How I came to leave Alcoholics Anonymous – AA!
I recently wrote a piece that acknowledged the things in AA that helped me, which seemed to go down well, at least with the rational people that read this site! It listed some of the reasons a recovery community such as AA can be of use, especially in the early days of recovery. If you read that, you may wonder why I left and eventually wrote a website, that concentrates on recovery methods which do not involve the 12 steps.
I actually left AA after spending several months discussing my issues with a counsellor that I met through the NHS in London. I met her after my family doctor or GP who had been treating my depression, suggested counselling after I had about a year and a half of alcohol free living. I had been attending AA regularly during this time, and although I was feeling better for not drinking, I had become depressed to a certain extent and had needed some extra help. I think this happens to many people who stop drinking, regardless of the method of support they employ, to change the way they live life and beat addiction. It is certainly acknowledged as a problem in many books that I have read. I had suffered from depression before, and recognised the signs. This time I did something about it straight away, which is not something I would have done, before I stopped drinking. Ten years earlier I waited until I collapsed and was taken to hospital before I got any help, so this was certainly progress! I was more open about asking for help after hearing what people had to say in AA, and realising there were some similarities to my situation. In a strange way the act of surrender in AA, empowered me to ask to help elsewhere. The idea of powerlessness is often one of the things that is criticised by those who bash AA, and although I believe it can be a two-edged sword in later recovery, when people run into problems, I feel it is quite a useful idea in the early days. I found it helpful to hear others say they could not do everything on their own, as this reflected my experience prior to joining a support group. I did need some help!
The NHS offers free treatment to an extent in the UK, but the mental side is not as comprehensive as it could be (especially after the Tories!), so I was only allowed 6 sessions and there was a waiting list. I was assessed and deemed suitable for treatment, but elected to seek private treatment with the NHS counsellor who assessed me. She worked part time for the NHS and privately the rest of the time. This was a slightly unusual approach but the problems caused by my drinking were still quite raw, and I had really thrown myself into recovery and wanted to remain sober. By going private I could get treatment quickly, and as far as I was concerned, a couple of counselling sessions a week cost far less than I would have spent on drink and drugs in the past! It felt like a good investment and I feel it was worth it. She was not a 12 step or addiction counsellor as such but was qualified in many areas and had dealt with addiction clients on a regular basis. She was not an addict herself and so had none of the baggage that some “counsellors” have who simply want to push people towards the method that worked for them. I do not feel this “do what I did solution”, which is common in America and sometimes in the UK, is a good approach! We are all different with our own issues.
I had been suspicious of counselling and CBT the first time I had tried it, but was more open to suggestions this time. We went at a fairly slow pace as my counsellor spent a long time finding out about my values and discussing the good and bad things about my situation. There was certainly no confrontation involved, but I was encouraged to look at things that had happened in the past from the point of view of others. We looked at the way I had been brought up and the responsibility that I had faced at an early age and how that I had become used to living in a highly stressful environment, early on in life. This had affected they way I viewed the world and was something that I had brushed off in the past when asked about it by doctors. I had no other reference other than my own experience to go on and so I actually had to learn to step back from some situations and approach problems in a different way.
I was also given a list of books to read which was helpful, and I began to realise that some of the techniques that I read about would help me. I was reading a huge amount anyway on any type of self help method and was even trying self-hypnosis, which was probably not a good idea at this point. I actually talked to my counsellor about having full on hypnosis as at this point I actually wanted to erase certain thoughts that troubled me, and due to my abstinence from alcohol and drugs, we’re not being blocked. She was certainly not convinced that simply blotting out thoughts with hypnosis was the way to go! Instead we talked about what I wanted to block out as well as key events in my life that had influenced me, and so we started to deal with my issues, and I looked at things in a different way.
She actually referred me to a Psychotherapist in London to look at the problems I had and he was really helpful and built on the work she had done. This was an expensive process but I feel I got value for money. The total bill for a lot of out-patient therapy was about the same as a month in some rehabs, but I feel that was a better approach for me. I was lucky that both people were not stuck in their ways and were able to find solutions that worked for me after spending time getting to know my problems. They did not simply tell me to stick with a 12 step solution, which can happen if you get the wrong type of counsellor, who is poorly trained and simply an ex addict, who has become evangelical about AA and feels it can work for anyone. Nether of the professionals that I used for help had addiction problems, but they certainly knew how to treat them. I must say I have read some pretty stupid comments from some ex addict, non 12 step addiction “professionals” who are equally as stupid and bigoted as the bad ones in the 12 step world, and are gullible enough to believe everything they read on some idiotic websites. There are certainly some unhelpful, useless people, in the recovery world, who are loud online.
