Katherine was on the subway home from a meeting with her Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor when it hit. They had just gone over the worksheet she was supposed to complete for her Fourth Step: “Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”

    “What if I was too sexy? I knew men looked at me even back then when I was 12. Was I seductive? I liked the attention. I sat on his lap. I hugged him. I didn’t leave when he started talking about those things.”  

    Suddenly, Katherine* recalled, the pieces seemed to fall into place. The sexual abuse from her stepfather, of which she had been too ashamed to even tell her mother until years after her mother left the marriage. The long-term relationship with a sociopath who had alternated between worshipping her and berating her. The three rapes. It was all her fault.

    She looked at the worksheets her sponsor had given her for her Fourth Step. Each one had three columns: for the “resentment;” for the person the resentment was against; and for “my part” in the resentment. It was a given that every resentment, every bad thing that had caused anger, was at some level caused by the “alcoholic”—by Katherine herself.

    She felt a sense of peace coming over her, she recalled of that night five years ago, like a great mystery had been solved. She was an alcoholic. The rapes, all three, she had invited them. Like her counselors said, they never would have happened if she hadn’t been drinking. Even the childhood abuse. She must have wanted it, sought it out. That was alcoholic behavior: self-centered and seeking attention.

    As she waited on the platform for the next subway to transfer home, she briefly thought about letting herself fall onto the tracks.  

     

    A Desire to Deprogram

    Rachel Bernstein, MA, LMFT, is a therapist who specializes in helping people who have left cults of all kinds to recover from the damage. “In an organization for people who have dealt with shame and looking down on themselves, as well as having other people look down on them, that shame shouldn’t be recreated within the organization that is supposed to heal them,” she told Filter. “They should have a place to go where they feel only supported and empowered and safe. If people come feeling broken and then the finger is pointed at them, it just takes them farther into a spiral of poor self-esteem and shame.”

    Without condemning AA itself, Bernstein acknowledges the dangers of this kind that AA’s program can pose for some people. “While I think that there is some merit to some of the Steps, there needs to be flexibility to take away the Steps that are getting in the way of some people’s recovery.”

    Rachel Bernstein

    Katherine met Bernstein through Monica Richardson, the founder of an international Facebook group called “Deprogramming From AA or Any 12 Step Group.” It has over 1,000 members, all of whom are at some point in the process of leaving a 12-step group.

    Richardson has led a crusade to spotlight how unregulated 12-step groups can form a happy hunting ground for sexual predators.

    Katherine found the group through a friend from an online AA support group who was also dissatisfied with the pat answers she said fellow members gave to everything: You got raped? “Go to a meeting, call your sponsor! Find your part in what happened!”

    The members of “Deprogramming” were in 12-step groups for anywhere from a few months to 20-plus years. It is not only the content of the program that they found problematic: Some have been raped, sexually abused or assaulted through their associations with AA or Narcotics Anonymous.

    Richardson, who joined AA at 18 and had spent 36 years abstinent from alcohol in the program by the time she left, has led a crusade to spotlight how unregulated 12-step groups can form a happy hunting ground for sexual predators. She is the creator of the award-winning 2015 film The 13th Step—an expose of sexual harassment and abuse within The Rooms (“13th stepping” is the practice of old-timers hitting on newcomers).

    Monica Richardson

    Her work on the film involved researching the tragic 2011 murder of Karla Brada Mendez, a young woman who was introduced to AA by the rehab she attended for problematic prescription drug use. She met a man at those meetings who had been in AA for years (often court-ordered). He never stopped drinking, but used the meetings as a way to meet vulnerable women. The man, Eric Allan Earle, was convicted in 2014 of beating and choking Karla Brada Mendez to death.

    Some report having been coerced into going off their psychiatric medications, against their doctors’ advice.

    The members of “Deprogramming” have many other grievances. Some report having been coerced into going off their psychiatric medications, against their doctors’ advice. Others became frustrated with the lack of scientific evidence behind AA’s program. Others still are angry that any inquiry into other options is not only discouraged, but sometimes actively punished—by exclusion from social events, public humiliation at meetings, and constant reminders of the AA saying that to leave the program can only result in “jails, institutions and death.”  

    All found that AA’s promises did not come true: They may have stopped drinking or using drugsoften defined by 12-step groups and the treatment industry to include prescription psychiatric medications such as benzodiazepines or MAT drugs like buprenorphinebut they did not become “happy, joyous and free.”

