During my time in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), I worked the steps twice with two different sponsors, as well as completed at least 5 or 6 fourth and fifth steps. The reason why I did this much step work is that I was convinced that I had to in order to stay sober and cope with life. But, since I had a lot of difficulties in sobriety, I just kept doing fourth step after fourth step, hoping that the “promises” would come true for me like they were for everyone else around me who was part of AA. Despite numerous fourth and fifth steps, though, they never truly did. It seemed that no matter how hard I “worked the program”, my life continued to worsen until eventually I experienced a close to four year breakdown that included out of control PTSD, treatment resistant depression and anxiety, hours of repressed memories a day, out of control ADHD and autism symptoms, and practically daily sensory meltdowns. Part of the reason why I believe that my life worsened, though, was because of all of the abuse that I experienced by sponsor during this step work that supposedly would help me and change my life.
And the truth is that AA did not prepare me for this breakdown, despite all of it’s promises that the program and it’s members will help you through anything and everything. In fact, when I started struggling and sharing about it to members and in meetings, I was scapegoated so severely that I could no longer ignore the scapegoating that happens in AA.
One of the ways that I was scapegoated during my time there was the idea that pretty much anything that I did tied in to some kind of “character defect” or “alcoholic behavior”. Even though on the surface this looks like a good way to try to improve oneself, it really is a way to shame and blame a person into becoming completely dependent on AA and it’s members. I found this to be true, because the more that I felt guilty and ashamed of myself due to this scapegoating, the more dependent I was on AA. And, I saw this happening all the time to newcomers and seasoned members alike.
The idea of “character defects” in AA really exists not to better a person but to strip him or her of any individuality he or she has and to make a person feel like he or she is more similar to group members than is actually true. It also promoted dependency on AA and things outside of oneself. In AA, there are a primary set of defects that pretty much everyone is told that they have. Some of these are spread within the organization, and some come directly from the Big Book, which actually tells you specifically what character defects you should look for and discover when you do fourth steps. This idea that we all have similar defects of character promotes unity in the group and an us versus them mentality when it comes to “alcoholics” and “non alcoholics.” However, people are told in AA that pretty much anything they do or have done fall into these categories or are a result of one of these defects of character, including positive things about them or that they have done in their lives.
I experienced this myself. It seemed as though sponsors labeled pretty much any behaviors or feelings that I had as “character defects” “bad behavior”, or as related to alcoholism. This was especially severe during my times through the steps. Through step work, I was torn down bit by bit and this resulted in me being completely dependent on the program and the people in it.
I was told all kinds of ridiculous things concerning character defects, but because I was suggestible, naive, and too trusting of others I actually believed these things, despite how ludicrous they really were.
I’ve talked before about how on my first fourth step the sponsor that I had told me that I wasn’t raped during a rape/attempted murder that because I didn’t say no strongly enough. And, she actually told me that I led this rapist on. But because I was eager to trust people in AA and hopeful that it would solve all of my problems as it had seemingly done for other members, I believed her at least on some level. After that, I questioned whether or not I was raped for 8 years or so until I finally brought up to a counselor what had happened. The reason why it took me so long to finally talk to a professional about this, though, is that I was discouraged to talk about my problems openly in AA.
When I look back at my interactions with my sponsors and the step work that I did with them, it makes sense that I wouldn’t talk about this for years. This is because on my step work, starting with the first round of it, my sponsors told me that I was playing the victim or being the victim in any trauma that I had been through, and told me that this was a part that I had in the trauma. Basically, the told me that I somehow brought on or encouraged the abuse or sexual assault by having “victim behavior”. This of course is incredibly shaming and blaming but I actually believed it for years.
Whenever I would try to talk about and process the trauma or hardships in my life I was also told that I was “playing the victim” or “being the victim”. This, of course, discouraged me from speaking about or working through trauma. Also, if I tried to talk through my trauma or health conditions with someone in AA I was frequently told that I was full of “self pity”. It was like I was supposed to be a happy, smiley person all the time who had overcome all of my problems despite the fact that I never actually was given the chance to process them. But, not talking about these things was seen as a strength, rather that what is actually was: a weakness.
And, when it came to the abusive relationships I was in with men who I met in AA, I was told that I needed to “lower my expectations of the men” rather than leave the relationship. But at that time my expectations of myself, others around me, and my life were the lowest that they had ever been. But, any time I expressed unhappiness and let people know that I needed help because I was in a emotionally, physically, and sexually abusive relationship, and that my life was in danger, I’d be warned about self pity, victim behavior, and told that my expectations of the men were too high, ,and that thus the problem was my expectations and not the boyfriends who were raping me.
