When Acceptance Doesn't Work

When Acceptance Doesn’t Work

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when-compassion-and-acceptanceI was crying so hard that I could feel my guts flip over, squeezing against my ribs. It wasn’t the first time I’d lost my shit in an AA meeting, but it was the first time I’d really leaned into it, choking out sobs so big that each one felt like a punch in the belly. My boss was sexually harassing me, I didn’t make enough money to leave the job, I was tired of being broke and I was afraid of being fired if I complained. The whole situation made me sick. So there I was, crying in a meeting, wondering why the fuck everyone kept saying that acceptance was the key.

Sometimes, acceptance is not the key. Compassion is not the key. When my boss leaned over me at my desk, so close that I could smell him sweating through his clothes, and breathed on the back of my neck, acceptance was not the spiritual tool I should have reached for.

It took me months to actually break down because I was working so hard to put a bright face on my problems. Just smile. Act as if. I swallowed my misery and prayed a lot, asking my Higher Power to remove me from the situation. I asked for the strength to keep going—and apparently, my prayers were answered, because I kept dealing with the same problem, almost every day. I noticed the preferential treatment my boss gave me, and I noticed how my tongue turned to lead every time he asked me to talk privately in the conference room. Please, God.

It’s my belief that if anyone had known what was going on, they might have given me different advice, but I had a really hard time verbalizing what was happening to me. I wanted to drink and I pushed that desire away, knowing that a relapse would only make things worse. I kept doing the things that worked to keep me sober: praying, meditating, helping other alcoholics, going to meetings. I also applied for other jobs with the desperation of a drowning woman. I used up all my sick time—some mornings, I just couldn’t deal. My anxiety was at an all-time high.

Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore. I snapped. I drove to my home group and sat in a hard wooden chair and cried my heart out. The woman sitting next to me, sober for 40 years, put her arm around me. “Kiddo,” she said, “when you get to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on!”

I left the meeting and went home—past the liquor store, and the three new dispensaries that had popped up like mushrooms in my neighborhood. I lay on the bed and cried for another 45 minutes, until my throat was raw and I was just coughing. Acceptance wasn’t fixing me. I felt totally alone. When I closed my eyes, searching for a vision of my Higher Power, all I saw was a soft, black void.

The next day, slightly more composed, I called my sponsor. She listened while I explained what I’d done, how I felt.

“Am I doing something wrong?” I asked.

“I can’t be the arbiter of your personal life,” she said. “I’m sorry that you’re struggling.”

It was meant to be kind, but I realized that more acceptance was the last thing I needed. Acceptance had done a lot for me in terms of spiritual growth and self-love, but honestly it was starting to feel like the whole world was just co-signing my bullshit.

Every time someone shrugged off my fears, or simply said that I’d figure it out, I felt more trapped. It’s true, I had to learn how to muddle through my problems by myself and the learning process was a real bitch sometimes but the phrase “loving detachment” was starting to feel like an all-purpose Band-Aid. I wondered if my friends and community members were just using it to avoid investing in me. Did they really care? Was compassion a convenient way to distance themselves?

The night I finally lost my shit, I thought of a woman who’d sponsored me when I was really early in recovery. She’d gotten sober in LA in the early 90s and she was tough as nails.

“Addiction is a life and death disease,” she reminded me. When I complained about little things, she told me to go pray about it. “If that’s your problem,” she’d say, “your God isn’t big enough.”

She wasn’t into negotiating the nitty-gritty stuff. She challenged me to think big, take responsibility for myself and get serious about my recovery. Once, she opened up to me about her early days, coming off coke and detoxing in the rooms of AA.

“Women took care of me,” she said. Her baby blue eyes fixed me, pierced me. “They took me to the meeting, and out to coffee after meeting, and they gave me a gift because they told me the truth about my disease. I’m an alcoholic, and if I don’t get real about that, I’m going to relapse and die.”

At that point, I stopped asking her to tell me that I was right about everything. Instead, I got down to brass tacks and put in some serious work. I went to meetings and wrote out my step work like it was my job. Finally, there was someone who wasn’t enabling me. She wasn’t exactly warm and fuzzy, sure, but she gave me the cold facts about the reality of recovery and reminded me, when I complained, that it could be worse.

“You could be drunk. You could be dead. Next time you go to a meeting, don’t just notice who’s there. Notice who isn’t. Where do you think those people go? They go out, and they die.”

I thought of her, and the things she said, while I cried my eyes out. Instead of sweet, loving compassion, her fierceness gave me some courage. That’s what I needed: a bitter pill. My life was rough, but that didn’t mean I had to get loaded. It didn’t mean I had to feel sorry for myself—or even take full responsibility for the situation, blaming myself for something that was beyond my control. Sometimes, life just sucked; it was my choice whether or not I wanted to stay sober through it.

The next day, I walked into my office, took a deep breath, and headed for the CEO’s office. I’d had enough—and done enough “accepting.” I closed the door, sat down.

“Got a minute?”

He listened carefully to me, took notes, asked if I had anything documented. Even though my heart was pounding, I reminded myself You do not need to accept something that is unacceptable to you. I offered the proof I had. I told him everything.

The next couple of weeks were unbearably awkward. There were meetings, doors closed, a scowl on my harasser’s face that lingered like a storm cloud. And then, one morning, he simply didn’t come in. He was gone; his desk was cleared. It was the solution I hadn’t thought was possible: he’d been removed from my life, pulled out like a bad tooth. One of my coworkers told me not to smile so much, but I couldn’t help it.

I wasn’t faking it, this time. I was happy. I’d earned my happiness, and by God I was going to enjoy it.

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3 Comments

  1. I have struggled with AA’s approach to acceptance. I have been told that in recovery I am of service to everyone, I give up my rights and I accept everything. Why would I get sober to accept poor behaviour and treatment by others?

    I remain on the fringes of AA now as I don’t like to invite criticism if I talk about the challenges I am having. I find that Smart Recovery provides me with a more constructive framework to work through issues in an adult way.

  2. That’s great. Glad it turned out so well for you! My Early mentors told me that “we don’t have to accept unacceptable behavior.”
    For me, it came down to accepting that the person’s behavior wasn’t gonna change. I had to decide what I was gonna do about it. I left him. Prayer is certainly critical in these situations, and the courage to change the things I can + wisdom to know the difference saved my life.

    • You’re spot on, Abbie. I am sure that, I would have gotten more support if I’d been able to say what was really going on. I’m so grateful for the Serenity Prayer, and for people who finally told me that I didn’t have to submit in order to accept. Thanks for reading!

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Foster Rudy is the author of "I've Never Done This Before," and has also written for The Washington Post, The New York Times, McSweeney's and The Rumpus.