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How the Addiction Recovery World is Like the Catholic Church

Editor's Note

Please see a doctor before starting or stopping a medication.

If you or a loved one is affected by addiction, the following post could be triggering. You can contact SAMHSA’s hotline at 1-800-662-4357.

I am a Catholic school refugee. While I may have been a believer back in Jesuit high school, I am now agnostic, and part of the reason is because I have realized that the Catholic Church is so incredibly backward, slow-paced and even harmful to people like me who are different, gay or questioning of the Church.

I think I got my Catholic card revoked when I realized I was gay. I am a recovering alcoholic — nine years sober — and I feel the same way about Alcoholics Anonymous: that I’m a misfit, swimming in a snail-paced bureaucracy.

The Church is discussing denying Holy Communion to politicians including President Joe Biden and Speaker Nancy Pelosi because they support abortion rights. The U.S. Catholic bishops voted on church legislation that would draft rules guiding the issue. The vote among bishops was held earlier this month and 73% were in favor of drafting the document.

In my early 20s, I was told that I was not allowed to participate in the sacrament of Holy Communion because I was gay. This was when the church was under the jurisdiction of the conservative Pope Benedict XVI. It’s when the church labeled homosexuality a disorder.

Pope Francis The Ally

The current pontiff — Pope Francis — is much more sympathetic to the gay cause. “When I meet a gay person who am I to judge them?” he said in 2013. “They shouldn’t be marginalized. The tendency [to homosexuality] is not the problem… They’re our brothers.”

Crime and Punishment

The word “gay” was never even uttered by teachers back in Catholic high school in the late ‘90s, so if you were, you were relegated to the closet. It was such a taboo and fellow students would toss the “fag” slur around like it was nothing.

I believe my awakening as an adult gay man was severely hindered by the culture of Catholic school. I was in denial and it was because of how I was being raised. When we got in trouble at Catholic school, the punishment was “JUG” — Justice Under God — which is the Catholic school moniker for detention. You could get JUG for anything from a dress code violation to being late for class to cheating on a Spanish quiz, which I’ll admit I did once.

I think that both the Catholic Church and the recovery community deserve a JUG or maybe more right about now.

Myth: If You Take Medication, You Are Not Sober

An official Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) pamphlet published in 2018 says:

“Some of us have had to cope with depressions that can be suicidal; schizophrenia that sometimes requires hospitalization; bipolar disorder, and other mental and biological illnesses. Also among us are diabetics, epileptics, members with heart trouble, cancer, allergies, hypertension, and many other serious physical conditions. Because of the difficulties that many alcoholics have with drugs, some members have taken the position that no one in AA should take any medication. While this position has undoubtedly prevented relapses for some, it has meant disaster for others.

On top of that, they feel guilty because they are convinced that ‘AA is against pills.’”

It goes on to discuss becoming readdicted to other drugs.

Despite this pamphlet, representing a mellowing of AA’s position, I have encountered many an AA follower who says the opposite — that prescription psychiatric drugs are not OK.

Adherents of AA who read “Alcoholics Anonymous,” a.k.a. “The Big Book,” are in my experience often statuary, set in stone, and slow to budge on new scientific discourse, thinking or their own dogma.

Since 1939, the Big Book has changed very little and it is sometimes supplemented by official AA pamphlets, but heaven forbid we change the textbook. It is only on its fourth edition since 1939. And people in AA believe it like it’s the Bible. It’s sacred and shouldn’t be touched.

What the Big Book Says 

“Experience suggests that while some prescribed medications may be safe for most non-alcoholics when taken according to a doctor’s instructions, it is possible that they may affect the alcoholic in a different way. It is often true that these substances create dependence as devastating as dependence on alcohol. It is well known that many sedatives have an action in the body similar to the action of alcohol. When these drugs are used without medical supervision, dependence can readily develop.”

Like church doctrine and dogma, Alcoholics Anonymous is seen as infallible. 

Toxic Masculinity

Women can’t be priests. Why the heck not? We should do away with celibacy and allow our priests to be married and have families.

The same “boys’ club” attitude exists in the world of recovery. When you graduate from rehab, there is something called aftercare. It’s a few weeks of group therapy and effectual insurance that you will not relapse.

At Hazelden Betty Ford, where I completed an intensive outpatient program (IOP), they separate the men from the women for aftercare. I feel more comfortable with a mixed group.

When I asked why the separation, my counselor said, “Well, we wouldn’t want to have a bunch of girls crying and complaining about their boyfriends, now would we?” It was a bridge too far. I immediately complained and transferred to a different aftercare facility, one without blatant sexism. 

We Can’t Talk About Our Feelings 

In my early sobriety, I tried to start a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous with a focus on mental health. I had my idea, I even had booked a time slot in a room at a rehab facility for a weekly meeting. When I arrived at the local service office of Alcoholics Anonymous, I was ushered into the back room to make my meeting official. As soon as the words “mental health” escaped my mouth, I was told I could not host a meeting of AA with a focus on mental health.

There are LGBTQIA+ meetings. There are men’s meetings and women’s meetings. There’s even a meeting focused on the arts in which a speaker brings a poem or a song or a painting for everyone to discuss as it relates to their recovery. So why can’t we talk about our feelings? My new meeting was dead on arrival. 

Here’s one of the problems: there is something called Dual Recovery Anonymous (DRA) that allows its members to speak freely about mental health in addition to their addiction. However, there is no funding for this entity — no way of spreading the word. 

I attended a DRA meeting regularly at Hazelden Betty Ford in my early sobriety. I only knew about it because I went to rehab upstairs. We were lucky if we had six people show up.

When it came time for new leadership at the meeting, I stepped up with grand ambitions to be the chair. I wanted my meeting to be listed in the AA directory and therefore, packed. I designed pretty-cool flyers on neon green paper, like punk flyers, and brought them to other meetings, but no one would allow me to distribute them because they were “not official AA business.” And hanging them on a bulletin board or two was all for naught because who looks at bulletin boards?

Even though AA literature has fair opinions on seeking psychiatric help, no one talks about it.

Dr. Bob says in the Big Book:

“We should never belittle a good doctor or psychiatrist. Their services are indispensable in treating a newcomer and in following his case afterward.”

I take medication for my bipolar disorder. While it is somewhat known that taking prescription medication is kosher in the program of Alcoholics Anonymous, what you hear on the ground is quite different. 

Some purists think you should not ingest any kind of foreign substance whatsoever if you claim to be sober. They may believe anxiety or depression are “character defects” which the Big Book teaches to eschew.

Do we believe in a program of empathy for the mentally ill or one of punishment? Do we embrace our members, or send them to JUG? While I still go to AA on occasion, I have major qualms about it.

This is also true of Catholicism. In the Jesuit tradition, we look at the big picture. In my experience, we are not single-issue abortion voters. Being pro-life means more than caring about the unborn. It’s about being pro-people. I was taught we must help the poor, the hungry, the ostracized, the sick, the stranger (or immigrant), the prisoner, etc. I’m not religious, but I do believe that Jesus wants peace on Earth. Peace is not exactly a word I would associate with some conservative Catholics and some Republicans.

And one of the central tenets of Catholicism is that we are all sinners. If homosexuality is a sin and so is abortion, then why are some sins OK while others are unforgivable?

We as an Alcoholics Anonymous community should be looking out for those of us who struggle with mood disorders in addition to addiction, especially since the two are often intertwined, as I write about in my memoir The Bipolar Addict. Whether the Catholic Church or AA, we all should be embracing that bigger picture. Until that happens, many like me will continue to take the salad bar approach — embrace the good, discard the bad, and push for real change.

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

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