Honesty in Recovery is Alive:  Interview with 12 Steps to Dead author Rolf Ankermann

I recently had the honor to interview the author, and ex-AA member, of the book 12 Steps to Dead.  Thank you Rolf for taking the time to share your thoughts and views with me.  Without further ado, here is the full article.
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Deeply troubled, yet brutally honest, characters walk– and sometimes stumble– onto the pages of 12 Steps to Dead.  Author and former AA member Rolf Ankermann’s new fiction book is inspired by real life encounters with people who struggled both before and during recovery;  Men and women whose common thread is seeking solutions for drinking problems in the AA program.

Each chapter offers a sympathetic glimpse into 4 main characters’ battles with the bottle, as well as their varying degrees of success and rebellion within the fellowship of AA. Set in the middle of 2001, the four characters minds are shaped by a string of past traumas and hurts:  Giving up a music career, parental death, legal consequences and child molestation.  In meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, the members they meet want to help, but some of them have ulterior motives.  Ankermann’s book is a cautionary tale, reminding readers to choose who they receive help from carefully.  (Just because someone is in AA doesn’t mean they are working a “good program,” in other words.)

In the 2013 SMART newsletter review of his first book, the nonfiction Freedom to Recover- You Are Not Powerless, Ohio based facilitator Rod Allwood writes: “Ankermann isn’t a therapist or a licensed drug or alcohol counselor; he is simply a man whose discontent with life resulted in his all-encompassing drinking. After two extensive rehab stints, hospital out-patient services, psychotherapy, hundreds of AA meetings, and many relapses along the way, Rolf learned that the ability to overcome addictive behavior can be attained by anyone with the courage to forgive their past, accept their present and embrace their future.”  Ankermann was interviewed, also, in 2013 by Michelle Dunbar, Executive Director of  Saint Jude’s Retreats’ a program featuring cognitive behavioral education (CBE) promoting positive and permanent change after addiction.

12 Steps to Dead captures the hopefulness of early recovery, as well as the disappointments when the help does not seem to help at all.  I am amazed at Ankermann’s attention to detail recreating an accurate picture of AA,  from the reading of the steps at meetings to what it means to work with a sponsor.  As someone interested in all experiences and debates in the recovery community, I am grateful to have the opportunity to speak with author Rolf Ankermann about his new book.

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I want to quote from Maya Angelou’s 1969 I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, where she writes: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”   There was a time in AA I tried to cast myself as an egotistical alcoholic before I revealed my personal agony of being abused by others.  In what way did your own history of pain come through in your book’s characters?

Fortunately or not, I’m kind of an –excuse the pun– open book as far as talking about my past. Lack of ego or confidence was much more an issue as opposed to an overinflated sense of myself.  After I quit [drinking], I did a lot of self-reflection, research and serious analysis as to the how’s and why’s of what brought me to that place.

While clearly living a life being dependent on the booze caused a lot of people around me huge amounts of pain and one could certainly view that behavior as having been very selfish and self-absorbed, there were reasons for it other than just my being a thoughtless mean person. My using at first was a ticket to overcoming social anxiety and later in life, stress and depression. That’s not an excuse; it was my response due to not having developed appropriate or efficient coping methods for dealing with life. No abuse or anything like that, I simply found an “easier and softer way” for coping which of course in the long run, provided the exact opposite in terms of maturing and developing a confident and realistic sense of myself and my place in the world.

As far as similarities with some of the main characters, I would have to say that I shared Sharon’s sense of having fallen short in terms of both living up to one’s potential and in having a sense of running out of time, of running in place. With Stevie, there was a bottling up of emotions, of always looking for a distraction in order to avoid truly embracing life. I very much lived that way and still sometimes have to work at overcoming those engrained tendencies. With Chris, he felt like he sold out and didn’t follow his true passions early on in life and did what the world expected of him. I kind of relate to that although I started numbing stuff so early on, that I didn’t develop much by the way of passions. Getting wasted replaced ambition and creativity for way, way too long.

One part of the AA Big Book I found interesting were the personal stories in the back pages;  Each person had a unique set of personalities, cultures, and experiences before adapting to the steps in their life.  Your characters run into conflict in their drinking and in their recovery.  Are their stories examples of personalities before principles in meetings?

In Chris’s case, he flat out rejected the principles and wasn’t going to “surrender” his views without some compelling evidence that they made sense. He vaguely toyed with the idea of giving his “rehab” stint a chance but with the way that things progressed, it wasn’t going to happen. So, sure, I guess his personality got in the way of his “willingness” to give the principles a chance.  Stevie was embracing the program but he couldn’t reconcile how he was supposed to “find his part” in having been sexually abused as a kid. Young Josh, got sucked into the “solution” by the judicial system and he was impressionable and his moment of doubt was very short lived. He ultimately embraced the idea that he was an “unfortunate” who had the “disease” and that he had plenty of character defects that needed to be cleansed.  Sharon never really had a chance to really cross that bridge.

