Let Me Tell You a Story

By Maddy Demberg 05/15/13

In recovery, the war stories we tell and hear can divert us from the solution.

once upon a time Photo via

When I was little my father, an alcoholic, used to tell me stories. Long-winding stories about his childhood: growing up in Northern Wyoming on a farm, not finishing school because he was working the tractor, playing and fighting with his 12 brothers and sisters, floating down the river on a cardboard raft. I loved his stories. I could see the places he described: the wild blonde prairies, the cobalt blue skies, the bleak black poverty. I could see it and, seeing it, I could see where he was coming from. I identified with him.

Stories took me out of myself. When I listened to my father tell stories, I was transported out of my reality. It didn’t take long for me to realize that books could do this, too. Books, in turn, became my stories. Books, in fact, did the same exact thing drugs and alcohol would do for me years later: When I was inside a book, inside a story, I was outside myself. But the thing about stories and the thing about drugs and alcohol is that eventually, the stories end. Like a hangover, after listening to a story or reading a book, you have to come back to yourself.

Sometimes it feels like a warped competition of whose life is worse. And, of course, these stories serve as evidence for why nothing is going to work.

As a writer, I have spent much of my life making up stories. My favorite words were “kingdom,” “palace,” and “other world.” As if frozen in childhood, I spun fanciful tales where I was a kind of princess. I liked to write about platters of cakes and bottles of wine, closets and closets of clothing and mansions with endless rooms. I think it's true that writing saved my life. But it didn’t keep me sober. It provided an out, a crawlspace for my mind, an alternative to reality.

My father has a favorite saying. Whenever I visit, he likes to say, “Why don’t you sit down and we’ll tell each other some lies.” We always laugh at this. What he means is that I’ll sit down on the couch next to him and we’ll tell stories. And though I don’t mean to lie, the truth is, whenever I tell a story, it’s my story. And all of my stories are filtered through my mind which means, no matter how hard I might try, supposing I even do, any story I tell is in some way a lie.

So I grew up with stories as my manna. My dad had some other stories he liked to tell, too: about how we were just about to break out of the situation we were in, how we were nearly there, nearly out of debt or almost about to the cut the deal that would finally save us, propel us out of poverty. Any day now, he’d say. Soon, he promised. I know in my heart he meant well, that he believed what he said. He wasn’t lying. He believed in his stories. But the truth is, none of them ever came true.

By the time I got to Alcoholics Anonymous I had some other stories to add to the compendium and what they all had in common was the shared thread that I was a victim. I grew up poor, my mother beat me, I was sexually molested, no one liked me. I sat in the rooms of AA thinking, "You’d drink if you’d been through what I'd been through." My stories fueled me.

We love stories in the rooms. The more drinking and debauchery, the more sex and drugs, the better. When I was sober my first go around, I mostly attended open discussion meetings. I’d show up late, grab a seat in the back, and try to listen to the speaker as she told her story. Speakers told what it was like: dirty, grimy stories about the streets. If it wasn’t stories about the dirt and grime, I’d hear stories about the “cash and prizes," about the things the speakers got as a result of not picking up—a place in Montauk, a husband and children, a new Mercedes. What I got out of those was that if I just kept going to meetings and didn’t pick up, I’d get some stuff, too. What I don’t remember hearing was anyone telling me how they stayed sober. AA was, for me, one meeting after another of people telling me their stories, day after day—it was as though all of these strangers had taken the place of my dad.

Now, in my second time in AA, and coming up on two years of sobriety, I find I’m losing my tolerance for stories. They feel wishy-washy to me, like extended dreams or hallucinations. When I'm sitting at a meeting and an alcoholic is going on and on—about her drinking, the specifics of the drinks she drank, the wreckage—and, as the minutes pass, I keep hearing how bad things were, never getting to the part where she tells me what she does now, I'm transported back to the living room where my father and I sit, and he taps the spot next to him on the couch and says, “Why don’t you sit right here, and we’ll tell each other some stories!”

The stories are more acute when I receive calls from my sponsees. As soon as I pick up the phone, they begin. All about how everyone’s doing terrible things to them, how bad and mean and horrible their boyfriend/girlfriend/father/mother/daughter/son—you name it—is, how the world is out to get them. Their stories, not unlike those told at meetings and not unlike my father’s, are all hard luck tales, told as proof of how special the teller is. Sometimes it feels like a warped competition of whose life is worse. And, of course, these stories serve as evidence for why nothing is going to work.

The longer I’m sober, the more I want the bare bones, the facts, the specifics. I want to know how we stay sober. I already know what it was like. And though everyone’s story is different, we all come from different backgrounds and have different details. If you’re sitting in an AA meeting, you belong. In the end, we all share the same story: Things got bad and we finally realized we needed help. What I want when I go to meetings is to hear what people are doing to stay away from that first drink. I come to meetings not to hear the stories but to hear the solution.

I spent my 20s and 30s in the rooms. I heard the same story over and over, whether it was coming from the mouth of a Wall Street stockbroker in a suit, a blue-collar worker from the Lower East Side, an ex-prostitute, or a cleaned up punk rocker in his teens. We are all connected by the common thread of where we come from; we are all alcoholics and addicts. That is absolutely true. But what is true, also, is that we all share in one common solution.

What we share is the hope, the joy, the thrill at the prospect of having been given a second life—or in my case, a third. And I want this life. I want this chance at living life without a drink or a drug. I want what the Big Book promised me: to be a new person. I want to experience a “psychic change.”

Telling stories is a kind of enchantment, the casting of a spell. A story is a cocoon; it is a deterrent from the great reality, the truth. And I can’t help but wonder what would happen if the next time my father started spinning another tale, if, instead, I stopped him. If I took his hand in mine and said, No dad, I don’t want to hear another story. I want to hear about how you’re going to change your life. I want to hear how you’re going to keep yourself alive.

Who knows, maybe, just maybe, if I did this, I might be able to help him. I might be able to steer him back to his reality; he might just be able to begin to change his life.

Maddy Demberg is a pseudonym for a regular contributor to The Fix. She last wrote about relapse.

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