rainer maria rilke

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 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 most of the language in the big book is male-centric and simplistic – 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

Truths and Clues

God speaks to each of us as he makes us, then walks with us silently out of the night. - Rainer Maria Rilke

Sometimes we have a big truth sitting inside us. A knowing. Maybe that our job is wrong, our relationship is dead, our child is suffering, our health is in danger – but we don’t know how to live into it, to navigate through. Clues will get us there.

And sometimes, it’s the clues that lead us to the truth. They can point us to our treasure, when all we have to guide us a vague feeling of discontent or misalignment. A general sense that we’re off course.

Clues are a breadcrumb trail fed by our curiosities and appetites, curated through the people and events that show up in our lives, and they are available to us always.

When I wrote the the hypothetical story about my friend’s elephant tattoo and how it might lead her through a winding but definite path to explore her heart, if she kept open and kept following the clues, I was brought back to my own path – the interplay of truths and clues that have led me to where I am today.

There are millions, of course, but a few I want to tell you about.

The First Truth

I knew somewhat early in my marriage – to a man I loved and love very much – that it wasn’t quite right. This was a massively inconvenient and complicated truth, a brutally painful one, one I didn't even understand. I didn’t know what life would look like on the other side of it, but trusting that tiny, clear voice that wouldn’t stop no matter what I did, or how I wished it to, was the hardest and most important thing I’d done in my life up to that point. Not because my life improved on the outside (in many ways, it did not and has not) as a result of listening to it, but because it was my truth, my gut – even though I didn’t have the right words to explain it, even though I didn't want it, even though it crushed me and a lot of others – and honoring it meant not denying myself, my core.

As Cheryl Strayed says in one of her Dear Sugar columns addressing three women who are questioning their own inner voices in their relationships,

“If there’s one thing I believe more than I believe anything else, it’s that you can’t fake the core. The truth that lives there will eventually win out. It’s a god we must obey, a force that brings us all inevitably to our knees.”  – Cheryl Strayed

And this was it. Alongside the truth this tiny voice kept whispering existed so many other contradictory truths: I loved him. He loved me. We have a child we adore. He's kind, and good-hearted, and so many other things. And yet, at some point I knew this voice would eventually win out. I knew silencing it was futile.

The Second Truth

“What is not brought to consciousness, comes to us as fate.” –Carl Jung

Long before I was willing to acknowledge, and even longer before I was willing to accept, I recognized I had a problem with alcohol. Some deep part of me knew that all my future happiness, and likely my life, depended on stopping this thing. The starkness of this thought seemed so dramatic when it came. I told myself it was for a long time. But in the end it turned out to be exactly that stark, exactly that serious.

There were so many clues along the way, an uncountable number. But we don’t listen until we listen, and sometimes we must be forced.

Once I couldn’t deny this truth any longer, in the same way I couldn’t deny the tiny, clear voice in my marriage, the question was how to proceed. And in this case again, I was completely lost. A girl without a map, a faulty compass, and a three ton backpack of fear.

One morning last summer, after a year of trying and falling down in sobriety, I woke up in a hotel room in California, having made it through the night before without drinking at dinner. This was a huge feat for me as traveling for work and drinking were well-worn pals. The chant from Friday Night Lights that I’d written on napkins and paper scraps and hummed in my head countless times, “Clear Eyes Full Heart” popped into my mind and I had the idea to start a new Instagram with that name.


So I created it. I didn’t follow any of my friends or co-workers; I followed nobody I knew in real life. I started it because I needed a place to write and post about this thing where people who didn’t know me could see it. My truths with the people in my real life were all mixed up and I didn’t want to keep track anymore. I wanted one small place to be brutally honest. Plus, I love words and pictures, they come easy to me, creating them makes me lose time (these are clues). It was a seemingly small little thing (clues usually are), but it set forth a whole trajectory.

