A Special Guest Infact.
Today, we bring a special Guest Infact from a dear friend who yesterday celebrated her first anniversary, a whole year without drinking. A year of recovery. I’ve been privileged to be a part of it, and I encouraged her to share it here. I hope you’ll read her incredible story. AA works. Here’s the proof:
What it was like, what happened, and what it’s like now.
What it’s like now is a whole lot better than what it was like on this day a year ago. There aren’t words to express how much gratitude—and amazement—I have at the changes that have happened in my life in the last year. I am a sober alcoholic, sober for one year, as of today. It is easy for me now to share my story in the rooms of Alcoholics Anonymous, because I do that four, five, six times a week. The heart of the program, the community, is one alcoholic talking to another alcoholic about things we understand that most other people don’t understand. We don’t lecture, or demand, or scold, or command. We share our stories. In the vocabulary of A.A., we say that we share our experience, strength, and hope, following the general format of what it was like, what happened, and what it’s like now.
It is easy now for me to speak in a room of alcoholics, but it is not easy for me to write to you, all of you out there, who may or may not know me. Very often, when someone sits down to speak at a meeting, to lead the meeting with their story, the speaker will confess that it is nerve wracking to be sitting in front of the room, that they don’t know what is going to come out of their mouth, and that they hope something they say will be of use. And then many of us will quiet the nerves by taking a deep breath and repeating the format like a comforting mantra. What it was like, what happened, and what it’s like now.
I started drinking when I was fifteen years old. I didn’t grow up in a drinking household. My mom didn’t drink at all. My dad drank occasionally and moderately. To this day, I’ve never seen either of my parents drunk. My mother warned me from a young age that there was alcoholism in the family and that I should be careful. I didn’t see anyone in the family who drank, and I suspected she might be exaggerating. When I was old enough to ask her who the alcoholics were, I didn’t necessarily agree with her assessment about what constituted problem drinking. Her assessment was pretty much textbook and correct. There is a body count associated with the drinking in my extended family.
I was an awkward, shy, isolating kid. I got bullied a lot. It sucked a lot. There was a lot of pain and fear at home because sometimes the gears of a family don’t move smoothly. There were happy times, but in the difficult times, in the soul crushing times, there was little or no relief. When my parents divorced, it was like an icy cloud lifting. That was just before high school. I made a friend who was new to our little town, liked me for some reason, and was one of the cool kids. She taught me how to be in the world. She and I are still friends, and I owe her more than she knows.
Through high school, I worked hard enough at school, but not as hard as I could have. I had two jobs—the same two jobs—through high school and until I went to college. I went to church, which was a requirement in my family. I took care of my younger sister. I was responsible. On the other hand, I partied a lot. I did plenty of things I shouldn’t have done. I was hungover in church or at work on the weekends on a fairly regular basis. But I showed up and didn’t raise any alarms. I was more functional than most of my friends.
College was a different story. I drank my way out of my first year of college. There were blackouts. There were embarrassments. There was a lot of fun, but there were also consequences. Looking back now, I believe I was an alcoholic by the time I was 19. An unusual set of family circumstances involving a death and a couple of births catapulted me into adulthood, and I embraced it. I drank very rarely for most of the following decade, and those were good years. In retrospect, when I did drink, there were times when I drank more than I had intended, which is a warning sign for alcoholism. I was wary, and felt guilty when I felt I had had too much to drink. Another way to put that is that I was managing my drinking, which is another warning sign. In all likelihood, the problem was always there.
Life moved on. I accomplished some things. I lost some things. Some painful things happened. A heartbreak, or two, or three. An estrangement here, a frustration there. A lack of support, a burden too heavy. A drink, and another. This is very dangerous ground. This is the essence of why I need Alcoholics Anonymous and the 12 steps in my life. Left to my own devices, the line between what has happened to me and where I have played a role blurs. Left to my own devices, I can take actual pain and magnify it. Left to my own devices, I can build a case that the world is a much darker and colder place than it actually is. That’s what I did, and in the end, in the last few years, at least (though it’s hard to count), I was drinking every day. I had to drink every day. It wasn’t something that people saw, or commented on. In fact, we had good times together, you and I. But there were problems, and they were building fast, and I didn’t have a choice about whether I would take care of what needed to be done or whether I would drink. I had to drink.
What happened is that a part of me wanted to be well and survive, but my destructive behavior had a lot of momentum. I had very few face-to-face interactions with people. My drunk typing was apparently pretty great, both in content and syntax. No one was around in real life to see how bad things were. My world was very small, and mostly digital. I had started telling health care professionals that I had a problem. I was actively and honestly asking for help. I had several conversations that went nowhere. What happened next was amazing.
What happened is that I had gotten to know Dr24Hours a little bit online. He shared with me by DM that he was thinking about posting his blog, which was about his sobriety. Nothing clicked. No spark of recognition that we had the same disease. Then he shared his story—his experience, strength and hope. What it was like. What happened. What it’s like now. The dateline on the second installment of that story is April 17th, 2012, which is my sobriety date.
