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.

25. Derek
Caught in the Step Machine

I grew up in a stereotypical Irish Catholic community with many conservative cops around me, including my father. He developed a serious drinking problem and often became violent. This resulted in my mother's divorcing him after being seriously injured during a fight. My mother was given custody of me, but her back problems were severe, and I was unofficially adopted by my grandparents, who raised me from age 7 until I was 18.

In my early years, I was the ideal child, excelling in school and sports, yet somehow I was full of insecurities and was often unhappy. After attending Catholic school, I was given a scholarship to a private high school just about the time puberty struck. After having been indoctrinated at school and home about the evils of sexuality and having received a steady dose of authoritarianism, parochialism, and other forms of narrow-mindedness, this transitional period was too much for me to handle. At age 13 I started smoking marijuana and quickly dropped out of my family's surreal world. I became a discipline problem, stopped playing sports, and my grades plummeted. To cope with this situation, I resorted to other pharmaceutical remedies, including a lot of LSD. Tuning out made much more sense to me than my family did. However, after getting away with my delinquent behavior for a year or so, I was finally caught when my diary was discovered.

My father -- the distant disciplinarian who was never really involved with me -- re-entered my life. As an alcoholic and former cop, he knew how to handle lawbreakers. I got off easily. He only hit me -- unlike my mother -- once. Besides grounding, and being forbidden to see certain people, my record collection and guitar were taken away (since rock and roll was partly to blame) and I went away to live with him for the summer. I was to learn how hard work was necessary to instill discipline. I worked as a short-order cook in a bar he owned, and needless to say I found more role models in the bar.

I soon started drinking and also continued getting high, which was actually easier to get away with around an inebriated dad than it had been around my mom.

I went back to living with my grandparents during the school year and my life continued to consist of evading my family and myself. I managed to make it through high school, despite being very depressed and wanting to drop out very badly. During this time, a few significant things happened. I was sexually molested by a former teacher who was then a clergy member (and probably still is). I was also in an alcohol-related car accident after I sped away from a police officer who tried to pull me over. It was a miracle that I survived crashing through a wall, but I didn't feel very lucky at the time and expressed my thoughts about it to my family. They blamed my problems on not praying enough, rock music, and a bad crowd. To think that my upbringing was dysfunctional was inconceivable.

After high school, I moved back and forth between family members for a year or so. A romantic relationship I was involved in ended. At the time, I thought it was the only thing to live for. I managed to get through this period and decided to go to college, but I continued to drink and was arrested for a DUI. After going to court for this, I encountered the treatment industry for the first time. I had to go to classes for six weeks, after which I would get a certificate stating I completed the program and my DUI would be expunged from my record. This didn't go quite according to plan.

By answering several questionnaires about my drinking and drug use honestly, I had incriminated myself. Apparently, unbeknownst to me, the program directors had the authority to determine whether or not someone needed more treatment, although this wasn't stated in my sentencing. I was singled out with a few others from a class of about 50 as needing further rehabilitation. Besides the lack of due process, what was ironic about the situation was that I had gone into "remission." Somehow, beginning to use my intellect critically in college had changed the way I thought about the world and myself. I had drastically cut back on drinking and wasn't using any other drugs. I was selected for "treatment" because of my past history and for having a family history of "alcoholism."

Conceivably, this could have been a learning experience for me if it had been done properly. However, I had to pay for this extra treatment -- about $800, which was difficult. I was working at a low-paying job and had just moved out on my own. Also, I got three different counselors during the six months that I went to treatment. I was scheduled to go for 15 weeks once a week, but two counselors quit and hadn't kept records, so I was forced to go to about 25 meetings because I paid cash and so couldn't prove my attendance.

I stood out in the group a little. I was the only one under 50 (I was 19 at the time) and one of the few with a high school diploma. I couldn't relate to beating my wife, losing job after job, and drinking shots upon waking. So, I didn't feel quite at home in treatment. Also, these "regulars" were all AA veterans who had been going to 12-step programs for a long time. The group meetings essentially consisted of the people "witnessing" for the program with an official moderator there to make sure everybody participated, I felt like I had been delivered back into the environment -- the world of tradition, authority, conformity, and self-hatred -- which I had sought to escape from when I drank and got high.

I continued on with college, but I still drank, sometimes out to the frustration of that treatment experience and, sometimes, because I didn't know how else to relate to others. Along the way, my father killed himself driving drunk. I didn't handle it very well. I started drinking again much more heavily and began to romanticize my father's life. I thought to myself, "He went to bars all the time and he was very popular. I think I'll do the same." I tried to outdo him by using illegal drugs which I could share with others.

