Are We Too Self-Congratulatory in AA?

By Amy Dresner 12/15/15

I’m a totally different person than I used to be. It’s pretty remarkable… I mean, I’m not abusive at all. I’m incredibly loving in this relationship. You know, a decent human being.

Are We Too Self-Congratulatory in the Program?

I recently had coffee with my old sponsor who after 26 years left the program. I lie. We actually had $12 hippie smoothies in Malibu and smoked cigarettes. He was key in helping me get clean off of a voracious IV cocaine problem eight years ago and we worked together again after I ripped through a series of sponsors and a few sobrieties. I learned a lot from him and love and respect him deeply.

Maybe we do set the bar a little low and use our “alcoholism” as our “get out of jail free” card for occasionally being soulless douchebags.

When he last saw me I was still in sober living, deep in a sex addiction and struggling to rebuild my life after a divorce, arrest and relapse. Now I’m out of sober living, almost three years clean, making a living as a writer and in a terrific relationship.

“I’m a totally different person than I used to be,” I said. “It’s pretty remarkable…I mean, I’m not abusive at all. I’m incredibly loving in this relationship.”

“You mean you’re a decent human being?” he asked.

I laughed.  

“I can see you’re doing well and maybe you’re trying to impress me because you look up to me but I would be careful to not be too self-congratulatory and pat yourself on the back. You should take it all in stride. Like, of course, you’re doing well and got your shit together. Otherwise, you’re still tied to your old identity of brokenness.”

“I hear you,” I said, but I was really pissed off by the comment. I do want a parade and a medal for turning my life around. What I’ve accomplished is nothing short of remarkable. And maybe I should think, “Oh well, of course, I got it together.” But honestly, there was awhile where I (and many other people) were pretty sure I was down for the count.

I am not a fan of Clancy I. (despotic ruler of the Pacific Group) but I do remember somebody telling me something that he once said. It was along the lines that alcoholics are the only ones who want an award for running out of a burning building. He’s not far off. We want accolades for being decent, mature, responsible human beings. Change is hard. Impulse-control is challenging. And I get that certain behaviors like controlling your temper or paying your taxes should be givens, but what if they aren’t? What if alcoholics are the “emotionally challenged”? The junkies on the short bus of life? You know…a little behind the curve? Why can’t we acknowledge and even reward growth in whatever form? Nothing makes me want to work harder and continue what I’m doing more than hearing “I’m proud of you” from my parents or sponsor. Nothing. What is wrong with rooting us on…out of our immaturity or assholery? 

I remember when I was first getting clean many years ago. My parents applauded every little thing I did. “You made your bed? Oh my God. Yay. Woohoo!” Seems stupid now but when you can’t get a needle out of your arm and it’s a downright water-into-wine miracle if you shower and get out of the house, these are big steps in the right direction.

However, I see my old sponsor’s point. There’s a saying: “You can’t propel yourself forward by patting yourself on the back.” By being so amazed and smug, it’s possible to A) be content (and even worse complacent) so you stop moving ahead and B) still be overly-identified with your old self-image of the lunatic, fuck up or broken toy.

I admit there is an excessive amount of clapping in Los Angeles AA. And “you are amazing” and “you are a miracle” are thrown around A LOT. Maybe we do set the bar a little low and use our “alcoholism” as our “get out of jail free” card for occasionally being soulless douchebags. Out in the real world, nobody cares if you’re a jackass because you’re an alcoholic. They only care if you’re a jackass. Your alcoholism is no excuse. We think we’re eligible for sainthood because we didn’t steal or drink today. However when you’re in the gutter, even the sidewalk is a pretty impressive destination. So I’ll continue to blow my own horn for every step I make towards maturation and balance. I get more from myself with the carrot than with the stick.

Amy Dresner is a columnist for The Fix.

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