Thursday, February 4, 2010

By the book: The denial of difference in Alcoholics Anonymous


The back of the room is safe but the back of the room is forbidden. Isolating means fear and denial. Come to the front. Come to the table. At the table, I cannot function. The faces know. I cannot look. At the first opportunity, I will move to a corner. Lower my head so I don’t see the looks.

The hardest part of it all is staying in the room. Some meetings are harder than others. You never know when the person chairing is going to be of the controlling type. Today, we will go around the room and say how we are powerless or what we are grateful for. Or worse, she will call on people randomly. Going around the room is better because I would know when to leave. Leaving is wrong, but I have no choice. I don’t yet have the tools for staying.

Once in awhile someone will have a talk with me. People have followed me out. What are you afraid of? You are getting ready to drink. But I am not afraid of telling the truth. I am not able to speak.

This had happened in school too. One of the things I did to frustrate my teachers was to say only “I don’t know” when called on to answer a question. They knew this was a lie because I had already discussed the very topic in an essay or chosen it from a standardized test. Sometimes, I might even volunteer the answer, briefly, orally. But when called on, I never knew. It was common knowledge that I lied about these things because I was “shy.” I did not know why my mind went blank or filled with random pictures or graphs. Sometimes, I would try very hard to make a sentence out of it. People would stare back blankly because whatever I said seemed several topics removed from the question.

During my early years in AA, I rarely stayed in the room for an entire meeting. People would try to engage me by asking me to do things. I could not chair a meeting, but I could make coffee. I could not stand up and tell my story to a group, but I could collect the trash and take it out. Eventually, it became clear to me that this was no longer enough.

I went for nearly three years before drifting off.


The hardest part of it all was staying in the room. I was older now, 39 as opposed to 25. I understood more about how to stay. This was viewed positively by the few who had known me before. It was framed as “being ready this time,” as being more willing. That was probably true, too, after seven more years of alcoholic drinking. The key for me was that I had acquired the ability to say the word “pass” or even “I will just listen today” when it was my turn to speak. I still found myself with an urgent need to use the restroom or take a walk at some point, but usually I came back.

Conflict arose when the time came to receive my first token, representing one year of sobriety. I tried to refuse. The tradition is to say a few words and I hadn’t yet said anything in any meeting beyond “pass” or “I will just listen today.” But I had bought into the idea so prevalent in AA that somehow displeasing one's sponsor and group is likely to lead to tragedy. I had accepted a lot of beliefs I knew were lacking in logic and reason. I had been told I would surely drink if I did not do this. For months, I had traded aspects of critical thinking for the approval that seemed somehow to play a role in keeping me alive.

When I think about this now, I understand how easily reason can be set aside in favor of anecdotal evidence. I heard the stories over and over: Beth comes to meetings every day, and she has been sober for 10 years. Marie was sober for 10 years, too, but she stopped going to meetings a year ago and now she is drinking again. Rita did the same thing, and now she is dead. There was a seemingly endless supply of such stories. I was pretty sure that there were people who did not go to AA and still were sober, but eventually, I stopped asking questions because these questions, I was told, were a function of denial. Then there were those people who came around all the time and seemed to do everything recommended, but never seemed able to stay sober. There was an explanation for that. They were doing it wrong.
One hears the same sorts of stories about autism causes and treatments. Joe was autistic, but now he's not since starting XYZ. If you question this, it is because your philosophy is flawed. "My child is my evidence." That sort of thing.

I negotiated the token situation with my sponsor. I could use a simple script when accepting the token; “thank you” would be enough. Reluctantly, I agreed, and found myself adding to the script so that when the time came, I had several short sentences to say. This might have been a mistake. People were amazed by the talking I did. Now they were sure I could say things at any time I wanted. I responded by memorizing brief scripts for various popular topics. They were coherent enough, having been written and memorized beforehand, that people started looking to me for advice, even asking me to sponsor them. The problem was that these new situations demanded far more ability to speak extemporaneously than I actually had. I had quickly risen to my level of incompetence.

