My Experience in a 12-Step Cult

The Fix/October 1, 2018

By B.A. Brand

As part of my therapy I had to cut contact with my family and tell my professors I was recovering from sexual abuse. It was excruciating, but I wanted to do the "hard work" of recovery.

“If you leave here, you will be on the street.”

From her red upholstered chair, my psychotherapist Marlene launched one of her famous surprise attacks at the beginning of group therapy. This was another week-long intensive I was doing because I was in crisis. My ex-husband Terry* and I attended couples’ group and we were also in separate individual groups which were primarily inpatient treatment for addiction or codependency. We both attended various week-long “intensives” and all of our friends were also members of this group.

Both Terry and I were many years sober. We were long-time members in this therapy community, started at the beginning of the codependency and ACOA (Adult Children of Alcoholics) movement in the late 80’s when we were newly married. Marlene’s daughter, also a counselor there, her husband, and many other clients were our close friends. We all went to the same AA meetings and clubhouses.

This counseling center started with a new kind of experiential therapy that took many of its practices from EST. They did psychodrama, beating pillows with bataka bats, breath work, confrontation and guided imagery, among other things. Breaking someone down — like “breaking a horse” — was the guiding therapy modality. Marlene, also in long-term recovery from alcohol, recruited people from AA meetings. At the time, this therapy was considered pioneering and so transgressions like this were considered necessary for “real recovery.” Or that’s what she told us.

In the early 90’s, we moved abroad for several years to pursue Terry’s hopes for a career in his sport. When his prospects did not turn out, we returned to the states and the community, which was where all our friends and sponsors were. Upon our return to the States, Marlene suggested we live apart for a few months. It had become common practice for her to have couples in marriage counseling spend some time living apart. Terry moved in with Marlene’s son, our good friend, and I moved in with another woman from the community. We were told that after a few months we would move back in together. I got a job right away and Terry continued pursuing his sport, still hoping for the big break. Many people, including friends, sponsored him financially. Four months stretched into four years.

During this time, the counseling center also grew to include treatment for food addiction, gambling, sex, as well as codependency and all the other relational disorders that are so common for so many of us in recovery. The recovery treatment movement at large was going through a similar change. I had sexual abuse issues from when I was younger and would have to say embarrassing things like: “I enjoyed the power.” To be a good client, of course I would comply. One woman was told: “If I were your husband, I would have an affair with your best friend, too.” And this was considered the most progressive therapy available.

Many wealthy families sent their teenagers or young adults who had drug or alcohol misuse problems to the center, located in a tiny suburb in Florida. It was similar to other addiction treatment centers that were booming at this time; clients would come for a week-long “intensive” and then move in with someone from the community for aftercare. Month-long aftercare would frequently turn into years. The more affluent the family, the longer they stayed.

Eventually, Marlene and some of her wealthy clients purchased homes and turned these into group homes for aftercare. Every recovering person in the community was required to attend a daily 6:30 a.m. AA meeting with Sundays off for good behavior. Many members were asked to eat on a food plan and attend Overeaters Anonymous which is a tremendous program for food addicts. If you had sexual issues, you attended SLAA. If you had money issues, DA. If you were a gambler, GA. If your spouse was a gambler Gam-Anon, Al-Anon, S-Anon. In other circumstances, all of these organizations can be very helpful. Being an addict, I easily fit in with all of these groups regardless of whether or not I would have come to each of them individually on my own. My weekly calendar was full of these meetings, therapy groups, work, and then times set aside to supervise new members and take them to all these meetings.

The group had a strong hierarchical structure. Marlene was the lead therapist and her daughter was also at the top. Then came the other therapists, then the group of “strong” people, and then everyone else was at the bottom somewhere. Terry was handsome and charming and one of Marlene’s favorites so he was in the strong group, very close to her. The strong people supervised the new members as well as each other. Once someone was in crisis, they fell out of whichever group they were in. Most of the time, a person in crisis would not go home but would go spend the night with someone else after group and have to follow certain rules. You would leave your car there and ask people for rides or whatever was needed. One time, I went to my friend’s house and had to wear all her clothes to work the next day, too-big high heels and all. One of my treatments was to ask for rides everywhere for two weeks: to work and home, to group, to 12-step meetings. And that meant that I often did the same thing: sponsoring or supervising new members, meeting them for lunch or dinner, driving them around.

As the years passed (I was associated with this center for more than ten years) and Terry and I dealt with our relationship issues, as well as ancillary addictions, I was told to detach completely from my family. Even though my father was in AA and my mother in Al-Anon, I had to write letters to them explaining why I couldn’t interact with them any longer. I was not permitted to contact my siblings who had always been supportive of me. It was an excruciating exercise, but I wanted to do the “hard work” of recovery so I complied. Marlene would say that people with unresolved codependency were at risk for cancer or other diseases. Someone with codependency certainly couldn’t have a successful relationship with another without intensive, long-term therapy. But any other kind of therapy besides this therapy was “bullshit” and regular AA meetings were not “real recovery.” This, too had a purpose: if we weren’t spending holidays with our families, we spent them with the therapist, her staff, and her family. This was always unsettling to me, but I complied. The other members of the community spent holidays together at someone’s home, or typically one of the group homes. Terry would stay with Marlene at her vacation home with her family. In fact, Terry and I celebrated every holiday at Marlene’s home.

