When I first got sober, I met my father for lunch at the restaurant in the Holiday Inn in my hometown. Most of that conversation I have long forgotten, but what I do recall is a statement my father made. He confided in me that he’d attended a few AA meetings but that, after a few visits, he never returned. When I asked him why, he said he didn’t trust the people at the meeting. He said they came up to him, after the meeting. They were super-excited, he said. And they tried to hug him.
My father is what I would call “old school.” He came of age in the 1940s—he grew up on a farm in Wyoming, was in the Air Force for 20 years, has worked his way up from poverty. As you might imagine, he doesn’t go for therapy, new-age books, Oprah, Deepak, or any other touchy-feely business. He responds to facts. He likes reading history books and political science. In other words, the warm huggers at the AA meeting scared him off.
At lunch, he asked me why they’d wanted to hug him; he wanted to know how hugging would help. He was suspicious. He asked me, “What do you think they wanted from me?” After those first two meetings, he never went back.
All the hugs in the world could not have changed me, could not have given me the psychic change I have experienced.
I’ve been in AA since I was 20. I’ve worked with so many sponsors over the years I couldn’t tell you how many; I don’t remember their names. What I can tell you though is that until this, my second attempt at sobriety, all my sponsors tried hugging and loving me into recovery.
When I first got sober, when I traveled with my rehab group to an outside meeting, men came up to me at the end of the meetings and hugged me. Women did, too, I guess. But, what I remember most are the men. I wasn’t sure what was happening, why they were hugging me. Like my Dad, I couldn’t get my mind around how hugging was going to help me, how touching me would keep me sober.
Think about it: If hugging could keep me sober, all those many therapists I’d seen over the years would have saved me. In the Big Book—where, incidentally, the program of Alcoholics Anonymous exists—it states that only a spiritual awakening can save the real alcoholic. On page 45 it states, “Well, that’s exactly what this book is about. Its main object is to enable you to find a Power greater than yourself which will solve your problems.” Nowhere in the book does it say that sponsors or fellowship are that power, or that any person has the power to save an alcoholic. I should add here: I am a real alcoholic. I can die of this disease. If hugging or loving me up could keep us sober, the Big Book would tell us to hug each other sober. It doesn’t. And, as anyone who loves an alcoholic will tell you, sometimes the exact opposite is what’s needed.
How many loved ones of alcoholics have tried this exact approach—trying to love their kids or spouse sober—only to find it doesn't work? What usually happens is that the parents or spouse finally realize that the only way to help their child or spouse, the only way to really save them, is to be honest and clear with them.
When a parent or spouse tells their loved one, "Either you go to rehab and/or meetings or you move out," this tends to work (if the alcoholic has hit her or his bottom). Allowing an alcoholic to stay in the home, rent-free and slowly (or quickly) kill her/himself with alcohol does not, generally speaking, work. And it sends a dark message: We don’t love you enough to be honest, to draw a line and try to save your life.
The same is true in the rooms of AA. As long as I had sponsors who chatted with me on the telephone, going out to coffee with me, treating me like their friend, inviting me to potlucks and dances, hugging me, but never telling me that the only way to get sober is to work the steps—that the only way to stay sober is to try on a daily basis to help other struggling alcoholics—I was doomed to eventually pick up. And though I was sober for many years, I was what I call a dry drunk: more miserable sober than when I was drinking. Without a psychic change, I was just a drunk without a drink.
It wasn’t until nearly two years ago, after being out for five years, that I finally found a sponsor who took me through the steps in the Big Book, who did not treat me as a friend, didn’t hug me, didn’t allow me to call and dump. I began to see how simple and clear the program is. It was only then that I began to really heal.
I can remember the first time we worked together. After reading through a chapter of the Big Book in a café in the West Village, we walked out together. When we hit the corner, I was going one way and she another. I anticipated a hug. Instead, my sponsor smiled, said, “Good work,” and walked away.
At first I was shocked. Where was the love?
But what I got from this was a new definition of love: that the only way I could stay sober was to do the work, work the Steps through the Big Book and to follow the exact directions in the book. My sponsor’s hugging me was not the answer. My sponsor liking me had nothing to do with the equation; her job was to help me work the steps—and that's my job now with any woman who comes to me looking for help with her alcoholism. Whether I like her or not has nothing to do with whether or not I can help her. The bond we share, what we all share, is the magic of one alcoholic helping another.
It was by being led through the Steps by a strong sponsor who expected me to call on time, to attend meetings, to do service and to practice the program, that means I’ve finally begun to experience what is promised to all of us in the book.
Not only has the desire to drink been removed; I have had a psychic change. I experience the world in an entirely new way. I have a primary purpose: to stay sober and help other suffering alcoholics. When I put my sobriety—and helping others—first, unbelievable things begin to happen: my life gets bigger, and easier. I begin to see that I am not a victim, that things don’t just happen to me. And if I stay spiritually fit, I will continue to grow in this way.
This miraculous shift, this psychic change, could never have happened if I hadn’t finally met a sponsor who took me seriously, who led me through the Big Book. All the hugs in the world could not have changed me, could not have given me the psychic change I have experienced.
Maddy Demberg is pseudonym for a regular contributor to The Fix. She last wrote about relapse and story-telling.