Letting Go

By S. 

I had six months of sobriety, or more accurately abstinence, when my oldest son turned 21. He had been looking forward to this milestone for one main reason—he could discard the fake ID’s he’d used to get into local bars around school. He had planned a big birthday bash at a little club off campus, inviting all his friends and all their friends. The evening of the event, he sent out a text of a picture of him smiling, hugging a large bottle of Grey Goose. A birthday gift from a good friend. The caption read, “The celebration has started!”

In the time I’ve been abstinent in AA, more days than not I have been struggling. Struggling with cravings, struggling with romanticizing and missing drinking, struggling with feeling deprived watching other people drink. Walking past the bar in a restaurant can feel dizzying—the glistening, colorful bottles, the attractive stemware, the energy of the “cool” people huddling around. I am quickly seduced. At times I still see it as a panacea for unwanted bad, sad, anxious moods and for a self-conscious, introverted personality. And of course as the best way to make any celebratory occasion that much more celebratory. I reached for alcohol when experiencing a spectrum of uncomfortable feelings, and prophylactically when expecting uncomfortable feelings to arise.

The word “alcoholic” is a loaded label with a myriad of negative associations and a wide variety of definitions. The definition that most resonates with me is: “An alcoholic is not defined by the quantity or frequency of her drinking, but by whether or not drinking is still a choice.” Drinking is no longer a want, it has become a need. For me, after developing an insidious reliance upon drinking every evening, I could not conceive of going a night without alcohol. And why stop when I never had any major consequences from my drinking. I never lost my house, my driver’s license, or my job. I never alienated my husband, my kids, or my friends. In fact, with the exception of my husband and therapist, no one was aware of my addiction. I blacked out a few times but there were no consequences other than me feeling sick, and worrying the next morning about whether if I had made a huge fool of myself.

When I recognized I had a problem, that drinking was no longer a choice, I tried several times unsuccessfully to stop. I could not let go of that escape. I could not let go of believing I had control over my way of escaping. I didn’t know what I would do to unwind, to stay calm, to get motivated to make dinner, to pick up the phone. If I were to stop drinking I would have to let go of my life preserver. Despite the growing awareness that I was sinking, I was convinced it was keeping me afloat. So what made me come to AA, keep coming, and keep wanting to stay sober? Well, all the consequences that are not tangible or easy to see. I came in because of the growing sense that I was losing my sanity, that my brain was divided in two. I had a sober channel during the day and a drinking channel in the evening. When one station was on the other was off. Each came on at predictable times, and the switching of channels felt completely out of my control.

Feeling out of control was scaring me, starting to drink in my car in the garage before entering the house was scaring me, starting to drink in my office before driving home was scaring me, losing my memory was scaring me, feeling exhausted and foggy- headed all the time was scaring me, and starting to drink earlier on weekends was scaring me. But, the biggest thing that was scaring and haunting me was the gradual realization that I was losing the coping skills I had possessed before drinking. Alcohol was replacing them. I’m all too aware that loss and change are inevitable parts of life. I needed to regain healthy, effective ways of dealing with these painful yet unavoidable experiences. But I did not want my only coping response to be that of not coping, but instead turning to a bottle of wine.

I am extremely grateful that I’ve had no significant losses from drinking. At the same time, it’s made it easier for me to think that my life was really not so unmanageable, that picking up a drink would not be so disastrous. And, it’s probably why it has taken me a long time to realize the obvious—that I am an alcoholic and that the basis of my struggle has been accepting my alcoholism and letting go of the belief that I can drink normally. I’ve always been a clinger. I’ve never learned how to let go. I have been in AA for about 18 months, and feeling a sense of belonging has been a very gradual process. This is in part because of my struggle accepting my alcoholism, and in part because I do not believe in a deity.

At first, I felt resentful of the constant references to God throughout the program and many times wanted to walk away because of it. But I’m glad I stayed. I have found a tremendous amount of warmth and support in the program, much value in the principles and philosophies that are espoused, and over time I have been able to reinterpret readings and phrases in such a way that I can find meaningful. Letting go, is a core message of the program and a way of managing life that to me seems of tremendous value. Before coming to AA, letting go meant losing control, or giving up. I didn’t know that it actually meant understanding one’s limits of control, regardless of how one may wish things to be otherwise. Truly being able to live this concept can not only help me stay sober, it can help with so many challenges in life.

It makes me uneasy to see my son drink, knowing he loves the way alcohol makes him feel in all the same ways I did. I have shared with him my experience and our family history of addiction; but when you are 21 years old you know everything, you are immortal, you’ve got it under control. This is college. Party time. I look at him and I wonder and worry if his drinking trajectory will be the same as mine. Being an atheist, the advice to “let go and let God” does not work for me. I wish it did. But, I do realize after sitting in enough AA meetings that no matter how much I may want to change or save or fix another person, I cannot. Even my precious son. So, I will continue to practice letting go. To what or to whom does not matter to me. Just letting go. Again and again and again.


