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My Problem is My Problem.

1 April 2014

Even though I’ve been sober for a few days now (2,237 to be precise), I still can be known to look longingly at a beverage from time to time. Sunday, after hours of driving through torrents of rain, moving in frigid cold, and then walking through sleet and ice for half an hour, I could have used a beer. I didn’t obsess about it. I didn’t crave it. But there was that part of my mind that, in those situations, remembers how good a drink tasted at those times. Like all such ideation, it was transient and mild.

So it didn’t bother me when my partner had a (half) glass of wine with dinner. Well, beyond my standard incredulity that anyone is able to drink a half a glass of wine and not, say, several bottles. I glanced a little longingly at it for a moment, perhaps. And I know for 100% certain that if I had felt funny about it that I could have asked her not to drink it, and she wouldn’t have. But in the context of our relationship, her having that wine was the right thing to do.

Why? Because she felt like having a glass of wine. And my condition shouldn’t impact how she lives her life. My problem is my problem. Not hers, and no one else’s. It’s my responsibility to look after my own condition. I am a member of Alcoholics Anonymous to make sure that my life is not all about alcohol. When I drink, my life becomes consumed by the acquisition and consumption of alcohol. Now that I don’t drink, despite the fact that I do a lot of talking and thinking and writing about my disease, my life is in fact not very much about alcohol at all. Huge swathes of time go by where I don’t think about it. I don’t have to avoid anything I want to do because there might be alcohol there. And I don’t have to try to control the lives of others.

When I drank, I was constantly trying to control others. I tried to get people drunk, so my own drunkenness was less noticeable. It’s a grim and depressing way to live, cloaked in manic insistence on joviality. I tried to manipulate people’s opinion of me in order to make sure that my inebriation didn’t factor. My entire life centered on managing my alcohol and people’s perception of my relationship to it. And I failed, spectacularly. Because the person trying to do the managing was constantly drunk.

I have a number of friends who drink, and who know I’m and alcoholic, and drink around me. And they should; at least they should do whatever they’re comfortable with. My problem is my problem. Others are not bound by my needs. If I am uncomfortable around alcohol, I’m the one that needs to make a change.

Embracing recovery from alcohol is not about moral fortitude, but it does require doing work. Just like there’s no shortcut to cardiovascular health. Those who want to be fit and healthy need to eat well and exercise. Genetics, of course, powerfully influence how effective those efforts are, but fitness requires behavioral interventions. The same is true for addiction and alcoholism. We don’t condemn someone for being an addict. But in order to be in recovery, addicts like me do have to make specific, universal behavioral choices.

Those choices are difficult. And the program of AA makes them less difficult, by focusing on and understanding the root causes of our drinking. Recognizing that our disease and our personality combine to make us powerless over alcohol. Laying out a series of steps which, if taken, will result in freedom from our addictive behaviors. I fully recognize that AA is not for everyone, not even for every addict, I suppose.

But having recently read yet another article from a supposed addiction-specialist physician about how AA doesn’t work, I lament the pathetic state of understanding about what AA is, what alcoholism is, and how AA is intended to work. AA is not a medical treatment. AA does not cure alcoholism. AA doesn’t “work”, the way we would like medicine to cure disease. That’s not what we do.

AA lays out a program which, if followed, allows freedom from addictive behaviors, and provides a framework from which we can rebuild our lives. We make no claim that those who follow it are stronger, or better, or smarter. Only that, for those who choose to participate, if they follow the steps, they rarely fail. Not everyone will choose to do so. That’s their right and their privilege. Physicians seek interventions which cure disease. Then claim that AA doesn’t work, because you can’t send someone to AA and trust they’ll get sober, with any kind of reliability.

And you can’t. Persons sent to AA are not particularly likely to get sober, in my experience. The cohort that seem to recover in AA are those who seek us out of their own accord because they can no longer tolerate, in themselves, how they are living as alcoholics and addicts. That is the cohort that AA can work for. Complaining that AA doesn’t work because people who don’t want to stop drinking sometimes go to AA and then don’t stop drinking is like complaining that palliative care doesn’t cure death. It’s not designed to.

