Thanks for Letting Me Share

Stories About Addiction, Recovery and What's in Between

I find meditating to be very, very helpful. At first, it was agony to be still while my thoughts spun and whirred crazily. With practice, I started to be able to slow my thinking down, temporarily quieting the squeak of the hamster wheel in my head. Meditation has helped me find a calm, quiet energy and to put some separation between myself and my thoughts.

That realization that I am not my thoughts has been significant for me. As an alcoholic, my thoughts and feelings ran riot, bouncing from extreme to extreme. I spent my days reacting to irrational thoughts and ultimately, drinking to quiet them down—like a parent giving a child Benadryl before a long flight. Meditation doesn’t necessarily stop the crazy march of irrational thoughts in my head, but it does let me sit back and just watch the parade. I don’t have to react, I don’t have to make the parade stop and I don’t have to run away.

I often use guided meditations, but sometimes I like to simply spin out a picture in my mind—while breathing calmly and steadily. I imagine walking down a country road on a winter evening. The air is cold and crisp and the sun has just set, leaving a stripe of orange on the horizon. Above the glowing orange stripe, the sky gets progressively darker, at the top it’s the color of the midnight blue crayon in the 64-pack. The gravel crunches under my feet. The air is sharp and cold and clean when I breathe in and it billows in front of me when I let my breath out. Darkness falls bit by bit, the blue-black of night slowly staining the sky.

I’m walking towards a house in the distance. There are no lights, I can only make out its hulking shape, outlined in black against the sky. There is a stand of trees behind the house, only visible as a dark row of silhouettes. There is no wind, no sound but the crunching beneath my feet. There is calm and peace as I walk down the road and feel the cold on my face. There is calm and peace in the quiet and the darkness.

I’m not sure why I find that images so appealing and peaceful—but it really does help me. Enjoy the parade and thanks for letting me share.

Many AA meetings end with: “What you hear here, who you see here, when you leave here, let it stay here. Hear, Hear.” The Twelfth Tradition of Alcoholics Anonymous is more explicit: “Anonymity is the spiritual foundation of all our Traditions, ever reminding us to place principles before personalities.” It seems fair, then, to ask how a card-carrying member of AA (note: we actually don’t have membership cards) could tell stories about recovery and addiction and AA without compromising the important principle of anonymity.

I’ve chosen to be pretty open about my struggles with alcohol and my recovery. Like many alcoholics, I lived under the illusion that I had managed to effectively conceal my drinking. It turns out I was quite wrong—my drinking was what you might call an open secret. I figured that if people knew about my drinking, they might as well know about my recovery. I also knew that recovery depends upon honesty and trying to conceal the fact that I was an alcoholic in recovery seemed counterproductive. I made the decision to share my experiences more openly but I recognize that is a very personal choice. I’m glad I chose that path and have found people are generally very supportive and often very inquisitive. While I don’t wear a t-shirt that says “alcoholic” on it, I’m willing to discuss the issue, answer questions and share information. I’ve been surprised on a number of occasions when friends and acquaintances talk to me about my recovery and ended up asking if I would take them to a meeting.

My own view is that anonymity can be a two-edged sword. The tradition of anonymity undoubtedly emboldens people to seek the help they need and that’s very, very important. But if the modern view is that alcoholism is a disease, the notion that those seeking treatment should be encouraged to do so in secret is outdated. I worry that our pledge of anonymity and the importance we place on it can generate or perpetuate feelings of shame and guilt—-two powerful engines of addiction.

One of my favorite books about addiction and recovery is A Million Little Pieces by James Frey. It’s a searing, poignant and funny account of his time in rehab. I found his descriptions of addiction and the personalities and emotions in rehab and recovery to be spot-on. Oprah loved the book, too. She picked it for her book club and had him on the show. She even called into the Larry King Show to defend him when his account was being questioned. Frey swore up and down that it was all true, that everything he described in the book had actually happened and had happened to him.

Well, it turns out that A Million Little Pieces was actually a work of fiction, a great novel but not a true story. Frey had to make a repeat appearance on Oprah for a public shaming. To me, this proved the book was authentic, if not entirely true. Who but an alcoholic or an addict would write a book that had so many fanciful elements, so much drama (newsflash: rehab is really kind of boring) and then claim on national TV that it was all true? I knew then that the book had been written by someone who knew one of the realities of addiction–the crazy outlandish lies that we tell, often for no real reason. Frey wrote a magnificent book and had he called it fiction it would still have been a magnificent book. But the simple truth never seems to be quite the right answer for us. We addicts lie about big and small, important and inconsequential and I believe dishonesty lies very close to the core of addiction. Embracing a life that requires rigorous honesty (“How it Works” in the Big Book) is one of the fundamental challenges of recovery and Frey’s willingness to lie about his book convinced me that it was an even more authentic account and had been written by someone who truly knew addiction.

Going public is a personal decision and I only get to make that decision for me. So I will endeavor here to tell stories that are mostly true—or maybe it would be more accurate to say “inspired by actual events,” like on “Law and Order.” My point is, I am telling stories and sharing thoughts that I think shed some light on the nature of addiction, the toll it exacts and the process of recovery. Some of those stories, or parts of those stories, belong to other people and it would be wrong of me to blithely tell them without permission or consent. Instead, I’ll alter some of the details, change the names to protect the innocent. I don’t believe that altering some of the details will diminish the power or value of these stories, but thought it was important to be clear about the process. When I’m writing only about myself, I will try to keep to the straight and narrow, but I will alter elements of some stories to respect the anonymity and privacy of others.

Thanks for letting me share.


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.

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