Alcoholics Anonymous doesn't work for everyone — and that's OK
Failing to achieve sobriety using AA and other programs that insist alcoholics are powerless over their 'disease' doesn't mean an addict is without hope.
By Amy Lee Coy
July 30, 2010
As I read Dr. Drew Pinsky's comments on Lindsay Lohan's problems and prognosis that the actress should be framed so a judge could order her to a long-term treatment program, remarks for which he has since apologized I felt worried and even scared for all the people who are suffering with addiction today.
Why? Because what Dr. Drew was saying expressed the attitude that so many people have regarding addiction and recovery, which, in my experience, is ineffective and even damaging for some of us. I suspect Lohan is one such person. She has not told us why rehab has not helped her to quit her substance-abusing behavior, but it seems to me she is in an informed position to do so given that she's been in rehab before. The Times recently published two pieces related to alcohol and addiction recovery, most recently with Stanton Peele's July 21 Times Op-Ed article on alcohol and health, and a July 4 piece by a man named calling himself "Chas" who achieved sobriety with Alcoholics Anonymous.
I was 14 when, in 1984, I entered my first drug and alcohol rehab program. Since then, and over the course of more than 20 years, I returned to rehab seven times; not one stint proved effective in helping me eliminate my addictive behaviors. I could blame myself for that failure to be helped, as many who treated me did, but at this point in my life, doing so would not make sense. This is because it was only after I abandoned the burden of blame that I was able to quit drinking and using drugs, including the many psychoactive pharmaceuticals I was on toward the end of my drinking days. Of course, I had to do that on my own since the typical way of thinking about recovery was premised on the assumption that it was my fault treatment was not working.
I understand the fear people have as they watch their loved ones damage themselves with drugs and alcohol. That is why they turn to addiction "experts" for help. I know my mother was terrified as she watched me fall further and further into the pit of drug and alcohol addiction. If she were not so terrified, she never would have left my life in the hands of complete strangers in dilapidated old hospitals-turned-rehab centers.
It was there, in the basement of an old hospital in Inglewood, that I attended my first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. It was also there that I began my nearly 25-year life-threatening relationship with the doubt-laden belief I was suffering from a "disease" I could never overcome.
The point I want to make is that those who cannot get well with AA and their way of thinking are not doomed or without hope. I am proof. Those widely accepted methods of addiction therapy are not the only way for an addict to recover. The common way of looking at addiction that it is a disease and that a person must attend AA to be sober does not work for everyone. It didn't work for me, and it doesn't seem to be working for Lohan.
It's important to understand that failure to achieve sobriety through AA does not necessarily mean a person is resisting help or denying that they need it. Most of the rehab stays I endured were by voluntary submission. I wanted to get better. I wanted to be happy and well. I repeatedly and in good faith tried to quit drinking with whatever methods were offered. But the deep emotional pain I suffered, the great feelings of isolation and loss that were at the root of my substance-abusing behavior, were unmanageable by AA and the common attitudes regarding recovery.
For me it was never beneficial to hear I had a "disease" and then be blamed for not getting well. I was desperate to be well. I was so desperate that I attempted suicide on more than one occasion, twice while I was on prescribed anti-depressant medications.
I understand now that desperation stemmed from a lack of self-worth and feelings of abandonment and isolation, coupled with the belief that I was helpless to do anything about my most serious "disease" of alcoholism (at age 14, mind you). The fact is that AA was unable to help me precisely because they were telling me I was powerless and I could never regain full mastery over my own life. It was only after I got out from under the 12 steps and similar ways of thinking that I was able to quit drinking.
I'm acutely aware that AA is a great source of support for many people. However, those of us who are unaffected and even deterred from recovery by the methods and teachings of the program still need to get well.
As a society, we have come to treat addicts as if they are in a lesser category of human beings, making it easy to judge and condemn those who are not helped by AA as being uncooperative and irresponsible. The painted "f-you" fingernails Lohan wore in court were undoubtedly not representative of her truest feelings. When I was 14 and was kicked out of my public school system for excessive truancy, failing grades and using foul language, I know in my heart I was aching so deeply that at times it was all I could do to breathe. By all observation I was saying "f-you" to everyone much louder and stronger than any acrylic stain could ever do. In truth, however, I was so scared of the deep pain I experienced that, like a cat in fright, I hissed and clawed with all my might.
I understand so well the suffering of addicts, and that is why I'm sharing some of my story here. People should know that if they do not find help in AA and that way of thinking about addiction, they are not doomed. Not everyone believes AA is a necessary tool toward sobriety.
Amy Lee Coy lives in Southern California and is the author of "From Death Do I Part: How I Freed Myself From Addiction."
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