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.

33. Sara
Stupid Therapists

If the malpractice hadn't happened so long ago, I would sue the Big Books right off the shelves of three different therapists who sent me to AA.

For 18 years I suffered periodic depression that was highly treatable. But because I drank to self-medicate the depression, the therapists that I went to sent me to AA, instead of treating me for the real problem.

Of course, if I had known what was wrong with me before I sought help, I could have avoided wasting 18 years trying to find help in an organization that could not help me. I would have simply have found a 12-step-free psychiatrist, described my symptoms, and been treated. As the AA cliche goes, simple but not easy!

The first professional I went to was a psychologist, Dr. M., who I went to in 1978. He had been recommended as a good psychologist for alcoholics. When I came to him for help with a drinking problem I was already sober, but I wanted to stay that way. I had found that I could stay sober for long periods of time on my own, but that eventually I would start feeling really bad, and drink.

Yet at our first visit, he suggested I go to AA. I told him I had been to several meetings the year before, but that I didn't understand what the people were talking about . AA had seemed like some kind of religious group, one which I did not particularly care for.

Dr. M. would not take no for an answer. He encouraged me to go to a different meeting. If you don't like the AA meetings in your neighborhood, then try some out-of-town meetings. He gave me a meeting schedule from his desk. I agreed to go to meetings, and to see Dr. M. once a week.

At the meetings I went to, I often saw Dr. M. and his wife. Apparently, she was the alcoholic, and he was an Al-Anon member who went to open AA meetings with her. They were staunch and ardent steppers. I did not mind this AA group particularly. They didn't scare me like one group I had gone to; actually, a few members talked to me very nicely and offered phone numbers. That was fine with me. I never volunteered to share, and was not called on anyway. One thing I did notice, however, was that the focus on drinking made me want to drink. I would be feeling perfectly fine, having forgotten about drinking, but would leave meetings wanting the taste of a nice cold beer.

But I went anyway, and didn't drink. I went back to Dr. M. every week for several weeks. We would talk about what I was doing and how I felt. Having never been to a psychologist before, I had no idea what we were supposed to talk about. I just answered Dr. M's questions, and followed his lead.

Apparently I had other symptoms, because by my third session he had diagnosed depression. I wondered what that meant. I knew my mother had problems with depression that were controlled with medication, and I assumed he would treat me for depression because that was what I was there for. But he never discussed treatment for depression, never prescribed anything, or even recommended that I seek anyone who would. He just wanted to make sure I went to AA meetings.

Meantime, in AA, I kept hearing that I had a disease. Some of the speakers would say sober people shouldn't take any drugs, including doctor's prescriptions, and I began to feel guilty about wanting medication. I also heard that my symptoms -- crying often, resting much of the day, and feeling sad -- were pity pot and stinkin' thinkin'. I felt that I should never complain, and that I should pretend to be happy -- fake it until you make it. But according to others in AA, for a newcomer to act happy was dishonest. I needed to get real. It seemed that no matter what I did or how I acted, someone in AA told me it was wrong. Nobody seemed to think I was okay as I was.

Finally, I stopped seeing Dr. M. All we did was sit and talk about how I felt and about AA. This wasn't helping me, and I kept feeling worse and worse, like nothing was any use. I quit going to AA because I began to feel very uncomfortable around the people at meetings. Yet while I was there, I would smile and pretend to be happy. I still did not understand how sitting in a group of people talking about past drinking and how happy or unhappy life was today could make a difference. Although by this time I believed I had a disease I was powerless over, I had no idea how going to AA would help.

Now that I've been sober several years, I think that believing I had an incurable disease, alcoholism, hurt rather than helped me, because once I began to drink again, which was within weeks, I didn't even try to control it. My drinking turned into a very serious binge pattern. I'd drink around the clock, even waking up in the middle of the night and drinking myself back to sleep. I began to end up in hospitals and detoxes -- just as had been predicted at the AA meetings.

The second professional I saw, several years later, was a drug-alcohol counselor whom I'll call "L." He worked in a county alcohol program in central California. I went to him in desperation after having wound up with a case of severe withdrawal syndrome during detox. I was still shaking when I came to his office.

