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.

10. Harry
AA or Divorce — And I'm Not an Alcoholic

I am a 35-year-old man whose past includes the abuse of alcohol. I no longer abuse alcohol, and I have had a very interesting, frustrating, even perilous journey through AA and a standard outpatient program based on the 12-step model.

First, let me tell you there is no doubt in my mind that I once was an alcoholic -- I am no more an alcoholic today than I am a teenager. But the fact is, I did abuse alcohol in the past, and certainly to the degree that I would have been defined as an alcoholic. The point I'm trying to make is that now that I am no longer an alcoholic, many people in AA will either insist I am in denial, or insist that I was never an alcoholic to begin with.

There was an unfortunate point in my life when I'd had it with drinking. I went to a standard 12-step-based program. (When I say standard, I mean that with very, very few exceptions, those are the only programs that are available.) I checked myself into a program that was run by a treatment/hospital community in the Midwest. From the very beginning I noticed that what they expected of us was to be sponges rather than gold miners, that is, they wanted us to accept everything they told us rather than sift through it for what we thought was useful.

But my drinking had become so problematic that I was delighted to find any way to get out from under it. I became, in a very short period of time -- four or five months -- a model AAer. I knew the Big Book back and forth. I never carried it around like a Bible because I have Christian beliefs, and I don't confuse the two, but I got a sponsor, worked the steps, and everything was just hunkydory until I began to notice certain things about AA.

For instance, some people in meetings would say the same things over and over again. There was one man who would say: Now I've been sober for twenty years, but I still have an alcoholic mind. Another would say: Well I've been sober for ten years, but I still think it's not the drinking, it's the thinking.

I'm the kind of person who just has to question that. I started with simple questions like, How can you say you're and alcoholic after twenty years without a drink? and What do you mean, your thinking hasn't changed?

My questions went further than that. I actually started reading some books. I think I started with Stanton Peele's Diseasing of America, and When AA Doesn't Work for You, by Albert Ellis and Emmett Velten, and Charles Bufe's Alcoholics Anonymous: Cult or Cure? I read books by Ellis, and just about everything I could get my hands on. Soon, it became clear to me that there is no such thing as an alcoholic mind. Alcoholics are no more fearful, angry, or anything else than anyone else is.

So I called a psychologist friend of mine, who has a very long history in the study of alcoholism. He has written several articles and has done meta-studies of alcoholism, some specifically on which treatments work and which ones don't. I posed this question to him: If you took a thousand alcoholics, and a thousand non-alcoholics, and you put them together and gave them all the same battery of psychological tests, what would the results be?

He replied: They'd be indistinguishable. you would not be able to tell who the alcoholics were. He turned me on to a study done by William Miller at the University of New Mexico back in 1976, which pointed in the same direction.

Well, I made the mistake one day, while listening to one of the AA pharisees preach the AA line to a newcomer at a meeting, of disagreeing with him. I thought what he was saying as pretty heavy handed -- he was scaring this newcomer about the prospect of never being able to change his thinking. I spoke up and said: The fact is, there is no such thing as an alcoholic mind. It doesn't exist.

That's when the trouble started. I went from being welcome at meetings to being cast out, shouted down. I was told that I wasn't a member of the fellowship, that I was in denial, that I had no real desire to stop drinking. After more of this abuse, I left AA. And I felt perfectly comfortable with that.

After awhile, I started having a drink every now and then. And I drank very moderately and successfully for about seven or eight months -- and this was after a period of 18 months of abstinence. No one knew. I would have a glass of wine at lunch, or a couple of beers.

Then one day, my wife smelled it on my breath, and I admitted to her, Yes, I've been drinking moderately. Well, her father is in recovery and things happened. First, I was told I had relapsed. I was told I had broken my promises, and that I had to get back into rehab, because If I didn't, I would be slapped with divorce papers.

I asked her: On what grounds? Nevertheless, I was coerced back into treatment. Back at the treatment outpatient meetings, I kept telling these people: You know, I don't really think that I have a problem. I'm not here because I'm afraid of losing control over my drinking, or because I think I have lost control. I've already shown that I do have control. I'm here to placate my wife.

They would say: That's not a good enough reason to be here.

