This post was originally published on April 29, 2015.
I go to a lot of speaker meetings in AA, either ones that start with a 10- to 15-minute drunkalogue/share followed by an open discussion, or open speaker-only meetings where one group visits another and the alcoholics tell their stories with no follow-up discussion (which is a mainstay of meetings in the Northeast). Personally, I love listening to speakers talk about what their drinking and drugging was like, the moment of truth when they realized they couldn’t do it anymore, how they got sober and what they do to stay that way, and then a little of what their life is like now.
And when it’s done well (or just not badly), it’s what I always thought church was supposed to be like, that feeling where you connect not only to the person sharing but the whole room—even without the mention of God or a Higher Power. A good drunkalogue share is just one person’s account of how they escaped from their personal hell into a decent life—and for me, that’s a spiritual experience.
So when I go to a meeting and the speaker begins their share with, “I don’t want to go into my drunkalogue, because we all drank too much. I just want to talk about my recovery,” I brace myself and either say the Serenity Prayer (or just think about sex or work) and get ready for what all too often sounds like evangelizing. Why? Because if someone wants to tell me about their recovery, I want to know what it is they’re recovering from. Otherwise, AA just starts to sound like another bad religion to me.
When I came to meetings and actually started listening (the second time around), I already knew I was a drunk, but it wasn’t until I heard the absurdity of what the speakers did that I really began to understand how utterly insane alcoholism and addiction really is. I heard people talking about going to four different liquor stores in one day so the clerk wouldn’t think they were drunks; stealing other people’s booze and filling up the bottles with water; counting drinks, using a theoretical cutoff point, so they wouldn’t get too drunk; and drinking Listerine and vanilla extract to take away the shakes–all things that I did that I thought no one else had even thought of. So I identified and saw how crazy my own drinking was.
I also heard about guilt and shame and remorse: Parents who drove drunk or went into crack houses with their kids; stole from their families to get booze and drugs; missed weddings and funerals and other don’t-miss events because they were too fucked up to show up; and blacking out and having some very pissed off friend, relative or spouse fill in the gory details that they didn’t even know happened. Then there were the physical descriptions: waiting for a liquor store to open with a fistful of quarters so you can keep from having a seizure, being dope sick, or just not leaving the house for a week because you didn’t want anyone to see what you had become. And I also heard what might be the most important thing that nearly every alcoholic/addict experiences before they get sober—wanting to die but not wanting to kill themselves.
Don’t get me wrong, I really don’t like to hear the glorification stories about how much dope someone shot or how many cops it took to take them down while they were picking up their assault and battery on a police officer charge. Listening to someone who just talks about their litany of arrests and lost jobs and shares stupid drunk stories is something that gets boring very fast even with a gifted speaker, because that stuff doesn’t really mean shit if it doesn’t have a larger point. But a story about smashing a car, getting fired from a job or getting kicked out of the house because of your drinking and drugging and then continuing to do it as if nothing really happened? That’s one of best ways to tell new people about the insanity of alcoholism, because non-alcoholic/addicts stop doing shit when they see it’s hurting them and others, and alcoholics and addicts just try to figure out ways to continue to do it without facing the consequences. Which is what addiction is all about—the failure to grow up and accept reality as it is, not how you’d like it to be.
Those who think the entire program of AA is the steps and God fail to recognize that the Big Book has an awful lot of drunkalogues in it (from pages 171-559 in the latest edition), not to mention Bill’s story and an awful lot of stuff about drinking in the first 164 pages. In the “How It Works” section, the book tells us to “tell him about your drinking habits, symptoms and experiences to encourage him to speak of himself” when speaking with new people and to “give him a sketch of your drinking career up until the time you quit.” So this isn’t just my opinion, it’s also that of the Big Book’s authors. And it’s not that I don’t believe in the Steps (I’ve gone through them a half-dozen times and they totally changed the way I think), it’s just that they don’t work at all if I’m not sober.
But even if you don’t think communicating the message to newcomers is that important because you’re really in recovery to “work on yourself,” it’s really helpful when you’re doing that, too. I consider myself very fortunate that I got sober in an open-speaker group that allows me to tell some variation of my story pretty frequently. My group goes to jails, detoxes and shelters, and we also go to other groups once or twice a week, so I’ve told my story about 500 to 600 times since I got sober 11-plus years ago. If that sounds repetitious or boring, it’s not. It’s pretty much like practicing a song over and over until it feels right or the way a comedian spends years working on the perfect five minutes of material.
By telling my story over and over, I really get it in my marrow that, yup, I am completely fucking powerless over booze and drugs, and once I get honest about that, I can get honest about the other shit I’m powerless over (like traffic, weather and other people), so I spend more time thinking about stuff I can change in my life instead of the stuff I can’t. The old timers tell me I have a “built-in forgetter” when it comes to booze, so I need to remember, and doing my drunkalogue to help other people is the best way to remember.
It also gives me what little humility I have, reminding me that even if my life isn’t totally rocking the way I’d like it to, at least I’m not puking blood, shitting my pants, drinking Listerine to stop the shakes or feeling so ashamed that I’d kill myself if I weren’t so self-centered.
And to those of you who don’t think your drunkalogue is “bad” or exciting enough to tell to a group of people, remember, it’s not what how much you drank or how many pills you ate, it’s what happened as a result and how you felt. So if you only drank wine but drove drunk with your kids in the car, a lot more people are going to identify with you than the guy who holds up liquor stores to buy crack. And it’s also a relatively safe place to tell people your story because pretty much everyone has done the same shit as you to some degree. I don’t think you should do a fifth step from the podium (the phrase “I did a lot of things I’m not proud of” covers a lot of territory), but I’m not big on holding out on embarrassing stuff either, because once I get that shit out, it’s like draining a toxic swamp and the guilt and shame stops owning me.
If you don’t like telling your drunkalogue, because you don’t want to be accused of just telling “war stories,” remember, those stories can save a life. Maybe your own.