About the Author

S. and her husband have three children. She works in the mental health profession. Over the years she has found that her own personal experience has greatly enhanced her ability to understand and help others struggling in similar ways. She enjoys spending time with her family, listening to music, reading, and hiking.

Artwork

The images used for this article were created by Kathryn F. 

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  1. Peter T. May 25, 2017 at 3:56 pm - Reply

    Thank you S., for your story and your service.  Your story resonated with me and I appreciate the well-written reminder of the insanity that’s happy to take me back – and the process that could lead me there.  It’s frightening on both sides but I’m able to avail myself of AA as it fits into my program of wellness.  It sounds like you are doing the same.

  2. Gerald May 23, 2017 at 8:53 pm - Reply

    I got sober at twenty, quite a different story from adult alcoholism, but also quite a different story from most young alcoholic drinking too. I got sober at twenty because I wasn’t going to live to see twenty-one 🙂 I was willing to listen to the message of the “religious conversion experience,” and that’s what AA’s message is, really it is, at twenty because every area of my life was a failure, you know, like the Big Book says, all my score cards read zero: friends, romance, finances, jobs, university studies – just everything, already by age 20.

    Or by age four, really. Age four is when I was having trouble keeping up with life … and I would never catch up until I got sober.

    Hope (for a better tomorrow) & Fear (fear of alcohol) could no longer reliably keep me abstinent. Marijuana & LSD – just not powerful enough to take me out of myself. Like you put it, I had lost the ability to control my escapes from myself, all of my different escapes, including my best one, which was my own great thinking. Only alcohol could do what needed to be done 🙂  I was afraid of alcohol, but I was losing my ability to postpone the next black out binge drinking, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde episode.

    Now I’m 44, four little kids, the oldest with Down syndrome. Whoa! Welcome to parenthood 😉 Well, that’s one I don’t have to worry about becoming alcoholic 🙂 You know, Ds is usually in the backs of people’s minds when they set off down the baby making trail … What will always be in the back of my mind is wondering if alcohol will make any of the younger three feel *** wonderful, *** you know, just wonderful, just the way it made me feel … Like Superman 🙂 Like on rocket fuel 🙂 Blast off! 🙂

    At least for ten percent of my drinking, the ten percent that I remember 🙂

    … I don’t need to escape anymore. That’s the beauty of it, and that was some of what I was promised as a newcomer. I actually want to be here, and that means never again to dissociate from myself, not from my emotions – not even the bad ones, etc.. Sure, I wish I didn’t have bills to pay … and the world truly is insane, by the way, and its full of sick people 🙂 but, a big BUT, I wish to be here, every day.

    I changed, in AA, from a negative atheist to a positive atheist. Like bob k. shared here, I didn’t let the God talk distract me from the practical psychology & philosophy contained in AA’s simple program of action.

    But my whole truth is bigger than the first 164 pages of the Big Book, and your personal truth will be, too. It’s insulting, you know, to the intellect to try to fit all of life’s problems into AA’s simple program of action.

    Prozac saved my life, some 90 days after my introduction to AA, where AA would not have been able to save me. I used to go on and on about Prozac, but nowadays I can’t stop talking about how a radical change in diet, at fifteen years sober in AA, finally, *finally,* relieved me of my lifelong depression. The experience has been ten times better than Prozac. Prozac was *magic,* but this diet for the treatment of mental illness has been ten times better. And permanent. And eight years on now eating ultra-low carb + high animal fat (GAPS diet, Paleo dieting), my mental state just keeps getting better and better. My body is well nourished now, so my brain is well nourished now, so my mind actually works the way it’s supposed to 🙂

    … You know, when I hear AA people talk about “craving alcohol” even after substantial periods of abstinence, I wonder if they’re just not suffering, like I suffered, from the maldigestion of complex carbohydrates. Of course I wonder if it’s just poor word choice, you know, maybe they just mean that they’re experiencing euphoric recall or just that they really wish they could “check out” right now and not have to deal with life on life’s terms, but they know that they can’t get away with it.

    I experienced the physical phenomenon of craving when I drank alcohol, as described in the Doctor’s Opinion, but I didn’t experience the craving until after I had consumed alcohol. I would be “hungrier” for the second bottle of wine than I was for the first, “hungrier” still for the third, etc.. I never have experienced anything like craving for any kind of street drug, over the counter or prescription medicine, tea, coffee, cigarettes, or food, you know, not for any other substance. And I never experienced craving when I was physically sober.

    I’m a chemical substance abuser by nature. It’s my personality. That’s what makes sense to me. If I could have pushed a button to make myself feel better, I would have 🙂 There were no buttons, just a game of Whack-A-Mole, right? so I ingested chemicals. I self-prescribed, but alcohol was the the One, you know, the One, but the consequences started “scaring me straight” from about age fifteen and a half onward … until the day came that Hope & Fear couldn’t keep me away from alcohol any longer.

