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My eternal struggle with AA...


archyb
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Hi all. I'm trying to stay sober but am struggling with AA and my sponsor. This is not a new issue for me. My main objection is how the AA program, and people in it, consistently try to tell me that alcoholism is THE problem, and that AA is THE solution.

I've been in therapy and on meds since I was 17. My parents took me to a psychiatrist when I was not even 10 years old yet. I've been hospitalized numerous times and undergone ECT treatment. I don't like to label myself as anything. I don't like saying I'm "mentally ill," and I don't like saying I'm an "alcoholic." (Personally, I don't believe "alcoholism" is a thing. It's a word that the originators of AA used to help people unify to deal with their drinking problems.) If anything, I would consider myself "dually diagnosed."

I'm at a crossroads with my sponsor. He's a really good guy and has been a big help in my life the past few months. But I argue with him about whether I'm alcoholic, and he doesn't really accept it when I talk about my mental/emotional illness.

I don't want to lose him. I'm in such a daily state of despair that I need people to talk to. But I feel I can't truly be myself with him. Last night he asked me if I really want to work the AA program, and I didn't know what to say. We end up going in circles. He tells me that nothing will get better until I can admit powerlessness over alcohol. I tell him that until I have a desire to live, I really have no desire for "sobriety." I just want to not drink long enough to see if I can muster some interest in life again.

I'm tired of going in circles. But I feel like he denies a big part of my problem and wants to make it all about this mysterious "alcoholism" thing. If I tell him the truth -- that I just want to have someone to talk to and am not really interested in working an AA program -- then he will leave me, and I will be 100% alone (I have no support of any kind from family or friends; they are non-existent). Or I can continue to live in this uncomfortable place where I deny my true feelings to avoid being abandoned.

I don't know what to do. I was thinking of asking him the following when I see him tonight: "Can you accept the fact that I believe I have a mental illness and that AA alone is not going to fix it?" If he says yes, then we can continue on. If he says no, then that's it.

But really, even if he says yes, I have no interest in AA. I only go to be with people, but it makes me feel really shitty about myself to pretend I believe in something I do not in order to be accepted. The Big Book was written 70 years ago before anybody knew anything about addiction. Bill W. suffered from horrible depression, which AA did nothing to fix. Like I said, I don't think "alcoholism" is a thing. It's a construct created to help people stay sober, and that's it.

I'm going nuts with this. Any thoughts or suggestions would be appreciated.

Edited by archyb
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archyb,

You've struck on an issue that is near and dear to my heart. I am, I think it's fair to say, an outspoken critic of AA. I came to my position after many years in the program, witnessing (and to an extent, personally experiencing) some of the issues you find troubling. Based on my experience, I can certainly vouch for the fact that, in AA, if your personal situation or worldview doesn't fit the fundamental premise of the program (i.e. powerlessness over alcohol), there's a tendency to try to force it to fit...and it's easy to get sucked into pretending in order to be accepted in the group.

I've read your previous posts and have, I think, an idea of the depth of your personal struggles with mental illness. The notion that simply accepting your powerlessness over alcohol is the key to a solution strikes me as simplistic at best. I am not at all surprised that you are struggling with AA.

Before giving you any of my thoughts or suggestions, I wonder if you'd be willing to share how you came to be involved in AA in the first place?

ML

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Well, to answer your question, AA is one of the usual stops on my merry-go-round of attempts to find out what's wrong with me and "fix it." As you've probably seen, I've tried everything on earth that I can think of. I am a hardcore drinker. Nearly daily drinking for most of the past 25 years. But I've never believed it's because I have a disease called alcoholism. I feel it's because alcohol is the one medicine that truly numbs my pain. Having many characteristics of a borderline personality to begin with, it's very stressing to me to hear people keep telling me what I am, when I don't feel it in my heart.

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archyb,

It seems to me that your issues with mental illness and substance use are extremely intertwined and complex. Each supports the other, yet at the same time exists independently of the other. If you've been a hardcore daily drinker for 25 years then you do, clearly, have a problem with alcohol, but of course the solution to that is not as simple as admitting powerlessness and turning it over to God (AA's "solution"). (You are correct to note that Bill W had notoriously poor success in dealing with his depression via AA.)

