Court-Ordered to AA When You’re Not an Alcoholic

By Julia Beatty 03/20/16

Although defendants are innocent until proven guilty, those charged with a DUI are alcoholics until proven otherwise. 

Court-Ordered AA When You’re Not an Alcoholic

In 2011, at the age of 19, I found myself in handcuffs after driving drunk on the way home from a Fourth of July party. I had narrowly avoided causing a collision—flipping in the air and hitting a tree instead of another car—but I could not avoid my arrest or the breathalyzer that awaited me at the police station.

I blew a .09 (one point above Maryland’s legal limit) and was given a court date, where the prosecutor would argue for me to spend two full weekends in jail. However, because I was a first-time offender—or, more than likely, because I had a good lawyer—I received a Probation Before Judgment (or PBJ) in lieu of being locked up. This included 18 months of supervised probation, as well as community service where I mopped and threw away (what else?) beer cans at a community center for a few hours a day.

I also had to attend a Mothers Against Drunk Driving lecture that put everything into perspective about how lucky I was to not have hit and killed anyone during my reckless ride. Listening to the family members of drunk driving casualties describe how differently their lives would be, had someone like me not intervened, made me realize the need for the punishments that I had been given—even the pointless treatment sessions that wrongfully suggested I was an alcoholic.

Although defendants are innocent until proven guilty, those charged with a DUI are alcoholics until proven otherwise. It is for this reason, and the fact that AA is free, which render it a treatment program suitable for anyone and everyone who has ever driven while intoxicated. But despite the fact that I had autonomously attended a different alcohol treatment program well before sentencing—where the counselor attributed my social drinking and dabbling in drugs to my age, not addiction—the court simply saw me as an alcoholic and signed my name to those anonymous meetings.

It is true that the judge did not know that I was just a social drinker who overdid it one night and made a bad decision, but that’s precisely the point: what do they know about the individuals they send to involuntarily infringe upon people earnestly trying to get help?

MADD was a controlled setting, with people checking IDs, stamping forms, and threatening to report any disrespectful behavior to the court. AA, however, subsists upon the attendees’ free will in getting sober and beginning a new life, and has brought sobriety to millions of willing participants this way. But you can’t force sobriety on anyone, and diluting the program with people who don’t want to be there compromises the hard work of members who take the program seriously—the people who are willing to both listen and share. I wasn’t really willing to do either, yet with no choice but to follow court-ordered directions to keep my Get Out of Jail Free card, I looked up meetings and found one nearby.

On the way there, I found myself oddly nervous, and this only increased when I saw that the AA venue was actually a tiny colonial-style house on a street downtown. I was not worried about the smallness of such a place out of fear of being recognized, but because it increased the likelihood that I would be noticed at all—and confirm the notion that I was indeed an outsider.

The house only contained about thirty chairs in what would’ve been the living room, and I noticed that only middle-aged men filled these chairs—at least on that first night. By contrast, with my bright red hair and youthful and confused face, I stuck out like a Corona in a fridge full of Natural Light.

Nobody stared at me that night, though, except to lightly chuckle when I started to pack my stuff up prematurely—not realizing that, like most AAs around the country, each meeting ended with a unison recital of “The Lord’s Prayer.”

This moment stands out to me as being the most cult-like of any I have yet to experience, as I stood in a circle in an old colonial house, holding hands with strangers who were reciting a prayer together while I stared at my shoes. Yet, an atheist like myself was never made to feel unwelcome, and I would appreciate future meetings where the group leader would make a point to say that in giving yourself up to a higher power (or step number 2), you didn’t need that higher power to be God.

“This power can be your sponsor,” they would say, eager to add that many members of AA did not believe in God at the time of their finding sobriety, and maybe finding God and Christianity would come later.

On a different night, the group leader asked me, “the girl in the purple,” if I wanted to share my story. I hesitantly started with, “Uh… my name is Julia.”

I felt the group collectively wait for the “and I’m an alcoholic” line, but I did not give it to them, continuing on with “and I’m just here for a DUI…”

The second it left my mouth, I felt ashamed for trying to lessen my infraction and corrected myself, saying, “Well, not just here... but uh… yeah… I don’t really have anything to contribute…”

“Thanks for sharing, keep coming back, it works if you work it,” the listeners replied in their standard AA response, and I was allowed to return to my state of silent anonymity.

The only time that I ever truly felt uncomfortable was when a man around my age and sitting right next to me stared me down before and after he contributed to the group with a shocking admission.

He shared his story of alcoholism, and while discussing what horrible things it made him do, he shared that he had brutally beaten up an elderly woman—one of his grandmother’s church buddies, in fact—while in a drunken rage.

“She forgave me, but I haven’t forgiven myself,” he cried, and while some members seemed touched by his honesty, I was horrified and inched even farther away from him. That didn’t stop him from hitting on me after the meeting, however, and I politely declined his invitation to join him and a friend for a meal, secretly praying to whatever God watched over AA that I would not see him again (and I didn’t).

Because of incidents like this, I can understand why some object to AA’s open door policy on principle, arguing that it can be unsafe for women to be vulnerable in such a public place. And though I am now attuned to cases where an atonement letter can go horribly wrong, I don’t think AA's doctrine is necessarily at fault, and have heard that making amends (step number 8) can be skipped if this will cause more harm than good.

The open door policy worked in my favor; however, once I realized that with nobody to verify the identities of the anonymous signers of the papers that "proved" my attendance, I could sign and date them however I wanted and my probation officer wouldn’t know the difference. So I “completed” my AA requirement the very next time that I reported to her, having gone to a handful of the ten meetings I was assigned to.

All this meant was that she was able to close the AA section of my file, and that was that. There was no heartfelt conversation about the good I had found in myself, in the program, or in quitting drinking. It was just a check mark on a form, and there were plenty of other check marks to go—like for each time I had left to report for probation, and each time I had yet to report for community service.

In the end, I did the rest of my probation requirements honestly, and eventually everything that needed to be completed, was. I had just grown tired of going somewhere that I did not belong, somewhere that strangers were pouring their hearts out while I eagerly watched the clock.

Yet, even though AA was not a fit for me, I believe in the organization and what it can do for people who choose to be there. I did not "keep coming back," but, as millions of people will confidently tell you: “It works if you work it.” 

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix
Disqus comments

Julia Beatty is a college student from Maryland. You can follow her on Twitter.

Disqus comments