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March 19, 2019

AA Didn’t Save Me.


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I had just lost my closest, dearest friend in life: 10 pounds of wiggling joy-to-be-alive.

He was a Maltese-Poodle-mutt named King, and he lived a staggering 19 and a half years.

More importantly, he was a healthy, run-at-the-park, barking whirlwind until two weeks before he died.

A few years before I lost King, I had stopped drinking.

I’d never lost a job. In truth, not drinking was harder on my career than if I had hit the bars with my co-workers. There was no ultimatum from my wife. I never had a DUI. But I knew I drank for one of (or any mix of) three reasons: boredom, loneliness, and anxiety.

For several weeks straight, I found myself going to the liquor store alone on my lunch hour to slam down three shooters (those tiny single shot bottles) of vodka.

Once, I fell asleep in a movie theater, alone. I’d snuck in four whiskey shooters, and slammed them in the bathroom stall during the previews (yeah, gross).

I woke up in my seat at the end of the movie, after the credits had rolled and the lights came on. I had a mix of snot and drool sliding down the left side of my face. The wet mess had made its way down my neck, making my collar cold and damp as it brushed against my skin.

I felt more pathetic than this reads. I worried, “Did anyone see me when they were walking out? Anyone I know?” (The theater was walking distance from my house.) “Sh*t!”

And that was it.

Without requiring any outside opinion, I knew drinking was making me pathetic. Clouding my brain. Bruising my ego with embarrassment. It was my time to stop drinking. And I did, for a few years, anyway.

But I’d set myself up to fail, and it was years in the making: I often thought, “When I lose my dog, I’m going to drink.”

The predicted turn of events came to pass. At 19 and a half years old, King’s kidneys were shutting down. He had a few days left at the most, our veterinarian told us. I stopped at the liquor store before making it home from the vet’s office.

Once King passed away, it was unbearable to go home. Gone was my greeting, that mania of happiness, that jumping ovation simply because we were alive and together at that moment. It was like Christmas morning every time I came back from anywhere. And now it was gone.

For the next year after losing King, I drank. Two drinks in the morning. Two in the afternoon. Then, an intolerable night would come: I’d have three drinks in the driveway before I even made it into the house. I had to detach my heart before walking in the door. Seeing his empty spot on the couch where he used to wait for me with his tail thumping the cushions was a soul crusher. Instead, a numb, drunk stumble into my house made it much easier. Another two or three vodka shots in the middle of the night when I woke up.

Eventually, self-disgust would kick in, and I would stop for a day, two at the most.

But the shame cycle would repeat. The nighttime drinking escalated. At a body weight of 160 pounds, I was consuming between 12 and 15 drinks a day. Every day.

I knew better than this. I knew I was running a path beaten with illness and failure of my own making. Liver disease, kidney failure, heart problems, a dramatic increase in cancer risk—name a body part or function, and you’ll find a lot of alcohol wrecks it.

No Jimmy Buffet song or novelty shot glass is going to change that.

And in addition to assaulting my health, I was harming who I was.

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is pretty famous. Many TV shows and films are guilty of smacking the viewer with the cliché.

There’s the gathering of dented, bland, beige chairs in a messy circle. All of the pained faces are lit too brightly by buzzing overhead fluorescent lights. Everyone is slumped over, staring at their shoes or the floor. It’s a sad time at the local community hall. There’s always a couple of frosted jean jackets that look like they were refused by Goodwill. The requisite pot of sh*t coffee that’s been made too strong. The protagonist coming to terms with a painful life lesson in their story arc.

Life, love, and loss all hurt. When they’re drunk, they don’t feel that. But their life, or someone else’s, has turned into a chaotic mess through alcoholism. This is their moment of clarity; they’re getting their sh*t together.

I haven’t owned a frosted jean jacket since the 90s. But the aforementioned cliché is, at least in part, what happened to me.

As the title says, AA didn’t save me. That was partially, or perhaps completely, my fault. I was fine with saying, “My name is David and I’m an alcoholic.” But I wasn’t willing to surrender to the 12 steps. I tried to read AA’s Bible, what’s referred to as “The Big Book.” Some of it resonated, a lot of it didn’t.

But AA holds a vital place that I’d like to explain.

In recent years, it’s been pointed out from reputable sources that AA has a success rate of 5 to 10 percent despite being part of the American lexicon. Surprisingly, high-priced, month-long clinics offer about the same success rate.