There came a point after a couple of months of out-patient treatment where the usefulness of being part of AA decreased. I was learning to be independent and practising rational techniques such as CBT and then turning up at a meeting, and nodding off while people went on about God and Higher Powers, and the power of prayer. It became rather surreal and I drifted away from my sponsor, as although I quite enjoyed discussing football, music and boxing with him after a meeting, I was finding his advice on living a spiritual lifestyle rather irrelevant! I had a good friend who had left AA 10 years earlier, and he seemed so much saner than the old timers in the rooms. I was also having problems with privacy, as there is a lot of gossip in AA, and after weighing up the pros and cons, I decided to move on. I think most people simply move on after a while when they have got their life together.
This is not a decision anybody should take lightly if they have had a big drinking problem like myself, unless they have found an alternative support method or feel really self-confident. I discussed it with the therapists and one of the things I was told that I found useful, was the idea that AA would still be there if I wanted to go back. That was comforting in a way, but by this point I was frustrated by the old-fashioned God side of AA and some of the lunatics that go there. I was grateful for the help, especially in the early days that I received, from some of the more level-headed members. I could do without sitting in a room with some of the crazy ones and had a long list of people who I viewed as best ignored, in many meetings. To be fair, there are many people on online support groups or forums that are not AA fans who are also immature and to be ignored as well. In fact some of the “anti AA brigade” are the craziest, of all people in the recovery world and possibly the most unpleasant!
I decided to leave and was supported by the therapists with this decision, and felt quite a relief, as certain people had really been getting to me with their preaching and treating AA as something divinely inspired. This is the inevitable downside of a group such as AA. It is always going to attract some crazy people and if you add in the religion from the American Midwest, you are always going to have an odd mixture attracted to the group. There are some great people who do give out a lot of support, while others should really be getting some proper mental help. In some UK areas or in America you also have some people who are not alcoholics, in the meetings. They may have been from some institution or have bought into the 12 step beliefs when young, after being brought up in a religious way. A few are court ordered, and it is generally these three groups of people who have most problems with AA and feel that they have been in a cult, when they realise sometimes after years of attendance that they should not be there. Online “Anti AA” groups often attract these people, who have grievances against AA, some of which are justified, some not. Those who have had big drinking problems and who have managed to stop with the support of other people in AA, are generally not so critical and simply seem to quietly move on once they have their life together. Others may not believe in all the dogma but enjoy the social side and decide to stay.
Anyway I found it helpful to move on, and have not relapsed or died (contrary to a couple of rumours I heard about me from AA members). I have continued using many of the suggestions that I was given by health professionals. These may not be fixes for alcoholism as such, but are more about living life in relaxed fashion, and coping with the problems that I face in life, in a more practical way. I am much physically fitter that I have been in the past and have found that regular exercise, has really helped me beat depression and enabled me to sleep better, which used to be a problem. I became interested in things such as yoga and Pilates, as well as meditation, which certainly help with the relaxation, but have also given me a new bunch of friends, who are not the sort of people to spend all night in a pub. These type of people generally have a positive outlook on life and I have learnt a lot from them. I found that a lot of people in AA, were quite sick and emotionally immature and it was easy to pick up on their ideas and beliefs which was not always good for me. I think you get to a stage when you learn more from people who are going through life without suffering from problems and not those who are trying to overcome them. That is one of the issues with being in a recovery group, but on the other hand, some people do not do well socially with people outside AA. People adjust at different speeds, and many who have been homeless, are going to face the most problems, and take the longest to adjust to normal living. For them, a slightly odd group such as AA may offer a really good long-term support solution, while it may be less useful for those who are working and living productive lives. I suppose it depends on how strongly you identify with the group, and if you have faith in the program.
