Tribe, Ritual and God Energy: Why AA Works for Me

NOTE: This post is a guest post on Hip Sobriety's blog for Outside The Rooms: Hip Sobriety and Alcoholics Anonymous: An 11 Part Series

A couple months ago, I listened on the phone as my dear friend Holly read to me a draft of a long, thoughtful, honest piece about her experience with AA and its part in her recovery journey.

When she finished I took a long, deep breath. Holly’s story is gorgeously brave – just like her. She’s an example of the deep well of power we can find in the softness of our human hearts. She is also fiercely fierce.

She's been sober for two years, and has had a mostly negative experience with AA. Whenever she describes her story I find myself getting defensive, which is interesting.I think it’s natural to want to defend things that mean something to us, especially when those things feel so connected to our own safety. But I also get it. While my experience has been very different, I get it. I’ve had mixed feelings about it at many points. I’ve wrestled with the language, the people, the groupthink mentality, all of it. I’ve wished I could be one of those people who walked into the rooms and never questioned a thing, but I’m not.

But today I’m grateful that I don’t fuss too much with how I feel about AA. How I feel about it – like many things – changes all the time. Maybe a little bit like a long-term relationship, when you’ve reached that place where your love and commitment to the thing, the respect, the reverence that you’re in the hands of the Universe anyway, trumps the inevitable and lesser ups and downs. The benefits far outweigh the perceived costs. Are there things that bug me? Sure. But my relatively short experience has taught me that when I put myself in the middle of AA, I don’t drink. When I go to meetings regularly I feel infinitely better, emotionally and spiritually. When I don’t, I start to feel jiggy. I don’t totally get the connection, but that’s fine. I also don’t get how electricity works.

I spent a lot of time intellectualizing my thoughts and dissecting my feelings about AA and you know what? None of that helped me stay sober. Because what I was actually intellectualizing was my drinking – and that’s not an intellectual exercise.

So what if the same annoying person drones on for twenty fucking minutes about the story you’ve heard 100 times before, again. There’s someone who might need to hear it. Patience. Tolerance.

So some of the language in the big book is misogynistic and simple – maybe even offensive to me as a writer. It was written in the 1930’s (and yes, it could use an update), but the underlying message is still brilliantly beautiful and profound. Take what works – leave the rest.

So there are some weirdos, crazies, and people I find incredibly annoying in the program. Welcome to life. Everywhere. By and large, the majority of people I’ve come across in the rooms of AA are wonderfully compassionate, surprisingly funny, and exceedingly honest. They possess the rare qualities I most love in human beings who’ve gone through and survived some kind of hell: humility,  tolerance and a deep respect for life. It took time to find my crew and appreciate this vibe. It took a lot of shopping around meetings, sitting through bad ones, tolerating annoyances, time. But I can honestly say that when I’m in those rooms I feel a sense of calm and hope I don’t feel anywhere else.

It’s also important to note I do a lot of other things to keep moving forward, and by no means do I think AA is the only way to get and stay sober, nor do I think it’s the best way for everyone. It’s just what has worked for me so far. The other things I do – some of which are technically part of the program (meditation, prayer, honesty with others, service work) and some of which are technically not (yoga, running, lots of sleep, baths, writing, engaging in any creative outlet possible) have only been encouraged and enhanced by what I’ve learned in the rooms and through the people.

When Holly finished reading me her post I said I was bummed she’d had such a bad experience, because mine has just been so different. She asked if I’d write about my experience and I said, of course.

So I distilled why I believe AA has worked for me so far into three primary points: the people,  ritual, and God energy.

The people. I found a tribe.

AA Alcoholics Anonymous Sobriety Tribe Addiction Recovery
AA Alcoholics Anonymous Sobriety Tribe Addiction Recovery
We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community. – Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness

Being a human can be lonely. Being a human with an acute alcohol addiction is desperately, painfully lonely. By the end of my drinking I was surrounded by people, but nobody knew my insides. Nobody knew how much I was drinking, the crushing shame and anxiety I felt because of the things I did when I drank, how important booze was to me, how much I relied on it to feel normal, social, human. Even I didn’t know. We go to such great lengths to protect the addiction – such great lengths – that over time, incrementally, despite ourselves, we create a separate world with a population of two – us and the alcohol. While we exist in, manage, and are part of entire lives that include families and co-workers and big, vibrant circles of friends and houses and plans we are constantly, dreadfully alone.

