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A “Strong Suggestion” Killed my Friend

There are so many reasons 12-step sponsorship does not come with a medical degree. Sometimes well-intentioned suggestions kill people.

The stigma associated with mental illness is a terrific one.

I have struggled with depression and anxiety most of my life. I have battled both anorexia and bulimia and participated in other self-injurious behaviors over the years…even in sobriety. It wasn’t until I got sober that I was given proper diagnoses, mainly because I was “self-medicating.”

Many of us have what the professionals will call a “dual diagnosis,” meaning that we have both a mental illness and substance abuse issues.

I have met many people over the years that have similar stories to mine, and others that suffer with much more serious afflictions.

Years ago I had a friend named Paul that had a psychotic disorder. When he got sober he did so with the help of a 12-step program. He struggled for a bit, but eventually found a routine that suited him and weeks turned into months.

He found a sponsor and jumped into action with both feet to make the changes necessary to recover from his alcoholism. He seemed to be doing well for quite a while.

One day I saw Paul at our favorite coffee shop and he didn’t look like himself. He was pale and appeared frazzled. His eyes were not as bright as they had been the last time I had seen him. I sat with him a while in hopes that he would feel comfortable telling me what was going on.

Paul told me that his sponsor had suggested that he was not completely sober. This confused me because he had just weeks before showed me his six-month chip, celebrating “half a cake!!” He told me of his sponsor’s concern regarding his choice to take medication for his mental illness. He told me he was taking himself off of them because he wanted to be “totally sober”. He did not want to depend on any kind of substance and was sure that with all he had learned about himself, he would be okay.

He was dead within a year.

He was sober when he died, but the voices got the better of him.

I tell this story in hopes that people will understand the dangers of giving out medical advice without a medical license. I also hope that those who do suffer or live with mental illness understand that whatever medication choices they make with the guidance of a physician do not have to be discussed outside of that relationship.

If you wish to discontinue a medication, please discuss it with your doctor and do so only under his or her supervision. 

We all have the desire to be accepted, no matter what route we choose to recovery. Mental illness is not a game. It is not a choice or a switch that can be turned on and off at will.

I beg of you to be careful with your words and your judgment of people who may have problems that you do not understand.

We are given the opportunity to offer our experiences to others that may identify, and grow with the knowledge that they are not alone in their fight. We can give support even if we don’t have experience to offer.

It’s okay to say, “I don’t know what that is like, but I can surely put you in touch with someone that can help.”

There are many resources available and stories like Paul’s don’t have to end in tragedy.

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental illness, please educate yourself with the facts and find support. Please visit our Resource Page, or send an email if you don’t see what you’re looking for.

Please don’t give up. As long as we are breathing, there is hope.

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    1. It is awful, but I don’t necessarily blame the sponsor. There is often much misrepresented information that rolls down in self-help programs. Plus, there is a lot of ignorance surrounding mental illness in our society and not enough people asking questions and gaining knowledge before offering “advice.”

      1. Whatever misinformation is rolling down everyone with any common sense knows not to tell someone they shouldnt be on their psych meds.

  1. What a really sad story. It absolutely breaks my heart. The sponsor did not know what they were doing because the literature of the 12 step program clearly states that they are not psychiatrists or doctors and if that avenue is needed it must be pursued. About a year ago, I was about 2 yrs sober I decided without consulting anyone that I wanted to be a 100% sober and cease taking my anti depressants. I almost lost the plot. I was advised by my sponsor and many in the program that I needed to get on my pills ASAP and that depression is not a weakness but an illness. I have mental issues and I am a recovering alcoholic. These two diseases have different treatments. You cannot treat the one at the expense of the other.

    1. Absolutely, Elle!! I’m so glad that your sponsor and friends were understanding and supported you!! Thank you so much for sharing your story here! I know that this unfortunate tragedy was not the fault of the 12-step program OR the sponsor. It was due to passed down misinformation and ignorance. It is okay to question and challenge a suggestion and its reasoning, no matter where it comes from.

      I’m so glad you’re here. XOXO

  2. Am in recovery to and 12 streps work and going to meeting everyday doing inventory and helping other god first then my recovery second am 2 years clean

  3. I had a similar situation. I am no longer part of AA partly because of it. My sponsor said she would not work with me because of the medication I was taking. So she no longer answered my calls. I am now following the rational recovery program SMART. That is awful about your friend Paul, Julie. I am pained by stories like this.

  4. Sad that a misinformed sponsor created such a needlessly tragic situation. AA does have a position on medication and members of the Fellowship… medication is matter for doctor and patient… it is an outside issue for the fellowship. Those that wish to learn more can open the following link on the subject.

  5. I have also suffered with mental health issues more than half my life. I have come to realize that a lot of with our sanity.Always wanting to switch out meds when they’re working. I have gotten very pro active in my mental health care.

  6. This is all too common and a huge part of why I dont recommend 12 step programs. This “not sober enough” stigmatization happens with both psychiatric medications and medication assisted treatrments for substance abuse disorder such as naltrexone or buprenorphine which have clinically proven success rates that dangerous 12 step programs do NOT. I cannot count the times I have heard someone in AA/NA tell me that their sponsor said all they needed was the steps, and that their DOCTOR PRESCRIBED medications were a hindrance to their sobriety. AA and NAs offices are well aware and use the autonomy of groups as an excuse not to address this. It’s unacceptable and dangerous. Dual diagnosis pationts are particularly at risk. This garbage has to stop!!!

  7. Unfortunately though @sobermommies this tragic story is far too common in 12 step groups. Thanks for telling it but don’t feel like you can’t place blame where due. If none of the fault lies with the sponsor or the program of AA – where does it lie? Judgement of others is sometimes necessary otherwise how can things change? Who will be there to point out the wrongdoing if no one is willing to point a finger when a finger needs to be pointed? XA is at least partly to blame here and has a responsibility to change its culture so this kind of tragedy can stop happening. People die from this kind of sh*t we have to stop worrying about not being polite or “spiritual” enough and f*cking do something about it.

  8. AA is an incredibly dangerous organisation. I left after seeing awful abuse afforded to vulnerable people by over bearing co dependent sponsors who knew best.

    In one year I went to 5 funerals of people who all committed suicide, and I believe AA had a direct part to play in each.

    I saw so many leave and blamed for their own downfalls.

    I also knew of people abused sexually, emotionally and one man robbed of his life takings by his sponsor.

    I reported concerns to AA but they just didnt care.

    I also lost a friend, Juliette, who’s sponsor, like the one in this story, told her she wasnt really sober as she was also on medication for a life long mental health illness.

    She jumped under a train 6 weeks later!

    I despise this awful fellowship who’s success rate is so very low.

    I dispise the hold it has in the field of treatment but thankfully its slowly dying out as most organised religions are doing so.

    I help run a face book group called Leaving AA and other 12 step fellowships so if you are stuck, want to leave, or have been abused in any 12 step fellowship, your most welcome to join

  9. There are WAY to many incidents of this. These rooms are dangerous.

    1. There is a lack of credibility in the rants above. AA works and no one that I know would ever suggest that anyone should quit taking meds that are prescribed and not being abused.

  10. LifeRing defines sobriety as abstinence from all non-medically indicated drugs, including alcohol.

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