    So, if it’s really “craving” that you’re talking about, check it out online. This happens. There are some people out there who digest carbs so poorly that they actually get drunk, like legally drunk, from eating normal food like pasta, rice, bread, etc.. I’m not kidding about this. Have you heard about it? I know this has got to be tripping up the food people. I just know it. My family’s shot through with the food people, and I just know it. But why would they listen to me? (They sure as h— don’t 🙂 ) I’m an outside observer, after all.

    But my personal experience with depression, carbs, & alcoholism is such that … I know it. I know it, I know it, and I know it. For some of us, and how many of us? I don’t know. Even 1% would be a lot of people in AA, but for some of us it’s the carbs that’s screwing with our heads even when we’re sober and working AA’s simple program of action. At least that was my experience the first fifteen years of sobriety in AA, and I am not a food person at all, just zero ability to dissociate with food, just none. I’m just a real alcoholic … adolescent alcoholism, but alcoholic all the same.

    Anyways, thank you for your very real share. 🙂 Hugs 🙂 and congratulations for not giving up on yourself!

    Gerald

  3. Kit G May 21, 2017 at 8:33 pm - Reply

    Thanks, S., for reminding me what it was like. As usual, I forgot. This is what I come to hear/read.

  4. John S May 21, 2017 at 4:42 pm - Reply

    This was truly exceptional. Thank you S. for sharing this with us. I could connect with the emotion that came through in your writing. I hope you write here again, you are quite talented.

  5. bob k May 21, 2017 at 11:08 am - Reply

    The very fine writing displayed in this essay reminds me once more of how proud I am to have an association with this website. Kudos to the continuing stream of excellent writers, artists, etc., and to those toiling behind the scene. The end product is consistently of a high, high caliber.

    When I bleed out after being shanked by my new fundie girlfriend, I want “AABeyondBelief,com contributor” on my tombstone.

    • Doris A July 1, 2017 at 9:29 am Reply

      Why have I never noticed how funny you are Bob K.

    • John S May 21, 2017 at 4:44 pm Reply

      I agree. What an honor to be associated this site. This was amazing writing and it totally blew me away.

  6. Joe C. May 21, 2017 at 10:33 am - Reply

    Wow, I felt this essay. You have, I don’t know, maybe a “visceral” writing style that gets me in the gut as much as in the head. It was disturbing but enjoyable. Thank you; I hope to see more.

    i have kids – teens  and 20s. It’s hard to hear stories about broken ankles late at night or see your own kids sick the next day from the toxic consequences of indulgence. Objectivity is impossible. I can say to an AA member, “AA will refund your misery anytime you like. Stick it out here, there is always a chair for you or go back out. It’s  all the same to me.” And that’s the thing about AA, a selfish program whereby each of us has to muster our own desire for recovery – no one can lend or impose that will upon another. But I can’t have the objectivity – almost indifference – with my own flesh and blood that I have with another addict/alcoholic.

    And I’m not as helpful to people I’m enmeshed with. My (attempts at) help are not so helpful. It is a special kind of helplessness.

  7. bob k May 21, 2017 at 10:04 am - Reply

    WOW!! There’s a rare Sunday post on AAAgnostica.org! Must be something important going on! I better slide on over there and see what’s up.

    My name is bob k., and I approve this message, (including the shameless pimping).

  8. bob k May 21, 2017 at 10:00 am - Reply

    “Letting go, is a core message of the program and a way of managing life that to me seems of tremendous value. Before coming to AA, letting go meant losing control, or giving up. I didn’t know that it actually meant understanding one’s limits of control, regardless of how one may wish things to be otherwise. Truly being able to live this concept can not only help me stay sober, it can help with so many challenges in life.”

    Wise words.

    AA’s religious language hid from me some underlying psychology and philosophy that is very helpful. “Let go……THE END.”

    AA has helped me to learn new coping skills. Liquor gave me courage and confidence. I like having courage and confidence, so absent new ways of generating these, and other feelings, I’d have returned to drinking long ago. A powerful resolve to not drink could only take me so far; I had to change, and at core levels.

    Nice essay.

  9. Lance B. May 21, 2017 at 8:03 am - Reply

    Yours is just such a poignant description of the way I am an alcoholic and I love your story and the way it is told.  Thank you!

    Having experienced the gradual sinking of myself followed by abstinence and then better sobriety, I can say that today I’m glad I’m an alcoholic.  Despite regretting some of the effects of the disease on me and people around me, I have become actually more than just glad to know I’m an alcoholic.  And through practice in AA groups, I’ve also learned to better detach from others’ decline.

  10. Lola May 21, 2017 at 7:45 am - Reply

    Wow. I can relate to so much of what you said, S. I especially tuned in to the part about second guessing whether or not my life had REALLY been that “unmanageable” or not. Like you, I didn’t lose a job, a drivers license or hurt anyone else. After 6 years of sobriety, I now find the thought creeping into my head that maybe I should “test drink” and test myself. Scares the heck outta me. Thanks for confirming that my thoughts are not unique to me. Loved the whole piece.

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