I thought I knew everything when I was six months sober. It’s a cliché, I know, but it had to do with hitting the Pacific Group in West LA weekly and hanging out at AA halls in the San Fernando Valley on a regular basis. Since I’d been a zealous step-working member of AA for two-and-a-half years and then crashed into a bottom lower than what I thought was possible for me, I’d decided to crank up my program by hanging out with the hardcore crowd.
Having lost everything, I was game to do anything, short of killing someone, to stay sober.
I began scrutinizing my previous program, trying to uncover, discover and discard the things I did or didn’t do that made me relapse. I thought it had to be my fault for not following every AA suggestion, even though I knew tons of people who stayed sober without sponsors and without doing steps. I also knew plenty of people who worked the program half-assed, who stole and fucked around on their girlfriends or boyfriends or husbands or wives, and they stayed sober too. While they were doing all kinds of shady shit and blowing out candles on one, two or 15-year cakes, I, with my constant reading of the Twelve and Twelve and attempts to be honest and upstanding, did not.
But I felt like the Big Book told me my relapses were my fault. I failed to expand my spiritual life. I wasn’t honest enough. I hadn’t “thoroughly followed the path.”
So I agreed that in the past I wasn’t a strong enough AA member, that I’d skimped on the nine steps I’d managed to complete, that somewhere along the line, my inventory hadn’t been thorough enough, my Higher Power wasn’t strong enough or I just wasn’t willing to follow direction with complete and utter abandon.
Or maybe I didn’t make my bed enough. Some days, I got lazy and left the covers all jumbled up. Some days, I didn’t even brush my teeth or shower. Was that it?
Since I’d crashed so low when I finally got sober for good in October of 2009, I decided to be perfect. In retrospect, it was ridiculous. Some AA members kindly said maybe I “just wasn’t ready” to give up booze, though some told me I didn’t want sobriety enough while others said I hadn’t “really surrendered.” In retrospect I realize a hormonal and chemical imbalance had a huge role in the relapses.
A good 90% of my relapses happened during an awful spell of PMS, or what should probably be called PMDD—premenstrual dysphoric disorder, which I had been diagnosed with. (It’s also what scientists believe prompted Sylvia Plath to put her head in the oven.) But I don’t see anything in the Big Book addressing how women might handle the sometimes crippling mood swings that result from a sudden drop in estrogen.
Regardless, I thought I was the problem. So I resolved to do better. I highlighted, underlined and scribbled in my Big Book. I read it diligently, every morning, while chain smoking and chain-drinking coffee on the patio at my sober living. I journaled constantly and was on my fourth step by month two. When any trace of selfishness or self-centeredness popped up in my thoughts or actions, I flagellated myself and atoned for my sins by trying to be all the more perfect.
I had commitments, too, and showed up for them. I poured coffee at a massive Wednesday night Pacific Group meeting. I was never late, despite having to drive crosstown from Glendale to the Westside in hellacious rush-hour traffic. And I always put $2 in the Seventh Tradition basket, went up to newcomers, got phone numbers and tried to be of service during every waking hour.
Maybe it worked, because I did stay sober. Or maybe it had nothing to do with it, since I finally decided that alcohol had ripped my life up so bad I absolutely could not drink ever again. Or maybe it had to do with being on a better combo of meds for my bipolar disorder.
I’m not sure exactly what kept me sober, but the longer I stayed sober, the more I judged other people’s programs.
When I’d hit a popular morning meeting in Silver Lake, I inwardly criticized all the people who showed up half-asleep and grouchy. “Why,” I asked myself, “weren’t they totally beside themselves with glee for being sober one more day?” And when I was asked to speak at that meeting—at six months of sobriety—I droned on and on and on about how the Big Book was an oracle, and how, if I didn’t do everything exactly as it was outlined, I would drink.
“I can’t have wiggle room,” I’d preach in other meetings. “I have to be held accountable for my actions. I can’t have any resentments. I have to constantly be of service to the alcoholic who is still suffering.”
When my girlfriends would call me tripped out about boys or their screwed-up families, I’d tell them to write an inventory. No, I wasn’t an asshole about it; I usually was pretty kind and almost timid about pointing them in that direction. But secretly I thought, “She’s just a selfish and self-centered fear-based girl who needs to get on the ball and be grateful she’s alive for one more day.”
What kind of friend is that?
All around me were AA members who were far less fanatical, and many of them had been sober for 25 years or more. People with more time who were a little more chilled out and sane in meetings smiled at me with kindness, but something tells me they knew I was a bit over-the-top and that I’d get off my high horse after a few years and calm the fuck down.
And calm the fuck down I did.
By the time I hit year two—the terrible twos as they say—I started coasting. I had finally built up enough sober reference and time that when shit went down, I didn’t immediately want to drink. In fact, I really never wanted to drink. The obsession with drinking had vanished, and I grew more and more liberal and compassionate towards the AA members around me while easing up on my constant self-judgement.
Eventually, as anyone who might read some of my essays here on this site know well, I threw in the towel on AA. Or, I should say, I began taking an extended break. I’m not averse to returning by any means, and I do believe AA helps many people. At the same time, I find many aspects of it questionable and sometimes harmful for people and, after researching the history of the program and reading books by the program’s critics, I’ve just decided to stay sober on my own, while also hitting SMART recovery every now and again.
When you’ve almost died—when alcohol or drugs have ripped up your life—black-and-white thinking is incredibly soothing. It also helps us make sense of other tragedies in life, like terrorism. But I’ve discovered that the truth is always in the grey area and that black-and-white, do-or-die thinking leaves me unevolved, ignorant and separated from the world.
In early sobriety, I had nothing to cling to but AA, and AA was there for me. But as I’ve grown, I’ve become far more stable and far more open-minded, calm enough to think critically and sane enough to make my own decisions.
My only hope is that I don’t judge the Big Book thumpers the way I used to judge the AA’s who refused to work a step.
Photo courtesy of Vangore [CC-BY-SA-3.0-migrated (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:CC-BY-SA-3.0-migrated)], via Wikimedia Commons