When AA is Not Enough

I started going to meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous on a regular basis when I was eighteen. I was not all that ready or eager to admit that I was an alcoholic and needed help, but I knew that I belonged in those rooms. I heard the message, I identified with others, and I saw people staying sober and living seemingly happy and productive lives.

From eighteen to twenty-five, I attended AA off and on and had different stretches of time sober. Four months, seven months, eighteen months, thirty months…. in between I relapsed, and I usually stayed in those relapses for six months to a year. I drank and abused drugs again and welcomed in the dark, depressing world of alcoholism and the endless pain and destruction that it causes. I thought I was broken beyond repair. Hopeless. That this Higher Power or whatever had turned its back on me. I didn’t actually want to drink and drug again and live that way anymore, but I saw no other choice. Living sober wasn’t all that great – in fact, it became downright miserable – might as well drink.

This happens a lot to people who come to AA. They get sober and at first there’s this nice “pink cloud,” because certain things do improve. We feel much better physically, no longer poisoning our system with chemicals. We maybe get a job back or start going to school or are welcome into our families again. We often look better, losing or gaining weight as necessary. We aren’t in immediate threat of getting arrested or injuring ourselves or someone else because of substance abuse. Meetings bring camaraderie and fellowship and laughter. We might even start going through the Twelve Steps with a sponsor and gathering an idea of Higher Power. But from my personal experience and the experience of many others, this eventually wears off and proves to not be enough. It wears off and we are left with intense fear and anger and this sense of something not being quite right. Or maybe maybe we still feel numb. We aren’t actually tending to the problem. We don’t want to drink again, but we don’t want face reality without something to take the edge off…

What often starts to happen is the carousel of substitution, which at first is harmless and maybe even necessary. One thing at a time. So we start smoking, eating lots of sugar, exercising like mad. We go on some diet or cleanse. Maybe we spend all our spare moments in coffee shops with other sober alcoholics, sharing stories and jokes. Or we start shopping, accumulating nice things. Or we start dating people and having sex. We get a big job and throw ourselves into work. None of these are that bad, especially at first, when it is enough to just get sober. But these things cannot sustain long-term recovery and emotional and spiritual sobriety, and after a while they most certainly will hinder real recovery if they are covering up our ability to face ourselves.

In my opinion, most alcoholics are not simply “selfish and self-centered” and therefore need to go “be of service” in order to be free from their sick minds that will “always be sick.” I cannot subscribe to this philosophy any longer, because when I did, I didn’t get better. I see too many sick people in the rooms who continue to try to run from their troubles by sponsoring people and talking to newcomers, and they never stay sober or have quality recovery. They may appear to be helping others to a degree, which is a noble endeavor, but they are often still running from facing themselves and healing themselves – denying themselves. Thus, they mostly continue to harm themselves and others. Yes, it is very important to help other alcoholics and be of service in the world. But it is not all there is, and we are far better off being selfish for a good long while and healing our own wounds before we are able to be of any real use to someone else. This is also a much healthier way to be of service – we then can avoid the strange codependent dance of making people our Higher Powers or thinking we have any power to actually change or control another person.

I believe the root of alcoholism, for most, is self-hatred and codependency, codependency meaning a deep inability to care for and love ourselves. Not all codependents become alcoholics and addicts, but most alcoholics and addicts have some form of codependency going on. It is a family disease, and everyone is affected. It tends to get passed down through the generations, and not always in the form of a bottle. Eating disorders, workaholism, sex and love addiction, even mental and physical illness are a part of the “disease.” When you grow up in dysfunction, you do not learn healthy ways to mature and tend to develop fear-based thinking and lack of trust – therefore a compulsion to control yourself and your environment. Addiction is essentially trying to control. We don’t want to feel so we drink. We don’t want to face ourselves, or we don’t think we deserve to take care of ourselves or have the ability to, so we focus on someone or something else.

Add to this the great denial that goes along with this disease. Because our culture is so externally focused and other-esteem oriented, it can be very easy to minimize family dysfunction. That white picket fence is a great cover. Money is a great cover, or good looks, or success. We feel guilty if we grew up with privilege – food on the table and new shoes and clothes – but still feel incredible suffering. That is because those things do not mean that the home was safe and loving. Those things are still nice, wonderful in fact, but they do not diminish damage that was being done through various forms of neglect, abandonment, and abuse.

