The New Girl

By Taylor Ellsworth 07/10/12
Women who are new in AA search for comfort wherever they can get it—and that often means with the guys. Believe me: that's how I did it.
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Women have always terrified me. I have spent most of my life trying to impress or intimidate them, because being on equal footing has always been out of the question. Men are easy. Men won’t judge you for ordering French fries with your sandwich or use one thing you said as fuel for years of secret resentment. Or maybe they will, but it definitely isn’t as scary and passive-aggressive when they do it.

When I got sober, I heard “The men stick with the men, and the women stick with the women” over and over as well as expressions like, “The men will pat your ass and the women will save it.” But those catchphrases weren’t enough to bring me to introduce myself to the women who had what I wanted. 

I would go to meetings and avoid their eyes while trying to digest some of their serenity and confidence and pretending that I wasn’t listening to every word they shared. When the meeting was over, I would scurry past the clusters of sober female friends chatting with each other, finding solace in the men outside who would light my cigarettes and compliment me.

I remember applying another coat of mascara for every fear I shoved down while getting ready to head to a meeting, where I hoped that my presence alone would signify that I needed advice.

The fact is that most of these women had introduced themselves to me, given me their phone numbers, or made some show of friendliness at one point. At the majority of the meetings I attended early on, several women would approach me afterwards, hands outstretched, smiling and ready to offer up phone numbers. “Call me anytime!” they’d say. Or” “I’d love to get coffee sometime!” I would sulk away, internally reminding myself that they were only introducing themselves because I was new in sobriety, not because they really wanted anything to do with me. I was young and inexpressibly awkward, and my insecurities readily reminded me every time the opportunity for a new female friendship arose that I would never be smart, interesting, or pretty enough to be on par with these women. My age-old feelings of inadequacy and anxiety that only alcohol had subdued came back with a vengeance in sobriety, particularly when I was in the presence of other sober women.

I was aware that this was only natural. I drank because saying “Here” in class during roll call made me break out in a nervous sweat; I had 20-minute, heart-racing internal debates over whether to use “Yeah” or “Yes” in a text message when I wasn’t under the influence. I felt alone no matter where I went, regardless of whom I was with or where I was going. I didn’t even realize how acutely I felt these things until I got sober and realized that alcohol and drugs had relieved me of that fear and obsessive thinking, if only temporarily. 

I heard people in the rooms describe this same hollowness, which allowed me to admit that I felt the same way. But I didn’t believe that other women in AA actually felt like this, no matter what they said. They had this confidence and poise that I could never imagine attaining. They weren’t awkward when they spoke, they wore heels and red lipstick—two things I had decided long ago were reserved for women more self-assured than me—and they spent more time with each other than seeking validation from men.

I see the newcomer version of myself in the rooms constantly. She comes into the meeting five minutes late, texting furiously on her Blackberry to avoid making eye contact with anyone, usually choosing to sit next to a guy about five years older than her and giggling as she slides into the seat. She is young and pretty but completely afraid—though that’s the last thing you’ll hear her admit at a group level or to another woman. When the meeting ends, she usually leaves with her male friend. I remember applying another coat of mascara for every fear I shoved down while getting ready to head to a meeting, where I hoped that my presence alone would signify that I needed advice. Despite all this, I leave meetings without ever introducing myself to these girls, hoping that when they’re ready to ask for help, they will. 

I know that this is not the proper way to carry the message. But somehow it is my intuitive reaction, and I am not the only one. It actually seems to be nearly universal. We all know how hard it can be to approach women when we come into the rooms, yet few of us make the effort. In a scathing letter to the press, Ashley Judd recently wrote: “Patriarchy is not men. Patriarchy is a system in which both women and men participate...We are unable at times to identify ourselves as our own denigrating abusers, or as abusing other girls and women.” Though Judd was writing about the embarrassing public dissection of her appearance, the statement still rings true in many circumstances. We blame the new girl for surrounding herself with men, therefore blocking herself off from the beautiful friendships that can, and do, materialize between women in recovery; we judge her for sleeping with men in the program or for not sharing her feelings with women. And yet at the same time we know that she is alone where we once were, wondering why none of us like her.

Of course, it makes sense that many of us are more comfortable around men. They cannot read us as easily as women can. A strong sober woman will not tell me that I am prettier than so-and-so, whose hair always looks perfect, when I am drowning in my own ego and fear; she will tell me that I am more than my feelings and gently remind me that some writing or prayer might help. Men, especially if they don’t know us well, are more inclined to tell us what we want to hear and avoid the uncomfortable things. When we cry, instead of asking what’s wrong, they will hold us and wipe away our tears. It is a thousand times easier to keep a man at arm’s length than to hold a woman there. And yet while surface-level relationships with men work as emotional Band-Aids, real relationships between women can work miracles.

It took me about two years of sobriety to realize that I had very few close female friends. I had my sponsor and two other women I talked to in the program, and both of them happened to move away simultaneously that summer. I felt like the girl I had never wanted to be: my only friend was my boyfriend. I would come home from work on a beautiful summer afternoon and spend the rest of the day indoors, painting my nails and watching Teen Mom, wishing I had someone to call. My sponsor encouraged me to share about this in a meeting.

Eventually I did. During open sharing at my home group, a popular women’s meeting in Portland, I broke down in tears as I said my name. Through gasping sobs, I said something along the lines of, “I am lonely. I need friends. You scare me,” with a lot of likes, fucks, ums, and tear wiping scattered between the words. The response was immediate and overwhelming. One woman, an artist that I had spoken to on a few occasions and seriously admired, texted me immediately after my meltdown and asked me to lunch. Another woman invited me to “nail night,” a weekly get-together that involved Dolly Parton movies and girl talk. Still others gave me their phone numbers, told me how much they related to what I’d said, and set up coffee dates. 

I spent the next several months getting to know women who I’d always assumed were smarter, more mature, and cooler than I was—and it turned out that they actually liked me.  All of the women who approached me had experienced the same isolation and fear that I described, and they were more than happy to help me break free from it with the help of long talks, nail art, and copious amounts of Diet Coke. The fellowship of women that I had been craving had been there all along—I just had to let them in. I can only hope that the new woman will stick around long enough to do the same thing.

Taylor Ellsworth writes from Portland, Oregon. She also wrote about getting fired by a sponsee and managing her eating disorder, among other topics, for The Fix. Follow her on Twitter here.

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