I do feel that complete faith in chapter 5 of the AA “Big Book”, can actually lead to problems in the long-term. I do feel that some of the ideas presented by 12 step groups can really help people, but it is certainly not a foolproof solution as suggested in chapter 5. I have seen people have major problems in later sobriety when a certain situation causes them to lose faith in the ideas that they have previously felt have kept them sober, such as the “Higher Power”concept. If they have no plan B and no other support group or friends away from recovery groups that they feel they can open up to, then they can face problems. They can end up with bad depression and have no effective tools to deal with it, other than a program that does not seem to be working all of a sudden. This is one of the ways that AA could really improve things, by having up to date literature that deals with these issues, and tells people where to look for outside help. Often people are simply given bad advice, or wildly different advice, from different people from the group in AA. They may not have had much experience of CBT or other techniques, which might help, and some are reluctant to ask for antidepressants, which they see as simply another drug, which is an unhelpful idea, in some recovery groups (not just AA!).
In spite of the limitations I found with the AA program, I still found attending for a while helped me, and made me more open for other types of counselling. I was more open with health professionals after having heard people share in AA, as I realised I was not alone in the problems I felt. I found it helpful to be around others, who were attempting to stay sober and to be part of a sober community. I know several people who still use this social aspect from time to time when they are working such as musicians, who play in clubs with alcohol all around them. They find it helpful to go to a meeting away from all the drinkers, and be part of this worldwide community. They could not really do this with other methods, due to the lack of infrastructure. Like me they are not relying on a programme to stay sober, but make use of the community that is available to them. It is also good for them, when a few sober friends from AA turn up at the gigs. In my case, I reached a point where the limitations for personal growth in AA, conflicted with my search for self empowerment and independence. Being part of a recovery group had been really important for me in my early days, but listening to people go on about”Higher Powers”and praying started to bore me and made me feel I was wasting my time. I had worked all the way through my time in AA, and was mixing with a wide range of people, and started to view AA people as rather quaint, compared to normal members of society. I think this is due to the religion in AA, and religion does not really appeal to me in any way so I generally avoid church members in my social life.
After spending some time outside AA I went through a bit of a transitional phase, which was rather strange. If you have taken on the AA message and taken it seriously, you will have taken on many phrases and ideas, and may even use AA phrases when you talk. Some people call this brainwashing, although I feel that brainwashing, is much more severe, than what happens in AA. Scientology would seem to use methods that involve breaking people mentally and use violence. On the other hand, many members of AA are quite vulnerable, gullible or mentally ill, and may have a strong religious background, that would mean they tend to really expect miracles and to be saved on a daily basis by a “Higher Power”. This is one of the dangers of the AA approach. I actually felt rather stupid, that I had taken some of the more faith healing ideas on board to be part of the group and this provoked some anger after leaving. I did used to bash AA a bit, on sites such as Stinkin-Thinkin, although I have always given AA credit for giving me a place to go, and that it helped me to a certain extent, but not for the reasons most people in AA will say. I certainly did not go as far as many and stayed away from the more crazy sites that got out of hand. Some people certainly become fanatical about bashing AA, and are probably harming themselves further, by doing this. They get sucked into pointless online conflicts, that reinforce their views, which tend to become more extreme over time in the same way that racists often become more crazy. They probably feel powerlessness all over again, as AA will simply ignore them, (along with most people in the recovery world, who simply click away), and say it is an outside issue. I certainly accept that people may have been given poor advice in AA, and that many treatment centers are operating in a dubious fashion, but I think it is important to overcome these problems, and tell people how that was achieved, rather than simply bash AA all the time. They create a lot of negativity and cause themselves further depression and anger. A few people simply cannot move on, and this is sad.
I spent a long time away from recovery websites and forums and concentrated on rebuilding my life, and becoming closer to friends and family. I attempt to be productive at work and have a wide range of interests and this has allowed me to move on. Using meditation has helped me get things in perspective and look objectively at how different solutions have helped me at different times. I feel the decision to move on from the 12 step world was the correct one for me, but am grateful for the support in my early days. I certainly wish AA and other 12 step groups would modernise and think that a lot of the rehabs are simply money-making machines who are exploiting the vulnerable, which is wrong, and really why I try to do my own small bit to try to tell people about other solutions. I am not interested in pointless arguments with mad people online, you may as well go and shout at a wall, so I rarely look at comments on online articles. I do like to keep in touch with any new developments and having this blog has enabled me to connect with some good people in the recovery world who have also moved on from AA and who are doing well.Google+