I think, by conservative estimates, there are now roughly one jillion written accounts of addiction and recovery. These stories follow a common arc: a promising and somewhat happy life; a gradual descent into addiction; a flaming, searing crash that shatters lives and forces a grim, desperate reckoning; a gradual recovery that involves coming to terms with the flotsam and jetsam of the past and, finally, a path forward into the sunlight of recovery and sobriety. My story is roughly similar and given the sheer number of compelling accounts one must ask, why am I writing this and why would anyone read it?
Alcoholism, as a species of addiction (technically now called “Alcohol Use Disorder”), afflicts something like 17 million people in the United States—or roughly 1 out of 12 drinkers. Alcoholism is thought to be responsible for nearly 6% of all deaths worldwide—more than 3 million a year. In the United States, alcoholism is the third-leading preventable cause of death following closely on the heels of tobacco, claiming nearly 90,000 people a year. For all that has been said about the terrible scourge of opioids, alcoholism still kills nearly 50% more people every year. There are reams of studies showing that alcoholism is not simply a function of poor judgment and lack of willpower or personal resolve, but a bona fide disease that attacks and alters the physical structure of the brain. It is a disease that is frighteningly difficult to treat and overcome. And, I’m pretty sure it’s the only disease where, once diagnosed, the most commonly prescribed long-term treatment is to read a book that was written in the 1930’s and attend meetings with other people who have read that same book.
And that brings us to Alcoholics Anonymous, founded in the 1930’s by Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob. AA meetings are commonly portrayed on television and in the movies as groups of fairly scruffy, down-on-their-luck smokers sitting on metal folding chairs in church basements who add the suffix “and I’m an alcoholic” to their names when introducing themselves. To be fair, there is more than a little truth in that depiction. But the brainchild of Bill and Dr. Bob has not only spawned a culture of 12-step programs that now address a dizzying array of human foibles, it provides one of a very few lifelines, a spot of hope and, sometimes, a way out, for people afflicted with this terrible disease.
So, yes, I’m a believer in AA and have attended more meetings over the last 7 years than I can count. There is a fair amount of professional skepticism about AA , but the metric-driven debate about the efficacy of AA as a treatment for alcoholics misses the point. AA’s success may be entirely anecdotal, but I can go to any number of meetings and the rooms are filled with people who have accumulated long term sobriety. Of course, there is self-selection at work. Generally, people who cannot maintain sobriety stop going to meetings at some point. But it is undeniable that AA does, in fact, successfully allow some people to recover from alcoholism.
The question then becomes how does it work? The 4th Edition of Alcoholics Anonymous, the “Big Book” as it is lovingly called by alcoholics, takes a stab at this in a section aptly named “How it Works,” but that explanatory passage omits what I think is the true and most potent force at work—the sharing of stories by alcoholics. There are a number of meeting formats employed in AA; there are “Big Book Meetings” where sections are read aloud in turns, there are “Step Meetings” where the focus is on a particular step and its application, there are men’s meetings and women’s meetings and beginners meetings—but the most common feature in all of the meetings is an alcoholic sharing their “strength, experience and hope;” meaning they share their story of addiction and recovery. To quote the Big Book, “our stories disclose in a general way what we used to be like, what happened and what we are like now.” And therein is the power of AA.
Storytelling is a fundamental element of human existence. It has served to pass down survival tips, history and cultural identity. The great religions of the world are based on storytelling and our political institutions are wholly dependent on storytelling for propagation and reinforcement. Recovery from addiction is dependent on storytelling and hearing the stories of others has been a powerful and moving part of my own recovery.
I’ll never forget a meeting that I went to early one Saturday morning. It was a “speaker” meeting and the woman seated in the scruffy, overstuffed chair in the front of the room introduced herself and told us her story. It was a harrowing: a descent from a middle class home to a crack-addicted existence on the streets of New York. Miraculously, an arrest led to a lucky assignment to a treatment center and the gradual reclamation of a life that was almost assuredly lost. Even more miraculously, she managed to go to college, law school and pursue a career as a lawyer. It was an amazing story, nearly impossible to really believe, but when she began talking about AA I knew that she was telling the truth. She said:
*What I love about AA is the way we tell each other our stories. Our stories are devastating and heartbreaking. They’re full of loss and regret and grief. They are nearly impossible to tell sometimes, but we sit in a room of strangers and tell them. We share the most shameful, painful and sordid episodes of our lives, we bare ourselves to the core and sometimes we laugh and sometimes we cry, but what we always do, all of us, in every room like this, we treat those stories with reverence. We treat those stories so gently and we try to find something in them to to grab on to and sometimes, just sometimes, that’s enough to save us.*
I cried that Saturday morning. I’ve never forgotten those words or that story. I’m still moved to tears every time I recall them. That story, those words, and all of the other stories, some funny, some absurd, some breathtakingly sad, are the most important part of my recovery. They’re woven into my fabric now. A cynic might say that recovery stories are like snowflakes– each one may be slightly different, but the story of every snowflake is pretty much like the story of every other snowflake. I think that’s wrong. Our stories have plenty of common attributes to be sure, but it is the power in telling those stories and listening to those stories that provides the only realistic hope of recovery for most alcoholics.
These are my stories and this is why I’m telling them. Thanks for letting me share.