What's called for is an integrated treatment approach where both problems are dealt with concurrently. What sort of treatment are you currently receiving?

ML

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archyb,

Yes, 15 years is a problem too! No need to "inflate" that! :P

What sort of techniques is the therapist using with you? What does he or she have to say about AA--have you shared your issues with him or her? Are you under the care of a psychiatrist at all? Taking any medications now?

Also, have you tried any dual diagnosis groups? Any other recovery groups at all besides AA?

ML

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I've only been with the therapist for a few months. With all the craziness in my head, therapy has been all over the place. I always think I know what's best for me ... except that I change my mind every session. I haven't been very cooperative with her; pretty much anything she asks me to do, I won't do. I think it's really about my control, abandonment and authority issues. They always get in the way, with every therapist I have. I don't trust anybody; not myself, not doctors, not therapists, not friends, not family.

I guess I would say it's a cognitive approach but with plenty of opportunities to try to get in touch with the pain that's inside me and try to figure out what it's really about. We don't talk at all about the drinking. She'll ask me if I'm sober, but we really don't discuss it at all. I think she believes that it's outside of her realm and that AA will take care of it.

I am set to see a new psychiatrist on Wednesday. I should mention that all of this care is from clinics for low-income patients, because I have less than $20 to my name and $50,000 in debt, so I don't have freedom to choose something else. I have to work with these people to the best of my ability. The session with the psychiatrist is scheduled for an hour; I can't remember the last time I spent more than 20 minutes with a shrink. I usually just go in and say "I'm anxious and depressed," and they prescribe something. I'm really hoping that this psychiatrist takes the time to really find out what's going on. (I should also mention here that my last 5 years of psych care were in Los Angeles, where the doctors aren't the greatest. One of my psychiatrists had me on SEVEN meds at once.)

I've spent considerable time in AA, NA, ACA, CODA and DRA. Nothing has ever gotten to the core of the problem. They've been helpful at times, but just not helpful enough.

Sorry for the long messages. I just have so much to say and nobody besides my therapist who would possibly understand any of the shit that goes through my mind.

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Well, a number of things strike me about your situation, archyb.

First: You write "I always think I know what's best for me ... except that I change my mind every session. I haven't been very cooperative with her; pretty much anything she asks me to do, I won't do. I think it's really about my control, abandonment and authority issues. They always get in the way, with every therapist I have. I don't trust anybody; not myself, not doctors, not therapists, not friends, not family."

It seems to me that you've hit one of your main issues right on the head. It seems that possibly you get stuck where you are because your trust issues (including distrust of yourself) keep you that way. Obviously, this is a perfect way to remain sitting on square one. One thing you might try is to do something she suggests. Even a tiny thing--something you feel is do-able. See how it goes.

Second: You write "I guess I would say it's a cognitive approach but with plenty of opportunities to try to get in touch with the pain that's inside me and try to figure out what it's really about. We don't talk at all about the drinking. She'll ask me if I'm sober, but we really don't discuss it at all. I think she believes that it's outside of her realm and that AA will take care of it."

It sounds to me like maybe--and I'm not a professional, so maybe I'm all wet on this--but maybe you should be discussing your alcohol use with her. It's part of your problem, after all: in fact, the state of being "dually diagnosed" acknowledges this fact. So why shouldn't the treatment be integrated? And why should she assume that AA will take care of it...when it clearly isn't?

Third: You mention that you are medically indigent and go on to say that "I can't remember the last time I spent more than 20 minutes with a shrink. I usually just go in and say "I'm anxious and depressed," and they prescribe something. I'm really hoping that this psychiatrist takes the time to really find out what's going on."

I hope so too. I'm not naive and I know that you aren't getting top-notch care. However, if all you do is say you're anxious and depressed, and don't elaborate, possibly you aren't giving the doctor enough information to go on.

Fourth: You write, "I've spent considerable time in AA, NA, ACA, CODA and DRA. Nothing has ever gotten to the core of the problem. They've been helpful at times, but just not helpful enough."

