WATERED DOWN AA
From The Privileged Addict, pp. 51-55 (Copyright, 2012):
“The first order of business up North was to turn my previous exposure to Alcoholics Anonymous upside down and then knock it flat on its face. But in yet another failed effort would soon emerge great hope. For me, AA had been nothing but a meeting room where I sit in a chair, listen to sob stories, drink lukewarm instant coffee, depend on others to keep me sober, and maybe run up at the end to get a sobriety chip while people clap. Perhaps I even raise my hand and tell a story of my own. But stories, sobriety chips, and Maxwell House didn’t get me better. I didn’t need a social club. I have plenty of friends and let me tell you, they can’t keep me sober. I also didn’t need to reward myself with a thirty-day sobriety chip just because I stopped hurting people. What I needed was to change, and that doesn’t always involve feeling good or patting myself on the back.
Before going on, let me just say that I mean no offense for my views on modern AA, but I would be doing readers a disservice by not honestly describing my personal experience.
The first AA meeting I ever went to in Boston did little but fuel my desire to get plastered. How could I forget it? Sitting in my Fenway apartment one night, depressed from having to work with a mere six-pack, I began to flip through the small pamphlet advertising meeting times and locations for regional groups. I should have scrutinized the meeting symbols a bit more (OS = Open Speaker, CD = Closed Discussion, NS = Non-Smoking, M = Men, W = Women etc.).
It was a cold and rainy night. Wind gusts ripped through Back Bay streets. At the time, this was a tremendous effort towards my recovery. I was so proud when I found the meeting and made my way up the stoop of the Arlington St. Church. Peering around for a quick scout, all I could see were men in leather. Heads turned, eyes glowing. Chairs were offered. I sat down and realized that I was smack dab in the middle of a Men’s Gay AA Meeting (M, G). A speaker on the verge of breakdown unloaded about his life, depression, bills, eviction, boyfriend, blah, blah, blah… I couldn’t deal anymore. I left and walked into the Pour House Grill a few blocks away for a vodka tonic and a round of Golden Tee Golf.
Trying to avoid dismay, I walked into another meeting at the Berkeley School of Music – a Young Person’s Meeting (YP). Nothing useful. More stories. While sinking deeper into a funk, I spotted a blue book lying on the speaker table. No one referred to it. No one opened it. No mention of it at all. I asked the treasurer if I could have it and was charged five dollars, which had already gone to the Pour House bartender. They gave it to me anyway and it sat in my studio for the next two years serving as a coaster. If someone told me what was contained within that book, I wouldn’t have wasted another five years killing myself and hurting people. But that didn’t happen. Here’s what they told me.
“Oh, you don’t need that shit. It’s just a bunch of stories. All you gotta’ do is put the plug in the jug and just keep comin’.”
Translation: keep holding on by a thread because no one here can actually help you.
Young people are great, aren’t they? They get emotional and say things like, “Yeah, today was really tough. I almost didn’t make it. My selfish, asshole roommate pissed me off so much that I almost needed to drink, but I didn’t! I mean, my alcoholism isn’t even my fault; it’s my fuckin’ genes, man… It’s my Dad! I think I need anti-depressants.”
There’s a guy I know from the north shore who goes to AA meetings all day, everyday. He’s one of those biker types, you know, with the bandana, leather black pants, tank top, and braided red hair down to his ass. He gets up at the end and says, “Meetings, meetings, meetings… Go to meetings until you’re blue in the face, and when you can’t take it anymore and you can’t sit through another meeting… go to a meeting. Meetings, meetings, meetings…” I hope this guy doesn’t have a family at home because going to meetings all day would, yup, take up the whole day. In my local groups, I learned that it was all about me. Up North, I learned that it was all about others.
But I think the most baffling AA slogan is “Sit down, shut up, and wait for the miracle to happen.” Okay, so I’ve tried waiting and guess what happens? I go get high. Plus, miracles don’t zap me in the face while I’m sitting on my ass doing nothing. And why drag myself all the way to AA just to keep my mouth shut? I’m going nuts here. I’m the guy who needs to open his mouth to ask, “How do I get better?”
I met staunch resistance in local AA groups. I dropped bombs all over the place once I’d been educated up North. Rarely was I called on to speak. And double dipping is especially frowned upon. After a downtown Beverly gathering, a seemingly docile young female speaker accosted me outside a meetinghouse known as the White Whale. Her once humble countenance deteriorated as her mouth opened.
“What are you, a fuckin’ idiot? I didn’t call on you ‘cause the guys around here will beat the shit out of you for speaking twice!”
Sounds like a tremendous way to recover.
A day later at a Manchester gathering, I found the speaker-turned-stand-up-comic rather unamusing. It was more like amateur comedy hour than a forum about alcoholism, and I was the only guy not laughing. Returning from the cigarette break, I found my chair removed and facing backwards on a stage behind the speaker podium. Now that is one wildly effective way to help people recover!
His few no-nonsense words, I remember clear as day.
“God’s never done shit for me! God doesn’t keep me from drinkin’ like these stupid whackos who say God talks to them. No friggin’ Big Book keeps me sober either! I’m sober ‘cause I choose to stay sober.”
I’m not sure that’s the kind of program I needed after fifteen years of chronic drug addiction. So I confronted him afterwards and here’s what he said.
“Spiritual? Kid, you got it all wrong! You see, we have an alcohol problem. Not a moral problem, not a psychological problem, not a spiritual problem, no, no, no. We got ourselves a drinkin’ problem. See here boy, I still lie, cheat, call my wife a bitch, get into fights and what have you. I’m still an asshole, just a sober asshole!”
Oh, now I get it. It’s finally clear to me. So I can thrash my wife, lie to people, steal money, maybe even sink into a depression, and it’s all good so long as I’m sober? Wait a second, then how do I stay clean without wanting to slit my wrists? If this is what twenty-five years of recovery looks like then someone please shoot me in the head.
So all those posters on which the Twelve Steps hang look pretty, and the nice, big print is easy to read, but they’re not going to fix me just hanging there. I can’t finish them in my head during the meeting and by the time it’s over, boom! I’m done. I also can’t take a Step a year or wait a year before starting them. It’s not something that I read or study, but something that I do.
Watered-down versions of the Twelve Steps are now mainstream in AA and in many treatment programs. But I’d be dead right now if I had approached recovery this way. I can’t wait a year to get better. I especially can’t wait a year to feel better.
Know what does attract me? Being a free man. Being recovered. Having peace of mind and strength of spirit. Having the power to walk through my fear and pain. Having the hole inside me filled with Love. The misfits up North told me that I needed a Power other than myself to do that, and I saw this Power within them. I listened to them because they were filled to the brim with something that actually fixes broken minds and hearts.” – The Privileged Addict, pp. 51-55