The AA member, medications and other drugs
AA conference approved literature
On the main AA website in the USA, you will find a section entitled “Literature listing” Every AA Conference-approved piece of literature can be found there. This includes PDF copies of all the AA pamphlets. They are found on literature tables at meetings across the world. What is a pleasant surprise is that one copy can be downloaded free of charge. They are offered for the personal use of anyone that needs to access the information they contain.
As an agnostic member of the fellowship, I was very encouraged when AA approved and published a pamphlet called The “God” word – Its purpose is to encourage and convince atheists, agnostics and freethinkers that AA does not demand a belief in God. It contains personal stories and encouragement for non-believers that AA is all-inclusive. There is no need to believe in a deity to work the twelve steps. The next blog will be all about this new and important piece of AA literature.
The other pamphlet I have come to hugely appreciate is: The AA member, medications and other drugs. It’s a very interesting and informative read for any member of the fellowship who may be on prescribed medication. You are likely to find varied opinions on this issue. Not all of them are positive especially in small splinter groups. These are the groups that favour a fundamentalist approach to recovery. I hope that the information contained in this pamphlet will be helpful. This very important AA publication may help to alleviate confusion and guilt. Frequently, members are reluctant to disclose that they are on medication at meetings.
Problems other than alcohol
After a traumatic childhood in foster care, I drank to avoid dealing with unresolved issues. Until I arrived at AA meetings, alcohol was the glue that held me together. That isn’t to say that addiction to alcohol didn’t also have a devastating impact on my life. No recovery could even begin until I put down all mood-altering substances. With the help of meetings, I was able to stop drinking. That being said, all the other problems made it impossible to stay stopped.
A dual diagnosis
After my arrival at AA meetings, I was still deeply depressed, full of anxiety and suffered from dramatic mood swings. It was almost impossible to function. I went to see my doctor and he referred me to a psychiatrist. Following several consultations, I was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. The doctor helped me to understand that I was a dual diagnosis case; – an alcoholic with a coexisting mental health issue. He prescribed mood-stabilizing medication.
This treatment helped me to make real progress. It gave me a quality of life that I didn’t have. I was suddenly better equipped to deal with people. The doctor told me that my fear of people is defined by the psychiatric profession as ‘social anxiety.’ The medication also enabled me to become employable. I found a profession which I enjoyed and remained in for 30 years.
Bill W’s poor mental health
At a certain point in recovery, I discovered that Bill Wilson also suffered from poor mental health.
“During the first four years of my recovery, I found it necessary to seek professional help, since my emotional health was extremely poor.”
(As Bill sees it – Page 285)
“The next frontier – emotional sobriety” published in the AA Grapevine magazine, is also an interesting read. In the article, Bill discloses his long struggle with depression. With the help of the program, he overcame this very dark period in his sobriety.
First attempt to work the steps with a sponsor
I was so determined to get well that I joined a fundamentalist group. I thought that a hardcore approach may help a serial relapser like me to get sober and stay sober. These people were known in the fellowship as ‘Big Book thumpers.’ They believed that all the answers were in the Big Book. I quickly found out that they were very anti-medication. For a while, I managed to keep this information to myself.
When it came out that I was on prescribed medication, the fundamentalist sponsor no longer wanted to work with me. I was also judged and ostracized by some of the other hardcore members. After my sponsor and I parted, I left these groups. At first, it wasn’t easy to assimilate back into regular meetings. I had to go through a process of deprogramming. It was similar to walking away from a cult. It took a while to cleanse my mind of the extreme methods and beliefs that are typical of AA fundamentalism.
It’s important to say, that mainstream AA has no strong opinions regarding the use of medication. In my experience most members are supportive. They hold the view that if someone is on medication, they should comply with the treatment recommended by their doctor.
The fundamentalist view regarding medication
I have always struggled to understand the fundamentalist position on this issue. Surely no AA member is qualified to comment. Taking medication for poor mental health is no one’s business in the fellowship. It is strictly between the AA member and their doctor or psychiatrist.
“No A.A. member should “play doctor”; all medical advice and treatment should come from a qualified physician”
Here are some of the things that I was told when I was involved with the fundamentalist groups:
‘I was eating my alcohol in the pills I was taking’
‘The 12 steps wouldn’t work for me as long as I was taking medication’
‘I was turning my “will and life” (step three) over to medication rather than to God or a higher power.
‘As long as I was using any mood-stabilizing medication as my higher power I had not surrendered.’
‘I was told that I was still “running the show” (BB pages 87/88) by relying on a doctor instead of a sponsor
The list goes on.
A message to newcomers on medication
The bottom line is that no member can tell anyone in the fellowship that they need to come off their medication. Sponsors are not doctors and therefore not qualified to give this type of advice. It doesn’t happen often but it does happen. I am writing this blog for the protection and safety of newcomers. These days, alcoholics are coming into recovery with coexisting mental health issues. They have to be on medication. It is simply not in the job description of any sponsor to tell a new member to stop taking mood-stabilizing medication.
“We recognize that alcoholics are not immune to other diseases. 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”
Exceptions to the rule
Referring again to the pamphlet; it states that there are exceptions to the rule. Sober alcoholics can easily become dependent on other drugs. Powerful opiate-based pain killers or benzodiazepines are a case in point. These substances are mood-altering and highly addictive. They can easily become a substitute for alcohol.
AA experience has shown “that many alcoholics have a tendency to become dependent on drugs other than alcohol. There have been tragic incidents of alcoholics who have struggled to achieve sobriety only to develop a serious problem with a different drug.”
The power of the 12 steps
Although I had to be on medication for many years in recovery, when I was ready, I went through the steps. I found agnostic-friendly sponsors and was taken through the steps as an agnostic alcoholic. A miracle began to occur when I got to step eight. I will always be grateful to friends and sponsors who were supportive of my dual diagnosis. As a result of working through the first nine steps, I was able to let go of the medication.
I have now been medication free for a very long time. The crippling anxiety and depression have left me. I can’t remember the last time I had a panic attack. My life is full and on the whole, I am happy and at peace. Of course, I still have the occasional bad day but who doesn’t?
I frequently share in meetings about how mentally unwell I was when I first got sober. Disclosing this information is my way of carrying the message to the alcoholic who may be suffering from coexisting mental health issues. If a newcomer ever approaches me and asks for advice about taking medication in recovery, this is what I tell them:
“Medication enabled me to get well enough to work through the steps and the steps helped me to come off medication”