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.