Horror Stories
True Tales of Misery, Betrayal and Abuse in NA, AA and 12-Step Treatment

Rebecca Fransway
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This book is here courtesy of See Sharp Press and Rebecca Fransway, Ed.

11. Charlotte
Two Years of AA Hell

Two years ago, when I was 26, I decided I wanted to spend my time differently, drinking less alcohol. I went to an AA meeting because I thought there would be non-drinking activities such as dances. I wanted to meet people who had fun without drinking.

My first meeting was fun -- everyone seemed so nice. By the third meeting I figured I must also be an alcoholic since I enjoyed drinking and normal people did not. After hearing stories about the disease and its progression, I became terrified. I immediately threw myself into the program, desperate to find the character defects that made me drink. After six months, I was more miserable than I had ever been in my life.

Any thought or emotion I had seemed to have some slogan to answer it. The result was this: I showed up at AA happy, energetic, and confident in myself, and ended up a broken-down, terrified shell of a person, suffering from extreme anxiety attacks, unable to work -- in other words, a total mess!

Why didn't I get out right away? Because for well over a year I believed the people in AA when they said I was now dealing with the real things I had been afraid of. Somewhere deep down I didn't believe that, but I couldn't trust my beliefs because I had a disease that wanted me dead. No wonder I suffered anxiety attacks. How can you live thinking you have, living inside you, a disease that wants to kill you? It all seemed like a nightmare -- it was so hard to believe that I was right and all these other people could be wrong.

What really woke me up was when I went back to Maine, after two years, to visit my old friends (something I was advised never to do). I started to tell them what I'd been seeing in the program -- that every thought or feeling I expressed was immediately answered by a standard AA reply.

Example: I don't want to go to meetings anymore, but they tell me if I don't I'll drink and then I'll die.

But they tell me, but they tell me; that's all I could say -- I think or feel this, but they tell me . . . When I heard myself talk like this, I realized, Oh my god, this sounds just like a cult! My friends were so worried about me that they didn't want me to go back to Delaware. They could not believe the terrible changes in my confidence and self-esteem.

I had to go into therapy to recover from this program. And I am very lucky to have my therapist. When she first told me she knew of people who had left AA and were doing well, I was afraid. My program friends promptly told me to get another therapist. It was so hard to believe that I was right and all these other people were wrong. The whole experience has been devastating to me.

I also watched my boyfriend go through the same thing. He'd been a young, beautiful person, who was full of life and enthusiasm (at three months sober). Soon, he became unemployed and rarely left his bedroom. He finally ended his involvement with AA by getting drunk. I once said I could understand why people relapsed, because it was the only way to get out of the program.

I am happy to say that we are both feeling 100% better since we made the decision to leave AA. For me, it was the hardest thing I had to do; I was terrified that I was suffering from the terminal uniqueness I'd been warned about, and that my disease had progressed and would kill me if I left. But I knew I could not spend the rest of my life with the immense fear, guilt, and negativity AA engenders. It breaks my heart to say that. It also breaks my heart that I put myself through two years of hell tearing myself to pieces looking for my defects. I am reluctant to totally dismiss AA for other people -- but it's not for me.

I recently heard through the grapevine (no pun intended)* that a friend of mine in the program really went down the tubes. After seven years of sobriety in AA, he went straight to crack cocaine, which he had never done before. They found him down by the railroad tracks, where he had fallen and split his skull open. Currently, he is in ICU in a vegetative state. I knew this man for two years. He was quiet, shy, and very lonely. He was not happy during those seven years of sobriety. But is this his reward for working his program? I understand it was his choice, but I believe it shows that a different approach is needed. This is not an unfamiliar story. In AA, of course, it will be used as further "proof" of what happens if you don't work your program.

*The Grapevine is an AA periodical.