The first time I went to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, I was 13 years old.
It was 1989 and the apogee of the 12-Step Movement: AA Everywhere. The underlying philosophy was all problems stemmed from drug addiction and alcoholism. Addiction was the explanation for everything: every ill of society, every conflict around the world, every tic of teenagedom.
The speaker at that first meeting was a 20-year-old man in a Slayer shirt with feathered hair and a mustache. He said when he got to AA he felt dead inside. I was stunned to hear this. I felt dead inside! I'd never heard anyone describe how I felt. He also said when he was drinking he'd wake up every morning and his first thought would be, "Dear god, I have to do this another day?" I'd felt like that too! Every day it just got worse. In AA they used the term "spiraling out of control." That was me. That was my life.
In every AA meeting it's suggested to "try and relate to the feelings being shared." I related absolutely. I took this identification to its logical conclusion: I was an alcoholic, too.
I thrived in AA. I founded groups. Started meetings. Organized conferences. Greeted newcomers, washed ashtrays, made coffee, brought literature, bought cookies, stacked chairs, washed floors, chaired meetings. I spoke all over the country and sponsored nearly a thousand people. My story is the first in the pamphlet "Young People and AA." I was told I was the youngest member of AA. I could recite the Big Book and bore you to tears with AA history.
The only problem was, I'm not actually an alcoholic. Last year, two and a half decades after that first meeting, in my Manhattan apartment, at my dining table with my loving husband and a mediocre chicken dinner, I had my first glass of wine. It took me a total of four hours to finish it. Other than that, it was pretty uneventful.
This is Vox, so let me explain:
My infancy was spent on my mother's hip as she sold doomsday literature in New York City's Union Square for 12 hours a day. For the next 10 years, I was a sympathy prop turned glorified luggage, bouncing around several countries, eventually attending nine different elementary schools. My father is a transitional fossil of deadbeat dads. He exists between the time when men were the family's sole breadwinners and the time when it became common practice for the state to garnish wages to give to offspring. As part of their divorce, my mother agreed never to sue for child support. So my dad split, my mother dated a series of drug dealers named Mike, and we moved several times a year.
By the time I was a tween, I'm sure I had an attitude.
After some therapist shopping, my mother found a psychiatrist who, having never met me, recommended a 30-day inpatient stay in a mental hospital. I was 11. Mom told me I was there because I wouldn't "just fucking go to school." She never came to visit.
Then it got worse. The lowest point in my life came when I'd barely turned 13. My father, a man twice my size, had beaten me up, and I'd spit on him. I screamed and wailed for someone to call the cops. They came — and I was the one they took away.
I've successfully blocked out going to court, but my records state I was there for assault, a charge that was later reduced to disturbing the peace. I was left to rot in juvenile hall for two months while I awaited placement. I'd never felt more isolated and alone — no parents, no advocates; no one knew where I was, and it was clear to me that no one cared.
In juvenile hall church, people came in to witness to those who could use their help. They said if I did what they did — that is, go to church — I could have eternal life. I wasn't interested. AA people came in to witness to those who could use their help, too. They said if I did what they did — that is, not drink and go to meetings — I'd never have to come back to juvenile hall.
I was sold.
I was placed in an all-girls group home. My appointed therapist, "Rose," took me to my first AA meeting in a big white stretched van packed with teenage girls reeking of Aqua Net and grape Bubblicious. I was told sobriety was my ticket home. I really wanted a home.
I didn't have a drinking habit. I'd drunk maybe six times in my life. I'd steal some of my mother's weed once in a while. Mostly I just didn't get along with my mother, and she subscribed to Calvinistic punishments like kid jail and institutions for the slightest of infractions.
Nevertheless, believing I was an alcoholic helped me make sense of the way my mom treated me — and the way I acted in response. If I were an alcoholic, my mother's harsh treatments made sense. My attitude problem (being ungrateful and calling my mother a bitch) was predictive: Only addicts would treat their parents that way. Only alcoholics would end up in a mental hospital, juvenile hall, and now a group home all before they turned 14. Drinking didn't make me an alcoholic. According to the grown-ups who doled out harsh consequences, it was all these harsh consequences that made me an alcoholic.
I became convinced I had a progressive disease and it was going to kill me unless I got help; unless I surrendered everything I thought I knew and trusted people who'd been where I'd been.
