I Stay Sober Without AA.

woman in boat

Throughout my formative years, despite clawing through a domestic mudslide of dysfunction and alcoholism, I never knew anyone who went to AA.  Considering that no one in my family ever got sober, I guess that isn’t really surprising.  So, as far as AA goes, I didn’t know much about it aside from assuming that it was the only way to get out of addiction and that I sure as hell wished my mother would go!

Years later, when I started drinking to excess and considered the fact that I might need help, the only option, or so I thought, was AA.  I wasn’t opposed to it, by the way.  It just seemed that it was AA or no way.

About 4 years ago, the first (and only) person in my life confronted me and asked if I had a drinking problem. I downplayed it, of course, but the next day I promptly marched my humiliated ass into a women’s meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous determined to get me some of that sober juju they promised in the brochures.  Just kidding – I’d never even read a brochure.

The women at AA were wonderful; warm and sincere.  Several of them broke into a small group to welcome me, share their stories, and give me the love and attention a scared newbie deserves.  Then they informed me that I was an alcoholic.  And even though I really liked these women and they seemed somewhat relatable to me, I just didn’t feel that wholehearted connection and I definitely wasn’t ready for the whole commitment to calling myself an alcoholic thing.  Something just didn’t feel right.  Looking back, I think I just wasn’t ready to quit drinking.  After all, what pushed me to the meeting was the sheer embarrassment that my friend had noticed my unraveling – not the true resolution of my soul wanting to heal.  So I didn’t go back.

Now, the crappy part about AA, at least for me, is that I felt so guilty for not being 100% committed and letting those nice women down that it kept me from going back at all.  That, in part, was my own ego wanting to appear a certain way and being concerned about how it would look if I only went sometimes or if I kept falling off the wagon, so I just didn’t go at all.

Like I said, I clearly wasn’t ready and I don’t blame AA for that. But seriously, if you haven’t hit rock bottom yet, it can be really hard to willingly hand over the reins to recovery.   I mean, admitting you might have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol and your friend noticed you get too weepy when you drink is one thing.  Proclaiming to the world that you’re an alcoholic and will never have Chardonnay again is quite another.  I respect the hell out of AA, but I wish there was some “waiting area” of AA where you could go if you are thinking about quitting, but you’re not ready to loosen the death grip on the wine decanter just yet.  Like purgatory – but with coffee.  Where you could learn more and talk and consider your options without diving head first into something you’re not sure you’re ready for. In other words, I wish you didn’t have to be at DEFCON alcoholic to be a member of AA.  I think they’re missing an opportunity to cater to those still enough in denial to keep drinking, but far enough along in addiction to know they could use a brochure…for a friend of course. 😉

I know some people would argue that if you’re just going to pussy-foot around sobriety, then don’t waste anyone’s time, but for me, getting sober was a process that started years before I ever put my glass down.  A seed was planted long before recovery took root.  Maybe I would have quit even sooner if I could have talked openly about my struggles without the pressure to stop immediately and jump onto the Big Book Bandwagon of meetings 24/7.  I knew that I wasn’t ready for that, so instead I kept quiet and did nothing. Did I know deep down that I’d have to surrender and put the bottle down eventually?  Of course!  But even the most experienced swimmer started in the shallow end at one point.  I wanted to dip my toes in at my own pace, get more information without feeling like someone was going to push me from behind – or like a loser if I sank and didn’t swim.  A free trial.  A test run.  Maybe I’m just nuts.  But I think it would have helped.  Then again, maybe not.

In any case, I’ve been sober for 10 months now and I achieved this, in large part, without AA.  Let me just say that I have such admiration for AA.  I love the people I’ve met in AA.  I respect the program and principles of AA.  My partner is in AA.  I just personally do not work the AA program.  Will I ever?  Quite possibly.  It just hasn’t been part of my sobriety story thus far.

I don’t believe that there is only one way to achieve and maintain sobriety, although I do think there are some keys that probably help.  We’ll cover those in a moment.

If you are a hard core AA person, I know this whole non-AA thing may strike a chord with you.  You may think I’m headed down the path to relapse.  That I’m not really in recovery.  That I’m just a “dry drunk”.  That life with AA is the only way.  You’re entitled to that opinion and I’m newly sober enough to admit that you may be right.  But I would say that for those who are considering sobriety, but are turned off by AA for whatever reason, my journey may give someone hope.  So, while in the end, I may learn that AA is, in fact, the best way, right now I do not believe that it’s the only way.

For the record, I did not get sober entirely without AA.  When I admitted I had a problem, I enrolled in an outpatient treatment program and part of that program included AA and NA meetings, so I went to those three times a week for three months as part of my program.  I personally loved hearing the stories of others, especially the newly sober.  Each time I heard one, I felt less like a leper and more like I belonged to a family – a family with a common struggle.  Also, the first 2 weeks without any alcohol, I went to as many meetings I could.  Why?  To get my mind off the cravings.  To give myself something to do.  And mostly because I thought that’s what I was supposed to do.  But never because I felt passionate about it.