Following The Clues

Through the Instagram account, I started to connect with people on the same path. Each time I created a post it felt like a tiny piece of art made of my insides. Each time I hit publish, a bit of me was released, and known. I started to let strangers know me. I started to find my words, and my need to pull those words together grew, until my posts became too long for Instagram and I started to write here again. I put more things out and got feedback from these strangers, who were starting to become people I knew.

Last summer I found out Elizabeth Gilbert was doing a book signing at Brookline Booksmith for her latest book, The Signature of All Things, and despite it being inconvenient and sweltering hot, I went with my daughter and my friend, Alex. We sat in the front row because I wanted Alma to see her and hear her talk about the main character in the book – whose name is also Alma – and so that I could ask her a question if the chance arose. We sat and listened: me, mesmerized and Alma, delighted if not a little confused about the character reference (Is that me? Who is she talking about?). When Liz asked the audience for questions, I raised my shaking hand. My heart pounded as I explained to her that this was Alma, my Alma, and that I wanted to bring her here to hear about the story of her Alma, but also that I’ve loved her work since before Eat, Pray, Love, that her words helped me navigate through my own marriage and separation and life. She smiled graciously and then proceeded to have a one-on-one exchange with Alma amidst hundreds of people in this theater.

She asked her, "How is it can I see your blue eyes in such a dark theater?"

Alma answered, "I don't know."

My heart exploded.

Elizabeth Gilbert's book signing for "The Signature of All Things", July 2014

Elizabeth Gilbert's book signing for "The Signature of All Things", July 2014

The bit of this day I'll never forget, the part that cut right through to my bones, is her response when someone asked her how she got over "writer's block." I loathed this question, but her response was something like:

“Whatever it is that keeps you afraid, that lets fear run the show, that holds you back from letting creativity work through you, you have to work through it and let it go. It might be an illness, your body image, the place where you live, resentments you have toward your father, I don’t really know. It might be alcoholism or an unhealthy relationship…”

--- she went on, but my heart stopped there.

“It might be alcoholism.”

She mentioned it in a list of a bunch of other things and she moved on, not placing any more emphasis on its significance or difficulty. And in that moment I knew, again, that it was the thing I had to move through first. That everything else – including any potential future I might possibly have as a writer – was on the other side of that.

It was that stark, that serious.

Through having been connected to Lindsey from my old Instagram account for years (someone I’ve also never met, although we are neighbors in Boston), I found Aidan, a mama and writer living in New York, who hosts “Happier Hour” literary salons, where she brings together women in her stunning home to talk about writing and support the chosen author’s book. One of the Happier Hours finally coincided with my bi-weekly work trips to the city, and in January I was able to attend a Happier Hour with Jane Green and Mira Jacob.

It was a freezing night in Manhattan and absolutely magical. I talked to women who were very well-established writers, and several who'd left their careers in legal/healthcare/real estate to pursue writing. On that night I realized, these women are just like me. This mystical, far-away place where “writers” lived and my own place in the world were not so far apart.

I started to write more, and to be more honest in my writing, particularly about my struggle with addiction and sobriety and the dissolution of my marriage. I started to write from my heart. I started to write even when I didn’t want to. I took Ira Glass' advice and let myself write horribly. I focused on producing a bunch of work, to show up every day for this thing because it’s really all I’ve ever wanted to do.

I started to stay sober.

And because I was sober, I could write.

Because I could write, because it helped me tell the truth in words, I started to learn how to tell the truth in-person.

In meetings, in day-to-day conversations, in my friendships, I told the truth.

Because I could tell the truth, I could stay sober for another day, and then another.

I grew lighter. The thing I thought impossible to do was the thing making me lighter.

One Saturday last fall I got an email from a girl I knew from high school and college. Someone whose life ran parallel tracks to mine, but we never really knew each other well.

She told me that she wasn’t quite sure if she should reach out, but felt compelled to, that she identified with parts of my story, that she really looks forward to reading my posts, that she hoped I kept writing because it helped her.

This note came at a time of doubt and it nudged me to keep going.

