I first began to attend AA regularly in 1994. I was 28 and, for many reasons, had become slavishly dependent on alcohol. I had been prosecuted for drink driving and had lost my driving license for a year. I knew I needed help and it seemed that AA was the only solution on offer. I was concerned about going to my GP — I didn't want my drinking problems on my medical records for professional reasons.
I started going to AA meetings and at first found the clannish atmosphere creepy and frightening. But I was mentally and emotionally unstable from years of alcohol misuse; desperate and vulnerable; extremely lonely, emotionally immature and somewhat naive. So the instant intimacy and friendship on offer ‘in the rooms’ was, unsurprisingly, very appealing. So appealing in fact, that I quickly learned to stifle my questions, taking to heart statements I began to hear frequently in the meetings such as ‘quit the debating society’ ‘leave your brain behind’, ‘your brain needs washing’ ‘your best thinking got you here’, and the insulting ‘take the cotton wool out of your ears and stuff it in your mouth.’
I use the words ‘began to hear’ advisedly. Most of these things were not said directly to me; part of the accepted discourse in AA is to report something indirectly — passing on a sage suggestion some wise old timer once made, often related in a jokily self deprecating way — just for the benefit of the new member. In this way, the speaker is not only witnessed ‘helping the newcomer’ but can also claim ‘it was only a suggestion’ (someone else's at that) and therefore evade moral responsibility for the advice offered. He or she will also score extra sobriety points for another AA standard: poking fun, or saying very negative things about oneself is considered to be demonstrating humility.
The hapless ‘newbie’ will very soon realise that Humility—along with its conjoined twin, Gratitude—are both very much prized in AA. Demonstration of these qualities represents the gold standard of 12 step recovery.
Early on, I was warned sternly that bright people like me often have the hardest time getting sober in AA. The alarm bells rang loudly enough, but I ignored them. After all, I had drunk myself into an awful mess. Perhaps these well meaning people who seemed so eager to help me knew best after all.
On the other hand, I regularly heard some scary things in those early days: the warning that I should go to any lengths to get sober; to be willing to sacrifice everything to maintain my sobriety including, if necessary, my well paid job and my relationship. This advice seemed counter-intuitive to say the least. Common sense suggested that employment and social support were surely valuable assets in the difficult early days of sobriety. Years later I know that the statistics bear that out. Employment and a stable supportive relationship are the best indicators of the likelihood of someone successfully maintaining abstinence.
I also heard more alarming things from those who had clearly lost all sense of balance and reason — some AA members advocated not taking any form of drug from an aspirin for a headache to medication prescribed by their doctor. This potentially life-threatening nonsense has led to depressed people taking their own lives after stopping taking their medication and AA Central Office issued a directive in an effort to urge its members to stop offering this ‘advice’ in meetings. I heard one woman announce proudly that she had insisted on a local rather than the recommended general anesthetic for some minor operation — she was worried about getting re-addicted.
I was urged to get to as many meetings as possible before, during and after my working day; a standard formula is 90 in 90 — meaning 90 meetings in 90 days. Reliant on public transport I ended up in dark streets in parts of London that were entirely unfamiliar to me. I became disoriented and scared.
Next I got a sponsor. A sponsor is someone who initiates the newcomer into the AA way of doing things and with whom you ’do the steps’ — 12 stages starting with the reasonable enough encouragement to admit and accept your problem with drink— which then mysteriously morph into having to believe in god, admitting all your faults to another person, making reparation for harm you have done, developing your spiritual practice through prayer (ideally on your knees) and carrying the AA message to others.
I chose a guru type to help me whom everyone had recommended. She said my self will and my ego needed to be broken. She poured scorn on me when, hoping for approval, I reported that I had joined a gym. Surely I said, keeping fit and getting the endorphins flowing would help my mood and my self esteem ? Apparently not as it would ’get in the way of my meetings’ which might lead to me drinking alcohol again. I had to undertake to ring her every day without fail and to meet her regularly at a place of her choosing and convenience, some 50 miles away from my home. I had no transport of my own. This was just too much and I had just about enough gumption left to sack her.
But I still went on going to meetings and more meetings. I found a moderate person to sponsor me next—a very kind and patient lady who must have listened for hours and hours to me over the years. She was a good woman, and I liked her and pretended to believe as she did. I had tremendous struggles with the god concept. In the end I convinced myself that I did believe in god. Another AA mantra is ‘fake it to make it’ and I am deeply ashamed that I succumbed to this even now. If only I had listened to my intuition! I had exchanged my independence of thought for membership of an instant community of lonelies like me, as well as oddballs, misfits, the religiously fervent and the downright dangerous.
I kept going to meetings—from three to as many as eight times a week and accumulated over five years’continuous abstinence. I did little apart from go to work and go to meetings where I was able to listen to endless drunk-a logs (and indulge my blossoming addictions to caffeine and nicotine!) I had little social contact outside ‘the rooms.’ I am a diffident person and this suited me just fine — the illusion of instant friendship in the meetings, and long chats on the phone if I felt bored or lonely seemed at first to fit my needs perfectly. I did the steps, I did service,I ‘read the literature’ — the ghastly Big Book and the 12 and 12 — Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. I talked the talk, and even, briefly, sponsored people myself.