Demands continued to increase. I was berated by my sponsor for the misbehavior of not going out to dinner after meetings. Apparently I lacked the all important willingness to socialize with groups, which was necessary to the next step of my development. I made many attempts to meet this expectation, becoming more miserable and alienated with each try. I could not understand why these monumental efforts toward conformity were not sufficient to stop the accusations of unwillingness. I came to believe that there was something fundamentally wrong with me, something that would surely lead me back to drinking.

During one argument with my sponsor over this and other crimes of autistic behavior, I stood in the middle of the street, doubled over, crying. “This is too much drama for me,” she said. And she laughed. I didn’t fire her; she fired me, a short while later. Her parting words were about how I had this tendency to see everything in black and white. This was probably the closest I came to drinking, and the best thing that could have happened. I found another sponsor who was flexible enough to accommodate, and even appreciate, my differences, one who did not find amusement in my pain. I still see her from time to time. Neither of us goes to the meetings anymore.

Further reflections

There were things I liked about Alcoholics Anonymous. There was a comforting sameness about the meetings, an orderliness to the steps. Hearing the stories of others who had been in the same kinds of trouble I had reassured me that sobriety was possible. Many people were kind and went out of their way to help others who were suffering. In fact I have never encountered another group of people so willing to sacrifice time and energy for people in need. And there was always coffee.

I never got over my uneasiness with the exhortations to “stop thinking so much” and just do what I was told, just as I never adjusted to social expectations that were entirely outside my understanding and abilities. But I did do (more or less) what I was told, and the fact that I took every step so very literally may have been helpful. I really don’t know.

There was one other thing that, in retrospect, I very much appreciate. Despite the many before-, during-, and after-meeting comparisons (this one’s drinking was far worse than that one’s) and the jockeying for status associated with long term sobriety, not one person ever questioned whether anyone, no matter how young or seemingly unscarred, met the DSM definition for substance dependence. All were considered qualified to know who they were, and with or without benefit of formal diagnosis, entitled to say so without rebuke.


This post is not meant to discourage anyone who needs help and thinks that AA might be the solution. This is one person’s experience. I am sharing it with the hope that AA groups and members might consider the possibility that, despite the prevailing sarcasm toward people who “think they are different,” and are therefore surely in denial, some of us may truly have different needs which could easily be respected and accommodated.


  1. Thanks for this Bev. I can really relate to what you wrote.

    "not one person ever questioned whether anyone, no matter how young or seemingly unscarred, met the DSM definition for substance dependence."

    Exactly! Having to qualify what you a think or and why seems so counter productive in autism discussions. Saying something is of course someones opinion so why the need to tell someone it's nothing more. What else is there?

    or "I think this because my brain works this way" or "I believe this because my experiences are...." everyone has those reasons so why expect people to qualify them? why would they suspect hidden motives or agendas? I think about that a lot....

    "despite the prevailing sarcasm toward people who “think they are different,” and are therefore surely in denial, some of us may truly have different needs which could easily be respected and accommodated."

    Claiming that anyone is terminally unique in 12 step terms or in any other kind of thinking that promotes group solidarity can be used in so many harmful ways. I accept that it keeps some people on track but it's a label I won't wear. As you say, I too wish more people would consider that people are different.

    "I responded by memorizing brief scripts for various popular topics." :) no kidding! Other people do that? LOL!

    Language is what I tend to memorize more just because it's always been a habit that kept me from appearing too awkward and conspicuous in public. Other people may see that as less honest but I have to think about what I want to say.

    Even then I say a lot that I want to apologize for later when I'm involved where people talk back.... Hopefully I do this when I think to so wouldn't cause more problems for the people I apologize to.

    So, what you wrote here made a lot of sense. It's only practical to make allowances for differences.

  2. These days there are online AA groups which people can go to and write stuff down and read what everyone else says.

    It's hard to be in a milleu when you'll be put down for being shy or different.

