I Go To More AA Meetings Than My Alcoholic Ex

By Stephanie Balzer 08/20/15

I’m not an alcoholic and can enjoy a drink, but AA and Al-Anon have become necessary after a relationship with an addict broke me. 

Stephanie Balzer

I slink in at 5:29 pm and take my usual seat by the door, relieved to be here. The room smells like a basement with mold and cigarette smoke embedded in the carpet fibers and paint. We’re in a low-rent strip mall on a bus line in mid-town; the other tenants are a sports bar, a beauty school, and a forensic drug and alcohol-testing laboratory. 

I rest the back of my head against the wall, turn off my cell, and take in the banner that reads, “We absolutely insist on enjoying life. – Big Book, pg. 132.” Around me people are enjoying their lives, chatting and laughing—people who have been homeless, incarcerated, bankrupt, abandoned, and more, all problems hinging on drinking, at least in part.

The meeting is called to order with a moment of silence followed by the Serenity Prayer. A woman celebrating four years clean suggests tonight’s topic: How can we tell if we’ve made spiritual progress? It’s a tag meeting, which means the last person to share chooses the next. Across the room, a guy I’ve never seen before says he wants to hear from “the blonde in the corner.”

“Me?” I ask anxiously, clearing my throat and trying to project my voice. 

“I’m Stephanie . . .” 

I imagine, hanging like a chad, the room’s expectation that I finish my introductory script acknowledging my addiction.

“ . . . and I’m here as a guest, grateful for your experience, strength and hope.”

I add the clause about gratitude so people know I speak the language of a 12-stepper. As the only guest who regularly attends this open meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous, I’m aware I must seem like a tourist with all the privilege the identity embodies—freedom, health, a superficial understanding of her context. Hard drinking does damage to the body’s tissues on the inside and out. “You don’t look like an alcoholic,” an old-timer said to me once.

He’s right. I’m not an alcoholic and can enjoy a drink. Sometimes, I even process what I heard in a meeting over a glass of wine. But AA and Al-Anon have become necessary after a relationship with an addict broke me. 

A word about the breaking: it felt like a free fall from 10,000 feet. When I hit the ground, I learned I was made of clay and it was my job to mold myself into person shape again, as if clay had agency or the means. 

Who knew a room full of drunks could help? I was guided here by intuition and plain desperate need. What I realized is addicts have found reverence for the way they copes with problems, from healing relationships with spouses, to behaving bravely when diagnosed with cancer, to finding the will to live after a son’s suicide. No one’s shouting at, arguing with, or managing each other’s thoughts like would happen on the Internet or in real life. They had something.

Truth is, I became a closeted 12-stepper independent of a group seven years ago, after my relationship with this same alcoholic imploded the first time. 

Back then, I feared if I didn’t control his drinking, he’d become homeless or die. We were locked in a high-speed, high-stakes emotional chase. Once he’d withstood my thrashing and fighting long enough, he became impenetrable, found a new girl, and drank more than ever. I still attempted to hook him with chaos and verbal abuse. Furious I’d lost my influence, I’d stab out—maybe I should be more jealous, I’d think, or more angry or desperate. These weren’t authentic emotions but manipulation techniques. I got help.

We didn’t speak for five years and then he got sober. With trepidation we went to coffee, then emailed, talked on the phone, and became Facebook friends. I was cautious for the first year because I’m no dummy—“kick lit” taught me a year was the requisite period of time to determine whether his sobriety would stick. He was wary too but we eased into trust. Went to dinner and the movies. Started watching Homeland stretched out on his couch. Kissed. I slept over, then planned to sleep over, and then we fell into a routine. I loved him again, or perhaps always had. 

We were still an imperfect couple but who isn’t? I gauged whether independently, and together, our direction seemed healthy. Here’s a checklist of relevant facts: He was the first and last person I spoke to daily. We were good on the phone and talked for hours, which was important because as a consultant his job frequently took him out of town for extended periods of time. Despite the distance, our relationship was intimate, loving, and honest—especially honest. We vacationed in LA and Vegas and Portland. We read books about the brain, discussed podcasts, movies, and music. One day, he gave me his old flask to keep as a symbol of his sobriety; I stashed it in my cedar lingerie dresser along with the wool sweaters tucked away from moths. We even began writing a screenplay about our reconnection, with its rocky start and happy ending because we were so charmed by it. The working title: Round Two.

For the first time since his teens, he expressed a commitment to sustained sobriety and began paying back the tens of thousands of dollars he'd wracked up on credit cards and in graduate school loans diverted to vodka tonics and martinis. He read addiction memoirs, too. Learned about the complexity of emotions. Grew curious about my spiritual journey. Got fit.

“We’re so lucky to get a second chance!” I used to marvel.

So when, over the course of a month, his availability and honesty waned—when he started spending more time with work friends, calling me during his 10-minute commute, commenting that he was sober “for now” and then accidentally letting slip someone else was staying with him in his motel—I felt the insanity eclipse my rational mind like a shadow self. If our lives were that screenplay, I flashed back to the desperate girl I once was.

Unlike that desperate girl, I didn’t lose my balance for long and confronted him. He confessed to sleeping with a colleague. I asked for space. 

I can’t vouch for his sobriety now but that’s when I began attending meetings. 

Guests are only supposed to listen but my tears burst everywhere the first night. I said I needed to hear what humility sounded like; that a person I loved might be heading toward a relapse. (It was as much of the story as I could muster.) Someone handed me a tissue, a well-meaning gesture that ensured I was a weepy wreck the entire hour.

