When I started tuning in to America's most watched pastime, American Football, the model Gisele Bündchen was the most famous and highly paid model in the world. I work in the fashion industry and had met Giselle several times at castings, so I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. It was rumored that until she laid her eyes on Mr. Tom Brady, Gisele had said she would never date an American - preferring smooth, European polyglots over bumbling American meat-heads any day. Like Gisele, I'm drawn to the suave je ne sais quoi of most Europeans, so I was shocked when I heard they were dating. What could possibly be so wonderful about some random jock quarterback that could drag Gisele away from her world of sophisticated billionaire playboys and into the more plebeian world of beer, hot dogs and screaming American fans?
And then...I watched a game. Heavenly choir of angels start singing now. I mean...Tom freakin’ Brady? Love him or hate him (and legions do hate him) there is simply no denying that he is American Football’s GOAT. So I watched Tom’s teams, the Patriots and now the Buccaneers, for several years not really knowing the rules. I would call from the kitchen into the family room where the game was on. "Hey, can you guys let me know when Tom has the ball again?" while I stirred chili or smashed avocados for guacamole. Needless to say my family, true football fans who do know the rules, would get very frustrated. "Mom, you can't watch an entire football season for just one player” my children would chastise me. “Oh I can't?” I would respond. “Just watch me.”
And that's what I did. For far too long. But just watching Tom hurl the ball around, not knowing the rules of the game, was sort of a drag, for me and anyone around me watching. It could get very confusing. “Oh no no no!” I would cry if Tom got sacked. “FOUL! They can't do that. You can't just throw Tom on the ground like that, as if he was just another player!” I would protest. “Uh, yeah they can, Mom. That's football” my son corrected me. “Well it's not very nice, and it's certainly not chivalrous” I would admonish as I covered my eyes during the scary parts of the games.
One day I saw a play that I was sure must be illegal. One of Tom's teammates was trying desperately to chase down a player from the enemy's side who was very close to scoring a touchdown. Two players, a wide receiver and a cornerback (I was later informed)) were sprinting furiously side by side, teeth bared, eyes bulging, necks oddly stretched out, all sinewy tendons and pumping blood. They reminded me of frothing racehorses, ferociously trying to outpace each other in a high stakes Kentucky Derby style race. Suddenly, unprovoked, the receiver just shot his arm out straight. Right into the cornerback's chest. The cornerback, shocked, tripped immediately over his own feet, crashing to the ground while the receiver pranced on, gazelle-like, into the end zone, scoring a touchdown against Tom and his team. Even performing an incredibly annoying hip-thrusty and gloating little dance once he had scored. I was incensed. “He can't do that” I cried. “That's cheating.” “Mom, that’s not cheating” my son sighed, exasperated. “It’s called the stiff arm.”
“The stiff arm?” “Yes” he explained patiently, “the stiff arm.” “Well I don’t like it. I don’t like it at all. And If I was the umpire that guy would be thrown off of the court!” I grumbled as I stomped away, fuming.
The only other time I had heard that phrase “giving someone the stiff arm” was in an A.A. meeting. We were discussing how when someone asks how we are out in the real world we often say “I’m fine”. Which is great for casual day-to-day situations but will not fly in the rigorously honest rooms of A.A. In fact, in A.A. we have at least 2 cheesy acronyms (that I know of) for “fine”. F.I.N.E. can stand for Feelings Inside Not Expressed or Freaked out, Insecure, Neurotic and Emotional. I fully relate to both the pain of repressing our truth and the neurosis and emotional distress that often follows.
For the most part, people in recovery live in the real world. A world where it is sometimes best to keep people at arm's length. To stiff arm it a bit. If your boss or a waiter or your mailman asks how you are, they probably want to hear “I'm fine”, not “well I suffered trauma as a child and in my dream last night it all came roaring back and there was a monster chasing me which represents….”
We can live our lives telling everyone everywhere that we are “fine”. And meaning it. But we don’t have to do that in the rooms. And that is a huge blessing. Because for the most part we ended up in the rooms because we were not “fine” inside. We needed to find a way to soothe that internal “dis-ease” so we medicated with drugs and alcohol. So “I’m fine” doesn't really fly in the rooms. We can tell when one of our group is not fine. When a group member is evading, avoiding, distancing themselves. And we can call them out. Gently and with compassion. Because we’ve been there too. Isolating, keeping everyone at arm’s length, stiff arming the world around us and those who care about us as well.
Life can a bumpy ride. Especially for addicts who may not, as yet, have learned the skills required to manage those bumps. I protected myself for years with the “I’m fine” stiff arm. And then addiction brought me down and I was too weak and demoralized to even raise my arms in a futile bid to keep people away. I needed to say I’m not fine and I had to admit that I needed help. And that’s what I did. By entering the program of A.A. I admitted that I could not solve this drinking problem alone. I asked for help for what felt like the first time in my life. I let the cracks in my “I’m fine” facade show. And people rushed in to help me, offering me their time and patience and guidance so that I too could receive the blessing that is a sober life.
Like Tom, I need a team to help me. Without a team I am definitely not fine, inside or out. Without his team Tom is just some rapidly aging hot guy in too-tight white pants standing on a green field with a ball. But with a team behind him he is greatness. And that’s what A.A. feels like to me. My team. My peeps. My squad. We get each other implicitly and we support each other’s sobriety unequivocally. I doubt any of my A.A. friends will ever sport 7 Super Bowl victory rings like Tom, but I know that by staying sober day after day we all have a chance at enjoying, and maybe even winning, the game.