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Horror Story #3:

Confessions of a Twelve Step Drop-Out: Finding Other Recovery Models to Treat Addiction - Heather Emelin Graham

My introduction to Alcoholics Anonymous came through my mother's married lover who was a "Grandfather In AA" speaking worldwide about how the Twelve Steps changed his life and his values (!). He also hijacked the funds of AA's Sober Sailor Cruises to take my family on vacations...but, I won't "take his inventory". After meeting this man and hearing about AA's miracles, I called the AA Hotline and met with two volunteers hoping for help with my father's alcoholism. We met in a Chicago blizzard. They gave me literature and advice about how to confront my dad about his drinking problem. It was Christmastime, so I gift wrapped the books and gave them to my father as he staggered in one night. In return he gave me a withering look, throwing them at me as he lunged into his room and passed out. A year later my father had a heart attack and "hit bottom" enough to embrace AA. I rejoiced until I spent time with him again, secretly almost wishing he was drinking, so irritating were his endless AA slogans. While I dreaded calls from city strangers requesting I come to pick him up, I had to admit Dad was a charming drunk. As an AA, his life consisted of meetings and prosthelitizing. His sentences began with "My sponsor says..." or "My Higher Power..." I wanted Dad to be sober, but I winced and worried he had been swallowed up by a cult. He never drank again, yet continued to have the ethics of a con artist. AA was his dating service and a platform for his speaking skills.

Alcohol was not then my addiction of choice. I was anorexic, later bulimic. I was addicted to dieting, weighing myself, and purging my food. There wasn't a diet I hadn't been on. Desperate, I entered an Eating Disorder Center in L. A. Remember the movie "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest"? Our "Nurse Ratched" had a new weapon: Leaving Treatment Against Medical Advice. This tool bought my continued participation in a treatment program so toxic that I later entered psychotherapy to be treated for my experiences. (Had I left "A.M. A.", my insurance would not have covered my tab - $20 K within my first days!) The counselors were not licensed in psychology; they were members of Overeaters Anonymous! On my first day in treatment, I was dispatched to an inpatient group called "You Are Only As Sick As Your Secrets". As the newcomer, I was to confess a secret. I admitted I stole Barbie doll heads from a toy store as a child. Our counselor "shared" next: "I taught my German Shepard to 'lick me', but when he did it with company there, I yelled 'Bad dog!' and later pet him and said 'Good dog!'" I telephoned my mother after the group, begging to leave. She had been instructed to hang up. I was there three months. By the time I left, I too was spouting AA-aphorisms! I attended 90 meetings in 90 days and found a sponsor. For one year I followed the rigid O. A. Food Plan. One day, I had a piece of bread and a tic tac. I knew I had broken my abstinence. I called my sponsor to confess. "You are going to die!" she screamed. She meant it. For a moment I held my breath. "What if this triggers my eating disorder and I DO die?" It didn't take long for me to feel angry and disgusted. I quit OA that day. I gained 15 pounds in the initial months off the food plan, but as I allowed myself to eat forbidden foods, their siren song was silenced. They lost their power as I gained mine. Since then, I have maintained a healthy weight of between 125 to 130 lbs.

Later I had a health problem similar to lupus, experiencing agonizing pain until surgery relieved me of my suffering. When my surgery was over, I was dependent on enough painkillers to knock out a horse. I entered treatment, again. My insurance didn't cover a high-end program, so I found myself in a center where I was the only Caucasian female not addicted to crack. My peers mistook me for a nurse. I argued for my "disease", but no one bought it until I "shared" about my powerlessness over painkillers. The drug cocktail I had been downing included such a mix of controlled substances that as I quit them cold, I didn't sleep for 17 days. The counselors labeled me to be but a self-centered addict as I begged for help for my prolonged withdrawal symptoms and frightening hallucinations. "What do you want? A pill for everything?!" After my early escape - with insurance coverage - I saw a Sleep Disorder Specialist. Eyeing my chart, he said in amazement, "My God! How long did it take you to sleep at all?!" adding, "You could have had a seizure!" An opinion offered a little too late. I'll always recall the clinic diagnosing my "schizophrenia" for "seeing things that weren't there" and wanting to strongly medicate me.

Instead of pills, regular attendance at AA and NA was pushed down my throat. I was resistant, and for a while addiction free. But now that I was no longer tranquilized by all those downers, I had chronic insomnia which interfered with my ability to reason as well as causing irritability and depression. My doctor prescribed a benign sleep medication called ambien. Soon I again became drug dependent, increasing my dosage from 1/2 a tablet to two and then more. You guessed it! A new addiction to vanquish at yet another Rehab with a single prognosis: Lifelong participation in AA and NA Twelve-Step groups.

Ever heard of controlled studies of participants instructed to claim that everyone in their group had been given pencils of equal length while one poor sucker is given an inordinately short pencil? The "group think" convinces this person they are blind or insane until they eventually agree their pencil is the same size as the others. I am a rebel. My counselors and peers persistently predicted I would die if I didn't find a sponsor immediately, attend 90 meetings in 90 days, and then attend meetings 3 to 4 times a week for life. I had been sexually abused as a child. Conceding powerlessness was difficult, as was relinquishing all "control" over my life. Yet I got right to meetings and found a sponsor I called devoutly. While the center had prepared me for a life in recovery, it didn't warn me that people coming off mass quantities of "downers" can experience panic so severe they might believe they were dying. In the midst of a panic attack with no idea about what was happening to me, I begged my boyfriend to bring me to the E. R. The hospital admitted me to a psychiatric ward where I was forced to stay for ten days...but that is another story. I phoned my sponsor to admit to downing a beer to calm myself during the panic attack. "Well," she sneered, "I guess you still think you can drink! Call me when you hit bottom and are ready for this program." I wondered if I was one of the "poor unfortunates" whose "grave emotional or mental disorders" prevent them from working the twelve steps until their early death. Even so, l chose not to return to AA.

Both scientifically and spiritually oriented, I believe an intelligence more powerful than my own has to exist. (There better be!) Surely this higher power, universal energy force, or whatever name we use to try to define that which escapes definition will reveal other reliable solutions for treating addiction! And indeed, I have discovered excellent methods and programs that do just that. These paradigms are modeled upon the belief in the individual's ability to make choices and adapt new behaviors. No, nothing is easy when breaking lifelong, potentially fatal habits! Whoever said the struggles we would face in life would be easy? Human evolution is based upon the idea of growth, growth in consciousness and in maturity. Maybe it is time for a new model for healing that embraces self-determination and self-empowerment. That is the path I want to take.

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Last updated 2005/10/17

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