  3. really enjoyed your post as usual bev

    i am so glad that you got rid of that old sponser and found a new one

    i hope things are going better for you now xx

  4. Some of what you described reminds me of some of my experiences in therapy. Particularly from "survivor" and "recovery from abuse" angles, which seem to universally assume that everyone who experiences a certain kind of trauma (or something an Expert [tm] has decided is universally traumatic) responds in the exact same way, has the exact same reactions years down the road, and will always be helped by the exact same things.

    See, part of my problem was that the things they defined as traumatic, I'd already done a lot to work through on my own. Or they hadn't been that upsetting to me in the first place and I was surprised to hear them declare that certain things must have been traumatic for me as a child, acceptance is the first step to healing, etc, etc. On the other hand, experiences that had been truly painful to me were things that did not fit into conventional modern Western narratives about trauma and recovery or even into modern psychology's neatly delineated types of traumas and disorders, and therapists did nothing at all to help me with those-- they seemed instead to assume that I must be "displacing" my feelings about some other thing, something they'd defined as bad, in order to bring me back within their models and ideals.

    And I ran up again and again against expectations of "now that we've gone through the prescribed motions, you should have no more problems with this particular issue! Right? Right?" When it was still very much a problem for me, but I was forced to hide it from my therapists and pretend everything was "better now," lest I be obligated to go through the same useless motions all over again.

    And in many cases trying to explain just exactly what those things were that had caused me so much distress, would bring me too far into the realm of being suspected of having a "thought disorder," when I couldn't shape them to some conventional psychological narrative. (Or even when I could, but my therapists couldn't fathom the idea that someone could have, say, had a phase during which they were very out of touch with reality, and have recovered from it and come back to a more realistic view of the world on their own without therapists guiding them. Seeing real events and real pain in my life denied, while being told to obsessively dwell on things I've already moved beyond, it's a kind of sickness I can't even describe in words.)

  5. (cont'd)

    But in many ways the worst part of it was how it trained me into helplessness and dependence on external authority-- to feel that everything I thought I was feeling and experiencing needed to be examined and verified by an "expert" before I could be certain it was real. To smile, to cover pain that was still far too real, because I'd been told I was fixed now; to let myself be driven to the point of tears and be told that this was "healing" and "letting it out"; taught that if I didn't accept their views of me and my past, something horrible would happen to me further down the line and that I might never recover from it; to stuff away and try to destroy something that helped me, something that seemed to be an inevitable byproduct of my own neurology, because according to the psychs it was "dissociation" and a result of trauma. Which did me no good, to say the least, further down the line. (Well, either that or the doctors came out to see the fascinating freakshow who was so "comfortable" with her "disorder.")

    I only *thought* I was not like others and that what worked for them would not work for me, because this feeling that I was unlike others was a byproduct of my childhood, something I needed to be trained out of; thinking you are different means having unwarranted grandeur and thinking you are too good for your doctor; I needed to be taught what a wonderful thing normalcy was and how much I wanted to be normal, but that I'd also never be normal, that I was broken damaged goods.

    So yeah.... there are a lot of bizarre and scary and pernicious things in self-help culture of all varieties, and I'm... glad you've decided to be open here about the parts of it you experienced. Even if it was in many ways very different from my experience, it still makes me feel more confident in being more open about mine. I've read similar things about AA in a few other places. I know one person who was helped by it, but I've known people who were helped by conventional trauma recovery therapy too, and it doesn't by any means let the whole philosophy and everyone involved off the hook.

  6. Thank you for sharing this. It was thoughtful and reflective and makes clear some of the problems wih group think and the need to conform in order to be accepted.

    My three children have the same problem of knowing something but being unable to say it on demand; it comes and goes, and makes it more difficult in some ways until you understand that it is a function of their brains, not a willful disobedience. Once you realize something like that, it's easy to accomodate and work around. So far, my daughters' teachers have been understanding of that and come back to the girls when they show they are ready to answer. Society, as a whole, needs to make a shift to working to understand each other and accomodate the differences in a way that enhances the functioning of the group.

