Sunday, July 4, 2010

Al-Anon pt 3: Fertile Ground

And when much people were gathered together, and were come to him out of every city, he spake by a parable: a sower went out to sow his seed: and as he sowed, some fell by the way side; and it was trodden down, and the fowls of the air devoured it. And some fell upon a rock; and as soon as it was sprung up, it withered away, because it lacked moisture. And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprang up with it, and choked it. And other fell on good ground, and sprang up, and bare fruit an hundredfold.
- Luke 8:4-7
Al-Anon's self defeatist message found fertile ground with me. There were so many of this cult's ideas I'd already absorbed from mainstream and fundamentalist Christianity.

Inherently Defective
Al-Anon taught me, like Christianity, that I am inherently flawed and defective, and only my Higher Power can fix this. No amount of effort, learning, therapy, wisdom, or charity I do can make up for the flaws I was born with - a sinful nature or codependency. However, confessing my powerlessness, my sinfulness is only the first step. In the case of both religions, this creates the need for the group or church to fill. I must attend meetings (or services) at least once a week if I expect God to fix me. After all, I must do my own part of my salvation too, even though my part will never be sufficient. I am fallen and I am powerless. It's up to God (as I understand him) to come save me now.

Learned Helplessness
"All have fallen short of the glory of God" and "We admitted we were powerless." Both of these messages, from Christianity and Al-Anon, take away our impetus to create positive change in our own lives. In Al-Anon I was told repeatedly to "Let go and let God" and to just leave other people to their own devices and character defects. I needed to keep "my side of the street clean" and not worry about that mote in my brother's eye (or bottle in my husband's hand.) At a time when I needed help and empowerment the most, I had my legs kicked out from under me by a bunch of bitter people who probably would have been far happier if they'd just left their alcoholic spouses and bypassed the Steps completely.

Acceptable Abuse
They had stayed, so I should stay. I "shouldn't make any major decisions for the first six months" - really the first year, but I had it wrong at the time. I found out, after telling my sponsor I'd finally broken things off with my husband who belittled, raped, and abused me, that I was really supposed to stick in there another six months before making that choice, since I hadn't yet completed the steps or attained Serenity. I remember feeling profound relief that no one had told me that before hand, because i didn't think I could take another six months of torture, but I was glad I didn't have to knowingly choose to go against one of Al-Anon's principles in order to escape it.

As a Christian child, I knew it was right and godly of my parents to abuse me physically and emotionally. After all, they were following the Bible and Focus on the Family, so they must be right. It simply wasn't safe enough to question authority for me to even consider it. My brother tried that, and he'd been kicked out of the house at 12. But the idea that I should take a certain amount of abuse as my lot in life, and what's more that I'd somehow earned the abuse through my own actions, was an idea I learned early and it took decades to break. My family treated me horribly, and I was fighting an uphill battle to become a person and not just a cult clone. I married badly.

But Al-Anon would have me believe that my fledgling, ill-conceived and frankly never willingly consummated marriage (spousal rape doesn't count) held the weight of my entire integrity, my word, my vow. They made it more serious than it was. I mean yes, I wanted to have a family with him. I married him. But I quickly learned that he was an absolutely horrible human being. He got so drunk one night, he peed out the living room window screen because he thought it was the bathroom toilet. And that wasn't the first time he'd made an error of that kind. (There was also, for instance, his ex-roommate's vacuum cleaner.)

Al-Anon told me I needed to take the focus off of him and his actions, and instead I needed to look for my part in his drinking. Bear in mind, we'd been married all of 10 weeks when I separated from him, taking my son and moving into my mother's. That's when I started going to Al-Anon. I wasn't even with him for three months before leaving, but because I thought Al-Anon told me to wait six months (really a year), I spent twice as long separated from him and trying to work things out as I did living with him as man and wife.

God Micro-Manages
I had been taught to believe in the power of prayer before I'd been taught to read. I believed that I had both free will and a sinful nature, and that the god who gave me free will would intervene in my life and others. Even though God had some overarching multi-millenial Divine Plan, he would fiddle around with the daily minutiae like lost keys, insufficient funds, or bad traffic, if I asked him to.

Bill Wilson's Higher Power is a meddling god. Free will is talked about much less often in 12 Step programs than traditional Sunday morning churches (sorry Adventists.) "Self will" is considered a sin in Al-Anon, the way that the "Adam nature" or "flesh" was sinful in my childhood brand of learned helplessness.

