Don’t drink and go to meetings

Onwards

By Russ H.

When I walked into my first AA meeting I had no idea what to expect. I knew nothing about the AA program of recovery.

I certainly made no assumption that I would find relief from the crushing consequences of nearly three decades of addiction to alcohol and methamphetamine. As so many of us say, it was the last place I expected or wanted to find myself.

As I listened to the speaker I noticed the two window shade posters hanging on the wall behind her. I had heard of the 12 Steps, of course, but this was the first time I ever read them. It was a bewildering head-shaking moment for me. I remember wondering “is that what it takes to get clean and sober?” I was repelled by the overtly religious point of view. Even so, I remember thinking “well, if that’s what it takes I guess that’s what I will do.” Happily, I would soon discover that “what it takes” is an entirely personal matter and varies greatly from one addict to another.

When the speaker finished her story and the meeting opened for discussion I raised my hand, identified myself and began to speak. It was a Monday noon meeting with a dozen or so attendees. Some of them remain my friends to this day. My share began as a tearful and hopeless recounting of the devastating circumstances of my life. The details are not important here. Basically, I had come to the realization that the way I was leading my life was not working. I knew that chronic excessive drinking and using were at the core of my problems. I did not know what to do. I do remember that I had only been speaking for a very short time when a woman across the table looked into my eyes and raised her hand, palm facing me, in a gesture that clearly meant I should stop talking.

Then she spoke words that changed my life.

She told me that she and the others present knew what I was going through. No matter how alcoholic and drug addicted I might be, she let me know they all understood because they all were just as badly affected as me. This was done firmly but without rancor or disdain.

She explained that I had come to the right place and that the very best thing I could do would be to pick up a meeting schedule and come back again as soon as possible. She said that, although there was more to it, the single most important thing would be for me to dedicate myself to attending lots of meetings and to make a personal commitment not to drink or use in between. She went on to say that if I could do that I might very well discover, one day, that the desire to drink and use would vanish. That is what I did and that is what happened.

It was a revelation for me. I walked into that room not knowing what I was going to do. I walked out with a very simple plan to follow.

During the remainder of the meeting others spoke up and, as often happens, their comments were made especially for the benefit of the new person. One way or another all of them seemed to be telling me that there was a way out of this horrible mess I was in. There is a very distinctive demeanor that people display when they are simply expressing what they believe to be true based on their own experience. They were not preachy. None of them seemed to be invested in convincing me that they had more to pass along than their own personal stories of addiction and recovery. I recall no insistence from any of them that I must do or say or believe anything that was inconsistent with my own background and personal beliefs. I remember more than one of them pointing out that what would be involved in recovery from addiction was not going to come from other people telling me what I must do. Recovery was to be found within myself.

I believed them.

They told me they were clean and sober. Their sobriety was measured for some in weeks, for others in years, and for the woman who had spoken to me first in decades. All of those periods seemed long to me as I sat there on my first day of sobriety. But they did not seem impossibly long. The realization came over me that what I wanted – more than I had ever wanted anything in my life – was to be one of them. I wanted to be a sober man.

And I knew as well as I have ever known anything that I would not drink or use drugs that day. I knew that I would come back to another meeting that day and every day that followed for a long time. I knew that I would not drink or use in between those meetings.

As the early days passed I learned very quickly that sentiments expressing such certitude are not greeted warmly by AA membership at large.

At one point during my first 30 days I spoke up to describe how the dreadful storm had finally passed and how I now could gaze about at the wreckage with a brand new perception of myself, my addiction and the new life now beginning. A guy named Pete shared immediately following my homily. He said “it sure is great to see another 27 day wonder telling us what this all about.” His comment stung but I did learn from it. It’s one thing to be happy and confident in recovery. It’s something else to act like you think you’re cured.

For me, a complete response to the question “What got me sober?” would touch on many important aspects of my experience as a recovered person.

The friendships, the sense of community, the fundamentally democratic nature of AA itself, seeing others undergo the metamorphosis into sobriety, the self-examination involved in some of the AA steps, learning to share my personal story, learning to really listen to the personal stories of others, the dedication – however imperfectly maintained – to require nothing more of one another than our own willingness to participate, the sense of respect for each other and for the world in general that permeates all of this, the opportunity to live and die in each other’s arms and much more are all incredibly important.

