“No matter what I did I couldn’t change it. I was assured by my sponsor that I just needed to work the steps, clean house, not drink, go to meetings, and help others”
Thanks to my Higher Power and Alcoholics Anonymous I have two dozen years of sobriety. I went to an addictions doctor because I was concerned about my drinking. He said that if I was worried about how much I drank, that I was an alcoholic, and I should go to Alcoholics Anonymous.
He had me answer the questions in the pamphlet he gave me and then convinced me that my concern was justified. He called a woman from his 12th step list and I asked her if she’d take me to a meeting that night. She did and I have never had a drink since. The obsession was lifted from me entirely.
However, as soon as I stopped drinking I stopped breathing properly. I felt like I was smothering and was aware of every breath I took and of my heartbeat. Crazy-making! No matter what I did I couldn’t change it. I was assured by my sponsor that I just needed to work the steps, clean house, not drink, go to meetings, and help others. I did all that and more.
I was encouraged to get into service so I could get out of myself. Right away I got active in service to my group and AA as a whole. I had a phone shift for seven years, was on the 12th step list, took on being Intergroup representative for my group, and became finance chair for Vancouver and the Lower Mainland. That was terrifying as I was almost phobic about figures but I was taught that “you don’t say no to an AA request.”
I took AA into the women’s prison, got active on the rally committee, wrote to an AA loner in Thailand and a woman in prison, had a monthly column in the Grassroots and contributed articles to The Grapevine. The CPC committee got me interested in helping graduating doctors to diagnose alcoholism. Etcetera, etcetera, and etcetera.
Women asked me to sponsor them. All the wild women with their hair on fire came to or were directed to me. At one point I had ten sponsees. Too much has never been enough for me. I once sponsored a severely schizophrenic woman who would do things like cut her arm into the bone because I wasn’t instantly available to her! Imagine how stressful that was.
“Still, the promises eluded me”
Still, the promises eluded me. I was sure it must be my fault so I took on more and more. More steps where I dug until I bled, more sponsees, more service work, more, more, and more. I ran and ran until I hit a wall—hard. One night at my home group, there I was, Mrs. AA, eight years sober and unable to move or speak. Breakdown!
At times during those years I had talked to my sponsor about going into therapy. I gave her way too much power, instead of talking to my Higher Power. She assured me that if I just kept working my steps I’d get well.
When I came unglued I was fortunate, thank God, to have a sponsee who was a therapist and had shared her journey of depression with me. When she told me she was on medication I had a hard time to keep myself from saying what my sponsor had told me: “Meds will shut you off from the sunlight of the spirit.”
Anti-depressants were a hot-button topic back then. Never shy to speak out, I stood at the podium and strongly suggested that AAs who didn’t have an M.D. degree should keep their damned opinions to themselves. I spoke about one poor man I knew who was told he should give up his medication because he “wasn’t really sober” if he took it. He stopped and his schizophrenia caused him to try to kill his family and himself.
A mentally ill friend committed suicide after he and his wife were hounded by AA members. She ended up in the psychiatric ward. Both were sober, and both were mentally ill. Suicide occurs too frequently and people wonder what they could have done to help, when it’s too late.
“Many of my behaviours are caused by mental illness and are not character defects”
What helps me is even the minimum of understanding that I can’t do more than what I’m doing and that many of my behaviours are caused by mental illness and are not character defects. This is not to say that I don’t have many faults! I have faults, just as we all have faults, and I humbly ask my God to remove them.
Back to my falling apart. Suddenly I wasn’t the active, vibrant Mrs. AA that everyone had been seeing. I was hurting, confused, and distraught. I had to let go of all my sponsees. They all cried and some got angry. How could I do this to them? I had no choice. I had to drop all my service work and there I was—the hole in the doughnut.
I had become so depressed that I couldn’t go to meetings. When I shared at my home group that I was feeling suicidal, people avoided me and didn’t call—despite my being in bed for five weeks. Where was this famous love of one alcoholic for another? Disillusionment quickly followed.
I left AA and entered therapy with a psychiatrist who told me that AA didn’t keep me sober—that I did. Soon he became my Higher Power and I became totally dependent on him. I had had a childhood full of pain and terror with a criminally insane, violent mother. My alcoholic father hid behind a newspaper and appeared not to notice the bruises and welts that covered my body. I ended up in braces from ankle to hip, because of her neglect. My feet and legs had been damaged by shoes that were much too small. At 2 ½ years of age she took me to a man who abused me for years.
My psychiatrist’s diagnoses were: severe depression, bipolar disorder, high anxiety and panic attacks, post-traumatic stress disorder, severe obsessive-compulsive disorder, etcetera, etcetera.
