Trigger warning: mentions of alcoholism, relapse, and sexual violence
Urged by an outpatient rehab after 20 years of alcoholism, I attended Alcoholics Anonymous for 1 year. Long enough to attend countless meetings. Get a sponsor, a kind ex-stripper named Chuckles. On her guidance, I signed up for service commitments at meetings and did free menial labor. I worked the steps up to step 4. Relapsed.
Failure is built into the punitive, guilt-ridden fabric of AA. An archaic framework of Christian dogma marketed as the only way to get sober. If you fail it’s your fault. If you succeed it’s God’s miracle. Every meeting we recited that those who drink after AA are “naturally incapable of grasping and developing a manner of living which demands rigorous honesty.” According to AA honesty in confession to unscrupulous strangers will keep you from drinking. That and the will of God.
AA and rehab encouraged me to break ties with old, “using friends” and form a new social group in AA. I lost my dear old friends. Made 2 good new friends. Had a lot of strangers give me their number and disappear. There is some truth that more sober friends will encourage sobriety. But the isolation bred from this technique and the false doctrine of trusting other AA members is actively dangerous. Members of the cult are pressured to give their phone number out to strangers. Accept rides home from strangers, as many are carless from DUIs. Tell strangers their secrets and woes. There is a culture of boundary-less-ness where people are exploited. Every year women are raped by AA members and sponsors that they are pressured to trust. Scam artists borrow money and run scams on wealthier AA members. AA covers it up.
AA only has a 5% success rate. It’s extremely dangerous both financially and sexually. Spilling your innermost secrets to a room full of low-lifes and criminals is not a safe situation. It is less likely to make you sober than to put you into dangerous and drama-filled situations. Most people who achieve lasting sobriety do it on their own out of will, harm reduction and simply being “done.” The revolving door of relapses is caused by the endless obsession with drugs and alcohol that comes with lifelong meeting attendance.
I spent meetings with my sponsor arguing over every sentence I read of the Big Book. Being an atheist, I couldn’t find any way for God’s healing miracle to occur. The universe I saw then as a higher power was too vast and pitiless to care about my problems. The universe is better suited as a print for leggings than a stardust solution to my drinking problem.
The forced powerlessness was demoralizing. I am a woman, I already know I am powerless. The first step of AA is “I admitted I was powerless over alcohol.” Telling an alcoholic they have no control and cannot help themselves without submitting completely and praying for a miracle from a Christian daddy-in-the-sky God is not effective medicine. Would we ask cancer patients to pray it away? Yet we are asking this of alcoholics. Court-ordered faith healing.
As much as I wanted desperately to get sober, my three relapses spoke otherwise. Not coincidentally, they were all triggered by things that occurred in AA.
My first relapse I was kicked out of the AT Center where I had been going to most of my meetings. A hostile old-timer contested me taking my rehab “court card” back when I had to leave the meeting early. A burly butch, she chased me out of the meeting yelling. On a dogmatic technicality, I was banned from the place where I was getting sober. I relapsed that night.
My next relapse was driven by the stress of the 4th step. The 12 steps are unpleasant and stressful ordeals involving humiliation and self-flagellation. Seemingly designed and in fact promised to test you.
“So many people relapse on the 4th step,” I was told.
I fatalistically anticipated relapsing with the 9th step also. The 9th step dictates making amends to everyone we have wronged as a result of our using. An exhaustive and humiliating project of tracking down past employers and drug buddies. I couldn’t stomach the degradation. I didn’t want to look those people in the eye another time.
I was told over and over I needed to do all of these seemingly unrelated, incredibly unpleasant things to get sober. Who was making these crazy rules? A womanizing alcoholic in the 1930s, apparently. Dread and anxiety over the ordeal of the steps drove me to relapse again. I ask you, why do these steps exist if they explicitly cause relapses? Isn’t the whole point to get sober, not run a relay race built for failure?
The powerless party line completely absolves the alcoholic of any personal responsibility when they relapse. I felt powerless during my third relapse as I went to the liquor store. It wasn’t until I took up witchcraft and realized I had magical powers that I became convinced I had the power to get sober. And sober I became
I was told in rehab that AA was the only way. I gave it a try.
I finally decided I would be better off leaving the sketchy cesspool of AA and pursuing harm reduction with medical marijuana and a private therapist. Safety, security, creativity and happiness returned. I came back to myself from the self-abnegating shell I had been in AA. AA was useful in learning how to run a cult. I decided I would rather be a cult leader than a cult follower. I took up witchcraft. Got back into writing and painting. When I was in AA I did none of this because AA was such a time and energy suck. When I left AA, my creativity blossomed. I had my life back from the cult.
Before I wrote this article I visited with my best friend, an ex-model who I met in detox and rehab. We went to many AA meetings together in 2013. It was with her that I received the good I was to get out of AA. It helped to hear all of the drunkalogue stories and know that I was not alone. I was not the only troubled broken person who had struggled with addiction. Although some had barely suffered compared to what I had been through, some stories were so much darker. AA gave me perspective. As a writer it was an invaluable glimpse into the human psyche.
My friend cautioned me about writing this article about AA, citing the “anonymity in press, radio and film,” dictated by the 12 Traditions. She argued that it might be illegal to publicly criticize AA as they were so in bed with the government. AA has a literal gag order on their members to talk publicly about the cult. The first rule of AA is we don’t talk about AA. This only made me want to write my article more. A check with the editor at Queer Mental Health and googling various online AA criticism reassured me that critiques were plentiful and necessary. I don’t care if AA demagogues prohibit me writing about it on the Internet. I will tell my story. I’m not in their cult anymore. I don’t have to follow cult rules.
If we raise our voices loud enough we can throw off the shackles of this paternalistic, Christian, 1930s-outdated addiction recovery model and reach towards new and better recovery methods. Harm reduction has a 90% success rate. I have 479 days and counting sober without a single AA meeting. My sobriety date corresponds to the day I got my medical marijuana card.
Life has gotten so much better since I don’t have to hang out with leering felons. Confess things I don’t even think are sins to strangers in anguished dirty rooms. Rake my life over the coals and relapse again and again because going to meetings and talking about alcohol 3-7 times a week is making me obsessed with it.
Now I just don’t drink. I’ve moved on. I don’t need AA anymore. I am “happy, joyous and free” without it.