I'd reply something like: Now wait a minute. If my goal is to keep my family together, so that we keep having a highly functional, beautiful family as we have had, then yes, that is a good enough reason.

Of course, I was branded as recalcitrant, and told I was in denial. I sat through three outpatient classes a week, where the addictions counselor seemed very good at fitting everyone's emotions, comments, problems, and activities into the guidelines of the first 164 pages of the Big Book. I thought, Oh, gee, this is easy. I should make money in my spare time this way. All you have to do is pull one cliche after another. I always questioned these methods. But then they would threaten to go to my wife and say that I wasn't interested in recovery and that perhaps she would be better off serving me with divorce papers. Can you imagine?

Right then and there I decided: OK. What we're going to do is go along with this. There are good lies and bad lies. I will go along with this to convince my wife. She doesn't have to know I'm doing this just to please her. She can't understand; she's so steeped in the AA-think because of her father's experience. I will do this for all of our benefits.

I had to fight to stay in the program. I was not only penitent, I was practically mendicant. Fake it 'til you make it, right?I had to stay in long enough to convince my wife I was really in recovery.

In any event, a little while ago I had a conversation with someone in AA. If you ask the tough questions of these groups -- AA, or other parts of the treatment/12-step community -- you're going to be dubbed as being in denial. Tough questions like this one: "Bill Wilson suggested that 50% of the people who followed the instructions got sober immediately and stayed that way. That's a remarkable figure. How did he come to it? What method did he use to arrive at that conclusion? How come his results are not reproducible? How come nobody else has been able to get near that either before or since? Do you think Bill Wilson could have been pulling our leg just a little bit? If you ask these tough questions, rest assured you will be labeled as being in denial.

I've probably e-mailed 50 different AA groups across the country, with probably 100 or 200 different e-mails asking question like this, and virtually all of the responses are something like: I'm sorry we can't help you in your denial.

Another thing I've noticed in the treatment community -- they practically command: You will relapse. They'd ask: What are you gonna do if you relapse? I honestly didn't know. They'd say: Well that's not a good enough answer. You have to have a plan. Yes, they demand that you have a plan for relapse. I asked them about that, and they'd always say something like: Well, we know that most people do relapse; it's the nature of the disease. I serious question that. If they've observed this for 50 years, maybe it has something to do with the nature of the treatment.

I feel liberated now, compared to how I felt when I was heavily into AA. While I was a true believer, a very big part of the world was closed off to me. Not just bars and liquor stores, but, more importantly, certain avenues of thought. AA teaches its followers not to think about certain things -- you mustn't question certain doctrines -- the nature of "alcoholism," etc. If it can't be reconciled with the Big Book, it's false. And, if you're active in AA, what's the response to every dilemma that pops up? Call your sponsor. You've got to fourth step your problem; you've got to fifth step it. This is all reinforced by the professional treatment community. For instance, if they ask: How do you feel today, and you reply, I feel great, the stock answer is, What are you masking? Have you talked to your sponsor about this problem you've got masking things? It's all completely arbitrary. You're absolutely at the mercy of whatever knucklehead you're talking to. And yet, if you try to dissuade them, logically, from their position, it proves all the more that you are in denial.

I've heard some of the AA old-timers say stuff like: You know, every day you don't drink, you're that much closer to the day you do. And, of course, everyone in AA knows that if you ingest just the slightest bit of alcohol, you're out; your choices are death, insanity, or jail, [Awhile back I saw an anguished post on alt.recovery.aa from an AA member who was tormenting himself over having eaten a little cornbread baked with some alcohol in it. -- ed.]

So, my horror story is that I am a 35-year-old man who accepted the consequence of abusive behavior and moved on. But because I once said I'm an alcoholic -- it's like being a speck of dirt that gets sucked up into a vacuum. You'll never get out, and if you scratch and claw your way out of that vacuum bag, someone is going to suck you back in. Now, my life is tenuous. I sit through four or five meetings a week to keep my marriage intact.

I've never believed what Hobbes said about life being nasty, brutish and short, and I never believed that there is a power in alcohol. When I was forced back into treatment, I told them up front that I would not do a first step; I would not "admit" I was powerless over alcohol. I am not powerless. And they can't convince me otherwise.