It took a long time for me to admit that the fellowship of AA had anything for me. Maybe they didn’t want me; maybe I didn’t want them — a bunch of seedy guys chugging cigarettes outside beat-up back doors. Inside was worse: ratty chairs and sofas, torn carpets, dog-eared books that looked and sounded like children’s readers. Bad coffee guaranteed, the options black or fake creamer.
When I first got sober and tried a few meetings, I would arrive at the last possible moment, walk silently past the smokers and take a corner seat, radiating untouchability. I’d endure the Christian cant and the daily mantras, waiting to hear something that related to my life. God, no. Jail, DUIs, busted families, lost jobs, no. The women were few, and usually deep in conversations that didn’t open for me. It was all too easy to be an outsider.
But I hurt and I needed help. I didn’t yet know what that meant.
When I was a kid it wasn’t ok to need help. In my family fear and weakness were like blood to circling sharks; they attracted judgment and attack instead of concern. I learned young to mask my uncertainties and mistakes. It was better to hide or lie than be branded a failure.
I was the youngest of three, with handsome, assured parents. The world I grew up in was black or white. People were smart or stupid, successes or failures. I knew I didn’t fit from the start. I was not like the rest of the family — tall, athletic, outgoing, fun, confident.
Our house was tense. My mother didn’t like being home with the kids and we knew it. Her temper was sharp and unpredictable. Dad was immersed in his job and ignored her unhappiness. When he got home it was magically the “hour of charm”; with martinis in hand, their conflicts disappeared. Dad was my hero, always pushing limits, always above the rules. I loved his daring, his humor.
We didn’t talk about problems. My parents’ bickering escalated into an explosion, usually my mother’s. She’d utter a withering put-down or dissolve in tears and storm out of the room. Some time later she’d emerge without a word and we’d tiptoe to avoid the next rage.
For me school opened a different kind of “different.” Good grades were expected. If I made a mistake the teacher was likely to remark “your sister would have known that.” But I usually did have the answer. Too often teacher’s pet, I wasn’t a popular kid. I was awkward and immature, always the last picked for teams, but confident in class.
My growing sense that I was an outsider was like a seesaw. Default was flat on the ground, unpopular and invisible. But I swooped to the top if I aced a challenge or was singled out for praise. There wasn’t much in between. From anxious insecurity to above-it-all arrogance was a dizzying ride, but that’s what I knew.
First an awkward kid, I became an awkward teen. I’d lurk quietly outside my parents’ parties, aching to enter. One night I forced down my first glass of wine. The heady warmth calmed the knots in my stomach and suddenly I was giggly and talkative. After the guests left my mother looked at me, surprised — “with a drink, you’re fun!”
I learned to nurture myself at home with secret eating and later drinking. Mom frowned on pleasures, so I’d wait until she left the house and sneak food out of the kitchen. I found safety invisible in a corner with cookies and a book.
When I went away to college, new freedom and challenges brought new pressures. I knew I’d fail the family if I wasn’t the best, but I was uncertain and adrift. To numb my anxiety I’d sneak food from the dining room and stuff myself in my room. At the same time I knew if I gained weight it would be obvious that something was wrong. But I so craved the comfort of eating that instead of cutting back I taught myself to throw up. I felt a newfound power and freedom, able to eat as much as I wanted with no consequences. I thought my problems were solved.
Binging and purging became my dark secret before there was a word for bulimia. I knew what I did was disgusting, so I carefully hid the daily treks to the store, the gallons of ice cream and whole pizzas I could devour in one binge, the trash when I was finished. The cycle brought a calm that helped me make it through the days and nights. But what started as an escape over time became my prison. It took secrecy, lying, and stealing to satisfy the ravenous monster that came to rule my life. Just like drugs and alcohol, for a bulimic there’s no such thing as “enough.”
At first I was an outsider because I didn’t fit. Then I learned to build walls to hide my struggles. The self I let others see was accomplished, but underneath I knew it was a lie.
My public and private worlds clashed when I fell in love. He was an older, compassionate man, intrigued by the self I showed the world but drawn to the vulnerability he sensed behind it. We shared a growing spark but I was slave to my habit. I had to feed the demon alone, so there always came a moment when I ran away to get my fix.
