When I went to AA, a common quote was “Acceptance is the answer to all of your problems.” While this is a great quote, in AA the meaning behind it was a little skewed: it implied that you immediately had to accept everything in your life, and that it was something that you should do with the help of a higher power and just magically do. There was also a mindset to it that you had to simply accept terrible situations in your life and not change them, and if you did change them you were encouraged to do it in a way that usually wasn’t very empowering. What I’ve found when dealing with trauma and life events is that acceptance is a process; it doesn’t happen overnight, and for me it did not happen with the help of a higher power. In fact, when I was very reliant on a higher power, I couldn’t truly accept anything in my own life other than on the surface because I didn’t trust in, rely in, or believe enough in myself to do it. But I did believe in God…. so much so that it kept me from truly acknowledging and accepting life itself. It’s like I barely even knew that I was alive.
What I’ve learned about deep acceptance of events, health problems, or just of the unknown nature of life is that it takes a lot more than acceptance to really accept anything. For me, I have had to delve into issues so that I have an understanding of things and can acknowledge truths and aspects about life and life events. At this point, I’ve come to believe in my life that understanding and acknowledgment of life and it’s events is just as important as acceptance, because how can you accept something that you don’t truly understand? To truly understand something, especially a hard or difficult event from your past or present, one really must explore their emotions, research or try to understand it, talk to other people about it, and really think about it. At least that is what I have found and see others doing around me who live peacefully and successfully in life. But because I was always discouraged from doing this, my life was in turmoil up until the last few months.
I grew up in a home where free thinking was discouraged. Everything had to be a certain way. We had a strict set of family values that included things like: you must not have sex before marriage, you must not drink (even though Dad did), you must do exceptionally well in school, you must play a musical instrument, you must participate in a sport, you must have a career in a professional type field (academics, medicine, teaching, counseling), you must get a college degree, you must earn a good and steady salary, you must not get into trouble in any way. These “values” were concreted into my head through yelling, lecturing, and sometimes beating; I was even forced to write essays when I didn’t live up to the “family value system” as a child. This was all done to the extent of it being emotional, psychological, and ritual abuse. There were also sometimes spoken or unspoken rules like “don’t think, just do”, “don’t cry”, “don’t feel your feelings”, “push yourself to do things even if you’re sick” “you must always achieve”, “be perfect”, and such things as….. “our family is perfect”, “there is nothing wrong with our family”, “our family is better than everyone else”. I’ll give you one example of how this was reinforced onto me.
When I was six years old, I left a pair of shoes in the entry way. My obsessive compulsive father, who wanted everything to be perfect all of the time, was so angry about this that he flew into a rage. As I sat on the steps to the entry, he yelled at me about leaving my shoes in the middle of the floor. “How could you do this?” he yelled, his face bright red and vein on his forehead large. “Someone could trip over these!” At the sound of his rage and anger I started to cry. “Don’t cry!” He yelled, and then threw the shoes violently at me. They hit me with force, and then he walked away. I wiped my tears, put my shoes back, and learned not to cry about anything. As you can see, in my family emotions are not tolerated.
This kind of behavior by my immediate family continues into my adulthood today. A few years ago, when I first started healing from trauma, I cried a few times in public. Instead of comforting me, my family members berated me and let me know how embarrassing it was when this happened. “I was so embarrassed when she did that!” and “That event was an event that was about me!”
