The summer of 1982 was a rough one. I had married a year earlier– someone now enshrined in my personal pantheon of poor choices. The marriage was failing and I was exhausted from two years of cleaning up my own and my family’s wreckage and chaff– cleaning out our family home and preparing it to sell. I was also drinking heavily and worried about it. I leaned on alcohol to get through life.
My self-confidence was at an all-time low, I had lost touch with nearly all of the positive things about me including that I was a gifted and published poet, and one morning I made “the call” to Alcoholics Anonymous and went to a meeting.
I was ripe for indoctrination. In my despair I was prepared to surrender all of my personal power to the people in AA, all of whom, because they were sober, seemed to have god-like proportions to me. In the beginning I argued with the suppositions ingrained in the “Big Book” and the “program,” i.e. that I was powerless, that I couldn’t trust my own intellect and that I would die if I didn’t come by faith in a “Higher Power.”
I was an intellectual and a poet. These concepts seemed more than anachronistic to me. I obeyed them to the best of my ability and before long I too was spouting AA-speak, giving that knowing laugh of those who have paid their dues to belong to the private club of the “saved.” I have no doubt that my readers know what I mean.
I look back now and I see that I never had trust or faith in this organization for some very good reasons. But when I argued with the concept that I was hopeless and helpless without “God” I was ridiculed. In order to have a community of sorts, people to turn to and talk to, I suppressed my reservations, concluding per the party line, that I would need to be in “recovery” for my whole life. When I returned to teaching and wrapping up several degrees, I would be surrounded by armchair evangelists who would praise God that I had met with some success. I was reprimanded when I took any credit for anything. When I had a miscarriage, a woman I was close to for a time in AA shouted, “God was taking care of you; He knew you shouldn’t have a child.”
I would certainly like to choke the living shit out of that woman and the others cut of her cloth whose agenda was to perpetuate my self-doubt so that they could feel strong and important. Thirty years later and many kinks in the road later, I no longer believe that this anachronistic organization of AA, with its rhetoric and ideas stuck in the late 1930’s (that, vis a vis the Big Book, seemingly intelligent people are literally superstitious about changing a word of), are at all healthy– especially for a woman alcoholic.
I abstain from alcohol by choice, and have for some time. But I am under no delusion as to how that is the case: it is because I finally accepted that I cannot safely drink without causing myself problems and it is a choice I make daily and of my own free will. I know that because I am beginning my fourth year without AA and without reliance upon alcohol. Of course I want a drink now and then, but I liked alcohol too much and never drank to have just one. Daily drinking to blot it all out, or for any other reason, too easily becomes a sad, dissipated, ugly way of life.
In any event, women in our culture and especially of my own and my mother’s generations, learn early on to surrender their power to the authority of the husband, the church and its maddeningly condescending male priests and every other figurehead of patriarchy. In my view nothing is worse for a woman alcoholic than to be told that her intellect is her liability, that she doesn’t know anything about how to save herself, has no inner resources to do it, and that she would die if it weren’t for the charity of AA or some other entity that binds people to it through the mechanisms of fear and brainwashing.
Never has it been more urgent for women in this beautiful country to operate out of self-belief. There need be no more victims like my own mother who was disempowered by a host of psychiatrists, slapped with a multitude of diagnostic labels, treated like a human experiment by those she trusted, and enabled to hate herself until the day she dropped dead by my father and her psychiatrists.
Treatment experts depend on women, especially, experiencing themselves as “less-than,” and therefore unable to make it without reliance upon human “higher powers.”
To me the most terrifying thing that can happen to a living human being is to lose and forfeit the self to the tyranny of the aforementioned ideas. There is also no room in such an organization for people who have legitimate needs for things like medical marijuana or other kinds of pain medication. People who make the mistake of seeking “unconditional love” from the Program and to not be judged if they divulge such things are shamed.
At the end of that very dark summer, I was having such a hard time with withdrawal I obtained a prescription for Valium and bought a bottle of wine and checked into a motel room. I sat alone in that room with the means to my demise on the table in front of me. After about half an hour arguing with myself, a voice deep within me said, “Life is precious.” Ultimately I left. But I was ordered to go to “treatment” at a facility in the mountains where I didn’t feel safe and couldn’t sleep, again because of my bad withdrawal, for two weeks. I was shuffled back down the mountain to a psychiatric unit.
Eventually I checked out of that unit of my own accord and began to put a life back together. For years I bought the idea that “God” had been with me in that motel room and that it had been God’s voice speaking within me. That magical thinking began to fade and several years ago I realized the truth: I got me out of there. I got in touch with my inner strength and gave myself a loving message of “you can do it.”
I have blundered into other situations inherently bad for me over the years, including at one point believing a pair of unscrupulous therapists who told me I would die if I didn’t move into their home as their “daughter,” and let them “re-parent” me. What a crock of bullshit. I had the courage to try this unorthodox adventure and the courage to flee it after these whack-jobs demanded my car keys!
My point is that we have our own survival mechanisms to count on and when they kick in it is strong evidence for the power of the individual– the power of one. I have no idea where God is in this picture– but I do know that I can never again believe in a divinity that gets me out of a suicide attempt and lets other people burn to death in a plane crash.
Achieving wholeness and freedom of being is a long and difficult journey for many of us. We have to overcome years of believing we are incapable because we are women and because we have been handed terrifying diagnoses like “Borderline Personality Disorder” The truth is that we live in a world of theorists and opinion-makers. These days there’s an ongoing argument as to whether the aforementioned disorder really exists, what its alleged clinical symptoms are and what it should be called.
I have accepted that I have PTSD and depression per my most recent and very brief sit-down with a shrink, and I have taken action to keep these things under as much control as I can. I could live out my days never feeling, my brain frozen by psychotropic drugs and therefore unable to write or to live or to be myself, flaws and all, or I can endure some of the rough water of my afflictions.
But these things do not define me. They are incidental to who I am. That is also the case with a fact of my life that used to terrify me– that I had alcoholism and am now in remission.
That is how I choose to see it. These days, whenever anyone from AA crosses my path, I have to bite my tongue, and I am very uncomfortable. Because those who stick it out in AA have convinced themselves that God is taking care of them and they have nothing to worry about. They are convinced that God is at the steering wheel of their lives and that they have been “called” to help save other alcoholics. I find these to be dangerous ideas. In truth many people in AA with “time”, i.e. years of “sobriety” are drunk on power and the delusion that some great Grandaddy in the sky has their backs.
Certainly there are bright, kind and good people in the programs. I just don’t know very many of them. These things no longer makes sense to me on any level and I am somewhere on the road of secular humanism and agnosticism. Faith is certainly a personal matter, but no faith should cost a living human being his or her individuality and identity. Like marriage, it should enhance and enrich the Self, not rob the Self of its attributes.
We have lost a host of brilliant women to the mythologies of powerlessness. Plath. Sexton. Woolf. Helen Stamm Andrews, my mother, once a promising artist. And we have women martyrs to the cause of emancipation from patriarchy, like beautiful Adrienne Rich and others whose work strengthens women and women’s self-belief, writing a new vision for ourselves and our daughters into being.
Bill Wilson, founder of AA, opines in “AA literature”– “God is either Everything or He is Nothing…” His black and white thinking, his deluded belief that some great (male) force got him sober and kept him that way is no shining example of the reclamation of personal power. It is its antithesis.