All that I actually expected was basic human rights and safety, yet whenever I expressed this I was put down. It was almost like there was this idea that you should put up with any and all behaviors by another person, no matter how bad, yet you yourself had to hold yourself up to incredibly high and unattainable standards when it came to your own behavior. When I complained about the abuse that I was going through to my sponsors and others, I was also told things like “You are right where you are supposed to be” and that this was “part of God’s plan.” In other words, I was supposed to be happy despite any hardships that happened in life, and was encouraged to stay in life threatening abusive relationships, and to take all of the blame for what happened in them.
Because of all of this, I stayed in these three back to back relationships longer than I wanted to. And, when I actually left the first relationship, my sponsor told me that my part in it was that I “stayed too long” and shamed and blamed me for doing so. This was in stark contrast to the fact that she basically encouraged me to stay, and shows the contradictions that you see, hear, and experience in AA. These inconsistencies are all part of a pattern of abuse that many people partake in there.
This sponsor and others continued these types of behaviors during my next two abusive relationships. My sponsor acted like I must fix the problems in these relationships and grin and bear the abuse. She seemed to have some kind of attitude that we must wait on our men and be the ones who fix the relationship, and that the responsibility of this rested on our shoulders. She and other women in AA pushed this idea on to me. It was really strange.
I also had a roommate that I found on Craigslist who ended up stealing from me and who I suspected was on drugs. He seemed like he would be a fine roommate in the beginning, and his mother was in contact with me regarding the situation. I lived in a college town and he was a beginning college student from another state. His mother was very protective of him and was glad that I, a responsible adult, was able to take him in.
But he started having problems when he began to hang around the wrong group of people. I of course was shocked and upset when he started stealing from me. However, my sponsor of course told me that it was my fault. She told me that I had been so desperate to find a roommate because of money concerns that I hadn’t thoroughly screened him and had missed out on red flags. But, I definitely did screen him thoroughly, as did the apartment manager. Even so, I believed her and shamed and blamed myself for what happened to me.
Due to all of the scapegoating, shame and blame, and the message that talking about my difficulties was not okay, it took me years to even begin to process the abuse and trauma that I went through, as well as the health conditions that I was struggling with. And, when I finally did, all of the repressed emotions and thoughts that I had been hiding because of all of the shame and blame in AA practically did me in. It was not fun at all to go through, and I am still getting used to feeling difficult emotions today.
This idea that I acted like a victim and was a victim of trauma was described as a character defect. Somehow, it was also linked to my alcoholism, as if because I was an alcoholic this resulted in victim behavior. The truth is though is that this is an idea that is commonly perpetuated in AA between members and at meetings. People talk about playing the victim even if they are legitimately victims of abuse. It’s as if they are in denial about the fact that they actually were victims of trauma with this phrase “playing the victim”, because these people are not playing anything. They were victims and are not survivors. However, it’s like everyone in AA is in denial about trauma, as can be seen by the use of this phrase. And, when a member does actually start to process trauma, they have to deal with people telling them that they are “playing the victim” and “full of self pity”. How anyone successfully works through trauma while attending AA baffles me.
This idea that I was purposefully some sort of victim was not the only strange character defect that I was pegged as having. In my first fourth step, my sponsor somehow convinced me that I was abusive just like my grandfather who also went to AA when he was alive. She told me that I had been angry, mean, and used people in an abusive way when I never actually did. What she would do would be to take every day occurrences and somehow make it out to be my fault, convince me that my behavior was worse than I realized, and also convince me that I was somehow abusive in situations where no such thing had occurred.
I’m pretty sure that a big part of the reason that she and others did this is because I was hesitant to call myself and alcoholic and really join AA because of what alcoholism was known to be in my family. My grandfather and other alcoholics in my family were or are physically, emotionally, and/or sexually abusive and this is what I learned an alcoholic is as a child. Thus, I did not want to call myself an alcoholic and had a hard time seeing myself as one because nothing this severe happened to me while I was drinking. Still, I ended up falling for the idea from this sponsor that I was abusive like him/them but just in different ways. This really resulted in me feeling badly about myself while at the same time made me believe that I really needed AA like he did and actually was an alcoholic. I believe today that if this sponsor hadn’t pushed this idea on to me, that I may never have used the label “alcoholic” while referring to myself and may not have participated in AA for very long.
