Dry Wit: Getting With the Program

So, I don’t know how many of you are recovering alcoholics (you saucy wenches) and I don’t know how many of you are living or dealing with a recovering alcoholic (seriously, I’m sorry about that), but it kind of seemed that the moment I mentioned to close friends that I was quitting drinking and working on recovery and building coping mechanisms that weren’t tragically hurtful, they all seemed to assume that I was going to join Alcoholics Anonymous.

And, I have to be honest, I wasn’t stoked on the idea. And by “not stoked,” I mean I had created a horror-show image in my mind of what AA stood for and you couldn’t have paid me to go there unless the payment was David Tennant Kisses. (Laminated List, Mr. Bruiseday. Be cool, baby.)

did know that, as a deeply sensitive type-A child of two parents with varying degrees of OCD, I needed a recovery program of some sort for the structure alone. Ruby without structure is like a Tupperware cabinet in which none of the lids match the bottoms: a confusing jumble of frustration and WTFery. I needed to have other recovering alcoholics as resources – though I didn’t care much if I met in a church basement with them or if I could just send them an email or something when I needed support. And I needed a good success rate with the program; I needed to know that it worked for a statistically significant percentage of its users (both because I am a nerd and because I needed to know that if for some reason it wasn’t working, it was because it was me and my efforts and the way I was doing something, and not because I’d unintentionally joined a cult that would only assist sobriety if you were willing to shave your head and worship Elmo). But looking at AA left me dry.

AA rubbed me the wrong way for a number of reasons: for one, the insistence upon leaning on a higher power. I’m not an atheist, but I don’t know what I am exactly, and the whole God-sphere of my life is too fraught for me to look at and feel like I can rely on the idea of a higher power when I’m struggling with temptation or self-doubt. I’m not sure if I believe that a higher power is benevolent, or reliable, or where I should be looking for strength in sobriety. So that was problematic for me. I didn’t need any more uncertainty in my recovery than I was already dealing with.

Another problem I was having with what I knew of AA was how, for lack of a better word, hardcore they seemed. It’s not the hardcore-ness about drinking itself that bothered me – like I said, I need structure, and I wasn’t about to join some program that preached the good gospel of moderation. Obviously I fail at moderation. I have two drinking speeds: abstinent and shitfaced.

But AA isn’t just hardcore about abstinence; they’re hardcore about participating in every step of their program, the way they dictate, and with no room for improvisation or personal differences, and that made me nervous. What if I got to some step that made me uncomfortable, like the part where they make amends and I didn’t feel like I was ready for that? Or what if I couldn’t find an AA group that worked with my schedule, or couldn’t find a sponsor I liked in a group that worked with my schedule? What I read about the group implied that they would consider you to be not taking your recovery seriously if I didn’t do everything they said when and how they said it, and that worried me. And what about the lower success rates women had with the program than men? And what about the reports – extreme, I know, but still – I read on the Internet of AA meetings in which new members were greeted with platitudes like, “If you still own the watch on your wrist, you’re not a real alcoholic.” They focus a lot on the alcoholic who has hit rock bottom, and I didn’t. I was lucky enough to seek help earlier than that.

Like, here’s the thing. I’m 26 years old. I’m relatively young (statistically speaking) to recognize my problem with alcohol and seek a program to maintain sobriety. A lot of people sink a lot deeper into really bad alcoholic choices and do a lot more damage than I have had time to do. I’m not saying in any way that I’m better than them – they just have more years on me, and had more time to lose the things that were important to them. But I don’t need to show up at some program where my lack of time spend paying my dues to the god of vodka breath and hangovers is somehow held against me, like I wasn’t hardcore enough to need help.

