It's My Fifth Soberversary and I'm Breaking My Anonymity To Talk About AA

Five years and one day ago, I was wandering the streets of Manhattan in a blackout.
Publish date:
January 6, 2014
alcoholism, recovery, sobriety, AA, drugs, alchohol

Getting real, I haven't been all that anonymous. I've hinted at my program of choice, I've referred to my "recovery meetings," I've written anonymously on other sites about my experience in 12-step programs, but I've adhered to the letter of the law by never coming right out and saying "I, Emily, McCombs, am a member of the program of Alcoholics Anonymous." Until now.

That's because, in AA, we have a series of "traditions," which are actually pretty cool, because they are the guidelines that have kept a totally leaderless, non-organized, non-professional organization that declines outside contributions trucking along and saving lives for over 75 years now.

Like this: Nobody's in charge. Members of individual groups take rotating service positions and are elected by said group. Power struggles are pretty much impossible because by the time you get a good one started, your time is up and a new person is elected into your position.

Or this: AA has no official stance on outside issues. That way nobody inside or outside of the group get alienated because we've gone on record about some social issue they disagree with.

AA is free -- we pass a basket to pay rent on our meeting spaces, but always with this caveat: "If you can't give, keep coming back. We need you more than we need your money." I throw in a dollar or two when I have it, which seems a ridiculously small contribution considering the way my life has been entirely transformed by AA. I've never felt any pressure to to give anything at all.

AA is not political -- our only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking. AA's only purpose is to help the still-suffering alcoholic. That's it.

I think the traditions are cool because there's really no reason such a ragtag, not-for-profit organization should have lasted since 1935 without self-destructing or petering out. The traditions are what made it possible that today, pretty much no matter where I am, I can find a room full of people like me to remind me why I quit drinking and help me to deal with the day-to-day problems of sober life.

One of those traditions is the tradition of anonymity. The reasons for it make sense. If I tell you that AA got me sober, and then I go out an relapse in a spectacularly public fashion, you might conclude to yourself, "Hmmmm, that AA really doesn't work very well now does it?" Or, let's say you just don't like me, as I'm sure plenty of you don't, then you might think to yourself, "Well if she's in AA, then I'm certainly not interested."

Like I said, it makes sense to me. But the reason that I'm choosing to break that tradition today is because, as a publicly sober woman, I put out a lot of results but no solution. I write about the bad old days, the blackouts and the cocaine binges, and I write a lot about my stumbling attempts to forge a new, healthy, sober life for myself. But I get letters near-daily from people confused about how I got from one to the other.

These desparate letters, these middle-of-the-night letters, are probably mostly from people who aren't really ready to quit drinking and/or using. And I can't respond to them all, can't be a personal counselor for everyone sending out a distress signal to a stranger. All I can tell them is that when they are really ready, really sick and tired of being sick and tired, they'll do what I did and take action to change their lives.

But what action did I take? I'm not supposed to say.

I went to AA. I am not so arrogant as to claim that AA is the only way to get sober, or that it works for everyone. It's just the only advice I know to give, because it's the only way I got sober. I only have my own experience to offer.

Five years and one day ago, I was wandering the streets of Manhattan in a blackout after too many shots at an early happy hour. I had left my friends, insisting that they leave me alone even as they tried to tell me I was too drunk and needed to go home. I caused a scene on the street, then jumped in a cab to escape them, screaming belligerently the whole time. I don't remember any of this, I found out the next day when one more friend cut ties with me, saying a night like the night before wasn't something you needed to experience more than once.

I don't know where I went that night, although I have bits and pieces -- mostly stumbling lost down a strange street, falling over my own heels into a pile of garbage bags and various strangers, garbling who knows what at them. These memories, like my memories of a lot of shameful things I did while drunk, are humiliating to this day.

I sprained my ankle that night. I lost my wallet and my phone. When I got home, around 5 in the morning on a Tuesday night, my partner told me I was unable to stand. He was, of course, furious with me.

