Staying with the Herd

True Confession: I don’t really do A.A. the right way. In fact, if A.A. & I listed our relationship status on Facebook, it would be “it’s complicated.”

Maybe I should start closer to the beginning of the story: I like to be the valedictorian of everything I do. When I first set my sights on getting sober, A.A. proved to be no exception to the valedictorian rule. I bought the primary A.A. text (a.k.a. The Big Book) before I ever hit my first meeting. The first year of sobriety, I behaved like a model I went to meetings. I got a sponsor. I did steps, all 12 steps to be exact. In fact, I was making the rounds through the steps again with a second sponsor… and then I quit. My own version of riding off into the sunset. No hard feelings. It’s not you, it’s me. I found myself in what I considered a complete conundrum: I didn’t want to go back to meetings. But I still wanted to be sober. I had been told over and over, often with a hapless relapsed drunk as the object lesson, what happened to people who didn’t go to meetings. And I was scared of meeting that same fate. But on the back of A.A. medallions, it says “To thine own self be true.” And if I was going to follow that advice, I had to admit that it was time for A.A. and I to see other people. So, we parted ways.

The split happened over four years ago, and still people react to my incredibly infrequent attendance at meetings in the same way they might react if, say, I had spinach stuck in my teeth. At first they seem vaguely uncomfortable. They seem to WANT to help, really they do. But it is so AWKWARD to tell someone that they have something in their teeth (or that they are going to wind up drunk under a bridge if they don’t haul themselves to a meeting soon). Soon they start looking everywhere but at me. And then they fidget a bit. Then they remember that their paper clip collection needs to be reorganized… and we part ways. Amicably, of course. But I am always bewildered and a bit put-off.

Animal Planet finally helped me decipher this puzzle. Turns out our pastor watches his fair share of Animal Planet, and, this past Sunday, he went into great detail about stalking prey. Wait… please note that HE isn’t stalking prey. No, he described the way animals, specifically lions, stalk prey. If lions plan to make their next meal out of a herd animal, their mealtime strategy involves separating one lone animal from the herd. Once they achieve separation, then the animal is vulnerable. All the lions gang up on the animal and WHAMMO! The animal becomes a lion entree. Most of the time.

The only chance the lonely, separated animal has for salvation is the return of the herd to rescue it. And sometimes the herd does return. They reintegrate the lost one, protecting it and reasserting the strength of the herd. The lions skulk away, hungry and defeated…and the 8 year olds watching Animal Planet make it through one more day without needing therapy.

As the pastor eloquently tied his lion/herd example back to how the church treats its members who have strayed away from the community, things began clicking in place in my head. Not things about lions and prey, but things about my interactions with A.A.ers. Here’s my revelation: The A.A.’s weren’t concerned about meetings, so much as they were concerned about my straying from the herd! They cared about me! And they didn’t know that I wasn’t isolated, that my church community helped me stay spiritually fit, and that recovery remained top on my list of “to dos,” like breathing and checking facebook. The A.A.s and I weren’t at odds; we simply had a breakdown in communication!

If, as Johann Hari posits in this new book Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs, addiction stems from isolation rather than the addictive substance itself, the A.A.ers are right to be concerned. One of the things A.A. does best is fostering connections between people. In A.A. meetings, people reach out to help each other. Members reiterate time and time again the dangers of isolating; they insist that reaching out to help others who are suffering breaks the cycle of self-centered obsession. They insist that connection heals.

Unfortunately, when someone walks away from the fellowship of A.A., they often become victim to their own broken way of thinking, trapped in a mindset that breeds self-absorption and lends itself to epic ego trips. If they do not replace the A.A. fellowship with another kind of community, they are left vulnerable. But some of us DO have communities that support our recovery other than A.A. And, unsurprisingly, those of us who remain successful at staying sober often pick communities where the higher power is something other than ourselves (faith, yoga, meditation).

When I stopped going to A.A. meetings, I became more involved at church (in intensive small group Bible studies, to be exact). The folks in those groups committed to experiencing life together, to sharing joy & pain, to talking through what we might otherwise hide from the outside world. This worked for me. I wasn’t isolating; I was integrating into another herd. It is also worth noting that I spent a lot of time in my groups talking about recovery and A.A.

But just like when people return to church and they get the sideways glances, the curious “what sin have you been in” looks, the passive aggressive questions, folks get that when they’ve been absent from A.A. meetings, too. Although those sentiments are well-meaning (sometimes), they aren’t very helpful. They make people defensive; they imply that some of us are in, and some of us are out.

But just like God needs to be a “We are ALL in!” proposition, so does recovery. I may do my recovery differently. And I may do it in a way that some people don’t like. But I am doing it. I am putting in the work, and it works for me. We need to champion recovery, freedom from addiction, for everyone, no matter how they choose to obtain it. We can’t push people out of the herd for not doing it exactly our way–there is strength in numbers, especially if we encounter any lions.

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