The beginnings of an unforgettable journey
The most profound moment of my life was the first time I drank alcohol. It was during the Fall of 1997 when I was a mere 16 years old. I spent the entire evening repeating the phrase, “I want to feel like this everyday for the rest of my life.” It wasn’t one of those meaningless things people say when they’re drunk. It wasn’t the typical “I love you” to the nearest person. I woke up the next day remembering how I felt and what I said. It was a promise to myself that I set out to achieve. In a single instance, alcohol became my answer to everything, and to this day it has remained the most intimate relationship I’ve ever experienced.
My transition from recreation to problem drinking to straight addiction happened quickly. In fact, I should probably exclude the word “recreation” because I think I skipped that stage all together. Problem drinking is questionable, but I didn’t drink everyday straight out the gates. That is mainly because marijuana was my first drug of choice.
This all changed during the Summer of 1998 when I managed to spend most of my days drunk. It became possible thanks to a few shady convenient stores and a couple legal aged friends. If I didn’t have money, I knew people who were brave enough to steal it from grocery stores. If that didn’t seem plausible then I was garage hopping with friends. I was also mixing alcohol with any drug I could get my hands on and that happened more days than not. I used a lot of illicit drugs, but it was alcohol that gave me the courage to live that lifestyle. To make a long story short, I did whatever it took to get alcohol into my belly. It helped make me feel good. It helped make me feel normal. While this was happening, I had dropped out of high school, ran away from home, returned home to finish high school at an alternative education center, and eventually entered adulthood as an 18 year old homeless teenager.
A week before my high school graduation, my parents set grocery bags full of clothes on the front porch and advised me the locks were changed, and I was no longer welcome there. Despite the negative consequences, drinking and drugs were fun, and I was having a blast. Looking back, I’d say I was experiencing serious problem drinking at an early age.
As my high school classmates were being sent off to college, I was trying to figure out my next couch surfing scheme or find out how homeless shelters worked. I stood by watching friends die from overdoses while others began going to jail and prison. I had a dreadful feeling I was the next in line, so I decided to change my direction and enlisted into the United States Navy. Little did I know, this was not the best form of rehabilitation.
During my time in the military, I started experiencing rumantive thoughts. Ruminative thoughts are not voices in a persons head. It is racing thoughts or thought chasing. For me, it is mainly one irrational thought after another leading to negative emotions and feelings. It can be controlled once it is recognized. It can easily be numbed with alcohol. This was the result of developing depression and anxiety disorders while spending the good part of four years under the Pacific Ocean on a nuclear submarine. It was during this time that I seriously crossed over into alcohol addiction. I was unknowingly self-medicating mental health issues.
Once I was of legal age, my drinking developed into a sickly routine. The friends I drank with stopped drinking with me. Every chance I had, I would isolate and drink. My body craved it. My mind was wrapped around it 24/7. I was constantly blacking out and vomiting all over the place. My nights generally started out drinking and being happy, to crying and being sad, to acting half manic calling helplines begging for someone to show me the way out of this hell. I’d wake up every morning convincing myself I had a good ol’ time and by the evening I would do it all over again. As the old saying goes, I went to the Navy to become a man and returned an alcoholic.
While I was in the Navy, my drinking lifestyle was fairly easy to accomplish. All I had to do was show up to the boat on time, and no one cared if I smelled like a liquor cabinet. I was a good sailor and hard worker. That is all the Navy wanted out of me. I didn’t pay rent and had practically no financial responsibility. I managed to save up $10,000, so when I returned home I could start college and live on my own. As I reintegrated back into the civilian world, I quickly realized people didn’t drink 18 beers everyday and spend hundreds of dollars in strip clubs every night. I went to a concert I’d been planning with my sister where she got to witness me not being able to walk and had to have me carried to her car. She also realized she was seeing what was happening everyday of my life behind closed doors. My post-military impressions among my friends and family were dim.
