AA and Me
The longer I’m in AA, the more it tends to annoy me. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to be there. Can’t I be a member without being a zealot?
This is what no one tells you in the beginning: the longer you stay sober, the harder it gets to stay in AA.
I don’t mean that it gets harder to stay clean. That, in fact, gets exponentially easier. What gets tough is actually being a member of Alcoholics Anonymous.
The true genius of AA is, in my opinion, twofold. First of all, there are the steps. I think it’s safe to agree that they are pretty much a surefire path to a calmer mind, a happier life, and a reduced desire to drink Popov out of Big Gulp cup until you fall asleep on someone’s couch and wake up with a stranger unbuttoning your shirt.
The second miracle of AA is the following line in the Big Book: “The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking.” It doesn’t matter if I think AA is creepy (which I do), corny (duh), and culty (only sometimes, but don’t get me started on the Pacific Group). The only criterion for joining is that I have to want to stop getting trashed. And, as the girl who used to drink Popov out of Big Gulp cups, I most emphatically want to never get trashed again.
The 12 steps are miraculous when it comes to relieving alcoholism, but they’re about as effective as the magnetic bracelets in the SkyMall catalogue when it comes to treating other diseases.
When I first got sober 10 years ago, as a teenager, I believed everything I heard in meetings. I was desperate for anything that might make me feel better. I listened carefully when people told me that my only options were to work the steps or to end up dead, in jail, or institutionalized. Ever the obedient student, within my first year, I got a sponsor, worked all the steps, and picked up two sponsees. I went to meetings every night, moving in a herd of similarly desperate newcomer teenagers. I positioned myself in the dead center of the program. I didn’t even know that it was an option to disagree with things I heard in meetings. I was so scared of relapsing that everything I heard got filed into two categories: cautionary tales of falling off the wagon, and inspirational stories of success and sobriety, against all odds. It wasn’t until I grew up a little bit and settled into sobriety that I started to hear what people were actually saying. As it turned out, a lot of what I heard was pretty absurd.
I began to notice people saying things like, “Alcoholics are the smartest, most creative people in the world.” Really, AA? I’ve been a lot of places in my life, and I’ll tell you that the smartest, most creative people I’ve ever met were, for the most part, people I met in college, graduate school, or my professional life. That’s when the first real fissures in my perception of the program started to show up; I was realizing that I had been told a story about myself, about my disease and recovery, that wasn’t necessarily true.
Allow me to clarify one thing, because if you’re reading this, you’re probably thinking, But I really am one of the smartest and most creative people in the world! Why is she trying to take that away from me? I’m sure you are quite clever. There are surely geniuses in every community, AA included. But we alcoholics certainly don’t have a lock on artistic brilliance or spiritual wisdom, contrary to what you’ll hear people say. The only thing we have a real lock on is being assholes when we’re loaded.
If you stay sober long enough, AA will start to rankle. Think of it like a seven-year itch. The problem is, you’ve been such a good member for so long that you’ll think the problem is with you. You’ll ask yourself, Why am I so judgmental? Why do I resent these people? What’s my part in this mess?
You’ll go home, light a candle in your meditation corner, and decide that you must be fundamentally unfixable, because despite all the inventories and step studies and diligent readings of A New Pair of Glasses, you will find that you simply cannot sit through another meeting without rolling your eyes.
I am here to tell you: it’s not you, though; it’s AA.
Something you’ll also notice: a lot of the time, so-called gratitude is just a jaunty hat thrown over the ugly face of smugness. Let’s get real—I’m smug as fuck, so I’m pretty good at spotting it in other people. But I don’t pretend it’s gratitude. I don’t feel “grateful” for my sobriety. I’m grateful that my parents were supportive of my recovery and could afford to send me to rehab. I’m grateful that I live in a country where women aren’t stoned to death for having the audacity to operate motor vehicles.
But am I grateful for my sobriety? No. I’m not grateful for that. I earned that shit with the thousands of meetings I’ve sat through, and the thousands of pages of fourth steps and eighth steps I’ve read and written. Gratitude, I think, is for things that came to you by chance, or luck. The past 10 years have absolutely nothing to do with luck.
Part of what the Big Book asks me to do is to admit that I’m an alcoholic. Fine. That’s easy. I blacked out every time I drank, got arrested and charged with a felony at 15, nearly flunked out of high school, and inflicted a ton of pain onto my family and friends, all before I got sober at 17. But you know what? Alcoholism is, despite what AA would have me believe, not central to my identity. Sure, alcoholism is a part of me, but so are a lot of other things. I’m a writer, a daughter, a Jew, a sister, an artist, a friend, a Democrat, an atheist, a baker. With the exception of being a daughter and a sister, I chose all of those things, unlike alcoholism, which I believe I was born with. And unlike a lot of my fellows, I have no desire to be defined by one unfortunate kink in my DNA.
So, when I lie in bed with my laptop scorching my thighs until four in the morning, searching the Internet for pictures of baby animals and botched celebrity plastic surgeries, I’m not using the Internet “alcoholically.” If I check my phone constantly for texts from a certain boy, I’m not behaving “alcoholically.” If I go to the gym every single day, I’m not exercising “alcoholically.” There is only one thing I have ever done “alcoholically,” and that is drink. Alcoholism and addiction are absolutely not lenses through which to view my humanity. It’s reductive and silly to explain away all of my frailties by deeming them “alcoholic.” As far as I’m concerned, that’s an excuse, and a flimsy one at that.
Want to know why I watched nine episodes of Breaking Bad in a row last weekend? Because I was bored and it was cold and Breaking Bad is really, really entertaining. It was not because I’m an alcoholic.
Alcoholics Anonymous is not the solution to every problem I have, despite what the Big Book and my fellows might say. I’m not a doctor, but I can tell you that “praying for it to be removed” is definitely not going to cure anyone of mental illness. The 12 steps are miraculous when it comes to relieving alcoholism, but they’re about as effective as the magnetic bracelets in the SkyMall catalogue when it comes to treating other diseases. There is no magic bullet.