last week. He didn't call me back. It was last-ditch and I feel vaguely ashamed that I did it, but Jesus, Rich Correll! I wrote a whole post on him and about how I felt he might be the key to blowing this novel out of the backwater it's stuck in. I just never get the message, do I? Do I? My stubbornness, my refusal to give up is pathological, even poisonous. Certainly it is not a sign of health, as it nets me exactly nothing.

Losing interest is just fine. I am not referring to losing interest. I am referring to having a blank intractible silence open up where the interest used to be, so that I automatically fill it in with what might be the truth, in a hundred different poisonous ways.

I need information to get me out of this. "Your book sucks, it's offensive, it's inaccurate, I hate how you portrayed Harold, (or, worst of all) it bored the piss out of me and I hate you for writing it" would be better than this. One three-word email: "I've lost interest." ANYTHING would be better than this. For, like my book, now I don't exist either, or I am not deemed worthy of a reply. 

I can't deal with it. Help me here. But no. I know it already, I know what no answer means.

Now I will tell you something really stupid, or at least now I know it's stupid. I used to worry this book might bother someone in the Lloyd family, who were badly burned by an insensitive and poorly-written thing Richard Schickel wrote to fulfill a contractual obligation. So I let them know I was writing a novel about him (though I never quite got past the front desk). I didn't do it to avoid a lawsuit, which wouldn't happen anyway. I didn't do it to avoid "stepping on anyone's toes". I didn't do it so I "wouldn't get in trouble". I did it because I love Harold Lloyd and I care what his family thinks about any book written about him. 

But as with everything else, I'm not on the radar. Oh. Did somebody say something? Sorry, no, I must be mistaken.

Why is it I am ALWAYS dumped on my head? What is it I'm doing so wrong? Is the book really weak, or even a piece of shit? Once in a while I think, well, what else could it be? But I surely didn't think that at the time. God, at the time it was nothing short of a rebirth. I didn't think I'd ever write again, and I was so disabled it was unlikely I'd even want to try.

Oh, I realize I shouldn't even be writing this, as it's taboo to say what you really think, but I am at the point that the loneliness and isolation are killing me and I wonder if I care any more who (if anyone) sees this. I wanted this so badly for so long. I am being punished by the gods, it seems. And if you think this is bad, you should see the paragraphs I just deleted. 

I read a piece in the Globe and Mail by Russell Smith who said writers should not blame themselves for a huge shift in the global economy. Maybe. But some authors, as others point out ceaselessly, are doing just fine, which is I guess supposed to make me feel better.

I just get tired, is all, of being entertaining, which nets me exactly twelve readers anyway, sometimes. Or not. What a futile enterprise this all is! And it has gone on for seven years, from the first moment the idea hit me like a brick on the head. Harold Lloyd - I would write about Harold Lloyd!

I will not do this to myself ever again, no matter how badly I want to, as it's obviously too late for Harold after just over half a year. My tiny window of opportunity has already slammed shut, and guess who is responsible. 

I loved him, I did this for love, I still love him, and the silence (no doubt mysteriously caused by me) is bloody deafening. And by the way, I am NOT saying, "Oh, I wrote such a crappy book that everyone is ignoring it". I still think it's the best thing I have written or am likely to write, and it far surpasses the first two in complexity of story line and characters. Though I also realize that there may be no one else on earth who thinks so.

We're supposed to embrace failure. Right. I have embraced it three times, and all it has done is kick me in the head. All I know how to do is be a writer, but no one told me there was an imperative to be a "successful" writer (i. e move copies). It is becoming increasingly obvious that it was not meant to be. About all I can do to deal with this feeling is try to walk away from it and do something else. Sometimes, it almost works.

Visit Margaret's Amazon Author Page!