One evening after I was discharged from the Navy, I went to a party about 30 miles from my house. I started the night off with my usual drinking. The last thing I remember was popping Xanax and then suddenly standing in my apartment staring at the clock. I realized I was on LSD and had not remembered taking it. I became frantic. I went off the chain that night. I was searching for a cocaine hookup all over my apartment complex. I smoked weed with my neighbor who I’d never met. I bought a twelve pack of beer and drank it faster than the time it took to purchase. As the sun came up, I started making coffee and was chugging it hoping it would do something to keep all the substances going. For what seemed like an hour, I walked circles throughout my apartment counting the empty beer bottles, swearing to myself that I had one full beer left somewhere. A friend showed up and was able to calm me down. I calmed down and then I broke down. I knew I could no longer deny that things were completely out of control. I called my father and told him I had a drinking problem, and I couldn’t take it anymore. He said he knew I did and wanted me to get help. He wasn’t able to come up with monetary funds for treatment so he suggested I go to AA, even though he knew nothing about it. Later that night, I got in my car and drove to Birmingham, Alabama, to visit a friend. A break-up song came on the radio, and I started crying. I wasn’t crying about a person. I was crying because I knew I had to say goodbye to my true love, alcohol. I was 23 and had consumed more alcohol than many people will in their entire lifetime. As I drove down interstate 65, so began my journey into the world of 12-step recovery.
New beginnings and what I like about 12-step recovery
My experience with 12-step recovery comes mainly from Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). I have also been to Narcotics Anonymous (NA) and Cocaine Anonymous (CA). I’ve attended 12-step meetings in Hawaii, Alabama, Nebraska, and Florida. My first meeting was in 2005 and my most recent in 2016. First I will describe the things I like about 12-step recovery because it is a recovery method that is helpful to many struggling people. Then I am going to discuss the things I do not like about it and why I choose to no longer attend.
AA taught me many positive principles that have played a major role in my sobriety and helped lay a solid foundation for becoming a better person. It showed me the importance of being honest with myself as well as others. It helped me understand it is okay to look outside myself and ask for help. AA assisted me in learning how to identify the behaviors that contributed to my addiction and ways to turn them into something healthy. Making amends with other people has given me life changing experiences, and it is important. AA also showed me the tools of self inventory, meditation, and being of service to other people. The most important thing AA did for me was teach me that I am not alone, and there are millions of people going through the same things I have. No matter what my struggle, I know there is someone else in this world going through the same thing, and coming to that realization has been an extremely alleviating experience. Regardless of my opinions today, AA helped me a lot in the beginning.
Another element of AA that I used to find helpful is the social offering. I was a person who drank alone, and spent most of my days in isolation. Somewhere during my mess, I lost the ability to socialize. Meetings were a place I could go and learn how to talk to people again. From my experience, the amount of socializing in AA depends on a person’s location. There were times when all I did was go to meetings. In Nebraska, I got to experience events, gatherings, and club houses. There was always something going on, and I had a lot of fun. However, in time my feelings changed, my interest in AA faded, and I came to realize it wasn’t helping me address the true underlying issues that were keeping me stuck in my addiction.
What I dislike about 12-step recovery
1. The dualistic thought process in AA is harmful
The best way to describe dualistic thinking is the idea that everything is either good or bad. People also refer to this as black and white thinking believing there are no grey areas in life. This is a way of thinking that does not align with my personal belief system. There are parts of me that are conservative and other aspects that are liberal. I am not one or the other. This is an example of one grey area in my life. I first recognized this type of thinking when I learned about the “recovering” person and the “dry drunk.” The recovering person follows the prescribed guidelines in AA, such as working the steps, having a sponsor, chairing meetings, and doing other various service work tasks within AA. The dry drunk doesn’t do this or attempts to do it “their way.” The dry drunk is said to be miserable and on the verge of relapse. I’ve had about 5 different sponsors in AA. This is something I’ve never found to be beneficial. In my opinion, sponsorship can come from family, friends, coworkers, and anyone willing to talk or listen. This method has been very beneficial for me. However, AA does not support this type of thinking therefore it is “dry drunk” thinking.
