I Went to AA and It Was OK, I Guess

I’ve been sober since June 23rd. Congratulations would be premature; I’ve quit drinking a few times in the past only to go back to it. This may be the longest time I’ve been sober, though. I hope I never drink again, because then I’ll just have to quit again, and that gets boring after a while.
a cup of coffee
Two weeks after quitting this last time, I went to my first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting at a fancy church a couple of miles from my house. I followed others to an upstairs room, the kind of place where church members hold board meetings and Bible studies. In fact, most of the thirty or so people there looked like church people I had known in the past: mostly middle-aged or older, white, and nicely dressed. After helping myself to some bad coffee, I sat in a corner.

A man stood up and read a long AA creed with gusto, and then we all said the Lord’s Prayer. The leader of the group, a soft-spoken tattooed and pierced blonde woman of about thirty, asked if anyone had been on an “adventure” since their last meeting, which struck me as an oddly positive way to refer to a relapse. No one had. When she asked if it was anyone’s first meeting, I raised my hand.

Excitement rippled through the group, as if they had just noticed a sparkly unicorn in the corner, or at very least, an adorably tiny pony. “Whether you’re here by court order, or for whatever reason, we’re so glad you’re here,” the leader said. A half dozen women ushered me into a separate room for an introductory session.

Each of them took turns telling me her story. All of them had either grown up with an alcoholic parent or been in a long-term relationship with an alcoholic or addict. One had gotten two DUIs. Others had lost jobs or marriages to drinking. (Another had met her husband at AA, though. I don’t think dating is encouraged, and I bet it happens all the time.)

My own story was less interesting. My parents didn’t drink, and neither does my husband. I never got behind the wheel or went to work drunk. I just had most of a bottle of wine after work, wasted time online, and went to bed too early. In the past, I had dealt with suicidal depression that alcohol only exacerbated. A psychiatrist had told me to quit for good, and I had started again. I feared that one night, after one too many glasses, I might have a sudden relapse and off myself.

One woman recommended going to 90 meetings in 90 days. I knew immediately that I wouldn’t attempt this. I appreciated them giving me their names and numbers, though, so I could call them about any kind of trouble. They were all nice, intelligent, and funny. I did come back next week for the regular meeting, and for several ones after that.

At every gathering, whoever was leading read some kind of meditation or passage from a book, and then everyone took turns introducing themselves (“Hi, I’m Steve and I’m an alcoholic.” “Hi, Steve!”) and talking about how the passage applied to them. If you didn’t want to talk, you could say, “I’m just going to listen.” Once I figured that out, I mostly listened.

Many people talked about how they had struggled with the concept of a “Higher Power,” since they were not religious. I believed in God, in my own transcendentalist way, but the language of giving up and surrender didn’t work for me. I wasn’t powerless over alcohol; I was kicking alcohol’s ass! I began to wish there were an alternative to AA, where they didn’t tell you that you were powerless and God would have to do it for you, but rather that you were more powerful than you knew and God would help you besides.

I said once that I didn’t agree with everything I heard, but that I was trying to keep an open mind. People seemed to feel I would need to agree with everything eventually. I’ve never agreed with everything anywhere – church, school, work, you name it.

We ended meetings by all holding hands and reciting the Serenity Prayer, a prayer I did not like. Right after “amen,” everyone would bounce their clasped hands up and down and chant, “Keep coming back, it works when you work it!” One person said to me once after this group cheer, “I know that seems really cheesy. It seemed cheesy to me at first.” But AA had obviously helped thousands, maybe millions of people, so I wasn’t judging that. A lot of cheesy things had helped with my depression.

My cravings for alcohol were the worst during the first couple of months, and they would come along very suddenly: “La la la it’s a beautiful day FUUUUUCK IF I DON’T GET SOME WINE RIGHT THIS SECOND I’M GOING TO DIIIIIE.” I learned that these urges, no matter how severe, did not last.

During that time, everyone around me seemed to be drinking nonstop. On Pinterest: “Bourbon chocolate milkshake OH MY GOD SO GOOD.” On tumblr: “It’s Wine Wednesday, everybody!” At work: “Since you give so much to United Way, we’d like to treat you to a free cocktail party!” And, “Your book is about to come out, isn’t it? We should have a happy hour to celebrate!” But I hung in there.

Quitting did not make everything in my life perfect, which really disappointed me. I did not lose weight; I gained some, in fact. I did not become the productive superwoman I had imagined I would be. Still, my moods were less volatile, and I enjoyed waking up in the morning not regretting what I had imbibed the night before.