L. asked me questions about my life, and alcohol and drug use. I answered the questions honestly. Then he read off an evaluation of me, based on the answers to my questions. It sounded something like this:

Sarah is a 32-year-old woman who has been married twice and has two children. She did not graduate from high school. She has been using alcohol, her drug of choice, since she was 13. She prefers beer and wine, but if those are not available she will drink other forms of alcohol. She currently uses marijuana four times a week. She has used LSD, crank, cocaine, and barbiturates. She has exhibited symptoms of stage-4 alcoholism, has been to the county detox twice, and been hospitalized twice due to drinking. She has had alcoholic hepatitis.

This evaluation sounded like everything worth saying about me had to do with drinking and using. Actually, I had grown up in the late '60s and early '70s, and had experimented with drugs in ways similar to those of others in my social group. I had never been addicted to drugs. At the time I saw L., I'd been attending community college and was on the dean's list. I had a job as an English tutor, and I was getting poetry published. I had written for the local paper analyzing the way the prison staff handled visitors to the state prison in our town. In addition, I worked part time as a bookkeeper for a real estate company, and was much liked and needed at my job. My children and I lived in a clean apartment, and they were happy and healthy, although my week-long benders, which occurred about three or four times a year, always upset them. But in between benders I teetotaled.

L. told me I had a "disease" that was terminal -- alcoholism -- and that I had a 97% chance of dying of this disease unless I submitted to treatment for three years. Treatment consisted of going to 90 AA meetings in 90 days, then at least one meeting a week thereafter. Plus, I was to do something fun once a week.

I told him I was already doing fun things more than once a week, and that AA meetings made me want to drink. I said that I'd rather be treated with one-on-one therapy. I told him I would give up the marijuana (I did) and that I could stay sober on my own, but I was having trouble staying sober longer than six months at a time, because I would start to feel so bad that I wanted to die. Then I would simply drink, and stay drunk for a week or so.

He cut me off. He did not like pity pots. He said to go to AA anyway. Again I went, determined to make the 90 in 90. I began to attend meetings at Serenity Lunchers, a daily noon meeting held in an Alano Club room in a small Bay Area town. Propped in the back of the meeting room was an old toilet seat, lined with fur, above which a sign blazed: Pity Pot.

At the third meeting I attended there, I was surprised to see L. at the front table chairing the meeting. He told a standard tale of past drinking woes, turned to happiness thanks to AA. But then he said something that made me feel terrible. I hear newcomers say -- he used a whiny little voice for this -- But meetings make me want to drink! Then he proceeded to bawl out at anyone so foolish and ungrateful as to say such a thing. My heart sank. I had said just that in his office a few days before. I got his point.

I kept going to meetings. I got a sponsor, a big, kindhearted, mothering woman of Italian heritage. "Stella" called herself a former "party girl," and used to talk about how she had gone low enough to "turn tricks" in between her many marriages. She had 15 years of sobriety at the time I met her. I still think she is a fine person. But unfortunately, she was not a professional, and had little experience with those who needed professional help. As far as she was concerned, AA was good enough for most folks. I called her often, and I also hung out with a very interesting older man who was very kind to me. Harv would take me out to coffee, and he called often to see how I was doing. He called me his "adopted daughter." He was a fairly well-known wire sculptor, and gave me a beautiful sculpted tree on a platform of marble. He had a wondrous tale, a true AA rags-to-riches story that struck the hearts of all. I loved hearing him at meetings.

Stella seemed suspicious of all the time I spent with Harv. There was much gossip about Harv and the "adopted daughters" he took under his wing. But in spite of the gossip, Harv was innocent of trying to 13th-step me.

I kept going to meetings, and kept calling my sponsor. I worked the steps up to the third, where I turned my life and will over to the care of God. I was starting my fourth step, the moral inventory. I kept going to meetings. By the 89th day, I had been severely depressed for about a week. My symptoms were exhaustion, crying, sadness, and sleeplessness. I couldn't stay interested in schoolwork. I craved bad food like chocolate and salty fried food. I became very sensitive and would feel angry and sad over small slights or rudeness, and I would stay angry. Later, I found out that these kinds of unreasonable resentments are really symptoms of deeper problems. I was severely depressed and just didn't realize it. By this time, my sponsor, Stella, had labeled my symptoms pity pot and stinkin' thinkin'. And I, full of ignorant guilt, agreed!