This is the key to what we do in A.A., and it’s why I’m writing now. It’s not that our stories are the same—they’re not. It’s not that our drinking was the same—it wasn’t. It’s that I identified with the emotional content, the experience, the powerlessness, the unmanageability. And here was someone saying that there was a way out. That he knew the way out. And more than saying it, living it. This is how I remember the next conversation:
Me: I liked your post.
Dr24Hours: Thank you.
Me: I think I might have a problem with my drinking.
Dr24Hours: [I don’t remember, my world was already in upheaval.]
Dr24Hours: Do you want to talk on the phone?
That was the first day in a long, long time that I didn’t drink. It wasn’t easy. Dr24Hours paved the way by calling Intergroup in my city (the main phone number for A.A.) to tell them that some nutty woman half out of her mind might screw up the courage to call, so please help her find a women’s meeting. Or something like that, I assume. He told me that if I called in the next five minutes, there would be a woman I could talk to, which was a nice way of encouraging me to do it now and not later (never). I called the number and broke down crying. Because it was starting to be real. The more I talked about the things that weren’t fit to be talked about—the shame, and fear, and isolation, and the fact that I didn’t know how to not drink anymore—the more they became real. The woman on the other end of the phone was calm, and comforting. She sounded like she knew what she was doing. I certainly didn’t know what I was doing. She suggested a meeting that was easy for me to get to. I went that night, and it’s a meeting I go to nearly every week. I met the woman who would become my sponsor there that night, and other women who have become friends. It worked the way it’s supposed to work, the way it has worked for millions of alcoholics. “Alcoholics Anonymous is the net that catches you when everything else has failed.”
Early sobriety is hard. The suggestions are simple, and they work. Don’t drink and go to meetings. Get a sponsor. Work the steps. Go to 90 meetings in 90 days. Don’t let yourself get too hungry, angry, lonely, or tired. Much of my memory of that time is hazy, but if I can’t remember something, I can ask Dr24Hours, because he was there every step of the way. I can ask the women in my meetings (I stuck mostly, but not entirely to women’s meetings, though I have many mixed meetings that have been important in my recovery). I put my hand up to share in nearly every meeting, even (and especially) when I don’t want to. It connects me to the group. It lets people get to know me. It keeps me from being invisible.
In the first week, I was angry. I was pissed. Not at anything in particular. I was having mood swings. Then I was depressed. Then I was depressed in a way that terrified me. I probably needed to be in rehab and supervised, though I had no idea things had gone that far. I went to more meetings. I talked on the phone to other alcoholics. I sought help from mental health professionals, and that was a disaster. But I’m here. I went to more meetings. I didn’t drink. I got a sponsor and started working the steps. I was solidly insane for at least two months. They told me it would get better, and it would get better fast. As long as I didn’t drink. I had nothing inside me to suggest that anything could get better. I used to tell people, “I’m going to believe you, because that’s all I’ve got.” Who was I to think that what had worked for millions of other people couldn’t work for me.
It got better, and it got better fast. I got fired. I got unfired. I nearly got evicted. I didn’t. I took service commitments, and I kept showing up. I took suggestions. Gradually, my mind started to settle. Physically, I started to get healthier. My physical health had become very poor. I was sure there was something terribly wrong with me. As it turns out, there was. It just wasn’t what I thought. “If the cure works, you probably have the disease.”
It’s not that my brain doesn’t act up and try to create drama where none is necessary. It still does. Part of this probably has to do with being a human being. Part of it is probably exacerbated by the fact of being a human being with a serious disease. I needed to go through the insanity of early sobriety the way I did in order to realize that I really can’t safely drink alcohol. The first step says “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.” I certainly knew that my life had become unmanageable. I didn’t believe I was powerless over alcohol until I stopped drinking and saw how serious the backlash was.
Tonight I did service at a meeting that was celebrating the 55th anniversary of the group. There was someone there with 45 years of sobriety, and someone with two days. I was on the decorating committee. There was a lot of food, and a lot of laughter. There is a lot of laughter in the rooms of A.A. My sponsor gave me her one year coin, with a card that read “Pass it on to keep it.” The person helping me put up streamers was a newcomer with less than 90 days of sobriety. I asked how it was going, and the response was typical. It’s hard. It’s really hard. I told him it gets better, and it gets better fast.
My sponsor told me this evening that tonight I can think about a year. Tomorrow, it’s back to 24 hours at a time, because I have a daily reprieve from this disease that—make no mistake—wants me dead. But will settle for miserable. Today I am happy. Life is good. I have choices, even on days that are bad. Especially on days that are bad. I can choose to go to the gym, to go to a meeting, to call another alcoholic. There are a million things I can do—and there’s one thing I can’t do. I can’t pick up the first drink.
If you’re reading this and you’re wondering if you have a problem, know that you’re not alone, and you don’t have to be alone. I read a blog post and I got my life back. That’s pretty amazing, don’t you think? I am filled with gratitude. Beyond words. Thank you for my sobriety.