Why I Need Two Programs
I got sober but still had problems with everyone in my life. As it turns out, people were my first—and last—drug.
I was sober for three years when my AA sponsor told me she thought it would be a good idea for me to check out a few Alanon meetings. I laughed into the phone.
“You’re kidding right?” I said, confident that she was. Then there was a long awkward pause during which my whole life began to change.
I thought Alanon was for people who weren’t alcoholics. But she insisted. “This is about emotional sobriety,” she said. All the problems I called her about were what she called my “Alanon” issues. By this point, alcohol and drugs had become a minor issue but I still had major drama. I had trouble with my co-workers. I had trouble with my boss. I had trouble with my dates. I had trouble with my family. I had trouble with my friends. There was not a single relationship in my life that was not fraught with difficulty. My sponsor pointed out that the common denominator was me. “Alanon is about relationships,” she told me. “It’s about our powerlessness over people places and things.” But I resisted Alanon the same way I’d initially resisted AA—until the pain of living with the problem was more than the pain of giving it up. I still had some suffering to do.
I had no boundaries. I said yes when I wanted to say no because I was afraid of not being liked. She thought what I needed was to practice some detachment. I thought what she needed was to get the stick out of her ass.
After three years of sobriety, I still screamed and gave people the finger on the freeway even though, before sobriety, I had been paralyzed in a car accident (luckily, doctors were able to rebuild my spine and I can walk today). After all I’d been through, I always felt ashamed after one of these outbursts but I couldn’t seem to cut it out. I told a guy I really liked on our third date that I wasn’t ready to sleep with him yet but then slept with him the next night. When he quit calling me, I was devastated. And I had a screaming, crying fight with the office manager at work in plain view of my boss and the rest of the staff. When I told my sponsor about these things, she said, “When it’s hysterical, it’s historical.” I was reacting, my sponsor suggested, to people here and now with emotions that had been stuffed away when I was drinking and using. I had no boundaries. I said yes when I wanted to say no because I was afraid of not being liked. She thought what I needed was to practice some detachment. I thought what she needed was to get the stick out of her ass. It was about progress not perfection, right?
“Do you want to get by or do you want to get better?” she asked.
“Fuck you,” I responded. In my head, anyway. And then I went to my first Alanon meeting.
At first, I felt defensive. I felt like I was in the wrong room and everyone was talking about me when they mentioned their “qualifiers.” I sneered at their lingo. I found them smug and trite and pussified. Also the boys were not nearly as cute. I sat there with my arms crossed for months before I began to understand the Alanon principles. And my recovery happened much the way it did in AA: I heard the readings and slogans so many times that eventually I’d find myself using them in conversations. Sometimes I even behaved differently.
One Christmas holiday, I was visiting my father in the Bay Area. We were on our way to see a movie but had some time to kill. As we strolled around the shopping area surrounding the movie theater, I noticed a Supercuts. He’d been talking about how he wanted to get his hair cut and how he just wished he could find one of those Supercuts places. I pointed it out and we walked in to inquire about a haircut for him.
As we sat side by side on a bench inside the salon waiting for the stylist, my father leaned over and half-whispered, “Can you help me?”
“Well, I don’t want her to cut too much,” He gripped his ponytail with one hand.
“Okay,” I said. “How much do you want to cut?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well, this much is an inch,” I said, holding out my hand with my forefinger bent at the first knuckle of my thumb.
“I know how much an inch is.” He was glaring at me now.
“Well, there’s no need to get all salty about it,” he said, raising his voice.
My father was a rager when I was growing up. He once broke his foot kicking the car because of some fight we’d gotten into. It had terrorized me as a child. But I wasn’t a child any longer.
I put my hand gently on his hand. Very softly I said, “Daddy, I’m going to walk across the way to that coffee shop and get a cup of tea and when I come back maybe we can try again.”
And I got up and walked out the door. I crossed the walkway to the coffee shop, bought a cup of tea, prayed, and when I felt safe enough, I went back into the Supercuts. My dad was still sitting on the bench waiting. He didn’t say anything when I walked in. I sat down beside him. The stylist came over and said she was ready for him and he went and sat in the chair where he told her what he wanted done with his hair. I did not interfere or give any unsolicited advice. I had learned in Alanon that we don’t do for others what they can do for themselves. He would ask for help if he needed it, I told myself. When his hair was cut, we left and went to our movie. I did not need to bring it up again. And neither did he. I had done that Alanon thing—“Say what you mean, mean what you say, but don’t say it mean.” I had set a boundary with my father. I had taken care of myself. And I had done it without getting hysterical. And when it was done, I left it alone.
As time went on and I worked the steps in Alanon, I gained facility with more and more of the tools it offered. When someone’s behavior bothered me—a driver acting stupid on the road, my mother gossiping in our weekly phone call, a boy not behaving on a date as I might have wished he had—I applied one of the three C’s: I didn’t cause it, I couldn’t cure it, and I couldn’t control it. It was true not only of the behavior of alcoholics and their drinking, or even of just a few important people in my life—it was true of all people all the time. In Alanon, I realized that my problem was that I wanted to control others and make them act the way I thought they should. I wanted to use them like a drug to make me feel good and comfortable. And it turns out they weren’t as reliable or easy to manipulate as any of my former drugs of choice. Besides, just like with all of those other drugs, my old coping mechanisms had stopped working the way they used to.
Eventually I began to sponsor more and more in AA. I found that the tools I learned in Alanon were particularly useful in dealing with my sponsees. Because I could detach, I didn’t have to buy into their dating or work or family drama and I could help them through a situation without it sucking the life out of me. And I know from my own experience what it means to make the choice not only to be sober, but also to be happy, joyous and free. Of course, now I tell all my sponsees to check out Alanon. And I smile while they are silent on the other end of the line, knowing that while they may be mouthing the words “Fuck you,” at the moment, one day they may well thank me.
Dufflyn Lammers is an actor and writer living in Los Angeles. She's currently writing her first book, a memoir.