The issues surrounding the billion dollar rehab industry deserves a far deeper look. More than we have time for here. But it’s worth pointing out that AA has the same success rate while being basically free. The only cost is to find a way there, and stick a dollar in the plate they pass around (if you can).

AA wasn’t my savior. But it played a part. AA was a place to show up. To listen to humans screw up and be human.

The outsider may assume it to be a sad place (see description above), but it’s not. It’s a place of hope. Of truth. Of a great many of us saying things out loud that we would never tell our parents, our friends, or our partners.

It was always such a real place instead of the everything-is-fine nonsense. Everything is not fine. It’s all a f*cking mess.

There is a moment at AA meetings when individuals have the chance to share. To me, and a great many who have hunched in those bland beige chairs, this is the point of AA. True stories of failure, disgust, backsliding, success, and redemption. That was such a small but important step toward catharsis.

I showed up to AA meetings once a week. The first few times, I only listened. Then I spoke. It was a bit scary. I was super short with my speech: “Hi, I’m David. I’m happy to be here, thanks.” I didn’t even get to the “I’m an alcoholic” part. I started sharing more after that, but for me, it was much more about listening.

As I mentioned, I was confident that I wasn’t interested in following the 12 steps or having a sponsor. I also didn’t want to commit to a meeting a day for the first 90 days—another common recommendation. People shared opinions, but I wasn’t forced to follow any set of rules. It’s become a common misconception that AA forces you to follow “their way.” I have not found that to be the case in any of the several different groups I’ve attended. I was free to take what I needed from AA, and I am confident that I did.

I found my path to sobriety included an addiction specialist counselor—a clinical social worker (LCSW) who embraced mindfulness meditation. I went once a week for six months. He was a great help. In addition, I practiced daily physical activity (for me, it was yoga) and five minutes of meditation.

I found my story important to share, due to the criticism that AA has endured lately.

Earlier this year, I heard a story on NPR. A psychiatrist specializing in addiction recovery was complaining about AA. She mentioned it being out of date and mentioned its low success rate. With AA being anonymous, and no membership, how is a success rate measured? I can’t wrap my head around a viable way to determine success.

If people “fall off of the wagon” as I did when I lost King, are we considered unsuccessful? I find this shortsighted. It’s important to consider AA as one tool; don’t throw it out because it’s not the whole tool shed.

To reiterate, this is what worked for me:

1. Weekly AA meetings
2. Weekly sessions with an addiction trained LCSW therapist
3. Daily physical activity
4. Daily five minutes of meditation

AA was a crucial first step. It’s one that I still value, even though I don’t go to meetings very often anymore. I know that I can go if I want to.

My story is my own, and it’s unique to me. For me, after 90 days, I was confident that I was done with drinking, and I still am. The last two years, I have continued a daily yoga practice. And don’t say that you can’t do yoga. If you can breathe, you can do yoga. It’s that simple. But, if yoga isn’t of interest to you, find a physical activity that works for you.

Of equal importance: I have continued meditation.

Don’t start with an hour, not even 15 minutes. Just five minutes. It’s so simple, it seems impossible that it could work. I know—I avoided it for years. But it does work. There are reputable studies from around the world that back this up.

You can sit or lay down, but don’t fall asleep if you lay down. Set an alarm for five minutes and 30 seconds (the 30 seconds is to get set in your position). As you inhale, say to yourself, “I am inhaling,” and as you exhale, say to yourself, “ I am exhaling.”

For my first three months of sobriety, however, I replaced those words. As I inhaled, I said to myself, “don’t,” and as I exhaled, I said to myself, “drink.” Almost always during meditation, I start to think about something else: “Did I send that email?” “What do I need to buy at the store?” That’s fine—it happens to everyone. Don’t worry about it, just acknowledge the thought, let it go, and get back to your breath and your “word,” whatever that might be.

After those first 90 days, I have not had a difficult time with sobriety. I’m confident that I have beaten alcohol.

I don’t want to drink; I don’t even want to have one now and then. I have been to countless bars, and I have had friends keep liquor at my house when they’ve stayed over. I don’t want a cold beer or a single malt scotch any more than I want to spray Lysol down my throat. For me, it’s a poison that harms my intellect and my happiness.

It’s vital I point out that this was my journey, and no one else’s. If you are lost like I was, and don’t find yourself subscribing wholly to AA, finding your own unique version of my plan may help. I genuinely hope it’s of benefit to you. I would love to hear from you in the comments.


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