My very first experience with alcoholism treatment and 12-step programs was frightening and intrusive. Today, I would have the confidence to speak up immediately against the verbal and emotional abuse I witnessed. But at age 21, I had not yet learned to trust my own judgment in the face of disapproval. I was afraid of my own feelings, my own anger, and I think it's that very quality which allows the treatment industry to roll over so many people.
My father had been in treatment for alcoholism at a VA hospital. The year was 1975. Several of our large family -- I, my mother, my sister and her husband, and three of my brothers, loaded into mom's station wagon and we drove to the West coast town where the VA hospital was to visit Dad.
Zoomers was what Dad called the mentally ill patients who were housed near the alcoholism treatment wing of the hospital. Some walked up and down the concrete paths. You could tell they were zoomers because of the way, due to medications, they paced, heads down, traveling the walks. They wore orange, foam-rubber slippers. I would glance here and there, anywhere but at their faces. Although Dad was not a zoomer, I would feel, by the end of the day, that they might be receiving infinitely better treatment than an "alcoholic" would in that hospital.
I don't remember much about the lunch we had in the cafeteria, except that we were hungry, and talk seemed different with Dad sober. He didn't talk very much.
After lunch, we had to hurry back to the ward with Dad, because there would be a meeting, a family group. He had invited us here at this particular time specifically for that group. Immediately, I was nervous. I did not like the idea of sitting in a group of strangers and talking. What would we talk about? Dad? How could we sit and talk about Dad with strangers? I told Dad I'd go, but that I did not want to talk. He said that would be okay; we didn't have to say anything.
We were herded into a sunny day room. There was a wall with windows open to the spring day, and there were a few bookshelves lined with paperback novels and hardcover books with titles that sounded religious. On the wall were charts; some looked like chore lists, and others discussed "alcoholism." About 30 folding chairs had been placed in a huge circle, and the chairs were soon filled with a motley assortment of folks, some of whom Dad had already described to us. There weren't enough chairs, so more were brought in. Folks settled in. The energy of the room was frenetic. I would come to recognize that energy in later treks in and out of such rooms. (In fact, in the recovery subculture, such gatherings are called the rooms.
The facilitator of the group, a man in his thirties I'll call "Rollin," sported a clipboard and intense, quick eyes. I had never been in a therapy group. I did not realize what was happening was attack therapy until Rollin and the others began to attack people.
He'd start out asking a person how he or she was doing. If she said "fine," or words to that effect, Rollin would say bullshit! and then the attack would begin. The word bullshit flew about the room quite often, along with defensive explanations, angry diatribes, tears, and much melodrama. I became petrified, because it was apparent that Rollin picked people for group focus out of the blue, and that to say you were okay was the wrong answer. My mind quickly began to search for something I could say was wrong with my life that would be okay to tell these people. The fact was, I worried about whether my own drinking was abnormal, but no way would I say that in this verbally abusive situation.
Besides, I was not drinking at the time, was going to community college, making good grades, dating a nice guy, and really did feel fine most of the time. But now I felt hot, close, sweaty, and embarrassed to be there and see Dad there. Rollin, and then some of the others, began to yell at one man in particular.
"Bill" had been sent to the VA alcohol program while awaiting sentencing for manslaughter. He had been drinking and driving, and had killed an innocent person. He said he could not remember the accident. Bullshit!, Rollin nearly screamed, a lock of brown hair flipping over his eye. that's pure bullshit! You remember -- admit it! You remember everything about that accident -- admit it! Bill's head was hung. Others joined in. I was reminded of the flock of chickens which we had while I grew up. When chickens are under stress, and one of them gets hurt, the rest move in and peck it to death.
While Bill was being verbally pummeled for not remembering the accident he caused while driving drunk, I realized that, according to the information about "alcoholism" hanging right there on the wall, blackouts, in which the alcoholic has no memory of events taking place while drinking, were supposed to be common occurrences. Why did they not believe him? I did. I wanted to speak up and defend him. But suddenly that felt unseemly. After all, he had killed someone. Yet the death surely was an accident. Was alcoholism a disease or a willful behavior? If Bill had a disease in which blackouts were common, why were they yelling at him?
