AA Is Not What it Seems

I remember the exact moment that I was coerced into AA. It wasn’t because the program promised to help me to stay sober, the fact that I was beginning to find a “higher power” through it, or the social support that I found at meetings. What pulled me in was the promise in the Big Book and by a sponsor that if I participated in Alcoholics Anonymous, that my difficulties would simply be lifted from me and that I would live a life that I “had never imaged” (in a good way).

That afternoon, I was at my new sponsor’s house and was “working the steps” for the first time. In one afternoon, we covered the first, second, and third steps. We covered the first two pretty quickly, and my sponsor told me that I had those down quite well. I’d been going to AA for about six months, and had gone to outpatient treatment for three, and at that point was fairly convinced that I was an alcoholic. I also strongly believed that my life was unmanageable, and had worked on finding a higher power. Despite this, though, I still was hesitant about meetings and AA. It might have been because at my third meeting someone brought a gun to a meeting, or that all the “friends” that I’d made so far were men around me age who seemed interested in being more than just friends. But, I had a boyfriend outside of the program, so I didn’t need to worry as much about that; still, I got hit on by a couple of guys right away and it felt pretty uncomfortable.

By the time that I’d been there for about five months, I had not even sought out a sponsor. I knew that it was suggested, but I just didn’t want to do it. Some of the women noticed this, and a woman approached me at a meeting in January (I started going in August) and offered to be my sponsor. I felt like to refuse would be rude, so I said yes. She gave me some tasks to do every day in order to stay sober. She told me to call her every day, call three women a day, and to go to at least three meetings a week. In addition, she stressed the importance of getting to meetings early and staying late, and of doing service at meetings. But, she did not push the steps on me right away. It seemed as though she wanted to slowly introduce me to the program, which made sense because I was highly traumatized from a sexual assault and attempt at my life that previous June. I was incredibly fearful, traumatized, angry, had horrific PTSD symptoms (I’d been diagnosed with PTSD when I was thirteen and this assault in particular worsened my symptoms quite a bit), and was stressed out from graduate school. I had depression, too, and undiagnosed ADHD and autism, but had been misdiagnosed with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder and was not on the correct medications. Graduate school and the psychology department as well, which had been a safety net and my biggest source of social support, was no longer safe for me because the perpetrator of the assault in June was one of my Professor’s step-sons. Plus, the assault happened after this guy walked me home from a party for the students in this graduate program where some of the women were bullying me. I wanted to go home, and this “nice guy”, the Professor’s Stepson, offered to walk me home. I checked to see what the other graduate students thought, and they all deemed him safe. But, he obviously was not. Because of this whole situation, the whole department was up in arms over this and there was much drama, gossip, and guilt by the faculty and the other graduate students regarding what had happened to me. It was so bad that my adviser actually left the college and took a job elsewhere.

Although I had been sent to AA by my parents and a Chemical Dependency Professional for my drinking, the promises that people there were making to me about AA keeping me sober just were not enough to secure my participation and support of the program. This is because alcohol and drugs were not my biggest problem. Yes, my drinking had gone downhill since the sexual assault in June. And yes, I even experienced cravings here and there now that I had stopped drinking. These cravings were the main reason why I believed that I might have a drinking problem. But, at the same time the only time that I experienced them was after the horrific trauma last June, so likely I wanted to drink not because I was an alcoholic, but because my brain felt like it wanted alcohol to help cope with all of the problems that I was having.

The first sponsor that I had invited me over to her house in an effort to show me what life is like when you don’t drink and are involved with AA. She was married to a nice guy, and had two young children. Her goal with having me over was to persuade me that “this kind of life was open for me”. But the issue was that I was not interested in having kids, nor was I interested in getting married and settling down. This ideal life that she presented to me didn’t match my ideal life of becoming a PhD Psychologist and a College Professor and Researcher. So, the whole situation was awkward for me, and I had an incredibly hard time relating to this sponsor. I left more unsure about AA than ever.

I had started calling three women a day, though, and one of them zeroed in on me. She was a biker chick, and belonged to a clean and sober motorcycle club. She did not have children, and was heavily involved in AA. One day at a meeting, she approached me to talk to me about my life and participation in AA. Even though I had a sponsor, she sought me out as a sponsee. She knew that I recently had been sexually assaulted, and told me that she could “help me with that”. In addition, she told me that she had been a counselor, although she didn’t mention what kind of counselor (she had been a Drug and Alcohol Counselor, not a mental health counselor).

This woman started pulling all of the stops for me. She was overly friendly, and once I started hanging out with her at meetings, other young women who she sponsored or was a mentor-type too began to hang out with me. I found this great because even though I called three women a day, it still seemed like the men in the program were still more interested in me than the women.

