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On Being the Exception.

22 July 2016

Recovering from alcoholism in Alcoholics Anonymous is very straightforward. Don’t drink. Go to meetings. Do the steps. Keep these things up, and you’ll make it. But recovery is hard. Doing those steps requires a lot of work, willingness to look at yourself and see how you cause your own problems. Refusal to be a victim of others. Acceptance of responsibility. Action and accountability. Everything that society tells us we shouldn’t have to do: we’re all perfect the way we are; your problems are someone else’s fault. But if you can embrace the ego-deflating process of self-searching and seeking required, you can recover from alcoholism.

Let’s be honest, recovery is also unlikely. As I have written many times: most of us die. Most of us die without even attempting to recover. But most of us who do attempt to recover also die of alcoholism. Because doing the work required is hard, unending, and requires a complete renovation of your life style. Including your associates, and sometimes family. It seems that most people can’t do it. Every week I see new faces in meetings that I’ll never see again. Some of them may recover elsewhere. Most of them die.

It is a peculiar paradox, recovery. We know it can happen. It does happen. And yet we also know it won’t happen for the great majority. I’ve been in recovery now eight and a half years, and compared to some of the men I see every Wednesday that makes me still a baby in recovery. I know plenty of people with 30, 40 years of recovery. People who will die sober of something else. I hope to be one of those. I feel like I’m on a good path, but it is not a path that ever leaves the woods. I am never out of danger. But I know how to minimize it.

When it comes to recovery, I am already an exception. Just deciding to try makes me one of a few. Finding the willingness to work the program makes me one of fewer. Being able to maintain a program makes me one of a very small number. And I want to be clear. I do not believe it’s me. I do not have the power to do these things in myself. I am not very spiritual these days, but I have no illusion that I am the author of my own recovery. I can not do this. I am buoyed by forces stronger than myself.

I had a conversation with my sister (in which neither of us got to really elaborate on our ideas, so don’t blame her for any of this) that was about weight loss more than recovery, but I see them in similar lights. She argued that it’s not fair to tell people they have to be the exception – that if very few people can lose a lot of weight and maintain that weightloss, that it’s not ok to tell people that it’s a goal worth pursuing. I disagree.

I think it’s perfectly fine to be honest with people and say: the path you’re embarking on is incredibly difficult and few people are successful in the long term. It can be done, but it is out of reach for most. We don’t know ahead of time who can maintain it and who can’t. But we do know that for some few people, there’s a better life to be had if that’s what you consider to be a better life (whether that’s weightloss or recovery, or whatever).

Behavioral and lifestyle interventions are presented badly. We teach short-term drastic changes. Lose the weight on this crash diet, and then you’ll be able to go back to eating pizza. Don’t drink for a month, and you’ll prove you’re not an alcoholic. Train for a 5k and you’ll be fit forever. It’s bullshit. To see change – lifelong, difficult, lifestyle change – you have to make lifelong modifications to your behavior. And that’s fucking hard.

Lots of people can’t do it. The people who can and do are not “better” than people who don’t and can’t. We don’t know what puts people in one group or the other, and I promise you we never will. But that also means you don’t know which group you’re in until you try. Really try. Dedicate your life to it. Make the change. Be the change. Live the change.

And to really make change, I exhort you to recognize that you probably can’t do it on your own. I couldn’t. I didn’t. We need help. Groups of people who do what we’d like to do. In Alcoholics Anonymous, we say: if you want what we have, and are willing to go to any length to get it, you are ready to take certain steps. The same is true for weightloss and health: if you want it, go find people who have it, and then join them in doing what they do.

Now, I recognize that weightloss and alcoholism are not identical, but I think they share more than a lot of people want to admit. To intervene for either, lifelong, difficult, painful, unrelenting lifestyle changes must be made. I know because I’ve done both. I know how hard it is, and I know how unlikely it is to succeed. Because I’ve watched friends who are smarter than me, stronger than me, and better than me fail at both.

But it is not impossible. It is only very difficult. And in life, isn’t it the difficult things that are most worth doing? Being a concert pianist is unlikely and difficult too. And lots more people have the talent than succeed. Because the crucial part of it is the discipline. That’s the thing. It’s getting up each day and deciding that yes, today I will do the difficult thing too. I’ll run. I’ll cook. I’ll sweat. I’ll go to a meeting. I’ll write about my alcoholism. I’ll call my sponsor.

Be the exception.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Aimee permalink
    22 July 2016 10:10

    Thanks for writing this. Just to be clear, I was talking more about what I had read in that article than what I “believe.” And it has nothing to do with fairness – that is an entirely irrelevant term. I don’t know what is the right way to help people achieve goals that are extremely unlikely. The doctor in the article suggests that we change our goals to likelier ones. We do that all the time – if your child wants to be a rock star, you encourage them to think about other worthwhile music related careers. I think is – not unfair, but maybe cruel? – to insist on defining success in such a way that only the tiniest of minorities will achieve it. I hate the idea of a silver-medal Olympian thinking of themselves as a failure because they didn’t get gold – but I also hate the idea of an entitled, lazy person demanding ribbons and accolades for mediocrity. When it comes to weight loss, the problem is compounded by the extreme stigma of obesity. We know that losing thirty or fifty pounds and keeping it off is so difficult that 99 out of 100 people fail at it. Yet even the 1%, if they are still overweight at the end of that, will continue to bear the stigma as though they hadn’t ever changed at all. All of the rewards are strictly internal – and I think that adds another level of difficulty. You are right, of course, that people who never try for real will never achieve their goals, and if people believe their goal is entirely impossible then of course they won’t try. it’s a fine balancing act, between encouraging the truly difficult and acknowledging the impossible. There comes a time to quit beating your head against a brick wall.

    • 22 July 2016 10:24

      Yeah, I knew as I wrote it that “fair” wasn’t the right word, but I gave up trying to find the right one so I just put in the disclaimer about not blaming you for it.

      And yes, there comes a time to quit beating your head against a brick wall. But I don’t believe that working for weightloss or recovery is fairly described that way. Because there are benefits to both even if one is not fully successful. Whereas if the wall doesn’t fall down, you just end up concussed.

      The stigma issue is valid and complex. Alcoholics in recovery are met with misunderstanding, misplaced admiration, and stigma as well. But it isn’t the same as obesity, in part because it’s not visible to the casual person. Whereas obese people are seen negatively even if they’ve lost 300 pounds, because how does a stranger know?

      It’s complex and unfortunate and dispiriting. But it’s not impossible. And we never know until we make the choices. And I think there’s a huge difference between “only 1 in 100 succeeds” and “only 1 in 100 can succeed”. I believe the former statement but not the latter.

      • Aimee permalink
        22 July 2016 16:40

        I agree with your last sentence. I just don’t know how a person would ever know if they were trying “hard enough.” It seems to me like a case of diminishing returns – more and more effort for less and less progress (still talking about weight loss here, not recovery). If doing “whatever it takes” means sacrificing my entire life to approaching but never achieving a tantalizing, chimerical goal – well, that tells me my priorities are off.

      • 22 July 2016 17:10

        Sure. But for others, that might be the definition of a life well lived.

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