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When AA Hurts

A woman suffered abuse in AA—and feels that it’s built in. Other women agree.

(This is a guest column from Juliet Abram)

This is my personal story of being abused, first by my mother, then by a rapist-“boyfriend,” and then by AA. Each form of abuse predisposed me to be a victim of the other, and I had to escape all of them.

I learned in therapy that my low-self esteem and vulnerability left me open to being hurt. I got these feelings at home, from my mother. Then other abusers found me. Abusers like easy targets, such as people who are starved for love or attention or who fear being abandoned. I also used alcohol to tamp down my feelings of shame and disgust from being emotionally, physically, and sexually abused.

Then, I went to Alcoholics Anonymous, where I really suffered abuse. I was sentenced to AA after escaping a guy who raped me, refused to let me go free, and made me steal for him. I either went to AA, or I'd be thrown in jail. But AA only made me remember his death threats and heightened my helplessness and despair. One woman explained to me that you had to expect to be raped when you're drunk. I needed to accept my "part in it." If I ever criticized AA, I was being an "AA Basher."

In therapy, I was preoccupied with my issues with AA. I drank rather than fighting my battles in AA. After my third DUI, my AA boyfriend kicked me out and kept our four-year-old daughter, leaving me to move back to my parents' house with my 10-year-old son from a previous relationship. Then the court ordered me into residential treatment the winter of 2011-2012. On visitation days, my mom would give elaborate speeches to the group about being a heartbroken mother. Her theatrics resulted in other parents applauding her. The family counselor noticed my reactions: Gripping the seat of my chair, hugging my stomach, and keeping my head down. The counselor made me aware for the first time that my mother had a personality disorder.

My mother carried the delusional view that she was a very good person and everyone was out to destroy her. My mom arrived at rehab with photographs of my bedroom full of unpacked boxes (she wouldn’t allow me to unpack), which she said proved that I hated her. She demanded to know why I suddenly began hating her at age 15. At that age I asked her for help because I was cutting myself. The next year she accused me of being on drugs and staged an intervention. "Julie needed tough love," she said, "She's like this because of what my brother did to me." My feelings were ignored because my mom had to make it about her.

And so, the AA accusation that alcoholics are people unable to recognize their wrongdoings and character defects sounded familiar to me. The “fellowship” had the same symptoms as a narcissist! And, once again, I was defenseless. A narcissist is never wrong, just as if you relapse in AA it is your fault, never AA's fault. Narcissists see everyone as their mirror, and if you agree with them all is well. If you disagree, you are an enemy. The AA members I met became instantly defensive whenever I criticized AA. They were like my mother!

Whenever I tried to clear up my confusion or argued at AA, I was assailed with accusations that “you're headed for a relapse.” (I drank a few times during the four-month period following rehab, but never to the point of getting into trouble.) If I asked questions, I was told "You think you know it all, but your own best thinking got you here." Hearing that I was powerless and that without AA I would die sounded very familiar to me. AA rules by the same fear and confusion abusers like my mother and my rapist use to keep their victims under control.

Fear is what led me to drink. Drinking helped me blot out some of the painful and confusing memories I had since childhood. When I was nine years old, my mother convinced me that our phone was tapped and her brother was plotting to kidnap and murder my entire family. At the same time, my mom often threatened suicide and it was my job to talk her out of it.

The most abusive part for my household regime was being sworn to secrecy. I couldn't trust my friends, their parents, or any of my teachers with our secrets—so I was isolated in my fear and guilt. As a teenager, my mom tried to make me confess that my uncle molested me. I almost admitted it a few times because it was what my mom wanted to hear. I felt the same way in AA when I made a moral inventory or I listed those I had harmed. The more names I added to the list of those I had hurt, the better AA liked me. I needed to take personal responsibility for what others did to hurt me, so if I was upset that I was raped and beaten I needed to look at what I did to provoke being raped. Victim-blaming was something I could do to myself without anyone else's help.

In AA I often heard that the definition of insanity is repeating the same action expecting different results. By 2011, when I was arrested for my third DUI, it was clear to me that going back to AA meetings was not going to break the cycle for me. And, so, I told my counselor at residential rehab that Alcoholics Anonymous was one of my triggers. Now, because I was court ordered into treatment, the risk I took by speaking up against AA was being thrown in jail.

