How Alcoholics Anonymous Psychologically Abuses The Marginalized

In some ways, AA helped me. But as an afrolatin trans woman, it also hurt me.

“My name is Princess and I’m an alcoholic!”

“Hi, Princess!”

This ritualistic greeting used to be welcome. Now, it’s little more than a reminder of the worlds I became imprisoned in — the dual worlds of addiction and recovery.

When I joined Alcoholics Anonymous and its spin-off, Narcotics Anonymous, I was seeking escape from my dependence on opiates and alcohol. Three and a half years later, I am free of heroin and alcohol in part because of the 12-step program, and I continue to apply some of its principles to my life.

But the program’s ideology was in many ways irrelevant to me. The literature of AA and NA preaches a heteronormative approach to sexuality — unavoidable, perhaps, as both programs were founded by heterosexual men at a time when queer people were repressed. Politically, the adherents of the programs, and the text themselves, also promote an anti-liberation, “bootstraps” approach that I’ve never been comfortable with.

But the bigger issue is that, as an afrolatin trans woman, I often found the 80-plus-year-old program and its strict adherents to be psychologically abusive.

I was first introduced to AA when I was at a mental hospital that included programs for drug-addicted people. I didn’t check myself in for addiction specifically, but because I had heroin, marijuana, and other drugs of abuse in my system, I was funneled there. Though I technically could’ve said no to attending an AA meeting, doing so could’ve led to me being labeled uncooperative, which in turn could’ve ensured a longer stay.

At the first AA meeting I attended at the hospital, I was pulled aside by one of the speakers, who told me I should get off my hormones and pray for God to “remove my problem.” It was clear he wasn’t talking about my drinking or my using, but my gender “problem.”

And so it was that my rocky relationship with 12-step programs began. I enjoyed, and would still enjoy, the AA and NA meetings I felt comfortable attending. But as I was typically the only trans person in the room — and in some cases, one of the only people of color — I also often experienced harassment and humiliation.

I was typically the only trans person in the room.

Members at subsequent meetings told me to pray my gender dysphoria away, or declared that the dysphoria remaining was a sign that I failed to move through the steps thoroughly. Complicating this was the fact that that my drug abuse did start off as a way to cope with gender dysphoria (and my being trans in a Latinx household) — but because of the judgemental environment, I never felt comfortable expressing that.

Other times, members would attempt to use meetings as their conversion therapy camp. In one instance, a group of religious men gave me their phone numbers because they felt that I needed men to set me on a religious path and make me masculine again. They seemed to believe that trans women who used and abused drugs and alcohol became trans as a “symptom” of addiction or alcoholism.

Other times, I faced sexual harassment or physical intimidation (usually if I rejected advances). One incident resulted in me having to change my phone number because I was getting threats and insults daily for refusing a man.

Misgendering was also startlingly common at meetings. Sometimes, members would be handed a list of other members to call if they feared a relapse; these were supposed to be gender segregated, with men given lists of other men, and women of other women. Once, a man tried to fight me for putting my name and number on a woman addict’s phone number list. Another time, I was given a list of phone numbers entirely composed of men.

It’s not hard to discern why AA and NA meetings often felt so hostile to someone like me. Membership surveys report that 62% of AA members are male, and 89% are white. NA membership, meanwhile, is 59% male and 74% white. Like many such organizations, there is virtually no accounting for trans or gender nonbinary members. Because both organizations have roots in religious principles — the ultimate goal of sobriety is a “spiritual awakening,” and seven of the 12 steps refer either to a deity or religious practices — they also perpetuate conservative beliefs, and often attract conservative Christians as adherents.

62% of AA members are male, and 89% are white.

There are also underlying issues with the 12-step ideology itself, with fundamental program principles effectively encouraging abuse against the marginalized.

Gaslighting, the psychological abuse tactic of twisting information about something in order to make someone doubt or take guilt upon themselves, is touted as part — an important part — of AA and NA.

From the book Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, the founder of AA writes, “It is a spiritual axiom that every time we are disturbed, no matter what the cause, there is something wrong with us.” He goes on to say that if someone else hurts us, we’re still in the wrong. The book Alcoholics Anonymous, meanwhile, includes such passages as, “Sometimes they hurt us, seemingly without provocation, but we invariably find that at some time in the past we have made decisions based on self which later placed us in a position to be hurt” and “Putting out of our minds the wrongs others had done, we resolutely looked for our own mistakes.”

Gaslighting is touted as part — an important part — of AA and NA.

Sometimes, this line of thinking manifested as members subtly challenging my “victimhood,” a painful charge that was not only debilitating — I couldn’t respond without “proving” the taunt — but loaded. The subtext was clear: If you don’t get over your oppression, you’ll drink and die. Other times, cishet white men essentially demanded that I take responsibility for being sexually harassed, publicly humiliated, and physically intimidated — not only in my life outside the program, but during the meetings themselves. If I suffered, I was told, it had to be my fault.

The idea of fear, too, was exploited in dangerous ways. As the AA book puts it, “Fear is an evil, corroding thread; the fabric of our lives is shot through with it.” It is fear, we are told, which can kill alcoholics. Anything that might be fear, or anything that one can reduce to being fear, is interpreted as a sign that we’re still in the same place we were in when we were drinking.

But while combatting fear in some ways make sense, this becomes problematic when applied to the marginalized. The fear I expressed wasn’t unreasonable; it was rooted in a necessary sense of self-preservation.

Trans women of color face excessive levels of violence, violence that has unfortunately touched all the places I call home. When I refused to go to meetings in areas that I know are notorious for queer bashing or racist harassment — or to meetings at night because of street harassment, or to those near ones where I had been mistreated — I did so to ensure I didn’t face violence or even death. But because of the ideology and literature of AA and NA, these decisions were interpreted as me not committing to my recovery, as one member once explicitly accused me of.

I am grateful that I was able to get help from AA and NA, and I do intend to live my life according to the 12 steps to the best of my ability without the meetings. But considering the harm caused by the organizations, I can also say confidently that walking away was the best decision I could’ve made.

The fear I expressed wasn’t unreasonable; it was rooted in a necessary sense of self-preservation.

Considering that transgender people are at a high risk for substance abuse, and often need the kind of support that AA and NA can provide, my experience should cause alarm.

That said, there are other options for feminists, queer people, and others who share my feelings and who need to recover from alcoholism or drug addiction. My advice? Seek out community. Seek out alternative methods of recovery. There are many available to us: SMART Recovery, Women for Sobriety, LifeRing Secular Sobriety, Moderation Management, the Sinclair Method, and drug replacement therapies are all viable options. Hell, seek someone like me out, someone who lives by the 12 steps but doesn’t attend AA.

Most importantly, know this: You don’t have to expose yourself to abuse to recover.

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