An Open Letter to Alcoholics Anonymous

Dear AA,

I know this is what most people refer to you as, even those who don’t have a drinking problem, but I think at this point I truly know you well enough to feel justified in referring to you as such, rather than using your full, formal and somewhat clumsy name – Alcoholics Anonymous. That certainly doesn’t roll easily off the tongue. Especially when you’re drunk. The alliteration alone will kill you after you’ve knocked back a few.

But we really do have a storied and tumultuous past. I’d go so far as to call this a love/hate relationship – with an emphasis on the hate.

It was first suggested that I attend one of your meetings back when I was in college. I only lived in the dorms for two years. But during those four semesters I was sent to the school’s counselor for alcohol violations five times before that final spring semester I lived there was over. Every semester I tried to throw a huge party in my room – on our very dry campus – and inevitably would get caught and sent to the counselor. I was also sent to him because of one night I was especially drunk, tried to sneak in a group of strangers I had met at a bar, and then yelled at the security guard and flipped him off when he wouldn’t let us into the dorms.

And let’s not forget the night I came home wildly drunk, a few weeks after 9/11, muttering something about planes and bombs and refusing to sleep. My roommate had to go to the security guard booth and tell him that her roommate was batshit crazy and panicking about the end of the world. I didn’t get sent to the counselor that time, but the people in charge of residence life did send the campus deacon to check up on me. The next afternoon I woke up, bleary eyed, possibly still drunk and in the clothes I had worn out the door the previous morning wondering why there was a deacon at my door. We wound up having a spirited discussion about Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut.

But the counselor and I came to know each other pretty well. His name was Bob. He was a nice enough guy, considering he was the bane of my existence. He had a Mr. Clean haircut, a misplaced bushy mustache underneath and he handed me the same papers every time I walked into his office. I kept each batch up until a few years ago, when I realized I didn’t need several copies of a diagram about how alcohol affects my motor ability, or a list of the reasons people drink. I know why people drink. I used his photocopies as a checklist.

Every time I sat in his office, he’d suggest I go to an AA meeting. I’d roll my eyes and say maybe, though I never intended on it. Sometimes we’d sit in silence. Sometimes he’d ask me questions I either wouldn’t answer or would reply to with a joke. After the second time I was sent to see Bob I said to him, “So, should we schedule our meeting for next semester ahead of time? I think Thursday afternoons are good for me. I already made my class schedule for the fall.” He wasn’t amused. He didn’t have much of a sense of humor. I thought I was funny. And whenever I saw him on another part of campus, I’d run the other way and hide until he passed. I never went to AA and eventually I moved out of the dorms. I have my suspicions I wouldn’t have been invited back anyway.

Then, about two years ago, my girlfriend at the time kind of tricked me into going to an AA meeting. I say kind of because she told me her sister had to go to an open meeting for a psychology class and was scared to go alone. Now, this was true, but she also had ulterior motives. At that meeting, I sat next to a very tall, professional looking man in his ‘50s. We talked about basketball throughout the entire meeting. I have never watched a professional basketball game in my life, and sure, I played basketball my freshman year of high school, but let’s be honest, I’m under 5 feet tall, never knew the rules and often fouled out of games the few times they actually put me on the court. So I’m not sure how I had such a lengthy conversation about the sport. After the meeting, on our way out, my girlfriend said to me, “So, maybe you should grab a schedule from that table just in case…” I ignored her and walked out the door without even looking at the table of pamphlets.

Then about a year later, when I was working at a reporter at a community newspaper, I voluntarily went to a meeting on my own. Newspaper people are notorious drunks. There was a bar and grill down the road from our office where at any given time on any given day you were guaranteed to find at least one person who worked at our newspaper group drinking a beer and writing at the bar. And all hell would break loose when a group of us went anywhere together. Those were some of my best and worst nights. Those were the nights I wouldn’t make it home. Those were the nights I had to call for a ride and leave my car in a strange parking lot somewhere overnight.

Working as a reporter also allowed me to have an incredibly flexible schedule. Sure, I’d spend some of my nights covering local village board, planning board and zoning board meetings, but there were days I also wouldn’t even wander into the office until 3 p.m., just to leave an hour later to hit happy hour with my friends and coworkers. I lived with my girlfriend and she’d grumble every morning about having to work so early. I’d sleep late, watch TV, hang out with the cats and manage to get all of my work for the week done in about one day. And, often I’d drink – you know, the best way to get rid of a hangover is to just drink some more.

One afternoon I looked away from the TV and saw how many beer bottles littered the living room floor. For the first time, I was horrified by what I was doing to myself.