After four long years of separation — thousands of groups and meetings — Terry finally went back to college to finish his degree. We were both considered “strong” members of the community, sponsoring many people, holding Big Book studies and step-groups. So separated had our lives become over these four years that our interactions with each other were constantly monitored and evaluated as part of our therapy process, to a degree where casual time spent together was not casual and what might have otherwise been a normal desire for a husband and wife to share each other’s company had ramifications for how we were counseled in our therapy sessions. Consequently, by this point we had advanced to starting to “date” and were making plans, all therapist-sanctioned, to finally move back in together. Like most of the married or unmarried couples in the group, we lived separately, completely celibate. Dating meant attending dinner or movies, always accompanied by other members of the group. Moving back in together was the ultimate carrot in the couples’ group, and ours was not an unusual situation as bizarre as it now sounds. A few new couples to the community lived together but the majority lived apart.

On the surface, this system appears to be consistent with much of what we know is successful in legitimate addiction treatment centers. Young people or newly recovering addicts or alcoholics could and sometimes would stay clean and sober in this arrangement, because it was a variety of situations, all with 24-hour supervision. Outside the week-long intensives which were held at a hotel, all the supervision would come from other members in the community like myself. Several people in long-term recovery would schedule an hour or so to spend time with the new person and frequently give them rides or provide meals. Several members of the community had businesses where they could employ new people on an hourly basis. People traded services like home cleaning or rides to the airport for treatment. A new person would leave the group home in the morning and pack lunch and dinner (often prescribed by a food plan) and end the evening in a 12-step meeting or group or a planned group activity. My weekly schedule was packed with meetings, work, group, going to graduate school, and helping newcomers. This too is superficially consistent with best practices: the weakest part of addiction treatment today is the lack of solid aftercare programs. This group handled that part well, but at great cost, and not at all ethically.

In addition to supporting the newcomers, to be a good member of a group meant participating in the confrontational functions of that group. Because it was a psychodrama-focused group, you would stand up in the middle of the room and act out any problem you were having. The other members played the roles of your family or friends. If you weren’t getting quite honest enough, others would get up and act you out for yourself—the more brutally honest, the better. I now regret many of the things I said to my fellow group members in that situation. If a member did everything properly and complied with all the demands, they might get rewards, like dates with their spouse.

After dating steadily for many months, Terry and I purchased a small home and a group of the new guys painted the interior, getting ready for us to move in. After attending a movie, one of my good friends who had chaperoned us said that she felt “sex addiction coming off” of me in the movie. She and her dashing husband had come to therapy many years before, both looking as if they stepped off the set of Dallas. But when Marlene recommended they separate, he stormed out of couples group, never to return. He was not the first. When Marlene and my friend confronted me in group that week, I listened but I also knew what was coming. I had seen this happen to so many other couples. It was always a terrifying waiting game to see who was going to be the group’s victim-of-the-week.

Being the designated person in crisis could actually persist for a year or more. Once, another therapist and her daughter were kept apart from each other for years, neither person in active addiction. And special treatment was not just reserved for the weakest in the group; the strong members would also frequently get special treatment. One of my friends started dating a man from her group who happened to be married at the time. His wife was just starting to get sober and struggling with recovery. I was vocal that I didn’t think it was right for this couple to get together even if his marriage was ending. But my reservations were not welcome.

I also expressed concerned about my husband’s best friend from his primary group, a woman he would eventually marry.

I became more and more skeptical of the constant and intense supervision; I was exhausted from the 24/7 schedule and the years and years that people were “in the doghouse” in group. The separated couples troubled me in a way I couldn’t ignore. I started to ask professionals from outside about this community. A professor of sociology where I worked said that it sounded like some ethics boundaries had been crossed. Another therapist I visited confided that many professionals looked at this group with skepticism. The local AAs called us “the zombies.” But still, clients came from all over the United States.

So, as a result of the crisis group I mentioned, Terry and I were separated again, with no contact except in group meetings or individual therapy sessions. After weeks of being designated “in crisis,” I decided that I had to leave. I knew Terry would stay. After years of this totalizing therapy environment, he had become family to Marlene and even talking to him about us leaving together was impossible.

I moved out of my shared home and found a furnished room. My friends from the group called me and my best friend encouraged me to keep going to group. So I came back but was given even more restrictions and more oversight. I had to go to my professors and tell them that I was recovering from sexual abuse. Marlene thought I would become more humble if I cleaned houses for income. I had my car taken away, was forced to move houses, and had to attend more meetings.

