Why I Left AA After 12 Years

  1. runnerupbeautyqueen
    Leaving Alcoholics Anonymous, after 12 years, was one of the best things I have ever done. I didn’t leave consciously or with direct intent—not at first—but once I could look back on happy weeks and months without 12-step orthodoxy, I realized I would never go back. maze_0.png

    The process began on January 1, 2000, when I began a residence at an arts colony in Vermont. I was 35 years old; I had grown up mostly in Manhattan and had been in AA since the age of 23. When I moved to Vermont on the first day of the millennium, with over 12 years of daily 12-step meeting attendance, I didn't so much plan to stop going to meetings as never quite got around to looking for any.

    Instead I got busy with the new people around me—all of them what 12-step people refer to as "civilians." And what happened in those first interactions was a surprise. It took a while to notice, but I began to realize that nobody was getting angry with me, there were no sudden, out-of-the-blue explosions. People did not take offense over tiny or imagined slights. There were no attacks on my character; nobody derided me. All of a sudden I felt less of a need to be incredibly careful around other people. I had a sudden sense of freedom, a freedom from the long-term fear that I might unintentionally hurt someone's tender feelings, or incite a terrible anger.

    This was most apparent with my new boyfriend, my first civilian romance in a dozen years. He did not become enraged that I didn't notice his new haircut. Likewise, my newest close friend did not fly—unlike my past 12-step friend—into an unprovoked rage one summer's day, ripping the picnic blanket out from under me in a crowded park and storming off screaming, "Get some help!" Instead, people were kind, low-key and friendly. I didn't have to tread quite so gently.

    As a 12-stepper, I had come into program after developing some pretty common symptoms of child sexual abuse. At 33, I had also been badly beaten on the street by a stranger. The result of trauma can be a hyper-vigilance and a guardedness. Someone once asked my housemate, “What is it with Louise?”—meaning why was I so edgy and easily rattled. My very sweet housemate, Kim, told the inquirer: “You know how some people are nice on the outside but not on the inside? Louise is the opposite.”

    In the beginning, recovery was exhilarating; meetings left me elated. Before coming to meetings, I had struggled alone for years with abuse issues. In meetings I finally heard others who had also struggled. The difference between them and me was that they talked about their despair and substance abuse in the past tense. Now, they said, they had new, better lives full of gratitude. It was the first hope I had had in a long time. During my 12-step period, I always had a sponsor, I went through all 12 steps and I acknowledged a higher power. I also got off heavy medications and I went to more than a meeting a day. Over the years, I went to many kinds of meetings, including sexual abuse recovery groups and Alanon; I sometimes wonder whether that wasn’t the place I should have been all along, having grown up with addiction in my family.

    Today, I question the way I was herded into AA as a 23-year-old. I had been in a hospital for an eating disorder and four months of life-threatening drug abuse with the man who had abused me as a child (yes, you read that right). I was immediately mandated to attend AA meetings on the hospital campus and off. I was told that getting sober—no drinking, no drugs, no “acting out” of any kind—was necessary for me to heal from my past.

    It was largely a matter of timing: If it had been the '70s, I would have been sent to EST; if it had been earlier in the '80s (and if I'd happened to be immensely wealthy) it would have been daily Freudian therapy. But I was hospitalized in the late 1980s, when hospitals, rehabs and doctors began to channel people with all kinds of issues into “sobriety” and the basically free 12-step world. At one point before my supposed "bottom" I actually went to a therapist I found in the Yellow Pages. I told him I had an eating disorder and that evening, on his own time, he took me to an AA meeting, introducing me in a highly emotional tone to the group as someone he realized God had called on him to help. The fact that I had not been a heavy drinker never seemed to bother any doctor or social worker. It didn’t bother anyone in AA either, because “The only requirement for membership is the desire to stop drinking.”