I gained popularity but realized that I needed to fund my habits, and what better way to share the wealth is there than to buy larger quantities of drugs at a lower price? Why bother doing favors for people by running to purchase things for them? I could just keep them on hand and I could make a little profit for myself. This strategy wasn't as clearly thought out as I'm portraying it, but another event happened which made it seem the best option.

While I was walking with a girlfriend of mine, someone tried to steal my father's chain from my neck. After a brief struggle, he was unable to wrest it from me. I thought the ordeal was over, but when he turned to run, he pulled a gun out of his pants and shot my girlfriend in the chest.

I spent a lot of the next month in the hospital with her. My boss was unhappy that I was taking so much time off, so I fought with him and decided to quit in protest. To make ends meet, I dealt drugs. I freely admit that my behavior was harmful to myself and others, but I couldn't see any other choices at the time.

Anyway, the next three or four years are kind of blurry, marked by major drinking and snorting binges which usually ended up with me passing out for a day at a time. I had not finished school, I was not working, and I was not happy, but I sure had a lot of friends. The money wasn't bad and other people envied me, so at least there were some things going for this lifestyle. Then, one day, while trying to get backstage at a concert (I was now supplying touring musicians who were in town), I was confronted by a group of police officers who ignored my right to be free from unwarranted searches.

I was arrested and charged with possession with intent to distribute cocaine. I pled guilty and was sentenced to four months in prison because I had a great lawyer, I was white, I was a first-time offender, and while awaiting sentencing I went to treatment to prove I was an addict and an alcoholic. Others are not as lucky with the criminal justice system and end up spending years in prison for what I did.

Allow me to return to my pre-sentencing treatment for a moment. The counselor I'd gone to was an avid supporter of 12-step programs and insisted they were the only method that works. I'd tried discussing a few points concerning alcohol and other drugs upon which I disagreed with her, to no avail. I also explained that I had studied philosophy in college and did lots of reading, and I was very familiar with "spiritual"questions and my right to be free from religion. Predictably, I was told this was another symptom of denial and that I needed to stop intellectualizing" things so much."I evaluated the situation and decided that it was in my best interest to keep my mouth shut because my fate in court was partly dependent upon this counselor's opinion of my potential for "rehabilitation. So I played this game, only occasionally mouthing what was really on my mind.

During that time, my main concern was dealing with the fear I had about prison. My counselor told me that the most important thing was to become clean and sober. I said I couldn't think about prison without becoming completely distressed and that was shy I was drinking and using so heavily. This tug of was between us heightened my fears, and they continued to get worse as my sentencing date approached. Her tack was to probe into my early childhood experiences to see why I had such a problem with authority. When I reported that I was really unable to recall much, her demeanor changed and she reacted to me in a different way. She started asking questions about my sexual behavior and my experiences with the Christian Brother in high school, while concentrating on my memory lapses from childhood. The net effect of this treatment was to make me suspicious that something traumatic happened to me when I was very young, and that I had repressed this for years.

As many know from experience, 12-step indoctrination attacks your confidence in your own judgment. You are told it is your best thinking that got you to where you are and that you need to surrender to a Higher Power in order to improve. The Big Book states: "The first requirement is that we be convinced that any life run on self-will can hardly be a success, and, "We hope you are convinced now that God can remove whatever self-will has blocked you off from Him,"etc. This attack on rationality and the self is rampant throughout the entire Big Book and 12-step philosophy. As an individual who was extremely vulnerable and not employing his intellect very effectively, I started to think that "self-centeredness"really was my problem. I had often thought that being alienated from my true self was the problem, but now I had a simple explanation and the seeds of doubt had been planted in my mind.

After entering prison, I suffered severe withdrawal symptoms that went untreated. I had been drinking the equivalent of about a fifth a day for about the previous year and snorted lots of cocaine and used other things, especially Valium and Xanax, to come down from being too wired. My withdrawal consisted of lots of sweating, involuntary muscular contractions, mild hallucinations, severe trembling, and not sleeping for about a week. Then I started to adjust as well as one can to one's first prison experience. I became friendly with some of the other inmates and was scheduled to go to the work release area.

I also began taking this business of recovery seriously, which I had been reluctant to do before. I thought that just maybe it really was my thinking that was crooked, and I immersed myself in reading about the "disease"of addiction and all its manifestations. I tried to maintain a critical stance, but with the pressures of confinement (which were many) and my body still trying to reestablish equilibrium, this only stressed me out more. At the same time, I started obsessing over the supposed lapse in my memory which the counselor seemed to think was very significant to my understanding of myself. I experienced my first-ever panic attack when I started getting images of being sexually abused as a child.