For those of you reading this who come from abusive families, I’m betting that you can relate to this. These kinds of dynamics, including the hush, hush feelings of these statements in my family, are common in dysfunctional and abusive families. For those of you who are from Alcoholics Anonymous and are reading this, you might be thinking of how similar this all is to AA– the set rules that you must live by, the rule to not feel or show your emotions, the need to keep the group looking good to outsiders at all times, the idea that everyone is AA is better than everyone in the outside world, and much more. When I went to AA I was pulled right into it because it was so similar to my family unit. At that point in time I had not worked through the abuse in my family (I still thought that they were great) so I thought that AA was great too and was blind to the problems in the program. When I started to work through, understand, and acknowledge the trauma that I’d gone through, though, every time I went to AA I was triggered due to the trauma of the program itself and my childhood trauma to the point that I had suicidal thoughts. Suicidal thoughts and behavior can be a result of trauma and triggering situations can bring them on in people. I had depression too, though, which compounded the entire situation.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with AA, I’ll share a few of the more specific things that are said to discourage people to suppress or stuff their thoughts, emotions, and critical thinking. We are told that anger will lead us to drink; that fear will lead us to drink and that we must “pray it away”; that intelligence will keep us from staying sober; that strong beliefs in and about science can cause us to drink (I believe that adherence and an understanding of any academic subject brings about free thinking); and it was also reinforced that taking time to think to ourselves would cause us to drink. Along with this, we are told that if we drink we will die.
We are also told not to think freely or spend time by ourselves. I was at a meeting once when a very popular leader of the AA community said, “If I spend an hour by myself thinking, I become completely crazy” and continued to talk about how it was important to never be alone or take time to think about anything, and connected this to his alcoholism (as if this was part of being an alcoholic). Everyone laughed and smiled and thought the share was great while I thought “Boy, that sounds terrible to never be able to spend any time alone”. I guess that in some ways I wasn’t as brainwashed as I think!
The truth is that many people in meetings talk about how they have a hard time spending time alone with themselves, and when people in the program do spend time alone they are told that they are “isolating”. Now if you know anything about philosophy, especially Eastern Philosophy, or quite a few academic, philosophical, or spiritual paths that are not cults, you’ll find that people are encouraged to spend time alone in order to think clearly, work through issues in their lives, meditate, find their own belief systems, enhance their spirituality, and more. So why do AA, cults, and dysfunctional families discourage critical thinking and people spending time by themselves in order to find things such as self discovery? I believe that this happens for a number of reasons.
First of all, this kind of behavior is discouraged because critical and free thinking can lead a person to begin to see the problems within the group. If you take time to think for yourself and you’re in a dysfunctional group or cult, you will begin to see the inconsistencies in it over time, and you may also find that you don’t agree with it’s philosophy or the way that people are treating each other within the group. If you then speak out or up about the group, this creates discord and cognitive dissonance within the group. In AA, there is much emphasis on unity, to the point where the traditions talk and the Big Book talk about how unity within the group is more important than the individual itself. If we believe and are pummeled with traditions like this, how are we supposed to find healing and strength within ourselves at all? This emphasis on unity also discourages people from going against the group, and it is present in my family as well.
Critical and free thinking also leads one to feel his or her emotions, which leads to even more critical thinking! Also, feeling and showing your emotions in AA and talking about things that are bothering you takes away from the idea within the dysfunctional system that “everything is great when you are in AA” even when it isn’t. People in these systems or groups want so badly to believe that everything is okay within their family or that they are making the right choice going to AA/being a part of an abusive family that they will do anything to avoid feeling unpleasant emotions, as this may lead to cognitive dissonance surrounding the group or cult that they are in. Every time that I would talk about my problems at an AA meeting, I would always get helpful yet not helpful comments after AA meetings that essentially discouraged me from talking, thinking, or having feelings about whatever was bothering me (even in my life), minimized what I was saying, or would just get downright abusive comments. People also tended to cross talk and attempt to negate my shares when I shared about difficulties in my life. I noticed that this happened to other people as well. Everyone had to be happy in AA in order to keep the group together and promote the idea that AA can solve all of your problems and that sobriety is always better than drinking. The truth is, though, that bad things can happen in sobriety too, and I don’t believe my “sobriety” to be any better than my drinking. My time after drinking has actually been more difficult than my life while drinking.