Nonetheless, the only real “tool” that I can identify in my own recovery is the simple suggestion I heard on my first day: come to lots of meetings and don’t drink or use in between.

The essence of sobriety is sustained abstinence from mind altering drugs. Whatever sort of program we may work, how much service we do, how deeply spiritual we may strive to be, our involvement with others in sponsorship, our devotion to the literature of recovery, how many meetings we attend, and all the rest do not add up to sobriety if we cannot stop drinking and using. Do you want sobriety? Stop drinking and using drugs. Do you want to stay sober? Maintain that abstinence.

One time many years ago I was speaking at a meeting out of town. I advanced the idea to the group that the only truly universal aspect of recovery that unites all recovered addicts is that we have all stopped drinking and using drugs. Some of us are devotees of AA while others are not. Some of us pursue spirituality while others prefer to let spirituality pursue us or, even better, someone else. Some of us are regular attendees at recovery meetings. Some of us do one thing and some do another. The only thing that all of us do, arguably, is to maintain sustained abstinence.

I was very pleased with my share. As soon as the meeting was turned over for discussion a guy raised his hand, looked right at me with venom in his eyes and declared emphatically “Not drinking is not sobriety.” Even having many years of sobriety under one’s belt does not provide a shield from acerbic cross-talk. Fortunately my sister was secretary of the meeting and she jumped to my defense. She stared the interloper down and said “Well, maybe not, but it’s a good start.”

There is some validity to the point, maybe.

We have all heard stories about the “dry drunk” who manages to not drink or use but continues to blunder through life so boorishly that his or her sobriety is deemed insufficient, unsatisfactory, unworthy. On the rare occasions I hear someone describe a fellow addict as a “dry drunk” my reaction is negative. The speaker it seems is basically saying “sure they’re sober but it doesn’t count because I don’t like the way they act.” In this context sobriety is held up as something more than sustained abstinence. To be genuinely sober we not only have to not drink and not use but also have to conform to some external notion of proper behavior.

Maybe so but I think not.

Clean and sober addicts are just as capable of distressing antisocial behavior as non-addicts. I need only look at myself and the non-alcoholics I know for proof this is true. If we don’t drink or use drugs we get to call ourselves sober people. If our behavior drives people away or makes them unhappy we probably also get to call ourselves assholes. So, the self-examination and character building that are such prominent aspects of recovery programs really are important and valuable. Nevertheless, when such programs assert that the root causes of antisocial behavior are also the root causes of addiction there is room for skepticism.

I drank and used because I liked the way it made me feel. As near as I have ever been able to determine, non-addicts drink and use for the same reason. There are those who talk about liking the flavor of alcohol or cigarettes, for example, and only they would know.

However, addiction to alcohol, cigarettes, methamphetamine and all the other drugs is not about flavor. Addiction is also not uniquely about enjoying the way drugs make us feel. The medical profession has been solidly vocal for many decades now that addiction is physiological in nature. The scientific evidence is overwhelming that we addicts display unique genetic, epigenetic, metabolic and neurological reactions to intoxicating drugs. The solution to the problem of addiction is to stop drinking and/or using. As far as I know it is the only solution.

Oh, I’m repeating myself. Sorry.

One last thing.

I have personally adopted the rather extreme position that recovery from addiction requires total abstinence. Exceptions are made for prescription medications taken under the supervision of medical professionals who are aware of my history of addiction. This is certainly the AA perspective and it seems to be widely shared among substance abuse counselors and professionals involved in most (but not all) of the various approaches to recovery. Is it ever possible for, say, an alcoholic to recover from alcoholism and then return to a life of normal non-addictive drinking – occasional glass of wine with dinner, toasting a new bride and groom with real champagne, drinking sacramental wine during a religious ceremony? I suspect that it is. It is not the way recovery has unfolded for me. I have discovered that my own sustained abstinence is far more important to me than any benefit that might come from occasional indulgences.

If you are reading this as a newcomer to sobriety, keep an open mind. If you find something that rings true and feels useful then try it on. See if it fits. Be pragmatic. We are sometimes famously warned of the pitfall of contempt prior to investigation. The operative concept here is investigation.

