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Why I may abandon the Twelve Steps

I plead the forgiveness of those in whose lives the Twelve Steps have played a decisive, even revolutionary, role.Nonetheless the conclusion that the Steps are not for me is becoming firmer and firmer. It is true that the Steps have helped thousands, but it is becoming increasingly evident that I am not one of those thousands.

I am not just saying this out of impatience or petulance. I am saying this because the essential contradiction between what I have learned in therapy and what I read in literature and speak to with people refuses to go away and only appears more and more irreconcilable.

I was emotionally abused as a child. During that time, I adopted as a teen a fundamentalist breed of Christianity which among other things preached self-abasement - a complete abandonment of the emotion of selfishness and self-care and devotion to taking care of others. My parents, for all they despised the sect I was a member of, nonetheless used it to their advantage to bend me to their will with guilt and shame.

Over and over again, I was told that I was selfish, that I hadn't done enought for my father, or my mother, or both. I tried endlessly to please them and could never succeed for long. What does the Big Book say? It agrees with them: "Selfishness - self-centeredness! That was the root of our troubles". (p. 62).

Essentially, Bill W. is arguing that alcoholism (and by inference, other addictions as well) are the acts of fundamentally selfish people. That may have been true for him and many others, but it is not true for me. In therapy I have learned that my problems has not been too much selfishness, but too little. In the zero-sum world I grew up in, I learned how to hate and despise myself and love others instead. I had no concept of self-love, and this is what led me to abuse myself with addictions.

Nor do I accept the contradictory idea, which has been argued before, that self-love is not the same thing as selfishness. They are the same thing, and after years of self-neglect I am slowly awakening to the value of rational, enlightened self-interest.

The Big Book goes on with words that can only chill the heart of an abuse victim: "We invariably find that at some time in the past we have made decisions based on self which later placed us in a position to be hurt". (p.62) Oh, fine and dandy. So if my father tyrannized me and my mother despised me, it's all my fault. Blame the victim writ large. Note the use of the word 'invariably'.

Then there is the matter of self-trust, and self-confidence. The social phobia I have been afflicted with all my life has one fundamental manifestation: lack of self-confidence. This is how obesity made me think of myself as ugly, and why I have turned to sex addiction instead of dates and girlfriends all my life. The Steps have no particular respect for self-confidence, however: "Self- confidence was no good whatsoever; in fact, it was a total liability." (AA 12/12, p. 22). Throughout the literature, the emphasis is on surrender, humility, and other forms of groveling.

Contempt for one's intellect and achievements run rampant through program. Many times I have heard the vindictive and offensive slogan "Your best thinking got you here". In other words, whatever you may have accomplished in your life is of no consequence. Because you are an addict, you are also an idiot.

The slogan doesn't appreciate that it is often *emotional* problems, not *intellectual* problems, that have driven me into my addictions. In fact, very little in program literature has any word of sympathy of concern for those who grew up in broken homes or who have been abused or maltreated. Instead, the word "malady" and "disease" are thrown around like nickels, behind them lying a clear blame-the-victim philosophy and attitude of harsh moralistic condemnation.

Dripping with sarcasm and contempt, the 12/12 goes on: "We used our education to blow ourselves up into prideful balloons" (p. 29). In other words, the intelligent person must be humiliated and cut down to size. Many are the people who have said my intellect is a liability and disadvantage in program.

All my own life I have bowed to the will of authority figures - of my parents, my peers, religious leaders, anyone whose opinion differed from mine. I had no inner confidence in my intuitions and judgments. The Twelve Steps don't preach self-trust and self-respect; if anything, the precise opposite: "We are certain that our intelligence...can...guarantee us success...This...sounds good in the speaking, but...how well does it actually work? One good look in the mirror ought to be answer enough for any alcoholic.". (12/12, p. 37) The mirror is a powerful image, and it is all the more painful - and destructive - for a compulsive overeater, among whose leading problems is a sense of personal ugliness and unattractiveness. The obvious implication is: give up your intelligence, your best quality, if you want to be lean and handsome.

The Steps do not teach people to take direction for their own lives. Rather, it argues that I must surrender to the will of a God whose intentions might be quite different from my own. "At no time had we asked what God's will was for us, instead of telling Him what it ought to be" (12/12, p. 31)

But still more fundamental a barrier, for me, is the nagging question of anger. In my parents' house this emotion was virtually forbidden. If I got angry, I would be punished swiftly and with terrible severity, while my parents' own rage was limitless. It was only through therapy that I learned to feel and appreciate the healing power of anger.

Certainly the Big Book has nothing positive to say about anger: "If we were to live, we had to be free of anger...for alcoholics these things are poison." (p. 66). This is flatly opposed to what I have learned in therapy, that it is impossible for me to achieve happiness without feeling - and nursing - the completely justified feelings of anger towards my parents, and holding on to them as long as I deem necessary, even if that be a lifetime.

The BB does admit "we saw that these resentments must be mastered, but how?" (p.66). It then answers with a sentence that makes my blood boil: "We realized that the people who wronged us were perhaps spiritually sick....When a person offended, we said to ourselves 'This is a sick man...God save me from being angry'". (pp. 66-7)

Bullshit!

