By Jennifer C.
November 2005, I walked into a restaurant, ordered a glass of wine and flushed 22 years of sobriety. The following day the obsession to drink hit me like a tsunami. Knowing full well the schemes alcoholics use to control their drinking didn’t save me from trying each and every one. But I wanted to try everything I had missed. I had never enjoyed a legal drink. Now I was 38 and entitled to party. However, it took a few drinks to remove the phrase “once an alcoholic always an alcoholic” spinning in my mind.
I grew up “in” alcoholism, completely surrounded: my father, mother, father’s parents, four older half siblings, neighbors, and my parents’ friends. Life was full of secrets, lies, cheating, anger, and abuse. It was a hostile environment for a child, saturated with unrealistic expectations and shifting rules, the constant uncertainty of never knowing if the strict or jovial parent would show up. There were fist fights, no parental guidance, and unjust punishment. I was alone in an adult world of chaos, twisting and turning on emotional whims. Constant adrenaline rushes forged a pattern of anxiety and depression, ups and downs; this mess created an unstable foundation for coping with life. At the age of 11 the spiral continued after my parents divorced.
My first higher power, amphetamines, showed up in junior high school. Drugs were easier to obtain than alcohol and drug abuse, anger, cheating, lies, and secrets became the scene of my everyday life. With mom gone every day working and drunk most nights, it opened up the perfect playground for an unruly child to party. Surrounded by like-minded friends there was still a gaping hole in my life.
By the time I was 15, I sat in my first meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous. In the early 80’s teenagers were common in the rooms. Adolescent treatment centers were a booming business and insurance companies paid for them. There was a group of 10-15 of us teens who hung out. My social life improved and I was no longer alone. I felt like I was understood when I shared my feelings. I was that square peg in a round hole ever since I could remember, with a dialog of constant comparison of my insides and your outsides. I found my people.
My beginning experiences in AA were good, well better than the rest of my life had been. I was the youngest in the rooms and got lots of protective attention from older members. I found a home group and showed up every week to set up and greet any attendee at the door. The greeter line at the meeting was five to ten people long. I don’t remember introducing newcomers during the meeting. We were instructed to greet and meet every member walking through the door. Face to face. Shake every hand.
Young and impressionable AA members were my guides during formative years: don’t drink, go to meetings, work the steps, pray, and help others. The fourth step was very confusing because, in reality, I was still developmentally and responsibly right where I was supposed to be: the level of a teenager. And this mind doesn’t require any ego smashing: teenagers are supposed to be selfish, self-centered, rebellious, and making mistakes while they are still at home! It’s not normal to have self-awareness as a teenager and the results often border on paranoia and cult thinking: “If you tread off the path you end up dead or in an institution.” There were real examples of this: the first AA death I experienced was one of the teens in my group. He was 18 and put a gun to his head. The second was like a father to me, Wally. He dated my mom after her first year of sobriety, and was more loving and kind to me than my father ever was; he drank after 12 years. He was so loved in AA the men went around to all the motels and showed his picture telling the owners his room was paid for and to let him in. Winters in Cleveland, Ohio are cold and wet, the call came, a cleaning lady found him hanging in a motel room with a note, “God forgive me.” The reality of AA and sobriety was formed as the only way to stay alive by the time I was 18. Death was a part of my third year; my dad’s father passed just after Wally and then my dad a month later due to cancer. I prayed and begged god to help me get over the pain of losing them.
By 20 I was speaking all over the place from Cleveland to Akron and even in Pennsylvania. My story made people cry and question their own program. Lots of heavy hits about the steps, service, and lots of god. I desperately wanted to believe life had a purpose and mine was to carry the message of AA to others. I stayed sober through high school, my father’s death, college, a marriage, two moves from Cleveland to New Orleans and New Orleans to Portland, Oregon, the birth of two kids, a divorce, another marriage, and then another divorce. I can add to this list with my current sobriety.
