AA Saved Me and I’m Not an Alcoholic

By Halina Newberry Grant 01/25/17

I needed to know if I could live through my pain. The God I thought I believed in had abandoned me, so I found God somewhere else.

A woman's arm with pigeon tattoos turning into actual pigeons and flying away.
No matter how low I fall spiritually, a space is being held for me.

I had been in recovery for an eating disorder and attending 12-step meetings for three years, when I lost a baby. I had a strong fellowship and support group. I had a sponsor with more than 20 years of recovery. I attended at least three meetings a week, worked with sponsees, and did what I was told because I had the willingness to admit that my way wasn’t working. But when I lost one of the twins I was carrying in my second trimester, none of those things mattered. I was a compass without a true north, spinning uselessly. The link tethering me to the planet, my life, and my higher power had been severed, and nothing meant anything anymore.

But my belly was still heavy with one healthy baby, and somewhere in the depths of my suffering, I understood that if I didn’t at least try to reconnect with life, I would be useless to her. The foundation of recovery I was surviving on was crumbling because my old meetings held nothing for me anymore. I didn’t need to hear about food plans or sugar cravings. I needed to know if I could live through my pain. The God I thought I believed in had abandoned me, but my sponsor—in her wisdom and gentleness—told me that instead of trying to find God, I should just remain open and let God find me.

I was uncomfortable in my skin, and making eye contact with people I knew was too painful; I could see their sympathy and worry, and it was too much to take on. If I was going to stay connected to the life raft that was my recovery, it would have to come from a new source. A friend recommended an open AA meeting on Sunday mornings where I could just listen to speakers—long-timers who carried a black and white message of recovery: get better or die. So even though I have never struggled with drinking and don’t identify as an alcoholic, I started attending AA.

Eating disorders are deadly; whether it’s an anorexic starving and restricting, or a bulimic on the verge of heart failure, or a compulsive over-eater who can’t stop binging despite their diabetes, insane food behaviors can lead to death. I attribute everything I have in my life—including my daughter—to my recovery. After all, it was that recovery that gave me the ability to feel the horrible feelings life was dealing me, and the freedom to feel them without wanting to cover them with food.

Hearing stories of highs and lows and loss aren’t unique to AA meetings; you can hear them in any recovery room. The ones I had always related to, that helped me feel like I had found home, were stories about using extreme and unhealthy food behavior to avoid feeling. But losing a baby was much bigger than my eating habits. To hold on to my sanity and in search of serenity, I decided to just show up, sit in a chair and listen.

One week, a woman told the story of how her alcoholism morphed into drug addiction and turned her literally into a crack whore. She had lost everything: her dignity, her soul and her daughter. Today, she was an attorney and a loving grandmother. It was a story familiar to AA-ers, told with raw honesty, humor and humility. I couldn’t identify with any detail of her life; I had never lived in a flop house, have never stuck a needle in my arm and was never arrested for my food behaviors. But I understood her burning desire to feel different and to climb out of a bleak, never-ending darkness. Her words encouraged me to feed that fire, and to keep coming back.

Another Sunday, a man spoke about how he went from fame and fortune—rubbing elbows with Hollywood elite and performing in Tony-award winning shows on Broadway—to living on the street. I related to the rush of achieving my heart’s delight (getting pregnant) and the euphoria of getting what I wanted—the swell of emotion when I heard their heartbeats, the joy in picking out two of everything for their registry. Then the fall, having it taken away for reasons I didn’t understand. It felt like an exercise in torture: here is the thing you want. Hold it and feel it and know that it is yours. Now watch as it is snatched away. You will never know why.

As I continued to listen and remained open to hearing something other than my own spinning thoughts, I softened a bit. I was allowing a new part of me to be healed. These AA meetings weren’t healing my addiction or changing my compulsive behavior, they were repairing my spirit. The value of an open AA meeting is that you don’t have to identify as an alcoholic to attend. While there may be a risk of an interloper attending for voyeuristic reasons (or someone who doesn’t understand anonymity), for me, these open meetings were a medical triage and stitches on an open wound.

But I still wasn’t ready to talk. My sponsor offered to hold my hand while I attended one of my home group meetings. I raised my hand, planning to say the words out loud, “As you can see, I am pregnant, but what you cannot see is the dead baby I am also carrying.” But this room didn’t feel big enough to hold those words. I could imagine the reactions of my fellows, not really sure if they could follow my share with a story about donuts. It wouldn’t be fair to them.

After a few months, I was becoming friendly with a small group of men and women at the Sunday AA group. One of them was struggling with some major health issues and couldn’t attend the regular meeting, so a few of us agreed to take the meeting to her home. It was there, in a near-stranger’s living room, that I felt moved to share my story. The quiet comfort of her cats and overstuffed chairs, combined with eyes and ears that had likely seen and heard it all, were strong enough to hold my burden and my loss and to keep me upright. The pay-off for attending AA meetings—even though I wasn’t actively participating in them—was that my emotional isolation was melting away. All along, I cognitively knew that I wasn’t alone, but I was finally emotionally and spiritually ready to trust again. Trust others, and trust that I was being held by something bigger than me.

Today, I have a thriving toddler and am active again with my home group. I’m back to my “normal” problems of occasionally obsessing about my size and carbs and portions. It’s a gift to be able to share about the tedium of my week and my concerns about whether or not I know how to feed a kid, because I have perspective now. My life got bigger because of my recovery, and my problems got bigger in tandem.

A life free from problems and pain are not a promise of recovery. In the 12-step rooms, I have found the support of people struggling in very similar ways to the way I struggle. I have encountered compassion and empathy and have learned how to be gentle with myself. The stories I heard in those AA meetings gave me perspective. Darkness cannot be quantified; loss is loss and pain is pain. One person’s struggle is no more relevant, important or authentic than another’s. I needed only to accept my circumstances in order to move past them. But it was specifically in AA that I learned that no matter how low I fall spiritually, a space is being held for me.

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