AA can’t make anyone want to stop drinking. All we can do it provide the framework that guides those who have exhausted all other options from active addiction into sobriety. And the very first thing, step zero, is deciding that my problem is my problem. No one else’s. Not my partner’s. Not my friends’. And not my physician’s. Mine. No one can cure me. And I cannot recover alone, either. What I can do is walk the road others have walked, sometimes carried, sometimes bearing others on my back. And change. Not who I am, or that I’m an alcoholic. But how I choose to confront the world.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. 1 April 2014 10:51

    Great post.
    Early on in my recovery my wife went to Al-Anon (the equivalent of AA for the partners of alcoholics). She went once and never went back. Succinctly she said to me “It is YOUR problem not mine”. Quite so. She sometimes has a drink around me – like your partner her drinking habits baffle me, she has one drink, a small one, she’ll leave wine in the bottom of a bottle – just bizarre behaviour.
    2,237 PAH! 3,609 – but hey who’s counting my sponsor showed me his counter last week on day 8,888 – being on the journey is enough not how far I’ve come or how far I may have to go just being on the journey is my reward

    • 1 April 2014 15:09

      I have to say my experience has been different My husband is in AA and I am in Al-anon (only for 7 months though). We learn there, and it has been my personal experience, that alcoholism is a family illness. It does NOT just affect the drinker, but because it warps their behavior and interactions with those around them, it affects their family as well. For example, through frustrated attempts to stop the drinker or convince them there is a problem, inability to control chaos and translating that into becoming controlling in all other aspects of life, problems with trust, self-esteem, focusing on other people instead of ourselves, etc. I see this in every single meeting, how much ‘someone else’s problem’ then impacts us and how we react to all sorts of life issues.

      • 1 April 2014 15:18

        I don’t deny I caused pain and issues throughout my family. However my wife believed the root cause was with me not her.

  2. 1 April 2014 11:15

    It all depends how you define success, doesn’t it? I’ve been thinking about relapse a lot lately, and sitting in a lot of meetings where relapse is discussed. By pure chance, the last three meetings I went to have all been first step meetings and so a lot of stories are being told. In my AA circles, it seems there are very few people who go to AA, voluntarily or not, and then never drink again. I can think of one woman who has 27 continuous years sober who never relapsed. Most of us sitting in those chairs have been in and out. Some of us have had one or two relapses, others have had dozens. Some of us “went out” for a brief day or two; others went out for years. But everyone there is better off than they would be had they simply continued on their drinking trajectory uninterrupted. Take a guy who spoke at my last meeting – he’s an older guy and if you add them all up, he has about thirty five years of sobriety, but not more than 10 contiguous. Right now, he’s a sober, sane, fairly healthy man, with a home, a family, and a job. If he’d been drinking straight for the last thirty years, he’d be dead a long time ago. That is true for most people in AA over the age of, oh, say, sixty-five. My point is, AA does “work” even for people who drink sometimes, in that sense. AA “works” better than a lot of chemotherapy drugs on the market – they can only add mere months to your life – AA can add decades! AA “works” better than drugs which can show only tiny (but measurable) improvement in a condition. Going to AA works spectacularly when compared to not going to AA.

    • 1 April 2014 14:14

      While I agree that some sobriety is likely better than none, I think that way lies dangerous thinking. Yes there are serial relapsers who seem to be basically ok. But far, far more end up dead.

      We never want to find ourselves saying: “It’s ok if I relapse once a year. I can manage it!” Alcohol will quickly prove we cannot.

      • 2 April 2014 11:10

        I’m not trying to justify relapse, I’m saying that there are various ways to define “success” in the context of a medical study. For example, compare liver functions of people at one, five, and ten years after first entering AA, and compare them with those of active alcoholics who have never entered AA. My guess is that functions will be spectacularly better among AA attenders, even if they have relapsed various times.

        The question of what relapse does to us spiritually and physically is a different topic.

  3. Syd permalink
    6 April 2014 15:46

    Great article. I sometimes wonder at the nay sayers who use the face that relapses occur to dismiss AA as being not effective. And I know that alcoholism is a family disease. Blaming the alcoholic is one way to have resentments continue to fester. I decided to look at myself and my shortcomings. It seems to have helped me a lot to get on with life and quit blaming someone else.

  4. 8 April 2014 18:31

    This makes sense to me. I’ve often wondered about those court-ordered visitors and their own desire to be sober. If I wanted to continue to drink, AA wasnt going to help me. But the drunks like me, the ones who’ve exhausted all options, enter AA voluntarily, by the grace of god, and ready to change, I want to be sober… I need the program and the program needs me. My problem is my own. My disease is mine alone to cure, with the help of treatment. Like AA. Thank you for this logical and thoughtful blog. I enjoy reading.

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