    Many feel that they replaced their addiction to a substance with an addiction to the program.

     

    Why It Can Be Frightening to Leave a 12-Step Group

    However, many members of “Deprogramming” report feeling afraid about leaving 12-step circles.

    They fear not being able to stay “sober”—a fear instilled by 12-step teaching that as an “alcoholic” or “addict,” you can’t take so much as one sip of alcohol without complete reversion to dangerous patterns (despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary).

    Fear of social isolation is another important common factor. Twelve-step groups typically encourage members to build their lives around the program, to attend meetings every day for the first 90 days and many more ever after.

    Many who leave the program therefore fear that they will no longer have friends once they do.

    Many sponsors require their sponsees to call a certain number of people in the program every day, no matter what. Phone numbers are given out at meetings. Katherine’s sponsor made it mandatory that she call seven AA women daily.

    “Service,” is also pushed, with new members strongly encouraged to commit to at least weekly duties—ranging from making coffee to chairing meetings, going to detox facilities to speak at patients’ mandatory AA meetings, and serving on committees.

    If a member complains that daily meeting attendance and other demands are interfering with work or family life, the AA mantra, “Anything you put before your recovery, you will lose,” is typically repeated. So members often reduce their other social connections, actively encouraged to change the “people, places and things” in their lives. Many who leave the program therefore fear that they will no longer have friends once they do.

    Another issue that departing 12-step members report as concerning is suddenly dealing with all the issues that drove them to substance use in the first place, but weren’t adequately addressed in the program. People with a history of trauma, in particular, can find that the onslaught of pain and memories—repressed while they were told in AA that “alcoholism,” was the root of all their problems—can be almost unbearable.

    “I would venture to say three-quarters, if not more, of the people in AA are suffering from depression or anxiety or survivors of trauma, and were using alcohol to self-medicate,” said Rachel Bernstein. “So then you have people who are derailed from a more direct and relevant path to dealing with their particular issues, and instead they are told that alcohol is the only source of their problem.”

    “Deprogramming from AA and Other 12 Step Groups” provides a community to share experiences, advice and validation for a perspective that the treatment industry and mainstream America deny: AA doesn’t work for most people. And for many, it does tremendous harm.

     

    Cult-Like Characteristics

    But do all of these program- and community-related problems within 12-step fellowships mean we can accurately describe them as cults?

    I asked Bernstein about the extent to which AA and the rest resemble the bona fide cults in which many of her patients have been involved. Part of her answer depicted an environment in which unregulated autonomy—from group to group and from sponsor to sponsor—sees abuses go unchecked.

    “People who came to see me got involved in 12-step programs wanting to turn their lives around, but then had a sponsor who became a controller, an abuser and a boundary violator, and there was nobody to talk to about it,” she said. “There are no safeguards within these groups. There’s no governing body to go to and say, ‘My sponsor followed me home and went into my apartment.’”

    “That is cult behavior: Cults will give you an identity.”

    “The other issue,” she added, “is that unlike a lot of the other anonymous groups, within AA, you have to call yourself an ‘alcoholic.’ That is cult behavior: Cults will give you an identity. Then you build not only your life but your self-esteem around that identity.”

    Regarding the nature of “sharing” in meetings, Bernstein said, “Within 12-step groups, there are people who can defend against the social pressures, and others who can’t. They don’t want anyone to be unhappy with them so they’ll say what they need to say, they’ll make commitments, they’ll ‘admit’ things about themselves even if they aren’t true.”

    “They’ll do that in a room full of people who are not mental health professionals and do not know how to hold onto that information in a safe way or help you heal,” she continued. “Other times people will feel the need to share information because they have someone else they know in the organization who brought them in, so they don’t want to disappoint that person.”  

     

    Katherine’s Path Out

    Katherine, now in her 40s, didn’t throw herself onto the subway tracks that fateful night. Despite fear that her parents—who had sent her to a tremendously expensive 12-step rehab and were very invested in her AA participation—would be horrified, she called her sponsor the next day and said she was going to take a break from doing the Steps.

    Before long, people at the meetings she attended daily began to shun her. They would talk about how, since she was pursuing a graduate degree, she thought she was too smart for the program. “We’ve buried a lot of smart people,” a familiar AA saying goes. “You have to get stupid to get the program.”  

    She would find her days interrupted by intrusive thoughts of AA.

