Giving AA My All
I used the fact that I was "of service" elsewhere as an excuse to stay out of AA—until I was forced to help the person I'd always ignored: myself.
Service is one of those words, like acceptance, that’s imbued with that special AA double meaning. You can tell when it’s being used in the context of AA, because there's usually a split-second pause before it's intoned, as if to emphasize its importance. The first time I tried AA, the word scared the hell out of me. It also sort of annoyed me.
“Do we have any volunteers to bring a snack next week?" The chairperson would say, and then cock an eyebrow. "It's a great way to be of service.”
I’d watch, as someone’s hand would fly up, a see how it’s done flicker of a smile crossing his or her face, and the room would relax, secure in the knowledge that next week's snack is taken care of. Or sometimes, no hands would raise, and people would glance sideways at each other. The gears are turning in their heads: they didn’t want to have to trundle cookies from the organic food store around the corner, or stack chairs at the end of the meeting, or be the timekeeper. Service can be a drag. But they did want to stay sober, and they knew sobriety requires patience, sacrifice, and continually prioritizing the stuff you should do over the stuff you wanted to do.
I kept my hands firmly folded in my lap, gaze flicking to the clock or the window or the dirt-speckled linoleum floor. I worried about what would happen if I raised my hand, if that would open the floodgate to chairing meetings and working with sponsees and devoting hours to other people. I wasn’t sure how I could do that—at least not without drinking.
Growing up, I went to an elementary school where we held hands and said we are all related every morning and where we were required to pick up three pieces of trash before playing on the playground. My mother won the town civic award three years in a row; my father was the vice-president of the Kiwanis club. “Service” wasn’t a word, it was a way of life—there was always someone worse off than you, and it was up to you to help them out.
“You were trying to bid on stuff that was like, $20,000. Eventually, we had to tell the auctioneer to ignore you.”
In college, my main extracurricular was working on a peer counseling hotline. I was already borderline alcoholic and actively bulimic and often used the hotline office bathroom to purge, since only volunteers had access to the key and it was empty outside of the 10pm to 3am “business hours.” But when I was on shift, I was on. I showed up sober, I’d answer the phone, and I’d talk through problems that ranged from bad test grades to—in the most desperate cases—suicidal ideation. Those calls were rare—maybe one a semester—and most of the time, the calls dealt with the bumps in the road most college students experience: depression, family problems, breakups. I’d practice the active listening we’d learned in training, murmuring It’s understandable that you feel that way and I think it’s really great that you’re talking this through into the receiver. But when I hung up, I couldn’t help but compare myself to the anonymous voice on the other end—and always come to the conclusion that, despite the fact that I was the one they were calling to help, I was way worse off. I knew the right things to say, but that didn’t stop me from purging or getting blackout drunk. Meanwhile, they knew the right thing to do—ask for help, which was the one thing that eluded me.
A few years later, in my mid-twenties, my alcoholism—full of binges and blackouts and waking up in strange beds—was out of control. But I was still trying to hold it together through helping. I’d donate blood whenever I could, and I’d donate money to any cause. I was the one friends called after 2 am fights with boyfriends. The weekend after my mom passed away, I spent an entire Saturday helping teenagers with SAT prep. I thought keeping my focus on others was keeping me sane. Deep down, I knew my need to give, all the time, no matter what, was keeping me sick.
If someone asked for something that I felt crossed the line—like a former roommate who wanted to stay at my apartment for a week—I’d do it, then reward myself with drinks. It wasn’t honest and it wasn’t healthy, but I wasn’t sure how to fix it. In fact, that was one of the excuses I used for staying out of AA for so long.
“I just feel I need to learn to create better boundaries first,” I’d explain to the countless therapists who suggested I try a meeting. “I’m already surrounded by needy people in my everyday life. The last thing I need is more.” I imagined AA members telling me their stories, calling me, making me a part of their problem—and me feeling powerless to say no.
“Maybe you can be the one to actually get help,” one therapist said.
While circumstances a few weeks after that conversation made it clear to me I needed to quit drinking, I was aloof in AA. I slipped out before the meetings ended and never got around to finding a sponsor. I was worried that would be one step closer towards actually investing, towards being expected to give back. It was easier to just give up.
Until one time, about seven months after my last try at AA, I gave too much—literally. Instead of a sticky-dive bar or a back alley, I hit the bottom that led me back to the rooms at a swanky benefit dinner and auction for the American Cancer Society. I drank at least six drinks and popped a few Adderall at the cocktail hour, blacked out by dinner, and found out the next morning I’d bid on—and won—an $800 hand-blown glass serving platter.
At least it was under $1,000, I thought as I gave the volunteer who’d called to inform me the news my credit card information. But it wasn’t exactly loose change. I already had credit card debt. I tried to avoid overspending. Yeah, it was for a good cause...but it wasn’t how I’d have donated if I’d been sober.
I called another guest from the event, trying to make it seem like I’d known what I was doing the whole time. She saw right through it.
“Do you know how lucky you are?” she asked. “You were trying to bid on stuff that was like, $20,000. Eventually, we had to tell the auctioneer to ignore you.”
I needed help. And I’m learning—slowly—to accept it. I have a sponsor. I call people to let them know I’m having a tough time. I’m remembering that nursery school saying that we’re all connected, that asking for help helps other people...and that stacking chairs or keeping time at a meeting isn’t the gateway into reckless giving that I feared it was.