I know a lot of people take issue with the "God stuff" in AA, and I get why it's a hard pill to swallow. I was raised Southern Baptist in the Bible Belt -- religion to me was homophobia and misogyny and eternal burning hellfire. And I'm sure that in some parts of the country, the "God stuff" is a bigger deal than it is in New York City. But the literature reads "God as we understand him," and you can understand him any old way you want.

In my time in the program I have heard from people whose higher powers are everything from a doorknob to a strawberry to a tree outside their window. To many people, the "higher power" is the AA group itself -- something bigger than them that they can rely on to help keep them sober. There are also many meetings specifically for atheists and agnostics.

My understanding of a higher power shifts from day to day, but essentially it's just the idea that there is so much I am not in control of, so many forces at work beyond me. I have to let go and surrender to the universe because I'm in charge of so very little of what may happen today or tomorrow. I don't have to know what's in control of the universe or if anything is, only that I am not.

And the thing is, there was nothing particularly novel about my last night using. It was perhaps the longest I'd ever been mobile in a blackout, but it was also a fairly typical night for me as far as my drinking went. In the previous years, I'd thought cocaine was my sole problem, despite the fact that I had never snorted cocaine without also binge drinking.

Until I managed to greatly dial back my cocaine consumption, from daily use to a big slip every 6 months or so, and found that my drinking quickly escalated to fill the void. And without cocaine keeping me alert, my drinking got even more dangerous, my blackouts near-nightly.

Still, the idea of quitting drinking was, until the moment I did it, unfathomable. I didn't see the point of doing anything without drinking -- from going out to dinner to seeing a movie to chatting with a friend. I literally could not imagine a life without alcohol, despite knowing that it was slowly destroying me.

Alcoholism, as I define it for myself, is the inability to keep myself safe once I start drinking. Some kind of switch gets flipped with that first drink and I want more more more until I pass out or vomit. (Although the latter didn't always stop me either; I'd been known to "shoot and reload," returning to the bar after a quick bathroom purge.)

And because I can rarely stop drinking once I start, I also can't take care of myself -- I will get in strange cars with strange people, get lost in blackouts, pass out on subway trains or bend perilously over the train tracks to vomit. I'm not in control anymore once that first drink passes my lips.

I tried to quit for years, subjected myself to immeasurable degradation and horror, lost every scrap of my dignity and went back for more. I went on for years feeling like an empty husk, getting up each morning and hanging my head between my legs over the toilet, feeling completely detached from the person I had become. I did things I was ashamed of when I was drinking, then drank more to drown that shame.

I was completely morally bankrupt, convinced that there was nothing but darkness in the world and that my soul was permanently ruined by seeing and participating in too much of it. For YEARS I went on like this, knowing what my problem was, but unable to stop. The idea of suicide, rather than being frightening, was a great comfort to me. "At least I can always kill myself," I'd think, turning the idea over and over in my palms like a talisman.

Until one morning, I woke up, and was ready to quit. That moment of grace, whatever it was, is a power greater than myself. Because I tried, man. I tried and I couldn't do it.

And the same way I can't explain why I got it that day, I can't explain why some people get it and others don't. I can't explain why I'm celebrating 5 years sober today while other members of my family continue to struggle and relapse and struggle again. I can't explain why some of us die out there and others of us make it safely into that room with the folding chairs, the coffee and the cookies.

To reiterate: I TRULY HAVE NO IDEA HOW I HAVE 5 YEARS SOBER TODAY. I keep thinking to myself, "Are we sure? Did I really not take a drink or a drug in all that time?" It makes no sense to me, because I love to drink, never wanted to quit drinking, no matter how low it took me.

All I know is I'm not in charge of it all, and that's enough of a "higher power" for me. Not capital-G God, not some dude in the sky, just something bigger than me.

Some people say AA doesn't work, because it didn't work for them or because it didn't work for someone they know. I know AA doesn't work for everybody. I've seen people come in and then disappear, I've seen people die. But I think that's less about AA than about the cunning, baffling and powerful nature of this nasty fucking disease. It's the same way I feel when people sneer at Dr. Drew when one of his high-profile clients succumbs to addiction and dies. Addiction kills people. Most of us don't make it out. There is no 100 percent cure.

