“Alcoholics Anonymous” has played a comedic role in my life for ages; the brunt of a joke between friends who, by no stretch of the imagination, are all variants of the term’s textbook definition. For instance, in college we got drunk (drunk!) before putting on our workout gear and hitting the gym for an intramural basketball tournament. Game One was us against a team of football players (our team had those too, but there was a size and speed advantage on the other team which unfortunately was only made that much worse by our largely inept lack of skills and, of course, the jags we all had going). The last thing I remember is jogging around the court prior to tip-off, mocking the other team. In my blackout state I hard-fouled one of their biggest players, and he sent me flying. I broke my collar bone, and a small “skirmish” ensued. I ended up sitting out the rest of the tournament (though, in a just world, I shouldn’t have played at all… I’m the worst basketball player I know), only to shine again during the last game of the season.
Some weeks later I dawned my finest thrift store sport coat and assembled a pre-game speech, trumpeting the triumphs of alcoholics from yesteryear to rally the team before the season’s final game. It remains the best speech I’ve ever given, sober or stoned… which probably doesn’t say much for my public speaking abilities. I’m pretty sure a salute to Buzz Aldrin was in there somewhere, but the point of the thing was to simply make light of life and have some fun. That game we were pinned against the team from the sober dorm. We won. Actually, it was the only game of the entire tournament that we won. I was carried out of the arena on the shoulders of a couple of friends as if we’d won the championship, my arms still rigidly hooked into a sling to help straighten out my fractured clavicle. Our team name: the Alcoholics Anonymous. We play in a fantasy football league now, and have been doing so for years, under the same name. The past two seasons I was either passed out or I drunkenly forgot about the pre-season draft and ended up with ridiculously poor teams. (This season I drafted my own team. Yay me.) Point is, the name is a joke to us.
And I think the term “alcoholic,” itself, is kind of silly, too. It’s not a medical definition, and its meaning is myriad, completely relative to the person using it. One of my favorite quotes comes from the Welsh poet and writer Dylan Thomas, who once said “An alcoholic is someone you don’t like who drinks as much as you do.” That about sums it up for me.
During the first few meetings I sat in on last month, in situations where I’d be introducing myself to the group, I’d simply say “Hi, my name is Chris.” But I thought about it some… it’s just a word, “alcoholic,” and what the word means is up to me. In the process of going out of my way to distinguish myself from others, by refusing the distinction I was sort of disrespecting where they’re coming from, regardless of how I feel about the term. So, amid all of this personal struggle and a search for self, I’ve begrudgingly dawned “alcoholic” myself. I still don’t like saying it, as if it’s some sort of slur that passes only because of the company I’m in when I say it, but I do so out of a place of compassion for what we all have in common. Together, we are alcoholics.
Yesterday I sat down for coffee and breakfast with my “sponsor” and we talked about life and “The Program.” He knows I’m coming from a place of skepticism, bearing ill will toward the religious rhetoric that powers the 12 Steps since having first read The Big Book cover to cover about four years ago. I revealed that earlier this month I made a promise to myself that I was going to “put myself in a position where I can help other young people who are struggling with this same shit that I’ve been going through.” Two and a half weeks ago I didn’t know what that meant, but it soon dawned on me that I would transform this vague memoir-slash-research-project I’d been working on into a book, written to myself four years ago, to the version of me who unabashedly mocked treatment because of personal preconceptions; the version of me who ultimately gave up on life. And over french toast and coffee I continued to explain this to someone firmly embedded in “The Program” — that I was writing something (I’m still not sure what to call it) based around a model of acceptance, an introduction to treatment for those who balk at recovery, written by someone who’s been struggling with the very thought of “treatment” for the better part of a decade. It was sort of liberating.
Sure, I mean, essentially I’m my own research tool here, letting my guard down and going with the flow to see if I’ve been wrong about A.A. this whole time. And maybe that’s not the optimal way to start out, but it’s the only way I could start out. I showed up because I had no where else to go, and no one else to talk to, and my life’s been better this month than it was two months ago. Do I think this is the doing of a “higher power”? Nope. But I can’t discredit the positivity that’s developed from simply attending meetings and talking to other people who struggle with issues similar to my own. Yesterday I attended two such meetings.
What flowed through the first was a theme of how to deal with pain, both physical and emotional, while the second was aimless, rambling, and largely worthless for me. But what both helped me remember is that life exists outside of my own head, and the problems I’m facing are hardly the worst that mankind has ever witnessed. And all-in-all, if that’s what I take away from the day… holy crap, that’s powerful. And that’s what I’m trying to build on. About three years after going through the treatment process myself, I began researching the fundamentals behind numerous recovery methods and relevant psychology branches to better understand the addiction and recovery process on a larger scale. And right now I’m back to where I began four years ago: With a blue book in my hands, trying to figure out just how the hell “a Power greater than [myself] can restore [me] to sanity.” But I’m not just reading The Big Book, I’m reading that and Jack Trimpey’s Rational Recovery; that and numerous websites and forums dedicated to the eradication of A.A., sussing out the truth that it’s a “cult”; that and resources championing A.A. as the foundation from which a better life can be built.
There’s the aim: compassion, tolerance, and understanding. You know, shit like that…
Yesterday I was talking to someone prior to my second meeting and discussion somehow landed on how I was sitting at the bar at a T.G.I. Friday’s a few days back waiting for a friend to show up for dinner, and how the smell of the stale bar-back was a little nauseating. This person — and bless her heart — gave me the stink-eye and demanded to know if my “sponsor” was aware that I was going to bars. I said no. This person’s stink-eye turned into a stink-face. I asked what response they were looking for from me. I was told that “The Program” dictates that we shouldn’t go to bars or be around alcohol for a year, which was followed by a couple anecdotal stories of how the struggle of temptation is simply too great to bear in such scenarios, so we best not put ourselves, as alcoholics, in such a position.
However deaf the ears might have been, I argued that the blanket advice is helpful, but it doesn’t speak to individual triggers, histories, and habits. I was at “the bar” because I showed up way too early and didn’t want to sit in a booth in a restaurant, bored and alone for an hour in the middle of the day while the close-captioned versions of a couple of my favorite sports talk shows were readily available on big screens but a dozen yards away. Sitting there I was no closer to losing my mind than I was an hour earlier simply because of my proximity to a substance. By sheer defiance, I’m pretty sure I lost that debate, but I feel victorious in trying to stand up for what makes sense to me without backing away out of politeness. She might be in her 50s (late-40s?) but nothing she was saying was coming from her heart, just from a place of indoctrination (see: A.A. as a “cult”). I like talking about this stuff because I like growing as a person, and right now I really feel like I’m doing that. I keep showing up to meetings not because I hit rock-bottom and lost everything, but because of all I have to gain, personally, by setting my life on a healthier course. Hopefully this “book” becomes the manifestation of my effort.
Last night I texted one of my fantasy football buddies (one of my best friends, and also a teammate on that basketball squad) and mentioned this sobriety twist in my story. He responded, “Nice man. I like that.” To be honest, I’m not hating it, myself.