Thanks for all the fish

Last Friday I went to a truly depressing recovery meeting. Usually it’s like happy hour without all the slurring. Last Friday, though, one guy raised his hand when the speaker asked “Did anyone want to drink today?” and shared how he’d been in and out of the program for the last 17 years. He’d known the speaker from their early days in recovery, but sadly only one of them had maintained 17 years of continuous sobriety.

Another member raised his hand to share how he’d been struggling with thoughts of suicide. Memories of riding home from the psych ward one year prior triggered these feelings of hopelessness, which he shared with the group because he likely had no other system of seemingly unconditional support. He also had 17 years of sobriety, but he did not have the coveted serenity.

I sat next to my sponsor at the meeting, and afterwards she told me stuff like that is never helpful to share at meetings. “How does that help a newcomer to hear someone’s been sober 17 years and still struggling?” she said. I’m not really a newcomer anymore, but it just seemed to me that the first guy was a chronic relapser and the second was mentally ill. It wasn’t an uplifting meeting, but it felt real and didn’t make me want to drink.

I’m feeling a rift right now. It feels too black and white in these instances. On the rare occasion when I do share at a meeting, I think carefully about what I’m going to say and keep my message vague but positive. But I have no issue with those who don’t and who seek support or possibly just attention at meetings. Meetings, afterall, are a sampling of personalities and problems. We can’t all be in a state of sober bliss.

I’m struggling with this now because I’m coming up on nine months and I don’t know if I see a future in the program. I’ve been asked to read a passage and share briefly at a meeting later this month. I’ve also been asked to share my story as a newcomer at another meeting. I’m nervous as hell about both because I fear public speaking more than death, but I am also honored. I will keep my message positive and focus on how the program helped me. Because, honestly? I do not believe I would still be sober without it.

Meetings showed me that I was not alone in the maddening inability to drink moderately. People who had been around awhile gave me hope that my life too would get better, which it already has in relatively short time. At meetings, I closed my eyes and took in the church-like smell of the room and felt completely safe and free from shame. I couldn’t have found this peace on my own anywhere near as powerfully. It was a gift I truly am grateful for.

But I never thought I’d have to go to meetings forever. Lots of people share they thought they could go to a handful of meetings and learn how to drink normally. I never thought or wanted that, but I sure didn’t know I’d be expected to to go meetings forever in order to stay sober. I stopped drinking and then got to a meeting because I thought “I need help to stay this way.” And I did get help. And now I think “meetings until I die? really?

I don’t ever see myself as a meeting-a-day person. I’m tired of hearing “meeting makers make it” because I happen to know they don’t all make it. I also know some people drop out of meetings and stay sober without them. And some drop out and go back to drinking. There are no guarantees, though statistically I probably have a better chance staying sober if I go to meetings. But how do I reconcile the disdain for grey in a program that seems to only have room for black and white? I hate black and white.

I don’t have any plans to stop going to meetings, by the way. I’ll go to one this weekend and I’ll hit my home group meeting as usual next week. Two meetings a week is easy to make. And maybe posting this is reckless and I should have just kept my feelings to myself because I do not think this would be helpful to a newcomer. I do have some responsibility to pay it back, as it was given freely to me in a time when I needed it. But I’ll never be a good poster child for the 12-step way. I’ll always question why a person needs to go forever. I don’t believe my first priority in life is my sobriety because that implies that meetings are more important than family or work or even leisure time. I need to stay sober to be able to do all those things, but what about those of us that take a base and build on it outside of meetings? Isn’t God everywhere?

There haven’t been reliable studies on attrition rates for those who get sober in traditional 12-step recovery meetings. I happened to start going to meetings when the program was conducting a survey. I filled in the little circle marking that I’d been going to meetings for less than a month, but I haven’t seen a survey like that since. Even if they tracked such data monthly, it wouldn’t be a fair measure since quite a few who go to meetings aren’t going willingly. A big component of success in any program of change is willingness. Critics say that only 5% remain sober after a year, but that sounds insultingly low. This implies that 95% of those who go to one meeting are back to drinking their faces off within a year, but I think it’s more likely that those who want help get what they need and take off.