Our discussion started with you sharing about your frustration with your AA sponsor. Obviously, you've been in 12 step programs long enough to know their limitations. If they aren't helpful enough to you, but you want to keep attending, then perhaps it might help if you accept what they are able to give you and not expect more. At bottom, I think the sole value of these programs is simply that in attending them, one has the feeling that one is not alone. The "program" itself, with its views on incurable diseases, powerlessness, higher powers, etc., is of extremely limited utility (and even harmful) for those whose personal views are not aligned with this perspective. For myself, I resolved this conflict by leaving the program entirely. I felt that, for me, the program hurt more than it helped. You may feel differently; you may feel that for you, there is a net gain. If so, then keep going, but don't expect more than you're going to get.

You may also want to avail yourself of some of the alternative recovery sources such as SMART Recovery. Understand that SMART and other programs like it are also not necessary well-fitted to dual diagnosis situations; however, you do have the benefit of social contact and support while not being told you are diseased and powerless.

Your thoughts?

ML

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Thanks for the reply. Let me first say something important: I am not looking to these groups for "recovery" or "sobriety." I don't really care about the drinking aspect. Staying sober is a necessary evil if I am to live a normal life again. If I felt I had a life worthy of living, if there was one half ounce of joy in my life instead of 12 hours a day of pain, every single day of my life, then I might care. So, having said that ...

I'm pretty tired of the conflict that these groups create in me. I'm not against a higher power; I'd really like to have some spirituality of some kind in my life. But for someone who sees himself as a lifelong victim, trying to convince myself that I'm powerless and thus that some magical thing will come in and rescue me seems to be, well, insanity.

I still have no idea what to do. I have plenty in common with alcoholics, addicts, whatever. It is helpful to be with people. But I think it's damaging to me to have this notion reinforced every day that if I just roll over and say I'm powerless, then everything will be OK. My sponsor has helped me a lot; without him, I wouldn't even be seeing a therapist as I had totally given up on professional help. But it rips my psyche apart to hear him constantly tell me that I'm not being honest, that I'm just like everybody else, that if I just say two words -- I'm powerless -- that this will suddenly work. I know he's just trying to help. I consider him a friend. I go to him when I have panic attacks or otherwise freak out and don't know what to do. I go to him for life advice that has nothing to do with AA. There are a lot of good principles in AA. But this conflict is tearing me apart. And I still don't know what to do, because alone I'm screwed.

I'd like to arrive at some kind of middle ground. But I am an all-or-nothing person. I don't see grey; everything is black or white. This is driving me insane but I don't see a way out. I'm not strong enough to "take what I want and leave the rest." I need to trust in somebody who really knows what's best for me and how I can deal with the things that are making my life so horrible. But I don't know what to trust in. One thing I've discovered in my decades of this struggle is that no one person really has the answer. People are just doing the best they can to survive in this world. That's where I wish I had a faith in something, where I could really believe that if I just trusted that something, things would get better. I can't trust my own brain, because it is a mess and is always telling me something different. I'd like to trust "my gut," but that's pretty much a mess too.

Ugh. Thinking about this causes so much conflict that I feel physically sick.

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archyb,

I understand completely the conflict you are talking about. I too was horrified at the naive belief and expectation that somehow the admission of powerlessness would "fix everything." You go to these groups for help...and THAT is what they tell you? It boggles the mind.

However, with that said, it's also true that there is no single person in this world who is going to have all your answers all the time--not even you. It's probably as naive to think that as it is to think that an admission of powerlessness is going to magically fix everything. Answers aren't easy to find, and sometimes, the right answer for one time of your life isn't the right answer later on. To my mind, the essence of emotional health and maturity is to realize this, to accept the fact that there is no magic, universal, permanent solution to life.

But that doesn't mean you can't trust. It just means that you do the best you can, and try to surround yourself with others who are also doing their best. When someone else is wrong, it is not (necessarily) a betrayal, it's just...well, being wrong.

Now to AA and your AA sponsor. Believe me, I am not telling you I think you have to or should remain in AA. It sounds to me as though the fundamental ideology of the group bothers you a great deal, but that you like the social aspects of the group and that you particularly like your sponsor. I wonder if it would be possible for you and he to have a "friends" relationship rather than a "sponsor-sponsee" relationship, where it's basically his job to try to work you around to accepting AA's philosophy. Remember you don't have to have a sponsor at all.

Just some thoughts. What do you think?