I stood up, and because I felt I wanted to hear it out loud, slurred to myself, “That’s it. I’m going to AA!” I stumbled over my shoes that were lying in the middle of the living room floor. I went online and looked up the schedule. There was a meeting in 15 minutes and it was an open meeting, which meant no one would pay any attention to me. I could just go, get my feet wet and proceed from there.

The meeting was in Sea Cliff, a village not far from where I lived. I rushed to get there and hoped I wouldn’t get pulled over, thinking, though, that it would be ironic if I did. Sea Cliff is tiny, maybe one square mile, but I somehow managed to get lost and was 10 minutes late. When I pulled up to the church, I figured I could sneak in the back mostly undetected. I pulled open the heavy door and it closed behind me with a loud thud. The group of six people, sitting in a circle, all looked up.

“Um, I thought this was an open meeting…” I was disheveled, probably reeked of alcohol and I’m sure my eyes were bloodshot, making me look like a completely mad person.

Turns out AA hadn’t updated their schedule online yet. The meeting was no longer a nice, comfy open meeting; it was a closed Big Book discussion. The Big Book is the AA Bible – and it’s probably close enough to the real Bible as well, with all the talk of higher powers and whatnot. They invited me to stay anyway. If nothing else, alcoholics are very welcoming and gracious hosts. They read passages from the book. I zoned in and out.

Afterwards, a woman named Liz approached me. “Have you been drinking today?”

“It’s possible.”

She nodded and asked me if I wanted to go get tea. She drove us to Dunkin’ Donuts and bought me a drink. She did most of the talking. I don’t remember what she said. When she dropped me back off at my car she asked if I was OK to drive. I assured her I was and she wrote her phone number down on a scrap of paper. “Call me any time.” I thanked her and the second she drove away I crumpled it up and let it fall to the ground. I went to the store and bought some beer. I passed out on the couch before my girlfriend got home from work.

Another year passed. I moved to Boston. I broke up with my girlfriend. I don’t need to recap my short time in Massachusetts in great detail, but I wound up in the detox unit of the Somerville Hospital for a week. They held AA and NA meetings every evening after dinner. These were my least favorite part of the day since I had long ago decided that I resented the religious aspect of AA. But they forced everyone to go. My first night there, they set up the chairs in the conference room in a circle for the meeting, something I’d never seen before for such a large group. In the middle of the circle was an empty chair. “That’s for every alcoholic and addict who’s out there on the streets somewhere, or who just can’t be at a meeting today,” said one of the gruff men, obviously hardened by life, who ran these meetings.

I raised my hand. “I hardly think that every addict and alcoholic who can’t make it to this meeting could possibly all fit on that one chair.” My new buddy, Marc, also in detox for alcohol, started laughing. This got the group of druggies from the local high school, who were there for popping all kinds of pills, started, and eventually everyone from the unit was laughing. The man glared at me. And later I refused to hold anyone’s hand and pray at the end of each meeting.

When I got out of detox, I entered into a pre-cursor to an outpatient rehab program. I had morning group sessions – not AA related, thankfully – three times a week. I eagerly went to them because it meant I didn’t have to be at work. They made me pee in little plastic cups and talk about my plans for the day and whether or not I had wanted to drink the day before. I also had a one-on-one session with a counselor, Stephanie, twice a week. She found me amusing and told me she thought I was brilliant. She also suggested I get a real psych evaluation and said she had a crazy hunch that I might be bipolar. Personally, I think they just tell all the addicts that. But I often caught her trying not to laugh at the jokes I would make.

To supplement this program, I decided to go to AA meetings, figuring, hey, it’s better than nothing. At the first one I went to, in the basement of a Baptist church in the always sketchy Central Square, I spotted an attractive girl across the room – dark hair and lots of tattoos – a welcome distraction from the real reason I was there. She looked up and caught my eye and gave me a friendly smile. Excellent, I thought.

I zoned out during most of the meeting, occasionally sneaking glances at the hot girl. No matter how helpful it was supposed to be, I just hated AA – higher power this, higher power that, 12 steps, blah blah blah.

When the meeting was over, the hot girl came over and introduced herself. Her name was Jen and she was six months clean. We chatted a bit. She asked about how I wound up there. I told funny stories and flirted with her, naturally. She gave me her number before she left. I was pretty pleased with myself until I remembered that her giving me her number meant nothing. AA is like a cult. So sucking more people into it is the way of AA members. I threw her number out before I even left the building and I never went back to that meeting, though I tried another one out, this time in Malden, the next day. I got so angry at the end, when they tried to make me hold hands with those standing nearby and say the Serenity Prayer that I walked out in a huff.

Somehow, a month later, I wound up back in New York, just as impulsively as I’d wound up on Boston in the first place. I told Stephanie I found a job back home and started in two weeks. “Who finds a job in another state and makes plans to move in just two weeks?” she asked.