    Gradually, Katherine cut back on her meeting attendance. She found other support in SMART Recovery and Refuge Recovery, and eventually left AA all together. But the pain didn’t stop.  

    She would find her days interrupted by intrusive thoughts of AA. She alternated between terror that she would drink again and lose everything she had gained since leaving rehab, and bursts of anger at the program that had told her that she was nothing but an “alcoholic.” That none of her accomplishments or good qualities mattered.  

    Katherine’s rehab counselor had recommended that instead of returning to graduate school, she spend $4,000 a month to live in a “sober living” home. In this facility, she would have been isolated from the general population and made to go to daily meetings and group therapy with non-professional counselors, while working a minimum-wage job. However, her family didn’t have the money to throw at this, so she returned to graduate school, where she could live on student loans, and attended AA in the community instead.

    And it was then that Katherine’s fear of being raped again turned into full-blown agoraphobia. She would walk home from meetings at night terrified. But the strange thing, she recalled, was that she wasn’t so frightened of the physical violation and pain of rape itself. She was afraid that she would be blamed. Because she was an “alcoholic”—and now everyone knew it because she had been to rehab, even though she hadn’t had a drink in months.  

    Seeking help, Katherine reached out to Monica Richardson, who recommended Rachel Bernstein, the cult deprogramming therapist. Katherine worked with Bernstein for nine months to recover from her AA experience.

    Even more frightening, Alice said, is that she looked and even believed she was happy.

    As the stories of “Deprogramming” members attest, many others have had comparable experiences. Alice,* for example, was raped at a graduate school party. Though she had no history of alcohol-related problems, her parents insisted she get an alcohol evaluation because she had been drinking at the time of the assault. It was a classic case of victim-blaming.

    Alice was assessed as an “alcoholic,” as is almost anyone who is referred for an assessment to a treatment provider. She went to an Intensive outpatient program and then immersed herself in AA. Within AA, she experienced sexual abuse from her sponsor and men her sponsor insisted she date. She was told that the sexual abuse she endured as a child and the rape she experienced as an adult were her fault.  

    Even more frightening, Alice said, is that she looked and even believed she was happy during this time. “Upon hearing that I had a negative experience in AA, people that knew me during that 10-year period might be shocked. ‘But she seemed so happy,’ they might say… ‘How could she say that?’”

    “My answer to this,” she continued, “is that yes, I was very happy–in fact, I was euphoric at times when I went to AA. This was because I was suppressing all of the emotions and things that AA told me would lead me to drink: anger, sadness, grief, critical thinking, negative thoughts, my intelligence. This led me to have a kind of false gratefulness, happiness and peace that only lasted for so long.”

    Finally, Alice related, “at nine-and-a-half years of sobriety I could repress and suppress all of these things no longer” Dealing with all these feelings led to what she calls “the hardest period of my life.”

    “I was hospitalized two times,” she said, “and was also suicidal for about two-and-a-half years. Over time, though, I have gotten more accustomed to having thoughts and feelings like I did before I went to AA, and have found that they pose no risk to my sobriety.”

     

    Guidance on How to Deprogram

    Both Rachel Bernstein and Monica Richardson give concrete advice on how a person thinking of leaving AA or any 12-step program, and wishing to deprogram, should proceed.

    Bernstein advises:

    1. Learn about methods of control and manipulative tactics. Bring a checklist to your next meeting and check off the techniques as you see them. You’ll be able to see for yourself if this group is treating you respectfully and being open about its intentions, or if it’s using manipulation to not only keep you there but make you feel like you have no choice but to stay. Here is a checklist of tactics to look out for:

    * You are taught that the teachings and techniques are perfect. So if they are not working as intended, it’s because you are not following them the right way, or trying hard enough.

    * The organization defines you, tells you what you are, who you are, and how to see yourself.

    * Questioning or doubting the teachings is wrong and seen as an issue/problem of yours instead of your fundamental right.

    * The organization is a closed system, and any issues you have with it have to stay in-house; there is no outside and/or objective governing body to bring your concerns to.

    * Dependency is built into the system by making you feel that you cannot trust yourself on your own, and left to your own devices you would always make the wrong decision and your life would spiral downward.

    * You never graduate. You are never done. Your participation and adherence to the teachings are expected to be lifelong.

    * You are made to feel these are the only people you can trust in your life, and those outside the group are not able to support and ensure the path you should be on.  

    * The influence technique of “scarcity” is used by conveying the message that this group is the only group in the world that can give you what you need.