1999 was my last meeting until 2012. With 16 years of sobriety at 32 years old, there seemed nothing left to learn from a room full of adults with similar amounts of sobriety. Seeking peace, church seemed the next logical place to go. I was lying to myself that I was no longer an alcoholic and Jesus could save me from this life for a spot in an eternal wonderland after death. I was miserable. I would leave the church just as hollow as I had entered, searching for something outside myself to show me who I was and give me comfort. But it never came. Church and religion left me in another harsh judgmental place, and praying never took anything away. The next addiction was work, but no matter how successful nothing helped fill the gnawing voice in the back of my head feeding my fears. And then the ominous glass of wine passed my lips and sealed my fate for the next seven years, a descending mental state into darkness, leaving reality farther behind with every step.
In four short years, doctors, family, and friends were worried about my declining health. My nerves were firing off pain signals through my body and my bone density was reduced. I was losing the hair on my body and I could no longer think clearly.
I also became “that” parent with teenagers at the house 24/7 because the house was a party. I thought, “smoking pot is ok, just don’t drink,” as I poured myself another. I switched from beer to wine because I didn’t want to get fat. Then to gin because it got me there and I could say I only had a couple drinks. Sixteen-ounce drinks, but it was still only a couple and I was good to go. I liked to sit right in the zone of buzzed but not too much because I hated throwing up. Marijuana and pills afforded me more wiggle room with alcohol consumption, and bolstered my new rationale about not being an alcoholic because I only had x number of drinks and didn’t start until 5 pm on weekdays. A beer for lunch on Saturday and Sunday was all right. My reality had shifted so far from my values and any sort of good judgment I didn’t know who I was any longer.
My day started with a pill to wake up, pot, a drink by 5 pm, more pot, more pot, and some kind of a diazepam to sleep. Day in and day out my mind raced, shouting, “I’m an alcoholic,” but I was not ready to stop. My life was crumbling around me and I didn’t want to see it. But my husband left the house for six months and I thought I was free. I hung out with the kids. I wasn’t a parent. I wasn’t capable of being a parent. They parented me and gave me advice. My life was small. The house, kids, and animals. I was afraid to leave the house most days. I had a few stoner friends. I could stand to be around them for a couple hours. All those sober years as a teen I was making up for. I didn’t want to look at myself. This was the lowest point in my life.
My husband and I decided to give it another shot and moved back in together. I was trying to keep it together. I felt like I was on the upswing and wanted to do something with my life. I enrolled in … beauty school! I made it the first week without drinking Sunday to Friday. It was the drinking that was a problem. The pills and pot didn’t count. I was proving to myself I could function on a daily basis so I wasn’t an alcoholic. That week, I made it five days. The longest I had gone without a drink. And I wanted to drink. I continued to try to not drink but would make it until the third day and reward myself with a glass of wine and then another. I never knew when I would have too many or if I could stop at two. Two was three-quarters of the bottle. I smoked pot before drinking so I’d drink less. December 10, 2012 was the third day without any drink or drug, and I knew I would drink that night if I didn’t do something.
Walking into a noon meeting, I was terrified, ashamed, humiliated. When they asked if there were any newcomers I spoke up as if out of a dream state, “I am Jennifer and I’m an alcoholic. I had 22 years.” I cried. I had to throw in the past time because I didn’t want to be a total newbie. At three days I left my husband because he still wanted to drink and so did I. But I didn’t want to die.
I love what Adam says in his book Common Sense Recovery, “An old timer, a newcomer, yet neither.” It’s true. All the knowledge and past work doesn’t go away. It takes a while to catch up, though. I walked in knowing full well what lay ahead. Reality had hit me in the face and I was in pain. The program and working the steps doesn’t just go away when you’re out drinking. It’s all still there ticking away, keeping track, continuing to build a case against me. I got a sponsor that day and phone numbers of women.