"AA isn't a self-help program, it's a help others program," is something I'd hear at meetings all the time. The 12 steps are designed to liberate you from being shut off from god. The theory is that resentments, fears, and harms done block you from the power of the creator. And it's that power that can make you "happy, joyous and free," and can keep hopeless drunks (like me) sober. The 12 steps are guidelines to being good, moral, and what's called "right acting" as opposed to being reckless and selfish and acting out. Alcoholism is a physical disease, sure, but the 12 steps treat what they call a spiritual malady. My physical affliction (or lack thereof) was quickly not the issue and never questioned. Instead, I focused on wrestling with a god of my own understanding. In AA, god is the solution: Whatever the problem, pray.
What I liked most about AA was the personal responsibility: "Your best thinking got you here." You did this to you, they'd say. Don't blame your alcoholism on anything other than your alcoholism. Look for your part. What did you do? What could you have done instead? I loved the idea of making amends. I marveled at the promise of redemption. I could make my parents love me again. I could make them proud of me. Then they'd come back. Then it'd all be okay. It was just my alcoholism. If I could just get that squared away, it'll all work out.
It took six months of sipping Chardonnay for me to have my first hangover. I didn't know what it was; I thought it was food poisoning.
I lived in that group home until I was emancipated on my 17th birthday and moved out on my own. I only saw my mother once during that time. Visiting me just wasn't a thing she did. But I couldn't indulge in resentment. Resentment, it's said, is the number one killer of alcoholics — "from it stems all forms of spiritual disease." If I resented my mother, I could drink again, and for me, as an alcoholic, I knew — to drink is to die.
But the promises of the program absolutely came true in my life. I did well in school. I learned how to be responsible. I found a career, a husband, and a life. I was humbled I'd been given a second chance. I was a horrible kid and a nasty alcoholic, but by the grace of god and the program of Alcoholics Anonymous I was sober one day at a time. I was living with a chronic disease that wanted to kill me — but I was truly living for the first time. And as long as I kept close to the program, I'd be okay.
One day five years ago I was happy, content, and sitting in an AA meeting. I was an old-timer, or, more aptly, a young-timer — secure and comfortable with my role in the world. I knew nearly every woman in the group by name and was coasting on this self-image that had congealed when I was 13 years old. On this day at the podium was a woman I sponsored, who was there with a woman she sponsored, and so on. She parroted something I'd heard a million times: "Everything happens for a reason." I saw a sea of heads all nodding in agreement.
I knew I'd said that to her, because I'd said it all the time. I'd really stopped hearing it. It was an idle, AA boilerplate throwaway line I used. It was also something I absolutely believed: the divine synchronicity of the universe — nothing happens by mistake; everything happens for a reason. I'd imagined god as the parent I'd never had, one who loved me, saw me as perfect in their eyes and wanted what's best for me. Everything, I declared, was a part of god's plan!
But on that day it hit me: That's not actually true. Everything doesn't happen for a reason. That's the wrong order. We're pattern-seeking animals. Everything happens — and then we find a reason.
And if that was wrong, what else was I wrong about?
After that, everything I believed slowly started to unravel.
First to go was the narrative that I was a volatile, unstable, and sick person. I wasn't. Nor had I ever been. My husband of 10 years assured me I was even-keeled and emotionally stable.
"You're not cruel, you're not mean. You never have been," he said.
"Were you just going to keep this from me?" I demanded.
Eventually I questioned if I was even an alcoholic. I'd been "sober" for 24 years. Had I ever really been a drunk? Well, not really. In fact, if you listen to my AA speaker tapes, I don't actually drink in my pitch. I talk about how I wanted to drink or I intended to drink — but I never actually guzzled booze, got drunk, and had a bad time. I talked about my feelings — which I believed made me an alcoholic.
The thing is humans don't have a vast spectrum of emotions. Any average everyday person could go to an AA meeting and pick out at least one emotion they've shared with a pee-soaked gutter drunk.
But I also could have been wrong about that. The only way to really find out was to drink alcohol. So I did. After that glass of wine last March, I started on a magical Manhattan wine bar tour. My husband will say I'm "two drunk." Meaning: I have two drinks and I'm D-O-N-E. In AA meetings, I'd shared how "hardcore" of a drunk I was. I had accepted with absolutely no hesitation that I had a storied tolerance of booze: It was my truth. Now I know two is a little too much and the average 7-year-old could probably drink me under the table.
"I'm glad I treated you like an alcoholic and you benefited greatly from the program"
It took six months of sipping Chardonnay for me to have my first hangover. I didn't know what it was; I thought it was food poisoning. I was in AA for 24 years, and I had never been hungover! The Diagnostic Service Manual (DSM) uses the last year of a person's drinking to determine alcohol dependency. Out of sheer neurosis, I waited a year to feel fully comfortable saying I was not an alcoholic.