ML

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Hi archyb,

I used alcohol to keep my depression at bay for decades, medications didn't seem to work. What I finally realized was that the medications didn't have much of a chance of working as long as I was pouring alcohol into my system.

I needed mental health help, but all the professionals wanted to do was stop the drinking, so I kept getting pushed into AA despite my objections to the program. Originally, it was the religious nature of the program that turned me off, but over the years, I've come to realize how damaging the notion of powerlessness really is. You internalize that you can do nothing about your drinking, that only God can grant you a daily reprieve. I believe people, especially those with mental health problems, need to be empowered in order to facilitate change.

I was diagnosed with depression before I started drinking, but everyone seemed to think that drinking caused my depression. One therapist told me that he wouldn't see me until I was sober in AA for three months, then we'd work on the depression. I was desperate and hung on for three months. When I saw him again, begging for help, he told me to give it another three months. Through sheer desperation, I made it another three months. I was suicidal, had dropped down to less than 140 lbs strictly from nerves by the time I made it back. He then told me he was stumped, that my depression should have gone away by then. He washed his hands of me and I washed my hands of trying to get help for several years.

I finally got it through my head that drinking was causing so much situational depression on top of my ever-present depression that I didn't have a chance unless I quit drinking.

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Hi archyb,

I've come to realize how damaging the notion of powerlessness really is. You internalize that you can do nothing about your drinking, that only God can grant you a daily reprieve. I believe people, especially those with mental health problems, need to be empowered in order to facilitate change.

Wow, Ray. Thanks a lot. It's like we're sharing a brain on this one. Spending months trying to convince myself I'm powerless seems to be the exact opposite of what I should be telling myself.

Of course, I'm still stuck, because I need people in my life (I really have nobody right now), and the only place I can find them is at AA/NA meetings.

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I need people in my life (I really have nobody right now), and the only place I can find them is at AA/NA meetings.

I don't know where you are, but there may be other recovery options, have you looked for SOS, SMART, or LifeRing meetings in your area?

And who says you NEED a face to face recovery group? There are many online options.

A few years ago, I moved to a town where I knew no one. I joined a Scrabble club and an atheist group. I'm sure some of those people drink, but not at meetings. Pleasant, smart folks, nice to be around.

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I did have experience with SMART Recovery. I did not go to live meetings, so I can't say anything about those. I found the rest useful: the tools helped me to relearn logical thinking, manage turbulent emotions; the message board had nice people who were helpful and supportive. The live meetings at the chat room were good, even though they were chatty.

The message board was a good outlet and the tools helped. SMART did the task that I assigned it to do.

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SMART looks like it's right up my alley, but honestly it kind of scares me as cult-like, even more than AA.

Does anybody here have experience with SMART?

Why do you think SMART may be more cultish than AA? When I first started checking out non-12step options, I liked what I read about SMART and SOS. I got involved with SOS mainly because I liked the Yahoo group format and found the SMART message boards format confusing at the time.

There's also LifeRing, a splinter group that came out of SOS in a nasty legal battle. They have some good things on their website, but seeing how I was already involved with SOS, I didn't pursue it.

But you know, you don't need a group to stay sober. It's nice to have support, but not mandatory. I went out and found some real life groups to get involved with that had nothing to do with sobriety. I took classes. Joined the local Humanist Society (they often had volunteer projects going on). The people who attend these things may or may not drink, but they're sober when they're attending and alcohol or drugs don't rule their lives.

I got sober in order to have a life, not to dwell on the past. I went out and found new things to get involved with.

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Oh gosh, I wish there wasn't so much to read in these posts.....so, I guess I'll contribute a bit more of my feelings of AA.

I first got sober in my very early 30's. Although AA was instrumental in me getting sober, I also attended an outpatient drug/alcohol program in Phoenix called Terros. If it's still there, it was an awesome program.

My first experience with AA lasted almost two years. I went to at least 1 meeting a day for the first year and at least 5 meetings a week for my second year. I never did have a sponsor and worked the steps as best as I could. I remained sober for 13-15 years, don't have the exact dates in my mind.

After my last bout with alcohol which came out of no where while I was on Effexor, Lamictal, and Straterra, I once again went to AA, but with a different attitude. Since May 23rd, I've been to 291 meetings and to this day I cannot identify with peoples constant struggle with wanting to drink. Since I got off my medications I have no desire to drink. Believe me though, things aren't right yet but I know drinking never enters my mind.