  7. My boyfriend is an alcoholic in recovery, and I honestly don't know how an Autistic could tolerate the AA environment.

    Due to his experiences with me, my boyfriend has been able to spot a few possible Autistics in the crowd. According to him, they have a very tough time of it. I sincerely hope someone corrects this situation, because it isn't fair to Autistics. But then, what is?

  8. Also, I think what you describe is true of many recovery groups. Not having experience with AA, I can't comment there, and I know it is hugely helpful to so many, but I think you've identified a problem with recovery groups in general--that the group can become a sort of addiction and encourage some really unhealthy forms of dependence and power-seeking...Great insights.

  9. Dang! Now I'm even more scared of availing myself of AA! Did my comment on the last post bring these thoughts to your mind?

    To get practical, and refer to my other comment, is there any way to find out which meeting to attend, in advance, or do you just have to go and see what happens?

  10. Justthisguy,

    In many cities there is a central office (look under AA in the phone book); you can call and ask the person on the phone for reccomendations. You can tell them your concerns or just ask for a meeting that is small or large (whichever suits you best). They won't ask any questions. Where I live there are meetings for men only, women only, young people, glbtq meetings, a wide variety. Some meetings are known for being very much "by the book" while others are more laid back.

    As another commenter noted, there are online meetings too. You might want to try one of these first, and that would give you a much larger pool of people who might be able to direct you to a friendlier meeting.

    I hope you find whatever you need, justthisguy. You are welcome to email me if you want to talk in more detail.

  11. Bev, thanks so much for this article. I had been thinking back on my AA and Al-Anon days in very similar terms.

    Back in the day, when I was still going to meetings, I always felt so different, and I had such trouble connecting with people. I always felt like an imposter, like my story didn't sound enough like anyone else's for me to really belong there. Even my alcohol use seemed atypical. And of course, when I came out and said this, I got tagged for thinking I was terminally unique. I just couldn't win.

    It was all very confusing. I kept feeling that I wasn't letting go and letting you-know-who enough. And I could never find anyone to sponsor me. Ever. I wonder if I'm the only one in AA who has ever had that problem. It was very perplexing. I'm a pretty quiet, unobnoxious person, so it's not like I sat in meetings yelling at people or taking other people's inventories of anything. I kept doggedly going to meetings until one night, the person who had led the meeting asked whether I had a spiritual path. I said I did, that I was exploring my spiritual path in Judaism, and he said, "Well, all that really matters is that you have a spiritual path. Whether it's in AA or somewhere else, it really makes no difference."

    Glory halleluyah! I never went back to a meeting, and I've been clean and sober for almost 20 years.

  12. (Not alcoholic, no experiences with 12-Step meetings)

    I know someone who runs a substance recovery group, and he and a few of his friends in my church have decided that The 12 Steps Are The Answer To Everything In Life. Including unemployment.

    Nevermind that when you have several risk factors for a thing called Learned Helplessness, 'I have no control over anything' is one of the worst things to get in your head intentionally.

    Nevermind that I have a history of being prescribed psych meds some people abuse. Wouldn't accept a prescription for the stuff if given one tomorrow, but that doesn't matter to some people.

    And I was the one who 'needed to get a grip on reality' when I reacted emotionally to the suggestion I needed to follow the 12 Steps and wreck myself worse to get a job.

  13. As you know, I've done the 12 Step thing all over the place, and I have a mixed relationship with them. On the one hand, I feel 12 Step has saved my marriage and profoundly changed (in a beautiful way) my husband.

    I've gotten a lot of benefit from working the Steps and from incorporating 12 Step philosophy into my life. But I also don't always feel comfortable in the groups or that going to meetings is always the best path for my growth.

