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.

46. Jim
One Man's Journey Out the Door Marked Exit

I have chosen this title because I believe that AA indoctrination has little to do with not drinking, but much to do with disempowering the individual. I speak from years of personal experience around the halls of the chosen ones, as they like to refer to themselves at times, and I have a story to tell that could be of benefit to those trying to get the gum off their shoes and leave the collective hive of AA.

I was raised in a religious home, but had a predisposition toward skepticism. One of the reasons I originally chose to drink, at age 11, was the feeling that I was being lied to about alcohol's evils. Around the age of 13, I ran into a guy doing martial arts. Since I was growing up in L.A., learning self-defense seemed like a pretty rational thing to do. So, I was introduced to martial arts -- a way of life that honors vigorous individual effort, respect for the well-being of oneself and others, and, above all, personal responsibility for one's actions. I was and still am enamored of such beliefs. (No thanks to AA there.) Through that experience I gained a confidence in my own integrity that I sensed lacking in many of the adults around me.

One of my early dreams was to be a world traveler. I used to sit on the beach in Southern California and look out across the ocean and tell myself traveling was what I wanted to do. I managed to navigate to over 18 countries by the time I was 25, and ingesting intoxicating substances was a part of my lifestyle. It wasn't, however, the biggest, most important part of my life. But then some tragedies occurred: in rapid succession, I experienced the realities of death, divorce, and loss of fortune.

It started when I was living overseas and I got a telex (no faxes in those days) that my father had cancer. I spent a small fortune traveling back and forth to watch him slowly die. Then, like dominoes falling, my mother, my grandmother, my brother, and my best friend all died. My business was stolen out from under me, and my lovely wife hit the road. It is one thing to hit a bump in the road, but quite another to go bumpity, bumpity, bumpity crash. To put it mildly, I was devastated -- and I spent the next few years on a mission of self-medication. I was living in L.A., a place where I really had no desire to be.

I came to believe that life sucked, and mine was beyond repair. I believe that today mental health professionals would label me as suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. For years, I felt a soup of dark emotions swirling about like a swarm of nasty bees.

But eventually I thought I might see daylight again. I began to believe the constant, habitual ingesting of intoxicants was severely working against me. Enter AA. I was introduced to AA by a well-meaning friend. In those days, there was no other place offering help.

Since I believed the trauma of severe losses in my life had damaged me for good, the AA philosophy of labeling myself as a diseased person, crippled within for life, agreed with me at that time. As a human being I have a tendency to go out of my way to prove my thinking right. That is natural, but when you are trying to prove wrong thinking right, problems are sure to follow. And problems did, indeed, follow.

I succumbed to the AA indoctrination process. Meetings, meetings, meetings till you drop. Sponsorship, which consists of trusting that just because some bozo says he has been sober for X amount of years he must be qualified to guide you out of your intoxicated haze. Read, read, read the Bi- Bi- Big Book. Up the steps, down the steps. Write moral inventories. Be of service, you selfish, self-centered, diseased twit. Write about it again. Forgive everyone for everything and be free, free, free. Write some more and always tell your sponsor everything.

My first sponsor was an ex-con who had a voice like sandpaper and the demeanor of a drill sergeant. He had neither the sensitivity nor the education to properly give sound advice. His guidance was merely the stock: Go to meetings, read the Big Book, work the steps, write inventories, be of service, forgive everyone for everything. Call me every day, and don't drink between meetings. If you do drink don't call me until you're sober. Now go be of service to someone and get out of yourself.

I later found a more suitable, but passive-aggressive sponsor. He would ask nice things like, How is your face? to be followed by, Because it sure is hurting me. Implying that I was still a newborn who had a lot of meetings to go to, inventories to write . . . well you get the picture. That's how it went for a few years, until I had managed to become another edition of the Big Book.

Out of desperation, I had adopted a persona full of righteous witticisms of AA lore, complete with my very own personal story of debasement by the most powerful of demons -- alcohol -- and my subsequent rescue. I had all the answers, though none were truly mine. I believed I could not trust my own thinking, that if I didn't stay close to the center of the herd the wolves of John Barleycorn would snatch me back into alcoholic oblivion. Hell on earth would be my fate as the penalty for straying.

So I stuck, and stayed stuck. The gum of AA grew from the bottom of my shoes up my legs. Then, at around three years into the collective briar patch, I lost my high-paying job as a corporate executive. I went through a divorce and joined the ranks of unemployed ex-senior management types.

But hey -- I still had AA and, hallelujah, I was sober. Now I could go to the noon meetings, claiming I had something to be grateful for. This went on for a couple of years. Then one day I got a phone call from an old friend asking me what I was up to and if I would consider helping him out in a new business overseas. With my years of experience working outside the U.S., all the pieces fit. So hasty plans were made, and I was sent off by the hive with a loud cheer and held up as a miracle of the program. Little did I know that phone call would eventually put me back at home plate, and that I was about to hit a home run.

