My Experience in a 12-Step Cult - Page 2

By B.A. Brand 10/01/18

I spent over ten years in a fundamentalist and rigid 12-step community that demanded I make excruciating sacrifices. Then I found my way back to the true light of AA.

Blurry figure behind a window, pressing hands against the glass.
How did I get here? This is not what I want to happen. I did not give my approval for this to be the course of my life. Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

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I became more and more skeptical of the constant and intense supervision; I was exhausted from the 24/7 schedule and the years and years that people were “in the doghouse” in group. The separated couples troubled me in a way I couldn’t ignore. I started to ask professionals from outside about this community. A professor of sociology where I worked said that it sounded like some ethics boundaries had been crossed. Another therapist I visited confided that many professionals looked at this group with skepticism. The local AAs called us “the zombies.” But still, clients came from all over the United States.

So, as a result of the crisis group I mentioned, Terry and I were separated again, with no contact except in group meetings or individual therapy sessions. After weeks of being designated “in crisis,” I decided that I had to leave. I knew Terry would stay. After years of this totalizing therapy environment, he had become family to Marlene and even talking to him about us leaving together was impossible.

I moved out of my shared home and found a furnished room. My friends from the group called me and my best friend encouraged me to keep going to group. So I came back but was given even more restrictions and more oversight. I had to go to my professors and tell them that I was recovering from sexual abuse. Marlene thought I would become more humble if I cleaned houses for income. I had my car taken away, was forced to move houses, and had to attend more meetings.

At this point, spouses would not be allowed to see each other except in group and I knew that our marriage could not survive. It would go the way of so many of the others. This is the point where I said in group that I didn’t think I could continue to be a part of the community if my husband and I divorced. And this is when Marlene said that if I left the group, I would be on the street. I would be walking the streets, hooking for drugs is what she meant. I was 15 years sober at that point, and attending meetings daily. I broke down and threw up in a waste basket in the middle of the group meeting. That night, my friend came to spend the night with me. She had long-term sobriety and had lost over a hundred pounds in OA. She crawled into bed with me and held me. I remember her skin was soft and squishy. I couldn’t stop crying and so I recited “The Lord is my Shepherd” over and over until I fell asleep.

In the daylight hours, I knew that I had to leave despite my husband staying. That week in a private session with my husband, the therapist asked me if I wanted to be checked in to a hospital. As if someone would want to do that. At that moment I felt truly frightened and I knew I had to leave for good. I felt sad but also perfectly calm about the decision. It was that kind of deep acceptance that I had actually found in AA 15 years prior. How did I get here? This is not what I want to happen. I did not give my approval for this to be the course of my life. But, really, because of my trust in the program, there was a sense of peace that I would be okay.

So, I went home and moved out of my shared home again. I packed everything I had into my car and my friend walked up the driveway. She was coming to clean the house and she cried and begged me to not leave. I don’t remember what I said other than “I have to leave.” I got in my car and drove to my office. It was inter-session when no classes were held and the school was empty. I slept on the couch in the faculty lounge. Two nights later, still feeling like a criminal, I checked into a hotel. Later, I found an apartment and moved in and slept on the floor. I slept as I had never slept before. The next day, I stepped outside and sat on the steps underneath a giant water oak. I could feel strength and protection from this tree. This was my home. 

And I was truly okay, after a time. Of course no one from the community could talk to me and I had to find all new meetings. Here and there people would tell me what I knew would be said about me, that I was in active sex and love addiction. There was a growing group of us who left but it was hard to connect because I still believed that what I did was wrong. I kept going to meetings and, as is always true with AA, there is a meeting for everyone. I couldn’t talk about my experiences in the meetings because I just couldn’t verbalize what I was feeling. I would just go and sit, like I did in early sobriety and, little by little, I could feel healing start to happen. I had had some self-injury behaviors for years that stopped shortly after leaving the group. I helped with Meals on Wheels and started to go to the local church and just sit quietly. Brief feelings of peace and acceptance would wash over me.

I still had some terrible resentments at Terry that plagued my thoughts. So, when I started to think of him, I would immediately start to say a prayer or affirmation. If I drove by a place where we had lived, I’d start the affirmation going before I even got there. Pretty soon, I had affirmations running through my head all day and night. One day, I found myself in the church and the priest was hearing confessions. I walked up to the door and he beckoned me in the room. The priest asked how long since my last confession and I said, Since my first one, Father. He asked me to say the prayers with him and I didn’t know them. I said that I had vengeful resentments. He was kind and said a whispered prayer, said something about grief. He told me to pray the “Hail Mary” every day. I walked out into the sunshine, somewhat dazed, and put one foot in front of the other. I went to work, meetings, trudging the road of happy destiny. About ten days later, I was driving by our old house and I realized that I hadn’t thought about my ex all day. I then realized it had been a few days — I don’t know when it happened, but the resentment had lifted.

Several of the other clients left, as they always did, but a small group of us filed complaints with the state Department of Health and Human Services. Marlene was fined and sanctioned for breaches of ethics. She continued to practice. The 12 steps are a broad highway and there is room for many different types of recovery. I never picked up a drug or a drink after leaving there.

Eventually, trusting the program and trudging the road, my path became more clear and bright. I moved back to my hometown and my family welcomed me home. I got a good job. I became secretary of my home group. Other people in AA shared experiences with me of strange therapy or religious groups. I attended therapy and told my doctors of what I had been through and none of the professionals said that what that group was doing was right. I eventually started dating and fell in love with a good man. We welcomed our son, my miracle baby, when I was 44 years old and over 20 years sober. Marlene’s prediction never came true. I stayed clean and sober through all of that which I owe to the 12 steps and the program of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Was every day a bell-ringing success? Not even close, but I stayed sober one day at a time. I would see people walk through terrible life events in AA, lost jobs and families, terminal illness, death of spouses, and I always wondered if I could weather terrible life events like that. Would I be able to stay sober? And I did. The AA program is not perfect but I do not see it as a harmful cult. They hold their meetings in church basements and serve terrible, weak coffee. The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking. If I feel uncomfortable at a meeting, I can find a new group. AA even has groups for Atheists and Agnostics. AA’s principles and wisdom help countless people around the world. I am a grateful member.


Names have been changed.

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Because of the sensitive nature of this article, the author has chosen to remain anonymous. B.A. Brand (a pseudonym) lives in Chicago and has been sober since 1985.