By Heather B.
I initially found AA roughly 20 years ago, filled with trepidation and with zero self-esteem. Much to my surprise, I had been diagnosed with drug-induced psychosis after seeking psychiatric help for what I thought was depression. Of course, it wasn’t that simple. I knew I was an alcoholic, but since drugs were the current problem, I went to NA. I was 30 years old and thin to the point of illness. Years of subsisting on crystal meth and nothing else – especially food and sleep – had taken a toll, but I was young enough to bounce back. Most NA meetings were filled with men whose sexual overtones before and after the meetings made me uncomfortable and created so much anxiety that I began to dread going. I tried different meetings, but the same people were there. My therapist suggested AA. I took her advice and never returned to NA. Twenty years later, after many false starts and relapses, I am approaching 7 years of continuous sobriety. I am incredibly grateful for the rooms in which I have found support, laughter, and unconditional acceptance.
In 1999, I was young and freshly divorced from my sexually abusive husband, and sober for the first time. I had social anxiety and hated speaking up, especially in meetings. I was full of self-hatred and, therefore, vulnerable. I didn’t yet have the confidence or the tools for self-soothing and part of my drinking/using typically involved relationships with men. I found an established women’s meeting and was warned about new relationships and steering clear of the opposite sex. One young newcomer described an older man who had volunteered to be her sponsor and offered her a place to stay. The seasoned women in the group explained why this was a bad idea and told us that AA predators were known as “pigeon fuckers” and to steer clear of them.
As I often did, I ignored the wisdom that was offered to me. I hated the “no new relationships” rule and, feeling shitty about myself, fell back into familiar patterns of external validation. While I didn’t date men in the program, I did date men who drank. Not surprisingly, I relapsed. In fact, every relapse I’ve had accompanied a romantic/sexual relationship. The men I dated didn’t know (though they quickly learned) I was an alcoholic and using them to make myself feel better – a quicker fix than doing the emotional labor suggested within the program. In the middle of my second attempt at treatment, I was asked to leave after getting involved with another patient. The minute a man showed interest, I was off and running for two reasons: the distraction and the emotional painkiller.
What I know now is that self-esteem is an ongoing, hard-won battle that never ends, and that real self-confidence can only come from within. Today I have a relationship with someone in the program and together we’ve helped get a couple of agnostic meetings off the ground. Still, we rarely attend meetings together and I consciously choose to use the tools – recovery and otherwise – at my disposal when I feel shitty rather than looking to the relationship for validation.
From where I’m standing now, roughly 20 years later, I see the same predatory behavior I was warned about in the 1990’s and it still needs to be addressed. When someone with a significant amount of sobriety seeks out a romantic/sexual relationship with someone new to the program and/or sobriety, it’s referred to as “13th stepping”. It’s predatory because, at best, it takes advantage of another’s vulnerability and interferes with their recovery. At worst, it compromises the other person’s sobriety, leading them back to alcohol and drugs.
The program is often the first (and sometimes only) lifeline that many of us find. Many women, including myself, arrive carrying the weight of sexual trauma. Now we have to get sober in an environment filled with men we don’t know. Imagine, on top of this, getting befriended by someone who pretends to help – offers you a lifeline – but only wants to sleep with you. It is irresponsible and reprehensible to manipulate a newcomer in this way. If we are to carry the message to those who still suffer, it’s up to us to honor, not take advantage of, the vulnerability that newcomers carry through the door.
Earlier this year, a man from the program was exhibiting condescension and disrespect to women both in and out of the rooms. Despite being verbally warned and challenged on several occasions, his behavior escalated and eventually, after threatening me with physical harm, he showed up at a meeting with a weapon intending to inflict harm. My male partner stepped in to protect me and was assaulted. The man was charged with battery and went to jail; the case is still working its way through the legal system. This example is extreme, I know, but it illustrates why not everyone feels, or is, safe in the rooms of AA.
I think the rooms are in need of an overhaul in the way this behavior and other predatory actions are handled if they are to remain welcoming to women. Problems need to be addressed before they escalate to the point that women are afraid to attend meetings. I suspect that some people, when faced with this behavior, look the other way and dismiss it as “none of my business.” Nothing could be further from the truth. It is the business of all of us. Our mission is to welcome and assist every person coming through our doors who wants to stop drinking and drugging and pursue a sober life. If we are to keep the rooms of AA a safe space for sharing and honesty, then we must also be firmly opposed to any threat to that safety. It is completely acceptable for a group to decide that an individual is no longer welcome. Groups should exercise this right if necessary, so that intolerance of predatory behavior becomes the new norm.
Of course, women’s meetings afford an environment that feels both emotionally and physically safer. Having recently helped to start one, I can say from personal experience that I find an intimacy there – with women willing to share more openly and at a deeper level – than I find at mixed meetings. For those of us grappling with sexual or physical trauma, these may be the only rooms in which we are comfortable sharing. I know it was difficult, initially, for me to relate to the men who displayed huge egos when I was so far down in the gutter. I was also feeling the weight of my own guilt in a world where women are expected, above all, to care for others. Still, I don’t think complete segregation is the answer. Limiting ourselves to 50% or less of the recovery population seems antithetical to benefiting from those characteristics that we all share. Someone much smarter than I once said that connection is the opposite of addiction.
Predation is a serious problem within our community, the program that has saved us from jail, insanity, and death. Therefore, it will take the community as a whole to change this culture. We need to talk about this topic in meetings. It should be discussed with sponsees of both genders from the outset. And men, I implore you, do not let this behavior go unchecked. When you see another man preying on newcomers, say something. Do not let the solution to this problem rest solely with women. Take a stand and protect the women in your recovery circles so that everyone is safe and has access to the gifts of sobriety.
About the Author, Heather B.
Heather is a co-founder of two agnostic meetings and her sobriety date is April 7, 2009. She is most often found reading, and she approaches physical activity with extreme hostility. She has two adult children and resides with her microscopic dog, Penny, in Indianapolis.
Original Photography by Jan A. from Oregon.
The audio version of this story was recorded by Len R. from Jasper, Georgia. Len is interested in starting a secular AA meeting in his community. If you would like to join him, please send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org