One of my earliest memories is of my father coming home angry, violent, and falling down drunk. I was already in bed, but I could hear his booming voice, cursing out my mother. As she spoke in hushed tones trying to diffuse him, I closed my eyes tightly and clamped my hands over my ears in a desperate attempt to drown out the chaos of furniture breaking and glass shattering. Suddenly without warning I was ripped from my top bunk by my staggering father and thrown onto the floor. I hadn’t even heard him come into my room.
He demanded that I go and help my mother clean up the mess that she made, and yelled at me to stop crying. As I remember it, I didn’t even know I was crying. These kinds of violent outbursts were pretty commonplace from my Dad, even after he quit drinking about 5 years later. Some would say that the trauma I experienced during my childhood caused my subsequent addictions, while others may point to genetics, and still others would say I learned heavy substance use from watching my father. It turns out my belief in these things as causes of addiction probably played the most significant role in my struggles with heavy substance use.
My beliefs about addiction were formed very young. My Dad went to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) when I was 9 years old after one final DWI arrest in 1977. As he did with just about everything, he jumped into AA with both feet and began preaching that alcoholism was genetic, and that if I ever drank, I would instantly become an alcoholic. If you want to ensure your kids will struggle with addiction, teach them that due to their genes, they are weak and substances are powerful. That’s a recipe for spending tens of thousands of dollars on rehabs for your kids that won’t work, and it’s totally false.
As my parents made addiction recovery their lifestyle, I became surrounded by AA members who loved telling me their horror stories about how they became addicted from their first drink and hit when they were my age. They were all so certain that I had the alcoholic gene and foretold stories of my imminent doom. I think that was supposed to scare me to stay away from alcohol and drugs. It didn’t. I took it as more of a challenge and believed it to be my destiny.
I experimented with alcohol and drugs from 12 to 18, but didn’t become instantly “addicted” as I’d been told I would. Instead, I waited until I left home for college to really cut loose. Then you could say I did what more than 70% of college students do, I became a weekend warrior, binge drinking on what are considered acceptable nights for college students; Fridays and Saturdays and of course on holidays. I began using what were considered acceptable drugs by my peers; marijuana, hash, and sometimes speed for those all nighters.
And before too long my weekend partying stretched to include Monday night football, Grateful Dead night on Tuesdays, dimies on Wednesdays, and thirsty Thursdays which just happened to also be Ladies’ Night. I would drink to all the poor alcoholics sitting in those church basements denying themselves all this fun — and truth be told, it was a whole lot of fun. But right from my first drink there was a little voice in my head warning me, ‘This fun is temporary. You’re an alcoholic and eventually you’ll have to stop or you’ll die.’
Here’s the thing, at 20 years old, dying didn’t seem all that scary to me. I struggled with emotional problems and spent a lot of time contemplating my own death. The thought of living with a disease that makes me powerless over my own thoughts and behaviors for the rest of my life was incredibly depressing. The only time I seemed to feel better was when I was drunk and/or high so the thought of having to give it all up seemed to me a worse fate than death. (It’s important to know, that is true for a lot of people identified as “addicted”.)
Even with my intense love for intoxication, I did give it all up. At 22 years old my drinking had cost me a college education, a place to live, several friendships, a few intimate relationships, and my sanity. I had overdosed, been beaten up, and lost nearly everyone and everything. It happened as everyone had told me it would. My life had become a train wreck much faster than I had anticipated, but it seemed to be of no surprise to anyone.
I did what I was told I would, I went to AA. I remember sitting at my first meeting listening as people told their war stories of how awful drinking had been for them. They talked of spousal abuse, DWI’s and car wrecks, cheating, pancreatitis and liver disease. They smoked copious amounts of cigarettes and drank nasty, bitter coffee by the gallon. Many of these people were 20 to 30 years older than I was, and they were oh, so, smug and condescending when they spoke to me.
I was told to stick with the women, but many avoided me. They seemed bitter that I was so young. One actually clucked at me that she’d spilled more than I drank. She said, “What the hell do you know about being an alcoholic?” While many people who join AA report that they finally felt a part of a group that understood them this wasn’t my experience at all; I felt like an outcast. Even though I had been around AA as a kid for more than 12 years, I felt completely out of place.
There were those few kind people who befriended me and took me under their wing. A couple did it because of their relationship with my father and his guru status at that point. Then there were those who were “of service” to me so they could ensure their own sobriety because that’s the way the program supposedly works. And there were many whose “service work” came with strings attached, but we’ll save that for another time. It wasn’t all bad, there were a precious few who were genuinely kind and caring people that clearly wanted to help me.
Being raised in the cult of Alcoholics Anonymous was the only reason I stayed in AA as long as I did. I was truly fortunate that my Dad had become skeptical after his father’s untimely death due to complications from heavy drinking. He had started to go against some of AA’s teachings just as I was seeking help for my problem. He told me that alcoholism is not a disease, that no one is powerless and that I could be ok. He explained that I had developed some self-destructive habits and lost my way in life, but that I had the power and ability to set things right as long as I got the right information. The problem was, I didn’t know what the right information was, so I continued to go to AA because that was all I knew.
I quit drugs a few months prior to going to AA, and I quit drinking about 4 days before attending my first meeting. I went to meetings and kept going because I thought that’s what I had to do. But through it all I maintained my skeptic’s heart. I asked a lot of questions — many that you’re not supposed to ask.
I told people that I no longer wanted to drink, and I didn’t understand what could possibly make me drink if I didn’t want to drink. I was told to “keep coming back”. I was told, “Just don’t drink and go to meetings.” To this I would ask, “Well if I can make the choice to “just not drink”, then why do I need to go to meetings?” They’d repeat, “Just keep coming back.” Then I was told that I shouldn’t make any significant life changes in the first year and to take it “one day at a time.” I asked, “Why do I have to wait a year to get my life on track?” They repeated, “Take it one day at a time and keep coming back.” That seemed to be the stock answer for every question, and for me it wasn’t good enough.
I got involved in a relationship within my first 4 weeks in the program. I had met him prior to going to meetings, but he was in AA as well, so this made it taboo for both of us. I went back to college in the first few months. I got a new job. I was a bridesmaid in a wedding for one of my best college friends — someone I had partied with, and I took off for a long weekend with my new man that first summer. Everything I was told would “make me drink” didn’t. Living my life with all it’s stress — all it’s terribleness and awesomeness — didn’t make me drink. For the first time ever I felt truly free and totally responsible for my own happiness.
I kept waiting and wondering, when would it happen? What would be the catalyst that would make me drink again. I went to concerts and bars to see live music. I went out to dinner in restaurants that served alcohol. I experienced the loss of a loved one and financial hardship. I even accidentally ate beef tips in wine sauce!
With all that said, the only time I ever thought about drinking or using drugs in those first few years was after an AA meeting. Thankfully, I eventually left AA for good, began to drink moderately, and let go of all the fear and nonsense I had taken on in those meetings. It’s been decades since then, and I want everyone out there to know that they don’t have to spend another moment wondering about all the inconsistencies and fear mongering that happens in AA. You can just leave like I did – let go of recovery and live. You can do it today, without fear. Just know that you are meant to be free and happy, and I hope my experience can help you find the courage to make that leap.
Michelle Dunbar is the co-author of The Freedom Model for Addictions: Escape the Treatment and Recovery Trap and The Freedom Model for the Family. She is the Executive Director of the Saint Jude Retreat. If you or someone you know is struggling with a substance use problem, there is an empowering solution that has proven to be three times more effective than addiction treatment and twelve times more effective than 12 step meetings. Go to www.TheFreedomModel.org for more information or call 888-424-2626.
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