Enough with the offshoots, I’m coming home.
I grew up in AA. My mom dragged me to my first meeting when I was 15. I initially resisted the program, but ultimately surrendered to it when I hit rock bottom. I put together a year at 17, relapsed, then came in and stayed in at age 21. I have been clean and sober ever since. Now in my forties, I have a life beyond my wildest dreams. That’s not to say it has been smooth sailing along the way. After getting sober, I have had to look at other areas of my life that were affected by my addictive nature.
The first Big Problem after sobriety was eating and body image. When I was in drug and alcohol rehab, I dropped 10 pounds in 28 days (and I was already thin). Then, in my first year of sobriety, I started compulsively bingeing on sugar. Enter Overeaters Anonymous, where I got help through working the steps with a sponsor. I had a white light moment when I got down on my knees one morning and humbly asked for help with this issue. Miraculously, I experienced a whole day free from compulsive eating. This experience taught me that there was nothing too small to bring to my Higher Power. The steps, it seemed, could work on all areas of my life.
It wasn’t too long before a new issue cropped up: relationships. I brought a troubled boyfriend in with me when I got sober who was hard to shed and had tempted me with relapse. I was advised to attend Al-Anon. I broke up with the boyfriend, thanks in part to the support of Al-Anon members.
But people are everywhere: in jobs, families and in dating. So as I put together more sober time, I explored new relationship programs. Some of the meetings I attended were: Coda, Sexual Compulsives Anonymous, Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous and Adult Children of Alcoholics. In these programs, I found others like me who struggled like I did. Identification was healing—it relieved the shame and isolation. Someone suggested in a Sex Compulsives meeting that I create a plan for abstinence that prevented sleeping with someone until a certain amount of dates had elapsed. No one had ever given me guidance in these matters, and as basic as the advice was, it seemed genius to me.
Later, I applied the steps and program to money issues in Debtors Anonymous. There, I found practical help with my money and spending issues. Though I didn’t follow all the suggestions, willingness and consistency helped me to face significant fears, reduce debt and even buy an apartment. Although I didn’t totally relate to compulsive debting, I did have some credit card balances that were dragging me down.
In all these “offshoot programs” of AA, I was encouraged to use what was useful. Take what you like and leave the rest, they said. These are suggestions only. And I always stayed connected to the mothership: AA and my AA sponsor.
Then, something weird happened. I found a fellowship that didn’t want me. Far from being warmly welcomed, I was invited to consider whether I belonged at all.
Yes, folks, I was 86’ed from Underearners Anonymous.
Encouraged by a friend who had raved about UA, I started calling in on UA phone meetings. Phone meetings were perfect for me. As a working mom, I don’t always have time to go out. I rapidly found a sponsor willing to work with me over the phone from Colorado. She gave me a first Step assignment to help me see my powerlessness over underearning. I was to read the Symptoms in the UA literature, and then call three members to discuss how I identified with each one. I was also told to purchase a binder and print out the literature from the website, as well as look at a video on YouTube that explained their mystical time-management sheets.
This was great! I could actually not go to meetings in person! I would save so much time!
Like a good student, I went to work. After a week, I called my new sponsor to phone it in. She was unimpressed with my results, telling me it was incomplete and done incorrectly. She was forgiving, but asked me to do more work. She asked if I truly believed I was an underearner: she didn’t want to work with someone who wasn’t sure. I stammered and paused. Unused to program people challenging my eligibility, I thought hard and deep. And you know what? She was right! I wasn’t truly convinced I belonged. A wave of relief washed over me. Maybe I wouldn’t have to keep trying to fill out the baffling time-management charts (ok, I hadn’t looked at the video). Though this woman had scolded me for not doing the homework correctly, I later recalled that while she had said she would email me the homework, she never had. It was hard for me to feel too badly about doing the assignment wrong when I had never received it as promised.
There were other red flags. At my only face-to-face UA meeting, I spoke to a member who told me what to do to fix my problem. Clearly, I needed to write another book (I am an author). This rankled a bit, as the guy who was telling me what to do didn’t seem to have a job himself. The terminology didn’t resonate, either: I didn’t really feel that I was a “hider and biter,” or that I was “underbeing.” A recurring catchphrase I heard was” hiding in the cave”—a sort of code, apparently, for underbeing. I live in a nice, visible apartment and like to see other people. Though I do sometimes procrastinate, I generally like to earn money and charge a reasonable rate for my services. And what did it mean to be a “biter” anyway? Also, the idea of obtaining an “action partner” had always mystified me.
I realized that if I followed all these protocols, I would be far too busy to actually earn money. Already, the time I had spent in this program had detracted from my precious work time. It occurred to me that if I were truly underearning, the best way to solve the problem would be to just make more money. And these phone meetings were actually encouraging me to “hide in the cave.” I missed my friends and real fellowship!
The Orwellian world of UA had initially appealed to me as a lifer in 12-step programs. When I was given an out, however, I grabbed it and ran. I simply didn’t have the time to do what was being asked of me. And that, I decided, was ok.
This experience has been oddly liberating. It has been a relief to realize that I am not deeply dysfunctional in a major part of my life, after all. I don’t have to pathologize every problem, either. I can apply common sense and discipline when needed. In a life of recovery, I had become accustomed to constant self- scrutiny and frequent confessions of powerlessness. But I have to ask myself if the founders of AA would have embraced this micromanaging of every aspect of life with attendance at a specialized meeting. After all, in the Big Book, we are told we will recover from our drinking problem if we do the steps. We are further told in the promises that our lives will get more manageable, that we will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us. “I came for the drinking and stayed for the thinking” is a common refrain, one that reminds me that I need to practice the steps to keep my mental outlook clear.
I don’t mean to minimize the legitimate pain of people who truly are compulsive with certain issues. I know there are many forms of addiction, firsthand. But in the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous, and the related AA literature, there are repeated references to spiritual awakening and restoration to sanity. I don’t know about you, but to me, this sounds like a functional life. As I heard someone in a meeting say: “Either God is all, or God is nothing. Whether it be a Great Creator, a Group of Drunks, or Good Orderly Direction, Higher Power is big enough to handle anything and everything.” When Bill and Bob talked about spiritual awakening, they meant it as an all-encompassing experience that spanned the totality of life, not just the drinking aspect. Quite simply, if I work the AA program, my life works. Or, to put it simply:
I am lucky enough to be an alcoholic. I get to belong to the program that spawned the offshoots.
So just for today, I am going to pat myself on the back for the progress I have made, knowing that there is a solution to any problem I may encounter with the aid of the tools I have found in AA. Read more “the fix”…