AA Didn’t Fit, Sobriety Did

By Liz Melchor 07/26/17

“You won’t stay sober if you aren’t in AA.” I did. I have.

happy thoughtful woman looking out to sea
Recovery without participating in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings is not only possible, it's preferable for many people.

A few months into my sobriety, I met a well-known interventionist in a class. We were standing outside on the sidewalk during a break. I was taking in the sun. She was sucking on a cigarette. “If you didn’t get sober in AA,” she said to me. “You must not be a real alcoholic.”

I took a very deep breath, inhaling all of her smoke as thoughts rushed into my head. Um, no. Absolutely ridiculous thing to say. She was older than me, a decade sober, and until that moment had seemed very wise. Did she need an enumerated list of my blacked-out nights to prove my status?

I wanted to scream at her, but instead I responded with a little cough. This early in my recovery I didn’t have the confidence for that sort of confrontation. But I stayed quiet also because she had touched on a place of shame for me. I hadn’t gotten sober in AA, and even though I didn’t want to admit it, it had always made feel defective.

I had tried. When I first made the decision to stop drinking, I got the little book of all the meetings in San Francisco and started planning my schedule. AA sounded so brilliant to me. Here was a support group that was free, everywhere, and all about giving up this thing that I was so scared to lose. I wanted in. I had none of the typical objections. I didn’t hate that they talked about God. In fact, even though I had grown up non-religious, I found the idea of a higher power comforting. The idea of powerlessness also did not bother me. After years of trying to moderate, tally cards in my back pockets, rules that I would make and then “adjust,” powerlessness seemed an appropriate word to describe my relationship to alcohol. Of course, certain things did irk me, but those were mainly issues of language. The To Wives chapter of the Big Book made me angry. “Character defects” seemed too self-hating a term. But take what I want and leave the rest, right? I was excited.

However, at my first meeting an older man hugged me for too long, his hand too low. Only now do I know that this man is so common in the rooms that he has his own name: thirteenth stepper. At the women’s meeting I then went to, I lingered, bought a coffee I didn’t want to drink, and tried to make eye contact, but no one came up to me. And at the young people’s meeting with hot tattooed men and chicks in red lipstick, I felt like the very unpopular girl at the high school dance.

Every AA member I knew had always told me the story of their first meeting as if it had just been magic. They had shown up to be immediately swept into people’s arms and then sent home with literature and phone numbers. They would close their eyes as they remembered their beginning in AA, sighing, “I walked in that room, and I knew that finally I had found my community.”

And in some ways, I understood that feeling of belonging. At almost every meeting I had gone to, I had felt something like what I imagine a religious person feels in the pews of their church—a transcendent oneness. Even in that first meeting with the thirteenth stepper, where I had been one of the only women in the room and the only one under forty, I felt it. I don’t remember what the speaker that day talked about or what he looked like, only that his life was nothing like mine, and nonetheless, in the middle of his story I realized that my internal experience and his were the same. We both knew that same pervasive loneliness, the loneliness that to addiction is like the chicken is to the egg.

But still, even with those kindred feelings, I seemed unable to get anyone in the rooms to talk to me for more than a second. I felt awkward, out of place. In the real world, I had never had trouble making friends or chatting with strangers but I often felt alone in a crowd, like the people around me just didn’t get me. But in AA, I felt the opposite, like they all got it, like we had all lived different versions of the same life, but the small talk and jocular connections that I would have on my neighborhood sidewalk were elusive. Women turned from me. Men were too aggressive. And in the state I was—raw and feeling like a baby—these slights were too much. I felt rejected. And so I got stubborn. I would do it alone.

I cobbled together my own program. I read. A lot. Medical journal articles about addiction. Autobiographies. Self-help. Some of my favorite books were about the Twelve Steps. I read and reread Stephanie Covington’s A Woman’s Way Through the Twelve Steps and Kevin Griffin’s One Breath at a Time over and over that first year. I went to therapy twice a week. I found a recovery meeting at the Zen Center and would go meditate for twenty minutes at a time. I became obsessed with an internet forum about sobriety. Anonymous internet handles became my community. I did try AA a couple more times, but I never could find my place there. It didn’t fit.

When I walked my dog around my neighborhood and strangers complimented his cuteness, I would tell them my pup’s name just as quickly as I would tell them I was sober. I announced my recovery so liberally because I always hoped one of them would say back, “Me too.” And when that did happen, their following question was always: “What meetings do you go to?”

I had to clarify, “I didn’t get sober in the program.” Over time I learned to add, “But I fully identify as a recovering alcoholic,” because for some, me not being in AA meant that either I was a dry drunk or that I simply was making a dietary choice. I am like you, I wanted to say.

Now, I have nine years. I’ve deepened the relationships in my life and picked up many friends along the way. Friends who are normies. Friends in recovery. Even friends who drink a bit too much. Over the years, I have had many people tell me some version of: “You won’t stay sober if you aren’t in AA.” I did. I have. But I still look back and think how it could have been different, how much less alone I might have felt in the beginning.

I still sometimes feel a strange guilt about identifying as a recovering person and not knowing the rooms intimately. I can chide myself. The me of today would not have let my imperfect attempts keep me from something I wanted so badly. But back then I was different. In those days, just showing up was stretching my comfort zone to an unbearable amount. I was trying the best that I could. And what I have learned after all this time is that recovery is about radical self-acceptance. You are where you are—and even if that isn’t where everyone else seems to be—that is okay.

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