Alcoholism and addiction are like diabetes, a lifelong condition that has to be managed daily. The bitch of it is that alcoholism and addiction are the only disease I know of in which one of the symptoms is a conviction that you aren't sick, and that you don't need the medicine.

I like the way Roger Ebert, fellow anonymity-breaker, put it in his amazing blog post from 2009: "I know from the comments on an earlier blog that there are some who have problems with Alcoholics Anonymous. They don't like the spiritual side, or they think it's a "cult," or they'll do fine on their own, thank you very much. The last thing I want to do is start an argument about A.A.. Don't go if you don't want to. It's there if you need it. In most cities, there's a meeting starting in an hour fairly close to you. It works for me. That's all I know. I don't want to argue with you about it."

I'll take it one step further and ask that you don't broadcast so loudly your negative opinion of AA, because addicts don't need much encouragement not to seek help, and like it or not, AA does and has helped a lot of people.

AA saved my life -- you don't have to like it for that to be true. And if AA can save other lives, or even offer a bit of comfort to those suffering from this bitch motherfucker asshole disease, then why discourage those who may benefit from it? Maybe it doesn't work -- for you, or your cousin, or some celebrity. But it works for me. There's a legion of us it works for, all over the world.

That morning, the one where I woke up so steeped in shame and regret that I could barely stand to be alone with myself for one more minute, I went online and found a meeting list. No one in my family had ever been to AA, I didn't know anyone in AA, but I had read Caroline Knapp's "Drinking: A Love Story," which detailed her journey to and experiences in AA. As I've written before, that book helped me to recognize that I was an alcoholic. That day, it also helped get me to AA.

And I sat in that room and it was scary but I also felt, for the first time in a long time, safe. And I listened to people like me speak about their drinking, which was like mine. And I knew I belonged. I knew the solution, my solution, was in that room.

And I still feel that way in an AA meeting -- safe, at home. It's the only time in a given day that I take a moment to breathe, to think about what I'm feeling, to share and to ask for support. In AA, we take inventory of ourselves -- we look at our part in the conflicts in our lives and we do our best to make amends when we have wronged someone. We learn to let go of the things we can't control and focus on the things we can. We help one another. People in AA loved me until I learned to love myself.

I don't know why it works exactly -- some combination of regular group therapy, an on-call support system, and the ability to be of service to others I suspect. I don't care really either. There's an old AA joke about that: "Well, how does it work?" "It works just fine."

AA is, in my opinion, one of the greatest inventions of this century -- at almost any hour in any neighborhood I can find a free meeting of alcoholics who want nothing more than to help me stay sober. It's pure, it's beautiful, it's insane that it even exists.

So when people ask me, as they do all the time, how to get sober, the only answer I have to give is: Go to AA. I'm not saying it's the only solution out there, but it's the only solution I've used. I have no other information to offer.

And if I do relapse, as I most certainly could, since I am nothing but a garden-variety drunk and drug addict, it will not be an indication that AA doesn't work, and I'll tell you why. Addicts drink and use, it's how we're built. Every day that an alcoholic doesn't pick up a drink is nothing short of a miracle. If AA keeps me sober for 5 years or 5 days, it worked.

AA is much bigger than me.

I feel a bit guilty about putting all this out there, although I am certainly to the first or the most high-profile to do so: see the aforementioned Roger Ebert, Caroline Knapp, Anthony Hopkins, Edie Falco, Jane Lynch, Augusten Burroughs, Stephen King, Tom Sizemore, Russell Brand, Robert Downey Jr., Craig Ferguson (who winks at anonymity, saying "They're very easy to find and very near the front of the telephone book") and many more writers and entertainers have gone on record as members of Alcoholics Anonymous.

And the reason so many of them do so, and the reason I'm doing so today, is because I am in a unique position to reach those out there who are still sick and suffering and say "Hey, I can't offer you much, but this has been my experience. This is what I did. I hope it works for you."