As it started to get easier, I became less motivated to go to the AA meetings. One night a visitor from another AA group, a well-groomed young woman who appeared to be wearing no pants, stood up when it was her turn to speak. She delivered a long monologue with big arm gestures. “And I ask myself…what am I? Who am I?” The meetings lasted exactly one hour, and as she went on and on, I was annoyed that there wouldn’t be enough time left for everyone to talk. I told myself maybe she couldn’t help it.

The man who spoke next told her, “I really appreciate your honesty. Some people come in here and act like everything’s fine, and it’s bullshit.”

That stung me. I had just spoken before her about how everything was going pretty well, and I hadn’t been pretending. I was just a boring lady with pants trying to make sure she never went crazy again, and that was valid, too.

Since that meeting, I haven’t returned to AA, though I suppose I might someday. The people in my group were mostly very supportive, and when I was first trying to quit, it helped that I felt a little accountable to them. A couple of times, I had a strong urge to drink before the meeting, and that urge had been squashed by the time the meeting was over.

I wouldn’t recommend Alcoholics Anonymous to people who are borderline alcoholics with a strong support system and an aversion to dogma. If you are a very heavy drinker and you don’t have family members or friends to support you in sobriety, however, it could be just what you need.

By Bryn Donovan

Romance writer, poet, quilter, and dog cuddler.

12 replies on “I Went to AA and It Was OK, I Guess”

Hi – thanks for sharing your experience. I do have friends and relatives who have found AA and Al-Anon very helpful, and sometimes it’s a matter of finding the right group. But I also understand how you feel – I went to some Al-Anon meetings and found the God emphasis offputting, especially because I’m Jewish and one meeting I went to used all Christian based prayers and references. However, my husband is a substance-abuse counselor and firm believer in 12-step, and he says you can define God as yourself, as whatever you want, just the thing that helps you. (Living with someone in this business, we talk about addiction a lot, and there’s a lot of drinking in many families – but he also sees a difference between true addiction and abuse and over-use; people who aren’t really addicted may not need the more intense approach of 12-step. But the support and community can be great. They helped my aunt stay sober through the death of my dad and her husband (brothers) within 2 months. So I hope people won’t give up on the whole idea.

I couldn’t do it either. My dad was an alcoholic and I went through a couple of drinking/using phases in my life, but I wouldn’t consider myself an alcoholic. Still, I screwed up and got a DUI in my 20s so I had to go to AA for a few months. (For me, drinking wasn’t the cause of my problems, it was a symptom.)

The “higher power” and “powerlessness” were an issue for me as well. I’d spent so many years trying to gain control of my own life, the last thing I wanted to do was turn it over. Feeling powerless was what made me drink to begin with. And the prayers and the chanting or catch phrases or whatever, they really did seem cheesy. There were just some aspects of it that felt very cult-ish to me. But, like you said, I’m glad it’s worked for so many other people.

There’s another group out there that’s similar to AA but they believe in learning how to drink in moderation rather than complete abstinence. I don’t know if this is the same one I ran across years ago but a quick Google search pulled up this:

I know a number of people who have had similar experiences with AA. I know it has absolutely helped many, many people, but I think it’s also a method that doesn’t fit with a lot of people’s lives these days. There are a number of alternatives to AA, but most people I know who are working toward sobriety end up doing so on their own, which I think relies on having people around you who you can be accountable to. I think the most practical advantage to AA is the accountability, but it’s definitely not a system that works for everyone.

Thanks so much for sharing your story – and all the kudos in the world to you for quitting – it certainly isn’t easy in a society that is entrenched with social drinking.

I’ve had very similar feelings as someone who has gone to Al-Anon meetings and have also wished for an alternative. I’m an atheist but even still “I wasn’t powerless over alcohol; I was kicking alcohol’s ass! I began to wish there were an alternative to AA, where they didn’t tell you that you were powerless and God would have to do it for you, but rather that you were more powerful than you knew and God would help you besides.” rings very true for me.

I’m happy AA has helped so many but I think it’s also important to know that it’s not for everyone and there are other ways to get support. I wish it were more malleable rather than absolutist in it’s views on how to stay sober.

20 or so years ago, I had a short stint in rehab, due to my parents overreacting to finding some pot in my room. I had to go to AA meetings, and while I can see how they work for some people, I found the constant rhetoric of “you’re sick, you’re always going to be sick, and if you relapse, you’ll die” to be counterproductive. It felt like perpetual victimhood. Maybe if you’re in serious trouble, that will resonate with you. But I resented being told that no matter what anyone did, they had no control and would always be a sick victim to their disease. It seemed counterproductive, and I always though it would be better to say “you are stronger than you know, and you can beat this.” But I’m not an addict, nor was I back then, so maybe there was something in it I just didn’t understand.

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