    Your specific experiences were really interesting. I've mostly attended smaller 12 Step Anon organizations (for friends and family members of addicts). In every meeting I had ever been in, if no one wants to share, we all just sit in silence -- for 1, 2, 5 10 minutes... No one ever has to speak at all, other than to say their name at the beginning of the meeting.

    So, I was shocked when I went to an OA meeting for the first time and the secretary said, "I'm in AA too. I'll call on people." And she did.

    I also never experienced the scare tactics -- after all, what can you say to someone who is married to an addict? "If you stop going to meetings, you'll marry another addict?" ;)

    Thanks so much for sharing, Bev. I always get so much out of your posts!

  14. You're absolutely right. In a similar fellowship I was taken to task for "not sharing." I couldn't explain that sometimes I'm incapable of talking, especially if many people are looking at me.
    That kind of pressure is wrong but there is a lot of bullying that goes on in "the rooms."
    I got tired of the bullying and being hit on by 13th Steppers and being asked to loan people money and I got sooooo damn tired of the jargon. I felt that if one more person told me I was only as sick as my secrets I would commit homicide.
    So I left and got better on my own. It can be done. It happens all the time; it's just not publicized.

  15. The trouble with AA is that it works by substituting dependence on group dynamics for dependence on Alcohol.

    It's not an entirely functional strategy, but it's better than chronic alcoholism...

    One tiny problem, we are Aspies, we cannot "do" group dynamics, and, for many of us, negotiating AA group dynamics may well be a far more traumatic and stressful achievement than actually quitting the booze could ever be.

    I come from a long line of boozehounds, and, since I discovered Lidl was selling wine that was not only affordable, but drinkable, in 2002 (this is Ireland, prior to that, most wine was extortionately priced and disgusting) I have been skating on the edge of the same state of mind.

    I know I have to keep a grip on that. I know it was waiting in me to be triggered all my life, so, logically, it cannot be "cured" so that I can be normal, but I also know AA would be so intolerable to me that I wouldn't even be able to stick it long enough to see if it did me any harm.

    Fortunately, there are other ways to get a grip, like, for example just "not drinking"...

    I suspect that, because we are Aspies, once we make up our minds, many of us will succeed at that simple method far better than the NT would.

    Finding motivation, as an Aspie, is the killer, but I really need my driving licence, and my figure, so i guess I'll make do with those...

  16. Thank you for sharing you thoughts on AA Bev. The longer I am away from meetings, the more I feel that I am getting to know myself better and I seem to even be able to relate to people better than when I went to meetings and AA members were my primary relationships. I'm not autistic or have aspergers (at least I don't think I do) but I do have a lot "issues." One of the issues I do have is that I can't be scared into doing something.

    When I was a child and went to a baptist church I was so confused when in one sermon the minister would talk about God being love and in tne next would say that if we sinned we wouuld burn in hell.

    It's about the same idea in AA when they say if you don't go to meetings you will drink, or if you don't do xyz you will drink again.

    Now that I do not go to meetings, I still 'practice the principles' but now I do so because I want to and I see the value in my life and the lives of those I have relationships with, when I do. However, before when I was in AA, I would do so with this constant chatter in my mind of what other AA's would think of it, and how I would share the experience of working the steps, in a meeting.

    Basically it's in the desire to be a better human and to help others that drives me to live by 'the principles' of AA. I don't keep the focus of what I do not want to do, but what I do want to do and that keeps me in a more positive frame of mind and more motivated to do the right thing.

    I find that I feel better about myself, have more peace of mind and can extend the love and kindness to humanity, when I do not go to AA meetings.

  17. After 28 years, as you might imagine, I have thought a lot about this stuff. I have long wanted to write an in-depth critique of AA (here's a rather "light" one, by contrast--page down to the marijuana leaf!), but have been reluctant to do it... for one thing, it saved my life, and it seems awfully "rude" or ungrateful (to me)... another reason is that I feel the 12 steps are still under attack in a way other treatments are not (see last post of mine) and I don't want to pile on.