Then the tables turned in terms of my favoring her as a sponsor. That February, it was my first birthday ever where no one had planned a birthday party for me. My twin sister was in California, and I hadn’t been hanging around with my usual friends for months due to my involvement in treatment and AA. I felt really alone, sad, and depressed. So, this new woman threw me a small birthday party after a meeting with a cake. She and the others there made a really huge deal about it, as if people in AA would always be there for me. What I didn’t realize, though, is that the reason why I needed support from people in AA is because I was already isolated by it.

After that, I decided to ask this woman to be my new sponsor. She quickly pushed step work onto me, as well as told me new “rules” such as that you must arrive to meetings half an hour early and leave half an hour late (even though she herself didn’t do this on a regular basis). She also stressed going out to fellowship activities after meetings, and getting to know women my age. This all seemed fine to me, but I still felt unsure about the program.

This brings me back to the day where this woman reeled me in. We were on the third step after completing the first and second rather quickly. She read the portion of the Big Book that represented the third step. Then, as she read the third step prayer, she hooked me in.

In AA, there are prayers or promises for each step. It is promised in the book and by members in AA that if you do the work, these promises will come true for you. One of the promises of the third step is that if you turn your will over to God, and live in his will, that your difficulties will be lifted and your life will be much smoother. It also is said to open the door to “faith”. It reads:

Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.

Many people in the program see this step as the bedrock that lays out a foundation of spirituality that will aid you in the rest of the steps. In the Big Book and 12 and 12 (another piece of AA literature) Bill W. talks about how this step is like opening a door to faith. Then, of course, there is big talk about how this will lead you to a new and wonderful life.

The third step prayer, which this sponsor told me to memorize and say every morning, which I did for about 11 years, is:

God, I offer myself to Thee – to build with me and to do with me as Thou wilt. Relieve me of the bondage of self, that I may better do Thy will. Take away my difficulties, that victory over them may bear witness to those I would help of Thy Power, Thy Love, and Thy Way of Life.

My sponsor plainly and assertively told me that if I say this prayer and work the steps that all of my difficulties would be removed, and that then I could help other people by showing them what God could do. This intrigued me, as I’d always been a believer in God and miracles and the such. Of course I wanted to bear witness as to what God can do, and I definitely wanted my difficulties gone. And, when I thought of my difficulties being removed, I didn’t even think about drinking as one of those difficulties. I thought about the trauma that I’d been through and all the difficulties I had due to it, the effects of child abuse that I still experienced, depression, strong and uncomfortable emotions, and interpersonal difficulties. Looking back, at that moment I don’t think that drinking even crossed my mind as one of the difficulties that I wanted removed. But, all of these lofty promises still pulled me in. And, my sponsor, who was and is highly a manipulative person, seemed to know that my main worry in life was not my drinking but my mental health, and capitalized on this.

And so I was hooked into the AA program. I worked all of the steps, attended meetings, did service work, even at the district level, sponsored, attended fellowship events and even conferences. I was heavily involved in AA.

And for many years it felt great. The purpose that AA gave me and all of the social activities and positive emotions resulted in euphoria. I felt a closeness to God like I never had before, and I felt like I really had found people who were just like me due to the conditioning in AA. In the Book, Bill commonly talks about how all alcoholics are alike in many ways. Over time, as I heard this over and over again, I became convinced that I had “made my way home” and was surrounded by people who truly understood me and were similar to me. I had become coerced to believe that alcoholics were our own population, different from the rest of humanity. We suffered like none other, and then AA brought us together so that we could live in ways that surpassed the experience of the typical human being. We were chosen by God to carry out his mission, and were his sick children that he not just took pity upon but put above other people.

All of this is covered in the Big Book and talked about in AA, even if it is said more or less implicitly than I just did. Once I began to really get involved in AA and work the steps, I quickly found myself on a spiritual high, and as I said, euphoric. And, it seemed that the more involved in AA that I got, the more that I felt this. By the time that I reached about 8 years of sobriety, despite having worsening health issues and disability, I felt more confident than I ever had. And, I truly believed that all of the promises in AA had come true for me, even though if one were to objectively look at my life you could easily see that they had not.

Yet my confidence and belief in AA was absolute. Even though I knew that my health was worse, at the same time I thought that my PTSD symptoms were better. Even my psychiatrist told me that these symptoms of PTSD were worsening, yet I stayed in denial about this and the severity of my other health issues. At that point, I was so convinced that AA had helped me and that the program worked that I was blind to the truths in my life. I was filled with blind faith not just in God but in the program itself.

