Please also visit La Parola Vivace, my Blogger blog, and the companion poem to this post, The Ballad of Highway 14.
In 1981 I bottomed out alcoholism, admitted to myself and my husband I was an alcoholic, and sought help from Alcoholics Anonymous. I also put myself in the hands of a local psychiatrist reputed to have his act together.
That doctor pulled me cold turkey off booze and benzodiazepins and threw me back out into the community where I attempted to function. It was too much for me and I checked into a motel to try to do myself in. Then, I left–on my own power, as a feat of my own will– and when I came home I was ordered to choose between jail, treatment, or the psychiatric unit; I chose to be driven up to a treatment center in the mountains where my nightmare began for real.
Harmony House is a rehabbed Big Game lodge above Estes Park, with trophy heads from the savannah all over the walls, for starters. Moreover, in the 80’s many of those staffing treatment centers were do-gooder “recovered” addicts and alcoholics who considered themselves experts, healed of all sins and wounds. They were ill-equipped to deal with someone as far down as I was: I couldn’t sleep for the two weeks I was there and nearly died; I was sent back to the hospital in town.
In the hospital another shrink who later turned out to be a coke addict jacked me up on antidepressants to try to get me to sleep. My tongue swelled up in my mouth and I was on the ceiling for days. No one ever got it that I had immense difficulty feeling safe anywhere.
Fortunately, with the help of a county mental health worker, I slowed down my withdrawal and pulled myself back together and exited the clinic and its self-anointed mental health assistants against medical advice. I should have sued the shrink, but I didn’t. Step by step, bit by bit I began to get a life again.
Because I did have faith that it might give me some insurance against relapse, I went to AA for sixteen years, sitting in meeting upon meeting hearing again and again that I had no personal power, that I needed a god to save me, that in all likelihood even if there were a god that did love me, I would never be “recovered.”. My own mother died never having recovered, so disempowered was she.
I had men and women with “time”– years of sobriety– stand over me and shout that I needed to just buck up and pick myself up.
I look back at this ordeal now about twenty-eight years from when it all went down and I thank the stars that I sit here fully clothed and in my right mind.
Alcoholics Anonymous is a shame and fear-based organization. While there are good, sincere people in AA, Alcoholics Anonymous is your basic cult. A cult depends on insecure, strung out and lost people for its genesis and its survival: look at Jonestown. I heard one man in AA say to those stumbling through the door, again and again, “I wish for you pain and desperation, and no other plan.” Lovely.
To swallow the idea that you are bankrupt mind, body and spirit, you have to grovel and turn yourself over in the beginning, if you struggle at all with the issue of God, to the nearest person with time in the program– who quite likely may look like he or she has his shit together but doesn’t. No one tells you not to spill your guts, so you do, and you get bashed, talked down to, insulted, excluded from the cliques of dilettantes who congregate to gossip in the corners of the meeting rooms; if you are lucky you make a few fair weather friends who diss you later on and strand you. Oh yes– there’s “step thirteen” wherein sexual predators tuck you under their arms and into their sheets.
I am a cradle Episcopalian, and eventually I returned to the Episcopal church, where I ran into another bunch of wack-jobs who were bar none the most cruel and screwed up people I had ever met. I fled all of that. I admit to spiritual belief but my beliefs are private. I believe that religion, and its many professings and inflexibilities and dogma divide the human race when we desperately need to pull together.
I have not been sober for twenty-eight years–and continuous, uninterrupted sobriety is also not the story of most of the people who come to AA and stay. That’s because life hurts and there are moments when someone like me reaches for the bottle. I’ve had my fallings down and gettings back up. It’s a twenty-four hour, day at a time deal. There is no shame in falling down and getting drunk; this is either an illness and a disease in which one has relapses on occasion, or it’s not. I’m sober today, I’ve been sober awhile, I don’t do it all AA’s way, and that’s fine by me.
For a long time I was among the brain-washed in AA, parroting what I thought I should say with absolutely no idea, despite diligently working “The Twelve Steps”– the first one requiring admitting to 100 percent powerlessness over self, life and everything in it– and working with other people, of who I was.
I wrote a poem this week I titled “The Ballad of Highway Fourteen” that chronicles the darkest moments. I was able to write this because I came through all of it and I’m still coming through; I gladly and openly take the credit for choosing life and healing over addiction and suicide.
My experience is this: Leaving the issue of faith and what God is or isn’t aside, we all have the inner power to save ourselves and no one else and nothing else can.
I doubt that I will ever go back to an organization that bludgeoned me over the head when I tried to claim my own power–and that goes for Alcoholics Anonymous and the shaming, aloof, pretentious Episcopal Church. Melody Beattie in Co-dependent No More pioneered the idea that AA is shame-based– and it is. Sit in a meeting and listen to people beat the crap out of themselves for all of the things wrong with them and constantly dredge up the past.
Is this recovery? Not for this recovered alcoholic, worthy, capable person and good–maybe even great– writer.