So aside from those first few weeks, I did not pursue AA as a lifestyle.

Why?  A few reasons.

  1. I never found that “perfect” meeting. I learned quickly that I preferred women-only meetings, but my home group only had 2 women’s meetings and they conflicted with my work schedule. Second, the meetings were often huge.  They were never a waste of time, by any means, but I just didn’t find them as valuable if they were larger than 15-20 people.  It was also intimidating to speak in front of so many sets of eyes.  Finally, I witnessed a few long-time AA members treat some younger, newly sober people in a very condescending way that rubbed me wrong.  Please understand, I’m fully aware that those people do represent all of AA, but their behavior was tolerated by the group and that, to me, was unacceptable. While it wasn’t directed at me and was only a few “bad apples” so to speak, it did turn me off enough to completely stop going to that particular meeting.  I, fortunately, still do not drink.  But I don’t know if the other newbies at that meeting can say the same.  So, tsk tsk to those folks. They did AA a huge disservice and they seemed to forget that “the most important person in any AA room is the newcomer.”  I’m pretty sure Bill W., God rest his soul, would have my back on this!
  2. I wasn’t 100% sure.  As I mentioned before, I wasn’t sure what AA was all about or if I truly “believed” in it, so I didn’t feel right continuing to go if I wasn’t totally committed.  Kind of like going to church and trying to keep up with the choir, singing the Lord’s praises at full volume when you’re not even sure you believe in God yet.  Seems kind of poser-y, no?
  3. “I’m Jacqueline and I’m an alcoholic.”  This is what I mean by you’re either in or you’re out.  In order to speak at any AA meeting, you have to start every sentence with “I’m ________ and I’m an alcoholic.”  My word is the most important thing I have, so I try not to speak anything but what I believe wholeheartedly whenever I can possibly help it.  That being said,  I’m not 100% convinced that I’m an alcoholic.  WHAT?  You heard me.  Do I have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol?  Oh, you bet your bottom dollar.  But my biggest issue is not a drinking problem.  My biggest issue is a thinking problem.  A deep-rooted fear of abandonment, lack of love, trauma, self-esteem.   These are the issues that I must work on every single day. I got in plenty of trouble long before booze and could continue in droves without it.  Here’s why: there are a LOT of ways to mistreat yourself.  Trust me, if there’s some toxic form of self-harm out there, I’ll find it.  Whether it’s negative self-talk, food, wine, careless sex, limiting beliefs, selling myself short, failing to have boundaries, staying in toxic relationships – I’ve done them all.  So, it’s not really alcohol that’s the problem.  At least not in my case.  My problem isn’t just the abuse of alcohol.  It’s the abuse of myself.
    So, am I an alcoholic?    Probably.  But that’s just not what I focus on.  I focus on healing in the larger sense.  And calling myself an alcoholic every other sentence…I don’t know.  I just didn’t seem like I was calling out the real problem.  Sobriety feels bigger than booze to me.  I don’t know if that makes sense to anyone else, but it all adds up in this crazy noodle of mine. 😊
  4. My life started naturally progressing in a different way. Once I stopped drinking, my true self started appearing pretty rapidly.  Within a week, I was on a weight-loss and healthy eating plan.  Within 2 weeks, I was talking about going back to school.  Within a month, I started dancing again and going to the gym and writing and hiking and meeting up with people I’d lost touch with.  Life just started taking shape and I just started showing up for it.  Eventually, I began replacing the old thoughts and habits with new.  It wasn’t overnight, but the good just started taking over and I found it more appealing to do other things that fed my soul.  As it turns out, there’s more than one road to recovery.

So, what DO I do?

