Alcoholics Anonymous is one of the oldest and most respected programs for recovery, but that doesn’t make it right for everyone.
I first walked into the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous when I was sixteen. Alcohol abuse was a thread that wove its way through my family, tying together generations with its familiar ache. From a young age, my brothers and I were acutely aware that we were at increased risk of developing substance use disorder, and likely, at least one of us would struggle. Sitting in the passenger seat of my mom’s sedan, hands fidgeting in my lap as we made our way across the scenic back roads of Pennsylvania to my first AA meeting, I think I knew it would be me.
Stepping into the rooms for the first time
We arrived at a small, beige building with no windows and little to indicate what was waiting inside. And what was inside was everything I had imagined and nothing I could have dreamed in my adolescent brain. I crossed the threshold and was enveloped by the smells and sounds of a new, strange world. A world where people wore their insides on the outside. Where they spoke about the unspeakable.
With my eyes focused on the linoleum floor, I shuffled to a table and pulled out my folding chair. The air was thick with the smell of coffee and cigarette smoke. Sounds of laughter from older men who sounded like they had swallowed gravel. For the next hour, I sat quietly and listened as strangers shared the most intimate details of their lives. Stories of heartbreaking loss and regret. Stories of redemption and forgiveness. Stories of strength and hope. It was profound and touching and powerful. In the room that day, I found a piece of humanity that I had never experienced anywhere else in my short life. And when it was over, I stepped out into the sun, let go of a long breath, and felt so grateful that I would never have to return to AA again.
Well, isn’t life funny?
The next time I walked into the rooms of AA was two decades later. No longer a teenager. No longer wondering if I would struggle with substance use disorder. A few late-night Internet quizzes and an expensive in-patient treatment stay had confirmed what I had suspected for years. I arrived at another nondescript building, except this time, I knew what was waiting for me inside. Cross-stitched phrases such as “One Day at a Time” hung on the wall, and the smell of bitter coffee hung in the air. Smokers huddled together right outside the doorway, while old-timers sat together in the corner. It was a sort of time capsule. At first, the familiarity was comforting. A much-needed balm for my broken pieces. Later it would be a large part of my leaving AA.
Facing an obstacle in the 12 Steps
I first questioned my journey in AA after beginning my step work. Step work is the bedrock of AA. When AA was founded in the 1930s by Bill W. and Dr. Bob, the 12 Steps acted as a set of guidelines for spiritual and character development. They form an incremental system through which people make the needed changes in thoughts and behaviors to overcome a substance use disorder. Each of the steps builds upon the last.
“Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”
The fourth step involves an inventory of all the resentments you’ve held your entire life and identifying the part you played. By taking accountability for past actions, this step can be a powerful exercise for self-discovery and growth. However, it’s much more complicated for anyone who has experienced trauma in the past. This became clear as I stared down at my journal, struggling to find my part in an assault that happened one night when I was followed into a bathroom at a bar. When I raised my concerns in a meeting, I was met largely with silence. After the meeting ended, an older woman shuffled over to me and in a hushed tone, “Hon, we don’t need to write those things down.”
It didn’t matter. The damage was done. It solidified what I already believed. That I was bad. That it was my fault. But the exercise also created a crack in the foundation of my belief that AA was the only way to recover. A window to the outside world that I would eventually climb through to start my own path of recovery. I began reading about and researching Alcoholics Anonymous. Who it was created for. Who it erased off its pages of history. In short, I began to question everything. And the more I found, the more I felt like AA was not the recovery path for me.
Learning to trust myself and my own voice
There is a saying in AA that it was “Our best thinking that got us here.” But for me, it was ignoring my best thinking that got me there. It was ignoring my own thoughts and feelings that contributed to my drinking. I drank to be agreeable. I drank to make my voice smaller. I drank to say yes when everything in my brain and my body was screaming no. I drank (cringe) so men would like me. I drank so I would like myself. The more pieces of myself I gave away, the more I drank. My thoughts, my ideas, and my feelings. Until I had nothing left. Until I had no sense of self. And then I started to look to others to tell me how to think and feel. To tell me who I was. Who do you see when you see me? Am I good enough? Am I worthy?
When I got sober, I knew that I didn’t have all the answers. I knew I didn’t know what my path would look like. But I promised myself that whatever happened, no matter what, I would never abandon myself again. That when the deepest parts of myself got healthy and showed up, I would trust her. I would fight for her. I would let her lead. And so, after months of reading and researching, speaking to trusted friends and professionals, and listening to so many outside voices, I finally listened to the voice that mattered most: my own.
In a world where we so often want the comfort of absolutes, my experience in AA was neither all good nor all bad. Yes, I found some of the texts and teachings harmful to my recovery. But also found some of the kindest, most compassionate humans in the rooms of AA. A community that walked beside me through some of my greatest struggles and celebrations. A community that offered me friendship and a sense of belonging.
But what I’ve come to realize is that before you can belong to anyone else, you have to first belong to yourself. And that sometimes means painful truths. Sometimes it means sitting in discomfort. And it sometimes means standing up and knowing that it’s okay to leave. And in the end, it was leaving AA that helped bring me back to myself. Learning to trust my thoughts. Honoring my feelings. Speaking from a place of truth. Leading from a place of integrity. Showing up for those I love. Most importantly, showing up for myself.
And that is recovery.