During the first three months of sobriety, I didn’t attend meetings. In my mind, meetings were the nail in the coffin when it came to drinking. Even if I didn’t stay stopped, meetings would certainly make going out a lot less fun. Casually cracking a beer would feel a lot less casual with the echo of “I’m Anna, and I’m an alcoholic” still fresh in my mind.
(I later learned that it’s not necessary to identify as an alcoholic to attend a meeting. According to the third tradition, “The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking.”)
Prior to attending meetings, sobriety memoirs carried me through. Drinking: A love story by Caroline Knapp was my favorite by far, but there was also Wasted, Blackout, and Smashed. (Not to be confused with Tipsy, Sloshed, or Tanked.) These books were a source of validation (I’m doing the right thing) and community (others are doing it, too). Gradually, I came to accept the label "alcoholic."
My mom was the first person I told. It was a sunny Saturday spent apartment hunting, and I was on a walk between viewings. I phoned my mom, and casually mentioned that I hadn’t been drinking lately. (Never mind that it had been two months, and my feelings about sobriety were anything but casual.) She was, of course, supportive - and also curious. “That sounds healthy, honey. Do you think you’ll start again?”
I paused. I have since learned that everyone asks this question. Will you start again? These days, “I’m not drinking right now” doesn’t raise too many eyebrows; maybe she’s studying for a test or training for a race. “I’m never drinking again,” however, has a different meaning entirely. Maybe she had a problem.
“No, I don’t think I’ll start drinking again. I think I might be an alcoholic.”
I can’t remember what my mom said, but I can remember how I felt: Held. Accepted. Believed. Albeit over the phone and at a distance of 2,000 miles, she did not appear to bat an eye.
The rest of my family knew I had stopped drinking. That fact snaked its way into my every conversation, or nearly, because it was so damn relevant to me. Not drinking was my full-time job - or at least, it was more interesting than my full-time job. But while sobriety felt like important context to my every conversation, my reasons behind it were scary to say aloud. With the exception of my mom, I hadn’t yet told the family that I identified with the term “alcoholic.”
Oddly, the reaction I feared most was doubt. Denial. I was terrified that these people I loved and trusted would come back with, “You’re not an alcoholic. You’re just being dramatic.” I was afraid they would think sobriety was a phase.
In part, this is because I was worried that sobriety was a phase. Increasingly, I was not afraid of being alcoholic. I was afraid of being unsure. Unsure meant drinking again. Unsure meant more pain, more attempts to control my drinking, more analysis of my drunk behavior. Without sobriety, there was no perceptible way out.
Ultimately, my desire to be known surpassed my fear. Like a true academic, I told my family over email.
April 24th, 2016
In the interest of telling the people who are most important you about the things that are most important to you, here’s this:
As of today, it’s been 3 months since I’ve drank any alcohol. I do think I’m an alcoholic, and a few weeks I started attending meetings at least twice a week. Yesterday, I asked someone to sponsor me, and this week I began working the steps. Her name is ____ ... She’s very open and matter-of-fact, decently confrontational, and it seems like she will be hard to manipulate. Those are great qualities.
I don’t want anyone to feel sad or uncomfortable by this e-mail. The last three months have been some of the most peaceful and honest months of my life. I am really grateful that the last time I had the thought, “I should quit,” it seemed to stick. Sometimes I find myself taking credit or priding myself on willpower, but it wasn’t that. It was grace.
I promise I will not feel bad or resentful if you don’t respond to this. I just think it’s in the best interest of sobriety to tell the family.
Looking back at this e-mail, I can smell the fear. I felt compelled to be honest, and simultaneously unsure if honesty was in my best interest. If they responded with skepticism or dismissiveness, would I be strong enough to handle it?
The self-protective part of me would advise anyone, including myself, not to share a precious truth until you feel prepared to weather all possible reactions. I still think this is good advice. However, as my close friend and professional therapist often gently reminds me, I’m not particularly good at predicting others’ reactions to my truth. I often have pretty bleak expectations. And when I protect myself from the worst, I inadvertently shield myself from the best.
Incidentally, my read on my sponsor was accurate. She is indeed open and matter-of-fact, decently confrontational, and impossible to manipulate. When I told her that I had told my family, she responded as she typically does. What were my reasons for sharing? Upon confirming that my intentions were good, she reminded me that that any and all reactions - good, bad, or indifferent - were irrelevant to my sobriety.
When I receive it, the acceptance of others is beautiful. It feels good to be believed. But these things will not get me sober, nor will they keep me there. Keeping me sober is self-acceptance, the courage and grace to believe myself.