  1. See my therapist every week. I’ve learned that the type of mental health issues I deal with (anxiety, depression, and PTSD) are things that I need to devote serious time to and I prefer to do that in a one-on-one setting. I’ve (finally) found a therapist who is experienced enough to really dig deep with me in these areas and I do the work.  I only speak for myself, but when I realized that the “why” behind my drinking was much bigger, seeing my therapist and taking care of my mental health took priority over focusing on alcohol and attending AA meetings.  At least for now.
  2. Exercise. Exercise??  I thought you said extra fries! This time a year ago, I did not run unless I was being chased.  I was 50 pounds overweight with acne, acid reflux, and irritable bowel syndrome.  I know you’re turned on.  But seriously, the fact that I truly love to exercise now is almost hilarious to me, but it’s true! In particular, I rediscovered my love of dance and started taking Zumba regularly.  Last summer I even got certified to teach and now have my own classes.  A huge side bonus of Zumba, besides the endorphins and weight loss, is that there’s a whole community I had no idea about.  I did NOT intend to make friends at the gym.  Hell, I don’t even LIKE people that go to the gym.  But here I am, with this whole new tribe of fitness-friendly, positive thinking, glow-y skinned people (barf)  that are like a family to me now.  I didn’t sign up for this crap!  I just wanted was to wear pants with a button again!  In yet another twist of the sobriety plot, I now get to wear pants with buttons.  And I get to wear them out dancing with my new tribe of friends.  Hot damn.
  3. I write every day. For 30 minutes.  First thing in the morning.  I use a tool called 750 words, but I’ve also done this on paper for years.  It’s a technique called Morning Pages.  Just write.  Stream of consciousness writing.  No thought in advance, no planning out what you will say.  The only rule is you keep writing.  If 30 minutes is too long, just do 5 and work your way up.  The things that will come out will floor you: deep fears, untouched hopes, new ideas,  unexplored dreams, nightmares, jokes, story lines, memories, goals…just try it.  It’s the best form of meditation I’ve found yet!
  4. I talk about addiction ALL the time.  I write a blog about it (you don’t say!).  I think in terms of addiction.  I never let it out of my sight because I am not naïve to its cunning nature.  It’s serious and it almost killed me.  But the darkness of addiction cannot survive in the light of the truth and that is why I will continue to keep talking as long as anyone is there to listen.  But, if I don’t go to AA, how and where do I have all of these great talks? Well, here for one.  But also, I have the fortunate (or unfortunate!) gift of being in a relationship with a fellow addict.  We were both active addicts at a certain time and now we are both in recovery.  He goes to AA, I do not.  We do not have to talk about addiction together, but we often do.  So, I do have that outlet where someone else may not.  Whatever your situation is, I do recommend having at least one person who you can talk about your sobriety journey with.  Trust me.  It’s a great journey; you’ll want someone to share your successes with.

What you need for sobriety – with or without AA

  1. A plan. Something to follow. Whether it’s what your therapist says or what the Big Book says, you need something to guide your mind.  After all, your thinking is what got you drinking in the first place.  Maybe it’s time you let something else take the wheel for a bit.
  2. One-on-one support. Your counselor, your best friend, your sponsor.  I don’t care who it is, but you need someone.  If it’s easier to go anonymous, find someone from AA.  If you feel more comfortable with your existing tribe, that’s fine, too.  I’d have to think it might be best to find someone who is either trained in addiction recovery or who has been in recovery themselves, but at the very least, just have another soul who wants you to keep kicking toward the surface toward freedom.  That person needs to be your biggest cheerleader and your toughest lover.   Choose wisely.
  3. A community.  As friendly of a person as I am, I’ve always been uncomfortable with anything unfamiliar and crowds give me anxiety.  I almost had a panic attack in a museum cafeteria once because there were too many people and everyone seemed to know how to use the self-checkout kiosk except me.  I abandoned my chocolate pudding and spent the next ten minutes trying to control my breathing.  Neurotic much? I’m also a control freak extraordinaire, so I don’t really subscribe to the idea that I need anyone.  I have the ego of ten republican men.  So the idea of having to reach out and create a (gag) community with other people made me want to yak.  Here’s some good news: I’ve learned in sobriety  that I was right (YAY!).  I can do everything on my own!  But here’s some better, more humbling, news: WHY in the hell should I have to?  Life is more fun and free when I’m not trying to control and do every GD thing on my own.  Not to mention, accountability is important.  When I don’t go to Zumba for a few days, people check on me.  Sharing is important.  Sometimes I go just to find out if Christina’s granddaughter got out of the hospital.  Feeling loved is important.  Sometimes the only hug I get all week is from someone at Zumba.  It feels good.  I’ve never left Zumba feeling worse than I did when I came in.  Never.  And that’s worth going back for.  I don’t think you have to attend AA per se, but I do think you have to attend something. If you need a place to go in Kansas City, find me.  I’ll take you to class or coffee.
  4. A belief. I think you have to believe in something.  Over the past few years of my drinking, my relationship with God became strained and eventually severed.  I turned away and am still working on repairing that relationship.  So, at the time that I stopped drinking, I wasn’t sure what I believed.  In the beginning, I just believed that drinking was killing my body and spirit.  That’s all I believed – at first.  Over time, I believed that there was, maybe, a little bit of hope.  I believed, a little at a time, that maybe I had a future and a lot to be grateful for.  Eventually, I started believing in me and forces even bigger than me (wait, there’s something bigger than ME??  I kid.) So, you don’t have to have been raised in the church or believe in God or even believe you’ll ever stop drinking at first.  Just believe in one thing you know to be true.  For me, it was that I just couldn’t keep going the way I was going.  I had no other belief, but that.   Just find your one thing to believe and take the next step.


Much longer post than intended, but important stuff.

If you’re still in the “waiting room”, I feel you.  I spent many years there.

You’re not alone.  Hang on.


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