Sorry Not Sorry

The most common response upon learning that I am an alcoholic: “I am sorry.”

On a level, I get that. A lot of social activities seem to revolve around drinking. Happy hour. Cocktail parties. Wine & cheese parties. Even book clubs often throw back a few bottles of wine. And people (even normal people who drink in moderation) really like their booze. It seems like a radical move to give it up. And maybe boring. People seem to think my life must be hella boring. (Spoiler: It’s not)

Some of my old friends, who knew me in high school and college before my drinking really escalated, hate the idea that I had to suffer. They wish they could have been there for me, could have helped. I love their impulse to ease the pain of an old friend. But for many years, I was self-destructing and even the tremendous amount of love heaped on my by family & friends did nothing to slow my unraveling. The shitty thing about addicts is that they have to WANT help to recover. I did not want help.

But here’s my deal after over 6 years in recovery: I am not sorry I am an alcoholic. I am not sorry for the hard work I had to put into my recovery. I am not sorry that my addiction taught me about being fully present, human and fallible.

I AM sorry that for so many of my drinking years I was a self-centered asshat. I am sorry my drunk driving endangered so many innocent people. I am sorry that I used sex as a drug or wielded it as a weapon. I am sorry for the pain, torment, and worry that I inflicted on my family and my best friend. I had no right to behave the way I did. And yet, I did behave that way… over & over again.

But, even still, I am grateful that I am an alcoholic. I wouldn’t be the person I am if I hadn’t chosen to get sober, chosen to work hard to recover, chosen to live into a life of spiritual practice and honesty. I am grateful that when I look at the world, I see people who are worthy of love, who need help and kindness. I am grateful that, in the process of getting sober, I really got God. Or at least as much as a fallible person with no understanding of the infinite can get God. But still, we are working with progress not perfection here.

Today, I have a sense of peace I never dreamed possible. I enjoy my life without being plagued by fear and anxiety. I can navigate change with a certain (small) level of grace. And I have hope.

So, please don’t be sorry I am an alcoholic. Because it is only in recovery that I learned to really live.

A Control Freak Gets Sober: A Short Case Study

I walked in, freshly pressed in a white shirt, crisp jeans and my beloved cowboy boots. My hair, pulled up in a clip, projected a no-nonsense image. Or, at least, I hoped it did. I wanted to be at the top of my game for this meeting. I pulled back one of the folding chairs, smiled at the people already seated at the table. And then it began: “Good evening. This is the regular meeting of Sobrenity. I am _______, and I am an alcoholic.”

This is how a control freak like me manages the unknown of attending her first AA meeting, at which they will most likely strongly suggest that she admit she is wildly out of control.

My futile attempts to control the AA meeting “situation” began earlier that day: I ran out to the bookstore to procure my copy of Alcoholics Anonymous (aka The Big Book) before the meeting. I wanted (no, needed) to be prepared for this next phase of my journey. I believe I even read the first chapter or so. Like I was going to a book club meeting. “Control what you can” was my motto. Obviously, that was going well.

Turns out, I didn’t need the book at the meeting. It was an open-discussion meeting, which meant anyone could attend, alcoholic or not. Cool. Then I could fly under the radar. They did a moment of silence for the sick & suffering alcoholic (that’s me!), followed by the Serenity Prayer. Which I had heard a million times before but couldn’t remember for the life of me. They were all chanting as if they were part of some secret society. Wait.. yeah. They kind of were.

Next came something about experience, strength and hope. It’s all a blur. And I didn’t have any experience, strength or hope for MYSELF at the moment, much less some to share. Then they got to the line that told me I was okay there, at least for the time being: The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking. Check! This is where I belonged.

Someone read, “How It Works,” which, cleverly, describes how the program of Alcoholics Anonymous works. Three tidbits from “How It Works” stuck with me:

1) Rarely have we seen a person fail who has throughly followed our path.
I am not really into failure even now, and certainly was against failure as an active alcoholic who had something to prove. So, good… no failing here.

