I first realized I had a problem with drinking when I was a year out of college. I was 21 and basically drank every day. It got to the point where I realized I was using drinking to numb myself and disconnect from other people.
So I decided to reduce my drinking. I thought, “I’ll just drink less.” I tried to do that for several months by myself and it did not work at all. So I ended up going to Alcoholics Anonymous for about a year.
When I was in, I was all in. I did 90 meetings in 90 days; I chaired meetings, got a sponsor and worked the Steps. The turning point came when my sponsor said I should sponsor other people. I decided not to because I was certain I wasn’t an “alcoholic.”
I started going to therapy for the first time while I was in AA. I was just beginning to scratch the surface of a lot of stuff I’ve continued to deal with. My therapist was also in AA and very 12 Step-focused.
After that year in AA, I decided to drink again, which was a really hard decision because I knew that AA would see that as a very final thing. I knew that if I tried to drink in a moderate and healthy way, I could not have my AA friends any more.
But I was a lot healthier and I got a better job. I had started dating a guy who is now my husband, and things were really going a lot better. I had worked through a lot of issues both in AA and in therapy.
Eventually I started seeing another therapist who diagnosed me with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and that was when I learned how harmful a lot of AA had been because it encouraged a lot of OCD behaviors. I learned in therapy for OCD that your thoughts and feelings are not facts: You don’t have to identify with them. AA is all about identifying with thoughts and feelings. If you have a thought about drinking, all of a sudden you’re a hopeless “alcoholic” and weren’t working the program hard enough.
With this kind of thinking and my OCD, I had gotten to the point where all I could do was drive to work thinking obsessively about my relationship (I was engaged by this time), worrying compulsively about the safety of my family, then work for 10 hours, come home and just cry.
I’ve learned how not to think so much about what every thought or feeling means. In AA, any issue you might have was always met with, “You’re an alcoholic and that’s why you can never be normal or happy.” That was very damaging to me.
I was told repeatedly that most people fail at recovery because most people fail at AA.
The other thing that harmed me in AA was the all-or-nothing thinking. They told you that if you took even one drink, then you would lose all the progress you had made. You would be right back to where you were at your lowest point, and could only go downhill from there. There was no middle ground.
I learned about how AA is not based on science, and that’s a big deal to me. I have a degree in molecular and cellular biology. So I did my own research. I learned that AA’a dominance has actually suppressed research into other methods of recovery. Many AA members do a lot of work to prevent help for people who want to do anything other than go to AA for the rest of their lives. They use fear as a tool: I was told repeatedly that most people fail at recovery because most people fail at AA.
Now I know that’s not the same thing: Most people recover, and most actually do it without treatment at all. Very few actually recover in AA—most quit within the first year. But they use the fact that you will see so many people fail at AA to play on that fear. I’ve come to see that fear is what the entire program is based on.
The fear instilled in me by AA compounded my OCD and made it so much worse. It took, and continues to take, a ton of work to not fall back into that thinking. I have generalized anxiety disorder and chronic depression. Playing on my guilt and shame in AA was very ineffective and really damaging. So I spent about two years in weekly group sessions with my therapist, finally getting to the point where I felt like I could handle just the everyday thoughts that I have like any other person. During this time I was drinking moderately and not having any problems with alcohol.
I got married, we bought a house outside the city, and I stopped seeing that therapist because I was doing well and it was now a three-hour drive to see her. So I transferred my job closer to home, and started seeing a therapist who did not specialize in OCD, which I have now realized was a mistake.
I ended up having a culminating night on my birthday when I got absolutely blackout trashed.
I was seeing her and working my job for about a year, and by fall of last year was drinking heavily again. My OCD had really latched onto some comments my husband had made early in our relationship, and I had become obsessive about not being a good enough person to be with him. My therapist, not knowing OCD, didn’t do exposure therapy or use any techniques that are effective with OCD, and my anxiety built up. The more I drank the worse the anxiety got.
I ended up having a culminating night on my birthday in February of this year when I got absolutely blackout trashed. My husband was recovering from tonsil surgery and so he didn’t come out with me for my birthday. I disappeared for several hours, and no one, not even me, knows where I was.
I made it home but it scared both me and my husband a lot. That part of AA that was still stuck in my brain made me think it was all about my drinking, so I didn’t go to meetings but I stayed sober. Still, I wasn’t looking at the underlying issues or focusing on anything that was going on underneath. I got very depressed, became suicidal and put myself in the hospital.
When I was in the hospital I was put on Prozac and Wellbutrin. Going there was a wakeup call for everyone in my life that things were not okay. The drinking was so clearly a symptom of me not knowing how to deal with the stuff that was going on that I stopped drinking and didn’t start again.
I went to therapy three times a week, tried different medications, and my husband and I decided to see a marriage counselor. She happened to work with an OCD specialist and immediately saw that OCD is the main issue—so I am seeing an OCD specialist again. That was a huge turnaround.
I discovered HAMS (Harm Reduction, Abstinence and Moderation Support) through a funny route. I love listening to the podcast My Favorite Murder, which talks a lot about mental health. There are Facebook fan groups for people who are sober, and I joined one to see if people there would be supportive. Unfortunately, overall they were not. But someone in that group sent me a link to the HAMS for Women Facebook group.
I joined that and started reading everything. I had read HAMS founder Kenneth Anderson’s book How to Change Your Drinking before, but I didn’t remember it very well. I had gotten rid of it when I was told to in AA—it was clearly not AA-approved literature! I looked at websites and forums. I started making my own goals with my therapist, and she is supportive of harm reduction.
HAMS has made such a positive change in my life. Drinking is not the thing that I think about all the time. It’s not this awful vice that I will never recover from because there’s something wrong with me. It’s just something I enjoy doing with friends, like going to craft breweries and wineries.
I feel like I can take alcohol or leave it now, which I have never felt before. I think it’s because HAMS is based on science, which as a molecular biologist is very important to me. There’s no perfectionism, no judgment, no shaming.
The first goal is that I don’t drink when I’m sad. With my depression, sad drinking is a bad, bad story.
As a scientist who believes in evidence, I know that shaming and judgment only makes any problem worse. I just love that shaming and judgment are not accepted within HAMS. We are already judging ourselves enough! Judgment would ruin our community. If you want shame and judgment, go to AA.
The first goal that I set when I got into HAMS, and that I’ve been sticking to, is that I don’t drink when I’m sad. With my depression, sad drinking is a bad, bad story.
The second goal is to always drink with someone who knows that I have a plan. I would like to go out to a bar by myself and meet people who don’t know I have an issue with alcohol, so nobody is watching me. But I don’t drink alone or secretively any more.
My other goal is not to get drunk, and for the most part that hasn’t been a problem. I’ve generally just had a couple of drinks when I felt fine. The one time I got drunk was the first time I’d been hungover in so long. I was with someone else who was driving and it was a totally safe situation, but I thought, “I don’t want to be hungover. I don’t want to spend my Sunday not wanting to go outside and play with the dogs. I want to enjoy my day off feeling good.”
HAMS has helped me set goals that are realistic and based on hope and feeling good about myself, not on fear and shame. I’m now working on setting up a live meeting in my local area so that more people can be exposed to the help and support that HAMS has to offer.
This article is a slightly adapted excerpt from the book Better Is Better! Stories of Alcohol Harm Reduction, published by HAMS, a nonprofit organization that provides support for people pursuing safer drinking, reduced drinking or quitting. Edited by Kenneth Anderson and April Smith, the book compiles many personal narratives from people who have benefited from alcohol harm reduction. It is available for purchase online.