I first attended AA meetings in New York City in 2004. I was 26 years old and my life had become unbearable. I had just moved back from a year in Glasgow with high hopes for a fresh start at home. (Glasgow hadn’t been the fresh start I had hoped it would be. Did you know they drink there, too?) Of course, moving home wasn’t the answer either. And, within a couple of months I found myself as miserable as I had been when I left Scotland.
I woke up on a Saturday morning barely able to move and writhing in hangover. There’s no language to describe those hangovers adequately. There was the physical pain and discomfort—aches from head to toe, a sticky dry sweat seeping from every enlarged pore, hot flashes followed by complete numbness, nausea, and dizziness. And, there was the emotional pain—shame, self-loathing, and then absolute misery.
Years before one of my many therapists had given me two books: Living Sober and The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. The doctor hadn’t said much when he gave them to me, only suggested I read them. It won’t come as a surprise, I’m sure, that I didn’t. I just put them on my bookshelf and forgot about them. That morning, when my crusty eyelids unsealed themselves, the first thing my eyes landed on were those two books. My first thought was, of course, “I want to die, I can’t feel this way again.” I didn’t pray. I didn’t make a wish. I made a decision: I pulled the copy of Living Sober from the bookshelf and without even opening it, I knew I never had to feel that way again.
I dialed 411 and asked for the number for AA and I called Intergroup. The woman who answered the phone was kind as I recall, and suggested I head over to a meeting that afternoon less than a mile from my apartment. I scoffed. I would not be able to leave my house that day, not only because of how sick I felt, but because there was no amount of makeup that could cover it up. So, she suggested the same meeting at the same place—the 79th Street workshop—but the next day.
Sunday morning, feeling a little better but not much, I spent an inordinate amount of time getting dressed and applying makeup before the meeting. My anxiety was high not because the prospect of sobriety was daunting—I still wanted it—but because being in public was always distressing. Everyone who looked at me thought I was hideous. People thought I was a fat disgusting slob. They whispered and laughed at me behind their hands. Or, so I thought. Dressed up and psyched up I headed uptown.
All I remember is sitting near the back, raising my hand when they asked if there were any newcomers in room, and tearfully saying “I’m Stephanie, and I’m an alcoholic.” A woman seated in front of me turned and put her hand on my shoulder. The next day I found another meeting and another and another.
I made friends. I had a sponsor. I went to meetings. I didn’t do the steps. The Big Book led me to believe that I needed to change everything about myself in order to get well. I took it literally. So, I went from bleeding heart liberal to conservative within a matter of months. I told myself I wanted a conventional life. I said I wanted to get married and have children. I said that I thought traditional roles were ideal roles. I wanted to believe in god so I pretended to. I went to church. I prayed. I set aside everything that I had ever believed in—really believed in—to stay sober. I willfully ignored my sponsor when she tried to disabuse me of some of my more zealous ideas about life and living. I went to meetings, I had the Big Book and I had god, I’d be fine.
I spent 4 years “in the rooms.” Four years without a drink. Four years with growing anger and intense discomfort with the person I had become. I ate away my new shame. I ate and ate and ate my way to 260 lbs. So, I was fat and miserable but at least I was sober? Hmm. Leaving the house had become more difficult. The self-loathing was powerful. It had grown stronger and stronger and neither the group-of-drunks or capital-G-god were helping. I was an unmedicated mentally ill person. The only medication that had ever worked was alcohol, so after 4 years when life seemed even more unbearable than it had been when I was drinking, I drank again.
The next 3 years were, more or less, a blur. No different. No better. I binged on food, booze, and coke, but at least I could socialize again. At least the fear of other people wasn’t controlling me anymore. At least I could leave the house without tremors and nausea. At least, at least, at least…until none of that was enough. And again, I found myself unable to live that way anymore. I was hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt. I had no mirrors in my house because the shame was eating me up from the inside out.
It was at the end of a two day cocaine fueled booze binge that I knew had to stop. I lay on my bed, yet again writhing in hangover. Yet again filled with shame and sadness. My first thought, “I could go the top of my building and jump,” is obviously not the choice I made. My second thought, “call James and ask for help,” was the choice I made. It was a choice I made because I had been a member of AA. Not only had a seed been planted, I still knew people who were staying sober in AA, albeit I wasn’t in touch with them very frequently anymore.
I called James. I said, “I need help.” And he came to help me. Eventually, after living for a few months on borrowed-antabuse and fear, I decided to try AA again. But this time I did it differently. I did get a sponsor. I did do what was asked of me. I did listen. I did read the Big Book. I did do the steps. But—and this is an important but—I did not set aside any of my real values or beliefs.
My sponsor then was a spiritual woman although she never disclosed to me her denomination. I’m fairly certain she wasn’t—isn’t—a theist, more druidic I think. She asked me to find a higher power, and I did in a fashion. She never asked me to define it. It was never supernatural. I decided then that the power of truth was all I needed. The good within the human animal is, to me, inherent not a miracle. I didn’t then, nor do I now, think that anything brings about kindness and generosity other than ourselves. To honor my truest self is to be honest and kind with myself and others.
Back in AA in New York City my life was slowly but surely getting better. The second time around felt different—feels different—because it was. I wasn’t trying to shed my old skin, instead I was trying to heal it. There are parts of this skin—this self—that were worth holding onto. There were things that were inherently good that needed to be enhanced not erased. And, the second time around, I got it. In part, it was the help of a solid sponsor. In other part it was the meetings I attended. And, it was me. Rather than turning it all over, I looked into myself and found the strength and courage and bravery that had always been there. With all those tools and many more I forged ahead.
