'No, I Didn't Join A Cult When I Got Sober'

This article first appeared on Addiction.com.

Shortly after I got sober, people in my life started saying they were worried — very worried — about me. Hands were wrung, questions were whispered, sidelong glances were leveled at me. What’s going on with Lisa? these looks seemed to say. What does she do at all those closed-door gatherings?

Their trepidation for me had nothing to do with my drinking or drugging, though. No, quite the opposite. My friends and family were concerned about the fact that I had started attending 12-step meetings.

“I’ve heard that AA is a cult,” various people told me. When I was still drinking, I would have said the same thing, despite having no evidence to support that statement. I couldn’t even tell you where I’d “heard” it. However, after spending five days in a locked-down detox facility, I found myself willing to listen at least to what the so-called “cult” people had to say. I did not want to go back to my old life of round-the-clock alcohol and cocaine use.

First Encounter with the “Cult”

At the first 12-step meeting I attended, I was wary but managed to raise my hand and introduce myself. Five or six women approached me after the meeting to say hello. One of them gave me a piece of paper with all of their names and phone numbers on it. They said I should call any of them any time if I wanted to grab coffee, go to another meeting or just talk. It wasn’t exactly a hard sell — more like a warm welcome.

So what was all the cult talk about? What is a cult, anyway? I checked the Oxford Dictionary, which gave three definitions for “cult.” This was the first one: “A system of religious veneration and devotion directed toward a particular figure or object.” I quickly learned that the religious part of 12-step programs is entirely up to the member. You can be as religious or as secular as you like. Lots of people, including me, find a Higher Power of their own choosing that helps them to stay sober, but I can’t liken this to religious devotion. There is no standard, prescribed “God” in 12-step meetings. Personally, I haven’t had a religious transformation. I still start thinking months in advance of ways I can get out of going to temple with my family on Rosh Hashanah. And that’s OK.

Here was the second definition in the dictionary: “A relatively small group of people having religious beliefs or practices regarded by others as strange or sinister.” I’ve already discussed that I wasn’t too worried about “religious beliefs,” so here I considered the word “practices” in a general sense. Since getting sober, my “practices” have included going from drinking vodka for breakfast to drinking coffee. My morning practices also changed from trying to save enough cocaine for later in the day to trying to quiet my mind with five minutes of meditation. In the evening, my practice of sitting on barstools with strangers changed to sitting in meetings with people who were living lives I respected. Not that strange, and definitely not sinister.

Here’s the third definition the Oxford Dictionary offered up for the word cult: “A misplaced or excessive admiration for a particular person or thing.” Some people point to the strict adherence to the words of Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob, AA’s founders, as the basis for calling AA a cult. But 12-step literature states that the only requirement for membership is “a desire to stop drinking.” Members don’t need to swallow every suggestion whole or express a devotion to the founders. In fact, the founders, knowing alcoholics’ and addicts’ penchant for defiance, encouraged people to try things their own way and if they found something better, to go that route. One of the best things I was told early on was “take what you need and leave the rest.” If I don’t like what I hear in any particular meeting, I can shrug it off and think instead about something helpful I might have heard. I’ve had personal trainers who placed more stringent requirements on me.

Despite all of this, I can see why the cult accusation might come up among those around me. Going to meetings, spending time with my sober crew and doing service for other alcoholics and addicts is a huge part of my life. Maybe others think that these are requirements of the “cult” — things only a brainwashed and vulnerable person would do.

But to me, these are the things that lifted me out of the gutter I was in and got me back on my feet when I thought that was impossible. Life has improved beyond recognition in the time I’ve participated in 12-step groups. It has nothing to do with being in a cult. It has everything to do with being able to make choices — choosing to go to a meeting, choosing to call a newcomer and, most of all, choosing not to pick up a drink — that help me stay sober one day at a time.

When I was using, my addiction dictated how I lived. My world was limited and I went where my addiction took me. (Hmmm, sounds a little like being in a cult…) But if I stay sober, my choices are endless. To me, that’s what freedom — the very opposite of cult membership — looks like.