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.


I am insanely blessed. This is simple truth.

I did not always know this or live into it the way I do now. Years of self-pity, psychic pain & alcohol abuse kind of put a damper on my ability to receive and appreciate gifts from the Universe (or God or the Great Spirit or whatever). But now, now my gratitude has me belting out Taylor Swift tunes on the drive to my daughter’s preschool. Because I can. Because I recognize opportunities for joy. There is a current of gratitude that runs so deeply that daily circumstances cannot shake it. Okay, it may get ruffled just a bit on occasion, but I blame that on the complexities of living with a 4-year-old. Ahem.

This kind of gratitude isn’t my natural state of being. Left to my own devises, I am a fretful, self-centered mess. The 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous cracked opened a door for me to let goodness/God/gratitude into my life. I will admit, though, when I first got sober and heard about what AA calls “the Promises,” I thought that this might be just one more indication that the AAs’ were complete whackadoos. These Promises they spoke of seemed lofty and amorphous, like they would never have any bearing on my life.

Imagine hearing this when you still have the roar of a killer hangover in your head:

Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change. Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us. We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us. We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.

Whatevs. I just wanted to know how to make my life not suck. This stuff seemed all guru-sitting-atop-a-mountain. I wanted real stuff. So, the Promises irked me. And I tuned them out. For six years. Truly, I never paid one smidgeon of attention to them until last night, when my wife spoke to a room full of people about the Promises. Then I had to pay attention.

Turns out that I had, in fact, been unknowingly paying attention to the Promises, and talking about how they played out in my life, for years now.

Exhibit A: My wife and I wanted two kids. Although it took 2 years to conceive our daughter, I thought I would get pregnant with a second kiddo in a flash. Because I deserved two kids. I mean, there are completely shitty parents who have a litter of kids. Surely, I deserved two.

I went into the whole reproductive adventure with a chip on my shoulder and a gigantic sense of entitlement. You can imagine my surprise when I didn’t get pregnant the first time. Or the second. Or the third. But the fourth time—score! And why not? I deserved this kid. Moreover, I clearly knew what was right for our family. So, obviously, I was going to get kid #2.

Except that I miscarried at 10 weeks. And I was crushed.

But I did what I what the AAs taught me. I was rigorously honest. With God. I told God that this sucked. That I was pissed. At him. At my body. At the injustice of denying me a child I deserved. I explained this to God over and over, until he probably just wanted to pick up the remote, flip on the TV and drown me out every time I prayed. I was relentless.

And then something happened. I got pregnant again—and immediately miscarried.

But—here’s the magic—I didn’t feel like a victim any more. I understood, as clear as if God had sat down and explained the whole deal over coffee, that this wasn’t going to work. That I would not have kid #2. Not the way I had planned. Perhaps not even at all. And, moreover, I was seized with a tremendous clarity that I had been so focused on producing another child, that I had not been grateful (not truly) for the one I already had. She, after all, is a miracle. Out of 4 pregnancies, she is the only one that made it here to share life with us, in our family. But I hadn’t even taken stock in the miracle I had already been handed, because trying to produce what I was convinced was right for me had consumed me.

Remember the part in the Promises that says “We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.” Yeah, me too. Because this acceptance, this gratitude didn’t come from me. I am a grasper. A control freak of epic proportions. But I know that I have been handed what is 100% right for me and for our family. I prayed for God to change my situation. He didn’t. But he did change my perspective, my understanding of who God (the Universe) is. And I know that the God (the Universe) only wants good for me. What I have been given is good. It is not what I expected or wanted. But expectations are just resentments waiting to happen (so say the AAs). If I stop attaching the label “bad” to situations that don’t seem to immediately go my way, I can be open to experiencing the events in my life as gifts—or at least as opportunities for growth.

I am often seized with excitement about what the future is going to bring, despite the fact that I am an anxiety-driven, control freak who obsessively worries about the future. How do I explain that contradiction? I can’t. Except that the AAs told me it would play out this way. I was just too irked to listen.

Darkness of Self

Toward the end of my relationship with her, I couldn’t quite find myself. No clear boundaries discernable between me and her. While it may seem like a romantic notion, this lack of boundaries, this bleeding into each other, I needed to be more clearly defined. I needed to know where I ended and she began. I needed room to move and think and breathe. But we were entangled. I was tangled. I needed.

And then she was gone. Untangled.

Suddenly, without her tethering me, entrapping me, holding me, I drifted. Slowly at first. Just a bit further from shore than was comfortable. But I could fight my way back. I remembered how to swim. Until I looked up and saw only sky and water. No land. I didn’t know which way home was. I didn’t remember home clearly. I didn’t remember me clearly. I was ill-defined. Amorphous. Drifting away from my own self. My lack of self. Drifting.

Then I began to fight. Fighting the water and the drifting. Fighting the air and the breathing. I felt suffocated. All this struggle caused my sinking. Or maybe I didn’t struggle enough. I can’t remember. I gave in to the sinking, the disappearing. I aided in my own obliteration. Or did I try to stop it? It is murky now.

The murkiness morphed into darkness, the darkness into the blackest night. No stars. No light. Just inky blackness. My soul slumbered a restless and fitful sleep while I kept on destructing, self-destructing. Being destructive. Destroying.