I’m not quite sure why I got so hooked on the program. I suspect that it was a number of factors, with one of them being the fact that I was so troubled when I came in that I was vulnerable to psychological factors such as suggestion and Groupthink. When I consider why I was so happy and had such faith in the program, I think that suggestion and other psychological and group dynamics played a huge role in it.

But, as I’ve shared before in my blog, it turned out that part of the reason I was so happy was that I was suppressing and repressing my emotions, particularly anger and fear, which AA tells you not to feel. In addition, the highs that I felt due to AA masked my feelings, the severity of my PTSD symptoms (to myself anyways), and I learned to do something called thought-stopping, which is where you do not allow thoughts to come in that might challenge what you are doing in life or make you uncomfortable. In this instance, I learned thought-stopping as a way to keep me from experiencing thoughts that contradicted AA or that were not approved of in AA. This was promoted in many ways by members of the program. We were told in AA that our thinking was the problem, and basically were encouraged just not to think in general, especially critically. We must be in love and service to others all of the time, and that includes screening any negative thoughts that we might have of a person, institution, etc.

It was 4 years from today (6/13/2019) that AA “stopped working for me”, to the date of 10 years exactly after that terrible attempt on my life occurred. For some reason, the AA high that I’d been experiencing just rapidly dissolved in a matter of days. I was left facing emotions that I hadn’t faced for years and did not know how to cope with them or with the uncomfortable and questioning thoughts that I was beginning to have. Plus, some emotions were beginning to surface that I had never truly felt, such as vulnerability. This is because I was about to start working through unresolved trauma that I had experienced throughout my life.

I soon realized that all of the issues and trauma that I was convinced that I worked through with the help of AA and step work were anything but resolved. I found myself still depressed, still traumatized, still angry, anxious, I felt alone (I felt this before AA), and many of my fears and phobias quickly returned. This led to severe confusion, higher levels of fear than I’d ever experienced, betrayal, anger, and eventually, grief. When I began to realize, for example, that I hadn’t actually worked through the abuse that I experienced from my Dad as a child, it felt like the floor beneath me just fell. I really believed that I had worked through that abuse in early sobriety. The world seemed to start spinning as confusion and shock hit,which was not just by the fact that I was coming out of denial about trauma, but also by the fact that all of those things that I thought AA had cured for me, and all of the promises that I thought had come true in my life, didn’t actually happen. I felt like my world and my life had ended, especially because in the program you are told that if it doesn’t work, and that if you slip back into “alcoholic behavior”, which is what you were like before AA, that it was not the program’s fault but your fault and that you are sure to drink and to die.

So on top of all of these emotions, I felt guilt and shame that somehow I must not have done something right. I felt frantic, and so threw myself even more into the program. But, as I began to talk about what was going on with me in the program, rather than people helping me through it, which was what I had come to expect from the program, I received a lot of victim blaming, put downs, abuse, and a lot of my friends just stopped talking to me because they interpreted my worsening mental health issues as evidence that I “wasn’t working the program”. I was particularly victim blamed when I talked to people about my experiences with sexual abuse and domestic violence with men that I met in the program.

This just led me down to the pit of despair and confusion. I began to want answers as to what was going on with me. I started to read blogs and websites about people who had issues with AA like myself, and started to read up on true facts regarding AA. I found out that much of what is said in AA are lies and propaganda. AA only has a 5 % success rate, despite the fact that everyone thinks that it’s much higher than that. And, it’s easy to convince yourself that it is higher if you simply focus on the “winners” in the program and the people who are “carrying the message” rather than people who AA is not helping or who have contrary ideas to the program doctrine, which you are told often to do. Also, I found out that Lois didn’t actually write the chapter “To Wives”; Bill wrote it for her from what he believed to be a woman’s perspective and refused her input on it. I also found out through research that Bill and Bob, and AA headquarters, knew and know about the 5% success rate yet still report to members that it is higher. And, there are many more lies and propaganda present in the Big Book and that are spread around in meetings.

I also read about other people who had suppressed and stuffed their emotions in AA, and people who’s PTSD grew worse due to abuse and triggers within the program and the Big Book. This helped me greatly because I had started to become so triggered simply by what was said in meetings that I would be sick for days after one meeting and sometimes was so traumatized that I became suicidal after meetings. Eventually I could not ignore that AA was doing more harm than good in my life, and that it likely always had. It was very important, then, for me to read accounts of people who experienced what I had in AA.

