Body, Bottles Down
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How I Broke Up (and Eventually Got Back Together) with AA

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(Photo Credit: Andy Kropa)

I’ve always had enormous respect for Alcoholics Anonymous. Just the idea that, nearly 80 years ago, two guys, both desperate to stay sober, found a way to help each other, then help others, then write a book and start a life-saving movement — one that now has more than two million members worldwide — is astounding. AA’s history is fascinating, and I will always be inspired by it, regardless of my own relationship status with the fellowship.

Because it’s been a bumpy one.

Since 2005, AA has been like that boyfriend you love, then leave, then run back to for all the wrong reasons, then leave again, for a long time. Until one day, years later (if you’re lucky), you reunite once more, but only after both partners have had the life experiences they needed to change, to grow, to sort out whatever stuff was getting in the way of a successful relationship in the first place. That, in a nutshell, sums up what my love life with Alcoholics Anonymous has been like.

AA is a curious phenomenon when you think about it. You have a group of strangers, of all different creeds, colors and backgrounds — people who would probably never spend time together in “real life” — sitting in a room (often uncomfortably close) because of one thing and on thing only: the desire to stop drinking alcohol.

[pullquote]I felt so uncomfortable at every meeting I attended — which hurt because I knew so many people who loved AA. I constantly asked myself the question: “What’s wrong with me? Everyone is no nice and welcoming — why can’t I like this?”[/pullquote]

I loved AA at first, and by “at first”, I mean my first meeting, where you are by far the most popular person in the room. Everyone flocks to the newcomer with phone numbers, words of encouragement, huge smiles, and even hugs. My ego soared. But very quickly, (once I was no longer “special”) my mind started in with the silent judgments. Who are these people? Why are they all so happy? Don’t they realize the fact that we can’t drink totally sucks? And now that I think of it, why are they being so nice to me? What are they going to want in return? Are they eventually going to audit me? Should I flee this scene right now?

I felt so uncomfortable at every meeting I attended — which hurt because I knew so many people who loved AA. I constantly asked myself the question: “What’s wrong with me? Everyone is no nice and welcoming — why can’t I like this?”

Looking at that statement now, it’s obvious why I felt that way, and it had nothing to do with “the rooms,” as AA meetings are often called. Yes, I was still in denial about truly being an alcoholic, but even more telling, I still hated myself to the core.

While I was drinking, my contaminated mind took every chance it could to scold me. To beat me up. To tell me that my feelings were wrong and that something was always wrong with me. That illness chastised me every day, 24/7, so I’d continue to numb those hateful, esteem-decimating thoughts with gigantic gulps of vodka. And that’s the thing of it — one of the facets of this insanely complex disease — it just loves to point out all the reasons why I suck. “You just said the DUMBEST thing, what is wrong with you?” or “You’ll never be able to live up to what what’s expected of you here.” or “This place isn’t for you, these people are uncreative Pollyanna robots. Do you really want to become an uncreative Pollyanna robot?”

Now that I’m at a place where I can (for the most part) tell that asshole voice to go to hell, I see what “it” was doing. My alcoholic mind was feeling 100% threatened in a place that might led me to sobriety, and was in hyper-drive to swiftly shift my course for the nearest pub. And sadly, when it spoke, I listened.

Flash forward to April 2012. I had just returned home from my third stint in rehab, which I was sent to after I’d hit my true bottom (which you’ll all hear about eventually). I had spent four months working really hard to get sober, and I was finally starting to see with eyes that weren’t soaked in vodka and filled with alcoholic delusions. I was truly ready to do whatever I needed to do to stay sober, and even though I dreaded it, going to meetings was part of that plan. So I penciled the Pollyanna robots into my daily schedule and started regularly attending AA meetings.

For a quite a while, I basically just showed up and kept quiet. I heard things that resonated with me, but still felt terribly uncomfortable and out of place. But after about eight months (and lots of discussion in therapy) I realized: These rooms are here to help alcoholics. I am an alcoholic, which means these rooms are here to help me. So be me. Be yourself, and maybe you’ll find some other people who feel the same way. Or at the very least, maybe these meetings will feel just a bit more like a blessing than a burden.

And guess what? THAT worked. I spoke the truth, I let my vulnerability show, I even revealed that I was having struggles with AA itself. And to my utter shock, these people did not threaten to kick me to the curb or “declare me suppressive.”  In fact, many told me that at one time they felt the same way; some even admitted that occasionally they still do. So that’s what it took for me finally feel comfortable around all these people that were “just like me.” To JUST BE ME.

Because the truth is, AA isn’t a room of people I barely know TELLING me how to live my life. Rather, it’s a warm circle of people who suffer from the same affliction I do, and have found a program of living that’s gotten them sober. It’s also enriched their lives enormously along the way, and all they are doing is SHARING what they’ve learned in the hope that it will help others who are still struggling.

Now I need these people to remind me not just that I’m an alcoholic, but also that I’m not alone. And I never have to be. Whereas I used to always look (and easily find) a bar anywhere I went, now I know I can look (and easily find) an AA meeting wherever I go. Call it a “cult”, call it a “clique”, call it whatever you want. To me, AA is like a tribe, and I know that whatever I go through, for the rest of my life, someone from that tribe will always be there to hold my hand. To listen to my fears. And most importantly, to help keep me away from a drink.

