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90 Sponsors in 90 Days

By Kate Elliot 05/03/17

I was in the middle of two women whom I knew could save my life – one telling me to go on medication, the other saying that she’d leave me if I did.

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Bottles on windowsill cast shadow
Recovery necessitates different programs, medications, and especially people

When I came into the rooms, I could have been a 12-step junkie. There wasn’t a room I didn’t belong in. My dad was in AA, so my first foray into anonymous waters was a dip into Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOA) when I was in college. In those days (1986), it was a maelstrom of messed up kids from messed up homes. Walking into the meeting every Wednesday night, was like entering a mecca of resentment. I never worked the 12 steps of recovery or got a sponsor. All I recall is wanting to hook up with the sickest guy in the room, a pattern that took years of recovery to undo.

Despite graduating phi beta kappa, and getting all kinds of awards, my first job out of college was a cocktail waitress at the Yellow Kittens on Block Island (not a new career choice). I had been cocktail waitressing for years. Since both The New Yorker and Ms. Magazine did not hire me out of college, it was proof I was worthless. By the time Autumn came, all that was left on Block Island were me, the town drunks, and a gaggle of witches. To make ends meet during the off season, I was a bait girl for a lobster boat handling maggot-ridden fish in barrels with the town drunk. Since there was no ACOA, I migrated over to Al-Anon to hang with the Wiccans. Summer solstice celebrations with these women were my jam. We’d take spiritual pilgrimages to Mohegan Bluffs, swaddle our bodies with mud from the cliffs, frolic in the waves under the full moon, and get drunk off Mother Nature. Alas, as the days got darker, so did my mood, so I did a geographic. I moved into an apartment with a bunch of strangers above one of the seediest bars in Brooklyn. It was an all new low to find coke dealers sleeping in our bathtub from the bar as I was getting ready for work.

I continued to attend Al-Anon but was noncommittal. I was going to a ton of gay meetings in the West Village. My first sponsor, Ellen, was an older (32), butch lite, film producer who lived in Chelsea. She had her own apartment and would invite me for tea and step work. I was in awe of her. I couldn’t imagine having my own apartment (in Manhattan nonetheless), or anything Ellen had, from sobriety to serenity. Ellen was a double winner (also in Alcoholics Anonymous), and I was a train wreck who couldn’t cross the street without wishing a car would run me over.

Mom was a social worker so the answer to all of our problems was always therapy. I could to a tour of the Tri-state area of all the shrinks and therapists I have seen since I was in elementary school. We all got to know our crazy intimately as we drank, drugged, and drowned in our addictions. When my therapist du jour insisted I go to AA, at age 26, Ellen joined the choir. Others had suggested I “try” AA but I could not connect the dots. I had 99 problems (food, money, love, sex, etc) but alcohol was not one of them.

I went to my first AA meeting on May 11, 1994. It was High Noon on Sunday at the Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Center in the West Village. When they asked for day counters, my response was always the same: “Hi, I’m Jessica, I haven’t had a drink in _____ days, and I want to kill myself.” Suicidal thoughts plagued me for as long as I could remember, and putting down the drink made these thoughts incessant.

I glommed onto Ellen and AA like the dying seizes a life preserver. I was working 50-60 hours a week as a community organizer and still managed to go to three meetings a day (morning, noon and night). Meetings were a lifeline. For the first time, I didn’t have to pretend I was “normal” or ok. I could be completely myself, (completely broken). Being around addicts was indescribably comforting.

But it wasn’t enough.

On day 35, I walked into my psychiatrist’s office, ready to check into a mental hospital. Relentless voices that told me to take my life, I was clearly in danger to myself and others. It was 1994, when Prozac and other happy pills began to come onto the market. I was willing to go to any length (three meetings a day, four times a week with the shrink, a weekly eating disorder group) but flat out refused pharmaceuticals for years. “So you think you you’re going to go to a mental hospital and not go on medication?” inquired my patient shrink. That’s exactly what I thought. I was like Humpty Dumpty. I wanted so desperately to be put back together again. If I was locked up, I could surround myself with mental health professionals and let my suicidal hair down. I never imagined I would have to go on medication!

…just like I never imagined I could be an alcoholic.

It took years in AA for me to understand that I was powerless over alcohol. Since I self-medicated with booze, it was really hard to connect the dots. Once alcohol was in my system, my fear, anxiety, and self-hate melted away. My tolerance was so high by the time I was 14, I could only drink straight liquor on an empty stomach to get drunk.

Like many people in the rooms at that time, taking medication was frowned upon. Ellen told me straight out that she’d drop me as a sponsee if I went on an anti-depressant. All the while, my shrink insisted that I needed medication. She knew my genetic pool was working against me -- 80% of my family are bipolar manic depressives and alcoholics.

I had no idea what to do. I was in the middle of two women whom I knew could save my life – one telling me to go on medication, the other that saying she’d leave me if I did. My pipe dream of checking into a mental hospital was shot down, so my psychiatrist wrote me a script for Zoloft, and sent me on my way. I went straight to Ellen’s apartment and got down on my knees. I was desperate to stop the noises in my head telling me to kill myself and was sure I could convince her to keep me as a sponsee. But Ellen wouldn’t budge. The next night, I got the prescription. I was overwhelmed with the fear as I swallowed the tiniest dose of Zoloft.

In just a few short days, the suicide ideation began to melt away. I couldn’t believe it. I kept thinking, “This must be what a normal person feels like.” It was such a relief. I never imagined that my brain could be free of depression. Of course, I still had alcoholism and a plethora of problems so there was no way in hell I was leaving AA. I kept saying that “if I get nothing more out of AA, being free of suicidal thoughts is all I need to be grateful.”

I continued to raise my hand in meetings, in search of a new sponsor. I was matched up with countless women – from big book thumpers at the Atlantic Group to loose garment gals from Perry Street. So many women, that I lost count. It felt like I had 90 sponsors in 90 days.

Then I met Julie M.

After hearing me share about my dilemma(s), Julie walked up to me and asked for my number. It was at Nightlight Beginners on the upper west side. She was clearly unafraid. The fact that I was outright mentally ill did not scare her at all. She called me at home that night. All I recall is that she quoted the big book and said “we are not doctors.” That was the beginning of my recovery.

She taught me that if I took less actions, a group of drunks (my version of God), could solve all of my problems – from self-doubt to depression. I have 22 years of sobriety today as a result.

Since I am sober, properly medicated, work the steps, do service, and go to meetings, I am happy, joyous and free (a promise of recovery), as are my family -- 80% of whom are sober thanks to Alcoholics Anonymous.

During the last two decades, I have used the tools Julie passed on to me-- not only to help other women get sober, but to know when to suggest that they might need outside help. Julie has saved countless lives by having the humility to know that in AA “we are not doctors” and I will be indebted to her for the rest of mine.

Kate Elliot is a pseudonym for a sober woman in New York.

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