Ask Katie: Does AA Have to Be My Life?

Ask Katie: Does AA Have to Be My Life?

By Katie MacBride 11/29/16

“Live in AA and visit life"—aphorisms like this can be both confusing and annoying, but there's usually a grain of truth to them.

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Ask Katie: Does AA Have to Be My Life?
This is my life now?

Hey Katie,

I have a random question. Have you ever heard someone in the rooms say that we live AA and visit life? My sponsor tells me that but sometimes I have a hard time with it because I don't feel like I got sober just to go to AA all the time, I got sober so that I could live my life. But she seems to believe that you get sober through AA so you have to live the AA triangle all the time. I don't know that I necessarily agree with that because I think the point of AA is to bring the principles with you into how you handle your everyday life. Could you offer your opinion on that?

Spend enough time around 12-step programs and you’ll have aphorisms coming out your ears. Many of these are useful—whether or not one is in a 12-step program or not. (I’m a big fan of HALT, even though I thought it was incredibly stupid when I first heard it—more on that here.) I always think of Sandra Bullock in 28 Days when she’s mocking her treatment counselor for telling her to take it “one day at a time.” She scoffs, “‘One day at a time,' what is that? I mean like two, three days at a time is an option? I don't need the Romper Room bullshit.”

All the “Romper Room bullshit” can be annoying as hell, especially when the person reciting it seems way too cheerful and peppy for someone not on drugs. There’s a reason for those irritating sayings, though. When something happens that makes us consider drinking or using, we often don’t have time for lengthy, well-reasoned arguments about why it’s a bad idea. If we’re lucky, we have time to get one annoyingly oversimplified and yet somehow appropriate saying between our ears. That one phrase has to be easily accessible through the fog of our craving and snap us back to reality. It has to remind us of what it was like when we were drinking and using, and why we work so hard to stay sober. It turns out those quippy little Romper Room quotes are great for that.

I’m not familiar with the saying “live in AA and visit life,” but what I have heard—and am guessing your sponsor means—is “don’t put the life AA gave you in front of your AA life.” This, like many of the aphorisms, can seem both confusing and annoying. What is the difference between the life AA gave you and your AA life? Isn’t it all just...your life? Or, as you more eloquently put it, isn’t the “point of AA to bring the principles with you into how you handle your everyday life”? The short answer is yes. We get sober so we can live our lives. The tools that we learn in recovery, whether through a 12-step program or some other treatment program, are skills that you’ll take into the world with you as you go along in your everyday life.

Your sponsor (if I am understanding her correctly) is also right, in that you can’t get complacent about recovery. This is one of the biggest points of contention among those who dislike AA. It’s a cult, some folks will say, they make you go to meetings forever! They tell you to put AA before anything else! How can you live a normal life if you’re supposed to be focused on AA for the rest of it? These are the kind of claims that can make someone trying to figure out the new and complicated world of sobriety overwhelmed and completely freaked out. So let’s break down what it means.

Without getting into the disease controversy, or the “is AA the best method” controversy, there is one thing about addiction and recovery that are unequivocally true: if you want to no longer be actively addicted to something, you need to behave, and ultimately think, differently than you did when you were actively addicted. It sounds simple, but anyone who has tried to do it can attest to how difficult it is to accomplish. So the goal of any recovery program (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, AA, SMART Recovery) is to help an addict break their long established patterns of substance use.

It doesn’t end at just breaking the habits, though. Another thing you’ll hear people in recovery say is, “Getting sober is easy, staying sober is hard.” I don’t know that I’d ever call getting sober “easy,” but we often have more motivation to get sober than we do to stay sober. When I had ravaged my life as a result of my drinking, I had no choice but to build from ground zero up. If I needed a reminder as to why I shouldn’t drink, all I had to do was look at the barren wasteland around me and the rubble beneath my feet. As I rebuilt my life, the barren wasteland changed into a vibrant city. My world was (and is) now comprised of people, places, and things and it’s tempting to become lost in that. There’s nothing wrong with living a full life outside your program of recovery, but there may be a danger in becoming so preoccupied with it that you stop doing the work to maintain that recovery.

People who undergo treatment for depression with a combination of therapy, medication, and exercise may not maintain that program with the same vigilance 10 years down the road as they did when they first entered treatment, but some ongoing maintenance will likely always be necessary. The same is true for addiction. But addiction is a sneaky jerk, and alcohol and drug use are so commonplace that it’s not hard to forget that as addicts, we can’t use those things with impunity. I got sober at 23 years old and I can’t count the number of times I’ve wondered “maybe it was just a phase and I could drink ‘normally’ now,” even though I have literally no evidence to support that thought and abundant evidence to the contrary.

It’s also easy to get wrapped up in what being an addict/alcoholic means for the rest of your life. At the risk of tossing my own Romper Room slogan into the mix: try not to worry about it and take it...yep...one day at a time. Keep doing what's working for you now. Remember what your life was like before sobriety and do what you need to do to hold on to your recovery. The rest will work itself out.

Regular Fix contributor Katie MacBride is not an expert or a mental health or medical professional; she is a sober person offering her experiences and advice about sobriety. Every other Tuesday she will answer one recovery related question posed by our readers, based on her experience. If you have any general advice questions email her at [email protected] with Ask Katie in the subject.

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Katie MacBride is a writer and the Associate Editor of Anxy Magazine. In addition to The Fix, her work has appeared in Rolling Stone, New York Magazine, Quartz, and The Establishment. She writes an advice column about recovery for Paste Magazine. Follow her on twitter at @msmacb; find her work at www.katiemacbride.com.

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