Take what you need and leave the rest. It’s a motto often relayed to newcomers to Alcoholics Anonymous, or anyone finding difficulty adhering to all of its tenets and suggestions, its Steps and Traditions.
I’m glad of the flexibility it suggests. Because when it comes to my own approach to AA, I definitely leave more than I take. In fact, I leave most of it. I have to.
I once heard an old-timer say that going to meetings without actually working the Steps is like going to the gym and just spending the whole time at the juice bar. That’s me—the spiritual equivalent of a chick in designer yoga pants and full makeup, sipping some green drink while everyone else busts their ass in SoulCycle.
My meeting routine is as follows: I show up, perhaps half a dozen times a month. I catch up with my friends. I sit and find myself uplifted while I listen to a speaker talk about pulling themselves out of the morass of dependency and degradation and embracing a seemingly miraculous new beginning, thanks to the program. I listen to some other shares. Then maybe I go out to eat with a few friends and head home.
Sometimes I take on a service commitment. When I can help my friends or someone in need, I do my best to show up and support them. But that’s the extent of my relationship with the program. I don’t work the 12 Steps. I don’t sponsor people.
Still, I don’t drink. That’s the important thing, right?
Some AA members will say that the sobriety of people like me isn’t as “real” or “good” as that of people who have fully immersed themselves in the program. Or better yet, that I’m “white-knuckling it.” Some will even say that I’m not sober at all, but “dry”—aka, as sick and damaged as ever, only not drinking.
That’s kind of obnoxious. And it’s that tendency to scoff at people who get sober without working the Steps—as if they couldn’t possibly be happy or well-adjusted—that makes me feel conflicted about AA.
Well, it’s one of the things.
Let me backtrack a little.
In my late twenties, I found that what used to be just binge-drinking on the weekends had taken a turn. I started picking up six-packs after work, then sitting in my room, drinking beers and watching old X-Files episodes. I was declining invitations to hang out with my friends in order to cloister myself away in my apartment with bottles of whiskey. My own personal trajectory had flatlined. Each day was a sad, grey Groundhog Day, where I’d wake up, go to a dead-end permalance job with a crippling hangover, pick up some booze on the way home, and drink till I passed out.
What shook me out of this drunken Mobius strip was an incident where I blacked out in public and woke up in the ER with a few bruises and no memory of how I had gotten there. That’s when I became painfully aware that the way I was drinking had consequences. Fortunately, fear has always been a great motivator for me, and it motivated me to prize the bottle out of my mouth.
Four years after waking up in the ER, I have a career doing what I love, working in journalism, instead of an underpaid temp job. I stopped getting calls from bill collectors. I don’t wake up with pieces of dried barf in my hair. In short, I live like an adult and not a perpetually hungover college sophomore.
But I can’t really say AA got me sober. I suspect that I knew I was done drinking when I woke up in the hospital. I didn’t come to meetings because I couldn’t stop drinking. I came because my life had withered away to the point where I craved social contact, practically living in the detritus of old beer bottles and Chinese takeout containers, like a lonelier version of that trash-pile monster from Fraggle Rock.
In AA, I formed relationships with some kind, brilliant and empathetic people who are still my friends to this day. But I also found myself increasingly alienated from the dominant ways in which AA members framed the experience of being an alcoholic.
A few years before quitting drinking, I underwent treatment for panic attacks and anxiety. Being paralyzed by bouts of stress was a new experience for me, and a key part of what got me through it was friends and therapists telling me that what I was experiencing was common and that I could manage it—that feeling overwhelmed was normal.
The attitude I encountered in AA—where everyone seemed eager to pathologize every garden-variety quirk and neurosis as part of an insidious, chronic disease—was the opposite of this. In fact, “my disease” was commonly blamed for any uncomfortable feeling or behavior, no matter how benign or commonplace.
Did someone get frustrated or impatient in line at the DMV?
“Hey, that’s just my disease.”
Did they spend all day watching a marathon of The Wire instead of going out in the sunshine?
“That’s just so alcoholic of me!”
Did someone get struck with a bout of social anxiety when walking into a party full of people they didn’t know?
“My disease wants me to be lonely.”
Every possible feeling and behavior was grouped under a broad umbrella as “alcoholic”—as if drunks hold the monopoly on emotional pain and insecurity. Every neurosis was a byproduct of an odious spiritual infection actively trying to kill its host, instead of a reaction that is part and parcel of the human experience.
But these feelings aren’t unique to alcoholics. The only difference is that alcoholics have a much greater tendency to drink over them than other people.
Which brings me to an even larger reason that I ultimately feel alienated from 12-step dogma.
According to AA literature, alcoholism is a “threefold disease,” meaning that it is physical, mental and spiritual. The first two make sense to me—especially the mental part. Of course conditions like depression and anxiety would drive someone to drink.
But it was the spiritual aspect that I was never sold on. I mean, it’s not something that shows up on an MRI scan. I gave the program a try. I worked Steps with a sponsor, but the notion that I drank because I was inherently damaged on a spiritual level, and needed a higher power to intervene, never quite sank in. Is that something you would tell a patient suffering from bipolar disorder, or cancer?
Sure, the idea of an omnipotent Higher Power that looks out for you is comforting, and the faith that the universe will always take care of you probably keeps people from making a lot of bad decisions motivated by fear and panic. But still.
After a while, my sponsor asked me why I hadn’t started picking up sponsees of my own and taking them through the Steps. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I couldn’t endorse a program to someone else that I wasn’t sure I believed in myself. And then it became more and more of a chore to go through the motions of step-work towards which I was wildly indifferent. I abandoned it a year into sobriety.
Despite taking just a little and leaving a great deal, I’m eternally grateful for the existence of Alcoholics Anonymous. The fellowship brought a lot of great friends into my life. Any time I’m feeling lonely or depressed, I can walk into a room full of warm, supportive people and instantly feel better. That aspect alone is invaluable. And even if the 12 Steps aren’t for me, I’m glad they’ve given other people exactly what they need.
T. R. Wexler is a pseudonym for a journalist and AA member living in New York City.