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By the book: The denial of difference in Alcoholics Anonymous

Posted Feb 04 2010 7:27pm

The back of the room is safe but the back of the room is forbidden. Isolating means fear and denial. Come to the front. Come to the table. At the table, I cannot function. The faces know. I cannot look. At the first opportunity, I will move to a corner. Lower my head so I don’t see the looks.

The hardest part of it all is staying in the room. Some meetings are harder than others. You never know when the person chairing is going to be of the controlling type. Today, we will go around the room and say how we are powerless or what we are grateful for. Or worse, she will call on people randomly. Going around the room is better because I would know when to leave. Leaving is wrong, but I have no choice. I don’t yet have the tools for staying.

Once in awhile someone will have a talk with me. People have followed me out. What are you afraid of? You are getting ready to drink. But I am not afraid of telling the truth. I am not able to speak.

This had happened in school too. One of the things I did to frustrate my teachers was to say only “I don’t know” when called on to answer a question. They knew this was a lie because I had already discussed the very topic in an essay or chosen it from a standardized test. Sometimes, I might even volunteer the answer, briefly, orally. But when called on, I never knew. It was common knowledge that I lied about these things because I was “shy.” I did not know why my mind went blank or filled with random pictures or graphs. Sometimes, I would try very hard to make a sentence out of it. People would stare back blankly because whatever I said seemed several topics removed from the question.

During my early years in AA, I rarely stayed in the room for an entire meeting. People would try to engage me by asking me to do things. I could not chair a meeting, but I could make coffee. I could not stand up and tell my story to a group, but I could collect the trash and take it out. Eventually, it became clear to me that this was no longer enough.

I went for nearly three years before drifting off.


The hardest part of it all was staying in the room. I was older now, 39 as opposed to 25. I understood more about how to stay. This was viewed positively by the few who had known me before. It was framed as “being ready this time,” as being more willing. That was probably true, too, after seven more years of alcoholic drinking. The key for me was that I had acquired the ability to say the word “pass” or even “I will just listen today” when it was my turn to speak. I still found myself with an urgent need to use the restroom or take a walk at some point, but usually I came back.

Conflict arose when the time came to receive my first token, representing one year of sobriety. I tried to refuse. The tradition is to say a few words and I hadn’t yet said anything in any meeting beyond “pass” or “I will just listen today.” But I had bought into the idea so prevalent in AA that somehow displeasing one's sponsor and group is likely to lead to tragedy. I had accepted a lot of beliefs I knew were lacking in logic and reason. I had been told I would surely drink if I did not do this. For months, I had traded aspects of critical thinking for the approval that seemed somehow to play a role in keeping me alive.

When I think about this now, I understand how easily reason can be set aside in favor of anecdotal evidence. I heard the stories over and over: Beth comes to meetings every day, and she has been sober for 10 years. Marie was sober for 10 years, too, but she stopped going to meetings a year ago and now she is drinking again. Rita did the same thing, and now she is dead. There was a seemingly endless supply of such stories. I was pretty sure that there were people who did not go to AA and still were sober, but eventually, I stopped asking questions because these questions, I was told, were a function of denial. Then there were those people who came around all the time and seemed to do everything recommended, but never seemed able to stay sober. There was an explanation for that. They were doing it wrong.
One hears the same sorts of stories about autism causes and treatments. Joe was autistic, but now he's not since starting XYZ. If you question this, it is because your philosophy is flawed. "My child is my evidence." That sort of thing.

I negotiated the token situation with my sponsor. I could use a simple script when accepting the token; “thank you” would be enough. Reluctantly, I agreed, and found myself adding to the script so that when the time came, I had several short sentences to say. This might have been a mistake. People were amazed by the talking I did. Now they were sure I could say things at any time I wanted. I responded by memorizing brief scripts for various popular topics. They were coherent enough, having been written and memorized beforehand, that people started looking to me for advice, even asking me to sponsor them. The problem was that these new situations demanded far more ability to speak extemporaneously than I actually had. I had quickly risen to my level of incompetence.

Demands continued to increase. I was berated by my sponsor for the misbehavior of not going out to dinner after meetings. Apparently I lacked the all important willingness to socialize with groups, which was necessary to the next step of my development. I made many attempts to meet this expectation, becoming more miserable and alienated with each try. I could not understand why these monumental efforts toward conformity were not sufficient to stop the accusations of unwillingness. I came to believe that there was something fundamentally wrong with me, something that would surely lead me back to drinking.

During one argument with my sponsor over this and other crimes of autistic behavior, I stood in the middle of the street, doubled over, crying. “This is too much drama for me,” she said. And she laughed. I didn’t fire her; she fired me, a short while later. Her parting words were about how I had this tendency to see everything in black and white. This was probably the closest I came to drinking, and the best thing that could have happened. I found another sponsor who was flexible enough to accommodate, and even appreciate, my differences, one who did not find amusement in my pain. I still see her from time to time. Neither of us goes to the meetings anymore.

Further reflections

There were things I liked about Alcoholics Anonymous. There was a comforting sameness about the meetings, an orderliness to the steps. Hearing the stories of others who had been in the same kinds of trouble I had reassured me that sobriety was possible. Many people were kind and went out of their way to help others who were suffering. In fact I have never encountered another group of people so willing to sacrifice time and energy for people in need. And there was always coffee.

I never got over my uneasiness with the exhortations to “stop thinking so much” and just do what I was told, just as I never adjusted to social expectations that were entirely outside my understanding and abilities. But I did do (more or less) what I was told, and the fact that I took every step so very literally may have been helpful. I really don’t know.

There was one other thing that, in retrospect, I very much appreciate. Despite the many before-, during-, and after-meeting comparisons (this one’s drinking was far worse than that one’s) and the jockeying for status associated with long term sobriety, not one person ever questioned whether anyone, no matter how young or seemingly unscarred, met the DSM definition for substance dependence. All were considered qualified to know who they were, and with or without benefit of formal diagnosis, entitled to say so without rebuke.


This post is not meant to discourage anyone who needs help and thinks that AA might be the solution. This is one person’s experience. I am sharing it with the hope that AA groups and members might consider the possibility that, despite the prevailing sarcasm toward people who “think they are different,” and are therefore surely in denial, some of us may truly have different needs which could easily be respected and accommodated.
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