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Memorial Daze

I appreciate that this guy died as a result of alcoholism, but only at an AA memorial do people harp on WHY the person died.

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What are we memorializing again? Shutterstock

By Amy Dresner

01/17/14

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Despite my twenty plus years in and out of the program, I have not been to many memorials. I’ve been fortuitous that the people with whom I have been close throughout the years are still alive, despite sometimes doing their damndest to kill themselves.

Recently, however, I did go to a memorial. The deceased and I had been in treatment together. He died, as more than one speaker at the event mentioned, “struggling to get this thing.” This occasion was for his LA friends and constituents, organized primarily by his regular men’s stag meeting.  

A few months earlier, I had been to another service for another person with whom I’d also been in treatment. This person also died of this disease but the gist of his service was a celebration of his young life and his generous loving spirit. I expected this memorial to be the same but was sadly mistaken.

Because once you get up on your soapbox and say “THIS IS THE WAY” you are just as bad as any creepy fundamentalist religious group.

I get that this was an “AA” memorial but did the entire focus have to be on this kid’s refusal to accept that he couldn’t drink like a normal person? One of his good friends even read an excerpt from the Big Book which alludes to the alcoholic’s “great obsession to control and enjoy his drinking.” To that effect, he (and I and many people I know) have tried pills, therapy, hypnosis and other forms of drinking management. But somehow all these alternative methods were seen as his inability to accept the true nature of his alcoholism. If these other methods didn’t work for SOME people, they would not still be around. My main problem with AA is that if you “can’t get it,” you’re not doing it right. This is a very convenient and circular argument. AA is NOT the only way to get sober and I wish more program people would remember that. Because once you get up on your soapbox and say “THIS IS THE WAY” you are just as bad as any creepy fundamentalist religious group.  As Nietzsche said, “You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.” 

I appreciate that this guy died as a result of alcoholism, but at no other memorial do people harp on WHY the person died. Imagine if they did. Here’s a  similar service for  a person who died of lung cancer: “Well, he tried hypnosis and Chantix and the patch, but fuck man, he just could NOT QUIT SMOKING.” Or AIDS. “I warned him to use protection and stay out of those bath houses and get off Grindr and not share needles, but he wouldn’t listen. He loved to fuck.” That would be atrocious and in very bad taste. And I feel the same way about this.

Can somebody NOT be either “an active addict” or “an addict in recovery” even in their death? I find that duality in AA extremely offensive and marginalizing.

And while they trotted out his myriad of sponsors in his many different 12-step programs, many mentioned that he “didn’t want to do the work” and especially how “he couldn’t be honest.” It felt very shaming. Aren’t there people who, according to the Big Book, are “constitutionally incapable of being honest,” and “it’s not their fault, they were born this way?" Maybe he was one of them. I am a true believer that everybody does the best they can at the time with the tools they have. Period. So, on the one hand, alcoholism and addiction are these terrible fatal disease that people have compassion about, but on the other, my friend couldn’t get honest and do the work so he died. And is somebody’s memorial—that is being FILMED for his parents—the best place to take his inventory about how he worked his program? If you want to process your anger and grief, do it with a group of people who knew him, not on tape for his Bible Belt parents. I feel his memorial should have been about what he did right in his life: his enthusiasm, how alive he was, his passion, his humor, his wit, etc. Can somebody NOT be either “an active addict” or “an addict in recovery” even in their death? I find that duality in AA extremely offensive and marginalizing.

The kicker for me was when one friend said he was “glad it wasn’t him.” I agree that alcoholism is a war, a battle, but I have never heard of anybody coming back from Afghanistan after watching their buddy be blown to smithereens and saying, “Better him than me.” If anything, they have survivor guilt. And that is what I felt at this memorial: guilty, sad and confused. I am a decade older than this guy, in much worse physical condition and I shot coke with epilepsy and I am still here to terrorize you all. Why? We will never know.

And I have news for his “friend"—

Just because you’re sober today, doesn’t mean you’ll be sober tomorrow, next week, next month, next year. You too could soon be 6 feet underground so careful before you get all “holier than thou” and “blessed” that you “got it.”  What you have—what all addicts have—is a daily reprieve.

I believe the program is different for different people. Some people find it easy. For others, it is a daily exhausting slog. Some people have a “pink cloud.” Others are miserable for the first five years. Your experience of the program is YOUR experience. And YOUR alcoholism is YOUR alcoholism. I am convinced that some people have much worse alcoholism or addiction than other people. If it’s a disease, there are variations, just like cancer. Maybe this guy had stage 4 terminal alcoholism. (Honestly, he was one of the worst process addicts and alcoholics I’ve ever seen, and was also saddled with a hefty dose of mental illness).

And to insinuate that he should have been able to get the program as easily or gracefully—or at all—as somebody who has say stage 0 or 1 localized alcoholism is pompous, ignorant and myopic.

We are all more than just our addictions. And I comprehend that it is important to remind yourself daily that you are an “addict” so that you don’t fall prey to the illusory idea that you might be able to drink or use like a normal person. But at least at our memorials can’t we just be brilliant vibrant souls, and not some poor stubborn jerks who failed at the 12 step regime?

Amy Dresner is a columnist at The Fix and a comedian. She last wrote about a moderate take on moderation, and recently completed her community service.

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