The last 18 months of this period of sobriety were far from happy. My career had taken off and I was earning good money. I began to travel abroad extensively, on my own, which I loved, feeling a sense of freedom and fulfillment I had never experienced before. But coming back home, the façade was crumbling. I started to disintegrate. I would wake up and not know who I was. I had no sense of identity and would be overwhelmed with tears and have panic attacks in public places.
Then I got promotion to another organisation — a senior management post well within my capacities. Unfortunately for me, in that organisation was another AA member from my home group who disliked me intensely and was jealous of my career success. Worse still, the organisation turned out to be led by someone who was clearly unstable. He admitted that he enjoyed breaking people, humiliating them and bullying them in front of their peers. Staff turnover was excessively high and before long, it was my turn.
My fellow AA member, a secretary to one of my colleagues, had been doing her bit by spreading poisonous nonsense about me behind my back. Under the cosh of bullying on the one hand and betrayal on the other I fell apart completely and descended into deep depression. At times I was unable to speak.
I took about 6 weeks off work with stress and depression, at the end of which, unbelievably, I was sacked. During this time I explained to my GP about my drinking history — and so it ended up on my medical records after all. I should have prosecuted my ex-employer but I was far too emotionally fragile to contemplate any extra stress. I remember little in the way of real support from AA. In my distress I approached a neighbour — a woman I barely knew—who was a psychologist. She helped me greatly, just by being kind; and she stayed in touch with me by letter when I left the area.
With anti-depressant medication and hypnotherapy for the stress I began to feel better and found myself a job in another part of the country, not far from where I grew up. I was giving myself a complete new start. I recall my last few months with my home group were marked by a dawning of anger with AA. I was asked to do a chair (speak about my experiences of getting sober) before I moved away and I remember beginning to express my doubts about some of the stuff I had by now been automatically repeating for years, just like everyone else. In that intrusively melodramatic way that marks out AA folk from normal people, I was asked with deep concern why I felt so angry. They urged me to find the meetings in my new area. They said AA would never let me down. They told me they loved me unconditionally. After a few months, I never heard from many of them again.
I found the meetings in my new neighbourhood and this was the beginning of the end for me and AA. These groups were worse than useless. Belligerent, dogmatic old timers predominated. I was not made welcome; in fact I was shunned. I remember going to a meeting after a drive of many miles in a very distressed state — my partner had become suicidal and I was living far away from him in a remote rural area where I knew nobody. One woman was kind to me, but from the rest I received nothing but a cold shoulder. People literally blanked me at meetings. I felt utterly bereft; as if my world had ended. I was socially isolated and the one thing ‘they’ said would never happen had happened. AA had let me down. Again. It's difficult to describe the depth of my anger and sense of betrayal, mixed with guilt and shame — mainly at myself for having been conned for so long.
Eventually I came to realise that the wonderful fellowship of AA had nothing to offer me anymore. The majority of its members are closed-minded, old fashioned and dogmatic. Some are overbearing, abusive and frightening. They allow no talk of the importance of nutrition or exercise, relapse prevention or any discussion of the medical advances made recently in the field of addiction. Taking credit, or indeed responsibility — for one's own sobriety is completely taboo. All success in maintaining sobriety is down to 'you people', the meetings and a belief in a higher power.
Much to my regret, in the midst of my disenchantment with AA I began to drink again (I can sense the smiles of concern at this point) and I am now working at long term abstinence with the help of another well established support group which is based on empowerment and positive thinking — a refreshing change. My partner — now my husband — is fully supportive of me. I have realised that my problem is not that ‘I'm not working the program’. The problem is the program is no longer working for me.
Of course, old timers will say my sorry tale is a classic, a text book case. It ticks every simplistic, clichéd box — I ‘did a geographical’; I ‘got a resentment’; I ‘isolated’; I stopped going to meetings; I drank. Obviously I ‘wasn't doing the programme’, and I should go back to meetings where I will eventually ’get it’ —or die presumably.
Everyone who stops going to meetings is threatened with an inevitable return to drinking followed by insanity and death. I once pointed out that if you stopped going to meetings and remained happily abstinent you would be unlikely to waste your time going back to report the fact &mash; and if you did, you wouldn't be believed. This logic seemed to be lost on them. Long time AA members are a self selecting group. And most of them fail to think through the implications.
I have no argument with the fact that abstinence is the only appropriate goal for me; The support I choose to help me achieve it is very important to me now. And that, most emphatically, is not AA. I still feel angry, but sites like the orange papers and aadeprogramming helped to validate these feelings and now I want to move on.
I now want— to employ a good old AA cliché—to live in the solution, not the problem.
It is now a few months since I wrote this article. In that time I have shared some of these thoughts with the few people I still keep in touch with who are still in AA. The most depressing reaction has come from my long term sponsor in AA who is discussed in detail above, and with whom I have kept in intermittent contact. Some months ago, I explained I no longer go to meetings. Shortly after this I had a chance to meet up with her for the first time in five years. She never replied to my call. I followed it up— after waiting till the last minute and putting all my other arrangements on hold— and she made an excuse not to meet me but promised to ring me back. I haven’t heard from her since, and I seem also to have been deleted from her Christmas card list. Oh well, have a good day anyway!