Once therapy began and started opening the cans of worms that my drinking had kept a tight lid on I became suicidal again. Therapy was like boiling in oil—steps 4 and 5 for eight years without the release of steps 6 and 7. I made lots of amends; I gently confronted my abuser and forgave him and myself. His was the only “love” I had known in childhood and I was willing to pay the price of pain and shame, hoping that he’d adopt me as he said he would. Try trusting after that. Try loving a God who had turned His face like my father had, and ignored my agony.
“I did try to love God and today I believe that God was the reason I survived”
Still, I did try to love God and today I believe that God was the reason I survived. When I moved to Vancouver Island and left therapy I was lost. Terrible people came into my life and one tried to kill me. I tried to get back to AA meetings when I was fourteen years sober but I couldn’t hold on. My mind was too disordered. Daily I walked on the edge of the abyss; I prayed to die. Only my cat kept me alive! I couldn’t abandon this poor little creature that had been given to the SPCA, was adopted and then abandoned again. She was living wild when I found her.
I was in so much emotional pain I called my psychiatrist only to be told that he couldn’t help me any further. I was on the maximum dosages of my medications. He suggested I go to church or back to AA. Anywhere where there were good people. I thought I’d try church even though I wasn’t religious. They spoke of a loving father/mother God and I cried through the first two services. In the leaflet for the order of the service I saw that there was an AA meeting at the church on Tuesdays. How’s that for a God shot?!
I staggered back to AA. Literally. I was disoriented, stuttered, had meltdowns, and said stupid things I regretted. I stayed, though, and took all the suggestions and started working the steps. Still very ill, I attempted suicide. A woman whose face I’d never seen climbed into the truck where they were trying to keep me warm. She took me into her arms even though I was soaking wet and talked of God’s love for me.
The emergency psychiatrist released me when I told him that I’d go to my AA meeting that night. I shared about my suicide attempt and only one AA member spoke to me. An Alanon woman, who I’d never seen before, held me in her arms and spoke of how much God loved me.
Again I wanted to leave AA but where could I go? Outside of AA I knew that there was only madness and despair. I stayed and worked the steps to the best of my ability. My ability to concentrate and retain information is impaired by both my illnesses and the side effects of my medication. When under stress, my brain disconnects and I break off in mid-sentence and can’t get back on track. How embarrassing is that?!
When I told an AA “friend” about my suicide attempt, she called me “selfish.” I can tell you this: I was in an altered state as I walked into the sea with my clothes full of rocks. All I wanted was to end my pain and despair. It says right in How It Works: “there are those too who suffer from grave emotional and mental disorders.” In The Doctor’s Opinion it says: “there is the manic-depressive type…about whom a whole chapter could be written.”
“To the best of my knowledge, nothing more has been written”
To the best of my knowledge, nothing more has been written. Yet I’ve spoken with many AA members who have shared with me their own stories of mental illnesses and how they feel isolated in AA. We are the “crazies”, the “sicker than others”, that other AAs talk about. “We are like men who have lost their legs, they never grow new ones.” Alcoholics Anonymous has given me freedom from the insanity of alcoholism but no matter how hard I work my program I still have a malfunctioning brain and I won’t grow a new one.
Alcoholism took away my choice whether to drink or not; mental illness takes away many of my choices. Resentment can go round on an endless loop and the only way to stop it is to increase my medications. Medication doesn’t remove character defects but it can alleviate the worst symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder.
I have come under a lot of criticism in AA. I was told that I have negative vibes, that I’m negative and nit-picking, that I should stop hiding behind my mental illness, that I’m self-pitying. None of that is at all helpful to me and it has triggered panic attacks. I’ve run out of meetings so that I won’t share my hurt, weakness, and despair—instead of my experience, strength and hope.
On days that I feel very depressed or unstable I stay home, pray and read our literature. God has given me two sponsees that I love. Through grace I have been empowered to help and encourage them. They are a joy and a blessing.
“Like Bill W, I try to live the St. Francis prayer”
Like Bill W, I try to live the St. Francis prayer. I try to love those who don’t love me, to understand those who don’t understand me, and to forgive their remarks which probably stem from fear. As far as I know, Bill never recovered from his depression but maybe he, like me, learned to accept and live with it.
My home group, Sunday Serenity, has introduced a motion that General Service Office publish a pamphlet for the mentally ill alcoholic. Other local groups are voting to support the motion.
My hope is that mentally ill members and newcomers will feel that they too belong in AA and that having doctors share their opinions will help those who don’t understand to be understanding. We need acceptance, not criticism.
Bless you all with endless sobriety, one day at a time. And thank you for mine.
—Anonymous, Nanaimo, BC