Twelve Steps to Destroying My Self-Esteem: Why AA Didn’t Work For Me
In terms of addiction recovery, one of the first places people are likely to be sent is to The Rooms. Those Rooms being AA, NA, or one of the other myriad addiction-specific twelve-step groups. I’m not interested in the numbers of people they DO work for — though statistics only put that at an unimpressive 1 in 15 — but in my own experience.
You see, I was in AA for eight years. I attended meetings. I stayed sober. I did the steps. I did service in my home group (making coffee, mostly, and buying biscuits — I’m pretty sure by the end of my time, I saw caffeine and sugar as my Higher Power). I was even having twelve-step friendly counselling on the side.
But the reality? After eight years, I remained as mad as the metaphorical box of frogs.
The very first words you will utter, when you step through the door of a twelve-step meeting are “Hi, I’m Jessica and I’m an [alcoholic/addict/compulsive overeater/workaholic].” The argument is that, in order to recover, we must accept responsibility, and be humbled by whatever substance brought us into the ‘fellowship’. No one said, however, that accepting responsibility meant that I would accept labels that shamed me and destroyed my self-confidence over the eight year period.
What if I asked you to step into a room of people you don’t know and tell them, in your very first introduction, what you see as your biggest embarrassment?
To me, there is little surprise that after 90 days of attending AA, only 10% remain (this drops to just 5% after a year). The one year ‘survival rate’ of someone remaining in AA is shorter than the fatality rate of many stage IV cancers, and yet, where cancer is concerned, we’re open to other treatments and research into what works best.
And, make no mistake, addiction does kill. Not always through the substance of choice, but often through suicide and associated emotional states.
But what do we do? We continue to send people to 12-step programmes, assuming that they will work for everyone. I’m not sure about you, but I’d say that if a ‘treatment plan’ doesn’t work for 14 out of 15 people, we need some alternatives, right?
There are alternatives. I found one that works for me (the IGNTD Heroes recovery programme, facilitated by Dr Adi Jaffe, himself a recovered meth addict and dealer), and there are others such as the Sinclair Method, SMART Recovery, and more besides. Most modern methods do not expect people to commit to abstinence, even if that might be an end goal: the very demand put on people to essentially give up the one thing that is actually keeping them together is what can actually make them worse.
You see, I — like many people who use food, alcohol, porn, sex, drugs, etc. to excess — have a tonne of trauma in my past. What happens when we feel trauma? Well, it feels uncomfortable — and when we realise that we can eliminate that discomfort by taking a puff or shot of something, it can become a habit. No one picks up a drug because they want to. Alcohol is not so addictive that after one drink, we can never decline it again due to our body’s cravings. Classic addiction symptoms build up over time.
So what makes us go for the second drink, if it’s not that the first is an ‘auto-addiction’? The fact that it helped us feel better. When the drink is taken away, all of the pain we were running from returns. In the eight years I was sober, I kept trying to find other things to numb the pain — because that’s what we do. We are literally looking for something to settle the internal pain.
If your head was aching and acetaminophen didn’t work, would you give up and suffer the pain, or try something else?
AA can’t help with the background pain and trauma: it’s often far too deep for those in the rooms to comprehend, given that there is no psychological or scientific basis in the tenets of the 12 steps, and certainly no trained facilitators at meetings.
Arguably, for some, it is even dangerous to their mental health to force them into abstinence before they have tackled at least a little of the underlying trauma. That was almost certainly the case for me, but no one warns you of that at the time, when you’re seen as nothing special, just a run of the mill ‘alchy’.
We’re all special. We all have issues that may not be able to be tackled simply by going to a series of peer group meetings. We may need therapy. We may not be addicts at all (I have never identified with that term, even in my most objective moments). We become huge burdens to untrained sponsors, who simply cannot cope with the pressure of anything other than your run of the mill ‘alchy’.
I haven’t even touched on the fact that 12 step programmes, despite speaking of a ‘Higher Power of Your Understanding’, remain based in Christianity. Many meetings even end with the Serenity Prayer, which makes a clear reference to God and was written by a Christian theologian — I’m not sure how he’d have felt about an atheist / agnostic [the jury’s out!] gal like me chiming along with that!
Finding the IGNTD programme was a huge revelation for me. I realised that I could be part of a community that didn’t shame me with labels. I realised I could be authentic — some of those AA meetings back in the day had only allowed ‘positive’ sharing! I realised that I meant something to the people I was learning from and with. There is no sponsorship, we are all in the trenches together, helping each other, cross-sharing as much as we damned well like.
Ultimately, work what works for you. Be wary of feelings of shame, humiliation and low self-esteem that seem directly attributable to meetings; for example, I would cry during and after every meeting, and that should have been a wake-up call to me. No one is saying that the 12 step fellowships don’t work: that method didn’t work for me, and it doesn’t work for countless others.
It’s not a case of that AA phrase of “it works if you work it”: I’d never worked harder. It works if you work it, and it’s totally right for you.