So there I was at the meeting, which was full of the usual testimonials, interspersed with arguments between members over whether or not the verification papers of folks sent by the court should be signed before or after the meeting. I felt sorry for the poor schmucks, just sitting there feeling stupid while sparks flew all over the place about how to handle them.

As for the testimonials, I believed in God and tried praying, but He was not fixing whatever was wrong with me, nor did He do anything to interfere with what I was about to do. I left the meeting slightly early and, on the way home, got a big supply of booze and stayed roaring drunk for a week. I ended up in the county detox, sweating and shaking.

When, after a few days in detox, I went back to AA, one member told me I shouldn't have left the meeting early. Another told me I should have been doing steps one, two, and three every day. Another told me I didn't really want to quit. Stella thought I drank because I hadn't done a fifth step yet. So I finished the fourth-step moral inventory and told her my fifth step -- confessed everything I could remember that I ever did that was wrong, from squishing moths or sucking my thumb as a child, to errant sexual flings and mean thoughts. It was all terribly demeaning, and I didn't feel any better after doing it. I felt ashamed, as if I had vomited on the floor and left it there.

Again I got drunk. That particular bender resulted in a week-long detox in a mental ward. I had attempted suicide while drinking. It was there that I was put in contact with Dr. R.V.

Dr. R.V. was a psychiatrist who worked out of an office in the small town I lived in, and also spent time treating prisoners at the nearby state prison. When I told him about my pattern of benders, the first thing he did was prescribe lithium. I asked him why lithium, for I was not bipolar. No one in my family history was either.

Dr. R.V. said that he was "experimenting" with "alcoholics" who he called "periodics." I started taking this lithium. It made me fat, and I had to go and get blood tests regularly. Worse, I did not feel better. It made me feel "flat" emotionally. But I kept taking the lithium and kept seeing Dr. R.V.

I had told him during the first visit that I wasn't going to any AA meetings. I was busy with school and work, and AA had never done anything but make me feel like a failure.

After about eight visits, I was feeling good. I'd been admitted to a prestigious university, and I had been able to rent a very lovely, large house. My children loved the house, and they were happy. More of my poetry was being published as well. But the lithium made me feel logy, fat, and flat much of the time. I wished I wasn't taking it. Couldn't we try something else? Dr. R.V. didn't answer. Instead, he asked me how AA was going.

I looked at him, surprised. you know I'm not going to AA, I said. Dr. R.V. went bonkers. He started yelling at me, saying I was trying to con him. I left the place in tears.

Later, my sister called him to ask what was wrong with him and demand an apology. She didn't want me to give up on getting the help I needed. He told her it was all a big misunderstanding. When I got up the gumption to go to another appointment, Dr. R.V. acted like nothing had happened, as though I had misunderstood his concern. I saw Dr. R.V. a couple more times after that, but I didn't trust him anymore. Eventually, after a continuing spiral of depression (the lithium didn't seem to make a dent in it) I drank again.

Incidentally, the reason I can't sue him is because he's dead. A doctor I was dating knew him, and told me Dr. R.V. had died of a narcotic overdoes.

As far as AA goes, do these therapists and doctors have any idea what goes on in and around meetings? Here are some of the things I have seen, heard about, and experienced during several years in AA:

I know of many deaths, including that of one man I knew personally. Rami died believing he was powerless; he died in spite of step work he had done precisely as outlined in the Big Book.

He was of East Indian descent, had a heavy accent, and was not sought out much by the AAers here in California. His accent was such that it was real work to talk to and listen to Rami. As a result, he never got into the social aspect of AA, which is really what motivates newcomers to stay sober, in spite of what the program says about God keeping alcoholics sober. The fringe, cultist groups of AA will socialize with newcomers, though. They sponsor newcomers, ask them to coffee, movies, and lunch. One of the Big Book gurus I knew would wait by the phone for newcomers to call. This is who Rami fell in with. How could he resist them? Alcoholics tend to be lonely, and the cultists take advantage of that. He really believed what they told him, that God would remove the desire and even the ability to drink alcohol if he worked the steps properly and experienced a "spiritual awakening." He never had one. His sponsor dumped him when he started drinking again, saying he must have left something out of his fifth step. Rami died a year or two later of alcoholic pancreatitis.