Perpetual Confession

In Christianity I was taught that when I "sinned", the real problem wasn't the people I may have hurt. No, no. The great offense of course was that I'd sinned against God. He was the one who I had hurt the most. Remember, he died for my sins, so the least I could do is make his death meaningless by never sinning again. Since that was bound to be impossible (as Christianity generally is), my only alternative was confession for each and every offense.

At deliverance camp the pastor had us write down a detailed list of all our sins, past and present, great and small. In Al-Anon this would be known as a "fearless and searching moral inventory" or the 4th Step. Christianity had already taught me that I have been judged, and found wanting in the balance. Al-Anon just continued the lesson.

Christianity was fundamentally destructive to my self-esteem as a child, teenager, and young woman. Original sin is a terrible weight to assign every newborn on the planet, and I don't see how I worshiped a god for so long who I believed did exactly that.

Marriage is Sacred (Except When it's Not)
My mother was divorced. My father was not a good husband so, well and good. He was feckless and unfaithful and on one occasion - and one only - he struck her. I could understand and at least some other Christians could as well. My mother had to write a letter to the Christian school we attended, justifying her divorce, in order to get a job teaching computer classes to the high school students. But they had given her the position, and treated her well once she was hired.

My grandmother had been divorced twice. She absolutely should have left her second husband, a darker version of my father's same sins, much sooner than she did. But my grandfather, her first husband, was a good man. She left him because their daughter died at 10 weeks old of a congenital heart defect, and she couldn't be in that house a day longer. Marriage is sacred, unless you've got a good excuse.

In Al-Anon it was the same. The pressure to stay was subtle but constant. The greatest success story couple at my home meeting had been married for 50 years - 27 of them abusive, 23 in 12 step groups. These were the role models of everyone in the room, and so all advice I got was tinged with this poison of the mind - that if you just followed the steps, even the worst marriage could become enviable. Yet if an old-timer, automatically respected for their longevity in the cult, had been divorced three times or more, it was none of my concern and I needed to focus on my self, and work a selfish program, and not try to control people and situations in my life. (Because after all, doing that makes your life unmanageable.)

Some Feelings are Wrong
As a child, I was taught it was a sin to fear, since fear meant not trusting God. Al-Anon told me the same thing. FEAR was nothing more than "false evidence appearing real" and I really needed to just focus on working my Steps and turning my will over to my Higher Power. There was no sense in recognizing fear as a useful warning emotion, and investigating why I had the fears I did (including fears of my husband's possible behavior.)

I was also told "in the rooms" that resentment was always, always, without exception or fail WRONG. The "defilements" of my demon-haunted childhood were replaced with the "resentments" of my 20s. These were the things (almost without fail, just as in Christianity, done by others or merely by environment) holding me back from my "spiritual awakening" and serenity. Resentments were so bad and so inherently self-destructive that I should not only get rid of all current ones, but should do everything in my (powerless) power to prevent them. I remember the day I first heard this sentence and thought it was brilliant.
"Expectations are premeditated resentments."
If I didn't place expectations on people, like the alcoholic, then I wouldn't be so disappointed. Al-Anon taught me, like Christianity, to lower my standards for how well I should be treated. After all, I was a sinner. I was sick - just as sick as the alcoholic, even though my "disease" of codependency had no physical effects at all.

It Will Never Get Better
Even though I was saved by the grace of Jesus (and certainly not by works, so that no man may boast!) I would still always struggle with sin. Being a Christian doesn't make you perfect, just forgiven, and so I would constantly fail at perfection. Al-Anon told me that I had a spiritual disease of codependency, that I was sick and that I would always be sick, and that the best I could hope for was to let go and let god, and hope he did a better job of running my life than I did. After all, my "best thinking got me here" so it was obvious I was not an empowered person capable of making good decisions for myself.

Al-Anon is not a self-help group. It is a self-annihilation group. And it needs to be stopped.

More soon. This post took a lot out of me. Writing about my ex-husband is always extremely difficult. I have a whole mixture of emotions like betrayal, and fear, and humiliation (what the fuck was I thinking marrying that creep?) But I know writing will make me feel better, and I'm at least more emotionally capable of approaching those dark and scary stories now than I was a few months ago. Hopefully the writing flow continues and improves. Much love to all my Anteaters!

* Throughout the 12 Step posts I'll use certain slogans and phrases that were spoken a lot "in the rooms" (like "in the rooms" which refers to 12 Step meetings collectively.) Sometimes I'll remember to put air quotes around them, but sometimes I won't. Cults use buzzwords and slogans as thought-stopping devices, and it's only by recognizing them as such that we can strip them of power over us. So I will use the cult-speak of those days, in the hopes that current and former 12 Steppers who find these posts will be able to recognize in their own meetings and literature the things I'm saying.