My name is Heather, and I am not an alcoholic.
That may sound like the punch line to a hackneyed joke mocking 12-step groups and the people who attend them, but it’s actually the introduction I made with all seriousness — and initially with more than a little trepidation — at the Alcoholic Anonymous meetings I attended shortly after my discharge from a psychiatric facility. I didn’t have a drinking problem but I did need a place where I could go for an hour or more a day and not feel judged or pitied, one where I was free to talk or to remain silent, one where I didn’t have to put on a performance that I was doing better.
The psychiatric facility, which I admitted myself to in December 2017 following four months of deepening, unrelenting depression, offered groups whose connection to therapy were in name only: Recreation therapy consisted of the therapist sticking a DVD of The Bucket List or Miracles From Heaven in the player and then leaving the room. In a skills group, the therapist showed us Melody Beattie VHS tapes from the 1980s. But it was at that facility that I discovered I liked group therapy. I liked hearing other patients’ stories. I liked that the therapist didn’t dominate the session and lecture us instead of listening.
I liked group therapy. I liked hearing other patients’ stories. I liked that the therapist didn’t dominate the session and lecture us instead of listening.
I went to my first AA meeting at that facility. I went to every group offered there, regardless whether or not it was required. A group meant I wouldn’t be alone with the terror and despair that gripped me. And it was at AA that I finally found an organization with meetings I wanted to attend, with people whom I wanted to listen to and who at least attempted to look like they were listening to me.
After I was discharged and returned to New Orleans, I tried every mental health group meeting offered in the city (there weren’t many). I went to a National Alliance on Mental Illness meeting but knew immediately that I needed a group with higher-functioning members. Even though my brain still glitched continually, I was too snobbish to see myself in any of the people gathered in the small room, no matter how welcoming and nonjudgmental they might be. At the AA meetings I went to there were usually people at all levels of functioning, from the high, which I used to be at and now aspired to, to the mid-level to the barely making it.
I also tried a Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance meeting but being in a hospital cafeteria with people who introduced themselves with a precise classification of their disorder (“I’m Jack and I’ve been diagnosed with complex PTSD”; “I’m Alice and I’m bipolar II”) made me want to flee. Their despair was too present, too close to my own, and their seeming pride in their diagnoses — the more complicated, the more unique — infuriated me. I didn’t want my mental illness to become my identity; it would be part of me for life, yes, but it wasn’t me. At AA, no one engages in a lengthy introduction about their diagnosis — after all, everyone there is an alcoholic unless they ID themselves as otherwise.
I didn’t want my mental illness to become my identity; it would be part of me for life, yes, but it wasn’t me. At AA, no one engages in a lengthy introduction about their diagnosis.
The time limit for speaking, or sharing, in a 12-step group helps keep any one person from monopolizing the conversation. In a women’s therapy group I attended for 10 weeks, every 90-minute session was inevitably hijacked by one woman who tearfully, insistently returned to her obsession with having a second child. The social worker moderating the group did little to redirect the monologue so that it became a dialogue instead and, despite every other member of the group suggesting to the woman that she examine why having a second child was so vital to her happiness, she returned to the topic week after week with no sign of having heard what we said.
That women’s group cost $750 for 10 weeks and the facility didn’t accept insurance. The bill for my five-day inpatient stay at a psychiatric facility was $900 (I would have owed $8,500 if I hadn’t met my $5,000 deductible); eight days as an outpatient at another facility cost $900. Donations are recommended at AA meetings but not required. It’s basically free talk therapy, which, yes, sounds like an oxymoron.
And while the women’s group met only once a week, AA meetings take place throughout the day, seven days a week. At some locations, back-to-back meetings are an option: Come for the 6 p.m. Overeaters Anonymous meeting, stay for the 7:15 Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.
I introduced myself and spoke about my mental breakdown, preceding my share with the “confession” that I wasn’t an alcoholic. Afterward, people came up to me and offered a hug, a handshake, phone numbers, and the assurance that I wasn’t alone.
Perhaps even more important to me at the time, anyone at an AA meeting could leave whenever they wanted to. Not only could they leave the room, but they could also leave the building. In the psychiatric facility, leaving the room was possible, though discouraged. Leaving was also a potential obstacle to being released — the more group activities you participated in, the better your chances of being discharged. And although you could leave the room, leaving the building wasn’t even a possibility. I entered the facility voluntarily but because I had mentioned suicidal thoughts, I was automatically required to stay for at least 72 hours.
Every person at a 12-step meeting is all too familiar with struggling and suffering. I attended several meetings before I shared. Even though I only went to “open” meetings — i.e., meetings that were open to people who didn’t identify as an alcoholic — I was still nervous about sharing. After five or six meetings, I finally spoke up: I introduced myself and spoke about my mental breakdown, preceding my share with the “confession” that I wasn’t an alcoholic. Afterward, people came up to me and offered a hug, a handshake, phone numbers, and the assurance that I wasn’t alone. Some of them had come through the other side of despair; they weren’t still trembling on the precipice. They’d survived, even thrived, and their hard-won peace gave me a small measure of hope for my own recovery.
My name is Heather and I am not an alcoholic. But I am a human being who struggles with illness, with managing it, and not identifying with it or being identified by it. For those like me, AA can help.