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October 18, 2021

The Toxic Positivity of Alcoholics Anonymous.


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I didn’t really even want to go to the meeting.

It was a long and tiring day at work and, to be perfectly honest, the last few Alcoholics Anonymous meetings I attended left me feeling a certain antipathy for the whole fellowship. But my friend, M, wanted to go and she wanted me to go with her, so I agreed.

I had known M for years, and I loved her. We lived through many beautiful, difficult, strange, and horrific things together.

As we walked down the creaky stairs that led to the church basement, I was immediately reminded of the same sights and smells from my early recovery. Cheap coffee brewing, mildew, second-hand smoke on clothes—total sensory overload. The guest speaker was someone I had never seen before, but this wasn’t surprising. He was in his third year of sobriety and it had been at least that long since I had been to a meeting.

It was easy to tell from the first few minutes of his “share” that his indoctrination into 12-steppery was on solid footing. He told a story of being beaten within an inch of his life and how that led him to his first AA meeting, and subsequently, his life changing for the better. He stared lovingly at his wife cum running partner as she batted her eyelashes right back at him. They were both in their 40s but it was evident that the alcohol, cigarettes, and hard living made them look much older.

“I don’t regret a single thing that has happened to me. Everything happens for a reason.”

A late arrival walked in spilling coffee on his shoes and balancing two Vienna Fingers in a paper towel.

“Whatever happens to us in our life, in my opinion, only brings us closer to our ultimate destiny.”

I looked over at M to give her the “are you getting all of this?” look, and an almost catatonic glaze came over her. It was almost as if her soul was no longer inhabiting her body.

“Are you alright?” I whispered.

A tear trickled down her cheek. And then another.

I knew why she was crying. The whole “everything happens for a reason” thing never takes into account certain circumstances that occur to people that could only be described as “inexplicable.” Inexplicable because there is no explanation for a woman to be held against her will and sexually assaulted multiple times in a single evening. I remember all of this clearly because I spent the whole next day with M in a blur of tears, bitter emotions, doctors, detectives, and rape kits. It was draining.

I took her outside and she bummed a cigarette off Vienna Fingers. She struck a match and a gust of wind blew it out instantaneously. The “I’m so glad someone almost beat me to death” guy came in with the gentlemanly Zippo.

“I guess I need to find the deeper meaning behind rape and post-traumatic stress,” she said.

She exhaled a grey cloud of Marlboro smoke and a disgusted look shadowed her face.

“It happened for a good reason, I’m sure,” she continued sarcastically.

Now, personally, I knew that there were clearly other things bothering her in her life right then. This was obvious. Why else would she have called me out of the blue to go to this meeting in the first place?

There’s a larger issue, though.

Toxic positivity, as people know, is the bypassing of real trauma and pain by others who advise us to employ gratitude and look at the bright side. There are situations where there is no bright side. There is only darkness that needs to be worked through in an earnest way.

I know, for myself, I got into a serious relationship after my first year of recovery. It wasn’t too long into the relationship when it became untenable. It could best be described as a “lonely marriage.” I was very plugged into the program, I had a sponsor, and I was attending three or four meetings per week. Much of the advice I was given kept me immersed in that misery far longer than I should have been.

I kept being told to “work a program around it.” This is actually code for focusing solely on yourself and your part in the issue. Much of the time this is pretty good advice. In my life, at that time, it was unrealistic. I became a doormat in the process.

The backlash I expect to get from this article is that there is nothing in The Big Book that says one should stay in a sh*tty marriage—and while this is true in the literal sense, the overall attitude in 12-step meetings is that the alcoholic has spent much of their lives in the self-centered pursuit of getting f*cked up. Now that they are sober, it wouldn’t be the worst idea to put someone else first for a change.

Only, in cases like mine, it turned out to be the worst idea.

The pendulum of my behaviors swung so far in the other direction that I was inevitably taken advantage of. Maybe it wasn’t even out of malice on the part of my significant other. It could have been that she was unaware of how much I was hurting. I unloaded all of it on my sponsor and at meetings, when it may have served me better to have discussed it with her instead.

People are generally lauded in meetings for “working a strong program.” This is why there is little deviation when it comes to the advice you get. And if you are wondering why people don’t think for themselves, you evidently don’t understand Alcoholics Anonymous. This could be a whole other article, but a person usually gets to their first meeting beaten and desperate and ready to follow any direction from the group. These people appear so much healthier and happier than the “newcomer” that it becomes advertisement by attraction. Kind of like, “this could be you—if you follow us.”

It’s a sticky situation, but it’s a real issue. Not everything happens to people for a reason. As a grave example, I defy anyone to give a reason for the deaths of six million Jews under the reign of Hitler. There is none. Sometimes, there is just evil—straight up, no bright side.

It’s a disservice to the people who have undergone severe trauma to have to be told this. And unfortunately, an AA meeting is exactly where you will find some of the most traumatized people.


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