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NEWSWEEK: Recovering Alcoholics Taking Sides in Dispute Against a Washington D.C.-Area 'AA' Group

Former Members of Midtown Call it a Coercive, Cultlike Group; Were Cut Off From Friends, Asked To Do Menial Chores, Date Only Group MembersCurrent Members Say 'Midtown' Saved Their Lives; Say ...

April 29, 2007 -- !-- AddToAny BEGIN -->

NEW YORK, April 29 /PRNewswire/ -- After a few months at Midtown, one of the oldest and largest Alcoholics Anonymous groups in the Washington, D.C., area, 15-year-old May Clancy felt that something about the group was not right. The group's embrace began to feel like a chokehold. She tells Newsweek that the sponsor assigned to give her moral support and help keep her sober pressured her to cut off ties to anyone outside the group. Another member snatched her cell phone and deleted names in the directory. She says she was pressured to stop taking the medication a doctor had prescribed to manage her bipolar disorder: group members told her she couldn't be sober if she was taking any kind of drug. There was a hierarchy to the group. Younger members were sometimes expected to wash cars, clean houses and do other menial chores for more senior members, according to a report in the current issue of Newsweek.

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May tells Newsweek Reporter Nick Summers that she was especially uncomfortable with the emphasis on dating within the group and sex between members. She would listen as girls her age compared notes on the men in the group they had been encouraged to sleep with, some of whom were decades older. Her suspicions were confirmed when she left Midtown and began attending a different AA meeting. She was surprised-and relieved-to find that many of Midtown's common practices were exactly the opposite of what Alcoholics Anonymous literature teaches. By design, there are no "leaders" in AA groups who exert control over other members, AA doesn't expect members to ignore doctors' prescriptions and it doesn't tell them to turn their backs on friends and family.

As Summers reports in the May 7 issue of Newsweek (on newsstands Monday, April 30), May is one of hundreds of recovering alcoholics who are taking sides in a bitter, unprecedented dispute among Alcoholics Anonymous adherents that pits members of Midtown, who insist the organization has saved their lives and kept them sober, against angry former members, who charge it is a coercive, cultlike group that uses the trusted AA name to induce young alcoholics into a radical fringe movement that has little resemblance to traditional AA.

Many of the people involved in the dispute are recovering alcoholics and have been reluctant to go public with their allegations-both because it is a violation of AA's "anonymous" credo, and because they do not want it known that they are alcoholics, Summers reports. But in dozens of interviews with Newsweek, recovering alcoholics and mental-health professionals describe a group that exerts an unusual amount of control and sometimes seems to put the social desires of some members above the recovery of others.

Despite repeated requests for comment, no current Midtown members agreed to be interviewed on the record, citing AA's tradition of anonymity in the press and their belief that negative publicity scares on-the-fence alcoholics from getting the help they need. But those who spoke or e-mailed without giving their names for publication say that Midtown is a flourishing group that has saved their lives, and that those who criticize it resent their success, have scores to settle or are simply making it all up, Summers reports.

The group's practices have raised concerns among some recovery professionals. Jay Eubanks, who oversees the Gaithersburg, Md., branch of the Kolmac Clinic chain of intensive outpatient rehabs, says patients who come to him from Midtown often need "damage control" to unlearn what the group taught them. "They start isolating people, getting them away from any feedback other than their own... Only go to their meetings, only talk to people in their group. If you're seeing a therapist, stop seeing a therapist; if you're in treatment, stop going to treatment; if you're being medicated, stop seeing a doctor," he tells Newsweek.

Other recovery specialists are more conflicted. Beth Kane-Davidson, director of the addictions center at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, Md., tells Newsweek that the center stopped steering patients to Midtown during the last year. But, she adds, "the flip side is I know people in the group that have long-term sobriety and are doing great." For some recovering alcoholics, she says, "Midtown has been a real godsend. It's taken them in and structured their activities, and filled the void left because they're not using anymore. But where do you draw the line? Given that the line is so fine, we try to err on the safe side."

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SOURCE Newsweek

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