Once an Alcoholic . . .

“I will forever be a member of a community of people whose lives have unwittingly all but been destroyed by and, as a consequence, shaped by alcohol misuse.”

I’ve found myself thinking about AA a lot over these past few weeks. What I was sure was out of my system appears to be back with a vengeance. I’m seemingly missing AA – again! Given that it was about a year ago that I started this blog, I became curious as to why I would start getting this urge to go back at this particular time of year; I think I finally worked out why: the weather.

Although I lived in the northern hemisphere when I became abstinent in 2006, it’s currently spring here in its southern counterpart, and it was in spring that I joined AA.

Spring in Ukraine was amazing. After a long cold winter, it was as though the whole country had taken one huge sigh of relief. The whole atmosphere changed, and this bleak, grey and deathly cold environment was transformed into a beautiful green city with blue skies and sunshine.

As in so many religious practices of old, spring had perhaps become a symbol of my own rebirth – one of hope, of purpose and of better times ahead. Yet, it’s amazing how selective my memory is, because when I truly think about it, those first few months were as far from hope and purpose etc. as one can imagine: I was plagued with thoughts and images of death; I experienced around the clock panic attacks; I was unable to sleep, and would awake choking, or in a cold sweat from dying dreams; all those things – the shame, guilt, fear, inadequacy – that I had been blotting out with the booze all bubbled violently to the surface; and for the first time in my life I had ‘friends,’ and absolutely no idea how to navigate such relationships. Truth be told, those first few months – perhaps even years – were, on average, horrible. Yet, try telling that to my mind which insists on conjuring up Pollyanna-like images of me sat drinking coffee post-meeting in the spring sunshine with my new friends.

That’s not to say that there weren’t good times – even great times. As things settled down, I did manage to maintain some friendships; I did have a laugh; and my life did have purpose to a certain degree. The Fellowship in Kyiv was a real gift; it was so varied. Although there was a small core of us (about 4) we didn’t know who would turn up from week-to-week. Sometimes there was nobody, and at other times I’d find myself surrounded by all sorts of people, from all walks of life with some unbelievable stories of redemption. I’ve done fifth steps in hotel rooms with people whose names I don’t remember. I’d be running all over the city, helping members get accommodation, translating for them, meeting them and taking them to meetings. We came across few AA Nazis, and our core group was a really tight one which revolved more around fellowship than it did a programme of action.

Yet, when I moved to Australia, all of that changed. Meetings were solely about the Programme, and the same members went to the same meetings, and spouted the same stuff week in, week out. Even though I made an effort to attend different meetings, it was always the same old story, but with a different face. It was  boring and repetitive and I was just a tiny drop in a big alcoholic ocean. I had, of course, by this time, already started to lose faith in some of AA’s core tenets, and it was inevitable that I would eventually leave. Staying would have been similar to an atheist continuing to attend church on Sundays. Yet, I can’t help but wonder that had I remained in Kyiv, whether I’d still be a member – I probably would. You see, I don’t miss AA as such, I miss a time in my life that was special. Yes, AA was our common ground, and it was a common problem that had brought us together, but it was our isolation from the rest of AA in a country so affected by alcohol misuse that made us such a tight-knit group. It was the visitors we got that made ‘recovery’ so interesting; the satisfaction of helping somebody sort out issues that don’t even exist in the West (and having nothing to do with recovery); and the bizarre everyday experiences that each of us had in Ukraine – things that just don’t happen here.

So, it would seem that I don’t actually miss AA at all. Even if I were to move back to Kyiv, those days are long gone (as are my friends), and I’m not even sure that with my current beliefs , I’d be content attending anyway.

I guess one thing has become clear for me, though: while I no longer believe in the biopsychospiritual illness that is posited by AA, alcohol has been the most dominant feature in my life with three-quarters of my time on earth having revolved around it: 15  years as an active drinker, and then 12 ‘in recovery.’ Perhaps there is a seed of truth in the phrase ‘once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic,’ just not in the traditional sense. My memories of both drinking and recovery will always be present, and I still have to refuse the offer of a drink occasionally. There are also the inevitable questions which come with a refusal, and the probing which comes from those who themselves are experiencing problems, and are secretly exploring a solution.