In the rooms of AA I heard people describe my insides exactly. I heard people speak in a way I thought impossible. I’ve had more than a few friends say that while sitting in their first meeting, they were sure the person who took them there had tipped off the room, told them about their story, because the things people were saying were just too familiar, too close to their own experience, how could they possibly know? It’s funny but true. Of course nobody tipped them off. As wonderfully unique and special we all are, our human experiences are collectively, boringly similar. Love is love. Pain is pain. Fear is fear. Addiction is addiction. The thing Dr. Bob and Bill Wilson captured in the Big Book is the essence of what it’s like to experience alcoholism – the physical, mental and spiritual aspects of the disease – and every time we sit in a meeting we get the chance to recognize and be recognized, to hear how others have walked through it, to nod our heads and say, Yes, me, too. There is magic in Me, too. Me, too is the antidote to loneliness.

Many people need desperately to receive this message: 'I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people do not care about them. You are not alone.' – Kurt Vonnegut

So by sitting there, listening and talking, I found a tribe. I now have a large circle of people I know from AA – some are very close friends, some are acquaintances, some are just familiar faces – all sharing this common, bizarre experience. I know so many people I wouldn’t have otherwise come across in my everyday life. People who used to be homeless, CEOs, Broadway dancers, insurance executives, total misfits and weirdos, wonderful humans. I hang out with these people inside and outside the rooms. When I first came in, they invited me to parties – sober parties – and I saw people having actual, real fun without drinking (gasp!). I was invited to dinners, to coffee, to run 10Ks and go on ski trips. They said, come along with us. They let me be weird and self-conscious and shaky like the most awkward days of junior high. When I said I was angry about everything, uncomfortable as fuck and sad, they nodded their heads, I know and I have been there and Me, too. They told me to call whenever and picked up their phone when I did and didn’t ask why I was calling. They smiled when I showed up at a meeting after going missing for a few weeks and didn’t say, Where have you been?  But instead, I’m so happy to see you.

Anne Lamott talks about how at some point in her recovery process, she had developed relationships with so many people who were invested in her sobriety that she couldn’t just disappear anymore. If she went off the radar for more than a day or so, she’d get calls or people would show up at her house. She called them “The Interrupters.” I have a crew of them myself now, and 90% are folks I met in AA. They keep tabs. They send texts and call. They show up. They don’t let me disappear, even if I want to. This is a tribe and it’s important in sobriety (and life) because we humans get lost easily, we imagine ourselves alone, we float off to the edge. And the edge is where you can fall off.

Lest you think this sounds like a total love fest, let me be clear: it’s not all a love fest. Sometimes when I’m sitting in meetings I press the palms of my hands into my eye sockets willing someone to shut up. I’ve walked out of meetings because I can’t listen for one more second longer. I’ve wanted to punch certain people right in the face, make-out with others, and sometimes I just shake my head. But underneath all that I get access to some bigger, deeper realm where none of that shit matters – the “good” or the “bad” – because I know we’re all doing something so much more important just by sitting there, being totally imperfect.

The ritual: patient action

The ritual of meetings and the emphasis on action is another reason AA works for me. For a couple reasons:

I am lazy and dislike routines. I want to do things on my time, when I want to do them, the way I want. Which is fine and all, except when it comes to changing behaviors, paying bills and getting my kid to school on time. Particularly now, in early recovery, the simple practices of AA has been crucial. I remember when my first sponsor told me to call her every day. I thought, Every. Day?! I don’t talk to anyone EVERY DAY. But after a while (and enough falling on my face) I figured out why: recovery is a daily thing. Like one of the old timers said, “You wouldn’t skip a shower today because you took one yesterday would you?” (Well, yes. Yes I would skip a shower today, but point taken.)

