I am Deathly Allergic to AA
Lately I am remembering the perks of being in Alcoholics Anonymous. I was applauded for putting myself down and making critical comments about my poor decisions, which makes sharing at AA meetings eerily similar to stand-up comedy.
As Al Franken, former comedian and U.S. Senator stated after the death of Robin Williams: “Robin, more than anyone I know, would have seen the tragic irony in this devastating day. The man who made so many laugh… would succumb to a disease that left him feeling so alone, is just too sad to bear.”
The real irony, though, is the fact that Williams sought help at the world renown addiction treatment center, Hazelden, this summer. He had not relapsed, he went to rehab to “maintain” the 12 Step program’s effectiveness. What effectiveness? Williams was looking for help in all the wrong places, because the 12 Steps are steeped in negative self-inventories of listing wrongs, defects, and how others have been harmed by your drinking. Williams had not taken a drink since 2006.
AA and Depression are a Toxic Combination
AA results in more depression, and even relapses that AA is supposed to help a person avoid. The news tells me that Williams left Hazelden and appeared distraught. Did the professionals allow a suicidal, depressed client to leave a place which might, at least, have guaranteed Williams’ safety?
Comedian Rick Overton feels Robin Williams took the cancellation of last season’s TV show, “The Crazy Ones,” hard. Overton says, “It would hit any of us hard, but especially a heart patient who has depression. The one-two punch of that can make all the difference in the world. He got real quiet. I’ve known those eyes for decades. I know where the spark is supposed to be.”
Bizarrely, AA aficionados might lament, “We lost another one, but we’re still here.” Callously, some AA members may point to the fifth chapter of their beloved Big Book which explains why people fail at the program: Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path. Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves. There are such unfortunates… There are those, too, who suffer from grave emotional and mental disorders, but many of them do recover if they have the capacity to be honest.
Are ordinary Americans supposed to believe Robin Williams was one of “such unfortunates,” who had emotional and mental disorders but didn’t have the capacity to be honest? Do people outside of the recovery world even know the Big Book says such hocus pocus that can torment a depressive who may already irrationally believe they are doomed to fail anyway? Do we treat any other mental or physical health condition with this careless, unproven quackery?
AA and Therapy are Mixed Messages
Ten years ago, I was going to AA and therapy. The psychologist says it’s ok to say no sometimes. It’s ok to take time for yourself. In AA, I’d be told to show up even if I’d rather curl up with a book at home. In AA, I’m told never to say no when another AA member asks you to volunteer. I needed AA for my drinking problems, and I needed therapy because I didn’t want to feel depressed anymore. Soon, I was going to therapy saying that I felt emotionally upset being in AA, but I didn’t want to drink. “Use your coping skills at meetings,” the therapist would say, instead of recognizing mixed messages.
Williams is said to be bipolar, which means high emotional highs and low emotional lows. It is an exaggerated version of the human emotional norms, where major highs are relative to major joys, such as marriage proposals and winning big games. Most of us have a healthy fear of a shark shadow behind us, but in a real depression the shark swallows a person whole. I know this because I first suffered depression at age 12, during puberty, when it can easily be dismissed.
I’d already spent four school years taught by my parents to believe family and community hated us, and me. I internalized their beliefs. They told me I could talk to no one. Was I depressed? Did I develop bipolar symptoms? Or was I bottled up with no one to confide in?
I could forget my backpack on the way to the bus stop. My cluttered bedroom brought me to tears. In school, I was a class clown who lost her way, who started to wear all black and talk about death. In the year Kurt Cobain committed suicide, depression was the hot topic, it was hard to tell who was faking the heroin-chic bleakness or who was really suffering depression.
I cut out Rolling Stone magazines and put “sex, drugs & rock-n-roll” next to photos of the Who and Limp Bizkit. Here and there were photos of Gwen Stefani and Aaliyah who I had crushes on, but was afraid my Catholic parents would hate me if I was even a little bit gay.
For practical purposes, I limited my crying to school bathrooms and my bedroom. At 15, I told my parents I cut myself, but they sent me off to bed with a jar of lotion. Did my life make me depressed, or was I destined biologically? I now know it was my love and trust, and young naiveté, blinding me to the fact I was emotionally and mentally punched by my parents. It was getting harder to find humor in the pain.
Breaking the AA and Depression Cycle
My love and trust was betrayed, and any thought I had of loving myself felt selfish. Depression is an intense love for the world and others that isn’t applied to the self. I continued this cycle of dismissing my wants, needs, and devaluing my opinions as an adult. And, especially in AA, I feared saying anything unpopular, unlikeable.
I looked and looked and looked for my massive ego in AA. I shared how awesomely bad I was, how horribly I treated others. Thank God I didn’t have depression, I’m just an alcoholic, what a fucking relief! These people are just like me, swapping horror stories and comparing notes. By day, I lied in AA, by night I suffered night terrors.
I was a year sober, taking Zoloft, and calling up a psych clinic to check in for a weekend. I’d rather kill myself than take a drink. I just knew my disease was out to get me to drunk. My mind repeated “everyone hates me,” but AA added powerlessness, defectiveness, and egomaniac to reasons I felt sad inside. Thanks to AA, I was more depressed.
In my second AA year, when I began telling the truth, I became less popular. The middle aged closet drunk ladies and smarmy pot-bellied men seemed to prefer the reformed Catholic school girl who did bad things, instead of the sad girl who self-harmed. Oh well, screw them. Staying in AA became another way to hurt myself, and today, I don’t take any anti-depressants at all.
I don’t know Robin Williams personally, but I can say I worked the steps, I felt the mental shift inside changing my interpretation of the past. Guilt. Blame. Darkness. The steps were harming me, not because I “quit before the miracle happened,” but because I “kept coming back.” Because I’ve been abused, I can get addicted to abuse. It’s real simple, and real deadly.