This post was originally published on May 20, 2014.
In AA meetings, you’ll often hear that the newcomer is the most important person in the room. I tend to agree—and also to shudder when I hear stories about cranky old-timers ordering newcomers to take the cotton out of their ears and stuff it in their mouth. It’s this interest in newcomers, in fact, that led me to the idea of regularly sussing out their thoughts at various stages of their sobriety. Sort of like that British Up series documentary but with far less of a time commitment and without, of course, a film crew.
The first person we’re tracking is 30-year old Sarah F., whose life looks quite good from the outside; she has an apartment, a car, good relationships with her family and friends and is working in the creative field of her dreams. But on the inside, she feels scared both about her future and her drinking, since she’s always making commitments to stop or slow down and not being able to stick to them. Her desire to be sober and conflicting desire to be “normal” have created resistance that she battles; yet she continues to show up to her daily 7:30 am meeting looking for hope and a solution.
Danielle: What made you decide to get sober?
Sarah: There are a million reasons why I wanted to get sober but simply put, the cons of drinking gradually started to drastically outweigh the pros. It has been negatively impacting my life for years; over time, my alcohol abuse has become the obvious common denominator in almost all of my problems. I was continuously drinking more than planned, unable to control the amount I drank despite numerous attempts and suffering from blackouts, severe hangovers and other physical and mental side effects—raging anxiety, feeling hopeless and borderline suicidal, a total lack of productivity. But I feel like the days after drinking are more the reason for my quitting than my behavior while actually drinking. Having said that, there are countless things I regret doing or saying while drunk. When I am drinking, there is an entire compartment of my brain dedicated to anxiety and shame surrounding alcohol. When I’m sober, that compartment is free to think about other things. I can’t afford to take that brain-space up with alcohol-related bullshit anymore.
Danielle: What led you to AA?
Sarah: When I started to think I had a drinking problem, I read anything I could get my hands on that related to alcoholism. Based on everything I read, AA was the most successful method for quitting drinking and dealing with the “ism”—the real reason you started abusing alcohol in the first place. I also had a few people in my life who didn’t drink and the ones who maintained their sobriety by working the program of Alcoholics Anonymous were significantly calmer and more adjusted to the sober lifestyle. And I had kept trying to quit on my own and couldn’t maintain it. I didn’t feel like I had any other choice if I really wanted to be done with booze.
Danielle: Many people are resistant to AA and working the 12 steps. Did you have that?
Sarah: I think the resistance comes from really, really not wanting to be an alcoholic. If it’s gotten so bad that you even consider going, you know deep down, it’s truly a problem. And admitting you have a problem with something and knowing you will have to do a lot of work to deal with it is scary. Before I really committed to getting sober, I dabbled in meetings but had a tendency to compare myself to, rather than identify with, others in the room. As countless others will tell you, this makes you decide “you aren’t that bad” which just leads you right back to drinking. Every time I go back to drinking, within a matter of time—and that time frame gets shorter and shorter—I am right back to facing all the reasons I need to quit drinking.
Danielle: Are there things that the people in the program suggest that you aren’t willing to do?
Sarah: So far, no.
Danielle: Do you have a sponsor?
Danielle: Why not?
Sarah: I just haven’t met someone I’ve felt comfortable asking to sponsor me. For now, I am just trying to not drink, to read the AA literature, to go to meetings and to come to grips with being powerless over alcohol, which is technically the first step.
Danielle: What is your definition of an alcoholic?
Sarah: My definition—and I truly believe it’s different for everyone—is continuing to drink despite repeatedly suffering (and I do mean suffering) negative consequences.
Danielle: Do you think you are an alcoholic?
Sarah: Yes. The more I read and hear the stories of other alcoholics, the more I realize I am one. And I now know it’s a mental condition that exists regardless of whether I’m actively drinking. I’ve always thought I suffered from depression or anxiety but I’m coming to realize it’s all alcoholism—continuing to drink despite the negative consequences because I’m unable to deal with the inevitable emotions that come with growing up and life. My inability to sit in my own skin, in my own feelings, makes me abuse a substance that alters my brain.
Danielle: What are your fears around staying sober?
Sarah: I have the cliché fears everyone who’s newly sober has—worried I’ll never have fun again, worried I will face a stigma in the dating scene, sad about never going wine tasting again, never drinking beer at the beach…I could go on for a while, unfortunately, but I know at this moment and for the rest of this day, I can’t drink. If I tell myself it’s forever, I will want to say, “Fuck it” and keep drinking. Thankfully, the fear of what will happen if I do drink again is overshadowing every single one of the fears I have about being sober “forever.”
Danielle: What do you expect out of sobriety?
Sarah: I expect clarity, emotional growth, peace, a restored sense of spirituality, more productivity in my career, a healthy romantic relationship…and a smokin’ hot body.
We’ll continue to check in with Sarah about her sobriety so be sure to look out for our next installment. And if you have any questions you’d like to ask her, send them to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll make sure she answers them.