Attending open AA meetings then became a way to “detach with love,” which is to say manage my broken heart without obsessing or any other generally poor behavior. Meetings helped preserve my dignity. I knew I couldn’t press him about his sobriety, or why he had so little regard for us. Any contact threatened to set fire to my crazy. Plus, who am I to say what’s best for him, or how he should live? My head understood this but I couldn’t trust my mouth. Yet the people in meetings were vulnerable, not defensive, and somehow whole in their brokenness. They became a surrogate for my pain as I listened, quietly sorting through my anger and confusion. 

I won’t need AA forever. I’m giving myself permission to attend meetings for as long as they’re useful, knowing this is an acute time. Love fades. Eventually, come 5:30, I’ll want to go to happy hour, or to the gym, or to sushi with friends instead. 

But today it’s 11:40 a.m. and I can check out the nooner if I hurry. This meeting, I quickly discover, is a study of the AA traditions, and today’s topic is Tradition Seven: Every AA group ought to be fully self-supporting, declining outside contributions. 

Oh god, I think. What a waste of time. It’s clear how the business model works—anonymity, no cross talk, etc.—what’s there to discuss? If I sneak out now, I can swing by the bank and grab Chipotle instead. 

Yet I don’t get up. Someone shares a story about the time his group’s treasurer ran off with the $1,500 pot of cash. The next person shares a similar story, and then the next. I couldn’t believe it—the AA treasurer filching the money was so cliché! How could all of these people following the program steal? 

At its core, AA is a program of self-correction, shared another woman. In her story, nothing is said to the thief; there is no confrontation, no intervention. It was the most loving, hopeful response to betrayal in the contemporary world I’d ever heard. For a program that extols a complete abstinence from alcohol, its philosophies have softened my condemnatory and rigid ways on many occasions. 

The treasurer stories gnawed at me, and it was almost cartoonish that I couldn’t grasp them fully until something clicked: these were breaches of contract, but also trust. 

In retrospect, it’s easy to see where this man and I were set up to fail. Our relationship had characteristics of love but not its foundation—no commitment or intent. In our first round, he professed love but liquor won. In the second, he demonstrated love yet insisted of the future, “I’m still young ... I want to explore more souls.” Meanwhile, I read through his comments to how he behaved, operating from the premise “actions speak louder than words.”

Now I realize actions don’t speak louder than words because both spring from the same goddamn mind. Maybe there’s always a tragic gap between who we are and what we could be, all we have and want, and the love we feel and give, but in AA, I saw people striving to fill the gap with as much integrity as possible. 

“I promise I will never blur those lines with you again,” he wrote after we’d separated the second time, a stinging amends I wasn’t ready to hear. “The lines between friend and lover. That’s all I can offer.”

Once, over coffee when things were still good, I’d asked, “Aren’t you so happy we know each other now that we’re different people?” 

“We’re not different people,” he countered. It became an actual debate, whether there’s an essence to the self that sustains us through different stages of life. He grew more irritated by my insistence that I was a new person since recovery and he was, too. 

“You’re the same girl I’ve always known. I’m the same person, too. I just don’t drink.”

Are we capable of change? Al-Anon uses the metaphor of cruising on autopilot to describe how to sustain a better life. Autopilot is never dead set on a linear course as we might assume, but follows a path of gentle and continuous realignment. When the airplane drifts slightly, it readjusts immediately. 

I wonder if I’m in alignment writing this essay. Is it self-serving to reveal as much as I am about a program of anonymity, and my personal life, and this man’s, though I’ve taken precautions to protect identities? Is this a story about love or addiction? Are those so different?

The four women I solicited for feedback never questioned why I let him into my heart a second time. Only my reader-friend who is a man said, “You think you stamp out the cigarette but there’s always an ember ... Was he a great lay? Seductive intellectually? What is the diagnosis of your need?” 

“You don’t let us fall in love with him in the story,” he continued. “That’s the point,” I replied. “I’m writing my way out.”

“I wish I could tell you how none of this matters,” a woman said to me after an Al-Anon meeting. She was weak, her body is dying, and she stood very close and held my hand. Her friend’s daughter had braided her hair in tiny braids all over her head.

I happened to exchange emails with my ex in the course of writing this story. He’s completing our screenplay and asked about sharing credits since I was instrumental in the concept and crafted scenes. (“We will finish this screenplay regardless of what happens between us,” I’d promised; my broken contract. Note: There may be a reason most great screenwriting duos are siblings, not lovers.)

“As long as we’re discussing projects, I’m writing about us,” I responded.

“You know I don’t mind being uncomfortable about the truth,” he said. “I’m not worried about what you write. I totally understand (expect) that it may leave me feeling disconcerted.”

We’re civil now, perhaps resigned to what is. But we don’t agree on “the truth” anymore. His discomfort with our he-said, she-said tales isn’t my concern. I can’t eke out any more rational understanding of our situation. But I’m grieving my amplification of our gulf, putting us in black-and-white and on a giant stage. It’s alignment but not the kind I wanted. It’s not the quiet admission that we were together and happy when friends or strangers inquired. 

As I’ve learned to say, until it becomes real, “what a wonderful opportunity to let go.”

Stephanie Balzer is a writer in Tucson, Arizona. 

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Stephanie Balzer is a writer, blogger and life coach living in Tucson, Arizona. You can find her on Linkedin or follow her on Twitter.