Updated: Nov 13
Look for the similarities, not the differences.
From an outsider’s perspective, Chris and I don't appear to have much in common. He’s a man, forty-three years old. He’s an alcoholic, yes, but his story of sobriety is entirely different from mine. Chris has stolen a gun, been involved in a shooting, gone to prison.
And yet, before the age of 20, we’d both gone to the same Christian summer camp in search of answers. We didn't find any, but damned if we didn't try.
Unlike many in AA, Chris was raised by “normies.” He rarely saw his parents drink. Never his older sister. When he tells me of his childhood, he's short and unaffected. Nothing “caused him" to drink.
I ask him about his first drunk. Chris livens up a bit as he tells me about stealing wine coolers with his friends in a borrowed car. He was 14. There were no repercussions – just thrills. Just that feeling of being “one of the guys.” The knowledge that "the guys" would always have his back.
I never tried wine coolers, let alone stole them. My life never required someone to "have my back." But the feeling? Belonging? Mattering? Yeah, I wanted that. These are the similarities.
I ask Chris whether drinking ever got him into trouble. Later, it did – plenty of it – but not during his formative years. As a teen, he was once pulled over by a cop. He was driving drunk in another borrowed car at 2am. He didn’t have a license. His friends were punished by their parents. His own parents didn’t offer so much as a slap on the wrist.
At a time when learning matters, all Chris learned was not to get caught.
In his senior year of high school, Chris first drank alcoholically. In fact, he drank himself into a stupor. He was in his first serious relationship, and had no idea how to navigate it.
Reflecting on my own alcoholic drinking, I ask Chris to clarify. "Was it the feeling of vulnerability? The reality that she could leave you? Or did you feel stuck?"
He doesn’t offer much in the way of analysis. Just teenage hormones, he says, and no real direction.
After that senior year, a spiritual advisor told him to turn his life around. A stint of work at a Christian camp was his proposed solution, the key to getting back on track. And Chris agreed: while he doesn't say the words “guilt” or “shame,” working with Christians for Christians did seem like something a good person would do.
And plus, maybe he’d find friends on staff, maybe a girlfriend. Maybe he’d finally feel like he belonged.
As it happened, the only friend he made was an older woman willing to buy him alcohol. He spent much of the summer disappearing into town to drink with his buddies. No one on staff suspected. “I was good at compartmentalizing," he says. "Good at wearing masks."
Chris left the camp feeling even more lost than when he’d first arrived. He had been hoping for a crew, one that simultaneously met his desire to fit in and to be a good person. When that didn’t happen, he headed fast in the other direction.
Part of me wants to say he “fell in with the wrong crowd.” The other part of me knows that it was more purposeful than that. He felt the same need to belong, the need for acceptance, that humans by nature crave. The fact that the group was violent, that they functioned in large part like a gang, was incidental. They had each other’s backs – and, for Chris, that’s what mattered.
Once, when a fight broke out, Chris was prepared to defend his crew to the death. His group was outnumbered, but Chris had stolen a gun months before. He handed the gun to his friend. Someone was wounded, and Chris was sentenced to 18 months in prison.
I have to stop him there. “Prison? How did that feel?”
“It was humiliating,” he says. “My family was terrified. My look-good was coming down.”
I press him: “I’m assuming that, prior to this, you didn’t think of yourself as a ‘bad person?’ The ‘type of person’ who goes to prison?”
He corrects me. “Actually,” he says, “I sort of did think of myself that way.”
He goes on to explain that he was once diagnosed by a therapist with antisocial personality disorder. The diagnosis made sense to him. “Bad person” didn’t feel far off the mark.
I pause. Antisocial personality disorder? I rack my brain for everything I know about it. They are reckless, smooth-talking, able to wriggle their way out of trouble. Like Chris, they love thrills and think little of the consequences. They can have a serious lack of empathy.
Had I observed anything so damning in Chris? We’d only been talking for thirty minutes, but the answer thus far was no. For the purpose of our interview, I decide to disregard what his therapist had said, a little humbled by my own reaction. Diagnoses shouldn't displace our experience of people.
In the last few months of his prison sentence, Chris was sent to a rehabilitation boot camp for drugs and alcohol. It was helpful, he says. They did what he calls "intensive cognitive restructuring." But he was also required to say that he was an alcoholic. He was willing – it was better than serving time – but he didn’t agree. He wasn't an alcoholic.
Despite this, within a few days of finishing up his sentence, Chris was back to drinking. After another few, he was back to what he calls “arrestable behaviors.” I ask him whether these behaviors were drunken antics or conscious decisions. “The second one,” he says. “I was looking for a thrill.” The consequences did not feel important.
That is, until they did. He reflected back on a drill instructor from prison, a guy he’d truly hated. “You’ll be back,” he'd told Chris.
At the age of 23, Chris vowed to prove the drill instructor wrong. He still didn’t think he was an alcoholic, but he was afraid of what would happen if he continued to drink.
At first, Chris didn’t like AA. He didn’t like their concept of God. It wasn’t that he was atheist; on the contrary, the God of AA felt “weak.” It sounded nothing like the religion of his youth. The part of Chris that wanted to be a “good person” wanted nothing less than a stern and punishing God to get him there.
Within a year, however, Chris began to enjoy meetings. People in AA were “straight-shooters,” he says, sharing right from the heart. Meetings left him with a sense of ease and comfort, the camaraderie he’d been seeking in ill-fated crews since the age of 14.
After a while, he became less certain of his own concept of God. He threw out his own rules, forgave himself his “immoral thoughts,” and even identified as agnostic for a while.
I asked him how this as reflected in his behavior. After all, godlessness can't look great on everyone.
But it looked good on Chris: "It just made me less of a judgmental asshole," he says.
Chris has now been sober for 21 years. Fifteen years in, during a particularly stressful period in his work and marriage, he went for eighteen months without a meeting.
During this time, he wasn't afraid of drinking. Not drinking was a rule, a hard line. I sense that Chris is good with hard lines. It was loneliness, not the fear of relapse, that brought him back to AA.
I ask him about his present-day sobriety. Chris secretaries one AA meeting per week, he says, and has guys he can call. He is on the ninth step, but has stalled out making amends. Sometimes, he admits, this is the entirety of his program.
As I hear him talk, I have the feeling that his program is working in subtler ways.
Chris is currently in the midst of a divorce. Despite the pain I see in his eyes, I believe him when he says that the divorce is going as well as he could expect. AA makes surprisingly simple our personal relationships, and both he and his ex have over twenty years sober. Despite their differences, they can both keep clean their side of the street.
I ask him now if he ever feels the urge to drink. “Not to drink,” he says, “but sometimes I still want to escape.” The trick is channeling that energy, the compulsion towards mindlessness and thrill seeking, in healthier ways. “I once hiked around Mt. Hood in a single day. It was 43 miles. It was still crazy, an adrenaline rush. But the difference now is no one gets hurt.”
We're currently in a time where the question "What can I do?" is most often met with "nothing at all." Stay home, protect yourself, avoiding infecting others. Don't spread the disease. Don't add to the hurt.
Don't add to the hurt.
Most alcoholics in recovery know the significance of this. When we were using, being hurtful did not feel like a choice. In sobriety - even when choice feels limited, even when the world is outside of our control - we can still choose this.
We need not add to the hurt.