By Megan McGilloway
Hi, my name is Megan, and I’m … a person who doesn’t drink anymore? For a while, I introduced myself as an alcoholic or an addict, and casually among recovery friends, as a drunk. Later, that changed to a person in long-term recovery. Sometimes, when I’m talking to people who are familiar with recovery jargon outside of Alcoholics Anonymous, I’ll say that I have Substance Use Disorder, and that I choose to remain abstinent rather than sober. Different people find value in different ways of identifying a former or current relationship with their substance use, and I don’t claim to know which one is right for anyone, individually. What I do know is that there isn’t any one way of identifying what’s right for everyone, collectively.
My mother was my very first drug of choice. She was severely mentally ill. The proverbial “box of chocolates” personified. You never knew who you were going to get. Chaos was the default, and learning how to cope with my severe anxiety by performing perfection was a means of survival. I maintained good grades. I was well-behaved. I dutifully catered to her mood swings. On the rare occasion that I voiced an inkling of unhappiness, she would find a way to make it about her failure as a parent.
So, I made myself as small and unobtrusive as possible. I’m sorry! I’m fine! I swear! What do you need? I formed my entire sense of self-worth and identity around how well I was managing her life.
Eventually, though, my own life became unmanageable. Putting on a daily performance began to take its toll. In my teens, I began to have panic attacks. I became severely depressed, often flirting with suicidal ideations. I started self-harming.
Differentiating my own feelings from the feelings of other people had become impossible. I saw a therapist for a brief time, and it helped until the weight of the knowledge that I was discussing her privately became too much for my mother to bear, and I had to stop going. It was substituted with medication, and it dulled the feelings enough for me to function.
Around the time I turned 20, things started to change. Exhausted from the responsibility and rigid adherence to control that’s necessary when you’re constantly “on call” for a crisis, for the first time in my life, I began to set firm boundaries with my mother.
No, I will not go to therapy with you.
No, I will not leave work because you are being evicted.
No, I will not take your phone calls in the middle of the night.
No, I am not an ungrateful, spoiled brat, but you are entitled to your opinion.
With every No, the death grip with which I held our worlds together began to loosen. One finger at a time. Every No was replaced with a Yes.
Yes, I’d like to stay for drinks after work.
Yes, I’ll have one more.
Yes, I can come out tonight.
Yes, drinking in the middle of the day sounds fun.
Yes, drinking in the morning is the easiest way to cure a hangover.
I had experimented with drinking previously, but giving myself permission to lose all control was liberating. I could finally loosen up enough that I could carry on conversations with cute boys, and experience the “rebellious phase” I missed out on in my teens while I was busy single-handedly keeping the earth spinning on its axis and daydreaming about who would come to my funeral.
I had exactly two states of being: currently consuming alcohol and impatiently waiting for a time when it was appropriate to consume alcohol.
The woman with the drink to her lips was the effortlessly confident, infinitely passionate, remarkably intelligent, highly opinionated, side-splittingly hilarious, strikingly beautiful, zero-fucks-given, life of the party that I had always wanted to be. She existed in my imagination somewhere between “I think I’ll go out for a beer” and about 5 minutes before I blacked out, pissed off everyone within earshot, wept uncontrollably, and made out with whatever unfortunate stranger happened to be standing next to me at the bar.
The woman who was, unfortunately, not consuming alcohol right at this moment was the rigidly controlled, self-loathing, socially phobic, anxiety ridden, hypercritical, hopelessly unattractive, highly unmotivated, faux-intellectual college dropout, constantly on the verge of a panic attack, that I had come to believe I was. This woman loaded a U-Haul with all of her baggage, and took up residence somewhere in my mind between the hours of, “What in the hell did I do last night?” and about 5 minutes before I walked out the door of my apartment to go do whatever I had to do to make it appear to other humans that, despite the increasing frequency of my self-destructive behavior, I really had a handle on this “adulting” business.
Somewhere in the middle of these two extremes lies the truth.
Now, this is the part where I’m supposed to talk about how bad my drinking got. Sorry to disappoint, but I’m not going to indulge you with the toxic ritual of my drunkalogue. Suffice it to say that my drinking became bad enough, and I became desperate enough, to run screaming to a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous and dissolve into a pathetic puddle of tears that proceeded to leak in a steady, continuous stream from my eyes for months. It wasn’t my first go-around with AA, but it was the first time I was willing to give it an honest shot.
And I did. I spoke up at one of my very first meetings and was immediately swept up in the euphoria of desperation colliding with the promise of unconditional love and acceptance. I approached it the way I did most things that felt good. I binged.
But one day I found myself sending a lengthy message to my sponsor littered with the telling snippets of confusion, doubt, and questions that would become the hallmark of my next few years in AA:
I’m actually not really sure how I’m feeling.
I find myself more confused the more people I meet and talk to.
I’m having trouble reconciling what I’m feeling with other’s commentary and perceptions.
I feel like I have to analyze everything that comes out of my mouth so that I don’t get “told about myself.”
I’ve been spending a lot more time alone, and that suits me. But, then, people tell me I’m “isolating.”
When I talk about any feelings, people tell me I’m doing the program “wrong.”
I’m getting unsolicited advice that goes against my gut.
Is this defiance or just simply wanting to acquire more ideas?
If I’m grateful for one thing about my experience with 12-step, it’s that I had a phenomenal sponsor. She fired back a virtual round of applause. Although her voice of reason was always able to keep me grounded temporarily, it was never quite loud enough to drown out the collective roar of AA.
