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A Place for Potential Alcoholics?

AA's founders foresaw younger people coming to the rooms when they wrote about "potential alcoholics" in the First Step. So why do I still feel uncomfortable?

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By Hannah H. Hollister

06/25/13

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I hate telling my story at AA meetings. When asked to qualify I often demur. Though there are no rules in AA, saying no to service is frowned upon, and telling the tale of your alcoholism is an unspoken obligation of everyone with 90 or more days of sobriety. The directive is to share your “experience, strength, and hope,” in that order, and to tell “the truth.” The “experience” portion constitutes your life as an alcoholic, in all its grittiest, grimiest, most violent and colorful detail. A qualification, after all, is a recitation of the reasons you are qualified to sit in your seat.

Nothing that eye-popping happened to me. I was sent to rehab when I was 16 (outpatient, for pot), was kicked out of college (temporarily), had lots of risky sex (as do plenty of non-alcoholics), and was in a spectacular-looking car accident at a famous intersection (no one was injured, and one of the passengers exited the car and went directly across the street to get a falafel).

Your story just doesn’t sound complete without an overdose or drug dealer and sex combo.

There are many, many other details I could judiciously sprinkle throughout my story to make it sound full of action and gore—and it would all be “true”—but not the truth. I didn’t have a drug addiction, and in New York in 2013, your story just doesn’t sound complete without an overdose or drug dealer and sex combo. I didn’t even drink that much, as I, like my father and grandfather before me, have such a low tolerance that I often remembered nothing after my third drink. Most of my wreckage took the form of mental and psychic anguish. I had hangovers that left me suicidal, I hated myself so much I wished I were dead, and was completely dependent on others for emotional and financial support. I lost a few years and squandered some potential, and disappointed family and loved ones along the way, but I didn’t end up gnarled and toothless, or living under a bridge.

Yet how many meetings have I sat in where a fresh-faced young man or woman gets up and gives a blow-by-blow of potential alcoholism, dressed up like the rip-roaring real thing? And who can blame us? We are trying to convince you we belong just like you do, and we have been taught that the way to do this is to show you our battle scars. But I wince when someone’s crescendo of degradation is passing out in the wrong dorm room or forgetting to walk his dog. Listening to such innocent puffery leaves me feeling like a sucker.

But those who penned the first edition of the Big Book in 1939 saw this influx in the distance, and had no problem with it; they welcomed the possibility that thousands of heavy drinkers would not have to reach the depths they did before getting sober. They were as clear as day, writing, "To be gravely affected, one does not necessarily have to drink a long time nor take the quantities some of us have. This is particularly true of women. Potential female alcoholics often turn into the real thing and are gone beyond recall within a few years."

So why is the fact that so many AA members nowadays are “scarcely more than potential alcoholics” such a source of shame and repudiation?

In part it is because we recover under the fallacy that addiction is the great equalizer—that we are all alike under its narrow auspices. We are urged to “identify, not compare,” which is a superlative suggestion, but can become useless—or worse—when extended to its limit. Every alcoholic is not the same. For instance, some might be drawn to prostitution rather than thievery, or murder instead of suicide, and some people are assholes in and out of their cups—or gentle souls whether sotted or not. And perhaps one person can be less of an alcoholic than someone else. The new DSM defines addiction as a spectrum disorder, ranging from mild to severe. Within AA there have long been what are known as “high-bottom” and “low-bottom” cases—though not many alcoholics admit to being in the former category.

The Third Tradition states, “The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking.” According to this, drinking "less than you spilt" does not exclude me from membership. Am I really only complaining here about the rise of subtly inauthentic stories in AA? Hearing a good story is one of the things that keeps me coming back, year after year. The story that we hope to hear when we walk into an AA meeting is the foundation of the program, and indeed for many is their whole program.

There are thousands of people who slip into a meeting from time to time, or even every day, who choose not to incorporate the Steps into their lives, who are not interested in mixing with people with whom the one thing they share is the one thing they would rather not. But the stories that move me, and with which I identify, and which therefore keep me sober, are not necessarily the ones with the most bloodshed, but the ones that seem the most true.

I know I am not alone, or even rare, in knowing when I’m hearing bullshit, technically true bullshit or not. Alcoholics are probably better at nosing out emotional falsehoods than others, as we’ve been lying all our lives. I don’t buy that we’re smarter than the rest of the population, or have a greater capacity to earn money or make art, but we sure as hell know a lot about deceit.

Bill and Bob would have been surprised to learn that today one is more likely to take offense at being called a "lightweight," a "pantywaist," or indeed, not alcoholic, than the opposite. Most AAs would shimmy with outrage if congratulated for catching their addiction while it was still a seedling. I think smiles would freeze if, after a qualification, I raised my hand and said, “I really identify with you. I, too, never became a full-fledged alcoholic. Nothing terrible happened to me either, and the mildness of your story makes me feel like I really fit in here. Hell, your story’s even less eventful than mine—that hardly ever happens!”

There is a lot to an AA story besides the catastrophes, though there are those who would disagree, and these are the faction of men with double-digit sobriety I like to call the vampires. They want to suck the blood from your wounds, to feel that vulnerability they no longer can, and they will roll their eyes if you talk about your feelings and intone, all-knowing, that feelings are not facts. 

Actually, they are, and I have always thought that was a dumb slogan. The way I feel is a fact, and often much more true than what you think happened one night when you were drunk. Yes I know feelings are impermanent, and that is why they say they’re not facts. But so is your life, and you’re not dead yet—it’s a fact. Also, most people are more likely to relapse over feelings, so surely that is enough to warrant their inclusion in the discussion. Part of this emphasis on maximum carnage comes from the atmosphere of competition which is unavoidable in an old boys’ club, and so does the slogan about feelings and facts. AA is no longer exclusively comprised of straight white businessmen, but vestiges of that history linger about the church basements.

I am not suggesting people get up there and sniffle and knit and talk about how bad it felt when they ran out of zinfandel. If stories are comprised of "experience, strength, and hope," I have no problem with the "strength and hope" parts. What I am suggesting is to go ahead and tell the worst parts of your story—that’s what we want to hear—but maybe those real worst parts were the endless nights of thinking about ways to kill yourself, or seeing the shame and disappointment in your mother’s eyes when she had to bail you out of debt again, rather than the time you vomited on your girlfriend’s cousin’s carpet or spent all your money on blow and didn’t have enough cash to pay the taxi.

More feelings, and less facts, would be a little more true—and a lot more convincing—and help the greatest number of alcoholics. And isn't that is the whole point of recovery?

Hannah H. Hollister is a pseudonym for a regular contributor to The Fix. She last wrote about drug buddies.

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