For many of those in recovery, the obsessive urge to drink again never really goes away.
I was a typical low-bottom case. I was drunk most days, and a car wreck, an arrest, and a liver enzyme problem couldn’t pry me from my favorite thing to do. What would be the point of a life without alcohol? Now over five years sober, though, one thing astounds me even more than my abstinence. I don’t miss drinking. I hardly think about it. How can this be? Drinking was at the center of my existence. Surely sobriety would be a lifetime of longing for what I couldn’t have anymore, of feeling terribly excluded from the magical things I associated with its effects: wildness, fun, escape, adventure. Now it’s like, drinking? Oh right, that…
In AA-speak, I had an “obsession” with alcohol, and that obsession has been “lifted.” The totality of this transformation was enough to make me, an atheist before this, feel a bit mystical indeed.
Over the years I have come to realize that unfortunately this freedom from obsession does not characterize everyone’s recovery experience. I first noticed this when I was out to dinner with a friend from the program. Both of us had over a year sober. Our server began listing drink specials, as servers do, and my friend cut him off and demanded that he remove the cocktail menu from our table immediately. I felt embarrassed and confused. These were not the vibes of someone “placed in a position of neutrality.” Instead she was coming across as anxious and aggressive and she seemed to be feeling unsafe. We talked, and she said, “Yeah, for me, the obsession has not been lifted.” I was stunned. I thought, really?
Keeping her anonymous, I brought this interaction up to other friends who had been sober for decades. They knew. They reminded me that Dr. Bob’s obsession lasted well into his third year. Bob wrote in the Big Book, “Unlike most of our crowd, I did not get over my craving for liquor much during the first two and one-half years of abstinence. It was almost always with me.” He notes in this passage that it used to make him “terribly upset” to see his friends drink when he “could not.”
I have become attuned to this. While there are as many experiences of recovery as there are people in recovery–it’s a deeply personal path after all–perhaps two broad types emerge, one in which the obsession all but disappears, and another in which it remains even while abstinence is achieved and maintained. How can these not be vastly different?
This seems like a big deal, yet the issue gets scant air time in shares. I suspect we don’t hear about this more in meetings owing to our strong unity, per the triangle of recovery, unity, and service. We are at our best when we are united, identifying with each other rather than comparing. On this matter of the obsession, perhaps we are divided. (Of course there may be many people in the middle, whose obsession has weakened but has not “been lifted” or “removed,” or whose obsession comes and goes. I don’t know.) Out of the thousands of meetings I’ve attended, this issue has emerged just a few times as a share theme. In those shares, people whose obsessions have remained have expressed gratitude for others’ honesty who shared this ahead of them, and relief at the permission they felt it granted them to share similarly. They shared not wanting to drag anyone down, not wanting to be an unattractive example to newcomers, and not wanting to be seen as a “bad AA.” They wondered if they were doing the program wrong.
I imagine that, on the contrary, it must take an especially strong program to maintain sobriety in the circumstance of an obsession that endures. When I share about its being lifted, including writing this now, I feel a sense of survivor’s guilt. I worked the same 12 steps as everyone else, and my active disease was plenty strong. Just for me, abstinence was a prerequisite for the freedom from obsession that followed, but after that, the freedom from obsession made ongoing abstinence feel easy. Life can be hard. Last spring, my sibling got a life-threatening illness, and that was very hard. But I don’t find not drinking to be hard anymore. When I use the slogan “getting sober is a lot harder than staying sober,” that is what I mean.
Olivia Pennelle’s recent article in The Fix, “Is there Life after AA?” caught my attention. She wrote about wanting to leave AA and being tired of the “fear-based conditioning” that if she left, she wouldn’t stay sober. I identified with her experience, not because I wanted to leave AA (I didn’t), but because I too faced dire predictions when I wanted to reduce my time commitment to the fellowship. In my first four years sober I had been attending meetings almost every other day; making daily calls to sponsors (something like 1,500 total to my two consecutive sponsors); hundreds more calls to friends, acquaintances, and newcomers; taking around half a dozen sponsees through some stepwork (not all at the same time!); and fulfilling service commitments ranging from greeter to meeting chair to speaking in prisons and psych wards and what seemed like half the groups in my large metro area. My recovery felt solid, and I’d learned the difference between the program, which I could apply in my daily life, and the fellowship.
