The Other Programs

By Taylor Ellsworth 11/06/12

I avoid Alanon and OA despite knowing I could benefit from them. Apparently I'm waiting to get uncomfortable enough that I'm willing to do something about it.

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Just what I need: another program Photo via

Taking suggestions is one of the simplest components of 12-step groups myriad tools.

I’ve internalized advice like “go to a meeting” or “call another alcoholic” when I’m distressed and it comes pretty naturally to pray for the friend who is ignoring me or to make an awkward phone call to my sponsor even when I don’t think I have anything of value to say, if only because I’ve been told time and time again to do so and because I have evidence that it works. If I had it my way, I’d do nothing but force my cat to snuggle with me while I watched back-to-back Breaking Bad, ate jumbo bags of Smart food and listened to my boyfriend periodically remind me of how pretty I am, day in and day out. But I follow those program suggestions in an attempt to repress the angry, entitled brat inside of me who doesn’t study for the test, then writes a scathing rant on when she doesn’t get an A.

That said, going to Al-Anon, Overeaters Anonymous, CoDA, Vomiters Anonymous—supposedly an actual thing—and Food Addicts Anonymous have all been suggested to me nonstop as my years in AA have gone by and I’ve yet to commit to any of these other programs. I’ve checked out a meeting here, picked up a pamphlet there, and even collected a few phone numbers but my involvement in any of these groups has yet to surpass the status of dabbler.

I know that Al-Anon would probably only compound upon the freedom I’ve already gleaned in sobriety and yet I resent the fact that I belong there.

It’s true that my bulimia began controlling my life long before drugs and alcohol took over, but I’ve been able to manage my disorder—on and off—through a combination of willpower, medication, periodic compulsive exercise, obsessive attention to nutrition and an incredibly high threshold for self-loathing. My food and body obsessions don’t prevent me from going to class the way my debilitating hangovers did; I don’t steal from my friends and lie to my boyfriend like I did when I was scrounging up coke money; I don’t wet the bed every night as a result of it. In other words, instead of the unavoidable and immediate effects of my alcoholism, my latent bulimia affects me in much more insidious ways. Sure, I go to most of my classes. But when my mind wanders from the lecture at hand, I begin to add up what I’ve consumed that day. How many calories were in those three drops of creamer I poured into my pre-class cup of coffee? I wonder. What can I cook for dinner to remain under the 1,800-calorie mark? At Sunday family dinners, I’ll mentally chide my father for using regular noodles in lieu of whole-wheat pasta. Doesn’t he realize that this is as nutritionally devoid as a plate of Rice Crispy treats? I’ll think. After going out to a Southern restaurant with friends after a Saturday night meeting, I’ll think, I’m so fucking disgusting. I better run at least five miles tomorrow to make up for this. The thoughts creep up and by the time I’ve realized what’s going on, I’ve wasted five, 10 or 30 minutes on self-obsessed mental math, hating myself and growing irritated by those I love. It’s not the same as my former methods, which included all-day starvation, multiple nighttime binge/purge cycles, swollen tonsils and a dangerously weak heart. Essentially, the behaviors are gone, but the thoughts remain. I call it “post-bulimia.”

I have a few friends that I share bits and pieces of my obsessive thoughts with—we joke about how much despair the idealized female body brings us and laugh over the fact that an extra slice of pizza or a few cookies at a meeting can elicit tears on a bad day—but then we write it all off as inevitable effects of the curse of being both alcoholics and women in a patriarchal society. I tell myself that it’s just something I’m going to have to live with for the rest of my life—and maybe it is—but until I’ve given any of the programs that could possibly change that a fair chance, I can’t say that with any certainty.

And irrational codependent narratives plague me as incessantly as the obnoxious body monitoring of my subconscious. I’ve often heard codependency defined by dual-enrolled AA/Al-Anon members as the phenomenon of “not knowing where I end and you begin,” a conflict which defines roughly two-thirds of my daily interactions. I’ll receive a text from a friend lamenting a C- on a film essay and spend at least 10 minutes on a carefully typed response intended to fulfill her instantly; then, after hitting send, I’ll wait with bated breath for the affirming response. When my dad tells me a pointless, you-had-to-have-been-there story about scooping all of the foam out of a poorly made cappuccino during a trip to the mall with his girlfriend’s kid, my inner monologue goes on autopilot. It means something devastating and binding about my true self that the two of them have tender memories together. When the happiness of those I love makes me angry, it's because secretly, I want to be the only person with the power to bestow joy and nostalgia-inducing moments. If others can do it, what do I bring to the table? It may not be the precise definition of co-dependency, but it's certainly selfish. Inherently I seem to feel that my value as friend, girlfriend, sister, daughter or student is all utterly worthless if I can’t somehow make the bad grade, the shitty day, and the financial crisis all okay and smooth all of life’s kinks into a shiny veneer of self-centered pseudo-serenity.

And then there’s the fact that my parents, boyfriend, and the great majority of my close friends are alcoholics and addicts—which means that it’s safe to say that I qualify for Al-Anon in every way possible. Many sober folks condone the program and some even dub it “Advanced AA,” and I’ve sat and identified within its rooms. My best guess as to why I don’t stay is that though it logically makes perfect sense that I would embrace Al-Anon in search of some peace from the ceaseless worry, my logic—true to alcoholic form—is somehow rendered irrelevant whenever feelings are involved. 

I tell myself that I’m afraid of adding another load of step work to the already near-suffocating burden that is my daily to-do list. I tell myself that I’m so reluctant to be stuck in the confines of AA at 22 that I can’t imagine adopting a second doctrine to abide by. In reality, my sobriety is a blessing that’s protecting me from the blackouts, affairs, and missed mortgage payments that my parents had. But on a Friday night, when I’ve spent the entire week working at the school computer lab to make ends meet and doing homework in my free time, I resent the fact that I’m going to a Young Peoples’ AA meeting instead of relaxing—even though I never found drinking relaxing in my life—in somebody’s basement with a case of beer. I know in my heart that Al-Anon would probably only compound upon the freedom I’ve already gleaned in sobriety—the type that allows me to walk the earth as a free member of the hot-coffee-drinking, Presidential debate-watching, birthday present-buying, morning-showering free world. And yet I resent the fact that I belong there and in OA, too.

Ideally, the 12 steps of AA should be sufficient in terms of filling the void left by alcohol and drugs, but that’s never been the case for me. Even when I’ve simultaneously adopted each of the practices that should, in theory, cumulatively fix me—steps, therapy, exercise, meds—I still obsess over the calories in a tablespoon of canned corn on a salad. I float zombielike through entire days contemplating the way my ankles look in high heels. I choose my social life over my self-esteem nearly every time I eat out with friends, all the while attempting to read the minds of everyone I know, lest they suddenly begin to hate me without my figuring it out so that I can take preventative action before they can abandon me. It’s no wonder I’m exhausted.

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