Therefore it is difficult for me to identify myself as an alcoholic. What I can identify with is the group consciousness. How people discuss their problems and how everyone gives their experience strength and hope.

There is a long history about AA & it's parent organization The Oxford Group. The essence in all of this though is that in that time, people who drank themselves into oblivion were eventually labeled insane or totally hopeless by physicians of the time and many were directed to insane asylums.

The steps......are a means to allow people to heal. 1-3 are the hardest for many to accept. I had no problem accepting these, except for the words 'powerless of alcohol.' I don't feel I was powerless over alcohol, but more 'powerless over my medicated self.'

Step 4 is probably the most important step. As I understand from the 'old timers' in my group, Step 4 has evolved over time. It used to be done in a matter of hours, or perhaps a day or two. Today's philosophy allows much longer amounts of time as it's often encouraged to dig even deeper, even into childhood for some people. I'm still bouncing between step 4 and 7, as in therapy 'more is being revealed.'

Step 5 is to reduce or eliminate the power that fear, shame, etc. from the past have over us in today's everyday life. By admitting to God and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs. This other human being doesn't need to be your sponsor or an AA member for that matter. It specifically states in the Big Book that it can be with a priest, and could also be with a psychiatrist, or therapist. I would recommend avoiding a family member, or your significant other, or even someone you consider to be a close friend, as you may feel rejection from the later.

In 6 and 7 character defects are identified and let go to God...as you understand him.

There is much in the Big Book that has great value, not to mention the 12 & 12.

I think the most impressive parts are The Bedevilments (Page 52 of the 4th edition) and the coorelation to The Promises (83 and 84 of the 4th edition).

I haven't reached step 8 yet....but that's a big one too.

I do see how AA can be considered a cult. I even have my own doubts sometimes. I don't think I will be an AA member for life. But it's a place I should be now. Don't get me wrong, AA is full of potholes, it's not exactly a 'hotbed of mental health' either, however, as you're contemplating it, don't be afraid to replace the term alcohol with anything you have running through your mind.

I also know seeing my therapist regularly is of great importance as well.

I'm also going to check into the other groups mentioned.

Edited by ROCKWOOD
Misc. acknowledgement needed to be added and oh my, bad spelling.
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Guest ASchwartz

Hi Rockwood,

Most important of all is that you are in therapy. In fact, research seems to point to psychotherapy is a primary ingredient necessary for recovery.

As for calling yourself an alcoholic, my point of view, as a therapist, is that you take from AA what is useful to you and reject the rest. I do not believe that you need to pin a label on yourself.

Remember, AA is not a treatment. AA is a support group. Use it that way and you can't go wrong.

Yes, there are other useful groups but if you are in this one and you find it helpful then stick with it.

Opinions?

Allan:)

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  • 3 weeks later...

AA saved my life, I needed it in the beginning as I get stronger, I need SmartRecovery more.........The whole concept of AA is a REAL miracle happens, it does. then down to the nitty gritty of Cognitive Thinking. Off Auto into Manual. for me the lights were on but there was nobody home, the living dead I called myself. Now the lights are on and someones home some of the time. now that Progress.

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  • 8 months later...

I wouldn't call SMART recovery a cult at all. More a behavior modification plan not specifically tailored to drinkers at all. Many use the SMART tools to get a handle on bad habits like procrastination, cutting, or overdoing perscribed drugs.

It's good if you're a bit down in the dumps and need an uplift. By examining the situation and dividing the parts into seperate pieces, often one can realize that what has us a little blue is no big deal at all, and we can continue through the day with a happy grin.

Why not give it another try, and see if the tools will help with your depression? It does mean doing a bit of work, but far less than required by the 12 steps of AA, which you seem to have an aversion to doing.

AA's not going to come up with a plan b for you, as they have none. If you prefer to not do the steps for any reason, why not search for something else that you feel more positive about actually doing.

Just going to meetings may make you feel depressed, argumentative and irritable, sensitive and unwell mentally after some time. Seems to happen with so many that hope sobriety will rub off by talking and being around people who are more active in their recovery.

Why not get with some like minded folk and try something new to you?

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