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