Take Three Degrees. Add Alcohol.
Do Tell! Stories by Atheists and Agnostics in AA
The decision to stop drinking alcohol, once and for all, is one I shall never regret. I will soon celebrate 13 years of sobriety, after three decades of active alcoholism. Because I am now a different, better person, my life is a different, better life. It is that simple. And yet, the journey to that simple and logical decision was long and hard and painful.
I was born and raised in France in a well-to-do family which included ancestors in the Bordeaux wine business. Being able to appreciate good wine was an indispensable part of good breeding. I never in those days associated wine with alcoholism. In fact, although wine was always served at meals, I do not remember ever wanting to drink it in large amounts.
My teen years were not happy. I was molested by my father. He was well-educated, respected and successful. In our social class, girls were expected to be proper young ladies, so they could marry respectable men. I therefore lived in an irreconcilable situation, where the very person who was supposed to raise me properly was in fact an aggressor.
When I was about 16, I drank whiskey at a party, and become drunk and sick. However, I felt grown-up and sophisticated. After that first whiskey-induced drunkenness, I loved drinking, for many reasons. First, when I got tipsy, my confusion and shame would abate for a while. Second, I was told that many of the great poets and artists were heavy drinkers, so I felt that creativity and originality went hand-in-hand with alcohol. Also, what was happening in secret at home gave me great disgust for the traditional image of womanhood all were trying to mold me into. I was supposed to be well-bred and proper? Oh no! I would drink and smoke and curse a blue streak, which was my way to rebel… I was doing very well at school and wanted more for myself than just finding a good husband.
One summer when I was 18, my favorite aunt took me to the United States for summer vacation. There I happened to meet a boy my age and we fell in love. He came to France the next summer and as he was about to return to the States, we found out I was pregnant. There was an uproar and much disapproval in both families, of course. I went to the US, we were quickly married. We lived at first with my husband’s parents. Our daughter was born there, at about the time her father was graduating from college. Then he went to Medical school for four years.
We had almost no money. Buying alcohol of any kind, even cheap wine, was impossible. I took whatever small jobs I could find, I was a waitress, a nanny, and eventually I taught French in a small private school.
After my husband graduated from Medical school we moved to California where he did his internship and residency. Our financial situation was improving a little; I was also able to get a scholarship for a Master’s degree in French. I wanted to have better credentials to get better teaching jobs. We had a second child. Then after having obtained my Master’s, I was offered another scholarship to do a Ph.D. There was a lot of work and a lot of juggling between work and child care.
Every once in a while I could buy a bottle of wine to drink with meals. I felt civilized again. Every once in a while, I did get drunk. I was not worried about it. I felt it was a necessary outlet, it hurt no one, it was all in fun. And it was only wine, which, as everyone knows, is good for you…
The major event of those years was my husband being drafted and having to go to Vietnam for a year. I remember that year almost as if in a dream. I was completely petrified that my husband might be hurt or killed. I lived in terror of not being a good enough mother to protect the children while I was alone with them. Somehow we all survived. I probably drank a little during that year, but not much. I did not dare. Obviously, I was then at a stage where I still had some control.
Our next move after that year in Vietnam was back to the East Coast, to Baltimore, where my husband got his first real job teaching and practicing in a hospital. I found a teaching job at a nearby university. We bought a house and put the kids in good schools. We met a lot of nice people in our new neighborhood and we began to have a busy social life.
I was too busy to take much time to reflect and wonder about my life. What I considered quiet time, was to sit down with a glass of wine, I never ever questioned whether I was perhaps drinking too much. I had several episodes of getting drunk at parties but thought nothing of it.
Any reproach from my husband or snide remark from a friend I would dismiss, because they had no idea what I had gone through, no idea that drinking was an absolute necessity. I felt that without it, I would go mad. Wine was holding me together.
There was love and many other good things in my life. Our daughter got accepted at a prestigious college, the same one her father had been to, when she was just 16. Our son was doing well in a good school. He ended up going to the very same college. As far as I knew, I must be a good mother, since my kids were doing so well.
Despite all these appearances of success and happiness, I was feeling restless. I decided to go to Law School. I managed to pass all courses despite a lot of drinking. After graduation I got a good job as an associate in a small but well-connected firm. I was not a great success there. I had started drinking at lunch time, running home from the office to have some lunch and some wine. I went to bed early instead of working long hours and it had been noticed. Already, my drinking “a little too much” was no longer a secret. When I said we were moving, no one said they were sorry about it.
We moved again because my husband now took a position in Massachusetts. During the next fifteen years, I lost almost all control over my drinking. The children were no longer at home. My husband was busier than ever at the hospital. At first I got a job at a prestigious law firm, the best-known in that area. Then I left them when it became obvious they did not really “appreciate” me. I went to another firm, who thought, erroneously, that they were “snatching” me away. Little did they know that the prestigious firm was very happy to get rid of me. After a few years in that second law firm, I left again and ended up practicing law by myself.
As I look back on these 15 years, from where I am now, I see clearly the disaster that was unfolding, which I could not see at the time. There was a repeated pattern: First, I would impress people with my credentials (three graduate degrees, imagine that!). Then I would start surprising them by how little actual work I was doing and by not being at all a team player. There were a few times where I accomplished something, in or out of court, which was brilliant. But one does not build a career and gain a good reputation by just a few strokes of brilliance.