When I came into the program, I was told that because I was drinking at the time of the sexual assault that occurred in 2005, that it wouldn’t happen again if I stayed sober… but it did, multiple times. I stayed in denial about this though in order to stay sober and justify being in AA, because I was so brainwashed by AA that if I would have acknowledged these sexual assaults before I was strong enough, I probably would have drank. When I did start to understand and acknowledge what happened, I had a lot of cognitive dissonance surrounding AA, and did want to drink for some time. However, as I accepted the truth about AA and then left the program, the cognitive dissonance wore off, and eventually I did not want to drink anymore. AA itself and its false expectations that “life is great if you follow the program” was the primary thing caused me to think about drinking when I started to realize what had happened during my life. It was definitely not a lack working the program on my part.
In AA we are also told that if we work at the program that a number of promises would come true in our lives. I naively thought that the promises had come true in my life, and I found all kinds of things to back up this idea in my head and to others. However, when I started to acknowledge and accept that trauma I’d been through and really accept my health conditions and disabilities, I realized that no grand promises had really come true in my life. I was worse off than ever after over a decade of participation in AA.
Even though I thought about drinking, though, I did not drink, and today I am stronger than ever. My overall feelings of fear are much less than when I went to AA and I can handle life events in much more constructive ways. When I was active in AA I was fearful of everything, and if something that I was very afraid of would happen, I would basically not function until it passed. I never really processed what happened in my life either. As I said in a previous blog, today I can function and even do well despite having high stress in my life. This is true today as I deal with repressed memories of every kind of abuse imaginable on a daily basis (I woke up at 6 am this morning and had some even), a cat who has cancer and another who will probably get it, the recent death of another cat, depression, anxiety, ADHD, and the new diagnosis that I have of Chronic Epstein Barr syndrome. I have other health conditions that I deal with on a daily basis as well, and am going through medications changes right now, yet I still write this blog for you today. A big part of this is that I do process the events in my life, which involved the kind of thinking and feeling that is frowned upon in AA and in my childhood.
What I have realized over time is that hard, or bad, things do happen in life. This is part of life. They happen even if you are super spiritual or religious, and they happen are an atheist/agnostic. Difficult things that we cannot control happen to everyone. People get sick, have substance abuse problems, get into car accidents and experience other catastrophic events, pets get sick, people experience trauma, and of course, everyone dies. No matter what we do we will experience these kinds of situations in our lives. They may happen to us or to others that we know. This brings up the fact that there are many unknowns in life and that difficult events cannot be predicted by whether or not you adhere to a family value system or to a religious institution like AA. By accepting this, I have more peace in my life and also know that I can get through whatever comes my way in life without having to rely on some sort of religion, God figure, or strict value system. I have a lot more freedom and calm in my life today. I will admit that spirituality helps to promote calm too, but not in the way that Christianity or AA taught me. By connecting to the Universe through nature, animals, and each other, I am able to relax a bit more. I need a lot more than that though to cope with stressful times in my life, such as writing, playing music, exercising, and spending time talking to my cats and others.
Accepting, acknowledging, and understanding that difficulties come in life has also freed me from the programming that I received as a child and as an adult. This is because in order to really accept these truths about life, I have to feel my emotions, be present in myself, think, and do other things that were frowned upon during my childhood and in my time in AA. This, in turn, leads me to really be able to examine my time and my past and see the truth about these times in my life. This enables me to work through my trauma, which helps me to be more accepting of my current difficulties, and leads me to find coping mechanisms that work for me. I do not believe in a mythical set of promises that are going to happen in my life, and this gives me a realistic view about what life is. This also enables me to really learn and explore myself and what my true value system is. Overall, I have gained immensely by adopting this realism view of life.
I hope that you have gained something and/or related to my post. If you can, please comment below! I would love to see some discussion underneath my blog posts. For those of you who are here to read about my experiences in Leaving AA, this is one of them. Also, I’m going to be putting up a blog post about once a week concerning informational topics relating to AA.
Thanks for reading!