When I reached 14 days of sobriety, in 2005, I called my mother and she was extremely proud of me. She was so happy she cried. It was a great time, and I was very happy with the accomplishments I was making. When I got to 90 days, people in AA started harping on me for not having a sponsor and following the suggestions. In the eyes of my family and myself, I was in recovery because I wasn’t drinking. In the eyes of AA, I was a dry drunk because I wasn’t doing exactly what I was being told. I allowed strangers to put me down and categorize me into a dry drunk making me feel less than. I entered AA with one goal in mind and that was to not consume alcohol. I was achieving that goal, and I was happy. AA categorizes “not drinking” into a dualistic structure so a person is either doing good or doing bad. I believe this can be extremely harmful because it generates a sense of shame that creates feelings of self-doubt and can contribute to a person relapsing.
2. AA members believe newcomers and people who relapse know nothing
Anytime time I go to a new meeting, people assume I am a “newcomer.” One reason is because I look young, and the other is because people in the meeting have never seen me before. A newcomer is a person who is new to AA and sobriety. It’s assumed they know nothing about the steps, and in AA’s eyes, the newcomer knows nothing about life.
I once went to a meeting where a man went on and on telling me it was time for me to make a choice. I had to choose AA, jails, institutions, or death. After he finished his 10 minute spill, a man asked if I had ever been to an AA meeting. I said, “Yes, I’ve been coming to AA for close to 7 years.” I never fully understood the idea of a newcomer knowing nothing at all until relapsing after having 15 months clean time.
After having 15 months of sobriety, I decided to drink. When I reported this to my sponsor he suggested I quit my job, withdraw from college, move out of my apartment, find a recovery house to move into, and start going to meetings everyday. This was not after an extended relapse. It was after a single night of drinking. He believed I had not learned anything and was putting everything else before my recovery. I was also told I had to raise my hand when the chair person asked, “Are there any newcomers with us?”, and I was told not to share anything for the first 30 days because I had nothing of value to share. It was as if I did not retain any information and was unable to carry it over into my new beginning. This might not be everyone’s experience, but it is mine. Again, it is a harmful shame-based method that deflates a persons self-esteem and keeps them in a state of feeling less than.
3. There are more doctors than there are PhDs
I’ve heard many people in AA express opinions about not taking medications. I currently take naltrexone once a day to help reduce and eliminate alcohol cravings. It seems to help, and I have no plans on discontinuing the medication without doctor approval. Prior to starting naltrexone, I told an AA member, whom I just met, that I was about to start an anti-craving medication. He was quick to say he didn’t think I needed to do that, and I just needed to go to meetings and do the steps. This is coming from a person who is not a doctor and knows nothing about me or my medical history. From my experience, this is a typical response and it can be a harmful one.
Several years ago, I was at an AA gathering and the topic of anti-depressants came up. A guy was asking what others thought about them and had been debating taking himself off of his. An AA member went on and on about how medications like that do not work. He gave a long story about how he was on some sort of medication and stopped taking it and the steps and AA were the cure. A week or two passed, and I did not see the person who had asked the question. One night, he came walking into a meeting with half of his face bruised and his arm in a sling. I asked him what happened, and he said he tried to kill himself. People in recovery are often vulnerable and willing to listening to anyone who is willing to talk. Taking medical advice from people who have no medical training can be harmful. Yet, from my experience, this is a pretty common thing in AA.
4. There never comes a day when a person is able to spread their wings and leave AA
When I first started AA, I thought I would learn the tools of the program and go back into the world where I would practice them. I quickly realized that AA is a never ending program, and it is believed a person must go to AA forever.
I have tried to discuss this with many AA members and the response seems to always be the same. After 6 years of being in and around AA, I told my sponsor I was just tired of going. It wasn’t that I was trying to rebel. I just didn’t like it anymore. I told him the teachings were beneficial, but going to meetings everyday was draining me and I no longer enjoyed that part of it. He responded saying, “You’re going to need at least another 3 to 5 years before you can consider spreading your wings.” This is something I do not agree with, and I believe if I did stick around, in 5 years he’d of told me I needed another 5.