    Not everyone in program has been abused or suffered trauma—although many have. And addiction itself is its own trauma. No doubt there are many stable, well adjusted, and kind people in the 12-step movement. But I never met them, or if I did, I never got to know them.
    One man I dated, and loved, eventually revealed he was married; then he came out as a sex addict and insisted I attend 12-step meetings for the partners of sex addicts—shifting the blame from himself as a betrayer to me as someone who “liked to go out with sex addicts.” Another man I was in a relationship with turned out to be in organized crime, confiding to me that he had once had someone’s legs broken. A very close friend in recovery stole someone’s identity and with it a great deal of money. Yet another friend, an artist, turned out to be funding his efforts with forgery. This is just a sampling of my romantic and social interactions among sober people in New York City in the '90s. In my time outside of the recovery movement I have not met one civilian with this level of secrecy and deceit.

    Thomas Merton says that nothing is as difficult as human relationships. He calls them “the setting of broken bones.” So often did I feel attacked or taken aback by the reactions of people in program. More often, I felt that I was holding my breath, waiting for the axe to fall. One boyfriend called me "a selfish troll" for not noticing his haircut. Another threw me down his stoop on a New Year’s Day, after I suggested that his two screaming infant daughters—visiting him for the first time since his divorce—might be calmer if I was not there.

    Recently, I recommenced an old friendship—the one that had ended with the blanket being pulled out from under me in the park. Everything went swimmingly until, sure enough, my old friend got viscerally, damningly angry at me. It had been so long since I had absorbed this dynamic—there was a familiar violence to her rage that I understood, but had not experienced in years.

    In defense of AA I must say that I was told on my first day sober that it was “men with the men” and “women with the women.” My first home group, in Connecticut, was infamous for its rigor and actually sat men on one side of the room and women on the other. The second thing I heard was "no dating in the first year." Did I follow this? Absolutely not. Did anyone I know follow this? In Connecticut, maybe, in uptown Manhattan, possibly—but in downtown Manhattan, where I spent the majority of my sobriety, absolutely not.

    For the year before I moved to Vermont—my last year of attending meetings—I had a push-and-pull relationship with a fellow AA member. Towards the end of that year, he tried to commit to me and pursued me with a persuasive passion that I had never experienced. Finally, I relented, feeling hopeful, loved even. Immediately after this, I took a two-week trip to Vermont. When I returned, and called him, he seemed to be searching his memory, finally asking, vaguely, "So, where did we leave things?” A month later he was engaged to someone else.

    Since then, I have never attended a meeting or dated a man in program. Not once have I uncovered a terrible lie or secret life. Instead, I got used to being around calm, consistent people and my tolerance and capacity for love increased by osmosis. To date I have been with my civilian husband for over seven years, my longest romance.

    One day in 2006, with six years of recovery from "Recovery," I made the conscious decision to try drinking again. I was more stable and happy than I had ever been: I was in a solid relationship with a decent, kind, honest man and I had a job. I had never been convinced that I was an alcoholic. I proceeded with caution and asked two friends to be with me while I had my first drink in 18 years, just in case hell froze over. We sat outside on a summer’s day by a small pool. It took about an hour before I felt willing to take that first sip of beer. My world did not end. I waited for the inevitable, but I did not immediately need another and another. Since then, after living in the outback of Western Australia for a year, I actually do rather like beer, and wine on occasion. For all my time in recovery, I always thought that if I drank again, I would run wild and go to raves and taste all the new fancy drinks that had come out. But I never have.

    In AA meetings, older members will often say they are now sober for as long as they drank, and the catchphrase is, "I am out of the woods." Having been in program for 12 years—and now out for 12 years—I can say precisely the same thing. I am out of the woods and the world has never been clearer or happier for me. Perhaps the program had worked its magic on me: “We will love you until you can learn to love yourself,” they say. But by the time I learned what love was, I was out the door.

    By Louise Wareham Leonard

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  1. Moving Pictures
    So she's not an alcoholic and her drug use consists of "four months of life threatening drug-abuse". Umm, maybe the reason AA didn't work for her is because she doesn't have a substance abuse problem!