One night we fought and I wanted to shut him out. But this love was exciting and intoxicating, and I knew I risked losing it. We headed home, he silent and angry, me gripped by terror and shame. I pulled him down on a bench in the noisy subway where the chaos all around gave me the courage to describe the chaos inside. To my disbelief, he didn’t condemn me; he wasn’t disgusted. He was relieved to understand what was going on.
With his help I began to dismantle my defenses. Slowly I broke the bonds of bulimia and learned better ways to nourish myself. But we still shared that nightly drink, my release from the day’s tensions, our short-cut to laughter and intimacy. For him drinking was simply fun. He didn’t need it; and I didn’t understand that I was different. He didn’t want more after dinner, but increasingly I did. I’d pour him a mug of coffee and fill mine secretly with wine. I fell back into a world of lying, shame and guilt. Hangovers at work, blurred memories of the night before. But I didn’t want to admit I had a problem.
My drinking rose and fell over the years. When I was pregnant I held off, but then eased back in. There were new pressures; I was a mother, career woman, and wife to an aging spouse. Drink numbed the anxieties, but over time it seized control and began to dominate my days.
There came a morning when I couldn’t play the game any more. I couldn’t face another day of isolation, shame, and guilt. I remember the clear December day I stopped drinking. I went to a noontime meeting but once again couldn’t see my way through the prayers and the down-and-out crowd. I was terrified someone from my “real” life would spot me and expose the sham. But the relief of saying No to the monster stuck this time, and I got sober on my own. I was ok for ten years without the fellowship.
But I was still my father’s daughter. I scorned my quiet earnest self and sought danger, speed, and excitement. Even sober, I broke the rules in many ways, large and small — long lunches at work, secret trysts, thinking I was above the rules. I denied any consequences. I was still an alcoholic.
One fast and loose moment slammed me hard against a wall. Flaunting leash laws, I’d let my dog run free while I was distracted by a phone call. She took off after a car and I didn’t act fast enough. In one cruel moment she rolled screaming under the wheels; the vet couldn’t save her.
Death is undeniable. It was my fault. The game was over.
That moment opened my eyes to how I still flirted with danger and denial. Yes, I was long sober but I’d never owned up to the damage I’d done. I had driven drunk, stolen and lied to cover my tracks, created a false persona I could no longer hide behind. For the first time I came face-to-face with my father’s alcoholism and my reckless behavior.
AA was a world I wasn’t eager to enter, but something told me I needed to do the twelve steps and come clean. I found a meeting the next day and shook, telling the story of my dog’s death and the terror that I was acting alcoholic. Instead of judgment, every face in that room showed compassion and understanding. Strangers offered a gift I’d never known.
This time I made it past the barriers and kept coming back. I found meetings that were more comfortable. I was still last to arrive and first to leave, but at a women’s meeting the stories were more like my own. A woman who had been bulimic understood my behavior and brought me into conversations. I learned what it was to be a dry drunk. I realized meetings offered valuable insights, from newcomers as well as those long sober.
With each step into the fellowship I peeled back another layer of defense. It still felt like I didn’t fit; I didn’t share the religion, and I didn’t need meetings to stay sober. I knew it was important to get a sponsor but didn’t think I deserved one. A few women turned me down. One day I told myself I wouldn’t go home without asking again, and this time I found the right match. Her approach was to read the big book together and do the steps in one weekend. A plunge without the time to resist sounded right; and it worked.
There are always reasons to resist AA. There will be uncomfortable meetings, tedious shares, irritating people, too much God talk. Some groups are open to shares about drugs and bulimia. Some aren’t. I’ve learned to say what’s important to me and not take it personally if no one connects.
I’ve had the chance to experience real prison walls, leading women’s meetings in the county jail. At first I thought I couldn’t connect. But when I bring my whole self into the room — black, white and grey – we can simply be women together who made mistakes and have wisdom to share.
What a gift it is to be like everyone else. What freedom it is to walk into a meeting with nothing to hide, nothing to be but myself — with all my stupidity and arrogance, and those demons so ready to trip me up. What pleasure it is to laugh and cry together, and open the fellowship to newcomers lurking in the corner.
It’s been a long road for this stubborn — and recovering — outsider.
About the Author, C.C.
C.C. is a recovering alcoholic, bulimic, procrastinator and outsider, fourteen years dry, three years richer from joining in the fellowship. She is a retired graphic designer, aspiring writer and sponsor.”
The audio story was narrated and recorded by Len R. from Jasper, Georgia. Len is interested in starting a secular AA meeting in his area. If you would like to join him, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.