Even after having attended thousands of A.A. meetings I will very often hear something at one that makes me sit up and take notice. That was the case a few weeks ago when I heard my friend Rich qualifying for the group. Qualifying basically means sharing our experience, strength and hope in regards to alcoholism with the group in the hope that it might help someone else sitting there. And in doing that we also help ourselves, by reminding ourselves and others that although it is very dark to be caught in the web of addiction, there is a way out. So Rich began his qualification, like in the movies, "Hello, my name is Rich and I'm an alcoholic." "Hi Rich" we responded back and then he launched into his tale. His story was powerful and engrossing and funny. "If I made $20 I told you I made $30 and I spent like I made $40". I was hooked. Somewhere in the middle of his story Rich was trying to explain his relationship with alcohol. He was silent for several seconds and then, after a deep breath, he said this: "The fact of the matter is that my drinking was not caused by a love affair with alcohol. Rather it was caused by a hate affair with myself." And...
I actually got chills when he said it because for all those years and that small fortune wasted in therapy trying to get to the bottom of my intense self-destructive urges what Rich said summed it up in one sentence.
There it is in all its naked glory. A hate affair with myself. A hate affair which leads me to behave in a way that will eventually end in destruction. I think that is why we bond together so intensely in the rooms, our shared self-destruct button. For me there was always shame about my addiction. Shame that no matter how hard I tried or how badly I wanted to I was unable to stop drinking. Shame about my flawed genetics. Shame that I was born with a defective chip in my brain that conspires to kill me. I'm ashamed of that. I imagine a lot of addicts are confused and ashamed about behaviors which amount to nothing more than a slow and painful suicide. "I'm a freak" I would chastise myself daily. "A freak who cannot control my base instincts." But today I know that I'm not alone. Rich felt it too and in hearing him share those very same deep, dark, shame-laden secrets, I felt at peace.
I have met plenty of alcoholics who have never experienced the kind of shame and self-loathing that I did. They just drank too much over too long a period of time and became physically addicted to alcohol. But for me the internal mantra of "what's wrong with you?!?" started when I was very young. Long before my first drink or drug. It was there BEFORE I took that first magical sip of warm, flat beer the summer of my 14th year. I wonder if my suicidal leanings at a young age were the result of nurture or nature? I'm not sure, but I sure as hell am glad that I no longer have them. The leanings that is, off the edge.
I felt continuously terrified as a child. There was an active volcano of supressed rage continuously hissing away in my childhood "home". One never know when it might explode, wiping out everything in its path with its scalding, scarring, intensely painful lava. There was also more than enough alcoholism and depression floating around in the air so that everyone could have some, whether they wanted it or not. As a child I felt that somehow I was to blame for the sad state of affairs in that house. I started to believe that if I could just disappear there might be a chance of happiness for my family. And so the suicidal ideation and plotting to remove myself from the picture began. At age 7.
There is a sign at some A.A. meetings that reads "We will love you until you can love yourself ". Only now, decades into my sober journey, do I understand the importance of that sign. It may be the most important message in the rooms. Because if we don't learn to love ourselves in the program of A.A. the chance that we will be drawn to self-destruct and start using again is very probable. In A.A. I learned that self-esteem comes from esteemable acts so I started there. I stopped drinking and that enabled me to stop lying to myself and everyone else about my drinking. Admitting to myself and others that I had a problem was step one. By committing myself to A.A. early on I regained some self esteem. I was honest. I took on service commitments within the program. I learned how to listen empathically which is a skill I didn't even know I was lacking. I showed up for others ON TIME. For the first time, maybe ever, I stopped obsessing about myself.
Through these seemingly small actions I began to like myself a little bit more each day. And although I was filled with guilt and shame and remorse about my actions in active addiction my new friends were not ashamed of me at all. They welcomed me with open arms and freely offered me a tool box full of suggestions to help me live a life that I could be proud of. They assured me that if I was able to stick with it, if I was able to sit in discomfort and not run from it, if I was able to do service and help others, that I would start to…if not love…then at least like myself. And that happened, a few months in. "At least I'm trying to be a better person" I told myself.
I've learned to like myself in A.A. I've made peace with my dark side. Occasionally my dark side even makes me laugh out loud. Through the self-esteem and self-respect that I have gained through working the program, my hate affair with myself seems to be a thing of the past. Of course I still have self-doubt, I think that's part of the human condition, but that intense pit-in-the-stomach self-loathing that I used to experience most days is gone. I still may not be in a love affair with myself, but I am, finally, in a love affair with life.