AA Old-Timers and the Stigma of Relapse

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AA Old-Timers and the Stigma of Relapse

By Amy Dresner 11/20/17

“It’s only by the grace of God that I’m sober.” So the big wizard in the sky is too involved in keeping you drink and drug-free to keep the rest of us on the straight and narrow, huh?

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Woman being comforted by others in group
Your number of years clean should be a point of pride but don't judge others if they relapse.

I’ve heard a number of people in meetings say “I could never relapse because I think I’d be too ashamed to come back.” Why? And more importantly, where does this shame come from?

One of my least favorite things I hear in the rooms is “Relapse doesn’t have to be part of recovery.” Well, newsflash, it usually is. And to those who boast, “I came to my first meeting and I’ve been sober ever since,” well I’m sorry to inform you but that is the exception and not the rule. And here’s the one that really makes my blood boil: “It’s only by the grace of God that I’m sober.” So the big wizard in the sky is too involved in keeping you drink and drug-free to keep the rest of us on the straight and narrow, huh? I understand that attributing your sobriety to a Higher Power is somehow supposed to be about humility but to me it reeks of righteousness: “Look how special I am. If you’ve relapsed, it’s because God doesn’t love you as much.” The truth is we don’t really know why some people “get it” and others don’t. It’s a mystery. We’re all following the same formula. And maybe that’s why it’s attributed to some supernatural force.


And those sobriety countdowns. Ugh. As much as I guess it’s supposed to show newcomers that’s it’s possible to stay sober for years at a time, the different tiers of “clean time” with the smug hand raising just seems to undermine the whole “one day at a time” or “daily reprieve” thing.

As a former chronic relapser, thankfully I never saw sobriety as a competition, nor was I interested in the stupid and pompous hierarchy that you see rise up in AA. I am not and have never been interested in being, as I often say, “Queen of the Drunks.” I was always clear that I was on my own bumpy path to recovery; that I was stubborn and a slow learner with a heavy dose of mental illness which made my staying sober significantly more difficult than those lucky fucks without that genetic gem of “crazy.” But other people are much more sensitive to status and standing and shame and don’t have that big portion of “who gives a fuck” that I do. And for them, the sobriety hierarchy can be deadly.

Addictionologist, psychiatrist, author and former Chief Medical Officer of Townsend Treatment Centers, Dr. Howard Wetsman, had this to say: “I think the hierarchy that some feel about their recovery vs. that of others’ generates a lot of shame and kills a lot of newcomers. You know of everyone who gives recovery a shot but leaves before the miracle happens, only 50% ever make another try. That’s not 50% get into recovery, that’s 50% even ever make another attempt. So imagine how many people are killed because of 12-step vets in meetings saying shit that makes newcomers feel shame.”

It’s great to be proud of your sobriety, it’s a huge accomplishment. I’m not saying that it isn’t. I’m saying the program is supposed to be about INCLUSIVITY and I think that sometimes gets lost with the special seating that old-timers have or the high school cliquey-ness that inevitably happens at the big hip meetings. People with time get put on pedestals but we must remember they, too, are just alcoholics. You can have 19 years and eat shit. We’ve all seen it. And sometimes those people with double-digit sobriety are so ashamed when they relapse that they don’t come back. Sometimes they even kill themselves. So it’s important to remember when you judge the chronic newcomer: someday that could be you. Your sponsee could end up being your sponsor. I’ve always kept in mind that quote by Wilson Miznor, the American playwright, who, when giving advice to a new young Hollywood starlet said: “Be kind to everyone on the way up; you’ll meet the same people on the way down.“

When you’re the new kid on the playground of AA, it’s terrifying. You’re scared. You don’t know what anything means. What’s that shit on the wall? Are those the 10 commandments? Everybody seems to know everybody. You already feel broken. You’re already worried this creepy thing might not work for you. And then you hear people say “The program ALWAYS works.” Really? Then why is there SMART Recovery and Refuge Recovery and other alternate programs? AA is not the only way to get sober nor is it the best way for everyone. So when you relapse, you begin to blame yourself and then comes the inevitable thought of “I’ll be an addict for life,” “I’m one of those people that can’t be honest with themselves,” blah, blah, blah. Let’s remember they changed the Big Book from “Never have we seen a person fail” to “Rarely have we seen a person fail.” Because it’s not foolproof and making it seem that way just reinforces the relapsing person's belief that something is deeply, hopelessly, irreparably wrong with them.

While researching this article I came across the perfect term for what I’m referring to here: “Time Bully.” Time Bullies are those people who act superior because they have such and such amount of sobriety time. I’ve also heard of old-timers taking bets on who will stay sober and who won’t. One chronic relapser finally got a year and some old-timer said, “Boy we lost money on you.” Gambling on people’s lives? That’s some shady shit.


At one of my own meetings I heard a guy offer himself as a speaker to the secretary: “Hey if you ever want me to speak…I have 12 years,” he boasted. Time is great but it’s not necessarily indicative of good recovery. I know people with two or three years that have amazing programs and people with 12 who are sick fucks that prey on newcomers or treat women like garbage.

AA is supposed to be a bridge back to life. If your entire social capital is based on your standing in AA, I pity you. But let’s get real, there are revered old-timers who get to date and fuck hot girls in the rooms who would never in a million years give them the time of a day in, say, a nightclub. Being a charismatic old-timer who speaks well from the podium, oozing wisdom from their faded sailor tattoos, has the pull of a good looking rich dude with a Tesla out in the real world. But should it?

Joe Milligan, CCO and one of the founding partners of Beginnings Treatment Center, with 23 years in recovery, disagrees with me and Wetsman. He thinks that time is honored in AA as a way to encourage people to stay sober, saying “a measure of respect tends to be given based on time.” In his experience, the first people to welcome relapsers back are usually the old-timers. He believes that “the shame a relapser feels is internal, of their own making, for having let themselves down, or lost something precious to them. This is a disease of shame, after all…..When one begins to act out old behaviors, it brings all that shame back with interest.”

I hear what Joe Milligan is saying and don’t entirely disagree. However I think it’s dangerous when time becomes your identity. Because along with that comes ego which is something we try to eradicate in the program. But hey, if ego keeps you sober, then great. It never worked for me.

My many relapses have kept me humble. I hear countless stories of people who have 20 years, decide to have a drink and are dead six months later. I don’t think I’m immune from that fate. So although I’m extremely proud of having almost five years sober--amazed actually--you’ll never see me wearing a pendant necklace with my years of sobriety or, God forbid, tattooing my sobriety date on my arm. And not because I’m anonymous but because I know my track record. And if I fall down again, you better bet I’ll come back. I’m in competition with nobody but myself. When I was 15, my father got me a silver antique perfume bottle keychain and on it he had engraved “Compare and despair.” I’ve never forgotten that.

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