Stepping Back

Courtesy of a friend afar, I’ve been pondering AA again.  I sucked at AA, or, at least, I sucked at being a part of the group I was in (and I freely admit that it could have been the dynamics, but much of it was me).   See, AA requires of one, in order to be successful, to reach out and depend on others, and while I can do that in some areas of my life (admittedly, too few), sobriety wasn’t, at the time, one of them.

Granted, I also relapsed.

This blog being what it is, a chronicle of diseases beautiful and occasionally manageable, I’ve been thinking through what happened to get me to the place that relapsing was possible, seeing as I’d rather like to avoid taking that particular route again.

I originally chose to get sober in March of 2007.  I quit because I was miserable, and I finally came to the conclusion (with the help of a therapist and some excellent books–I cannot recommend Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story highly enough) that I was not avoiding misery with alcohol, but creating it.  So, to the admitted surprise of said therapist, who had initially recommended trying to teach myself to drink less (it was, I came to realize, a ruse on his part– he just hadn’t expected that I would figure out the message as quickly as I did), I up and quit the day I spoke to him about drinking.

Interesting to note that “my drinking” is the phrase I first used there, and then deleted.  On the one hand, the ownership is apt– drinking was certainly “mine.”  On the other hand, it was not just mine, because the ramifications of my addiction reached far beyond self, and I’m not sure how to convey that.  “Our” drinking is inaccurate and disingenuous.

I was pleased by the results–I felt better for the choice quickly.  I built a garden wall (I was off that week), and I read and otherwise took care of myself.  I didn’t talk to anyone about my choice, save for G (and him only minimally), and I didn’t attend AA meetings because I was terrified of the whole talking in front of strangers bit.  Of course, it was only later that I realized that I was substituting a familiar fear (that of talking in front of strangers) for the real problem (having to acknowledge a need for others).  I had been sober 30 days when I went for the first time.

I think I still have my coins (my AA group used coins instead of chips), but the one I encounter most frequently is my 90 day coin, as it sits in my car–in the cup holder all the time.  Haven’t a clue why I leave it there, mind you, but it does comfort me at times…so maybe that is the only reason why and the only reason necessary.  It’s green and a bit banged up around the edges; I’ve had it for more than two years now.  I stopped attending AA meetings not terribly long after that…I think I made it to 6 months, but I no longer recall.

I began walking more, began talking more, and the first year blew by.  Suddenly, I was in March 2008.  I’d been sober a year.

I was teaching two classes that semester–World and British literature, and I was having a ball.  Seriously, it was one of the best teaching semesters I’ve ever had.  Part of that joy stemmed from my impossibly delightful World Lit class (this is not to suggest that the Brit class wasn’t wonderful–they were, but the World lit class was like nothing I’ve ever experienced before nor since).  I met a student who challenged me from the get go–I’ve encountered students like him before–ones who knock me off my stride and make me rethink approaches and conversations and basically give me license to go wildly back into the books and mine them more deeply.  This guy stopped me in my tracks repeatedly.  And, better, he got the rest of the class inclined to do so.  It. Was. Awesome.  For the first time in years (and certainly since sobriety), I felt confident.  Bright, funny, interesting, even lovely.

All of which, again, not incidentally, was interpreted as a crush on said student (he was my age.  calm down) by damn near everyone around me.  And I, even as confident and groovy as I felt, couldn’t produce the necessary verbiage to explain what was happening in my head.  Crush, though, wasn’t it.  He and that class were an incredible touchstone of possibility, and I was completely swept away by them.

During the spring of 2008, I was riding high.  In hindsight, I can see the negative side to this ride, which bordered on mania (and probably crossed the line a time or two).  I talked fast, moved fast, got caught up in intellectual whirlwinds.  I wrote, dreamed up projects, ran, played bass, listened to music, learned to knit,  wrote more (OMG the notebooks I filled, wow).  I obsessed about a number of things–talked about all of them way too much.  My obsession and energy manifested physically in an awesome blushing response.  I’m pale (very, incredibly pale), so the fact that I blush over, well, everything, is of no real surprise, but it was so bad in 2008 that I thought I was going crazy.

Which, in fact, is probably accurate.

My high lasted into summer and on July 3, 2008, I was confident enough to “try” drinking again.  It didn’t take terribly long for it to get out of hand again, though I can’t remember exactly when I realized that the wheels had fallen off again.

One of the myriad reasons I sucked at AA was the failure to give the steps their due.  I “worked” them, but like everything else in that spring, I worked things too fast.  I moved too quickly.  Looking back, I can see that I started that rapid movement from the beginning.  I spent much of that year and change–Spring 2008 for the most part notwithstanding–angry and spiteful, what the experts tend to refer to as a “dry drunk.”  I was nasty (it occurred to me from time to time that G probably preferred my drunk self, because I was likely nicer, if somewhat more given to dramatics) and turned deeply inward (hence the voluminous writing from that period).

Step One, for anyone who has managed never to run across it before, regards recognition and confession.  For someone whose freaking dissertation was on redemption, this path felt like home.  See, in traditional redemption narratives (as I have mentioned in these pages before), confession is the first step toward absolution.


Okay, so the next step is a little tricky, and in the literary world, whether confession and penance bring absolution or merely precede damnation is subject to the (often–I’ll grant not always) political and social whims of the author.  Nevertheless, confession felt good, normal, and the place to begin.

I confessed to G and to my therapist and, eventually, to my son and others, though, even now, not everyone.  Step one–> “admit you are powerless over your addiction” looks like confession.  It smells like confession.  Confession is good, right?

Well, yes.  Except that Step One is most assuredly NOT about confession alone, and that is the part that escaped me.  Part of the confession must be recognition–a baring of oneself to oneself.  I once made a list of those things I’d done while drunk that were dangerous (not many) and/or embarrassing (gads, awful, awful, awful).  I didn’t make that list until after I had relapsed.  The list, however, is far more valuable to me now than the fact that I can articulate the phrase “I’m an alcoholic.”

The recognition of myself and my culpability was integral to Step One, and I missed that part the first time through, because I was still so much in denial.  I recall, vividly, telling G in one of the few conversations we had about me and alcohol, that I wouldn’t feel safe to take a drink until I could imagine drinking and stopping after only one. Want to guess how many I had the first night I relapsed?  Suffice to say that while I could “imagine” only one–I certainly didn’t practice that policy.

I had much more clarity in the matter after I relapsed.  Part of why I was able to relapse was that niggling confidence, combined with the failure to recognize what powerless meant, meant I thought I could teach myself to “drink normally,” despite the fact that I’ve no clear idea what “normal” really suggests in this context.   I did realize early on (even in 2007) that Step One would have to be revisited often and carefully, though I failed to heed that recognition.

As a result, I think it is fair to categorize the last 8.5 months as “working Step One,” insofar as I experience each day through the recognition of powerlessness.  On the upside, I’ve no desire to traipse up the wine aisle or to be the “good wife” by going to pick up something at the liquor store (did I mention my failure of recognition?  Does that example illustrate what I mean clearly enough?).  But, I’ve not been working the step (or trying to move through additional steps) in concrete ways, and I think, thanks to my friend (seriously, thank you, Lady) I’ll try to do so.

Credit to NeanC’s most recent blog for getting me spinning on this.

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