I’d returned to grad school to become a psychotherapist. (Incidentally, while there I discovered that mental health professionals have studies and theories about why the obsession leaves some people more easily than others, having to do with particular co-occurring mental health issues. In the future, I hope to write about this too.) With more focus and energy, I felt ready to pursue the new career and other life goals including getting non-alcoholic friends and dating outside the fellowship. I found myself needing more time. Trust me, I did ask myself and a higher power within: Am I “drifting?” Am I “resting on my laurels?” Then as now, I relied heavily on meditation. In my depths, I knew this was not the case.
Pennelle quoted someone who wrote to her, “I know lots of people who have left 12-step recovery. They are all drunk or dead.” When I reduced my involvement, some people made it clear how extremely dangerous they thought this was, and how worried they were. When I told a friend I was down to 1 to 2 meetings per week, she looked at me like I was out of my mind. My sponsor was distraught to be working with me in my new approach, and she couldn’t seem to talk about anything other than how my disease must be “tricking” me. I had affectionate feelings and a lot of gratitude towards her, but we couldn’t seem to see eye to eye on this. Eventually I referenced my obsession’s being lifted as part of my rationale for feeling safe cutting down on the time commitment. She then used almost the same words my friend used years before and said that for her “the obsession has not been lifted.” She added, “for some people, it never does.”
Many considerations likely play into people’s decisions regarding how much or how little time they spend in the fellowship, but it stands to reason that the persistence or disappearance of the obsession factors into it. I have no wish to take chances. Sobriety is the most precious, important thing in my life. It is my life. This disease has killed at least five members of my extended family, and it’s got one immediate family member in prison. I have never once questioned that if I take so much as a sip, I take my life into my own hands, and I don’t want to die. I try never to take my recovery for granted. AA is still a part of my life, but it is “a bridge back to life,” and life was pulling me in another direction. I couldn’t be true to myself and continue at the same level of time commitment I had in my first few years. I didn’t want to let anything get between me and my recovery, including my program.
“A day at a time” has become a spiritual way of life for me, a reminder to live in the present. In early sobriety it was “a day-at-a-time” quite literally. I struggled hard not to drink through the first 90 days and then some, thinking about drinking almost nonstop. As I remember it, the obsession only began to falter for brief spans in months four and five, when I would have these amazing moments of realizing, hey wait! It’s been a whole afternoon and I haven’t been missing it. What freedom! Though I was desperate, exhausted from sleeplessness, grieving the loss of the only coping mechanism I’d ever known and coming to see the wreckage and trauma for the devastation that it was, these gaps in the obsession spurred me on. Even beyond my first anniversary I was still a little shaky (figuratively that is, my actual shakes were long gone). Now there are just moments when a liquor ad will catch my eye, or I’ll have a twinge of nostalgia for my old life. I’m still an alcoholic, but these come very rarely and never amount to a craving. Not even close.
Before, when someone with 20 years would say “it’s still a day at a time,” I couldn’t really hear them. I do now. Taking sobriety “a day at a time” can remain literal, for life. For some cutting back on involvement in the AA fellowship may indeed be a death wish. We share a common problem and a common solution, but we are different people with different lives and recoveries. However well-intentioned, using fear or guilt to coerce people into a level of time commitment that for them is no longer authentic or wanted may only alienate them and take them away from a level of commitment that is working well, or inhibit them from re-engaging should a need arise in the future. Accepting this doesn’t require being dismissive or doubtful of other people’s need for continuous, intensive involvement. Compassion, as always, is best. We must do what is right for our own selves, and, unto our own selves, be true.