What I saw in AA, when I boiled it down, was a program that often (not always, obviously, but at least if you did it by the book) operated in extremes. Things seemed very black-and-white with the adherents of AA, and unfortunately, I felt like much of my black-and-white thinking in the past had contributed to my problem drinking. There are places in my life where I think extremes are fine: I think Mindy Kaling is extremely funny, like a comedy extremist, and I admire that. I am extreme in my love for chocolate. I am extreme in my beliefs about women’s rights and fighting against rape culture. But I also know that human beings are organic and require flexibility in order to grow, learn, or mature. I knew that as much as I needed structure, I also needed to be able to feel my way through a program, sometimes learning from mistakes, in order to find something that worked for me. I knew that cookie-cutter prescriptions for living a better life had never worked for me before, and from those experiences I had developed a willful and sometimes spiteful disregard for supposed-authority. I needed partners in sobriety, not dictators.

I feel like I’ve found that in Women For Sobriety. It’s a program that teaches self-reliance and empowerment, not the value of the group and how powerless you are. It’s a program that says, Look, you have to close the door on drinking, because you are magnificent, but you on two bottles of Malbec is not. It says, wake up every morning and meditate on these truths. It says, embrace the happy and positive life you and all people deserve, which you can only do while sober.

I’m glad I’ve found it. I resent the implication that because I didn’t take the road most popularly taken that I’m somehow not taking my sobriety seriously. I haven’t been this serious about anything since – well, since ever.

Normally, I’ll try to focus on the humor inherent in trying to get sober, but this was a post I had to take to heart. Sometimes, sobriety is a sober discussion.

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Meghan Young Krogh

Meghan had a number of quality writing mentors over the course of her education, which just goes to show that you can't blame the teacher for the way the student turns out. Team Oxford Comma represent.

14 thoughts on “Dry Wit: Getting With the Program”

  1. Good luck and congratulations on your decision! My big brother has been sober since August 2002 when he was 22 years old. AA has been great for him and I know other people (including some non-religious uber-feminists) who have had great success with the program, but a lot of it has to do with finding a group you’re comfortable with. For you, that group is in a different program and that’s cool. I will say, the Big Book is really interesting reading even if you’re not doing the program. I’ve found it fascinating to read on a personal level.

    You mentioned the steps, particularly making amends. My brother explained it as going through the steps at whatever pace was right for you. Some people go through some steps quickly, others not so much. I will say that the amends step was vital to repairing the damage to our sibling relationship. I consider him not just a brother, but a good friend now and a lot of that is because he not only apologized but made a point of trying to show that he realized how awful he’d been and that he was trying to change into a good brother. Even if your program doesn’t have that aspect, consider it. As the sober sister, it meant the world to me.

  2. I really appreciate this post. I have several relatives in AA who have been sober for decades, and a friend who has just begun. Because I drink and I am aware of my family history of alcoholism, I’m sensitive to the signs of a serious problem and I monitor myself to make sure that my lifestyle remains healthy. I’ve seen how slowly and quietly moderation can slip into loss of control. It’s more difficult to assess yourself when you’re young, because the usual symptoms don’t really apply. If you don’t have a career, spouse, or kids, it seems like you have “less to lose.” I’m impressed that you’ve made this decision early in your life– it’s so easy to assume that heavy drinking is normal in your 20s.

    I have often considered what I would do if I recognized signs of a problem. The reasons I’m skeptical about my potential success in AA are similar to yours. Most of my knowledge about AA comes from a pretty basic understanding of the 12 steps and the higher power aspect. All those would make me reluctant to join.

    I think it’s wise to know about my possible choices before a real problem ever arises, so that I could make more informed decision during such a difficult period. It’s sad that I am so intimately familiar with the options for unplanned pregnancy, for instance, yet I don’t know much about alcoholism except AA.

    I appreciate reading the details of your thought process while you make this decision and I you feel that you can share more as you progress. I’ve heard a lot of AA stories and it would be interesting to hear more about a different program.

  3. Good luck to you, Ruby!

    I think AA is hardcore because that works with intractable addictions. It replaces a harmful addiction (alcohol) with a benign addiction (AA and all its rules). If you are just a heavy drinker, not a skid-row drinker, it may be too much. I have known addicts who followed AA like a religion. The program saved their lives and they were clean for many many years.