This begs the final question of why I’m so afraid to stick around. If the cut and dry and black and white irritates me, can I not handle that? Am I afraid of being brainwashed so that one day I find myself stifling others so they don’t scare off newcomers? Am I so fragile or full of ego that I can’t stick around long enough to help someone else? Because if I leave the program, I won’t be there for a newcomer. It’s also true that if every newcomer kept going to meetings for the rest of their lives, there wouldn’t be any free seats for newcomers!

Just something I’m struggling with at the moment. I share here because I can’t bring this up at a meeting or to my sponsor. And that bothers me.

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11 thoughts on “Thanks for all the fish

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  1. I appreciate the point that someone sharing stuff like that can potentially not help a newcomer – however what does that bit in the big book say about the programme … oh yes… “demands rigorous honesty”. Once I was in a meeting that was described as “front line AA” – i.e. not the middle class, nobody has drunk for years – this meeting (I was secretary at the time) regularly had street and hostel drinkers who were still drinking but they were welcome. Some made it but sadly some didn’t.

    Anyway one guy (a visitor) cut across some sharing from one of these guys who was in the hostel (a very grim place, for a while the meeting had been held in there) and said “I’ve been sober x years and never had a bad day since I put the drink down”… an oldtimer at that meeting who did have 20 years in simply shared back “If you care to walk outside with me now I’ll give you the first bad day then”…

    His point is – if someone is struggling everyone else in the group pretending their life has transformed into a rosy serene experience is the last thing they need. Saying “I had that problem” – I’ve felt like that in the past when x happened but it passed etc. is more helpful.

    The meetings I regularly attend have all forms of sharing, good, bad, indifferent, funny, sad, tears, laughter, frustration, anger – that is life, sober life. There are meetings near me where the emphasis is on positive only sharing and I’m sorry but if I’m 8 days, 8 month, 8 years or 80 years sober and something has disturbed my equilibrium so that I am concerned that it may be the beginning of the road back to drink I want to share it I want others to know, those that share that “fellowship of pain and suffering”. That is when I need to meetings more than ever and the friend in AA.

    That is purely my point of view and position on it – and yes I watch some come in and there is a cycle and I’m sure much of it is about attention seeking from others and they need that attention at times… it is old manipulative behaviour – I used to do it all the time… “poor me, poor me, pour me another drink” that is a useful motto I repeated to myself when I needed to. I don’t do it so much now… and please don’t think I don’t have private conversations about the bad stuff with others close to me but at times getting others perspective on it is important as is letting others know who might be sitting there with the same feeling. I still walk away from those meetings with the thought “I’ve still not drunk on it…”

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  2. Thanks for this, Graham. What I’m starting to suspect is that my sponsor’s not a good fit. I picked her, but there are things that bother me that are maybe more what drove me to write this post. I’ll keep that rigorous honesty to myself, though haha.

    Definitely agreed that the bad stuff is best for private conversations, but not everyone works that way and I love that about meetings. AA should be unconditionally supportive, yet it feels stifling the more involved I get. I will keep going while I mull all this over.

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    1. The owner of any sponsorship relationship in AA is the sponsee – never the sponsor. Sponsor is in Living Sober and 12+12 but actually never in the main original big book. If you see someone who fits better move – if your current sponsor doesn’t like it, I’m afraid that is her fault not yours. I sadly have to say I watch some relationships where the ego of the sponsor worries me. In fact I no longer “officially” sponsor people, I’ll talk, guide, help etc. but I really worry about the cult of sponsorship in AA – it is a fellowship for good reason. Early on someone showed me the value of the wisdom of the group not relying on myself or another human being to stop me drinking – but God as expressed through the group conscience now that is of incomparable value to me.

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      1. She’s a lovely person, really. I think maybe just not the best fit for me at this point. I’m going to think it over and feel confident the right decision will come to me. I do appreciate your words here.