At this point, spouses would not be allowed to see each other except in group and I knew that our marriage could not survive. It would go the way of so many of the others. This is the point where I said in group that I didn’t think I could continue to be a part of the community if my husband and I divorced. And this is when Marlene said that if I left the group, I would be on the street. I would be walking the streets, hooking for drugs is what she meant. I was 15 years sober at that point, and attending meetings daily. I broke down and threw up in a waste basket in the middle of the group meeting. That night, my friend came to spend the night with me. She had long-term sobriety and had lost over a hundred pounds in OA. She crawled into bed with me and held me. I remember her skin was soft and squishy. I couldn’t stop crying and so I recited “The Lord is my Shepherd” over and over until I fell asleep.

In the daylight hours, I knew that I had to leave despite my husband staying. That week in a private session with my husband, the therapist asked me if I wanted to be checked in to a hospital. As if someone would want to do that. At that moment I felt truly frightened and I knew I had to leave for good. I felt sad but also perfectly calm about the decision. It was that kind of deep acceptance that I had actually found in AA 15 years prior. How did I get here? This is not what I want to happen. I did not give my approval for this to be the course of my life. But, really, because of my trust in the program, there was a sense of peace that I would be okay.

So, I went home and moved out of my shared home again. I packed everything I had into my car and my friend walked up the driveway. She was coming to clean the house and she cried and begged me to not leave. I don’t remember what I said other than “I have to leave.” I got in my car and drove to my office. It was inter-session when no classes were held and the school was empty. I slept on the couch in the faculty lounge. Two nights later, still feeling like a criminal, I checked into a hotel. Later, I found an apartment and moved in and slept on the floor. I slept as I had never slept before. The next day, I stepped outside and sat on the steps underneath a giant water oak. I could feel strength and protection from this tree. This was my home. 

And I was truly okay, after a time. Of course no one from the community could talk to me and I had to find all new meetings. Here and there people would tell me what I knew would be said about me, that I was in active sex and love addiction. There was a growing group of us who left but it was hard to connect because I still believed that what I did was wrong. I kept going to meetings and, as is always true with AA, there is a meeting for everyone. I couldn’t talk about my experiences in the meetings because I just couldn’t verbalize what I was feeling. I would just go and sit, like I did in early sobriety and, little by little, I could feel healing start to happen. I had had some self-injury behaviors for years that stopped shortly after leaving the group. I helped with Meals on Wheels and started to go to the local church and just sit quietly. Brief feelings of peace and acceptance would wash over me.

I still had some terrible resentments at Terry that plagued my thoughts. So, when I started to think of him, I would immediately start to say a prayer or affirmation. If I drove by a place where we had lived, I’d start the affirmation going before I even got there. Pretty soon, I had affirmations running through my head all day and night. One day, I found myself in the church and the priest was hearing confessions. I walked up to the door and he beckoned me in the room. The priest asked how long since my last confession and I said, Since my first one, Father. He asked me to say the prayers with him and I didn’t know them. I said that I had vengeful resentments. He was kind and said a whispered prayer, said something about grief. He told me to pray the “Hail Mary” every day. I walked out into the sunshine, somewhat dazed, and put one foot in front of the other. I went to work, meetings, trudging the road of happy destiny. About ten days later, I was driving by our old house and I realized that I hadn’t thought about my ex all day. I then realized it had been a few days — I don’t know when it happened, but the resentment had lifted.

Several of the other clients left, as they always did, but a small group of us filed complaints with the state Department of Health and Human Services. Marlene was fined and sanctioned for breaches of ethics. She continued to practice. The 12 steps are a broad highway and there is room for many different types of recovery. I never picked up a drug or a drink after leaving there.

Eventually, trusting the program and trudging the road, my path became more clear and bright. I moved back to my hometown and my family welcomed me home. I got a good job. I became secretary of my home group. Other people in AA shared experiences with me of strange therapy or religious groups. I attended therapy and told my doctors of what I had been through and none of the professionals said that what that group was doing was right. I eventually started dating and fell in love with a good man. We welcomed our son, my miracle baby, when I was 44 years old and over 20 years sober. Marlene’s prediction never came true. I stayed clean and sober through all of that which I owe to the 12 steps and the program of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Was every day a bell-ringing success? Not even close, but I stayed sober one day at a time. I would see people walk through terrible life events in AA, lost jobs and families, terminal illness, death of spouses, and I always wondered if I could weather terrible life events like that. Would I be able to stay sober? And I did. The AA program is not perfect but I do not see it as a harmful cult. They hold their meetings in church basements and serve terrible, weak coffee. The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking. If I feel uncomfortable at a meeting, I can find a new group. AA even has groups for Atheists and Agnostics. AA’s principles and wisdom help countless people around the world. I am a grateful member. 

Names have been changed.

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