19 Comments

  1. Margie says

    Your writing gets right to the heart of the matter – the reader’s heart!

    • Susan Linney
      Susan Linney says

      Wow — thank you Margie, what a lovely comment, especially first thing in the morning! Thanks so much for continuing to read!

      -Susan

  2. Susan, this was great, thanks so much for posting it.
    I’ve gone through a very similar process of accepting AA and my presence and participation in its rooms. So much of my rage against it in the beginning – in the years when I wasn’t “going in and out” but just not being “in” at all and still drinking constantly, “between meetings,” after meetings, the whole nine – and even in my first couple years sober had to do, as you put it, with still hating myself. That manifested primarily as a lack of confidence, as a fear that my character was so weak that I’d turn into some proselytizing culter before my very own eyes. Voicing those fears and not being shut down has allowed me to be myself, and has caused my appreciation of AA to soar. It’s amazing what truth and vulnerability can do. Mine isn’t the most popular “program” or viewpoint in the rooms, but it’s mine. And it’s working.
    Thanks again. Be well. Good luck.

    • Susan Linney
      Susan Linney says

      Thanks so much for sharing your struggles, Ian. I can totally relate.

      True sobriety is hard on all levels, and when I was too insecure and afraid to be honest (even when I was no longer drinking) I saw AA as just another burden. This mind-infiltrating, thought-scrambling disease is a beast, but thankfully, like you, when I started to share my stuff openly and honestly and didn’t “pretend’ to have it all together, I was able to start letting go. And with that came such freedom! As well as AA doors that suddenly swung wide open, the same doors that I used to have to muster up all my energy to enter.

      Really, I just needed to be patient. And that’s not easy for me.

      Thanks so much for reading and sharing your thought, Ian. I wish you all the best!

      -Susan

  3. aa is a cult and a clique some days I fit in some times people leave the room before we close after I speak anyone who drinks to comatose like I did shot up junk I wasn’t sure if it was poison and spent all !!! the rent money on crack rendering me homeless again !!has got a mental problem and all the meetings all the steps all the sponsors wont fix it so now am seeing a psychiatrist a therapist and stabilized on psych meds and im doing great I don’t drink or use illegal street drugs under a doctors care everything’s cool loving ‘ life !!! and once in a while I go to aa mostly to get my tokens 1year 2year 3year 4year 6 months and with God as a witness I have had a drink since 03 25 2009 ……….so oh and maybe something I say will help others!!

  4. Joyce says

    Susan, I’m so glad you wrote about this. I just can’t wrap my head around AA. I don’t feel quite as strongly as Chuck here, (and I’m curious, Chuck — why would you bother collecting and accepting anniversary coins from an establishment you don’t respect?), but I’ve tried meetings, many times, and I just don’t feel like I belong there.

    Honestly I haven’t gone to a meeting for a while, but when I did I never felt comfortable, never felt welcomed, always felt like I was the odd man out. Maybe it was b/c I was living in a small town at the time, but honestly, meetings made usually made me want to drink more.

    But thanks for sharing your initial feelings — I always assume everyone loves it from the start. At least now I know that’s not necessarily always the case.

  5. Susan Linney
    Susan Linney says

    Hi Joyce:

    I really appreciate your honestly in these comments. And believe me I’ve felt all those things you’ve described. Even about the meetings making you want to drink more. I totally understand. All I can say is, based solely on my experience, that eventually, over time, without me even really realizing it , I started to feel more comfortable and then, as a result, I started to share things. And once I let people know who I really was, that’s when it all changed for me.

    Thanks again for reading and sharing so openly here! I love hearing from you, Joyce.

    Susan

  6. Kathy says

    Awesome job. I have been in recovery since 2007 and could so relate to what you were saying!

    • Susan Linney
      Susan Linney says

      Thanks so much, Kathy! And congrats on your 5 (or maybe even 6?) years!

      -Susan

  7. Sandy says

    Cannot tell you how refreshing and wonderful it is to read a column about a woman’s experience in recovery. I just found your work today and have been plowing through past articles. Congratulations on your efforts and thanks for sharing your experience, strength and hope! I really related to this piece in particular because I sometimes find it really challenging to feel part of meetings when I’ve been away too long and you’re right that it’s just about showing up and being real. I honestly think this is a skill set they should teach in school and there should be a “meeting” once a day in every group setting (work included, particularly, so) where people get to say what is true for them without having to answer to anyone about why they feel the way they feel.

    • Susan Linney
      Susan Linney says

      Thanks so much, Sandy — I really appreciate hearing from you! And you’re right, I think part of the experience is about learning a new skill set. One that I, at least, never really learned b/c I drank instead of dealt with some fairly standard life issues. AA gives me a handy blueprint for navigating some of this stuff, as well as accountability.

      But the minute I put too much pressure on myself to do it perfectly, that’s when I start to get all up in my head again. It’s a tricky balance.

      Thanks again for reading, Sandy — hope to see you back here!

      -Susan

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