In other words, anger is to be suppressed by deliberately refusing to admit that other people bear responsibility for their actions. When my mother came at me with a knife, I am supposed to say, she is sick, God save me from being angry. When I was denied the chance to attend the university I needed, well, God save me from being angry. Do not feel! Do not rage!

In other words, suppress your anger. Anger is evil. This is *exactly* the kind of self-destructive, punitive thinking that led to my near-total mental and emotional collapse earlier this year. I forgave my parents instantly, unhesitatingly, with the devotion of a boy crying out for love and affection in whatever form was available. I tolerated all abuses, turned the other cheek continually, and lived my life as a doormat. And what does program suggest? More of the same!

Anger saved my life. Anger saved my values. Allowing myself to feel anger, to yell at my father over the phone, to cut off contact with my parents, to move out of their house, to burn them in effigy, to beat up cushions pretending it was them, was one of the greatest things I ever did. The Big Book can take its emotionless puritanism and shove it, as far as I am concerned.

Another thing the program discourages is to feel compassion or mercy on oneself. The addict is expected to be harsh as stone, and self-pity is regarded as a character defect. "Have we indulged in self-pity? Have we played the martyr?" (OA 12/12, p. 43). The idea that doing precisely that might be a legitimate part of mourning for one's sufferings does not seem to occur to the authors of program literature.

Another extremely cruel and unforgiving slogan is "stay off the pity pot". In other words, if you regret the fact that your parents abused you, you are wallowing in pain, and should shut up and get on with your dysfunctional life. Not a word is said to the abusers. Once again we see blaming and shaming of the victim. The so-called pity pot is a necessary place for people who have suffered at others' hands to stay for a while, as long as they need it, and not be shamed or coerced into getting harsh and demanding upon themselves.

Consider my own posts to this loop when my depresssion and suicidal feelings were at tbeir peak. What does the AA 12/12 say on that subject? "What happens when we wallow in depression, self- pity oozing from every pore?" (p. 81) This, according to the book, is part of a "roster of harms" done to others.

The long list of questions in Step 4 of the OA 12/12 read like an instruction manual in self-criticism and self-hatred. Do you have this fault? Maybe that one too? What the hell, maybe this one? A witchhunt it is, a ruthless determination to break down the addict's love of himself and concentrate inexorably on his or her bad traits.

Once again I am no stranger to this type of thinking. For many years I have ignored my virtues, or minimized them, yet zeroed in mercilessly on the tiniest of real or imagined faults. Do the Steps encourage me in the slightest to feel good about myself? Precisely the opposite.

Finally, and most decisively, there is the question of forgiveness of and amends to abusive parents. I cannot but find this among the most callous, cold-hearted pieces of advice possible to a victim of abuse or other serious personal harm.

To forgive someone - to give up one's resentments - for an uncorrected wrong is a negation of my own feelings. It means my own emotions are wrong, my sense of hurt no longer justified, my heart not to be trusted. To forgive my parents is once again placing their needs ahead of my own, suppressing the pain and rage I feel inside. It is an obliteration of the self. It is an abandonment of my humanity.

To argue that I will not recover from addiction unless I forgive each and every wrong can only be described as blackmail therapy.

How is this to be done? Listen to the words of the OA 12/12: "We will pray for the people who have wronged us...asking God to bless them with all the good things we want for ourselves" (p. 72). Gee, isn't that one a dandy. Treat someone like garbage and you get rewarded by having them pray for you. One wonders whatever happened to the words "justice" and "fairness".

And the point of this exercise in self-denial? "Sooner or later our feelings will change." (p. 72). Aha. So the point of all this is to change our own natural feelings and instincts with artificial constructs. To me this is just a polite term for brainwashing oneself.

If there really is a choice between forgiving my parents and continuing as an addict (which I don't believe, in the slightest). I would rather continue an addict. That is how awful that idea is for me. I really would rather die than do such a thing. And as for making amends to them for the much lesser wrongs I have committed, while ignoring their huge wrongs - not a chance.

If I make amends to them for little things while they do nothing but sit back smugly, the only implication possible is that mine are the greater. In other words, for me to make amends is to minimize, or even condone, their horrendous abuse. After the depression, pain, fear, and misery I have felt I have not the slightest intention of doing anything of the sort.

So with these massive disagreements, why don't I simply leave OA?

I have been tempted for a long while to do just that. I stayed in largely for personalities over principles. Some of the kindest people I have ever known I met here. And the emotional support I have received in the group was arguably life-saving during my suicidal period. That is not something I part with lightly, or gladly. Yet it is an equally undeniable fact that the principles of OA and the Twelve Steps I find increasingly offensive, even repugnant. But alternatives - Rational Recovery, Secular Sobriety etc. have problems of their own, and are smaller and don't have the large mass support OA has.

I do not know if future posts from me will be welcome if I decide to leave OA. I have already left SA, partly for these same reasons. I am not sure what to do next, but am leaning in favour of leaving. Yet I am frightened at what would happen to me without the emotional support.

For fear, depression, anxiety, pain, and misery are still part of my life. I still have nightmares. Tearless crying spells with horrible, tearless, animal-like sobs. Hopelessness. Despair. Yet the Steps do not seem to offer a relief; they are just adding to my stress.


Oasis, Nov. 14, 1996.