I went to two to three meetings a day for the first few months and called women in-between the meetings. I wanted to drink. My body screamed for something to shut my feelings and mind off. I was an alcoholic without my drug to keep me sane. I felt like I was jumping out of my skin. I started taking people to meetings, got a home group, and began to work the steps. I was running from the drink. Wanting to put distance between me and it. A demon was chasing me and I was afraid. I prayed on my knees many times a day but nothing helped liked calling someone.
I shared in meetings, “I want to be stoned or drunk. This sucks. I want to use.” If I couldn’t share that at a meeting, then where could I share it? My shares changed to, “It’s only god that keeps me sober.” I found a sponsor who knew the book inside and out. Her way was fear-based with god being the only answer. Without god I was doomed to drink and death. I knew this from my past to be true and felt blessed to have made it back. I didn’t know what or when my disease would rear its ugly head. I was afraid I would be struck drunk. I was that person in the room who was afraid for your sobriety if you didn’t know god. I was the god-bot, big book thumper, know-it-all.
The best prayer I learned was “The Set Aside Prayer.” At first I had to set aside everything I knew from my past sobriety and experience the steps like it was my first time through. I hung onto every word in the big book trying to believe in god. I didn’t know I was an atheist. My inner dialog with god went all day long and was more like begging. The loud inner voice simply shifted from one selfish thing (alcohol) to another, god help me. My daily ritual began by reading “Upon awakening …” and ended with inventory. I was afraid not to read, pray, call my sponsor, and go to meetings, thinking I would be struck drunk. There was a hope all this action would quiet my mind and relieve anxiety. I started smoking and drinking coffee and that helped.
I did learn a lot about the steps and through the experience, I was able to separate the alcoholic from the real me. I am powerless over alcohol. My body is different. I can never drink like a normal person. I’ve altered my physical brain and, from what science tells me, it will never go back. I proved to myself the reason I drink is for effect. I take that first drink and it spills over me and I flush with warmth. My mind calms even before the effect starts. Once I drink I have no idea how much I will drink or for how long. Seven years of drunkenness had flown by.
My mind is different. When alcohol is in my system I have no grasp on reality and it becomes the focus of my world. I cannot process reality around alcohol. I end up in a cycle that has no end. Waking to thoughts like, “today I am not going to drink” and by 4 pm I’m at the store buying alcohol. I completely forget my resolve and anything that happened the night before.
A normal drinker goes to a party and has a beer. When the cake comes out they eat cake and forget where they set the beer. When I drink I don’t eat the cake because it ruins the taste of the beer. It doesn’t leave my hand until it’s gone and I am thinking about the next one.
My life becomes unmanageable. A tornado begins in my noisy mind stretching out in all directions, believing everything it says my internal world is all that matters. A skein of tangled stories begins to mount, becoming huge obstacles to progress in daily life. How long will it take for something outside myself to break the alcoholic cycle?
I got to Step Two and this is when the difficulty started. I was instructed to write down what I needed in a higher power. I came up with endless lists and began by calling my HP safe, because I needed to feel safe more than anything else. I would pray on my knees every morning and night, wake up and do my book reading, go to a meeting, and start my day all over again. I wasn’t free. I was afraid and trapped in a ritual: if I didn’t do those actions I would get drunk. How is a god keeping me sober?
Step Three: ok, prayed the prayer. Over and over and over and over again. My confusion about god’s will was stressful. If I didn’t do god’s will would there be some retributive punishment? Because I was in self-will I was bedeviled? Other members tried to help me but it all felt like it led back to myself.
Step Four: intense. I can write a whole article just about my process through Steps Four and Five. It stripped away the “storyline” I had believed for many years and all I could see was myself.
I got to the fear inventory and was instructed to write down specifically what I was afraid of. I had the usual fears: unlovable, unworthy, finances, death, and one that perplexed my sponsor, what if there is no god? I had never thought of that. What if there was no god and nothing besides myself or other humans to love me. It was in that moment I was faced with a very raw, painful experience. There is no god to keep me sober, to love me when I am alone, to forgive me, to live in some eternity with. Nothing, gone just like that. Everything I thought I knew (Set Aside Prayer) was washed out from under me and I was alone. Was it ok to be alone? Could I get “right” with myself and forgive myself? Was I capable of changing my behavior? No god to rebel against. No inner dialog with anyone to help me. No trying to figure out what something else wanted from me. What do I want? What is important to me?