    Nonetheless, your post rings very true. I tried to think of what I did in similar situations; I chaired the same damn meeting for--what? Twelve years or something. I like to think I was good at making all kinds of folks feel comfortable, but quite honestly--I do remember putting people on the spot who didn't want to talk. (Keep in mind, the chair of the meeting, being an oversensitive alcoholic, might have believed they weren't saying the right words to you, weren't doing the right thing, and felt failure also.) An over-riding problem in AA is that after people have used lots of chemicals (not just alcohol), they often act strangely. Thus, any differences in behavior are automatically attributed to a history of chemical excess/bombardment, rather than a "pre-existing" difference or disability.

    One thing that made a big difference for me personally, was going to all-women's meetings. My sponsor, may her soul rest in peace told me to do that, and it was the best advice I ever got. I realized only then, how much I had been "performing" for men (not deliberately, I was raised to be a trained seal)... I think "specialized" meetings are good, for gays, for black Muslims (those are two specialized meetings that I can remember, in my hometown) or for whoever. I used to go to a noon meeting at the Ohio State Psych Hospital (where my aforementioned sponsor worked) and twice spoke there, too. It was really a very psychologically diverse, fun, warm and supportive environment, and I wish I could have brought you with me!

    Three weeks ago, after 28 alcohol-free years (have not been to a meeting in maybe 8-9 years), I was on a plane and was offered some very nice whiskey. I found myself thinking "No one will know if I do" and immediately flashed on an AA story I heard decades ago, about someone else who also thought "No one will know if I do" when they were a long way from home... she decided to sneak the shot of whiskey on the plane, and she detailed the extremely unpleasant consequences thereafter, which I'm sure you can guess. If I had never heard that story, I might have been seriously tempted. After all, I've been alcohol-free for blah-blah years. (That is exactly what this other person said to themselves.) BECAUSE I had heard that story, I was forewarned; I was aware that this could happen to me. I was safe. I remembered it. It is at THIS, that AA excels. I could never have heard that story anywhere else. Obviously, I remembered it because it was the kind of thing *I" might do (although I vividly remember thinking at the time, I would never do *that*! LOL) ... and this is its great strength.

    AA's weakness is a certain Calvinist bent, which really isn't so surprising considering that this is a largely Calvinist country, and AA was born in hyper-Calvinist Canton, Ohio. A certain "predestination" theology permeates it, and for awhile, after I figured this out, it nearly drove me berserk.

    2b continued

  18. Although the social aspect of AA is played up, I have to say, that can cut both ways. I know of whole groups of people getting drunk TOGETHER (ex husband among them, but I won't go THERE), and the social atmosphere can therefore BACKFIRE. We can't put our sobriety in the hands of PEOPLE, and making the social interaction so important, is doing just that.

    As you can see, you've got me going with your very thought-provoking post. Thank you for writing so honestly.

  19. I am very glad I stumbled onto your blog and just read this. I have been sober and attending AA meetings for almost 8 years. I am NT (more or less) and I have always found talking at meetings to be very helpful for me. I would never berate a sponsee for not talking at a meeting (or for anything, for that matter), but I definitely encourage sponsees to speak at meetings. I need to be more mindful that one size never fits all and that there are many many ways of benefiting or participating. I hope you have found good support for your sobriety, whether through AA or some other way.

  20. I am very glad I stumbled onto your blog and just read this. I have been sober and attending AA meetings for almost 8 years. I am NT (more or less) and I have always found talking at meetings to be very helpful for me. I would never berate a sponsee for not talking at a meeting (or for anything, for that matter), but I definitely encourage sponsees to speak at meetings. I need to be more mindful that one size never fits all and that there are many many ways of benefiting or participating. I hope you have found good support for your sobriety, whether through AA or some other way.


Squawk at me.
Need to add an image?
Use this code [img]IMAGE-URL-HERE[/img]