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Available in paperback and Kindle versions.

One character that stands out for me is Stevie, who struggles with his fifth step because his sponsor believes he is at least partially responsible for being raped at age 12 by his uncle.  Can AA improve helping trauma survivors and how?

That’s one of AA’s biggest hurdles in my view. The organization isn’t equipped in any way to deal with those kinds of issues. Sponsors don’t have any qualifications for dealing with trauma or any kind of mental health issues for that matter.  The role of a sponsor supposedly begins and ends with being a guide “in doing the steps.” The reality is that in far too many cases, they take on a much larger role than that and become involved in virtually every decision in every facet of their sponsee’s life. Writing down your character defects and confessing them to your sponsor is as close as the “program” comes to actually trying to analyze behavior. Unfortunately this process usually emphasizes guilt, sins, character defects and placing all the blame for pretty much everything on the sponsee. That’s not to say that one shouldn’t accept responsibility for their less than exemplary pasts, but none of this gets to the root of “why” the person was doing what they were doing. Of course the core answer as far as the ideology goes is that we are basically morally deficient but it’s nothing that a little confession (Step 5) and a little petitioning to God (Steps 6&7) won’t remedy.

Then what, in your opinion, is a more positive way for people in AA to analyze negative behaviors and change their thinking in ways to develop positive behaviors?

Honestly, I don’t have a clue. So much of it is based on humbling oneself — to make meek, following the herd mentality, not questioning anything; you know just accepting everything at face value because “it works if your work it” which of course means and says absolutely nothing.

Stevie is an example of a character who wrestled with his past being molested as a child and his drinking, which almost ruined his music career.  To quote from the book:  “It was bad enough when he was so drunk or high that he played like shit at gigs, but the last straw was when he failed to show up for a recording session at Unicorn Recording Studios.”    Do you feel alcohol, in your active addiction, cost you opportunities?

Sure, I kind of touched on that already. It took any semblance of motivation and trashed it. It was all about feeing “good” or as I later realized, about feeling OK. I did the bare minimum to get through both high school and college and had no idea of what I wanted “to be” when I finished. By that point, I was more or less rudderless. I deluded myself into believing that I was having fun, but on a different level, I knew that I was far from happy or even content. I had pretty good athletic and musical ability, tested well on IQ tests, etc….but I left it all on the table until I finally came around…..several decades later.

Speaking of unicorns, saying my higher power was a unicorn was more well received than admitting my atheism in AA.  Which character in your book most sacrifices their personal beliefs to better fit in with the group?

The whole idea of turning it over, or surrendering your will to a “higher power” is, in my opinion and most any cognitive therapist you ask, completely opposite what someone who is attempting to overcome a dependency issue is need of. People in that position need to strengthen their decision making abilities, their confidence, their resolve, not give it up. I think pretty much anyone sacrifices their ability to effect positive changes in their lives when they admit to powerlessness over an inanimate object.

Unfortunately, I think you have to change your personal beliefs in order to fit in.   I’m not talking about religious beliefs or anything like that,  rather you are required to take on the belief that you, as an individual, are incapable of overcoming your dependency without the intervention of a “higher power” whatever you declare that to be, whether it’s God, the fellowship or something else.  Clearly Stevie never blamed himself for his be abuse but he started buying into the idea that somehow he actually was to blame. He looked for reasons to believe it because the program had to work for him otherwise the band would have booted him and he would have lost the only thing that kept him passionate and alive, his music.

You give readers 2 examples of sponsors, one male and one female.  How do their reactions to a 13 Stepping situation differ?

I have to give it some context first. Sharon was drugged and raped by Nick but he vehemently denies it to both said sponsors, Joey and Eliza. In doing so, they both believe that it was consensual and while Eliza has her doubts, she wasn’t about to pursue it any further. Her take is that while boys will be boys, maybe Nick shouldn’t have seduced her after her very first meeting. Joey on the other hand, was rooting for Nick to score and was quite frankly jealous, because while he was an aging and nothing to look at old-timer, Nick always seemed to score with the hot newcomers. It was sport for them while for Eliza, she just saw it as how things were and that it wasn’t in any way a poor reflection of the overall good that the fellowship provided.

I think a lot of people will relate to the character Chris, who is determined to fake his way through rehab to please his boss, wife, and children.  Does “fake it til you make it” work or is it going through the motions without fixing core issues?

“Fake it til you make it” is a lifelong proposition. As I mentioned, The Program, the Steps and those guiding them, have no qualifications in fixing core issues nor does anything in the steps in any way address them.  Chris was going to play ball and try to appease everybody and go back to more or less the same old, same old but on his way to the facility, he decided that maybe he’d try to get “something” out of it.