Alcoholism and addiction are certainly illnesses that have no official cure, and for most of us, once that invisible line is crossed, we cannot safely drink and take drugs again. Something certainly changed in my brain, and if I were to take a drink tonight, I have no doubt that within a few weeks I would be drinking and taking drugs on a daily basis. The treatment, however, is far more complex than simply stopping the substance and atoning for our bad behavior. It is far more complex than attending AA meetings and working with an AA sponsor. The treatment is tending to the entire inner world that lies beneath the addiction. We don’t become addicts by mistake. It is not a fluke but a fairly predictable pattern that emerges in those who experienced trauma or who have a family history of alcoholism and codependency. Do some escape it? Sure. And still some have found a way out through less destructive distractions. Not everyone who experiences trauma grows up to abuse alcohol and drugs. But I can almost guarantee that if you continue to strongly abuse alcohol and drugs for years and years (not just sophomore year of college) you probably experienced some intense dysfunction growing up and probably have codependent issues. If you do, you deserve help.

So what does that mean for those of us who land in AA? For me, it meant that I could not maintain sobriety, nor have any real deep down in my bones recovery until I addressed the codependency and trauma. Believe me, I did not want to do this. I wanted to be my father’s daughter and pick myself up by my bootstraps. I thought it was indulgent and selfish and over the top. I didn’t want to be a victim, a baby, a drama queen. And remember what I said about denial? Well, it couldn’t have been that bad – I went to private school and summer camp! No. It was that bad. It wasn’t all bad, but much of it was. It was painful, confusing, chaotic, and harmful. Admitting that, owning that, was extremely important. And then I began the search. The inner work. The real stuff.

Al-Anon, a great therapist, and mindfulness, as well as reading tons of books and educating myself became the center of my recovery. I was teaching full-time, and that became a wonderful place to practice what I was learning and experiencing with recovery from codependency. And I knew I was actually getting better, because I started to see real results on the inside. I started to feel a lot less fear. Instead of rage, I began to feel grief. Sadness. And I could feel it and let it pass through. I began to be responsible for my thoughts and feelings and ceased the blame game, therefore becoming much less free of resentment. I became very aware of my thinking and how it was regularly based not in reality but in projection and what I perceived you were thinking. I learned to build an inner parent that was my constant advocate. Overtime, my food issues, which I thought would never resolve, lessened dramatically until they became virtually non-existent. I stopped feeling like a constant failure and seeking validation. Instead, I validated and esteemed myself.

Was it easy? No, not really. At times, especially in the beginning, it felt brutal, like I had no skin. It has taken practice and trust. But it got easier, and then it became sort of fun. It seemed magical to me that I could actually change my thinking and perception. I didn’t have to stay sick and angry and scrambling for some external fix. It also gave me a tremendous amount of self-esteem and self-confidence as well as hopefulness, because I knew the solution was always within me. It was like one giant “aha moment” after the other – this was what always seemed wrong with me, and here was this profound solution that could alter my entire life. I got over the idea that maybe I was being selfish by taking care of myself first – I saw how miraculous it was to live this way.

The service that I can bring to others now is authentic and clean, without any real motive or desire to control. When Bill W. talked about working with other alcoholics as being one of the “bright spots of our lives” and the surest way to avoid drinking, I don’t think he just meant sponsorship or taking another person through the steps. I think what he was onto was the very special connection that happens between two people sharing in recovery, how we are far more understood and heard when communicating with those who are walking our path. Working with other alcoholics, for me, is often just being a friend to a fellow, without expectation or need (because I already meet my own expectations and needs and know it’s not my job to meet theirs), listening and sharing, identifying and connecting.

I don’t want this to come across like I do any of this perfectly, or as a judgement of others and their paths. I I still have all my human imperfections and days when my thinking is a little wonky. I believe it takes what it takes for people to get what they need and find the brand of recovery that works for them. I only hope to carry this message further, because I think it can get lost in some of the AA jargon and opinions of members, and I hope others can find the joy that I have found! After years and years of hating myself and thinking it was unhealthy and egotistical to love myself and put myself first, to have freedom from that nonsense and a rich healthy inner life is news worth sharing.

To truly recover from alcoholism and codependency is always news worth sharing.

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