I wakened to the manifestation of all my fears, the deepest ones, the ones that I harbored in the closest confines of my heart. The fear and I entangled. Intertwined in twisted, cruel intimacy–stolen, permitted, fractured. Pieces of me crashed back together. I eyed the fear and the destruction warily. Detachedly. I spotted myself, what was left of myself. It was enough to build on. I picked it up, clutched it closely and left that place. I’ve not been back.


From the start, God has been with me. Since that is rather unremarkable, because God is with everyone, perhaps I should start another way: I have always believed in God’s presence. God made his mark on my childhood for sure. My mother worked in a Christian bookstore; we attended church faithfully every Sunday. I had Christian pencils, knotted like a pretzel at the end that proclaimed, “Sin is KNOT in!” I had me some Jesus.

The God I believed in growing up scared me a bit. He seemed capricious; if I didn’t ask for salvation in the right way, if I didn’t mean it enough, then I might quickly be cast into the firey pits of hell. I grappled deeply with the idea of meeting Jesus in heaven one day; if heaven was my true home, like they told me at church, why bother with this meaningless charade called life, I wondered (I was 9 years old).

Thankfully, childhood doesn’t last forever. I grew up. I went to college, where my New Testament class systematically dismantled many of what I believed were core tenets of my faith. But really, what that class allowed me to do was shed the faith of my childhood and to begin the long process of discerning what I believed. Because an angry, jealous God who might cease to love me based on a somewhat arbitrary list of behaviors seemed too human, too small. The God I was sure was there (even when I was too angry to admit it) was much bigger than that.

Over the course of the next decade, I explored many faiths, many spiritual paths. They all intrigued me; I found each of them beautiful and mysterious in their own right. Yet, I was constantly drawn back to the faith of my childhood. I didn’t really want to be. I wanted something more esoteric, something that played better in intellectual circles. “Christian” wasn’t really the label I wanted to stick on the me I was busily crafting.

But for all of my searching, I had to admit that the teachings of Jesus resonated in my soul. And when I finally gave in, finally walked back into a church after all those years, sung the hymns with a reverence that shocked even me, I did what I least expected: I jumped back into church life whole-heartedly. In retrospect, it makes sense; I am an all or nothing sort of girl. I went to church on Sundays; I found an intensive Bible-nerd class that required at least an hour of reading a night. If I was going to be into Jesus, I wanted to to be a Jesus expert.

I feel like maybe, since this is a recovery blog, the spoiler is kind of evident. But here it goes: I was doing all this pious searching and studying while I was still drinking. Not just drinking, but drinking alcoholically. The result wasn’t pretty. I had full blown panic attacks in church, because I was hungover from the previous night. I’d finish Bible study on Wednesday night and meet my friends at the bar afterward; because one night without alcohol simply would not do. I tried desperately to rebuild my spiritual life while I was destroying my very self, night after night after night. I often cried late at night, after my 12th beer, after my partner had fallen asleep; I would put on music, lay in my bed and sob. I didn’t know why. But at my core, I was unbearably sad; only at night, when the alcohol had stripped me of my ability to fend of the encroaching sorrow, could I admit how broken I really was.

The drunk surrounds herself with Jesus but remains broken. This baffles people. Shouldn’t God have helped me? Totally. But here’s the catch: I never asked.

A.A.s talk a lot about conscious contact with a higher power. That conscious contact, the openness and willingness changes us. Just opening the door a crack allows the miracles to begin. But I had not opened the door; in fact, I had deadbolted it. I read about Jesus and God ad nauseum. I talked a lot about theology. I never prayed. Never. God and I didn’t powwow. I did not supplicate myself. We did not have jam sessions. God and I did not talk.

Here’s my truth: I knew if I prayed, if I asked God for help, that he would indeed help me. I had no doubt that God was bigger than my addiction. But just like I avoided A.A. for so many years because I believed it could offer me hope of a life free from alcohol, I avoided God because I knew that he would relieve me of my intense desire for oblivion from alcohol. And, really, I didn’t want that. I wanted oblivion. Change seemed so daunting. I had no idea how to live without alcohol. So I didn’t invite God to be part of the solution; in fact, I didn’t even tell him there was a problem.. And since God isn’t known for going where he isn’t invited, I continued to suffer my own dark night of the soul: desiring God, seeking him, yet refusing to allow him in.

This profound spiritual confusion might be best exemplified with a story: During Lent, I gave up alcohol. On Easter, I went to church hangover free to celebrate the Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Then I went to brunch to celebrate the Resurrection… with beer! I had 2 or 3 or 6… somewhere in there. Just as I was getting ready to kick into some real drinking, I remembered that I was supposed to be back at church soon. And that I was scheduled to serve communion. So, the close of that Easter Sunday found me in church, serving communion… coming to experience the presence of Jesus… offering one of the most sacred rites… drunk.

Despite the cringeworthiness of the communion story, and the absolute horror with which I look back on it now, serving communion drunk wasn’t my rock-bottom-I-have-to-change-my-life moment. One day, I just decided I no longer wanted to feel worthless, hopeless, empty. And I changed. I finally attended those A.A. meetings that I feared would fix me. They did. But really, I didn’t change on my own. I believe that God chipped away at my stubbornness enough to help me find my willingness. And when I did, I could let the A.A.s show me how to get sober and how to live. And one of the very first things they told me to do was to pray. I did. And that is where I found God.

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.