I once heard someone say, mid-share during an AA meeting, “But I’m an alcoholic, so of course I got resentful.” The man speaking had been cut off in traffic by another driver and his underlying message rubbed me the wrong way. I couldn’t articulate my annoyance at the time but I saw later that I didn’t like his suggestion that any person with an ability to control and enjoy their drinking—a “normal” person—would surely react to the situation with politeness and understanding. And I didn’t understand the logic, really, that it’s our alcoholism that causes us to get aggravated by somebody’s rude, dangerous driving.
I’m from Massachusetts, and believe me, every cliché you’ve heard about Boston is true. We’ve got a lot of drunks, and a lot of bad drivers, as well as a limited ability to include the letter R on the ends of words. There are, however, plenty of non-alcoholics and safe drivers, and personally I gave up the accent during puberty. But on the roads of the Bay State, you can hear horn honking and watch fist-shaking all day long. Vile vulgarity is regularly shouted out of open windows over an unsafe lane change or failure to signal. And while I haven’t run the numbers, I can safely say that there’s no way that everyone getting worked up in their car suffers from the disease of alcoholism.
In AA, the real work—what really helped me change as a person, beyond just a temporary halt in my drinking—was working the steps, those ones implied when people use the phrase “12-step program.” Through the steps, I learned about the causes and conditions of my drinking, and found a spiritual solution to my problems. This isn’t as complicated as it sounds. My problems were generally fear, anger, dishonesty, selfishness, insecurity, and the like. When I looked at the bad situations in my life, especially those that hurt just to remember, one of these bandits was always present at the crime scene. And I couldn’t get better until I looked at myself beyond the drinking, and into the real meat of my character defects.
After some time, though, I fell into a sort of thought-trap that I figure the man sharing about road rage had also: thinking so much about my addiction through the prism of my character defects unconsciously led me to believe that these two things were inseparable.
But it’s not only alcoholics who get resentful.
Still, AA literature tells us that for alcoholics, “this business of resentment” is “infinitely grave,” even fatal. Those words are pretty clear, and the message is reinforced by sponsors, friends, and speakers at meetings. With that constant encouragement to look at resentment as though it were our own personal kryptonite day after day, I think many of us, even if just subconsciously, come to believe that we own it.
But here’s the thing: I spent my whole life feeling like an outsider. I always had the sense that everyone else knew what to do and felt comfortable and that I was some kind of alien. This is not an original idea; you hear it in AA constantly. Yet carrying around the idea that I belonged to some little fraction of earth’s population that exclusively dealt with paralyzing fear, boiling anger, and obsessive thinking only perpetuated my feelings of alienation. My sponsor had tried to teach me that I was “just another one of God’s kids”—that I was no better or worse than anyone else. And yet believing that alcoholism made me different created so much discomfort in my life. Though I continued to show up at work and school, and kept making nonalcoholic friends, I felt a real disconnection. I thought none of those people could really understand my feelings because they weren’t alcoholics and alcoholics were so different from normal people. So I just avoided opening up to them.
When I was around three years sober, the spell suddenly began to break. I was on the phone with my nonalcoholic sister when she told me she was having a stressful day. She had a job, grad school, and a little baby to take care of—which is to say plenty of frustrations and fears about life and what the future had in store. I listened, and then said whatever I could to help, generally assuring her that she was a good, strong person, and that everything would work out for her. Inwardly, though, I felt frustrated that I couldn’t help more. It occurred to me that when I was having a day like that, I’d call my sponsor—and always feel better after talking to him. It was frustrating to me that my sister didn’t have the same resource. Upon seeing that connection, I had a realization that felt simultaneously like a great epiphany and dumbstruck-simple: we alcoholics are just like everyone else.
That’s when I started to focus on another sentence in the AA literature which says that self-righteous anger “may be the dubious luxury of normal men, but for alcoholics these things are poison.” I realized then that I had totally disregarded the first part of that sentence: I had overlooked how much I had in common with everyone who’s “normal.”
The problems I deal with, the ones I must deal with so that I can continue to be sober, are the same problems that everyone deals with. I mean everyone: addicts, alcoholics, normies, grandmothers, Alaskans, astronauts, wizards, whathaveyou. Despite the differences among us, we are all the same. There is a universal human experience, and its obstacles are the same for everyone, whether they like drugs and alcohol or not. The only real difference for me is that I believe if I don’t deal with those obstacles, I’ll kill myself by filling my body with poison.
I’m no spiritual giant. Boy, do I really mean that. I struggle plenty with anger, fear, selfishness, dishonesty, and every other quality of being that can cause harm. For a more concrete example, get in a car with me. Watch my reaction to being cut off, and it’ll be clear I’ve still got a long road ahead. But on my most spiritual days, the ones where I feel at peace and okay about myself, I don’t feel like an alien at all. On a day like that, I can look at other people, all of them, and while I might disagree with them or their behavior, I’m certain they’re just like me.
For better or for worse.