This sponsor also told me that I had used and abused the men that I was in relationships with in college, and of course I really believed her. Eventually, though, I started to realize that if anyone used and abused anyone in those relationships or situations that it was the men who were using and abusing me. But of course, this sponsor and others put the blame on me, even though it was not based in reality at all. And, it took me until about a decade of sobriety to really understand that I did not use or abuse anyone. I’ve even spoken to my ex’s from college in order to confirm this and every one of them has said that we had completely normal relationships.
Another thing that sponsors did was to put me down for having political views. They told me that I was judgmental and had too high of expectations simply because I have strong political views and care about the future of our world. Of course, though, this strength of mine was made into a weakness, and I was called egotistical because of this.
I was also put down for doing well in college and for talking about my successes and experiences in college. When I talked about my experiences there, I was told that I was full of ego and selfish. I was discouraged from using any form of intellect or critical thought. However, if I was able to tie in my experiences in a way that benefited or complimented AA and it’s members, this was deemed as a good thing. But, if I talked about how it benefited me, I was told that I was put down for it, even though I was talking about my college experiences in a very normal way.
Thus, my political views, intellect, and experiences in college were all found to be character defects and very negative things. Because of this, I looked down on my experiences at college for many years until I was eventually able to overcome this mind control and programming.
Overall, when I objectively began to pull apart my supposed character defects, I found that many positive and normal events in my life or behaviors that I had were made to be terrible things and character defects. Also, some of my better personality traits, such as my senses of humor and natural curiosity about the world, were also pegged to be character defects and alcoholic behavior.
Lastly, in terms of character defects, I discovered that the behaviors I had that might have actually qualified under this term, as AA defines it, mostly resulted from childhood trauma. In other word, they were not defects of character, even though many might argue that they are. I do not see long term effects of trauma as having anything to do with one’s character nor does it make a person defective or results in defects. These behaviors are coping mechanisms that were developed as a child that do not work well for a person when he or she reaches adulthood. Pegging them to be character defects only resulted in pretty severe denial of my childhood abuse and the tendency to attempt to suppress them… but all this did was actually result in these behaviors/effects of abuse growing and wreaking havoc in my life. But I tried to ignore all of this and “focus on my sobriety”.
During my time in AA, I worked hard not to fall prey to my “character defects”. Due to this, I ended up suppressing not just my feelings and thoughts but substantial and important parts of myself and my personality. The result was that AA took away anything and everything that made me unique, and I also had memory loss due to thought inhibition and suppression. My actual personality was replaced with an AA or cult self that was perfect in the eyes of AA but strayed far from my actual personality and strengths.
Eventually, though, my true self began to shine again. I remember right before I began the healing process from trauma and AA, that I was daydreaming frequently about recovering my lost memories of psychology. I was also thinking a lot about what it would be like to go back to the person I was in graduate school before my health problems began to worsen. In other words, I began to hope to be the person I was before I went to AA. I didn’t fully realize though that this is what I was truly hoping for at that time, and it took me some time to realize that I did not like the person that I became during my time in AA.
Today I discard even the term or notion that there is such a thing as a “character defect”. This is not only because most behaviors that are characterized as “character defects” in AA or society are usually just normal behaviors, parts of a person’s personality, both good or bad, or may result from childhood experiences, but also because I frown on the insinuation that a person is defective in any way. The term and idea behind it really are extremely shaming, blaming, and abusive. Instead, if a person does have a behavior that is leading to consequences in his or her life, I simply see this as a behavior that might be changed, if a person wants to do so. I see no need to shame and blame the person by suggesting that they have a defect or that a problem behavior results from a problem with his or her “character” or “alcoholism”. I believe, too, that shaming and blaming a person for their behavioral difficulties actually makes it harder for that person to change, which would explain why there are so many unhealthy people in AA. And, I believe that in AA member’s problem behavior isn’t lifted or gone. It simply changes from one form to another and likely becomes either more covert or is demonstrated in a way that, although abusive and harmful, fits with the norms of AA.
If you still believe in the term character defects, or are still influenced by it, please recognize that most of what you’ve been told are character defects could be all kinds of things that really don’t fall into this category. In AA, everything is simplified as being related or associated with alcoholism and alcoholic character defects. But the truth it that people are complex, and because of this the idea that everything is linked to an alcoholic or addicts’ disease is just completely unrealistic. But, most people in AA actually believe this fallacy and promote it to the rest of the world. Hopefully we as a global society can come to realize the complexity of human behavior and that no one thing can fully guide a person’s behavior, personality, thinking, or emotions.
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