The veracity of these memories seems highly doubtful, but what happened after this panic attack still seems unbelievable to me. I asked to talk to the prison psychologist about these disturbing thoughts I was having. His solution was to remove me from the relatively comfortable work-release environment I was in and have me attend encounter groups with convicted sexual offenders to discuss the problem of sexual abuse!

Within a short time I was in shackles and being transported to a new location. I had another panic attack and woke up in an unfamiliar cell with someone else. Shortly thereafter, I started having thought disturbances and was very confused and afraid. I was taken into another room by myself where I stayed for the next seven weeks. I spent most of that time naked, lying on a cement floor with no pillow, blanket, mattress, toilet paper, mail, or anything else in the cell except roaches, a toilet, and a sink. When I wasn't sleeping, I was having horrible delusions and was scared out of my mind. Many of the details of this experience are still quite vivid and I don't think I will ever forget them. The proverbial "living nightmare" is a literal description of what I experienced. The physical deprivation was nothing compared to the mental torture I endured, which still haunts me in nightmares on occasion.

Through the relentless efforts of my mother and girlfriend, I was released to a hospital after they finally reached a human being with pull in the prison bureaucracy who cared about my plight. Upon arrival at the hospital, I was fairly disheveled, suicidal, and acutely psychotic. After about three weeks, I could finally sleep in a bed. Previously, I had curled up in a corner in a fetal position, too afraid to sleep. I was discharged after about a month and a half into a partial-hospitalization rehabilitation program.

The partial-hospitalization program was heavily into the 12 steps. In this dual-diagnosis treatment center, I complied with the program because that was part of my probation requirements. At least this program was free, but again my individual needs were ignored. I sat through a Bible class, a hygiene class explaining why showering and brushing your teeth are important, and the group's rendition of "Kumbayah." Part of the morning stretching included doing the "Hokey Pokey"which I refused to do; I was verbally reprimanded for my bad attitude. This wasn't particularly funny at the time. I was in the unenviable position of trying to prove I was "mentally competent and complying with treatment" by engaging in the ludicrous activities.

In the 12-Step groups run by the center staff, I was repeatedly lectured for not working the steps or going to outside meetings when I wasn't at the center. Other activities I enjoyed which I consider healthy were discouraged. I was told not to spend so much time reading or playing guitar at home since these were the forms of isolating and/or intellectualizing my problems. I was also warned against anger and resentment, which only created more of it.

Watching television was encouraged and so was going to church, even thought I professed to be an atheist. Again, I was alleged to be "in denial." They said that I should go to church to be exposed to spirituality, just like I should, "fake it until I make it." After about two months of trying to politely explain that I was in a program which was on a lower level than I was and that I was getting nowhere, I got a little more assertive and pled my case to the program's doctor, who agreed that I was fully functional. He couldn't do anything though, since he wasn't my caseworker; but he was a sort of unofficial insurance policy in case I got in trouble with my probation officer. I asked my caseworker for help finding another program. She totally refused. I pleaded, but she told me that I wasn't meeting the requirements of the current program, despite perfect attendance and talking within groups, etc.

Finally, with an incredible amount of restraint (consider what would have happened if I started screaming at this person), I said, "I disagree with your evaluation and I don't think you are helping me." A few minutes later, after reminding me that I might go to court or prison again over this, she slapped an official release down in front of me to sign stating that I "refused treatment in direct violation of the terms of my probation." She then proudly signed the statement with another witness from the program snickering at me. This just seemed to me to be another outgrowth of a program that is supposed to work by attraction rather than promotion. Essentially, this attitude amounts to saying you're going to hell if you don't follow our path.

Fortunately, after I explained the situation, the probation officer wasn't concerned. He helped me find another 12-step-oriented rehabilitation program which was on a higher functioning level. I ended up with a better counselor, who was exceptional simply because she didn't force the steps on me and let me talk about what I felt was bothering me. She wasn't a great therapist, but she was the first in my "recovery" experience who actually listened to me.

Eventually, I was released from the hospital. After about six months, I found an alternative to the 12 steps. I had managed to stay completely abstinent on my own. Since getting involved with secular recovery methods, I've rediscovered reason, sanity, and respect for individuality. I've re-enrolled in school, adding a psychology major to my previous philosophy major. I have four more classes before I graduate, and I intend on going to graduate school. I've been coordinating meetings for about a year now, and I'm tentatively planning on becoming a drug and alcohol counselor.