AA's and Medication: Generalizations Can Be Dangerous

 Taken from AA GRAPEVINE September 1984)
The International Monthly Journal of Alcoholics Anonymous
with permission of editor.
by Nan D of NJ

AAs and Medication:

Generalizations Can Be Dangerous

AA is about alcohol and sobriety.  Yet when prescribed or over-the-counter medications might lead directly to a drink, they become
 a serious issue for many AAs.  What to do when the need to take, or refuse, medication arises?  How to Help others?  On these 
pages, two members do all that any AA can do: share their own experience with facing those questions and staying sober.

I HEARD SOME old-timers discussing Twelfth Step work.  One said, “It’s like pulling people out of a river and starting them back up on solid dry ground.  Then you pull the next one out.  Pretty soon you notice you’re pulling some of the same ones out of the river again.  Someone needs to look upstream to see what’s pushing them back into the drink.”

IT NEEDS to be said again and again: We are not doctors! When I crawled into rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous and surrendered to the 
First Step, I thought I was like everyone else--a ":garden-variety drunk." For the first year, it seemed that way. But during my second year,
I began to think, feel, and behave differently. My behavior became bizarre at times. I had no idea what was happening to me. I had alternating periods of feeling high and feeling low. I looked shaky and sometimes was perceived as being drunk by others.

I’m one of many whose second go at drowning followed prescribed medication after nine dry years.  Our AA literature reminds us that the chief thing we have to offer is our own personal experience, so I’d like to share some of mine.

                When I put down what I pray was my last drink, nine years ago, (Jan 1976) I still had ten months to go on three drugs for tuberculosis.  Winners in AA didn’t try to assure me that those particular drugs weren’t mood-changing  –believe me, they are.  Winners told me that I had to take the drugs to save my life and that the program would help me through it.  I needed a lot of meetings, often several a day.  When I staggered from the drug side effects, people at meetings kissed me more –just checking.  Or –until they understood –they called to tell my sponsors.  I appreciated that concern.

                Once drug-free I became comfortable with a few meetings a week, but I still attend whenever I have time.  I made lots of friends while going so often at first.

                Following the winners’ example, I learned to respectfully remind my doctors I’m a recovered alcoholic, and to say: “I’m just checking with you to see if I have something serious.  …Please don’t prescribe anything just for my symptoms. .. .A prescription for tincture of time is quite acceptable.”  My doctors learned to understand, but they are so busy that they need to be reminded at each visit.  I’m extra careful to tell them I won’t take antihistamines or decongestants unless they think my condition is serious enough that I can be admitted to a hospital and kept there two days after the last dose.

                I’m convinced that I picked up a drink after nine dry years because medication prescribed for my allergies changed my thinking.  It took me fourteen years after that to find AA and get sober.  Then I watched a sober daughter almost self-destruct without drinking following a prescription from an allergist who knew she was alcoholic.  Since then, she and I avoid all cold, cough, and sneezing remedies except salt water gargles or honey and lemon

I admire the sobriety of winners who feel all painkillers are dangerous for us.  They structure their diet, their rest, their attitude, and the risks they take in sports in order to avoid pain.  They don’t buy over-the-counter drugs, only vitamins.  When taking a prescription drug is unavoidable, they ask someone to keep it and give each dose to them.  They attend more meetings and make sure an AA friend is prepared to report stinkin’ thinkin'’ to their doctors.  I follow their example.

                Because I hear AA stories of slips after dental work and other occasions for local anesthesia, my sober tooth-filling sessions so far have been drug-free.  A little pain for a short time beats the way I’ve seen AA friends feel after shots or gas.  My sponsor says that after shots for dental work, she once sat in a meeting between her sponsor and her sober husband wondering, “How can I ditch these turkeys and get a drink?”  Generally, the attitude change seems to be more subtle than that, but it is still obvious to a well-prepared AA friend.

                I’ve seen AAs use holding hands and saying prayers and telling jokes to replace “anxiety” drugs before and after surgery.  I want that kind of care when I need it, and I will gladly help provide it for any of you.

                An AA friend of mine recently died ten years sober, from a fast-spreading cancer.  He needed and received supervised narcotic pain relief but wanted his mind and emotions as clear as possible.  He refused tranquilizers after one try, and he told me, “I never took pills, but I’d give that one a three-martini rating.  I didn’t relax –I flew all night.”

                Some treatment centers provide care for a short time following surgery.  Our daughter was grateful for three days in a center after she had four wisdom teeth removed.  Many AAs arrange to stay with a sponsor or have another AA “babysit” afterward.  They don’t just sit looking gloomy –they have lunch or go to a meeting or a movie.

                I found the whole problem so interesting that I spent some sober years getting a degree and a license in pharmacy.  At the college, I heard more lectures on drugs than medical schools have time for; but I heard and read very few cautions about drugs for recovered alcoholics, except for some warnings on narcotics and tranquilizers.  They college gave me course credit for collecting experiences with prescribed or over-the-counter drugs reported by sober AAs and professional treatment people.  I found AAs do have experience, strength, and hope to share with one another and with medical people who want to learn to treat us safely.  When enough of us report our experiences and those we hear about, the subject will reach the medical literature.

                I agree with earlier Grapevine writers that we must carefully warn one another of the dangers of sudden unsupervised withdrawal from any drug.  I also understand that a small percentage of alcoholics, in extreme cases when all else fails, must risk the side effects of mind-changing drugs and take them for a time or for life.  But let’s stop making dangerous generalizations from those two statements.  I get scared when I hear an AA righteously and emphatically tell a newcomer who has asked for advice: “Leave the drug decisions to the doctors” –when they’re talking about relief from some passing symptom or about diet pills.  Often, in that same meeting is a member who has been to hell and back on a slip after using that same drug.

                I plan to go on introducing anyone who asks me about medicine to winners who have “been there,” or to friends of those who didn’t make it back from slips.  I’m grateful to be alive and sober today because AAs do that for me.

            I need you all to keep reminding me that the AA program offers a way of life that beats any “pill for every ill” advertised on television.  If I really can’t sleep, I can use the hours profitably with the Big Book, the Grapevine, and telephone numbers.  Sobriety is our most treasured gift.  Let’s help one another keep it.