You hear it in 12-step meetings all the time—people who were once on psych meds discovered they didn’t need them after getting sober and doing the steps. Now they’re evangelizing at every meeting in town about how their problem was really just spiritual. Maybe they were never mentally ill to begin with or maybe the steps really did banish their mental illness right out of their brains. But for me, and plenty of others I know, this isn’t the case.
“I used to be on psych meds for bipolar disorder,” this one leader shared at a meeting recently. “I was so obsessed with myself, and that’s really the root of all mental illness—self-obsession.”
As someone who is bipolar and also has a severely schizophrenic sister, you can imagine how much this upset me. This speaker, who is not a medical professional, declared in a room full of 30 other women that mental illness is selfish and pretty much all bunk. At the time, I was so infuriated I couldn’t even raise my hand to counter her. And believe me, I counter people in meetings all the time. It’s one of the finest pleasures in AA—you can say whatever you want, and no one can shut you up or kick you out. When I oppose the whack-jobs who don’t believe in taking psychiatric meds, I share this:
“Hi, I’m Tracy. I’m an alcoholic. If anyone has any questions about psychiatric meds AA has an official stance that’s in a pamphlet called The AA Member—Medications and Other Drugs. Thanks.”
For some reason, no one seems to know about this pamphlet. The high-profile journalists who bash AA, claiming AA is against psychiatric medication, don’t know about it, the journalists who support AA never mention it, and most AA members don’t know about it, including the woman who once ran the Los Angeles AA Central Office and droned on and on and on to me about how she didn’t get sober to be “sedated” on psych meds. She boasted about this “non-med” meeting she runs where you can’t attend unless you don’t take meds. This is an embarrassingly blatant violation of the Third Tradition of AA, which states that the “only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking.”
So what does the pamplet say? Well, one of the first bullet points reads “No A.A. member should ‘play doctor’; all medical advice and treatment should come from a qualified physician.”
But it gets better.
“Some of us have had to cope with depressions that can be suicidal; schizophrenia that sometimes requires hospitalization; bipolar disorder, and other mental and biological illnesses.
“A.A. members and many of their physicians have described situations in which depressed patients have been told by A.A.s to throw away the pills, only to have depression return with all its difficulties, sometimes resulting in suicide.
“We have heard, too, from members with other conditions, including schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, epilepsy and others requiring medication, that well-meaning A.A. friends discourage them from taking any prescribed medication. Unfortunately, by following a layperson’s advice, the sufferers find that their conditions can return with all their previous intensity. On top of that, they feel guilty because they are convinced that ‘A.A. is against pills.’ It becomes clear that just as it is wrong to enable or support any alcoholic to become readdicted to any drug, it’s equally wrong to deprive any alcoholic of medication, which can alleviate or control other disabling physical and/or emotional problems.”
Following this glorious blurb that no one knows about are personal stories of people who were helped tremendously by psych meds and how they take them to maintain their stability and their sobriety.
My current sponsor, who does not suffer from mental illness, encourages constant contact with my doctor, and she’s an old timer. If I’m feeling wonky and think it might be neurobiological, her “direction” is to get in to see the doctor right away. “Get your meds,” she says. “Take the meds as prescribed.” And that’s that.
Unfortunately, not all AA’s are as lucky as I am. I knew this lovely young woman named Emily who struggled with depression and wanted to see a shrink. Her sponsor, a member of the somewhat-controversial Pacific Group, allegedly told her she couldn’t take meds and still be sober. Emily struggled and struggled and, after 12 years of sobriety, ended up killing herself.
If you ask me, this kind of sponsor behavior is criminal. Part of me thinks they should be legally liable, but at the same time, we need to be wise about who we listen to. As with anything in life, we have to think critically and take some AA members with big chunks of salt. This goes for the psychiatrists too. God knows how many whacko shrinks I’ve seen who’ve misdiagnosed me and thrown me on all sorts of inappropriate meds. One even put me on Adderall, which is a big no-no for someone with bipolar disorder and an addiction history. That sent me up into a dangerous state of mania.
In my experience, most people in AA are totally cool with the med thing. In fact, roughly 70% people I meet in AA are on meds. A lot people are quiet about it because they don’t want the backlash, but I’m not. I don’t think that helps the situation. I shouldn’t be ashamed of having a biologically-rooted illness and taking a doctor-prescribed antidote for the disease, and if I piss off an anti-med person when I share, then they can confront me in the parking lot and I’ll let them have an earful or pin them to the ground. As far as I can tell, med-takers are the majority, at least in Los Angeles, so it’s time we start speaking up.
I’ve had a couple of nonalcoholic boyfriends who were convinced mental illness was just a construct of a Big Pharma conspiracy to make money. Now I’m not going to say Big Pharma isn’t a greedy and sometimes shady entity, but it certainly didn’t create mental illness. Whenever I’ve gone off meds, or accidentally misplaced them or run out without a refill, I go so bananas the boyfriends end up urging me emphatically to start taking them again. After that, they shut up about the meds altogether, recognizing their idiocy and apologizing.
Most of AA members and people outside AA—who don’t believe in mental illness or medication—simply have not experienced it firsthand. They have no idea that antidepressants don’t pump you up full of happiness like cocaine—they just put color back into what was a completely grey world. I’ll never forget the first time I got on antidepressants. It was just like when I got my first pair of glasses. Finally, I could see! Do people argue with vision problems? Is it bunk to wear glasses? Am I just imagining the blurry words on my computer screen? Is my supposed far-sighted vision just a way for Lens Crafters and optometrists to rake in dough?
If so, then I just wasted $400 on a useless pair of lenses.