Countless others are enduring depression because they think taking antidepressants means you haven't had a spiritual experience and that you'll get drunk and die. One woman in the group was told she had to get off her antidepressants or she would never have a true spiritual experience. She tried. One day she called me up, crying, paralyzed. I told her it was wrong for her sponsor to persuade her to go off her medication. I told her she should go back to her doctor and take whatever he prescribed. She did. Thank God AA is not responsible for her suicide. I know an old-timer woman who doesn't tell sponsees to get off their medication anymore; years ago, she had a sponsee who obeyed and ended up committing suicide. Now she just says, "Go to a doctor." Too bad she had to learn through someone else's death.

Another woman that I buddied with had such bad panic attacks that she couldn't even drive a car. She was told when she got honest and did a thorough fifth step that she'd stop panicking. She never could stay sober long enough to do a fifth step, though. She said her panic would get so bad she'd have to have a drink just to calm down. She was told that was just an excuse. No one would go out of their way to help her until she became willing. We didn't see her for a while. Later, I ran into her downtown. She had been sober for two years. How? She'd gone to a doctor and gotten on a medication to control her panic. She was healthy, happy, and able to drive a car. But she was through with AA.

Eventually, I found a doctor and therapist who would help me, but only because I was lucky enough to have found information on depression and drinking. Apparently -- something I should have known after 18 years of seeking and failing to solve my alcohol problem -- people who drink to relieve depression rarely make it in AA, or in any program, until their depression is adequately treated. To find the right doctor was no problem -- I just stayed away from doctors who were recommended for alcoholics. I found an Asian psychiatrist who had nothing to do with substance abuse programs of any kind, and told him my symptoms. By that time I was suicidal. He asked about family history. I told him about my mother's lifelong depression that had by that time lifted, thanks to Prozac. This is what he prescribed. I also began seeing a therapist.

They say it takes a month to feel the full effects of Prozac. I started feeling better the second day. I began to feel normal. I began to feel hope. Suddenly, doing things and being outside during the day seemed wonderful. The gnawing anger and despair slowly faded. At the end of the first month after I started taking it, I realized I had not cried for three weeks. The therapist I'd begun to see noticed, too, that I could sit through a session without breaking into tears.

The difficult part of my treatment was finding a therapist who wouldn't try driving me into AA. I knew I was having many problems in my relationships with men, and it was clear by this time -- I was 39 and had been through two husbands and three or four live-in boyfriends -- that I had underlying emotional problems that had not been helped by AA any more than my drinking problem had. Through the local clinic, I found an MSW who was willing to donate time to me.

But the first thing she wanted me to do was to go to AA meetings. I had to insist that I would never again go to another meeting. I told her I had seen too many people victimized and abused in AA, and that their dogmas were destructive to my well-being. She said I should go to meetings out of town. I assured her I had been to plenty of different meetings -- I knew what was there; it wasn't for me, and the thought of attending another meeting made me literally sick to my stomach.

She agreed to see me anyway. She was not an alcoholic, addict, or 12-stepper of any kind herself. This was luck, because by that time I was willing to risk dying before going to another meeting or working a single step ever again. Still, she warned me that if I got drunk it would spoil all the work we were doing. At last, after several months, she realized I was committed to sobriety, and was not lying about my ability to stay sober. I would thank God for this woman, but I had to work and fight to get her help, too. How many other deeply depressed people have the gumption to go after what they need? It was my anger that saved me -- the anger so maligned and despised in AA.

My life took off. I have accomplished more in the past three years than I did in the prior 18 years floating from therapists to meetings and back again. Not one, but three separate therapists -- a psychologist, a psychiatrist, and a drug/alcohol counselor -- failed to treat me for my real problem. To them, I was an alcoholic, which automatically meant I needed to go to AA.

Like others who are victims of this type of malpractice, I went to professionals because I didn't know what was wrong with me. They should have treated me for my depression. Instead, blinded by their own indoctrination, they thrust me into AA. Dr. M. used me as a paying AA sponsee. To L., I was just another pity-pot alcoholic to be treated no differently than other alcoholics. I was not worth listening to; AA meetings were good enough for me. And Dr. R.V. used me as a guinea pig.

What therapists need to be doing is warning clients against AA. I hope clients treated the way I was start suing the therapists who fob them off on 12-step groups.