Wednesday, September 30, 2009

My Second Cult

The things that used to confuse me so much are so easy to understand and even easier to mock. Questions like, what about the kittens who died in the worldwide flood? and Why on earth would the Israelites build a cow statue to worship, when it would be so obviously not a real god, since they had made it themselves? Since they'd just seen him curse Egypt with ten spectacular curses - plagues and swarms of frogs! - then part the Red Sea at Moses' prayer and then close it over Pharaoh and his army, saving the Jews once again. And we're supposed to believe that after Moses being up a mountain for a couple days or weeks, they decided to abandon completely this evident, obviously existing and communicating and powerful god, who by the way fed them daily with manna falling from heaven, to build a cow out of their gold jewelry to worship instead?

In the Twelve Step program, people are encouraged to define their own god. Members will say things like, "This pen could be your god if it means something for you, and helps you stay sober." Which sounds great, till you actually read the steps. Steps 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 11, and 12 are the "give me" list. You just can't in a remotely rationalized way ask a pen to remove your defects of character, or seek to have conscious contact with a pen. (Okay, so there are a few possibilities with the close contact but, yuck.) Of course, one of my main objections to the 12 Step programs is that these steps all relieve the person of responsibility. Combined with the disease model of addiction (you drink too much because you have a disease, like cancer), this allows the alcoholic/addict/gambler/whatever to confess their "sins", be absolved by the group, ask "the god of their understanding" to restore them sanity, care for their lives and their wills, remove their defects of character, to have contact with them, to tell them what to do (knowledge of his will), to give them the power to function, and to provide them with a "spiritual awakening". Notice that nowhere is "God" (pen, doorknob, whatever) actually asked to help the person stay SOBER.

Have I mentioned yet that AA is a cult? I was in Al-Anon for two years, from the week I moved out of my marriage home with my six-week-old little man, through the six months I tried to get my husband in AA and sober and into marriage counseling, and after that through the painfully adolescent experience of living in my mother's house, while attempting to date and have sex and be mother to my own child. (The laundry room people, that's how unwillingly my mom was to let her adult, divorced, obviously sexually active (ahem, child) daughter with her exclusive boyfriend and a condom. Who honestly has laundry room as their first choice location?) Al-Anon is the program for spouses, parents, and children of alcoholics (who the group sincerely hopes are AA members).

Like most people are when they join a cult, I was at an extreme low point in my life. I had just failed at marriage. I had just realized how bad my husband's substance abuse problem really was. (Nothing quite like waking up to pump breast milk at 4 in the morning and finding your husband and a stranger snorting lines off the kitchen counter to make you reevaluate your marriage vows.) I also had a broken ankle, a severe bout with flesh-eating bacteria (ooh, giant purple ghastly belly scars are sexy!), a mother-in-law who attempted to kidnap my son at 10 weeks old, a baby who cried out in pain every night from 6:00 to 9:00 pm., and I had to return to my mother's house, like a dog with my tail between my legs, or like the prodigal daughter, who had squandered her meager inheritance too soon.

That first meeting, my mom went with me. Which was good, since the meeting was on the second floor of a Christian school attached to a church, and I had a broken ankle (and no cast, people, no cast. Or pain killers.) and a baby in a stroller. There was a lot of weekly things - reading all the steps and the welcome message, etc. that I realize now were a subtle form of indoctrination. We read it over and over and over - every single week. Then of course, the whole point of any Twelve Step program is to "work the Steps".

My first sponsor was an English grad student at the university my mom had gone to and taught at, and that I'd attended for one semester before learning I was pregnant. She didn't seem to find it necessary to tell me that she had schizophrenia, however. It ended when she had a break one night, in the parking lot of another meeting. She still came to the group and we were still friends, but I didn't want to take her counsel or advice or pour out my darkest secrets to her. Thes econd woman I asked to be my sponsor seemed to have things much more together. Her husband was "in recovery" and attended AA, and led an AA/Al-Anon couples meeting with her. She lived across the street from the church my mom and I were attending and ran a successful massage therapy business. Her jewelry suggested a hippie attitude, but her shoes indicated she was successful. She was also a bitch who clearly had no respect for me. I figured that out pretty quickly and was able to back off from our arrangement. The third and final sponsor I had was very nice, very busy, and because her teenage daughter had taken the class at the Y, we soon entered into a financial relationship. We talked a few times, but once I learned that her husband and she had married young, divorced, she'd married and divorced someone else, and was now REMARRIED to her 13-year-old daughter's father, I realized I didn't want to take her advice either.

Like a good conspiracy theory or religion, it helps to have some truth on your side. Some of the program and literature suggestions were helpful. I started writing a "gratitude list" - in the midst of that really hard time - and just jotting down all the things I was grateful for: food, a roof even if my mother's, Medicaid for my son, etc. Because I have OCD (and a diagnosis - finally), I've read up a lot on cognitive processing, and meta-cognition and how you can steer your thoughts. OCD is like having ruts in your neural pathways, so that thoughts can get stuck in an obsessive cycle, rather than progressing onto the next thought, and then the one after that. Finding ways to change negative self-talk ("I'm fat, I'm ugly, nobody loves me" to "My body is healthy and I am worth liking" for example) really does help. But the people who were supposed to be helping me were crazy, mean, and foolish. I left because the central part of the Twelve Step program - the sponsor, the person who indoctrinates you and leads you into the cult like a Big Sister in a sorority - was such epic FAIL. Because the program didn't have any standards for mental health or personality or compassion aptitude for who could be a sponsor, it's a really bad idea. If there had been someone more appealing to me at the meeting close enough to my house that my mom would watch my son that one hour a week (another reason I liked going), I might be one of those crazy women who still goes twenty years after her alcoholic husband has died of cirrhosis.

(Is it wrong to hope my ex-in-laws have a handsome life insurance policy on my ex, and that it becomes viable soon, and that then I can sue them for the $6,000+ I'm owed in back child support? Never mind., I don't actually care if it's right or wrong. I'm cool with that little mental fantasy. As a Christian I used to pray my husband would get run over by a city bus, so I could collect money, since I knew he'd never provide for his son any other way.)

All that ramble was to say, what makes the Twelve Step members who design a god of their own understanding, any different from Israelites building a golden calf? Nothing. Which tells me that the Israelites hadn't actually seen any miracles either. If something good happens, even just you learning how to change your own attitude through cognitive therapy techniques, you credit it to god. If something bad happens, it's because you're diseased. Just like religion.

Here's an incredibly thorough site dedicated to outing Alcoholics Anonymous as the cult that it is. This page lays out the AA scores on the Cult Test (100 traits that define a cult). This site is a really great cult info resource in general, but especially for "spiritual" behavior modification programs, like teen boot camps and Twelve Step groups. It's also a really model of how someone could lay out a similar site for, oh I don't know, Mormons? $cientology? The Amish? I'm sure you kids will have fun. Go check it out and let me know what you think.