    There's a lot of bullshit in AA/NA, a lot, but for a lot of people, it helps them immensely. But this story is written by someone who doesn't have a drinking problem and hardly used drugs for more than a few months and she wants to complain the AA is full of nutcases. I mean, no wonder she didn't enjoy her experience with AA, she isn't an addict! I really don't have much of an opinion on AA one way or another, if it helps you, great, if it doesn't, that's okay too. But if we're going to listen to stories of people who weren't even legit addicts bashing AA, what good does that do?
  2. BitterSweet
    Well I think in general this article shows the sometimes unnecessary hype about the 12 steps. Her account is refreshing because it shows the social circuit of such programs. No one is ever saying that everyone's experience is like this, but it seems that when you tell someone you struggle with drugs/alcohol, AA/NA is one of their primary responses just because it is common knowledge. And some people feel that when the 12 steps doesn't work out for them that they are a minority and feel even more hopeless than before.

    It defeats the stereotype that people in 12 step programs are perfect support networks and that with their sobriety they have become literally brand new people, like Yoda to Jedis (do I have that Star Wars reference right?). When you think of someone being a sponsor, you think of someone calm, cool, collected, and wonder how he or she could be anything but helpful. No one ever ventures to say bad things about those people that are long sober members in the 12 step groups. This article shows that behind the immortilization are people who can be very problematic and not always a success factor or good influence. Likewise, there are instances when a person does not have any positive support outside of people that can be found in 12 step meetings. The woman from this article is lucky I suppose in that she did have understanding friends, but I am sure this was a work in process over her entire life.

    It attests to some of the flawed philosophies of the 12 steps. They may keep people sober but sometimes only for a certain period of time, and then the person is dealing with a whole new slew of problems. I was just replying to a thread where the woman has lapsed and she is dreading telling her support network from AA/NA. I also dislike the lack of harm reduction incorporated into the 12 steps. Like this woman said, she was essentially made to believe that shit would hit the fan if she consumed any mind-altering substances. I've had so called professionals and people based in the 12 steps program firmly tell me that complete abstinence is the only way and that I'm kidding myself and am in denial if I try to do it any other way. I have absolutely no problem with alcohol yet I was told I could never drink again if I cared about my sobriety.

    Addicts aren't a bunch of sheep that need to be herded and that are all exactly the same. Even though she wasn't an alcoholic, there are tons and tons of many instances where an alcoholic has quit on their own and even managed to be able to have a few drinks at social occasions and what not.

    And yeah, this woman didn't need to get involved with all these people romantically in the 12 steps, but like I said, it just a personal account that is now available for others to read to counteract the idea that those who achieve sobriety and that whole new fabulous life thing aren't as good as gold as they appear to be. The premise is that support can be found in other places and that the usefulness of the 12 steps can be limited. Some people clearly take it too far, treating the 12 steps like a religion and the rules as if it were the bible (I've met people like that). I've also seen the tremendous out pour of support at meetings, but its usefulness extends only so far and I think it takes more than just the 12 steps to get to sobriety and a happier life, unless the person becomes enveloped in the program upon becoming clean, kind of like a born again Christian. Let's not forget there are stories where religious devouts became agnostic or atheist after many years.

    My Aunt is 52 and has been an addict since she was a teenager and is one of those people who swear by NA. She says she is sober about every other month. At Thanksgiving she was embracing the program and speaking of how miraculous the people there are and the program and that this time things have changed, and even that she was a sponsor (meanwhile bitching about being a sponsor), only to be an active user the whole time. I took a course in Psychosocial Rehabilitation and studied a unit on peer support; studied the problem of the recovered person feeling a sense of superiority to the person trying to get better, and that just because a person is recovered from a mental illness or addiction does not make them an expert on the subject or even a positive influence. That's because we are all different. The 12 steps depends heavily on the concept that those who are recovered are in some sense now experts on the process of sobriety, which when one studies the details of peer support, there is much more to it then that.
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