So What Does AA Really Think Of Psych Meds?

So What Does AA Really Think Of Psych Meds?

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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.

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13 Comments

  1. ““I was so obsessed with myself, and that’s really the root of all mental illness—self-obsession.””

    To all these morons – are you ACTUALLY saying that the brain is the one and ONLY body organ that cannot have something structurally and physically wrong with it that requires medical treatment?

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  3. Mike Pinkerton on

    It’s just common sense to take medication that was prescribed by a physician. AA is about “alcohol”–not psychiatric medication. I know that many of us get carried away on these kind of issues, and the only thing to do is make up your own mind.

    I think the overreach by some folks is too bad…especially as it related to new comers. The last thing they need is to be told to not listen to medical professionals.

    Really folks: “Sober up!”

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  5. Tracy, GSO is in the process of gathering materials for production of literature specifically designed to address those with mental illness, as well as those who sponsor folks with mental illness. First-hand accounts are being collected, the deadline being Oct. 15, 2015. It may provide an opportunity to emphasize that AA members, as such, are not qualified to treat mental illness, and AA, despite the beliefs of some individuals, does not even purport to offer that service.

  6. The comment about the pamphlet is how I always handle it. I think it’s unfair to ID the Pacific Group. I have some experience with them but considerably more with the early years of the NYC equivalent, the Atlantic Group. I had my reasons for choosing a different home group, but I also heard a lot of stupid rumors. Once I heard someone qualifying who said the Pacific didn’t allow facial hair. After the meeting I told him my sponsor had a mustache while Clancy sponsored him. He said, “that’s what I hear.” I said we’re supposed to share our experience, not disparage strangers.

    • Tracy Chabala on

      the truth is the truth, and sometimes the truth hurts. i refuse to shy away from the truth just to act in a certain AA way. this is why AA gets a bad rap. as i’ve stated, my friend is dead. i heard from her lips what her sponsor said. i’ve hung out at the pacific group and benefited from it, and i actually am not against PG at all. i even had a commitment. but that doesn’t negate the fact that those who discourage taking medication are dangerous. AA is wonderful, but it is not full of saints. people in the rooms, like people in any room on the planet, are not immune to error. we can’t shut our eyes to monstrosities that might take place in the rooms just as we should not shut our eyes to monstrosities that take place across the planet. if we do that, we’re as bad as fascist governments. we have to own our mistakes like adults, and, moving forward, be humble and willing enough to change.

  7. Thanks for your article. As a retired counselor and AA member myself, I have worked with many clients who relapsed because they discontinued needed medications. Yes, there are some people that seek unnecessary medications. And yes there are some doctors that “push” medications. But most people who need meds, really need them. And most doctors are responsible and ethical in their practice. My rule of thumb is “Appropriate medications taken appropriately (as directed) are appropriate.” I’m not a doctor so I don’t give medical advice other than work honestly with your doctor and follow her/his directions. As recovering alcoholics/addicts, we are not qualified to medicate ourselves.

  8. I am grateful you spoke out against the (bizarre) sub-movemnent in AA to get people off meds. I have sat through meetings like the one you describe. My outrage over anti-psych med sentiments is part of what drove me away from attending meetings (although, I am incredibly grateful to AA for helping me get sober & still practice the principles daily). Keep speaking out. Your voice could literally save someone’s life.

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  10. Bryce Warden on

    Been sober over 30 years and I would NEVER tell someone in recovery to throw out doctor prescribed meds. That’s is horrible, inexcusable and absolutely dangerous. Thank you for writing about this so beautifully and for getting this important message out.

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  12. I’m a Substance Misuse Practitioner with a long career in the field, I’m also a qualified Addiction Counsellor and specialised in 12 Step Treatment and attended meetings for seven years (I don’t do meetings anymore but still value everything they taught me) The rule is simple, if you have a fully diagnosed condition be it mental or physical and your prescribed meds to enhance your quality of life then take them, don’t feel guilty or ashamed because some person who has their head so far up their own arse spouts of in a meeting about a miraculous recovery from some condition they most likely didn’t have and if they did it really was most probably self inflicted due to years of taking copious amounts of mind and mood altering substances that once stopped, meant their Mental or Physical Health improved. To advise people to stop taking prescribed medication with full knowledge of why they’re taking it or trying to shame a person into stopping is dangerous and in my view criminal. Listen to your Doctors… Not the nut jobs who give an amazing program of hope a bad name!

  13. So many times I’ve heard people share that they thought they were fine, went off their psych meds, started to drink again, had a psychotic episode, and ended up back in a psych ward for sometimes weeks or even months until the treatment kicked in again. In my experience, the mental health professionals straightened out my bipolar issues with medications and therapy, and when I also finally then decided to work through the AA steps, with a sponsor well qualified to handle all my issues, I then grew spiritually. The AA component was vital to my recovery all around. The proper psych treatment, from professionals, including medications and working a sound AA program are intertwined if true recovery is the goal. Anyone who says to stop taking your medicine is making an uneducated statement.

  14. Pingback: WHAT DOES AA REALLY THINK OF PSYCH MEDS? | Tracy Chabala

  15. On a site full of great recovery info this is the first that I can recommend as a “must read.” Thanks so much for sharing. I appreciate it as a nonAnon as I can now show it to those that are AA/12Step as support.

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About Author

Tracy Chabala is a freelance writer for many publications including the LA Times, LA Weekly, Smashd, VICE and Salon. She writes mostly about food, technology and culture, in addition to addiction and mental health. She holds a Master's in Professional Writing from USC and is finishing up her novel.