  4. Best wishes as you pursue this and good for you for recognising a problem and doing so. :-)
    I was wondering, does women for sobriety have an organization for children of alchohalics? One of my besties is the daughter of alchohalic parents and tried al-anon/AA in university but found the religious component difficult to her atheist self. Religion/faith should be a choice, not something that people are manipulated into during a really rough time in their lives.

    1. You know, I’m not aware of an organization for children of alcoholics from WFS, but I do think that reading the WFS program literature could help your friend both with understanding the motivations for drinking and challenges with quitting (or failing to quit) her parents have gone through (it speaks from a perspective of compassion but bluntness, which I appreciate personally), as well as possibly picking up some tools and resources for herself to start working through the difficulties she has encountered within herself as a result of her upbringing and parentage. I feel like even though a lot of the WFS literature is aimed at alcoholic women, the emphasis on taking responsibility for your own feelings, working through hurt other people have caused you, and leaving the past behind to learn from it and move forward.

      That said, I know AA does have a pretty remarkable program – it’s possible that my friend federov might have some more helpful information about Al-Anon – and I would imagine that your friend could do some mental editing and make that program work for her. If she’s still uncomfortable with that, which I perfectly respect and understand, she might want to look into some basic counseling services, perhaps with someone who has experience working with others who grew up in similar circumstances, or even someone who has counseled others through their own addictive diseases.

      Another thing that might be helpful is to maybe look into a combination of Al-Anon (for the group support and for the wisdom that program can provide) and WFS (for the inclusive-of-Atheists aspect) and see if she can’t kind of build her own recovery and healing from a mish-mash of what works best for her. Many WFS participants (the alcoholics, that is) attend AA meetings as well, so I would imagine she could essentially fill in the gaps that she feels are missing for her with Al-Anon with the WFS philosophies and see if something doesn’t materialize.

      I do think seeing a counselor would be really beneficial for her, though. Having seen my own drinking wreak some serious damage on others, as well as on myself, I know there are some hurts too big to just deal with on your own. My thanks to you for being a good friend to her and looking for possible resources to help her, and my best wishes to her for a positive experience and supportive framework of people and meditations in her future.

  5. And I apologize if my comment sounded harsh. I do really wish you the best in sobriety.

    But I disagree with a lot of this post nonetheless. Not because anyone’s personal experience is wrong, but because I don’t think anyone’s personal experience can be accurately extrapolated into these type of generalizations.

    1. I disagree with a lot of the post as well, in that I’ve known many people who have had gentler, more supportive experiences with AA that what Ruby described here. However, Ruby’s point is that she heard a number of horror stories about AA that scared the bejeezus out of her, so she found an alternative. If the tone is defensive, I think it’s a reaction to people telling her that she isn’t serious because she won’t get with The AA Program.

      As always, we love to hear the flip-side of the coin. If you or someone you know would be willing to write about their positive experiences with AA we would be happy to run the story.

    2. Hello, lovely federov. I don’t think your comment was harsh – strongly worded, yes, but I welcome and celebrate that. I am really grateful for the opportunity for this to continue as a discussion and not just some grand pronouncement of my opinions. An article is supposed to be a jumping off point – and you’ve jumped it off grandly, and I’m glad.

      As a couple of other people mentioned that they had interpreted, my intention was to reflect what I had learned before joining any program, and to describe why specifically I had not joined the most popular and well-known organization for sobriety: because that is and has been the only question posed to me about my sobriety since I got sober from people in my day-to-day life. SaraB is correct in that my defensive tone is a direct response to the accusation commonly leveled against me (and other alcoholics who choose a different route) that choosing anything other than AA is equivalent to not really taking my sobriety seriously. I didn’t focus on the positive because the question has never been phrased positively: people simply don’t ask, “Oh, a different program than the one I’ve heard of/had good experiences with – lovely! Why did you choose it?” They’ve asked: “NOT AA? Why NOT AA specifically? Cause if you’re just not WILLING to participate in the steps, maybe you need to examine your commitment to sobriety!” Many of these people asking the questions, by the way, are not alcoholics – and I think that’s telling. So part of the place I wrote out of here is frustration. But I think that it’s okay to write out of a place of frustration.