That was until he had a chance to meet with his individual therapist with whom Chris was hoping to have the opportunity to spend a good portion of his time exploring possible reasons for his having come to depend on the booze to find any peace or contentment. When Dr. Epstein informed him that they would only be spending an hour a week together to mostly go over how he was adjusting and that the vast bulk of his time would be spent in groups led by members of the fellowship who had become counselors and at off-site AA meetings, he abandoned any idea that even a minute of this would be of any benefit. Ultimately, he decided that faking it to make it wasn’t worth it, he’d make some changes or at least confront the issues, but on his terms as a self-determining entity, not by surrendering his will and declaring himself born diseased and in need of lifetime recovering, one day at a time for eternity.

Sharon’s reaction to her first AA meeting reminds me of my own.  The AA language includes dramatic requests to be honest, pray, find God now, and keep coming back.  It is overwhelming to hear you will not recover if don’t “surrender” to the program.  Does this powerful phrasing style deter people away from AA?

Clearly it does as is evidenced by the percentage of people who leave within the first year. But obviously not all as there is indeed a lot of members who stay for life.  Most people when they walk into the rooms for the first time are down and out, desperate and wanting to believe that this will be the answer. It’s what everybody from doctors, counselors, the media, the general public and concerned loved ones have all been taught to believe. Hey, AA was here first and was the only game in town for a long, long time. It’s entrenched in our society even if it is basically nothing more than a form of religious faith healing — see Steps 6&7 — and while that may provide a placebo effect for some, it can have disastrous results for others. In the year 2015, being told “It works if you work it” and “keep coming back” just doesn’t cut it.

One of the characters is very young.  When developing his character and his learning of the disease concept of alcoholism, how was his age a factor in accepting his diagnosis?

That would be Josh and his age played a huge role in his “acceptance” of that lifetime label and verdict.   I believe people like Josh are one the biggest injustices and tragedies and AA is responsible for that.

He was a kid for crying out loud.  Kids often rebel for no real reason other than it being part of the growing up process. Is this good? No, but it happens and to brainwash these people into believing that they are “morally bankrupt” and that they have a lifetime disease is reprehensible.

The vast majority of kids will outgrow the over the top use and fall into moderate responsible use as they get a little older. I wasn’t one of those because I had other underlying issues but that’s not even the point. These are the people rejecting the program and its messages of recovering for life and being born diseased, that eventually go back to happy moderate use.  They weren’t dependent for years and years and now that they’ve matured and learned responsible life skills, they’re fine.  I think moderation for people who drank dependently a really long time like myself is a tougher road because it’s an ingrained response.   I don’t have a “disease” but for the most part save the occasional celebratory drink or wedding toast, I don’t try.  Why?  Because when I drank, I drank for full effect and to just have a few holds no allure for me.  

My first fifth step was taken at a restaurant.  Did you realize when you wrote the book how much of the program seems designed to be worked away from meetings?

If you think about it, it kind of has to be for one very simple reason. No Crosstalk! There are no discussions in meetings because it’s usually one speaker telling their story followed by a bunch of “shares”. There is no “back and forth” which is what constitutes a conversation. 
So has far as working the Steps, or forming relationships with people within the group, it kind of has to happen outside the scope of the meetings themselves.

I think, understandably so, some in AA will bristle at the idea AA meetings can be harmful.  Yet, the book makes it clear much of the program takes place outside the meeting.  To avoid any potential problems, like sexual harassment, could the AA organization issue some sort of disclaimer?

I suppose they could but would it really amount to much or be very effective? I think one thing that people kind of have blinders on about is the fact that when you go to AA, you are basically joining an unsupervised loose knit group where people are free to come and go and there are no real rules or regulations but simply “suggestions” on what is proper etiquette. While the old-timers are kind of self- appointed leaders, they have no real authority and are in no way held accountable. Sponsors require no training or skills other than supposedly having “worked” the Steps. So you are a sponsor if you say you are and that’s basically it. 

You are entrusting your recovery to G.O.D. which is an acronym for a Group of Drunks, and most of these people have some issues and problems of their own.  I don’t think hanging out constantly with a group of people whose only common denominator is they believe they share a common “disease” is a terribly efficient or useful route in overcoming your dependency issues.  

At one point in your life, you attended AA.  Can you tell me briefly how involved you were in the program, and the pros and cons of your experience as an AA member?