Whether I attend AA or not, or whether I identify as an alcoholic or as somebody who used to drink maladaptively, I will forever be a member of a community of people whose lives have unwittingly all but been destroyed by and, as a consequence, shaped by alcohol misuse. Whilst I don’t allow it to define me, it will always be a part of me, and no amount of AA apostasy can change that.

AA Apostate.

Recovering from Recovery

“Thanks to REBT, my identity is no longer defined by a maladaptive behaviour, I once engaged in. I have ceased labelling myself an alcoholic, for labels are gross overgeneralisations and belong on jars, not on people.”

I was recently asked by an AA member how I used Rational Emotive Behavioural Therapy (REBT) to remain abstinent. “Simple,” I replied, “I choose not to drink.” Continue reading “Recovering from Recovery”

Expectations & Disappointment

“Despite my disenchantment, I have learned a very valuable lesson from my experiences: expectations propagate the seeds of disappointment. It’s not SP’s (or my former friend’s) fault that I feel the way I do. I was the one who put him on a pedestal, and I was the one who put my faith in a fallible human being.”

I got sober in Kyiv, Ukraine, using a Big Book study CD, a 1920s dictionary, and the book Alcoholics Anonymous. Meetings were thin on the ground in Kyiv, and there were often few or no members around. Continue reading “Expectations & Disappointment”

Humanness isn’t a Character Defect

“Since leaving Alcoholics Anonymous, and converting to Rational Emotive Behavioural Therapy (REBT), this early lesson has been affirmed time and again. I no longer think of myself as inherently defective or as having shortcomings. I’m just a fallible human being.”

When I arrived at AA I had incredibly low self-esteem, and believed I was inherently inadequate. This belief plagued me the entirety of my AA membership. It didn’t matter how many times I worked the Steps, how many people I sponsored or how much service work I did, it was never good enough. As far as I was concerned, I was a walking character defect. Continue reading “Humanness isn’t a Character Defect”

A Magic Answer

“Eventually, after one ‘debate’ too many, the gentleman very patiently asked, “What do you want, Bob? A magic answer?!” I called him the c-word and hung up. It would be another ten years before I sought help again.”

I was just nineteen when I first sought help for my maladaptive drinking and substance misuse; I phoned an AOD helpline.  Continue reading “A Magic Answer”

Powerless No More

“Thanks to Rational Emotive Behavioural Therapy, I am truly empowered to change the things I can, and accept the things I can’t. Thankfully, maladaptive behaviours, belong firmly in the ‘can change’ category.”


Pursuant to the AA Big Book, those who drink maladaptively are utterly powerless over alcohol: “Lack of power, that was our dilemma. We had to find a power by which we could live, and it had to be a Power greater than ourselves.” (4th Edition, p-45).

This admittance of powerlessness is, according to AA, the first Step in achieving sobriety. If a person were truly powerless over alcohol, however, how could he or she actually recover from a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body? Continue reading “Powerless No More”

Is Addiction a Brain Disease?

“The National Institutes for Drug Addiction describe addiction as “a chronic, relapsing brain disease.” But a number of scholars, myself included, question the usefulness of the concept of addiction as a brain disease.”

The opioid abuse epidemic is a full-fledged item in the 2016 campaign, and with it questions about how to combat the problem and treat people who are addicted.

At a debate in December Bernie Sanders described addiction as a “disease, not a criminal activity.” And Hillary Clinton has laid out a plan on her website on how to fight the epidemic. There, substance use disorders are described as “chronic diseases that affect the brain.”

The National Institutes for Drug Addiction describe addiction as “a chronic, relapsing brain disease.” But a number of scholars, myself included, question the usefulness of the concept of addiction as a brain disease. Continue reading “Is Addiction a Brain Disease?”