      You raise a really valid point in that I didn’t take the time I really ought to have taken to issue the caveat that, though what I personally had heard about AA from people who had used the program, and what I read about AA from that organization myself, made me feel like that wasn’t the program for me, I also knew that there were many people who benefited from AA and really felt like they had found their right match in that program, and I couldn’t be more delighted for them. This article was extremely one-sided because it represented what I personally read about the program – filtered through the sieve of my own personal preferences and needs.

      However, I don’t feel like I am being well represented when you accuse me of making sweeping statements about other people or claim that I have generalized about the program – I feel that I was quite clear about mentioning that items straight out of the program literature – like reliance on a Higher Power – was something that just wasn’t for me personally, and that the other things were stories I had heard from AA members and were even in some cases things that sounded extreme to me. I endeavored to be clear that I made my decision based on what I could learn before entering any program. I adopted a negative tone and definitely could have phrased some things better to put fewer people on the defensive. I would, in fact, love to hear perspectives from people who had a positive experience with AA, because I find successful recovery from alcoholism really encouraging in any format. I think the main point I was trying to make when I wrote here, though, is that the assumption that successful recovery must include AA is a false assumption: successful recovery from alcoholism should be continued sobriety and a replacing of bad coping mechanisms (like drinking) with good ones – if the good ones you choose are the 12 Steps, more power to you, but I knew I couldn’t walk those steps myself, and I didn’t think it fair that somehow that invalidated my choice not to drink and to learn healthier means of coping with depression, anxiety, and any other issue. My argument was against the AA And Only AA argument, not against AA in its entirety, and not – definitely not – against the people who use AA.

      I think perhaps the most important thing I hope is understood here is that I am not writing prescriptively. I’m not trying to teach other people how to get sober – I’ve been sober barely over a month and I am not the authority. I am trying to share – honestly – my experiences as I work toward sustained sobriety, and I felt this week that that would mean defending a decision I made that is often questioned. When I chose the program I did, I was aware that in the broader culture that surrounds drinking and sobriety, I wasn’t just choosing one of many “acceptable” recovery programs. I was simultaneously making a positive choice – choosing for WFS – and a negative one – choosing against AA. That is more a testament to the widespread knowledge of AA as a recovery program than anything else. Most people can’t even name another program. AA has done an amazing job reaching a lot of other people.

      I think that the fact that people in and around AA defend it so staunchly is an excellent testament to its effectiveness and validity – it has obviously worked for a lot of people. But it has also, I would think as obviously, NOT worked for a lot of people. And the “not working” is usually around negative experiences OR different needs than AA addresses. The complaints against AA I mention I brought up specifically because I felt they were safe to bring up – the extreme attitudes, the All or Nothing approach to the program, the reliance on higher power – these are features of AA that are widely and frequently enough reported that they did seem to be common (if not universal) experiences within the program. I don’t think it’s unfair to make a generalization about something that happens often enough that it becomes a pattern and a recognized feature of a program. I don’t think that means that those experiences are universal, but I do think it happens often enough that it’s a little unfair to behave as though that’s an uncommon experience within AA. It’s common enough that I think it’s a valid argument. The Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment ran a study back in 1994 (I know, old) that included the top 10 reasons women participants gave for specifically Not attending AA. 18% said that AA is too negative; 10% referred to AA’s authoritarianism and rigidity, claiming that they couldn’t question the program’s philosophy. 14% cited the negative stories and “grandstanding” they found in the program. So, the arguments I made for my personal choice were indeed based on generalizations – but they are statistically relevant generalizations. (You can see a summary of the study comparing AA to WFS here: http://www.ajpip.com/addictions/attendance_statistics.htm). None of which is to say “AA is bad and WFS is good,” only to say “these aspects that are widely enough reported about AA to validate a study on the reported reasons for choosing for or against a sobriety program are reasons that I identify with for choosing not to utilize AA as a resource.” As I understand it, many women in WFS use both programs – though how they reconcile some of the disparities in philosophy seems a little tricky to me. (AA teaches that we are powerless in the face of our addiction, WFS teaches empowerment and self-reliance, etc. That’s not a generalization: that’s the wording used in the first step.) Anyway, I realize I didn’t do a fine job presenting both sides of the story, primarily because that wasn’t my goal. I was representing (defensively) my side of the story. If I’ve been unfair to AA (which I honestly don’t think I have, though I know the experiences I’ve laid out are not representative of the whole), I apologize. I wasn’t trying to represent the entirety of experiences with AA, positive and negative. I was trying to represent the statistically significant share of experiences with AA that comprised ideas I personally don’t prefer as an illustration of some of the reasons I chose a different program.

