Finding My Fine

By Christopher Dale 08/13/15

For me, fine is being at peace with imperfection rather than exhaustively struggling for a controlling, self-determined (and therefore, ironically, flawed) perfection. 

Christopher Dale

Those of us who've been around the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous for some time will be familiar with some semblance of the following dialogue, either as a witness or participant:

"How are you?"

"Fine, thanks."

"Oh, so you're 'F*cked up, Insecure, Neurotic and Emotional?'" 

I fully understand the need for such otherwise eye-rolling, acronymic platitudes: Many alcoholics are isolationists. Either by an inherent yet unhealthy introversion or an acquired need to hide the alarming, ever-increasing amount of alcohol and/or other substances we'd been consuming, alcoholics can be the worst type of loners: ones whose isolation is a danger to themselves and, more often than not, others as well.

I most certainly fit into this isolationist category. Especially toward the end of my active alcoholism, I had become an escape artist...mainly because the sheer volume of inebriating substances required to meet my disease's daily demands mandated several hours of solitude for proper administering. Necessity was the mother of my isolation. 

This escapism—this fear of others for fear of their judgments—doesn't dissipate once the jug is plugged. In fact, I felt so see-through when I started regularly attending AA meetings that I rarely dared make eye contact with other recovering alcoholics. I knew that I wasn't OK and, just as terrifying, I knew they knew that I wasn't OK. So when I responded to their sincere inquiries concerning my well-being with that magic four-letter word—"Fine"—the aforementioned acronym was certainly warranted, and it was appropriately, and repeatedly, used as a cudgel with which to crack my dense, deflective shell.  

I was anything but fine, and needed to be reminded that A) this was perfectly normal and B) that the only path toward growth was through admitting my suffering and committing to its alleviation through the 12 steps. 

We all know that a crucial aspect of AA's success is identification. When a newcomer hears others describe their booze-fueled calamities and inability to cease drinking on their own, that newcomer learns the first, perhaps most important truth: that he is not alone, that his troubles are by no means tragically unique and, to the uplifting contrary, have a far-from-unprecedented solution. The dots start to connect: "If these folks drank like me, and couldn't stop drinking like me, then maybe whatever it is they're doing in these rooms will work for me." When I first made that realization, it was the first time in more than a decade that I felt truly hopeful. As much as anything, it was that hope that kept me coming back to AA during that crucial fledgling period.   

However, an often overlooked facet is the flip side of identification; namely, the identification by those with significant sobriety of the delicate nature of being a newcomer. And if that newcomer is anything like me, he is extremely hesitant to engage others in significant dialogue for any number of misguided-yet-understandable reasons. It simply isn't a natural, normal thing to expose oneself as hurting, as frightened, as a novice.  

The upstanding men and women that asked me how I was doing in those fickle first days were aware of exactly that. And once I gave my inevitable four-letter answer—"Fine"—they fortunately knew how to challenge me without chasing me back to the bar.  

"Are you really fine, Chris? Because it's far more normal not to be when you're just coming in."

"Well, I’m not so fine. This disease is playing with my head. Good thing I can come to a meeting and talk about it."

And of course:

"Are you sure that doesn't stand for 'F*cked up, Insecure, Neurotic and Emotional?' Because that was my ‘fine’ when I was just getting sober.”

Looking back, there was artfulness in their playfulness. After all, not coming off like a condescending jerk to a hypersensitive newcomer like me took skill. I was raw, exhausted…somehow simultaneously stunned and edgy. My Goldilock’s Zone for accepting help without being offended was dangerously small; it took a special sort of nuanced nurturing to tell me, in just a few short words, that I was full of shit but welcome—loved even— nonetheless. My main takeaway was this: it was perfectly fine not to be fine. 

Fine is Fantastic

Ironically, as I stuck around—as I made meetings, got a sponsor, worked the steps, took commitments—I began to realize how foreign a concept “fine” had been. It became clear that I had never been fine—neither during active alcoholism nor prior to that.    

And by never, I mean never. Like many alcoholics, I had a tough childhood. My mother died when I was three, and my father was raised in an alcoholic, abusive household. I didn’t acquire the tools necessary to become a mature adult, because my father hadn’t acquired them in his formative years. This isn’t casting blame—it’s nobody’s fault—it’s just the way it played out. 

Early adulthood, also, was far from fine. Long story short, I had a serious health scare in which I lost a portion of my eyesight during my early 20s. The subsequent PTSD triggered depression, which in turn triggered a steep-spiral alcoholism. I crossed the invisible, irrevocable line of addiction quite quickly—quickly enough, thankfully, that I was sick and tired of being sick and tired by age 32.

Almost four years later, I’ve worked hard to get to fine, and it’s a wonderful place to be. 

Fine is neither too high nor too low—neither unrealistically optimistic due to unreasonable expectations nor completely joyless due to deep depression. (Note: Once I stopped drinking ungodly amounts of booze and started working the program of AA, anti-depressants started to—go figure!—alleviate my clinical depression. Score one for science.) 

Fine is being comfortable in my own skin without requiring constant outside stimulation. This includes not only physical stimulants like drugs and alcohol but, increasingly, unhealthy interpersonal stimulants like perpetual validation, reassurance and praise. The ability to sit quietly with myself in peace is no small feat. 

Fine is at peace with imperfection rather than exhaustively struggling for a controlling, self-determined (and therefore, ironically, flawed) perfection. Fine is accepting that life isn’t perfect and never will be, but capable of compartmentalizing the pain from the comparably greater joys in life—a life owed nearly entirely to Alcoholics Anonymous. 

Most importantly, fine is a sane platform for self-exploration. Fine is even-keeled and clear, a condition that allows me to gradually learn deeper truths about myself and what makes me tick—a process that continues to reward, comfort and surprise. You can’t find yourself when living in constant emergencies, constant cravings, constant fear. You have to find fine for that.  

And that brings us full circle to a simple question:

“How are you?” 

Christopher Dale is a recovering alcoholic and freelance writer who frequently covers recovery-based issues. He is the founder and sole contributor to, a blog which, in addition to topics surrounding sobriety, also discusses politics and social issues.

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Christopher Dale is a recovering alcoholic and freelance writer who frequently covers sobriety, parenting and politics. His work has appeared in Salon, The Daily Beast, New York Newsday and, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter at @ChrisDaleWriter.