People who have achieved long term sobriety can be wonderful resources but as a group we do not speak with a single voice. One of the joys and one of the challenges of participating in recovery groups is the process of discovering which of the many points of view we encounter will be useful to us. Learning to trust the judgement of others can be difficult. It can also be immensely rewarding.

Trust is earned not conferred. Recognizing whose judgement is worthy of trust is the key. Above all trust yourself. It is your recovery and your life.


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Don’t drink and go to meetings — 14 Comments

  1. The first time I saw the placard or heard someone say it I thought “don’t drink and go to meetings” was a rule. Once in the fraternity, nobody thought it appropriate you show up at a meeting half in the bag. It didn’t take long before I was corrected. Don’t drink meant stay away from alcohol as best you can and, go to meetings, was one good method of not taking that drink.

    Russ, yours is a long post so I speak to what I remember. But I think the message that “no matter how much you drank or drugged we understand” is inaccurate. Having kind of steamrolled my way to what was an irrefutable bottom – being at death’s door and losing everything – I find I don’t relate to everybody’s story. It’s not about being better, worse or right in the middle, but we can only share what we know and frankly I hear some stories and I can’t believe that somebody would come to AA when they were drinking a bottle of wine a night. That doesn’t make me think they shouldn’t be there, it’s just that my experience was radically different so we might have some trouble with common ground.

    Overall however I think your article is clear, succinct and almost a “must read” for newcomers. Sadly when there are people who are determined to distinguish themselves with statements like “abstinence is not sobriety”, the value of the AA experience is reversed because it implies that he knows something you don’t. It doesn’t clarify, it doesn’t reassure and it doesn’t encourage the person to return.

    I think it’s too bad that AA has not built in a mechanism for new information on addiction. Left with the BB and 12X12, we end up parsing statements from the book time and time again and none of it really sounds like it answers the question, How do I stop?

    Few come to AA for any reason except to admit they need help because they’re drinking too much. Whether they buy what AA’s selling is a coin toss. There are more who enter, never to return, than there are folks who decide to give it an honest effort. I fear that AA is going to have a harder and harder time keeping the youngsters who come, directed by a rehab, doctor, wife because, what we often talk about, just doesn’t connect. Most of the people in AA are sober. Their issues aren’t about not drinking. So they toss cryptic bromides at the newcomers rather than, lets say, here’s what we know about trying to stop, especially if you’re craving. We need to clarify what is actionable advice from the, WTF, “But for the Grace of God.” The only thing I think I could tell somebody about stopping drinking is, when it hurts more to drink than it does when you’re not, you’re ready to toss the bottles to the curb.

    I think you did a great job of staying on point and reminding us that, first and foremost, we’re together to do whatever we can to help to change the status of the newcomer from one who consumes the group’s resources to one who is doling out what she/he can to another person seeking to STOP DRINKING, whether that’s considered sobriety or abstinence. Thanks for a thoughtful yet simple message that is too often forgotten.

    • Brent,
      So true that our stories are not all the same. I think when my friend, Harriette, told me that day that “no matter how alcoholic or drug addicted you may be, we all understand because we were just as badly affected” she was trying to divert my attention from the problem long enough for me to hear something about the solution. Comparing bottoms is not useful. Thanks for the kind words.

    • The reason I believe our stories are all the same is the way we feel when we arrive in AA. Every person I have heard share has talked about shame, guilt, fear, terror, physical, mental, spiritually bankrupt and I indentify with every one of them. Cheers, Daniel.

  2. Thanks for the article Russ. It is quite timely for me personally. I have about 15 months sober after more than 40 years of abusive binge drinking. After my decision to become abstinent, I spent a little more than a year going to meetings frequently including more than 120 days of a 90 in 90. I gradually tapered off to about 2 a week and over the last couple of months have not been to a meeting. The overt religiosity of the meetings in my area had turned me off. The closest secular meetings I can find are more than 40 miles away which makes them inconvenient. Although I haven’t had the desire to pick up a drink and am confident that I won’t, your article has reminded me of the value of the direct influence of the fellowship in supporting my continued sobriety. Lately my only interface with AA has been through web postings on AA Agnostica and Beyond Belief. I think I’ll get to a meeting this weekend.