These are only a few of the things I do not like about AA. All in all, I’ve lost interest in it. I’ve been to so many meetings I can ask a person in AA a question and 95% of the time I know what their response will be. I’m over the jargon and slogans. No matter what state I’m in or what meeting I go to, I hear the same things. Nothing new is ever said. It is a design that no longer fits my belief system or thought process. There are times when I enjoy reading Hazelden literature and some of the AA approved literature, but I just don’t like meetings or the culture of AA. It is definitely more than a place to go for help, it is a subculture that people give their entire lives to.
I wish I could say I’ve been sober since 2005, but I cannot. Some may say if I had worked the steps and done the program then I would be. That is one problem. I’ve done everything asked of me, from AA, many times, over and over.
I went to my first inpatient treatment the same week President Obama was first inaugurated into office. Since then, I have been through 5 additional inpatient treatments. I’ve also lived in several different homeless shelters and halfway houses across 3 different states. Every institution was 12-step based. For close to 6 years, I found myself in what seemed like a never ending cycle of sobriety, relapse, homelessness, treatment, and structured living facility. During these years, and through my experience with 12-step recovery, I lost a lot self-confidence and self-worth. I allowed people I didn’t even know make life changing decisions for me. I became focused on what others thought was best for me, rather than following my heart. I gave up hope on ever finishing my education and having a family. I thought this seemingly endless cycle was going to be my life, until the day I die.
In January 2014, I woke up in what I will confidently call my last homeless shelter. I slept in a bed that was infested with bed bugs. A large majority of my roommates were registered sex offenders. The night security guard, who did bed checks in the middle of the night, was on federal parole for 1st degree murder. A man, whom I shared a bathroom with, was arrested for 2 counts of attempted murder for slitting the throats of two residents at the shelter. This was an extremely low point of my life and what can be found at the bottom of my bottles. I was there because I needed help, but I was also determined to get back to the life I desired to live.
I walked 3 miles each day to intensive outpatient treatment, and I spent my nights in the shelter. I knew I needed treatment, but the thought of 12-step treatment made me feel hopeless. Luckily the treatment center I went to was implementing evidence-based treatment, alongside 12-step recovery. The psychologist I was assigned to, told me I did not have to do 12-step treatment because there are other options. He knew my treatment history and was convinced an attempt at the same thing would be pointless. I was extremely relieved and hopeful to hear this. He taught me the four main tools of Smart Recovery: 1) building and maintaining motivation, 2) coping with urges, 3) managing thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and 4) living a balanced life. I like this program because it supports the idea of spreading your wings. He was able to identify thought rumination as being a major problem contributing to my drinking and spent time teaching me cognitive behavioral therapy. It helped me learn how to control ruminative thoughts, identify irrational thoughts, and how to stop making irrational choices. He helped restore my self-confidence and feelings of self-worth and taught me self-reliance.
While I was going through the program another counselor was dead set on sending me to a 12-step recovery house after my treatment. I was dead set on not going. I took what money I had and decided I was going to live in one final institution. It was a dorm room on a University campus. I moved into a college dorm at the age of 32. I moved out of the dorm at the age of 34. I’ll have a bachelors degree in two months and am applying to graduate school, and I am happy. These are goals, dreams, and hopes that I feel 12-step recovery took away from me. I found little to no support, in AA, when it came to anything I did outside the rooms of AA, especially in terms of my education and career goals. While in college, I decided to start following the footsteps of my professors and other classmates to help get me where I want to go.
Several months ago, I was getting lonely and decided to give AA one last chance. I attended meetings for close to a month. I went but did not enjoy being there. The happiness it once brought me no longer exists. If I were to continue going to AA, it would be the same as trying to force a bad relationship that ended a long time ago. Today, my recovery is based on Smart Recovery and cognitive behavioral therapy. These methods are the reasons I am sober today and why I have been successful in finally completing my education.
My goal is not to bash AA or discourage others from reaching out for help. Like I said before, AA did help me at one point in time. I would encourage others to read the pros and cons of AA, research AA alternatives, and understand there are many avenues to recovery. This is only one person’s story. It is my story, and I am stickin’ to it.