DISCLAIMER – The following post is merely a summary of one part of my journey. I talk about leaving Alcoholics Anonymous. To anyone struggling with addiction or recovery, I am NOT recommending that you take my same actions unless you are absolutely sure it is where your heart is leading you. Working the 12-steps with a sponsor, sponsoring other people, and the fellowship of AA and NA not only gave me the tools to achieve lasting recovery but have shown me how to drastically improve my life in general. I will forever be grateful for my experience in AA.
I had just got off work. I had productivity on my mind and things to do. I was, however, sitting on the couch and having a day dream about a hypothetical conversation with a colleague of mine. I was telling this person of my experience in Alcoholics Anonymous and why I left. Sitting on the couch by myself, I became angry as months of hibernating resentment were brought to wake. The people in AA who said ‘To Thine Own Self be True” and then proceeded to tell their sponsees how to run their lives. The falsely humble who bragged that God had given them a miracle to live in, complete with wife and home, but said it was because of the actions that they themselves took.
Say your life got better because you made it better! I wanted to scream on more than one occasion. Either get off your knees or stop pointing to yourself with both thumbs.
With only the whirl of the fan over my head, I relived all the 12-step mottos repeated ad nauseum as I stared blankly.
“I find when I do the work, my life gets better.”
I thought about the groveling self-hatred and lack of self-agency explicit in so many of those slogans.
“My own best thinking got me here.”
“Things get bad whenever I get behind the wheel of my own life.”
Memories of another meeting I used to go to as I sat on my angry couch and drew oily vapor from my e-cigarette. This meeting was big on carrying the message. Carrying the message, for the uninitiated, is bringing the discipline and methods of the twelve-steps to a down and out drunk or junkie that literally has no idea how to not self-destruct. Doing the twelve-steps is something that saved my life and many others.
The problem with this meeting was…there was hardly ever any busted up newcomers at this particular place. No one with 30 days sober who had just began to hold solid food down, no quivering and scared junkies about to rip their finger nails out. Just the same group of dudes with multiple years of stable sobriety carrying the message to themselves!
“When I first came into these rooms, I was broken.”
They said this to everyone else who, in turn, said just about the same exact thing!
I remembered feeling like the only one awake among the pithy platitude-pitching pod people. I’d approached being told for the last time that my life belongs to Alcoholics Anonymous, that I must stay in the middle of the herd while it was beginning to seem that the only real joy and humility I could see is in my friends outside of that herd.
Maybe I had only been projecting my own self-entitled bitterness onto the well-meaning people that I shared a meeting with.
The understanding that AA had benefited me tremendously never evaded me, but I didn’t even know what I was going to do if I heard one more old man blowing hard and blaming his garden-variety laziness or assholishness on The Disease.
I wanted to leave AA. I have a respect for the difficulties of a person leaving a situation no longer working for them. For the last two years the clear message of you will drink and die without the program of Alcoholics Anonymous had been drilled into my consciousness with fierce repetition, the cultural feedback loop of hanging out with people who believed the same way, and a seemingly unending litany of drunks and junkies “coming back to the rooms” after they were lucky enough to survive relapse. These half-dead people coming back with their horror stories had always said the same thing –
“I stopped praying. I stopped talking to my sponsor. I stopped going to meetings.”
The trinity of self-deception. It had seemed from their chorus of the Damned that the God of Their Understanding had punished them harshly for their infidelity to the Program, and these were the examples of the people that you were not to be. Lest you not be as lucky.
I was between the proverbial rock and a hard place. No longer buying the party line but too scared to leave. I began to feel caged and hostile. I didn’t know if my alcoholic thinking was crafting a plot to get me out of AA and into a liquor store, of if it was just my good American sense of heresy and independence kicking in. I remained, for the most part, cordial enough in meetings. It wasn’t the poor bastard’s fault sitting next to me who was only trying to get his life in order. I started flying my flag in different ways, trying to get a sense of who thought what. Other times I just liked messing with people.
Taking My Stand Against a Humble Servant
I recalled an encounter I had with a middle-aged gentleman at one of the meetings where they all carried the same message to each other verbatim. Nice enough guy. We were standing on the sidewalk outside the rented building trying to give ourselves cancer in the parking lot. This particular meeting had an upcoming event. It was a three-day camping trip where they would do the usual things you do while camping (no drinking obviously). The man, in full fellowship recruitment mode, turned to the kid standing next to me.
“Ya goin’ to the camp-out?” he asked, ready for a debate.
The kid looked at his shoes for a moment. He took another drag off his cigarette and responded without looking up. “N-no…I have thing already planned.”
I looked away from the boy. I’ve never been comfortable with feeling disgust toward another.
“Well, what do you have going on? This will be fun, you could get a lot of it.”