    • My experience with “confidence” is, that over 30 years and earning five one year medallions plus a five year, that confidence is actually the first domino to fall in what can be a long process of your confidence growing until you’re confident you can take a drink and manage it. It’s not alcohol that is cunning, baffling and powerful, it’s the brain. The one thing a meeting can do is, allow you to check your thinking before you get too far off track. It sounds counterintuitive but that’s how it has worked for me. My very first relapse was at 14 or 15 months.

  3. Interesting article and I agree with most of it, but not all.

    The author talks about alcoholics/addicts being physiologically and genetically different, then says he suspects returning to normal drinking may be possible for some. My experience of watching countless alcoholics try that and either die or live miserable lives leads me to conclude it’s complete nonsense. I too agree I am physiologically different to a “normal” drinker; I also believe it to be impossible to change it.

    I also disagree that long term sobriety is solely about abstinence. Sure it can be done – my father stayed sober and miserable for 25 years before his death. My view is that along with the screwed up physiology, most (if not all) alcoholics also come with screwed up psychology. We also tend to leave a wake of misery through our drinking/using. Just staying abstinent doesn’t fix any of that – a drunken horse thief who sobers up is still a horse thief. I believe recovery is about more than abstinence – it’s about changing ourselves to try and live the best way we can. Nothing to do with gods or hocus pocus, just trying to do the right thing. That in turn ensures our abstinence.

    • Rob,

      I did not say or mean to imply that long term sobriety is solely about abstinence. Whether it is possible for some alcoholics to recover then resume normal non-addictive drinking is not a matter of opinion. You may be interested in NESARC 2001-2002 data which indicate that this not only happens but is not unusual. Here is a link to that data: Substance Dependence Recovery Rates: With and Without Treatment. The AA recovery narrative insists axiomatically that recovered alcoholics can never drink safely again. Refusal to admit a possibility is far different from investigating the actual occurrence of such outcomes.

  4. This is great. I love it. It perfectly sums up everything I think and feel but without any of my venom I sometimes bring to it. I wish I could read it out loud at meetings everywhere. LOL I moved from Manhattan out to Long Island a year or so ago. I’m an atheist, and remain both atheist and sober while I use AA for my recovery. YES It can be done. On Long Island there is a lot of shaming, not necessarily intentional, of people who are not “spiritual,” by which many people mean “religious.” It has led me to become really angry with AA. This was exactly what I needed to read. So balanced. So thoughtful. I’m actually crying a little. Thank you.

  5. A much needed read at this moment. I took a break from the work week to have a recovery day. Such days are (sort of) reserved to focus on my recovery program and my Buddhism. I will post one of your paragraphs (with suitable credit) on my local Friend of Bill AA FB site.

    For me, one paragraph beautifully articulates what this fellowship is about. I copied it for the times that I wish to explain the program to others.

    It is this one:

    The friendships, the sense of community, the fundamentally democratic nature of AA itself, seeing others undergo the metamorphosis into sobriety, the self-examination involved in some of the AA steps, learning to share my personal story, learning to really listen to the personal stories of others, the dedication – however imperfectly maintained – to require nothing more of one another than our own willingness to participate, the sense of respect for each other and for the world in general that permeates all of this, the opportunity to live and die in each other’s arms and much more are all incredibly important.

    • Having retired 4 years ago I have the luxury of spending every day focusing on whatever I choose. Enjoy!

  6. Thanks, Russ, for a most useful and thought-provoking essay on the quintessential requirement for recovery from addiction to alcohol and other drugs — abstinence and the support of fellow addicts/alcoholics in meetings.

    These two behaviors have kept me not only sober for 43 years, but along the way I have become a much better person, much less of an asshole, than I would have become had I continued to use — that is, if I hadn’t died as a result of that use.

  7. I really, really like this article, Russ. It’s going to get circulated because it’s true. I only came to AA because I wanted to stop drinking and hadn’t found a way. I have stopped drinking, so it worked. Period. By not drinking. Period. Because of the acceptance, love, support, wisdom of sober people. Period.

    The whole “Program” is expressed in the first part of the Preamble: We’re mutually learning not to drink. What happens thereafter are just details.