The Problem Isn’t Alcohol

The rooms of AA are filled with love addicts (including myself). They are also filled with sex addicts, food addicts, compulsive gamblers, hyper chain-smokers, spenders and debters, and exercise freaks. (Also including myself, at various times, minus the gambling). I was in a meeting last night that falls into the category of Friday night meeting with a scene. You know the type. There’s trays and trays of food and coffee, a speaker with twenty plus years ready to knock us dead, beautiful dressed-up women, scoping men, and a bunch of surly looking kids from the local rehab. I’m not the biggest fan of these meetings. They certainly serve their purpose, and occasionally it’s fun to get all dolled up and “hit the town,” if the town was the cool AA meeting in Pacific Palisades. I am glad I went and ran into a friend and fellow teacher and that we could have a laugh and chat about the profession. But these meetings are far less about authentic recovery and more about socializing and stroking egos. Any meeting can be helpful and purposeful in introducing a newcomer to the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, but there is something unhealthy about the codependency and covert love addiction at play.

Back when AA started in 1935 in Akron, Ohio, it was impossible for a meeting like this to exist. AA started with two guys sharing their struggle to stop drinking. It gradually evolved into three men, then five, then a few women before growing into hundreds of people who congregated in various living rooms and talked about recovery. Back then, it isn’t clear if they spoke about other issues beyond alcohol. Bill W. later touched on them in the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions (in a sometimes overly-moral way for my taste.) But they were certainly discussing recovery in intimate settings. The cards were on the table. This was also long before the advent of therapy and the discovered harm of growing up in alcoholism or some other kind of family dysfunction and trauma. It is known that, despite having sobriety and the obvious rebuilding that comes from that, many early AA members still struggled with depression, infidelity, and financial problems. They clearly did the best they could given the times. Bill and Bob created a movement that would forever change the lives of millions of people and give them permission to find faith with or without religion – a miracle. But what happens in a lot of rooms today (especially rooms that give that outside-in approach of look good in order to feel good) is that people stay sick (including myself, for quite some time). We are relieved to get off drugs and alcohol, we are amazed that the obsession goes away, only to find that we are mired in other problems, some of us more than others. The problem is never and was never alcohol. The problem isn’t anorexia or compulsively watching porn or bingeing on caffeine and sugar. (These behaviors can create problems, for sure, and need to be arrested in some form in order to have a shot at true and resonant recovery). The problem is the deep codependency and self-hatred that often lies at the center of most people who become addicts and alcoholics. This is why many addicts, even when sober for a time, end up committing suicide. It goes unspoken too often in AA rooms – many claim it is enough to be sober from booze; I beg to differ. What is the point if you still want to die?

Bill W. touched on this in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. This book holds many gems; in fact, some chapters seems brand new and charged with brilliance each time you read them. But sometimes the language gets lost on us, (it was the 1930’s) and it isn’t always immediately apparent what the hell he is talking about. The book can be brief in areas where one longs for more explanation and clarity. (I am a big proponent of outside literature that discusses recovery in all its forms. Unfortunately there are some grumpy AA’ers who discount anything besides AA approved literature and send this message to newcomers.) But the book does talk about God. Higher Power. Spirit of the Universe. Cosmic Parent. It explains that the whole purpose of recovery is to find a God of your own understanding to help you live comfortably in your skin, without addiction. Not just without alcohol, but without everything else running amok.

The book says the root of the problem is selfishness and self-centeredness – it should have taken it a step further and said that the root of the problem is self-hatred (which is a form of self-centeredness). The root of the problem is self-hatred (shame), and also fear and an inability to face reality or “life on life’s terms.” Addicts have a real hard time with this. We would rather check out through a myriad of different prescriptions than deal with what is actually happening, both within ourselves and on the outside. And this doesn’t just magically stop when we quit drinking, or even (for most of us) with our first go-around of the twelve steps. Having been involved in AA since I was eighteen and knowing many people in recovery, most of us will not get better in a rich and satisfying way simply by stopping drinking and working the steps in AA. This is a start, a very important start, but it is merely a beginning. What tends to happen is that we start fixing in other areas. For some, it is mild, and AA does prove to be enough. But for most, those roots of self-hatred and codependency beg for recovery that just doesn’t come from the sometimes very sick halls of AA meetings and AA sponsors. I’ve known young men with sponsors who encourage them to “fuck as many newcomers” as they can. People with fifteen years sober who cheat on their spouses and gamble away life savings and ruin their health with compulsive overeating. This is not a judgement but an observation. If we are meant to have a “life beyond our wildest dreams,” to “know a real freedom and real happiness,” why are so many sober members suffering so deeply in all others areas of their lives?