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  3. You may be like me and not a very good ‘joiner’. Hard for me to comment as I’m not doing AA but I would imagine that even die hard AA people would say living sober without the programme is better than drinking. I mean, being sober is all that matters, not being tied to groups & meetings. For many many people AA is absolutely the glorious reason they became and stayed sober, for others (like me) they can do it alone. It’s a great way but it’s not the only way. Don’t waste emotional energy on worrying about dynamics and inappropriate sharing and unsuitable sponsors when you should be spending that emotional energy thinking about your relationships, your inner voices and strength and working on building up the things that make you happy. Whatever you decide (to stay in AA or go it alone) you strike me as a strong, honest, vibrant woman so I know you’ll be just fine! Take care xxx (P.S. read Jane Lynch’s biography, from Glee, she left AA after a time and stayed sober, had a good way of describing her reasons for leaving.)

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    1. I’ll check out that book. Thanks for the recommendation.

      Some diehards call those who get sober on their own “dry drunks” which is insulting and judgmental. How arrogant to assume my way is the only way that works, ya know? Totally agree that we should support those in sobriety and accept that different things work for different people. That’s why I love the sober blogging community.

      Thanks for weighing in, especially your comment about focusing emotional energy around the positives in my life…absolutely love this.

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  4. Love this honest post!

    For me, I have to work to remain grateful, especially when things don’t “feel” or “seem” as good as I think they ought to be.

    I have to be careful at meetings not to judge my insides by the outsides I am presented with from other AA attendees. Self honesty is key here, and sometimes the best I’ve been able to take from a meeting is “thank God that’s not me, I will pray for this person.” (and, that’s a damn sight better than how I used to think before AA, lol)

    I’ve been coming around AA for 16 years, and all I know is that AA gave me the tools I needed to find balance, stay sober, meet my HP, develop a faith, develop some serenity, find a happy medium through life’s challlenges, and develop and unshakable (although often dented lol) faith that “it” will be ok no matter what.

    Life isn’t perfect, niether is AA or the people who attend. All I can really affect is myself and this day. Everything else is fairly well out of reach for me. So I try (and fail lol) to focus on the day before me, do my best to follow what I think is HP’s will for me, and try to accept the outcome. When I live this way, my life amazes me!

    I’m glad you took the time to post, and get this stuff out where you can see it, rather than keeping it all inside!

    Be well!

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  5. I’ve been struggling with these things too! So funny. I want the honest, open sharing. To me, it’s irrelevant whether I have one day or one year of sober time. I think being truthful and honest is the point of the program. I’ve met people who claim never to have had a bad day since getting sober, which always made me feel like a failure for having a bad day. The notion of altering comments because “it’s not helpful to a newcomer” implies we actually KNOW what a specific newcomer needs. That is a crock. We can never control outcomes – I think honest and open sharing is all we can do.

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  6. Hi, saw your blog listed on Jen’s Step on a Crack blog and came to check it out. I love your honest and self-searching sharing.

    I recovered a few years ago with the program of AA, but outside of the fellowship and without an official ‘sponsor’. There is absolutely no requirement to attend meetings for the rest of one’s life. I stopped going to meetings shortly after my ‘awakening’ (I prefer ‘paradigm shift’) when I discovered that honestly sharing my experience, strength and hope was more disruptive than helpful. Or I should say, the reactions of others in the rooms to my shares were disruptive.

    Since then, I’ve discovered that there are many people who recover using the 12 Steps who no longer attend meetings. Our debt can be paid forward quite as easily outside the rooms as inside–all we need to pass it on is another drunk who still suffers. And there are far more drunks outside than inside. It has never been difficult for me to find folks ‘in real life’ who want to hear my story. And a blog such as yours or mine reaches countless more via cyberspace than we could ever meet face to face.

    As far as why you seem to be “afraid to stick around,” no one knows the answer to that except you. As with all the other important questions, the answers are inside of us. My answers will not necessarily be someone elses. Each one of us has to look inside ourselves to find our own. And the 12 Steps are an elegant way to conduct the search.

    I’m glad I found your blog. Keep posting! And there were a lot of exceptional comments to this post before mine. Thank you.

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