Ok, I’ll try to keep this kind of brief. My first foray into the rooms occurred in 1996 as a result of my one and only DUI offense. Now I have to admit that at this point, even though I knew I drank too much, I was indeed in some form of denial as to just how dysfunctional my life was as a result. So I wasn’t ready to address it, so nothing would have made an impact. That being said, however, that meeting — I was only mandated to attend 3 — sent up red warning flares. I’ll never forget during the introductions when the guy next me introduced himself thusly; 

“John here, grateful RECOVERING alcoholic these past 35 years thanks to you fine people and this wonderful program.”  He hasn’t had a drink in 35 years and he still considers himself as being in the process of recovering? Why is he here, doesn’t he have anything better to do on a Saturday night? Don’t people ever graduate or leave, recover or something? There was a certain wrongness to it and that feeling never went away.  Between that and the Steps on the wall spewing powerlessness, surrendering one’s will, etc… I knew I would have an extremely hard time embracing any of it.

The drinking escalated and by 2003 the stress factor of having to meet sales quotas at my job led me to my first attempt at inpatient rehab at what turned out to be an unlicensed facility where the owner lied about having degrees in psychology and the entire staff was plucked out of local AA meetings. The entire time was spent reading the Big Book, the 12&12 and attending two off-site meetings a day. That was all of it. Needless to say, none of my underlying issues were addressed and I got drunk the day after I got home. They ended up closing down the place and the guy went to jail. I actually got almost all of my 25 grand back about 8 years later.

Shortly after that debacle, I actually gave AA a shot, did the Steps and all that happy stuff and somehow managed 11 months of “white knuckling” it and being as depressed and miserable as I’d ever been in my life. Again, absolutely nothing in the program was addressing my issues so I was simply a dry miserable human instead of a drunk one. Better? Maybe but I couldn’t exist like that forever either.  So I left, started up drinking again and went on existing but not truly living.

In August of 2008, I gave in patient rehab one more shot as the result of coercion and threats by my ex-wife and her therapist who was also a member of the fellowship. I went to the most famous Rehab in the country, came out and did my 90 in 90. I was basically white knuckling it again and within a few months, was drinking again. Again no new insights were garnered and nothing was addressed.  A year and a half later my divorce was finalized, my kids wanted nothing to do with me, I lost my job due to the recession, and things were about as bad as could be. No, it wasn’t rock bottom because as far as I’m concerned, that’s death, but it was bad enough. So I did a lot of reflection and decided I wasn’t ready to die just yet. I was going to give this living thing a shot. So I made the decision to put the bottle down and figure out the why’s and how’s and recreate my life. That was 5 years ago in July and my life has been authentic, creative, joyful and productive beyond anything I could have possibly envisioned. 

So what were the pros of my AA experience? In my case there were absolutely none. The cons?  I think I would have reached where I am now a hell of a lot sooner if I didn’t try to force something that I knew had no chance of working for me.

You mention other paths to recovery in the book.  How important is it to you that people searching for solutions to ending their addictions know their options?

I think everyone reading this would agree that there isn’t any one approach that is going to work for everyone so of course options and choices should be provided. For myself, the group support/program thing just wasn’t a good fit, at least not the 12 Step format.  I possibly would have taken to something like SMART Recovery which is based on cognitive methods as opposed to being primarily faith based.  There are others as well such as SOS, Women for Sobriety, Lifering, etc.  I can’t personally vouch for any of them because I never participated in them.

At the end of the day, to use or not to use is a choice.  The physical “addiction” aspect is very real but once you go through the misery of detoxing, you once again are left with that choice. Now it’s easy to understand why people make the choice to try and self-medicate away their issues and thus become dependent, but that doesn’t make it inevitable. Overcome the underlying causes and making the choice not to use becomes a lot easier.

Thanks Rolf for elaborating on your story and the candidness of your answers.  I truly believe honesty in recovery is crucial to recovering from an addiction permanently.  In my experience I could not open up fully in AA meetings, however, a counselor once told me AA may not be the place for abuse survivors with drinking problems.  There are other ways for those whom AA does not work.

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As 12 Steps to Dead poignantly points out, AA may promote vigorous honesty, yet sometimes people discover the AA path is full of pitfalls, where personalities trump principles, and where the program comes before personal growth and healing.  Sometimes, people trust another person in the rooms who turns out to be distrustful or has their own selfish interest in mind, and this is the worst case scenario, where there can be deadly consequences.  Yet, there is hope.  Others may find their recovery through therapy, other group supports like SMART or SOS, and some with the strength of loving friends and family.  

Ultimately, the message I get from Rolf Ankermann’s new book is that if addiction is throwing caution to the wind, then recovery is about exercising caution, choosing help wisely, and maintaining personal dignity. Addiction is an understandable response to many varying and painful causes but in the end, the individual is responsible for making the choice to overcome it.  Admitting powerlessness and surrendering your will is, quite frankly, the wrong way to go.

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12 Steps to Dead by Rolf Ankermann is available in paperback and Kindle editions.  His website and blog is The Freedom to Recover.  

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