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.
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”.
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!