For years I over-identified as an alcoholic. I went to at least 3 AA meetings a week and would introduce myself as an alcoholic, and was quick to tell people that I was one. During my time in AA, too, I really only truly allowed myself to relate to other alcoholics but didn’t fully understand that I was doing it.
But, in AA, this was seen as identifying as an alcoholic and as accepting “powerlessness” and that my life was “unmanageable”. It was and still is seen as a good thing and as a vital part of “getting and staying sober”.
I believe today, though, that it was over-identification. Today I don’t even really see myself as an alcoholic and don’t even really see myself as having an alcohol use disorder, even though I’ve been diagnosed as such. I just see myself as a person who had a problem with drinking, but even then this diagnosis is not any more important or a part of me than any other health problem or issue that I have. Furthermore, I don’t let that problem or any other problem that I have run my life.
A big part of the reason why I don’t identify myself as such is that I do not like the negative connotations that are associated with these words and diagnoses. I also believe that these ideas that I am an “alcoholic” and that I’m “powerless over alcohol” result in learned helplessness. And, learned helplessness showed up in many ways for me after I started identifying myself as an alcoholic and accepted the ideas in AA.
The main way that I showed learned helplessness was simply due to my membership in AA. Once I was told that I was powerless over something, anything, and that my life was unmanageable I felt like I had to depend upon the organization of AA and the members in it not to just stay sober but to live a good life. When I heard that I was insane/not sane and that the program would restore me to sanity, I just ended up even more dependent on the program. Basically, what I experienced was that AA cut me down to the point where I felt like I had to follow the suggestions in the program and rely on the people in it just to survive. This resulted in pretty severe learned helplessness and a host of other issues.
Due to this, I do not believe today that it is healthy to depend on something outside of myself for any reason. And, I’ve learned that I do not even need to identify as an alcoholic at all in order to stay sober. All I have to do is really think about how I want to live my life and I can easily see that drinking would not be a benefit for me. I do not have a need to constantly rehash my drinking or think of myself as an alcoholic to stay sober, and probably never did; but AA convinced me that this was the case so I needlessly went to the program for many years and unfortunately devoted my life to it.
Now I can see how you might sit there and say, if you go to AA, that I just must not be an alcoholic or have had an alcohol use disorder because by saying this I am not fitting your definition of what it’s like to be an alcoholic and what it takes to stay sober (admitting step 1). Or, you might think that I just say this because I really don’t want to stay sober or do the work to do it. But the truth is that there are many out there who are just like me, and we are no less willing to stay sober or not drink than are members of AA. These people who stay sober outside of AA or who have left the program might share about their experiences in blogs like mine, with friends, on Facebook, too, but much of the time they stay silent because they don’t want to hear the scorn and judgement from members from AA for sharing how they feel. I worry about this, too, because I know that members of AA can be really confrontational and rude to a person who does not agree with AA, although they might not even realize that they are being hurtful. This is because this kind of harmful behavior is tolerated and seen as beneficial to one’s sobriety in AA.
This brings me back, now, to learned helplessness from identification as an alcoholic. What happened to me during my years at AA is that once I identified/over identified as an alcoholic and a person with alcoholism, soon I also began to over identify with the rest of my health problems. It was like a snowball effect, and the result was a very severe worsening of anxiety and depression. Before I went to AA I did have health problems, including Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, yet because I didn’t over-identify with it I was able to graduate from college anyways and make it through graduate school despite it. It was a part of my life but not my whole life, and I practiced self care I was very much focused on my health, well-being, and on school. This diagnosis and others did not rule my life or my thinking. But, once I started to identify as an alcoholic and let that rule my life and thought processes soon I was doing the same with Hashimoto’s, my allergies and asthma, depression, anxiety, PTSD, migraines, and anything and everything else.
This put me into a spiral that I am still working to get out of. And, it only made my learned helplessness and health problems worse. It seemed that the more that I identified, thought about, and ruminated on my many health issues, including alcoholism, the worst they got. As a result of this I also developed even more health problems, some of them severe. I also had a much harder time taking care of myself after I went to AA and discarded some of the self-care habits that I had learned over the years in order to keep up with the “suggestions” in AA.
So, when my health really took a turn in 2009, I had to re-learn how to slow down and practice self-care all over again. I had developed chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia. Still, I continued to push myself to go to AA meetings and to have service commitments, sponsees, etc., because I really thought that my life depended on it. But I believe that in the long run this was more ruinous to my health than alcohol ever was.
But really, I know now that I did not put in the energy to participate in AA the way that I was in order to stay sober and live a good life, but I continued to do so because I felt like my life depended on it. And, because of this, my health eventually just fell apart. AA really was incredibly unhealthy for me, but I was in total denial about it. The worsening of my health conditions only raised fears of drinking and I fell more and more into learned helpless even though I wasn’t consciously aware of it. Denial was the name of the game here because I just couldn’t let go of my AA membership and participation. Thus my dependence on AA and other people just continued to increase, and I continued to get sicker and sicker until I finally couldn’t even work.
I’m now on social security disability. This is a long ways off from what my life was like before AA, when I was winning national awards for my research and excelling in graduate school and experimental psychology.
Over time it became harder and harder for me to go to AA due to my health issues and because it became a PTSD trigger for me. I believe that all of the shame, blame, and other abuse in AA that so commonly is seen as positive in the program created PTSD on top of the PTSD and CPTSD that I already had. I have talked to other people too who feel that attendance and participation in AA created PTSD as well. For me, though it was rather extreme because I had so much fear that centered around my participation in AA due to my health issues and the stress of going when I didn’t feel well enough to go.
At some point I felt pretty out of control concerning my need for AA. I kept going despite the fact that it was causing flashbacks and bringing up repressed memories and was extremely detrimental for my health. Somehow, though, because of this I began to see the many problems that occur in AA.
So, with the help of my counselor and David, I did leave AA. Since then I have been trying to unwind all of the conditioning, mind control, and brainwashing that happened to me there. I also have been working on identifying and seeing myself simply as another person on this planet rather than an alcoholic or identifying as any of my other health issues. I feel like this part of my journey has been vitally important in my recovery from trauma and from my time in AA.
And honestly I just feel so much better now that I don’t have to hang on to the alcoholic label. It feels really freeing, and like a load has been taken off of me. I am just relieved that I do not have to base my life off of managing my health problems. Instead, I cope with them today and look for solutions to lessen their effects on my life. I feel very fulfilled for the first time in a long time. I also feel like I no longer have to put myself down in order to “stay sober”, and because I am not identifying with my health problems as much my anxiety is beginning to lessen. I believe that removing or taking emphasis off of these diseases after years in AA has been one of my great accomplishments in life.
Today I feel like I am in control of my life, and that I don’t need to be dependent on anything or anyone, including AA and it’s members. I’m becoming more and more independent every day. Still, I wonder if I’ll be able to take what happened to me and turn it into some kind of asset, not in the way of helping others like is told in AA, but in a way that helps me.
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