“Hi, my name is Sarah*, I’m an alcoholic and an addict.”
“Hello Sarah, Welcome!”
I am sitting in a Church Basement. The room is stifling hot and very crowded. Right after I enter, the session leader shuts off the lights. The soft glow of a few tea light candles emanates from the table, casting weak light on the sixty or so people seated in various places in the room.
Newcomers announce themselves as addicts and alcoholics; the room fills with greetings and words of welcome. It is strange to watch people admit so openly their problems, especially in front of strangers. As each newcomer bravely calls out his or her name, I become nervous. My heart beats a little bit faster. I sweat just a little bit more. I’m here in support of a friend, I remind myself. This is not a place for me. I am not an addict. I am not an alcoholic. But with all of the people around me announcing their vices and naming their problems, I wonder, could this be me? Do I have a problem? The power of their convictions, the power of their narratives throws me off balance and, for a moment, I forget who I am and why I came here.
Addiction is devastating, not just for the addict but also for family and friends and people in the addict’s life. Nearly everyone who spoke at the AA meeting I attended said that alcoholism is a disease of loneliness. One young woman shared a detailed account of her story of addiction. She told us that she had been in and out of various rehab programs since she was eighteen. She was now thirty-three and sober for two years. There was a time, when she was in college, where she just fell apart, “I would lock myself in my apartment for days and drink and do pills until the messages and the dishes piled up to the point where I could no longer ignore them. I would be called back into the world only to have my addiction pull me back into isolation.” She struggled with her drinking problem for over thirteen years.
The sadness of stories about alcoholism is their recursive quality: people will recover and then fall off the wagon a countless number of times. Another woman told the group that the first time she completed rehab she bought a six-pack of beer on her way home. Another time, she went to AA meetings high, because she wanted so badly to believe—but also to make others believe—that she was still on the path to recovery. I think her low point, or so she said, was when she was a nanny and had to drive to her apartment to drink in the middle of the morning. She would bring the child along, in her car, to drink: “I know what I am telling you sounds fucked up, I think that was a moment when I realized I needed help.”
AA offers a place to heal. A place to step up and become sponsors and group liaisons. I was lucky to attend on a night where a young girl reached her two year sobriety anniversary. When the group leader presented her with a medal and socks , she commented on how the girl had been timid and shy when she first came to AA: “She couldn’t look anyone in the eye.” But, over the past year she bloomed into a sociable and responsible person who was not only on the road to recovery herself, she also reached out to others to help them.
I wish I could share all of the small stories I heard at the meeting—stories told by people who are as young or younger than I am—I wish I could express the feeling I had as I heard each person share their lowest points, or their philosophy on addiction. Telling life narrative is not, as many critics think, an indulgent and egocentric undertaking; it is not evidence of our society’s self absorption. Telling life narrative is perhaps one of the hardest things that anyone can undertake, especially when that life narrative is full of pain, and embarrassment, full of suffering from an addiction. Writing and speaking life narrative forces the subject to look directly into the face of experience; for addicts, this confrontation includes an admission of addiction and recognition of the pain that addiction causes to the self and to others. Life narrative exposes shame, and fear, and all of the other difficult emotions we try to cope with on our own; the process of telling narratives about addiction is not only difficult, it is monumental because it runs counter to the secret lives that addicts live.
If alcoholism is a disease of loneliness, telling life narrative is a curative. Memoirs about addiction are fairly common. Caroline Knapp’s Drinking, A Love Story (1997), J.R. Moehringer’s The Tender Bar (2006), and Mary Karr’s Lit (2009) are just a few of a number of addiction memoirs to hit the literary market over the last two decades. Caroline Knapp’s Drinking, A Love Story is a psychologically-oriented memoir about alcoholism. Knapp describes a lot of the underlying psychological issues that create alcoholics and many of the manifestations of the disease: “The need is more than merely physical: It’s psychic and visceral and multilayered. There’s a dark fear to the feeling of wanting that wine, that vodka, that bourbon: a hungry, abiding fear of being without, being exposed, without your armor . . . a compulsion to latch on to something outside yourself in order to assuage some deep discomfort” (476).
In her memoir, Knapp notes that there are physiological distinctions between the brains of addicts and non-addicts, and neuroscientists agree. The frontal lobes of an addict—the parts of the brain that are responsible for abstract thinking, planning and impulse regulation—show much less activity than that of a normal subject. The reward center, which is located deep within the striatum of the brain, is also affected by addiction. As a result of these physiological changes, the drug over-stimulates the reward center and the frontal lobe is not active enough to restrain its craving. And so the brain, and the body, become part of a feedback loop that craves more and more of the drug in order to feel a normal amount of pleasure. How, then, can addicts break this cycle and move past their addiction?
The Lord, it seems, is one way that many addicts cope with their illness: it allows them to find meaning outside of their own motivations and desires. At the end of the AA session we said the Lord’s Prayer. We did not chant the Serenity Prayer, as I thought we would (Was this an expectation that I had from watching too many movies and television shows that feature a support group?). In fact, many of the people who (I want to say testified here, but I don’t know if that is the right word) spoke about the healing power of the Lord, and working His will instead of their own. More than one person noted that when he or she did their own work, bad things happened. Mary Karr seems to agree with the sentiment of many people at the meeting. After her battle with addiction, she converted to Catholicism.
Even though the AA website, and their mission statement, says that the organization is unaffiliated with any religious sect or denomination, talk of the Lord was embedded in many of the life narratives that were told. AA’s semi-religiosity is one reason why a number of people who struggle with drinking refuse to attend a meeting. I’m not a particularly religious person, but I understand if a religious narrative is what people need in order to rearrange their life narratives using a counter-script to that of addiction. Conversion narratives and other religious testimony are both an important part of the history of life narrative and a means by which a “sinner” takes the necessary steps to reforming. St. Augustine’s Confessions is one of the earliest examples of an addiction autobiography (actually any autobiography, for that matter); it tracks Augustine’s conversion from a rambunctious youth to a religious man. The key to the religious narratives of addicts (Augustine was addicted to sinning) is that they place themselves into the care of a higher power and begin to do its will. At the meeting, people said they were doing the work of the Lord, because when they work their own will, they fall back into addiction and their lives fall apart. Religion replaces the chaos and loneliness of addiction with structure and solace: religion offers an addict community.
However, there are non-religious alternatives to AA that focus on the empowerment of the addict within a non-religious context. Often these programs, such as LifeRing, are similar to AA in that they are also peer support groups for alcoholics; however, LifeRing focuses on the addict’s personal sense of power rather than placing power into the hands of a higher being. So, at a LifeRing meeting one might hear about an individual’s own power to recover from addiction, rather than hear about an addict doing the work of the Lord. To me, LifeRing and AA seem to be different approaches that have a similar end goal in mind: that is to reorganize the addict’s life narrative to create a positive and mindful counter-script to that of addiction.
Life narrative allows the addict to re-wire the impulses of the brain; it calls attention to healthy and unhealthy behavior, when the frontal lobes are out-of-commission. Telling life narrative can explain the psychological motivation behind addiction and tease apart the addict’s abnormal behavior. The practice of sharing personal experiences with other people creates a community that pulls the addict away from his or her disease of loneliness. For many, creating narratives of addiction is a necessary step to recovery. –-Genie Giaimo
 The socks were in honor of the woman taking the first step in a long journey to recovery—a symbolic and appropriately celebratory gift.
Knapp, Caroline. Drinking, A Love Story. Dial Press Trade Paperback, 1997.