I was responsible and that meant I was directing my life. It was as if an opaque screen was lifted from my eyes and everything looked crisp. I no longer needed any “spiritual” filter between myself and the world around me. Nothing was guiding me. I was no longer afraid. I had nothing to seek the approval of, no more falling short and disappointing anything. I was here and it was my decision where I went from here. Quiet. My mind no longer rattled on to some being who heard my thoughts. I felt peace. I was no longer struggling to believe in something I didn’t feel. I dropped thinking that things happen for a reason and reading into everything as a sign from god. I wasn’t trying to “turn it over” in order to have acceptance of life events that felt like punishment, a punishment, some mystical karma lurking around any corner to rudely slap me for making a wrong choice or reward me for obedience.
When I share that the process of the steps led me to being atheist, AA members are shocked. But the process as an atheist is about me and my relationship to reality. So Step One is the same. Step Two became trusting the process of the steps and a rewiring of the brain that allows me to see more of the reality around me. Reality is what changed me. With Step Three I stop playing a god by manipulating life to go my way and make a decision to go Four through Nine. Nothing complicated about it. Step Four is the key to reality. Strip away all my defenses and share who I am with someone. My patterns, fears, and behaviors, what drives them, a fact-finding mission about how I behave, not some big autobiography or timeline. During Steps Six and Seven I ask who do I want to be? Where do I want to go from here? Then on to Step Eight where part of my list is made from Step Four. However, I don’t resent everyone I owe amends to. Nine is where the rubber hits the road. What’s an Amend? Change. I am no longer the person who drinks. Now I need to regain the trust of those I hurt around me by showing them I care.
It took three years sober for my daughter to trust me. I didn’t defend myself or make excuses for my past behaviors. She would yell at me and my response was, “That must have been hard for you. I understand you are angry. I would be too.” It was my responsibility to validate her experience and support her emotions. I was the adult and had not been there for her. I made amends by being there even when she didn’t want me there. She broke her knee and when I showed up at the hospital she said, “I don’t want you here.” I stayed for over a week and slept on her bedroom floor taking care of her no matter how poorly she treated me. I showed her she could trust me and I loved her. No words could have made that right.
Last year I moved away and she came to visit me. We had an amazing time in New York City, Boston, and all over The Berkshires. We laughed, talked, walked tons of miles, and the connection was beautiful. I cannot describe how full my heart felt. On her last night we were out to dinner and she got tears in her eyes and asked me if I could forgive her for how poorly she had treated me the past three years. I cried. We talk almost daily now. I’ve visited her twice already this year. Once was a vacation, the next time she had knee surgery and I took care of her. She will be here in a week and a half to visit me. We just got off the phone and she is excited to visit and spend time with me. Nothing comes close to the mental and emotional impact healing this relationship has had on my life. Connection with another human is the greatest power I have ever experienced.
My life is full of amazing people and relationships based on love and honesty. I know my sobriety is good by the fruits of the relationships around me. The ones I love are my mirror. I still like traditional meetings. There’s something about the ritual that feels safe. I change things in my mind and make it work. My actions keep me sober. I attend meetings, have a home group, have a sponsor, and sponsor women. The connection is what keeps me sober. AA was there when I needed it twice in my life. It’s home for me.
About the Author, Jennifer C.
Jennifer lives in The Berkshires with the love of her life, his teenage son, two cats, and a dog. She travels across the country to visit her mother, daughter and son in Oregon. When she’s home you will find her in the garden, walking, cooking, substitute teaching at the local high school, or gaming.
The featured image and other artwork used for this article was created by Cope C, from the Many Paths group in Urbana, Illinois.
The audio for this story was recorded and narrated 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, you may reach him by email at email@example.com.