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.

6. Lani — Harmony Home Treatment Center:
A Punishment for Drunks

When I had been sober in AA for two or three years, I used to go with friends to the nearby treatment center to visit and sponsor some of the clients in AA. This center, besides taking private paying clients, was also county funded. Folks were sent there to undergo alcohol and addiction treatment in lieu of jail, and homeless folks and the poor were charged nominal fees that could be paid off over time. After awhile, I became so disillusioned with the treatment given there that I began to call the center Hardheart Home.

Whenever treatment centers are criticized, AA members will often make the excuse that treatment centers are "not AA," and that treatment centers give AA a bad name. I didn't see much difference between AA and Harmony Home. The clients were required to go to AA meetings; they were bussed to meetings; they were picked up and driven by sponsors to AA and NA meetings; and one of the biggest meetings in town was held right there at Harmony Home every Sunday night. In addition, clients were encouraged, and some required, to work the first five steps of the 12-step program before leaving the center. AA and NA literature was distributed at the center, and if all that wasn't enough, every single counselor who worked at Harmony Home was an AA or NA member. Officially, they are supposed to be anonymous. I knew they were members, however, and so did everyone else, because we saw them at meetings all the time.

("Anonymity" is why it is so hard to get statistics on how many certified alcohol/drug counselors who work in publicly funded detoxes and treatment centers are also AA or NA members. Because of "anonymity," even states and counties that employ these people do not keep track of AA/NA affiliation.)

The counselors at Harmony Home happened to be among my least favorite AA members. I have never particularly liked most alcohol/drug counselors, although today a couple of my best friends are such counselors. But it seems like the meanest, bossiest, most demanding, angry, and verbally abusive people in AA often gravitate to this kind of career. I realize this statement can be supported only by anecdotal evidence, and a thousand alcohol/drug counselors will probably complain about what is written here, but listen to this roster of the counselors at Harmony Home.

P. Jane: She was the director of Harmony Home during part of the time I visited and sponsored women there. Jane's fashion style at AA meetings, as a university-town AA woman with "good recovery," was loose, unstyled hair, either tennies or plain leather sandals, with pants or shorts, and no makeup on an unsmiling, serious face.

During Jane's reign as director or the center, an especially strict rule against sex was enforced. One day, while visiting with my sponsee, Darcy, at Harmony Home, I noticed that she would not talk to men. Later, I found out why -- she had been caught by other clients having sex with one of her male visitors.

Clients were encouraged to snitch on one another, and Darcy's violation was quickly brought to the attention of P. Jane. Jane invited everyone else into the office to hear about what Darcy did, and to decide what Darcy's punishment should be. The group decided that Darcy would not be allowed to talk to any men -- visitors or clients, or men at meetings -- for a week. Darcy had been sent into treatment by the court. If she didn't like it, she could leave and go to jail.

The no talk punishment was dealt out for other offenses, and could be more severe, with no talk to anyone at all except AA sponsors and counselors. But Darcy's ban was particularly humiliating. Holy scarlet letter! I said to some of my friends. I wondered how these kinds of punishments fit in with any scientific view of alcoholism/addiction treatment. But such punishments were accepted at Harmony Home, and still are in the other unmonitored little kingdoms that counselors like Jane reign in.

Besides the incidents at Harmony Home, P. Jane showed other evidence of being, if not emotionally ill, at least a total jerk. It is quite possible that the 12-step world was the only world in which she was accepted.

When I first met her as a newcomer, I had liked what she'd said at a meeting, and went up to greet her and introduce myself. She totally snubbed me; she looked at me like I was a small turd. I get along with almost all people, and could only think, and not until much later, that she would not speak to me because I wore a dress and makeup, my hair was long and curled, and I smiled.