It’s the same as any behavior we want to change. We must rewire our brains with new behaviors and that means action. Not talking about it, thinking about it, writing about it, but actually doing it. Sitting your ass in a chair and doing it. Over and over.

I also think it’s important to say, nothing “bad” happens if I don’t go to a meeting or call my sponsor every day, the program doesn’t require anything except a desire to stop drinking – these are just suggestions. Yet things seem to go a hell of a lot better when I follow those suggestions. At minimum, I stay sober. And at best, I help someone else do that.

Problems cannot be solved at the same level of awareness (thinking) that created them. - Albert Einstein

ALSO: I have amnesia. We all do. We romanticize horrible relationships when they're over, we revere the dead even when they were assholes, and we forget the negative consequences of our behavior, over and over again. But when you have amnesia about a thing that can cause as much damage as drinking, it’s actually dangerous. When our neural pathways have been formed for years upon years (for me, 20!) to do a thing -- and that thing is so closely associated to daily living (laundry, dinner, restaurants, sex, 5:00 pm Monday - Friday (happy hour!), sporting events, sunny weather, fall weather, snowstorms, holidays, birthdays, thirsty Thursdays, celebrations, tough days, whatever) a hell of a lot of rewiring needs to happen.

When I first knew I had to quit drinking every day felt so fragile. Like I could step on a crack in the sidewalk and end up drunk again. Having a place to go and physically put by body was helpful and necessary. The rituals of going to a meeting, reading the preamble, hearing the same words, seeing familiar faces, the format of meetings, the daily-ness of it, I needed it. I like it. They say, move the feet and the heart will follow and I have found that to be the case.

God energy

AA Recovery Addiction Sobriety Alcoholics Anonymous Alcoholism Alcohol
AA Recovery Addiction Sobriety Alcoholics Anonymous Alcoholism Alcohol
Every act or decision we make that supports life supports all life, including our own. The ripples we create return to us. – David R. Hawkins, Power vs. Force

The third reason AA works for me is that in those rooms I find what I call “God energy.”

This has nothing to do with religion.

It’s the energy I feel when I am near the ocean, lost in a beautiful book, watching my daughter sleep, teaching yoga, in the writing flow. It’s an elevated energy - the vibration of hope and change. I want as much of it as I can get, on a daily basis, because it makes me feel better. And not in a bottle-of-wine-or-six donuts-way, but in a long, restful sleep and a hug-from-your-favorite-aunt way. It reminds me I am connected to you. It reminds me how strong and also how powerless I am.

I wrote the following four months ago, which sums it up better than I can now.

I know AA isn't for everyone. There are many parts of it that kept me away and still turn me off sometimes. I know it isn't the only way, but if I look at my path over the past year, I feel deep gratitude that it exists.
I thought about it as I was sitting at a meeting tonight, feeling at ease, comfortable in my skin and at peace for the first time all day. Just listening and nodding and smiling at faces I know and strangers' too.
Why I go now is the same reason I kept going back to the yoga mat so many years ago and still do today as often as possible. It is the same reason I bury my nose in my daughter's head and smell her 100 times a day. It is the same reason I never tire of looking at the ocean. I go because I feel God in those rooms. I feel God in all the broken bits of us sitting in those chairs. Because I can see the fear in someone's eyes when they are very new, and the way the room holds them. I can feel my own brokenness being seen and understood and thus, some kind of alchemy taking place. I can speak my own voice, even when it shakes. I see people hold space for one another, even when they are irritated, annoyed, angry, or disagree. I see people belly laugh and weep. I see people change…actually change. And it feels like witnessing miracles.
So yeah, that's why I go. Because I need to be with God to remember who I am.

[NOTE: This post is a guest post on Hip Sobriety's blog for her "Outside The Rooms: Hip Sobriety and Alcoholics Anonymous: An 11 Part Series. To read the rest of the series, go here."]

Primary photo credit: Larissa Coutihno on Flickr