Recovery Bullies

By Juliet Elisabeth 06/20/14

If a bully cannot see they are controlling others with fear, what are they to apologize for in Step 9? Not one of the 12 Steps gives advice on confronting those who hurt you.


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“A quick temper will make a fool of you soon enough.” ― Bruce Lee

Admitting that Alcoholics Anonymous psychologically harmed me has been cathartic and healing. Replies from AA fanatics predict that without their steps catastrophe awaits via jails, mental institutions and death. Where I live, anyone trying to convince me to do anything, let alone stay in a 501(c) non-profit organization, under threat of death is a bully.

Asking me to accept "powerlessness" is asking me to relinquish personal power to make positive changes. The anti-feminist misogynistic books and patriarchal spiritual terms of AA are also condescending. Steppers eager to judge me as an angry, self-centered dry drunk who wants to play the victim are name-calling bullies. The all-knowing 1939 Big Book doesn't know that evidence connects bullying to substance abuse in adults.

Bullying is defined as "aggressive behavior that is intentional and that involves an imbalance of power. Most often it is repeated over time." Links to bullying prevention and information can be found on well-known 12 Step treatment center Hazelden's website.

Maybe the bullying is really an attempt at being confrontational. But using fear to recruit others to follow AA means AA is not a program of choice. If I'm afraid to speak my mind out of fear of retaliation, then the tormenters have become my higher power. Although currently some former AA friends believe I have a vendetta to put an end to an AA, I know I alone do not have that kind of power.

Are scare tactics something sponsors pass down? Do old timers who bark out orders to "keep it simple stupid" consider themselves bullies? What if instead, the counselors were skilled in motivational interviewing, an approach centered on a person's values, beliefs and preferences. Stanton Peele writes that MI developer William R. Miller, along with Bill White, have shown "not a single study over four decades had found confrontation therapies to produce a positive result."

In comparison, AA's 62nd General Service Workshop notes that members with sponsors are "healthy people," because sponsors can set a good example and curtail sponsees' bad behavior. If someone can't acknowledge their bullying is wrong, the bad behavior won't be corrected.

AA has no advice for those bullied. In Steps 4 and 5 a member can admit they resent someone for treating them badly and confess their "part in it," but with bullying this becomes classic "victim blaming." In Step 6, a person admits their character defects and prays them away in Step 7. A list is made in Step 8 of admitting all the people you have harmed so that in Step 9 you can make amends to them all. What do the bullies get? They get away with it.

If a bully cannot see they are controlling others with fear, what are they to apologize for in Step 9? Not one of the 12 Steps gives advice on confronting those who hurt you.

Personalities in AA can range from vulnerable and passive to aggressive and dangerous. All are urged to stick to principles not personalities, but the quiet and the meek are likely to follow the loud and the powerful. Admonishing those under attack who defend themselves with "take your own inventory" perpetuates the cycle.

On the flipside, ex-AA members, relieved to be on a new path to recovery, may find anger is their dominant emotion. Proclaiming "AA is a cult!" may feel good, and some overly zealous AA members may well be cultish. But I remind myself that there are innocent AA members out there who have never done me harm. And many of them are victims themselves.

"Sadly adults can be bullies," states, pointing out that adults are more likely to be verbal bullies rather than physical ones. "They try to humiliate victims, and 'show them who is boss.'" The narcissist bully puts others down to feel good. The verbal bully starts rumors (“they left AA, they're probably in jail’) and sarcasm ("when you need us, we'll be here"). Cyber bullies can be banned, only to come back again under a new alias hurling verbal grenades.

On my last blog on The Fix, commenter time4numa4 stated:

"Here's how that works. People with 3 duis like yourself who keep drinking like get 4. People with 4 [DUIS] get to see the inside of jail for a while. That's you, in jail still with no useful solution. Upon exit, should you keep chippie drinking you'll experience #5 and some hard time in prison."

"Your buddies won't be there to back up your rationalizations while you get a taste of prison time."


"The chance is strong that in your coming disasters you'll cause serious harm to yourself and/or the completely innocent. Your dislike of AA and the people who succeed at living through using it will not assuage the guilt you'd then carry... Live it out, or choose better for yourself at some point as your life declines...No shame in understanding that you'll get what your hand calls for as long as you go along, either good or bad. If you choose badly remember there is a way out [AA] when you've had enough adventures."

Note the nom-de-plume of this commenter reveling in my anticipated demise. Can you imagine another disease where we bully someone's successful, chosen recovery: "Stop taking your blood pressure medication and turn your will and life over to the care of God!"

All bullying amounts to is taking sick enjoyment in causing another to suffer. In the case of opposite views on recovery, it is a case of wanting to be right instead of wanting to listen to—or to genuinely help—each other.

Juliet Elisabeth is a writer and artist. She is also a former court mandated attendee of Alcoholics Anonymous. Her activist cause for 12 Step alternatives in Ohio is the AARMED with Facts blog.

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Juliet Elisabeth is a freelance writer and independent contractor as a research analyst focused on the healthcare field; also an artist and mother of two. Activist for choice in recovery treatment. Her blog is AarmedWithFacts.