It’s been awhile since I revisited that message, and the complicated feelings it summons. There’s a part of me that can read it objectively, as if it were written by a stranger. I can glean from her turmoil that much of the way AA functions as a culture is designed specifically to keep its members in an endless cycle of dependence with abusive manipulation until they question their own experiences, perception, memory, and sanity. Otherwise known as gaslighting.
There is also a part of my mind very much connected to the fact that I know that the woman who wrote those words was me, and that is still terrifying. I can close my eyes and experience the familiar tightness settling into my chest. I can feel the uncomfortable weight of cognitive dissonance overpower the ability to reason. I can hear the rationalizations replacing the questions. I can settle quietly into a state of surrender while my mind and body sound the alarms and fire off distress signals.
I found myself once again immersed in a codependent relationship, this time with Alcoholics Anonymous. Love was a conditional bargaining tool, and acceptance was contingent upon submission and sacrifice of personal autonomy for the greater good of The Program. My boundaries began to blur. On the rare occasion that I voiced an inkling of unhappiness, someone would find a way to make it about my failure to strictly adhere to the AA program.
So I made myself as small and unobtrusive as possible. You’re right! I’ll take your suggestion! I’m fine! What do you need? I tried to push the nagging doubts out of my head. I performed the familiar dance of perfection. I went to as many meetings as I could cram into my schedule, accepted invitations for coffee, collected phone numbers, had a home group, a sponsor, and a service position. I dropped whatever I was doing to show up for anything having to do with AA. I worked the steps. I chaired meetings. I spoke at anniversaries.
I came into the program without a belief in anything. I acquired language that explained my cognitive processes in a way that was “acceptable” for AA. Group of Drunks. The Universe. Creative Energy. Divine Intelligence. Spirituality. Higher Power. Prayer. Meditation. Since I was already halfway there, I said screw it and started using the God word. That way, I rationalized, everyone will understand what I’m talking about. I faked it, not until I made it, but until I had myself thoroughly convinced that I believed in God, even though the word felt like sand in my mouth, and I found myself having to spit it out.
Eventually, though, my own life became (once again) unmanageable. Differentiating my own thoughts from the thoughts of Alcoholics Anonymous had become impossible. I started to pull away from The Program, and I began to set boundaries.
No, I cannot speak at that meeting because I need to spend some time alone.
No, I will not represent this group as a GSR because I don’t think my beliefs are reflected here.
No, I do not have money to put in the basket because I can barely afford my rent.
No, I will not say that I’m powerless anymore because I no longer believe that to be true.
No, I will not keep my mouth shut when what you are saying is dangerous.
No, I do not believe I will get drunk over this, but you are entitled to your opinion.
With every No, the death grip with which I was clinging to my fear of leaving a program that I had come to believe was dangerous for myself and many others began to loosen. One finger at a time. Every No was replaced with a Yes.
Yes, I am an atheist.
Yes, I am angry.
Yes, I want to experience the entire spectrum of human emotion without guilt or shame.
Yes, I can embrace all of those feelings fully without the impulse to escape them.
Yes, I can learn to form relationships that are not built on a foundation of love that is conditional.
Yes, I will find communities where I will be accepted as I am.
Yes, I can make a difference in the lives of those with addiction without participating in Alcoholics Anonymous.
Yes, I can remain abstinent from drugs and alcohol if I choose to do so.
Yes, I can heal.
I would love to paint you a happy, joyous, and free picture of my life to round this whole thing out, as one is wont to do after a few years of ending their recovery story with a message of “hope.” But I’m determined to remain rigorously honest, so I can’t.
Shortly after I stopped participating in The Program, I came across a blog in a frantic Google search titled Leaving AA, Staying Sober. That blog saved my life and my sanity all over again. I’ve since had the opportunity to thank the man who wrote it, and he connected me with people all over the world who share a much less limited view of recovery, and an insatiable curiosity about all of the treatment avenues currently being utilized.
I made a promise to myself that I would give back what was so freely given to me by sharing my story for someone else to find in a moment of desperation.
But, the truth is, I’ve been separated from 12-step life for a little over a year now, and the fear of writing about it for other people is just now beginning to loosen its stranglehold on me. I’m not afraid to call it what it was: abusive gaslighting. I’m not ashamed anymore to admit that I needed time to deprogram from that, and still sometimes struggle with the lingering effects. I’m working on absolving myself of the need to defend the validity or truth of my experiences. I’ve prepared myself emotionally for the accusations that I’m potentially killing untold numbers of alcoholics and addicts for having the audacity to admit publicly that I choose to remain abstinent without the help of The Program.
To paraphrase a speaker I heard recently, I will willingly let go of some serenity in the interest of doing the right thing. What is right is sharing my experience and strength, and admitting that it’s just not as simple as offering the hope of a single solution that can be packaged up neatly with a bow or confined to 164 pages of a book that hasn’t changed since the 1930’s.
So, I suppose this is more of a beginning than an ending. Hi, my name is Megan, and that’s a good start.
About the Author, Megan McGilloway
Megan is a career bartender and aspiring freelance writer from Frederick, MD. She has a passion for social justice, intersectional feminism, and alternative addiction recovery. When she’s not busy ranting on the internet, she enjoys quiet nights at home watching documentaries and cuddling with her best canine friend, Mango. She has remained abstinent from drugs and alcohol since November 2013.
Check out Megan’s Blog: rhetoricalappeal.co
The audio version was narrated and recorded by Len R. from Jasper, Georiga. Len would like to start a secular AA meeting in his area. I you would like to join him, please send an email to email@example.com