This same girl then tagged me in a note on Facebook about a writing retreat Cheryl Strayed was hosting in Greece the following summer, urging me to apply. I thought, No way. Too big. Too fabulous. How would I afford it? I'd never be chosen.

But a little voice in me wouldn't shut up: Why not?

Then I couldn't stop thinking about it.

So I applied, and a month or so later, on a Friday night, I got an email that I was in. I screamed and danced around my apartment like an insane person.

So this summer I'm going to Greece to hang out with Cheryl Strayed. Pinch me one hundred times, and then again.

There are so many other details - people, twists of fate, frustrations disguised as blessings - that have played into these stories I'm telling. To map it all would be a book itself (it's happening).

This Ain't No Whimsy Thing

There are so many more details - people, twists of fate, frustrations disguised as blessings, detours and guideposts - that have played into these stories I'm telling. To map it all would require a book itself (it's happening).

The point of it all is this: we must tell our truths and follow our clues.

Hearing your truth and following your clues requires being brave. It requires staying open, being patient for so much longer than we think we can, and then moving quickly. It requires trust that we are guided, and learning to identify the difference between our ego’s will and the divine (which is tricky, because our egos are sneaky bitches). Following clues requires that we slow down and take notice, regularly. It means we sometimes have to do things that are inconvenient and against our plan, or someone else’s, entirely. It means we often proceed without clarity or a promised outcome, which is to say it requires faith, and faith is often hard-earned only by surviving our cuts and bruises.

Following your path, trusting your heart, living out your dream – all this stuff might sound so whimsical and airy-fairy. Like extravagance, a luxury, a selfish pursuit. But I think it is the exact opposite.

I believe there’s great danger in so many of us walking around separated from our hearts, unknowable to ourselves and therefore each other.

There’s great sadness, but also real risk, in not showing up in our lives as we were meant to (and I do believe we are all meant to do something) because it robs others of our gifts, and our gifts are what bring us joy, and love, and healing, and often life-saving grace. Our gifts are the least selfish thing we can bring forth, even though it may require selfishness to own them, and grow them.

I have no idea where my own path will all lead, but I do know that as of today I've been sober almost six months and I'm writing every day and I feel like I'm finally coming home. Following this path feels right in the deepest center of my being - my core - and I'm committed to staying open to what comes next.

You, too?

Just Another Cycle of The Tide

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"Perhaps the most important thing for me to take back from beach-living: simply the memory that each cycle of the tide is valid; each cycle of the wave is valid; each cycle of the relationship is valid." - Anne Morrow Lindbergh "Gift From The Sea"

I do not think it's a mistake I live by the sea. I live by the sea for the same reason I have 'beauty and terror' tattooed on my forearm.

Beauty and Terror from Rainer Maria Rilkes poem
Beauty and Terror from Rainer Maria Rilkes poem

Because I need the most stark reminders of the ebbs and flows. Because, as my friend Kate once said, when someone asked her to describe me, "her rainbow is very bright." I do not experience things subtly, on the surface, from afar. I run right along the nerve of things - like maybe I was born without some protective layer - and now that I'm not numbing that space with alcohol, there is nothing between me and the hot, burning brightness of my own spectrum.

I got the tattoo when my husband moved out of our house over two years ago in July. I got it because I'd had those words lolling around in my head for so long at that point, and because he hadn't understood them or why I'd want to put them on my body. It was an act of solidarity to myself and a prayer to the universe. I went right from the tattoo place to the bar across the street - all before noon. I slept with a boy I barely knew that night, and went swimming in the ocean. I had friends visiting from Colorado that weekend. We sat on my porch and drank beers and I had a hollow phantom limb feeling - a ghost limb that would stay with me for much longer than I could have expected.

I have that same phantom limb feeling sometimes now, about drinking. This thing that used to be there, my go-to, my ever-present pal. I feel weird without it sometimes. Exposed and less confident. Too close to my me-ness. Too bright.

But I look out the window and I catch the words on my arm and the light in the room and I close my eyes and hum, hum, hum, it's just another cycle of the tide.