It wasn’t until I met my now-husband Richard and moved from the city to the suburbs that my newfound love for AA began to diminish. For me, AA had been a foundation on which to build a new life, but for him it had been life. His “bottom” was a lot lower than mine. The things he needed from AA were greater. His love for the Big Book was so real, it seemed to me it consumed him. At first, I felt jealous of his relationship to it. It was that jealousy that brought me to his home group.
The group was and remains huge. It’s full of energy and enthusiasm. There are dozens of newcomers and as many old-timers at every meeting—7 days a week. It’s what you hope every newcomer walks into for his/her first meeting, or so I thought. Immediately I understood why he had such a deep affection for the program. His home group was so alive! It wasn’t just a bridge back to life, it seemed like it gave you a life. My husband is an extrovert and derives energy from other people—social gatherings are his lifeblood. That is not true for me. I can play the extroverted part so well that all but a few friends know that I am anxiety-ridden introvert, or I was. I was that anxiety-ridden extrovert when I first went to his home group. For him it was oxygen, for me it was carbon monoxide. He would leave the meeting filled with energy and I would leave exhausted.
About a year after moving, I found a new psychiatrist—something I would not have been able to do without the foundation of AA. I was sober, my life was average—moments of happiness, moments of sadness, moments of calm, moments of chaos. But I was still very uncomfortable. I am not merely an addict, I have bipolar depression, social anxiety accompanied by OCD, and a panic disorder. There were moments, fully immersed in AA, that I was unable to leave the house because I was so consumed by anxiety. Unfounded panic stole entire days from me, and AA hadn’t yet and was never going to be the solution, nor was a supernatural higher power. So I sought the help of a psychiatrist and un-miraculously he “cured” me with Zoloft and Lamictal.
Now that the fog of fear had fully cleared with the help of the right medications, I was able to see my husband’s home group more clearly. I completely understood what he saw in it and what he got from it. I also understood that he was better able to set aside certain distasteful aspects than I. I continued attending the meeting with him for a long time. And, while it wasn’t exactly my cup of tea, it was fine. I sponsored a few women all of whom are still sober a couple of whom still attend that group.
Election cycles came and went and right before my eyes the group went from overly enthusiastic to overly zealous, from impassioned to ideological. I no longer heard “higher power” and only ever heard “God.” The emphasis was no longer on “one alcoholic talking to another,” but instead on “god could and would if he were sought.” When one particularly zealous young woman spoke, I was appalled when she described the Big Book as a “love letter from god.” A few weeks later another member said during his qualification that those who did not believe in god were “doomed to drink again.” Thanks for the death sentence, pal.
I began to notice, too, that every meeting was being closed with the Lord’s Prayer, a particularly Christian prayer. When I made mention of it at a business meeting the unlearned argument of “it’s tradition” won.
I was very disturbed by the trajectory of the group and the unwillingness of its members to even entertain being more secular in their approach. I used the only tool I had left, my own voice. I would not say any prayer at any point during the meeting, nor would I join in the other chants. And I didn’t apologize by bowing my head, but held my head high. A young man with a two years said to me after one meeting, “you know you’re not doing anything by refusing the say the prayer.” I responded, “if one newcomer in that room was terrified by all the discussion of god, saw me, and decided to come again, then I most certainly have done something.” He scoffed. I walked away.
I stopped going to this group as often. When I did, I made an effort in my shares to remind the group that a higher power and god are not synonymous, and that “of your understanding” does not imply an embrace of the supernatural. I tried, of course, to be more diplomatic. On occasion, I would clearly state that I am an atheist and that AA worked very well for me even with that horrifying shortcoming. It was when a member suggested at a business meeting that the word “atheist” be banned from use at the meeting, and that atheists should not be allowed to share, that I was done. His motion was voted on and did not pass. But, because he felt comfortable making the suggestion, the group took it seriously enough to take a vote, and that people voted in favor of it was enough. I never went back.
I attended AA meetings in the beginning to help myself. When I was healthier in mind and body, I kept going to help others and myself. God or not, AA meetings were a great way to remind me why I chose to get sober. I have come to understand shame as my great motivator—my higher power if you like. I do not roll around in shame and self-pity, but I will not let myself forget it either. Meetings help me remember what it is to feel ashamed, because as long as I remember it I will not want to feel it again.
I am not kind because god will reward me later. And, I do not do good deeds for the recognition (although, of course, I like it). I do not tell the truth because otherwise I’ll go to hell. I do not stay sober for the bragging rights. I am kind because it feels good and hopefully it makes someone else feel good, too. When I am mean, I am riddled with guilt. I tell the truth because it is so much easier and lying makes me feel dirty. I stay sober so I don’t sleep with a guy I met at a bar at 4:00 am, or end up at a friend’s house for days calling into work “sick” so I can keep doing lines, or end up coming out of a blackout covered in bruises, or cancel plans with my sister on Christmas Day because I’m too hungover to move, or miss the baptism my friend’s first baby because I’m leaving the bar at the same time the service begins. To do those things makes me sick with shame. And I stay sober, in big part, so I never feel that way again. For me, shame leads to self-loathing.
This group, as it turns out, is similar to many—too many—groups. The scourge of religiosity and the ideologues with bull horns has drowned out the primary purpose of AA: to stay sober and help other alcoholics achieve sobriety.
About the Author
Steph Roberts was born and raised in New York City. Fourteen years ago, when she first tried AA, Steph also started a job as the Editorial Assistant for a monthly political magazine of opinion for which she is now the Business Director.
Steph currently lives in Amityville, NY (very near to the horror house) with her husband, a rescue dog, and five rescue cats.
You can find her podcast, “Away: A Podcast For Anyone Interested In a Secular Approach to 12-Step Recovery,” on iTunes and SoundCloud, or follow her on YouTube for the podcast and other personal stories. She hopes to start a second podcast soon to address the the difficulties women face when starting a traditional 12-step program.