Some AA women think smiling and being nice to someone is people pleasing, a behavior condemned in the recovery subculture. Where I lived, many women in AA rarely smiled, and in the groups I spent most of my time in,wearing makeup and trying to look nice was also suspect. Often you will hear women with "Time" (years sober) boast that, as pitiful newcomers barely sober, they took great pains to look great on the outside. Other women will nod understandingly as the speaker adds, but I felt rotten on the inside. In AA, feeling bad means that you do not have good recovery. It is the sign of not having a program or not working it. And at some meetings, maybe because of this kind of socialization, it is popular for women to look unmade-up, perhaps even unkempt. It shows that you value your sobriety more than how you look outwardly.

Back to P. Jane. This woman, in charge of many newcomers, sounded very good at meetings. But she did not like newcomers -- I heard her say that in a meeting while I was a newcomer. She was being rigorously honest, according to AA principles, but I was still new enough to think of it as rudeness. I had problems with many people in AA because of this confusion between rigorous honesty, or tough love, and just plain rudeness.

Many of the statements one hears in the AA community, which are taken as wisdom, are actually nothing but rudeness, or even hostility. For example, take the popular AA cliche, keep it simple, stupid. Can any thinking person not find that cliche offensive? AAs repeat that slogan all the time, as well as others like, take the cotton out of your ears, and put it in your mouth, and if you point a finger, you've got three pointing back at you. These churlish sayings, which tend to discourage folks from critical thinking, and, especially, from voicing critical thoughts, are considered wisdom in the step groups.

Jane, queen of such churl in meetings and at Harmony Home, let it be known that she was an attorney. I soon realized, however, that she had never worked as an attorney while sober. I wondered why not. Being the director of Harmony Home, while a position of power in the 12-step community, did not pay well. And the money P. Jane did make had not been used to pay rent, because, for awhile, she had no place to live. She house sat for friends on extended vacations, and stored her furniture for free in the garages of other AAs. One woman complained to me that Jane had used her small garage for free storage for two years. She asked Jane to come and get the stuff because she needed the space, but Jane acted angry and wouldn't pick up the stuff. I said, Jane's an asshole. Tell her to come and get it or you're putting it on the street.

My friend was quite taken aback by my bluntness. It is very rare in 12-step culture to criticize anyone with Time. That's why so many of the old-timers get away with incredible screwings. But my hypothesis on P. Jane is mental illness. She lived and acted like a mentally ill or personality-disordered person. But the social structure in the 12-step world is such that mental illness is not easily acknowledged. People who are controlling and who avidly seek power over others are often thought of as tough sponsors, which some newcomers are said to need. Grouchy, angry, possibly depressed people are seen as rigorously honest, and not people pleasers, particularly if they have Time.

What I would like to know is, why were therapists, courts, and agencies sending vulnerable people in the community to be cared for by P. Jane?

Anyway, enough of Jane. She got so sick of newcomers that she left Harmony Home, and along came Big Jon.

Big Jon: He was well known and liked in local NA, and was considered a winner because he had nine years clean, which was probably a record for NA in our group. The vast majority of people in the NA meetings I attended didn't stay clean for even a year. Also, Big Jon dressed and talked like a biker, with the key chain hanging heavily from the jeans, the black jackets, the jackboots. This look is popular in NA. But I had never seen him on a motorcycle. In fact, no one knew what Big Jon did for a living. He didn't seem to have a job until he became a counselor at Harmony House.

One day I arrived at Harmony Home to work with a sponsee. However, the whole house and all the clients were in an uproar. The Harmony Home board and county authorities were coming to inspect the house. Funds had been earmarked for painting and other small renovations, which were not yet finished. All the clients were running about sawing, painting, hammering, cleaning. They were being utilized to do most of the work. No professionals were being used at all.

I don't understand this, I said to Margaret, my sponsee. (Darcy had long since run away.) Aren't you supposed to be concentrating on recovery? Margaret assured me that participating in improvements to the house was part of recovery. I asked her if she could take a break to go through the Big Book points we had discussed in our visit the week before. Margaret went into the noisy, dust-filled din and came back with her Big Book and notes.

We sat outside on folding chairs beneath a big oak tree and sessioned for about 30 minutes, until Big Jon came huffing and barreling out, his key chain rattling. He was quite overweight, and had to belt his jeans under his enormous belly. Keeping his shirts tucked in was impossible, so a bit of butt cleavage always showed.