What was happening is that I had become a full-fledged alcoholic; I was moody, unpredictable and untrustworthy. I have no good memories from these years. At some point, I realized that I was drinking much too much. I decided I would reduce the amount I was drinking.
At this point of my story, my narrative becomes totally predictable, because I went through all the moves every desperate alcoholic goes through: drinking only after a certain time of the day; drinking only certain days of the week; stopping completely for a time, then starting again (because I was surely cured after stopping for three months!)
Nothing worked and my life was miserable. I did not want to live any more. I no longer had much of a family life or social life. I had no hope; I saw no light at the end of the tunnel.
And then my husband announced we were moving again, to a town near New York. I welcomed the move. It meant an end to my law career unless I could get admitted to the New York bar, but I did not care. I announced to everyone that I was going to practice law in New York State, but not immediately. First, I was going to take a sabbatical.
My sabbatical consisted, of course, in drinking more and more for about 18 months. I did not look for a new job. I did not try to make friends with anyone. I just drank. I was desperate, even suicidal. I kept telling myself “today is the last day drinking, I cannot go on like that”. I wanted to stop drinking more than I had ever wanted anything, but I could not.
One day, about thirteen years ago, I was picking up our son at the railroad station to drive him somewhere. Once he had gotten in the car, he looked at me and said: “Mom, you look tired”. “Tired” was the word he had always used when he saw that I was drunk. And he was right: While still able to drive, I had been having already a few glasses of wine and it was not even noon.
I had been caught being drunk many times before. This time, however, for some reason, it felt like the end of my world. I was so ashamed I almost collapsed. I did bring my son to his destination and returned home. Then I called AA.
I had heard about AA many times. As a lawyer, I sometimes took care of clients who had got into some scrapes because of drunkenness. When passing sentence or decreeing probation, the Court would usually demand that they attend AA meetings. Once, I had even gone to an AA meeting. There, I discovered that in order to become sober one must not drink AT ALL. I was horrified. That would not do for me. I needed my wine!
When I called AA that day in February thirteen years ago, a man told me he would meet me the next day at a meeting not far from my house. I went to that meeting. He greeted me and spoke to me kindly. It was February 22nd and the beginning of my new life.
I could not bear to say in public those words “I am an alcoholic”. I started sobbing every time I tried. But I eventually managed to say it. By now, I have said these words thousands of time, and I know they are true.
All these years of struggle trying to stop drinking on my own ended with that first meeting. The obsession to drink was lifted. Something in me changed irrevocably when I heard one person after another person just like me, as sick as I was. The relief was enormous. I was not unique after all, not bad and shameful in a unique way as I had thought.
Then, I heard people tell about how much time sober they had. One woman had 25 years! Her husband had just died, she was obviously grieving, BUT SHE WAS STILL SOBER. When I realized that, I felt a surge of hope… a sensation I had not felt for so long. I, too, could become sober, it was possible! (That woman became my sponsor. She has helped me immensely by her gentle counsel, as has, by mere example, the man who introduced me to that meeting.)
It did not bother me much, at first, that the meeting often ended with the Lord’s Prayer. I did wonder, though, about using a Christian prayer to close the meeting, in a country with so many different religions. As I attended more and more meetings, I began to be concerned about the very religious attitude of many AA members, especially when leaders of meeting aggressively declared that, in order to be sober, one had to “let God into one’s life”.
I happen to be an agnostic. While I respect the right of everyone to his or her own philosophy, I was disappointed that AA did not make itself more inclusive. That did not deter me from coming to meetings. I just resigned myself to hearing a lot of “God talk” and to keep my own counsel.
Then one day when I was about three years sober, as I was glancing at a list of AA meetings in Chicago, I saw the word “agnostic”; I was thrilled! I had never heard of agnostic AA meetings. I made inquiries and soon got a list of such meetings in New York City.
When I went to my first agnostic meeting, I felt some of the relief and hope I had experienced at my first meeting. This time it was the relief of being able to express myself freely. Basically, I felt fully included, which I had begun to despair of in regular meetings.
Now I can truly say that my sober life is more authentic and joyous and free than my drinking life. Those years of hiding the extent of my drinking are over. I no longer have to engage in constant damage control to hide all the failures and mishaps caused by drunkenness.
I did not return to the practice of law, but I found other uses for my new free time in sobriety, including doing service for AA and volunteering for a political cause I am passionate about. I now feel that my life is useful, not a total waste as before.
One does not escape entirely the “wreckage of the past”. I did not get a blank pass for my past behavior. I have a difficult relationship with my grown children. I know they feel hurt by so many things I did or failed to do, and by my becoming sober so late in my life. They grew up with an active alcoholic, nothing can change that.
From Day One in AA, I felt hope. That has not stopped. I still have hope that somehow, by dint of dealing calmly and courageously with the after-effects of the past, I will be able to help others as others have helped me. I know this is not the end of the story.
This is a chapter from the book: Do Tell! Stories by Atheists and Agnostics in AA.