    * It has its own social norms and lingo that are different from those in the outside community, so you feel more understood by those in the group and more a part of the world of the group, and this can separate you from those in the outside community.

    * The group has one system it provides. No other systems or philosophies are integrated. So, whatever the system is designed to address is the only thing that’s addressed, and other potentially primary issues are ignored. Part of the “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” idea, this can cause people to be misdiagnosed and to be derailed from getting help they may need with their true underlying issues.  

    2. Address the things that 12-step groups have taught you about yourself, such as that you are powerless or can’t control your life. Write them down, show them to somebody not involved in the group and ask, “Is this how you see me?” Some people in 12-step groups feel that they are reduced to the kind of person who can not trust themself. So if you can find people in your life who see the good in you and see your strengths and can remind you of them, you start to rebuild your sense of self and then you won’t tolerate the messages about how, left to your own devices, your life would be awful.

    3. Talk to people who were involved in 12-step groups, then left and are doing okay.  The more you see that there are people who are okay without AA, the more you see that you don’t need to go to keep yourself alive.  

     

    Richardson advises:

    * Change your language. Stop calling yourself an “alcoholic” or “addict.”

    * Read the SMART Recovery booklet.

    * Learn about moderation and harm reduction.

    * Read as many books on alternatives to AA as you can.

    * Try out meetings such as SMART Recovery, LifeRing, Moderation Management or others.

    * Take a mindfulness meditation or yoga class.

    * Try new activities and hobbies. Go back to school or join a new community. Get busy living!  

     

    Considering Whether to Drink Again

    While many people who leave AA decide to continue abstinence from alcohol, some decide to try drinking occasionally or in moderation. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism’s giant scientific study, the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (NESARC), almost everyone recovers from alcohol dependence, the vast majority without treatment or AA, and more than half go on to drink at moderate or safe levels.

    I imbibed again after 37 years of complete abstinence,” said Richardson. Slowly, I planned it—I drank one drink here and there at social settings, weddings, dinners out. I never wanted more, and I never wanting to get drunk. I was happy with a slight buzz.”

    “Getting rid of my ‘time’ [sober time, as counted in AA] was key in moving on,” she continued. “I wanted to separate myself from that recovery world and its thinking. I felt so normalized after I became a moderate drinker  … There is so much ego involved in the AA hierarchy of ‘time.’”

    Whether or not to drink again is a choice that everyone must make for themselves. But based on her experiences, Richardson offers this advice for people leaving AA who are considering a drink:

    * If you have unresolved trauma, address it. If you don’t, you may drink problematically again.

    * Don’t drink with a head full of AA. Get over AA programming that says you will lose control if you have one drink before you try to drink.

    * Make sure you have developed coping skills that don’t involve drinking. I had a long list of things I had already learned to do when I was stressed out and none of them included drinking. Develop healthy self-care.

    * Don’t drink if you feel like you want to drink the whole bottle.  

     

    When “Help” Harms

    “Treatment” should never make you want to throw yourself in front of a train. “Support” groups should never make you feel ashamed, worthless, or powerless. When your identity is being defined for you, you are in danger.

    “They tried to erase my identity. I rewrote it.”

    “In my 12-step rehab,” Katherine said, “my counselor read my story in preparation for my First Step meeting. She said it wasn’t ‘honest’ enough, so I added things. I made up lies to make my story worse than it was, just to make my counselor happy.”

    If you’re lying to please others, if you find your fears are getting worse, not better, look for alternatives. While too many are trapped in 12-step programs—due to the court system; professional organizations for doctors, pilots and others that mandate attendance to regain licensure, and family or employer pressure—for those with the freedom and the desire to get out, there is help.

    “It’s been a long road and life is far from perfect,” Katherine said, five years after her departure from AA. “I may not be ‘happy, joyous and free’ all of the time, but I never really believed the people trapped in those rooms were either. I have my voice back, and I can tell my own story. They tried to erase my identity. I rewrote it.”


    * Names have been changed.

    Photo via geo pixel /Wikimedia Commons

    • April Smith

      April is the director of organizational development for Harm Reduction, Abstinence and Moderation Support (HAMS), an international group founded by Kenneth Anderson that supports people in harm reduction approaches to their alcohol consumption. She has a master’s in Public Health from Thomas Jefferson University. She presented her thesis research on the experiences of LGBT people in traditional 12-step rehabs at the National Harm Reduction Conference in 2016.

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