Hey! he called to Margaret, motioning toward the house with his thumb, Yer needed in there!

Margaret said goodbye, got up, and ran in. Margaret was a grown woman, but I was reminded of my teenage years, trying to get a few minutes of communication with a girlfriend who was grounded, caught by her angry dad.

For the next two or three weeks, most of the Harmony Home clients' extra time was taken up with house renovations. During that time, Big Jon mainly sat on his office throne, talking on the phone, settling differences between clients, and grazing from a bag of cookies or chips. He did not like to get up, and he did not like to answer questions from outsiders. Once, I went to his office to inquire about whether Darcy would be back. She's not here, said Big Jon looking up from an enormous sandwich a client had brought him from the Harmony Home kitchen.

I know that, but she's been gone for awhile, and I'm wondering when she'll be back. She did not tell me she was going home, or out for any time at all. (Sometimes clients could leave for family emergencies.)

She's not here, repeated Big Jon.

Can you tell me when she'll be back?, I specifically asked. No, he said, his mouth and jowls roiling over a big bite of sandwich.

Later I heard that Big Jon had been kicked out as treasurer of the local NA group for stealing the group treasury. I and others were shocked. Usually those who steal from the treasury are newcomers. I could not understand why Big Jon, who at least had a job, would steal from the NA treasury unless he had started using again and needed the money for drugs.

But he was still collecting chips and was at least officially "clean." I knew he was into porno video, because he used to borrow frequently from a collection an NA acquaintance had accumulated to entertain cranksters in past drug-dealing days. But even if he'd had to rent videos, surely they were inexpensive enough to preclude stealing from the NA treasury.One can only guess why he did it.

What I would like to know is, do professionals who send vulnerable clients to NA and to treatment centers such as Harmony Home understand that the only criteria for being a 12-step role model or winner is not necessarily health, nor even a semblance of it, but, instead, Time: Big Jon is but a mild example of this strange phenomenon, this worshipful view that once-addicted teetotalers possess special wisdom which qualifies them to hold positions of power and to guide others.

Yet another such counselor in Harmony Home was Glenda.

Glenda: If she worked at any other job -- except perhaps as a prison guard -- Glenda would have been fired. She was probably the most consistently unpleasant, disagreeable person I had met within the prior five years. She barked at people, started arguments, yelled at clients, slammed cupboards, frowned, sighed, moaned, and dripped sarcasm. She may have been deeply depressed and in desperate need of medication. I wonder if any board members realized how this employee acted at work. They may not have, unless someone made a complaint, which was unlikely. In the recovery subculture, to criticize anyone means either that you are angry and therefore not in possession of good recovery, or you have three fingers pointing back at you. In other words, noticing and complaining about Glenda's ugly personality being unsuitable in a treatment environment would mean that something terrible is really wrong with you.

Two things that made Glenda dangerous are that she sounded good at AA meetings and also possessed at least seven years of Time. So, clearly, in AA she was a winner. Because of these things, unsuspecting newcomers often got involved with her.

If I thought a decent percentage of people who stayed at Harmony Home stayed clean or sober, I might not be so critical. Again, this is just anecdotal evidence,but in the two years I made frequent visits to Harmony, I recall only one woman who actually stayed sober awhile, continued attending meetings, and got a job and a place to live after leaving harmony Home. Out of an entire AA group of 200 in town, there were only two old-timers who said they had graduated from Harmony Home.

Anyway, this roster of Harmony Home employees is not comprehensive, because there's no purpose to that. If you would like to gather your own evidence on the pervasiveness of AA and NA members in treatment facilities, call your local county- or city-funded detox, treatment center, or even general mental health center. Say that you would like to recommend the center to a relative, but first you want to find out how many of the counselors are proficient in 12-step treatment and are NA or AA members themselves. If the person who answers the phone can't tell you, they probably will be able to tell you who can. Try it, and please write, care of the publisher of this book,with the results. They'll forward them to me, and I'd like to know what you find.