I was confused and frightened. I decided I did not know enough about what was going on, so I said nothing. Later my dad told me he didn't think Bill remembered anything about the accident either, but that attack therapy consisted of tough love designed to crush people's egos. It was big egos, he said, that stood in the way of alcoholic recovery.
They harangued Bill for quite awhile, then Rollin continued around the room. Folks' personal thoughts, feelings, and lives were pried into, and the accusation bullshit flew freely.
I knew this behavior was all wrong, but I didn't know why. Years later, I would understand that my fear and discomfort were correct, healthy emotional responses to the intrusive verbal abuse know in the recovery subculture as tough love. In that group, and in many alcoholism/addiction treatment centers, as well as 12-step groups, people's emotional or ego boundaries are deliberately violated in the name of tough love.
I had, at that time, fairly good boundaries. But over the next few years at AA meetings I would be taught that my own judgment was not to be trusted, and that if I wanted to stay sober and not end up like my dad, I would need to be rigorously honest and confess my character defects, which included anger, dishonesty, and fear. "Dishonesty," besides lying and cheating, means failing to admit to group members personal weaknesses and failing to reveal family information. Not only would my own healthy boundaries be torn down, but I would join in tearing at the boundaries of others.
Rollin's eye finally landed on me. He asked questions about my dad. How did I feel about Dad? Wasn't I angry? Rollin's eyes flashed fanatically. He looked intelligent and scary, as if he really did know everyone's deepest secrets, and was only asking to test your honesty. Problem is, I didn't have any feelings concerning Dad that I wanted to talk about there, right in front of them and him.
Nervously, my eyes darted to my brother, Mike. Rollin noticed. He took a new tack. I see you glance at your younger brother often. Are you worried about him?" Smiling, trying to be pleasant, I felt myself turning red. I wasn't worried about Mike; I'd just needed a familiar person to look at, and Mike was nearby.
Yes, I guess I do worry about him.
Why? pried Rollin
I felt about for words, terrified. I'm sure my voice shook. I . . . when I agreed to sit here, I really didn't know what this was. I'm sorry, but I would rather just listen and not talk, I finally burbled.
Rollin nodded. Then, he excused me and my whole family, including Dad, from the group. It was done in a supercilious way, which I would later come to call the Recovery Dismissal: Well, we certainly wouldn't want to interfere with your day. Recovery is for those who want it. Have a nice visit.
I left that room knowing those people thought there was something terribly wrong with us just because we were part of Dad's family. Whatever that might be, I had no inkling. I thought we were as good as anyone else.
Upstairs, Dad showed us where he bunked with several others. The room was like one in any other hospital ward, with six narrow bunks, though a little warmer perhaps, because the people who lived there weren't really sick (or were they?) and had the time and energy to decorate the walls and to enjoy little pillows, afghans, and photos from home, as well as their own clothes.
Some, however, were required to wear orange uniforms as punishment for infractions, such as running away, refusing to do their KP duties, or not showing up at the scheduled meetings. Other punishments included shaved heads. I noticed one woman in the group whose head was shaved, and she wore an orange uniform. Dad told us she had fled the ward, gone downtown, and gotten drunk. She was not allowed back unless she submitted to having her head shaved.
I asked Dad if they ever did anything like that to him. He said that for the first two weeks he was there he was required to wear a sign around his neck, scrawled with the words, I'm Important. Because he had once held highly responsible jobs as a hospital administrator and served no local school boards, the counselors decided that wearing such a sign would be the best way to attack his ego. I got angry.
You know what, Dad? This place is awful! You should get out of here. you should come with us right now! These people are crazy!
But Dad wouldn't come. He had lost everything and would have needed to live with one of his grown kids until he got on his feet. In his mind, he was better off getting back on his feet in the VA program, and making a new life without becoming a burden to us.
I left there with the distinct impression that for all their big talk about recovery, such treatment centers provide little more than humiliation for drunks.