AA is freaking me out!

I guess I belong here, I know I belong here, but what am I doing here?

By Cary Tennis
Published January 6, 2011 7:01AM (UTC)
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Dear Cary,

After reading your column for several years, I feel pretty convinced that one doesn't have to [insert heinous act] in order to qualify as an alcoholic. So, even though my alcohol intake pretty much consisted of a nightly six-pack at home alone (as opposed to a gallon of 'shine swilled under a railroad trestle), I can still admit I am an alcoholic.


I came to this conclusion after making several halfhearted attempts to drink like a normal person. "I'll only drink [Fill in the blank: On Weekends, When I'm Out With Friends, Etc.]." Nevertheless, within a day or two of these proclamations, I'd end up back where I started: I'd get up. Go to work. Buy a six-pack. Drink it. Fall asleep. Repeat.

I used to be so sure, you see. I thought that living, really living, required great vulnerability. To Live! To look into someone's eyes, to sit together in the chaotic world ...

I had a relationship like that, for a while. The memory of how we were in the beginning sustained us, barely and not in my case without a huge loss of self, for a decade more. When it ended, a single thought came to mind:


hope was all i had

who I'll be now is anybody's guess

My ex introduced me to the pleasures of daily drinking. We'd split a bottle of wine every night; it was all very moderate. When we broke up, I continued the practice alone. I drank alone because keeping up appearances had become excruciating and exhausting, and I didn't want to bring anybody down with the truth about my depression. The isolation allowed me a modicum of sanity, and the drinking made the isolation bearable. Almost five years after the separation, the fact that I'd slowly escalated to drinking a six-pack alone every night began to freak me out. I had an uncle who died in his 40s of cirrhosis; he was always in the back of my mind. Finally, I admitted, OK. I'm an alcoholic. But what to do about it? Did I just quit drinking? Did I seek help?

I decided to check out AA for a couple of reasons. One, because even though quitting drinking had never been a problem (it was the drinking normally that was the problem), I don't want to fall victim to the voice in my head that inevitably says, "You haven't had a drink in ________ days; you don't have a problem." Two, because I thought it might help with my other issues: my self-induced isolation, my permanent existential crisis, the utter absence of hope.

Instead, what I've found is, AA smells. Like, literally, the room stinks of old cigarettes, stale urine, cold, dirt, homelessness. I picked the group I attend because it is midway between work and home, at an hour when I'd normally stop to buy a six-pack. Though it's in an urban area, it is by no means in the ghetto. Yet, my meeting is populated with grizzled old-timers and perpetually speech-slurred, homeless, relapsing addicts. We sit in relative silence until someone tinkles a bell; then people read the steps, the traditions and the promises. Then, we share. I say "we," but the truth is, I have yet to share. I'm a little afraid I'd be laughed out of the room. "I was a REAL alcoholic" someone is apt to begin, "In and out of jail, couldn't be trusted ..."


These stories are not my stories.

Still, sometimes, I am moved beyond words. The other day, this homeless man was sharing about how he used to drive his daddy to get a gallon of moonshine: "My feet could barely reach the pedals on the truck," he said. I felt so close to him that the next day, I waved enthusiastically at him when he walked in the door, as if he were an old friend. He sat next to me, smelling of beer, and talked and talked and talked about this rat named Elmo and this cat named Elvis. I vowed never to sit on the couch again. At least, in the metal folding chairs, people can't lean over and touch you.


I have an innate stubbornness. I'm also a bit of a Pollyanna, gullible and naive. Any other person would probably have walked out of these meetings, never to return. She would, at least, have tried a different meeting, one where she might have met others more like her. But I persist in wondering if there's a reason I've been led to this meeting. I tell myself to sit with myself and try to discern how I feel, but I only feel confusion. On the "pro" side, I'm as humbled and grateful as I've ever been. On the "con" side, what will I do if one of these guys asks me for a ride?

I believe it's good to be a little uncomfortable, especially when you're trying to change. But I can't work out whether I'm inviting a healthy level of discomfort or just being stupid.

AA Is Freaking Me Out


Dear AA Is Freaking Me Out,

Well, first, thank you for a delightful letter. I think you're probably having a healthy level of discomfort. At least, I recognize your discomfort and I imagine lots of other folks who've gotten to the place in life you've gotten to and have decided to give it a shot know exactly what you're talking about, and lots of them stuck it out and got better and you'll probably get better too.

I'm no AA guru and I don't know if I can tell you anything that will change anything, but it sounds like you don't really need to change anything. You're just as baffled and confused and emotionally stirred up and mind-blown and horrified and amused and tickled and worried and amazed as everybody else who's gone and sat in one of those meetings and watched the amazing parade of humanity take their chairs and start doing whatever it is they need to do to survive another day without going off the deep end. And one of these folks, probably the strangest and most unlikely one of all will end up helping you in ways you could not have foreseen, and you will end up helping others in the same way. And you'll probably end up in meetings where you feel just the opposite of how you do now -- where everyone seems so well-heeled and cosmopolitan you feel kinda cheap and ragged and wonder what you're doing there. The social register of addiction and recovery contains all the highs and lows of the world's cultures. We're all in it together.


And we're all just trying to survive another day without going off the deep end. There's something reassuring about being in a crowd of folks of all kinds all sitting there looking at the edge of the cliff trying not to wonder in too much detail exactly how it would be to take that leap. Sitting in there takes our minds off stuff. Meanwhile we learn stuff and get better.

I was really happy to get your letter. It sounds like you're doing OK and you're going to be just fine. You know what they say: Keep freaking out. (Just kidding. The actual saying, for those who may not have heard it, is "Keep coming back."-- ct)

January 2010 Creative Getaway

What? You want more advice?



Cary Tennis

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