Telling on Myself in 12-Step Meetings

Telling on Myself in 12-Step Meetings

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vulnerability in 12-step meetings

This post was originally published on December 10, 2015.

At my first few 12-step meetings, what people were willing to share about life before they got sober fascinated me. Whenever a story started about a weeklong bender or a dramatic showdown with family, I leaned forward in my chair and furrowed my brow, intent on not missing a word. These people did the same kinds of things I did, I thought. I can talk to them without shame.

I eagerly jumped in. In no time, I was recounting the cringe-inducing behavior I engaged in before I got sober—from all of the barstools I swore must have been greased before I fell off of the them, to the family holidays I spent spouting off the same story seven times, and, finally, to landing on a locked-down detox unit. The list was miles long, but no one seemed to mind listening. It was a massive relief to not feel judged or humiliated by my past. Once those truths were out there, they lost their power to destroy my self-esteem. I was even able to laugh about the fact that I justified drinking at 6 am by reminding myself that it was noon in France and people drank at lunch there, so I wasn’t the only one drinking.

But then I started noticing that people in meetings were also sharing tales of the not-so-perfect things they did in sobriety. Suddenly, I was confused. If that lady’s been sober for five years then why is she still having temper tantrums in the office? I know we claim progress, not perfection, but what is that? I’m certainly not copping to that kind of behavior if I ever act out like that. I listened warily as I heard person after person come clean about overreactions and dramatic episodes that happened years after they put down the drink. It got to the point that when I would hear the words, “I need to tell on myself,” my ears would perk up.

As a kid, I loved to tell on other people. I freely admit that. I was an insecure little girl who felt better about myself by getting other people in trouble. Run to the teacher to rat out the eight-year old boy who pulled another girl’s hair? Yep. Tell the camp counselor about the kid who took crayons home after yesterday’s art period? That would be me. And it didn’t matter how many times the adults would respond with, “Nobody likes a tattletale, Lisa.” I didn’t care. Other people’s bad behaviors made me feel superior. Thirty years later, sitting in detox, I had to admit that maybe I wasn’t so superior after all.

So how exactly would I become a person who could tell on myself in a 12-step meeting, of all places? Wasn’t this where I was supposed to be a better human being? What would other people think of me if they actually knew what happened inside my supposedly sober head? I thought about how I hated every single stranger on the subway platform most mornings. Would that make me sound like a total maniac? How could I admit that when the pharmacist told me my prescription would take five more minutes, I curled my lip up at her, rolled my eyes, and asked, “Seriously? What is the problem with getting it ready when it’s supposed to be ready?” I also stomped my foot. Can I really claim to be a changed person if I still act like a petulant toddler? If people knew the real me, I thought, they’d never like me.

Based on what I saw in the rooms, though, it was undeniable that people were getting real relief by ratting out their own non-sober reactions to life on life’s terms. No one was judging them. Rather, many people were nodding their heads in agreement at stories of chewing out co-workers as well as innocent bystanders. In fact, I admired their ability to tell the truth and own it. Just like with bad behavior pre-sobriety, putting it out into the open somehow removed the power those actions and thoughts had on people going forward. It made me think of something I had heard—we’re only as sick as our secrets.

One morning, “rigorous honesty” was the meeting topic. Maybe I hadn’t had enough caffeine, maybe I was coming down with the flu, or maybe I had just become willing to let people to see that I wasn’t the first person ever to practice the program perfectly, but I spoke the truth. When it was my turn to share, I said, “If I’m rigorously honest, I have to admit that I’m having an awful week at work and if there had been a bottle of vodka in my freezer this morning, I’m pretty sure I would have chugged half of it. In fact, I wished it were there. This morning, the obsession to drink did not feel lifted. Not at all. I don’t feel like being sober today. I don’t want to be in this meeting. I wish I could drink.” It just fell out of my mouth. And it felt great. Vocalizing those feelings didn’t solve my work problems, but suddenly a drink didn’t seem like the answer to them either.

Now I am a big fan of telling on myself in meetings. Not only does it provide the relief of unburdening myself of a secret, it also does so in a quick and painless way. If I were to confess to wanting to drink to my sponsor, we would be digging into some step work to get to the bottom of it. This could take weeks. If I floated it to my therapist, we’d have material for a month and it would likely continue to pop up indefinitely in forms such as, “Maybe that was what made you want to drink last time?”

No, the beauty of dumping my bad behavior and dangerous thoughts in a meeting is that often times it’s out there, and then it’s over. Sure, someone may approach me after the meeting to see if I want to get coffee and talk about it. Or I might get a few calls or texts checking up on me later in the day. And all that is helpful. But it doesn’t have to become a major event. It can be just another fact in another day of another alcoholic, trying to stay sober one day at a time.

So yes, five-years-sober lady who melted down at work, I understand where you’re coming from. And I’ll make sure to let you know when it happens to me.

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About Author

Lisa Smith is a lawyer and writer in New York City. She is the author of the memoir Girl Walks Out of a Bar, which recounts her experiences as a high-functioning alcoholic and drug addict. She is also the co-host of the podcast, Recovery Rocks.