The next thing to unravel was my view of myself. One day I Googled "emotional child abuse." I was stunned when I saw what read like a bulleted list of my childhood: "Loud yelling, coarse and rude attitude, inattention, harsh criticism, and denigration of the child's personality. Other examples include name-calling, ridicule, degradation, destruction of personal belongings, excessive criticism, inappropriate or excessive demands, withholding communication and routine labeling or humiliation."
I read on: "A tendency for victims to blame themselves for the abuse." It seared my eyeballs. I sobbed for what felt like hours and I feared would be forever.
"I'm either an alcoholic or an abused child," I declared.
My best friend in fifth grade, Leslie, who was there for most of my "drinking career," pushed back.
"Bullshit! Even if you were an alcoholic, you'd still be an abused child! How are they mutually exclusive?"
"Your mother hated you. She was never not mad at you. She fucking hated you."
(My mother most likely has narcissistic personality disorder. Another essay for another time.)
I still have days (many have been in the process of writing this essay) where I fall into a loop of blaming myself for not being clever enough/sweet enough/quiet enough to avoid abuse and successfully navigate the family I was born into. But as I used to say to my sponsees, in recovery some relapse is to be expected.
AA was my family. It was really the only family I'd ever known. I had a place to go. There were people happy to see me. I was helpful. I belonged somewhere. I had love. And, yes, I met some real assholes in AA, but none of them were as awful to me as my mother.
After telling my story on This American Life, I've gotten emails from people who've said some AA literature committees have voted to take my story out of the "Young People and AA" pamphlet because I no longer identify as an alcoholic. To me, my story absolutely still belongs in AA literature, with a recent update; call it an epilogue. The pamphlet is, after all, titled "Young People and AA." Not "Young People in AA" or "Young Alcoholics." Bowdlerizing or sanitizing my experience doesn't make AA better. It makes the organization more opaque and less helpful to those struggling (regardless of the cause). Honesty and transparency are two guiding principles of AA which I still very much believe in ... whether or not I got there mistakenly.
It's possibly a cruel irony that by forsaking my only true family, I discovered I was abused by my biological one. Maybe it's not irony. Maybe it's just a peculiarity. But this is what emotional child abuse looks like; it's messy, and the scar tissue is jarring. Psychologically we all do whatever we can to try to make sense of things and survive.
"You were a full-blown alcoholic at 13," my former therapist Rose said to me recently.
I refuted this. I quoted the DSM. "You are wrong," I proclaimed.
Finally she conceded, "I'm glad I treated you like an alcoholic and you benefited greatly from the program. In AA, you learned to speak publicly, you gained great self-confidence, you did not abuse drugs or alcohol in spite of all the peer pressure and influence. Your growth was not interfered with and you flourished."
"I am happy to be wrong," she concluded.
But to me it'd be like if, at 13, I was told I was a diabetic. All the adults in my life informed me if I were to eat chocolate cake it would kill me. My life, they insisted, hinged on never touching chocolate cake. Then after 24 years of never eating cake, I finally had a slice and realized I'm not diabetic at all! Then everyone who was adamant I was diabetic all those years suddenly pivoted: "Well, good thing we told you that you were diabetic because you ate better..."
Yes, but I also thought my whole existence was on a hair trigger that could go off at any moment. I also went through life thinking I was something I'm not. I also, embarrassingly enough, told others that if they related to me, they too were alcoholic. And now the goalposts are moved, and instead of AA being a place where alcoholics get help, it becomes just an open place where struggling teenagers can learn living skills? That's nuts.
I'm not the only one who's ever been misdiagnosed and sent to AA. Since I've told my story, dozens have contacted me with theirs. Everything from manic depression to Asperger's has been mistaken as general alcoholism by "experts" and "fellow alcoholics" alike. I now realize many of the "newcomer traits" I had are also symptoms of PTSD (again, another essay for another time).
How do I feel about AA now? It's complicated. I know alcoholism is real. I know AA helps people. But I also know we know more about addiction and alcoholism now than we did in 1935 when AA was founded. I know a lot of charlatans prey on human suffering and swim in the waters of addiction cures. I know structurally AA has immunized itself from broader criticisms and therefore won't — or can't — change. And I know that in 1989 there was no other place for a group home girl born into a religious cult with abusive, rotten parents to go.
Tina Dupuy is a syndicated columnist and investigative journalist. She's the host of Cultish, a new podcast about fanaticism debuting in February 2016. She lives in New York. Follow her on Twitter @TinaDupuy.