Meanwhile, in my mind, a sneaking suspicion was growing. Had I actually been on a downward spiral by spouting beliefs and engaging in behaviors that were robbing me of personal integrity, disempowering me, and molding me into a two-dimensional cardboard cutout of my former self?

It took awhile. I sought out AA in my new country, but meetings were hard to get to, and the most I could usually manage was once a week. Besides, it was different than the AA I had known -- the people seemed weird, and I just wasn't getting the juice anymore. I got the AA withdrawals. I tried to adapt, but I was, nevertheless, jonesing. Actually -- unknown to me -- I was getting healthier.

I decided I needed to go back to the U.S. and go to my old home group. So I did just that. I met some old groupers at a coffee shop before the big event. Among them was a guy who was always criticizing the program yet could not stay sober for any appreciable length of time. I berated him with steppism and Big Book lore. I admonished him for his lack of honesty in not working a good and proper program. Then we headed over to the ol' meeting hall. I walked in and felt the old rush. The chorus of cheers met my ears and I knew I was going to be picked to share. Then as I sat there looking around at some familiar faces, I took notice of the disoriented new catch of the month arranged around the room. I saw myself so many years ago. Weak and vulnerable, crying inside, begging for relief from my confusion and pain.

Then I looked at the faces of the old-timers with their smug, know-it-all grins, and I saw a pack of predators ready to pounce and shove the steps, meetings, the Big Book, and all the rest of the rigid dogma and ritual down the gullets of the new birds. I remembered the recent altercation in the coffee shop where I too had armed myself with AA dogma and ritual and beaten a guy over the head with it. I looked again at those sanctimonious old-timers with their looks of authority in dispensing their beliefs in their "God-given" solution to substance abuse. As my mind fast-forwarded, I saw a new sight that ripped my guts out. I saw me.

I realized that I was one of those authoritative old-timers dispensing my AA wisdom like some overly well-behaved child. I had qualified myself based solely on the fact that I wasn't drinking, to assign an imaginary cause (AA) to an observable event (being sober), and to preach some gobbledygook of disease, powerlessness, rituals and dogma to every unsuspecting person down in the dumps over an addiction problem. Talk about a moment of clarity. Man, I was on fire inside. The moment at the plate came and I hit that home run.

I got up before I was tagged to share my pearls of wisdom, wiped the gum off my shoes and walked out. One of my old AA buddies, having noticed the lack of star-struck luster in my eyes, followed me out with that feigned look of concern and asked the same old question: Are you all right?, which translated to mean, Is your program all right? I looked at him as I actually held back a few tears of joy and said, I just can't do it anymore, it's a cult and I don't want anything to do with it. For whatever it's worth, I think you're an OK guy and maybe someday you'll see what I just saw in there, but it is time to move on. Good-bye.

Back in my new overseas home I began to see life in progressively clearer light. I had taken my girlfriend to a meeting at one time and introduced her to my AA friends. A couple of years had passed and we had gotten married. Then one day I asked my new wife (who speaks English as a second language, but has never been a substance abuser) if she thought AA was a cult. I had really begun to see clearly that my behavior and my beliefs in AA had kept my personal integrity in a fog for years. Without hesitation, in her heavy accent, she said, of course. How simple it all became, and how obvious it also became now that I had returned to health and was out of the group loop. Now that is what I call a step. I gained, and continue to seek, clarity.

Recently I learned that my favorite uncle died. There was that old déjà-vu feeling, being overseas, getting a message about another one gone. Yet this time I didn't even think of calling anyone except my cousin to offer my condolences. I didn't even think about going to a meeting and sharing my feelings. I took some private time and went down by the local river and thought about him and how he was a player in my life. I paid my respects and said good-bye. I felt good, at peace with it, and glad to be alive and taking a stand in life quite different than that old AA way.

Nowadays, I endeavor to reach for the things that wise old sensei passed my way so many years ago when I learned martial arts. Things like personal integrity, self-responsibility, self-confidence, discipline, respect for oneself and others, compassion for suffering, to relax, to play, to give myself, as well as the other guy, a break -- and many other empowering things.

To take a stand in the drift of life -- to say I know sometimes things just are not fair, and sometimes I will screw things up, is part of what makes me human. I am not diseased.

But don't take me wrong here. Not everyone in AA is going to have the same experience. Just try not to get confused like I did and think that the steps, the Big Book, and the whole lot really has anything to do with freedom from alcohol, or freedom period. I actually did meet some really nice people along the way. But if you are in there and you hear a knock on the door, you might want to take a look at those mushrooms that have been growing in the basement of your mind. You might want to walk up those steps, open the door, and step out into the fresh air of your own integrity. You might want to devise your own program for living.

I'm glad I stopped selling myself out. I'm glad I rejoined the human race. I'm glad I'm living my life again.