In addition to doing this research, I began to question what the Book and people in AA said. I realized that there is no way that all alcoholics are alike in personality like AA says, and that selfishness definitely was not the root of my problems and many other people’s that I know with substance abuse issues. I began to realize that people with substance abuse problems are not any different than the rest of society. We just happen to have issues with substances. There is no such thing as an alcoholic personality, and alcohol only brings out traits in a person that are already there. It lowers inhibitions, which might result in behaviors coming out that a person usually is able to suppress. No substance, then, actually makes a person act a certain way. It just brings out what is already there.

As I processed my own experience with sexual assault at the hands of AA members, including by that second sponsor who coerced me into the program, I began to research sexual assault and predatory behavior within AA. In AA, predatory behavior is called “13 stepping” and is seen as part of the program that you just have to deal with. The organization itself does not intervene when there is assault or criminal behavior by members; it claims that each group is autonomous in how they handle such problems. This means that the overall organization neglects responsibility for the problem. And, most groups do little or nothing except for victim blame when they find out about such things. This leaves AA as a hotbed for criminal behavior, which is made worse by all of the criminals who are court-ordered there. If you want to know more about this problem, I encourage you to watch the documentary “The 13th Step” by Monica Richardson. That, and talking to other former AA members who are aware of and/or who have experienced this issue, has helped me to accept how dangerous AA really is.

Recognizing these truths and forming my own opinions about such matters was instrumental in helping me to leave AA. A counselor also helped me, as did my boyfriend David. But, the counselor still tried to get me to see the “good in AA” and was not a good fit for me in the long run.

As I said earlier, it has been shocking for me to realize that AA actually did not help me to work through the issues in my life and that it likely worsened them, even if I wasn’t consciously aware of this for almost a decade. It has been difficult, too, to have to find my own belief set after leaving such a dogmatic institution. But, I am doing this and much more. It’s been almost two years since I left AA, and my life has definitely improved since leaving it. Not only am I working through trauma that I never had the chance to do while there, I also finally got diagnosed with ADHD and Autism and am on medications for these conditions. While I was in AA, I passively accepted what doctors told me, even if I brought misgivings to them and questioned my care. But, when I started to regain my power and overcome the learned helplessness that I’d developed due to AA, I started to question doctors and medical providers and advocate for myself. The result was that a couple of years later I finally got the correct diagnoses and am getting the help that I need.

It feels quite good to say that and to know that I was the one who advocated for myself. Even though I had help, I was the one who left AA, and I was the one who pushed doctors to find the correct diagnoses for me. I consciously chose, too, to heal from trauma even though doing so exposed the truth about my precious program of AA to me. And, I did all of this for me, with no plan of how I could “help people with it”, which was always pushed in AA. And, in terms of my decision not to drink and/or do drugs, I believe that it was not AA that “kept me sober” but my own desire and decision not to partake in these activities.

I know that some of my story is repetitive based off of what I’ve shared on my blog before. I apologize for this. It is, however, important for me to retell my story and to add on what I know and have learned today versus where I was two weeks ago, two months ago, or a year ago. When I was in AA, I told the same stories over and over again, and at the end of every one included some sort of statement about how AA had helped me. I always tried to bring my “shares” back to how great AA was. Today, though, I do not have static stories that I just tell over and over again. My stories are fluid and are changeable. I am able to adapt as I learn more about my life and about myself through self-discovery and through trauma work. And, I don’t have to attribute my success to an organization or to other people. I am responsible for the successes (and failures) in my life.

Because of all of the misinformation today about the success rate and health of AA, which is spread readily by AA members who believe in the program, the media, and friends and family of those members, it is important that if AA did not help you to get sober, or if you had difficult experiences there, that you share about this. You could write a blog like this one, write to newspapers, share on Facebook, and just talk to people that you meet about your experiences. The more that people talk about their difficulties with AA, the more likely it is that we can break the myths that our society believes about AA. In order to do this, though, we need to be just as vocal as the AA members who promote the program constantly.

I hope that by my story you can see that AA pulls in members not so much with promises about sobriety but with promises about how the program can provide people with wonderful lives that are more wonderful than their wildest dreams. Even though most believe that it has to do with alcoholism, it really does not. It very much revolves around promoting the idea that the organization helps you live life. However, for many this results in learned helplessness, and all of the negatives in the program hurt more people than they help.

Thanks for reading! Feel free to comment below.

6 thoughts on “AA Is Not What it Seems

  1. I’m glad you’re able to put such personal experiences out there. People need to know what really goes on in (and out) of these rooms with AA.


  2. Thanks for sharing about thought stopping. I had not heard of this concept before.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for this. So glad you, and so many of us were able to get out!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you Meryl, this is a remarkable story. I have not experienced any dangerous situations in AA but I bought in just like you to the “life second to none” talk and it’s AA or Amen”, and on and on.


    1. I think that it’s quite easy to get pulled into.


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