Mind and Body

Moving beyond shame

Why AA was not my path toward recovery

Photo courtesy of Katy Linwood

Katy Linwood, author of a regular column in ConvergenceRI, "The Bright Side" of sobriety.

By Katherine Linwood
Posted 10/23/23
When it comes to sobriety, one size does not necessarily fit all sizes and shapes. It requires a willingness to find an honest approach about how we treat ourselves, recognizing the importance of self-care. The bottom line is that Alcoholics Anonymous may not provide all the answers for people seeking to maintain sobriety.
How can neighbors redefine the nature of connectedness in our day-to-day activities? When was the last time you held the door open for someone who is disabled? What is the best way to ask for help that doesn’t bring shame into the process? How can the state respect the differences between academic and peer-led interventions?
The bankruptcy case involving Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family continues to wind its way through the judicial system. Those most responsible for the wanton death and destruction caused by the opioid epidemic are now seeking to protect themselves from any legal accountability for their crimes. What motivated the Sacklers to build an empire of pain was greed; what continues to motivate the Sacklers is the preservation of the legacy of their family name on art museums and universities.
What kind of legal recovery is possible for the Sackler family and their corporate enablers, such as McKinsey & Company?

PROVIDENCE – It’s one thing to know you need to quit drinking; it is quite another to say it out loud and then to take action. The process can be arduous – observation/denial, realization/denial, acceptance/denial, then taking action.

With each step toward, sobriety carries its own weight that can stack up as shame if you’re not careful.

In the beginning, I was reluctant to share my decision to stop drinking. What if I failed? What if people looked at me differently? How would this affect my career? Would I become –  for lack of a better word – buzzkill? And, what about my social life?

 It’s only been 10 years, but in 2013, sobriety wasn’t discussed a whole lot in the public arena. Instagram was starting to gain popularity, but Facebook was where most of the social media conversation took place. Vulnerability didn’t quite yet seem to have a place in this sphere.

The world of sober blogs
So I turned to a medium that was much more common back then: blogs. I explored sober blogs in the very beginning, reading the stories of other women who shared similar experiences.

I cultivated several sober friendships through these blogs, emailing for accountability and to anonymously share how the first days and weeks and months were going. We offered each other honest, vulnerable encouragement, and unfiltered glimpses into the challenges of quitting.

We never learned each other’s real names, but I owe a great deal of gratitude to these women I met in the comments sections of blogs – “tired of thinking about drinking” and “unpickled.”

One avenue I didn’t pursue was Alcoholics Anonymous. This was very deliberate. I’m glad that this program has been so helpful for so many, but I dislike it. I’ll share why, but please keep in mind that this is my opinion.

Sobriety is a deeply personal pursuit, and I’m supportive of individuals cultivating their own experience. It’s clearly been the backbone of many a recovery story, but it has no place in mine. And, I think this is why in the first weeks and months of quitting alcohol, I felt out of place in the larger picture of sobriety.

Undertones of guilt and judgment

So why didn’t I like AA for my sobriety? It was the undertones of guilt and judgment for me. I already felt a suffocating amount of shame, and I felt broken that I needed to quit.

I raked myself across the coals daily for my inability to moderate my drinking. Partaking in a process that involves dwelling on the substance-fueled behavior just isn’t it for the kind of recovery and healing I am looking to create.

From my point of view, AA felt like a low-key cycle of punishment instead of taking accountability and moving beyond destructive patterns.

AA also talks so much about alcohol that it doesn’t feel helpful to my brain. I have a natural inclination to fall into repetitive thought patterns, and the sheer amount of talking about drinking felt obsessive in an unhealthy way. Yes, I needed to quit. Yes, alcohol does not have a healthy place in my life. And, I don’t need to say it over and over and over again.

Sustainable model for change

I wanted to lean into healthy habits and behavior as a sustainable model for change, rather than play the alcohol tape on a loop any more than I already have, dwelling on the negativity.

It’s well known that relapse is often a part of recovery, and when that happens, the sobriety clock is reset to zero. In AA, you receive chips as tokens of accomplishment to celebrate the number of months, or years, without alcohol. And, if you relapse, it’s back to the beginning.

From my perspective, that wrongly dismisses the work that was done. The rigidity around AA also didn’t sit well with me. In so many ways, it reminded me of Catholic services that my grandmother dragged me to as a kid – stern, judgmental, and rigid.

The steps felt much like taking mass or genuflecting at appropriate times in a Catholic service. They must be done in the way that they are laid out, and there is no deviating from that path. According to AA, there’s only one path to long-term recovery, and to try to achieve peace without the program is destined for failure. Says whom? A dead white man named Bill who lived in a world that looked nothing like ours today?

About community

Sobriety is so much about community, about the support systems that we have in place, about our access to places and spaces that foster healthy living. It’s about our family of origin, our traumas, and our coping mechanism; the assumptions made about us and the biases we face. AA is so individualistic when it’s a much more complex and connected issue.

In this way it seems to me to be in parallel to the tired narrative that declares that people in poverty just need to “work harder.” You’re missing the root of the issue if you place everything on the individual, instead of incorporating and addressing the larger factors at play.

Yes, AA gathers people to share – and there is strong community there – but for me, it’s missing too much for it to be a place where I could thrive.

The last objection I have is that AA is, well, built on anonymity. I think keeping sobriety hidden helps contribute to the narrative that it is something to be ashamed of and can’t be shared with the world. And I couldn’t disagree more.

My name is Katy, and I’m sober. Take that, AA.

Katherine Linwood writes a monthly column, The Bright Side of Sobriety, for ConvergenceRI. Connect with her on IG@katherine.linwood


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