“I suppose I do. It’s kind of similar to how I wound up here in the first place, though I did that in about a month and a half.”

“Tiffany, remember last week when we talked about impulsive behavior?”

I remembered. “Screw that. I’m moving back to New York.”

She did everything she could to try to convince me to stay and enter the real outpatient rehab program. “Please deal with this before you make any major life decisions. If you hate your job that much, then quit. Get a job at Starbucks. Get a job at a bookstore. Get any low stress job that will give you health insurance so you can keep coming to see me.”

But I wouldn’t have it. “You’re lucky I’m going to continue to keep coming here over the next few weeks as I get ready to move.”

On my last day, she was visibly upset and told me how disappointed she was that she wouldn’t get to work with me anymore. She told me to keep in touch. I bet she says that to all the addicts. I took her business card, but I never called her.

Back in New York, I acted like Boston hadn’t even happened. I caught up with friends and made new ones. I drank. I had assorted sordid adventures. And I told those stories the next time I went out drinking.

Eventually I began to feel horribly guilty about my behavior. But there was no way in hell I was going back to AA. I was done with the God mumbo jumbo.

And I discovered Smart Recovery – a thinking man’s AA, I like to refer to it as. Instead of turning yourself over to a higher power, Smart Recovery holds you accountable for your actions, forcing you to evaluate your decisions and figure out why you made them in the first place. It was more than listening to a room full of sketchy people telling sob stories. It was actual work. I mean, they even gave me a worksheet to fill out when I got there. These people took their shit seriously. Screw AA. They’re a bunch of whiny babies who put themselves completely in the hands of God or their higher power or Satan or whoever. I mean, really, take some responsibility for yourself.

But, of course, I stopped going. And just yesterday, because these Smart Recovery meetings are so far from where I live – about an hour each way – I decided to go to an AA meeting, the tried and true.

I knew it was a bad idea from the start. My GPS got me lost – in my own town – and took me to a completely different road from where I was supposed to be. But I was determined to make it there and wound up being only five minutes late.

And who do I wind up sitting next to? The boyfriend of my ex-girlfriend’s best friend. I’d only met him once and he gained about 50 pounds since I had met him – his neck fat was bulging and he was sweating profusely – but it was him. I never looked at him and hoped he wouldn’t recognize me at all. I don’t think he ever did. But I figured if he started talking to me – seriously, all AAers do is talk to people – I’d give him a fake name. What would my fake name be, I wondered to myself, while someone was talking at the front of the room about their experiences with alcohol.

They passed around a basket for people to throw in whatever amount of money they wanted to donate to the AA chapter. I ignored the basket as it was passed in front of me. I only had a $20 in my pocket and they certainly weren’t getting that. Besides, if I wanted to be surrounded by people talking about God and have to throw money in a basket, I might as well just go to mass with my grandfather on Sundays.

Then, the moment came where I finally had it with you, AA. A woman a few rows in front of me talked about how happy she was that her life is now completely in the hands of God, how she couldn’t be responsible for her own life.

I gritted my teeth and forced myself to not raise my hand and completely lambast everyone in the room. I could actually feel the anger in me rising. It made my chest hurt. I didn’t want to be there.

I left as soon as the meeting was over. The sun was still out and it felt like a typically nice summer day that was calmly winding down. The church bells rang. It was 8 p.m. A year or so ago, I’d be heading to the bar, but I was going home.

As I started my car, I saw everyone else from the meeting standing outside the main entrance, smoking cigarettes and chatting like old friends. Jesus freaks, I thought, and I realized I had actually parked my car in a circular driveway, blocking the road for others. Good thing I’m the first to leave.

AA, I think it’s time we entirely severed ties. It’s obvious that neither of us gets anything out of this completely dysfunctional relationship and one of these days I’m just going to say something rude to people who are just trying to make their lives better for themselves. And that will only make me an asshole.

So, I guess I’ll suck up the drive and head the hour west for Smart Recovery once or twice a week. The gas money is worth my sanity.



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4 responses to “An Open Letter to Alcoholics Anonymous

  1. H

    Glad that you finally got shut of AA. All your instincts were correct. SMART is a good bit better. The tools, online, are good. The message board and chat room are much better than AA.
    But, it is your call. I think that SMART is much more in line with humanity than AA, but you do need to get it done yourself. So, do what you need to do.
    The 12 steps are an abstraction. They do not apply to mortal humans.

  2. Wow, nice read man. Thanks for sharing! However I’m having trouble with ur rss feed. Does anyone else have problems with the rss?

  3. methinks thou doth protest too much.

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