Something of the culture of AA should be noted at this point. Addicts have an extreme tendency of isolation and other antisocial tendencies. A large and vital part of recovery from any addiction is re-socialization. Coping mechanisms and new healthy habits aside, a person needs to feel connected with humanity in order to not run back to the warm embrace of the substance of choice. AA does a fantastic job of bringing in the downtrodden and basically forcing a drunk to see that they are loved and capable of holding the company of others. I think more of our institutions could benefit from such an approach. The problem can lay in what I see as AA’s biggest faling…a one-size-fits-all-approach. What is necessary encouragement for one man is obnoxious harassment for another. Now, back to the story…
The kid kept his head down as he puffed away. “Ayyyye don’t know. I’ve kinda got plans.” he responded hesitantly with his dreadlocks hanging over his eyes.
The middle-aged man feigned thoughtfulness and shrugged more with his face than with his shoulders. “Well…what do you have going on? Maybe it’s something we can help you with it. That way you can come along for the camping.”
I examined the boy out of the corner of my eye. Still puffing and meditating on his feet. “I’ve got to do yard work.” The way yard work hung a sudden inflection upward gave his statement a questioning quality, like he’d be shocked if even a child bought his excuse.
“Oh come on, man…” the middle-aged guy said eight inches from the boy’s face. “This is like a once-a-year thing. Just blow it off or do yard work another time.”
The man wasn’t giving up. He was certainly pulling his weight in the Program tonight. I’ve always been able to admire a good work ethic.
The boy looked up. “Y-yeah?”
“O-okay. Sure…I’ll be there.”
The man beamed showing teeth that were white enough, and gave the boy a quick slap on the back.
“I’ll see ya there, guy. How about you?” The man was now looking at me.
“What?” I said, already being a pain in the ass.
“You coming to the camp-out?”
“No.” I answered shortly. I’d developed a habit of excusing, explaining, and qualifying my no’s in the past. It was and still does feel good for me to respond in the negative in such a prompt and determined way.
Confusion flashes in the eyes with a sort of jolting effect before the cross-hairs find their way back to center. Hadn’t he heard me in the meeting talking about the 12 steps? Surely I most have known that fellowship with other alcoholics is something that takes priority over all but funeral or birth.
“Well…why not?” he continued, back on track,
“I don’t want to.” I said, looking into his eyes to see if he would snap into a fit of rage like an old treatment director of mine often did.
I looked down quickly, feigning thoughtfulness of my own. “Why?” I asked, meeting his gaze again.
More eye-flashing confusion. I was beginning to enjoy this.
“B-because it’s what we do.”
“Because I don’t want to. I’d rather hang out with my girlfriend and watch movies and shit like that.”
“Yeah, but…” the man took a moment to adjust his tone, and changed course to conversation that was more casual and human. I’ve always been able to admire flexibility in the way a man works. “Listen…we just want to get to know you, man. And I’ve heard you talk…I mean, you’ve had some real experiences, and I think these things are important ’cause it…it just gets us out of our heads and you know…it’s fellowship.”
“Yeah…” I responded, shooting a glance to the heavens to let the man know that I was about to get real profound. “Ya know…I hear my grandsponsor say in meetings, ‘I do this stuff because I have to. You think I want to do this? You think I want to sponsor half of Minneapolis and write notebooks full of inventory? You think I want to be at these meetings all the time? I’d rather be watching the MLB divisionals.’ And it’s like…yeah…I’d rather be doing that stuff too. So that’s what I’m gonna do.” I said with a teeth-bearing grin that threatened to tear my face across the middle.
I couldn’t decode his eyes. There was a reassessing quality to the way they oscillated between staring through me contemplatively and looking at my features more pointedly, like he had seen me for the first time, that I wasn’t who he thought I was.
My day dream of that night in the parking lot faded away as I broke into laughter on that couch. The stale resentment had vanished. I must have looked like a lunatic, staring a hole into the wall for ten silent minutes and then bursting out into an uncontrollable cackle.
What the Hell Am I Doing Not Writing This Down?
Of the life I live, half of it takes place in my mind. Day dreams, old arguments, and other forms grandiosity steal me away often. This mental time travel on the couch had been nothing out of my ordinary. A new thought had followed it, however.
It was vision for my book. I had been looking for a scene to illustrate the comedic results of a man discovering his voice, finding the direction of his internal compass, and living in a world that doesn’t arrange itself around personal lessons. I typed it all into my gargantuan Word document about seventy-five percent in.
I’d been so hard up on stressing myself out with the to-do list of editing, and voice finding, and trajectory of story, and self-imposed deadlines that I couldn’t see my own hypocrisy – I was operating in denial that my story had chosen me, that the Muse had first approached me and not the other way around. I could have disregarded the whole encounter on the couch. I could have chalked it up to a wasted fifteen minutes. I am grateful that something inside of me said – This is it. Write this down.
Do this for your craft – Stay Aware. Think of your writing and your goals. Think of the direction you would like to take with your craft. Think of what you would like to accomplish in the next week. Now…let it all go. Look beyond your ideas and future projections. Try to listen to your Muse and how it is trying to visit you. You just might get a knock on your door sometime soon.
*Featured image on top of post is “Vine Street Sun” by D.E. Ingram, Boulder, CO artist. Check out his excellent portfolio at daningramblog.wordpress.com