2) We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable. You’d think for a control freak that admitting that she was powerless over alcohol would be wrenching. But I already knew I was powerless (I often have to come to things on my own. Thank GOD, I had come to this realization before someone mentioned it to me, and I had to spend the next several months of my life trying to prove them wrong). I’d done the whole deal where I said I’d only have 2 beers, then I’d wake up in my bed with no recollection of having gotten there. And, if my life was unmanageable, then it wasn’t really my fault, right? How could I be faulted for something that, by its very nature, I couldn’t manage? Time to invite a Higher Power to clean up my mess (btw: this is NOT how things work. Everyone is required to clean up his or her own mess. Think of the HP as a power source; you still have to vacuum)

3) We are not saints. The point is that we are willing to grow along spiritual lines. As for not being a saint, I am a good little Christian girl who happens to be a lesbian. In the church I grew up in, that not only knocked me out of the saint category, it landed me right in the going-straight-to-hell-in-a-handbasket category. So growing along spiritual lines without much outside help was something I did for years (albeit clumsily and sometimes drunkenly). Now I had a church that I totally dug (who of course knew nothing about my problematic drinking–or that I had once served communion drunk), and I had these AA folks to instruct me on spiritual growth. I’d probably BE a saint in a few months with all this help (I totally did NOT get humility yet, obviously).

With the finer points of “How It Works” swirling about in my brain, I sat patiently as people shared their experience, strength and hope. But, honestly, I couldn’t connect their stories to my life. I spent so much time hiding what was really going on with me that I couldn’t open myself up enough to see the similarities. I wondered when I would feel connected. I wanted to be the valedictorian of AA and to do that I needed to be accepted by the group, connected, respected (spoiler: I never felt connected to AA. Perhaps because this was my approach. Holy ego.)

At the end of the meeting, I felt deflated. I didn’t feel changed. I wanted to be able to sit down with someone and talk it out. Not talk about the program or how I was going to work through the steps. I wanted to talk my addiction through until I was better. Right then.

Instead, I went home and took out my Big Book. I tried to start reading the text, but I got bored, overwhelmed, twitchy. So I flipped back to the stories in the back of the book and started reading. They broke past all my defenses, and I saw myself in each of them. I also saw hope. I read until I couldn’t focus anymore. And the next day I read more. It seems so natural now that those stories saved my life. Stories have power. And those stories carried me through my first days, pointing out my character defects (ahem… control freak) in a way that didn’t make me bristle and run for the hills. I share my story because I owe my sobriety to people who were willing to share theirs.

I Am The Problem.

At the core of my drinking problem existed one single, troubling fact: I hated myself. I constantly analyzed myself and found myself lacking. I never felt accepted or included, even when the evidence pointed to the contrary. I was anxious and depressed. Desperate to be somewhere else, to be someone else.

If this seems sad to me now (and it does), in high school I viewed it as downright tragic. I craved attention, but I was sketchy and uncomfortable once I got it. I sabotaged every relationship I had—I was either self-centered and thoughtless or clingy and needy. If I didn’t manage to screw something up with my insecurity and striving for acceptance, my subconscious would destroy it for me with panic attacks and anxiety so bad that it made me puke. I was a victim of myself. Which made me hate myself even more.

I pulled a geographic when I went to college—and it helped tremendously. I liked college me. I heard myself laugh unselfconsciously for the first time, and it startled me. But I warmed to happiness and commenced living a real life, with real feelings and a shocking lack of despair. If I had gone to therapy at this point, I probably could have skipped the whole alcoholic, downward spiral bit. If I had dealt with all the baggage, instead of just cramming it in an ill-fitting closet and hoping for the best, I may have been okay. But instead, I used my college girlfriend as my therapist, my anti-depressant, my religion. And when I chased her away with shitty decisions and cruel behavior, shit got real. I started remembering that I believed myself unworthy and unloveable. This time, I chased those demons with booze. And, surprisingly (probably only to me), they multiplied like Gremlins in water. Down I went, slowly at first and then in a tailspin lasting for 2 or 3 years, depending on who you ask and what they remember. I remember everything and nothing. I drank to quiet my roiling discontent, my abject fear. I drank to escape myself.

My story doesn’t come with a crystal clear salvation moment. Somewhere in the mess I had made of my life, I decided I wanted to live. A good start. By the time I made my way to my first AA meeting 6 years later, I knew I wanted more than survival—I wanted a life. I did a lot of work, with the 12-steps and with a good therapist, to move past my self-hatred into acceptance. Acceptance of me, of the world around me, of life. I excavated all the pain I had clung to for years, and I let it go (most of it, anyway).

Sometimes people ask me if it’s hard not to drink. No. The rampant alcohol abuse was just a symptom of my sick and desperate thinking. It became my signature, my fuck you to a world I thought brought me pain. Recovery revealed my part in creating my own pain, my jockeying to view myself as a victim. Recovery brought me face to face with myself—and this time I met myself with acceptance and forgiveness.