      I wanted mostly to thank you for being so respectful in your response. I hope I’ve conveyed the same respect, because I really do have it in spades for you – and for the people who are working honestly toward their sobriety, in any program. I’d be so glad and delighted to hear of people who have worked AA and found that the program was flexible with their individual needs, philosophical differences, and varying degrees of “rock bottomness.” I think that sharing those stories would be really encouraging not only to people like me, who’ve heard perhaps a disparate number of negative stories, but also to people who have had those unflexible experiences, to learn that not every group operates the way that they experienced the program. Thanks again, very, very much, for sharing your thoughts with me.

      1. Thanks for your response and for your willingness to engage on this subject.

        I definitely understand where you’re coming from in that AA is often represented as a default healthy lifestyle.

        Where I started to wince is when you used words like “hardcore” and “dictator” to describe people in AA without representing any other perspective, or acknowledging the limitations of your own perceptions. A lot of things you have taken for granted as being TRUE about AA are, in fact, more a matter of personal opinion.

        I also feel like your emphasis on statistics and women not being able to thrive in AA erases me and a lot of very wonderful people I know. For me, recovery isn’t about majority rule, or statistical significance. It’s idiosyncratic and personal – nothing has to (or can) work for everyone. Just because a program works for 95% of people or doesn’t work for 20% or whatever doesn’t mean it can’t/won’t work for one individual.

        Ultimately, this isn’t about mis-representing AA or what have you. It’s not my job to be the PR person for AA and I wouldn’t presume to speak for anyone other than myself. But I think you craft a characterization of AA through this post that is, at times, really exclusive and offputting.

        I responded from a personal place – not because I want to argue you into feeling differently, but because I feel like there is another perspective that’s not represented here. I’m also extremely wary of any characterization of ANY program that would discourage someone who needs help from getting it – because they feel like AA is too “hardcore” after all, or WFS is wrong for not being 12-step, whatever the case may be.

        Again, thanks for the discussion and I’m really glad that you’ve found a program that works for you.

  6. I’m not sure what your personal experience with AA is, but you make a lot of generalizations with seemingly little or no firsthand experience here.

    If AA isn’t for you, whatev. Alcoholism is hard enough without forcing yourself to conform to a program that doesn’t work. But why not then write about the program you ARE participating in and DO have experience with?

    I don’t understand the need to make sweeping negative statements about other people trying to get sober in order to prop up your own choices.

    1. I don’t think she was generalizing the people in the program, just discussing the reasons that particular program wasn’t right for her. Lots of people, especially of my generation or younger, have similar issues with AA: the focus on a “higher power,” the “rock bottom” thing, the hardline stance on everything. I don’t doubt Ruby’s aware that AA has helped a huge number of people with their sobriety; it just isn’t right for her. And there is a pretty common sentiment that if you aren’t “working the program,” with the only acceptable program being AA, you aren’t serious about your recovery.

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