I wanted to recover—who doesn’t? I made it clear that I was not rejecting help, only that my AA experiences were hurting me. The treatment center documented my struggles with spirituality, since I was an atheist. One counselor explained to me that addicts aren't able to imagine abstract ideas, and that my denying a higher power was another failure of mine. But I wasn’t going to allow them to confront me until I broke down and gave up on my own beliefs and values. Aren't those the same techniques that abusers use to get victims to knuckle under?

My need to speak up about AA was as important to me as resolving my relationship with my mother. I was determined to find my own way out of my own mess. I had to scramble to find rides to outpatient treatment because mom regularly refused to take me. She invited herself to a court hearing, where she told the court and the audience that I was breaking her heart, had gotten worse after rehab, and was a horrible mother to my kids. A day after that performance, I had my first full-blown relapse—I drank myself into a hospital.

I decided that I’d never set foot in another AA meeting, and instead I started a secular S.O.S. meeting. And, while I knew I had to stop trying to make my mom happy at my own expense, she could still hurt me badly. She threatened to evict me unless I signed over custody of my son to her. She did evict me just before Thanksgiving, without any place to go to. I ended up staying with a friend who lived more than 20 miles away from my work. There was no bus line, so I had to arrange transportation with a rotating cast of friends. Meanwhile, my mom was upset that I didn't want to be her friend on Facebook.

For the next eight months, I worried that I would get in trouble for not going to the three AA meetings a week I was court ordered to attend. I attended S.O.S. instead, and I was prepared to tell the judge that I would rather go to jail than go to another AA meeting. I worried about my mom's irrationality, which was escalating. During a Mother's Day brunch at my grandmother’s nursing home, she said she saw my current boyfriend hit my dad, and started a melee. She seemed totally out of control.

Two months later, my mom, age 65, suddenly died. The last time I spoke with her, she yelled at me. I had come to terms with the fact she was ill, but dead is forever. I broke down and for a few months I drank like a fish. Maybe more than people usually do when someone dies, but in terms of my life I was having a normal reaction to a very abnormal situation. Since Christmas of last year, I drank twice, but only a couple of drinks each time. I haven’t taken any medications since I left rehab. The man I live with now drinks a couple of beers occasionally.

I managed to inform my long lost, supposedly evil, uncle that his sister had died. We had a gathering with her side of her family, whom I thought I'd never see again. For 23 years (I am now 32), I obeyed my mom and never talked to them. My children don't know them. My mom often said, "I don't have a family," and that was how I felt my entire life.

I no longer have to deal with my mother, for better or worse. And I don’t choose to deal with AA. Yet, for nearly everyone, AA is the only way to treat alcoholics, as though everyone will benefit from the AA experience. But I didn’t. I loved my mom so much I would rather hurt myself than hurt her. I found it extremely easy to point out my faults. I didn't need the 12 steps to remind me of my character defects—my mother had made me only too ready to recognize them. Fortunately, I learned enough in therapy to know real recovery involves loving yourself as well as acknowledging when you are weak and wrong.

Juliet Abram is a clerk at a tool shop in Ohio who also writes. Juliet is seeking to expand addiction treatment and support group options in Ohio. If you share her concerns, please contact her through her A.A.R.M.E.D. website.

Stanton Peele has been empowering people around addiction since writing, with Archie Brodsky, Love and Addiction in 1975. He has developed the on-line Life Process Program. His new book (written with Ilse Thompson) is Recover! Stop Thinking Like an Addict with The PERFECT Program. Follow Stanton on Twitter and at (newly renovated).

P.S. (April 24) Further comment from Juliet:

The horrible fact is I had to get a 3rd DUI after being sent to rehab and AA years before. And I was still court ordered to 12 Step rehab. At that point, even I knew something was wrong with both of us- the system and myself. I wasn't getting the right help, even though I was begging for help. My psychologist suggested an emotional behavioral cognitive therapy group (ran by a professional doctor) and my probation officer rejected it because it didn't specifically address addiction.