No Advice is Good Advice

By Maddy Demberg 06/16/14

We do not give out medical advice in AA, and if we think we are in a position to do so, the results can be fatal.

Not a doctor . . . Shutterstock

Recently, there was a show at the Museum of Modern Art by an artist from Germany. Her work is abstract, the sculptures she builds are bright broken machines—constructions of plastic—remnants of what you might call cast-offs, garbage, or debris. The artist is in her 60’s and she trained formally, which means she knows what she’s doing.

I’ve had the bad fortune of sitting among artists and art critics in the past few weeks and I've been shocked when the conversation returned over and over again to the German artist's mental illness. This label was being used as a way to discredit her—by saying she was crazy, people were essentially saying that she didn’t know what she was doing.

She was told by fellows in her home group that she wasn’t sober if she was taking the meds. So she stopped. And she ended up dead. 

And isn’t this precisely what we do in and out of the rooms of 12-step meetings? I’m thinking of the never-ending discussion of medicine (prescribed by doctors) and how those of us fortunate enough not to have to take anything somehow feel the need to judge those who do. 

I did this when I first got sober. A fellow and friend in AA told me, anecdotally, that she was on medicine for her anxiety. And I immediately wrote her off, thinking, “She’s not really sober.” This, despite the fact that 1) her doctor had prescribed the medicine for her and 2) I’m not her doctor. In fact, this very issue is addressed both in the AA Big Book (page 133) as well as in an AA pamphlet titled, “The AA Member—Medication & Other Drugs.” 

I am married to a man with bi-polar. He has been on a cocktail of medicines for more than half his life. When he tells people how much medicine he takes, they always inevitably reply with shock and then the response, “Why so many?” And, “When do you think you can begin to decrease the meds?” 

The answer is that he must take these potent medicines in order to live a full life. In fact, its quite possible if he stopped taking his meds, he could die. The times he has been hospitalized for manic episodes (he tends toward mania) it has been the result of a minor change in his body chemistry. When he travels over time zones, loses or gains weight, or experiences a drastic change such as a move, loss of a job, or even a new exciting opportunity, his body chemistry changes and, as a result, his meds lose their power. When this happens, he becomes manic which means he becomes delusional and paranoid. He hallucinates and becomes psychotic and can even become violent. For him to meddle with his medicine, even minutely, is to risk ending up in the emergency room and/or psychiatric ward. 

As a result of his meds, he is a practicing artist with a studio in Williamsburg. He is married, has a steady job and attends 12-step meetings. He’s lucky. A woman I know in the rooms told me of an AA member who was on prescribed medicine for a mental illness. She was told by fellows in her home group that she wasn’t sober if she was taking the meds. So she stopped. And she ended up dead. 

At the end of the day, what matters is that we each take care of ourselves. For me that means staying sober, with the help of my sponsor. I don’t give advice to anyone in the meetings. I try, instead, to listen. We may all be alcoholics and addicts, but we are also, each, quite different. Each of us, individuals with different needs and issues. 

I wouldn’t know the first thing about what or how much medicine to prescribe my husband. I leave that to his doctor. And I certainly have no idea what or how much medicine other people in the rooms should be taking. 

Maddy Demberg is a pseudonym for a regular contributor to The Fix. She last wrote about anorexia.

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