Back in 2012, when I hit a very deep emotional bottom at eighteen months sober, I wanted to die. I didn’t want to drink, but I was beginning to feel I had no choice because I was so uncomfortable in my skin and so filled with fear and rage. I remember reaching out to my sponsor at the time, and she kept telling me to read the Big Book. I knew in my heart this was not the answer. Something deeper was brewing. There was no way I was going to have abounding recovery if this kept up. Luckily, a dear friend of mine got honest with me and told me to go to Al-Anon (and also recommended a therapist). She knew enough of my family history to surmise that yes, I belonged in those rooms. I thought I didn’t “qualify” because I wasn’t dating an active alcoholic, but Al-Anon is far more than that. Pretty much anyone can qualify, especially if they grew up in a dysfunctional family. It is the closest program I have found to addressing the deep soul-sickness that most of us alcoholics have. It’s not sexy and glamorous and fun like AA, but it works. It gets to the heart of codependency and this struggle to take care of ourselves and love ourselves. Because it gets to that deep core root, other areas of our lives tend to get better as we recover. The more we learn to love, value, and take care of ourselves, the less inclined we are to smoke, overeat, and engage in unhealthy relationships.

Therapy was also helpful for a time, but it needed to be constructive, purposeful, and aligned with twelve step principles. I started therapy for the first time at fifteen, and back then it was much more about simply expressing feelings, to the best of my ability. I went off and on over the years, often having a helluva time being honest and letting my guard down. When I got sober again in 2011, I saw a therapist for about a year who helped me tap into some very old feelings from childhood and understand the dynamics at play within my family. I still think of her with such reverence, gratitude, and warmth. But it wasn’t until I saw another therapist, the one my Al-Anon friend recommended, who helped me rebuild an internal system. That was the work. It wasn’t about just blabbering on about feelings – it was work that helped me, part by part, rediscover my center and lead from there. The work was not always fun, and sometimes this therapist drove me nuts, but she delivered. The miracle was when I discovered how much less fear I felt in my daily life. It was a dramatic shift. And I knew she was the real deal when she encouraged an end-game. After seeing her for almost two years, I felt I didn’t need the therapy anymore. She agreed. And off I went. (I don’t think everyone needs therapy, especially if working a kick-ass Al-Anon program, but it was certainly imperative for my recovery.)

But it doesn’t stop at Al-Anon and therapy either. And recovery doesn’t lie in our relationship with our Al-Anon sponsor or a particular meeting. In my humble opinion, Al-Anon and constructive therapy are gateways to the big wide internal world of having an intimate relationship with ourselves and with a Higher Power of our understanding, thereby having relatively clean behavior on a daily basis. And that is recovery: the ability to take complete responsibility for our lives, mostly the job of loving and caring for ourselves and expecting no one else to do this for us, coupled with an unapologetic faith in some sort of God/Higher Power/Spirit. From this space, we can be truly useful and purposeful in the world. We can spread goodness and light. We are not looking for fixes outside of ourselves, because we come to find that we are already “fixed.” We might still act out here and there or have “slips;” after all, we are still human. But there’s a very deep and sturdy core foundation within ourselves, and so the compulsion to get high on anything disappears.

Do we get better and eventually stop doing the work? No. But I don’t think it has to be some grim duty or hardcore practice. Once we recover and build a foundation, and I think it takes a few years, we tidy up as necessary and keep it simple. We watch with loving awareness and curiosity our thinking and behavior. I still have all my feelings, and sometimes they are a little colorful. Just last night I was feeling pretty sad and down on myself and started to hear that old story in my head that if I only were this, then I would be lovable. My practice is that I have to dialogue with that part of me and remind her that she already is lovable, no matter what another person says or does, whether I am alone or not, single or not, noticed or not. I usually have to get in a good cry and write out the thought pattern. Prayer is helpful and sitting quietly so that there is space for the feelings to come up and out. The old me would have run for the food or cigarette or turned on the TV in order to avoid the feeling, but it is better to just get it over with. When you have built the foundation you come to trust that the feeling, no matter how much it hurts or how much discomfort it brings, won’t kill you. In fact, when you let go and let it in, it hurts a lot less. The absence of feeling is often much more painful.

Recovery in AA is wonderful. There is friendship and spirit and laughter and fun. And in the beginning, it’s a great beginning. But for those I have come to know, including myself, who are comfortable deep down inside and free from other compulsions, their recovery came from healing codependency and love addiction, or more, plainly, learning to love and value themselves unconditionally, whether the people at the trendy meeting were noticing them or not.

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