You just don't understand.


Often in AA meetings we hear the line “You just don't understand”. "You just don't understand.... my life, my job, my partner, my lack of partner, my kids, my lack of kids, my neighborhood, childhood, illness, poverty, trauma, global pandemic, personality” and even “my trust fund". ALL of these are employed as excuses for why someone cannot stop drinking or drugging. We lie and make excuses and often are able (for a time) to fool others as well as ourselves.


I heard my favorite example of this sad refrain at my NYC home group. A group member (let's call him Steve) was always coming and going. Coming and going...in and out of the rooms...for years. He was desperate for sobriety - but not desperate enough. He would get a few days together...or weeks...or even months, and then he would disappear completely. Steve wouldn’t answer calls or texts or emails. Just poof. Gone. And then he would reappear, weeks or months later, much worse for wear but still breathing and strong enough to drag his body to a meeting and ask for help. He was always welcomed back with open arms, and with the hope that this would be the moment of grace for him - the moment where was finally able to quit...for good. As we know, it's easy-ish to stop most addictive behavior for 24 hours but almost impossible to stay stopped. Relying on ourselves and our willpower alone to quit any addiction is a sad and frustrating exercise.

Steve always had the same excuse. "You just don't understand. It's my job. The pressure, the people, the liquid lunches and cocktails after work with clients. The deadlines and the stress. The competition and the crazy hours. The travel, the physical and mental toll...” On and on he went, trying to trick himself into believing that the complications and stress of this intense job were making it IMPOSSIBLE for him to stop drinking. Finally my friend Tim lost his patience and said to Steve "For God's sake, man. Maybe you need a new job. What is it that you do anyway?" Steve stood tall, straightened his shoulders and announced with pride "I am an upholsterer".

We laughed out loud. But not at him. No, we laughed with him, and at the deadly absurdity of addiction.

Over the years I have heard that excuse from hundreds of people. Maybe more. I have used it myself when I slipped out of the rooms and out of sobriety. "You just don't understand." I have heard this refrain from movie stars and cab drivers, firemen and housewives. From homeless men and women to hedge fund managers and rock stars. From people living in Grand Central Station and in Palm Beach estates. From mothers and fathers, adolescents and octogenarians and everyone in between.

No one needs to engage in addictive, destructive behavior to survive. But we addicts do it anyway. Again and again and again, until we reach the gates of Hell, and then we march beyond - into Hell itself. And often into death. We lie to ourselves and we lie to others, but there is hope - for all of us. I have seen thousands of people stop and stay stopped. I have witnessed friends in recovery pass away peacefully, able to say in their last days that they were proud of the sober life they had lived. That's a vision for all of us.

I’ve met many alcoholics and addicts in recovery who have jobs that would certainly challenge my sobriety. But with a higher power, the 12-step fellowship, and the rooms of AA, they keep their jobs and don’t seem to struggle. Even when working around their drug of choice, they stay sober. Wine and liquor distributors, bartenders, chefs, doctors, anesthesiologists and pharmacists work with alcohol and drugs every single day and do not pick up. I once met a sober drug dealer who chose not to get high on his own supply. Thank God he was eventually able to get out of that "career" and get a real and rewarding job that did not come with the inevitability of hard time served.

In the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous there is a chapter called A Vision For You. {link to chapter 11 page 151}. It explains to us that there is an easier softer way to live our lives without engaging in our addictions, whatever they may be. Alcohol and drugs, yes, but I have also seen these steps applied to people struggling with addictions to food, sex, gambling, self harm, pornography, cigarettes, work, money, prestige...the list goes on and on. There IS an easier softer way, and the promise of learning to live a life that we can be proud of. It takes time and diligence, but the time spent getting and remaining clean and sober will surely turn out to be less than the time we would have wasted self-destructing with our drug of choice. Hours, days, months, and years are spent in the misery and regret that any active addiction will eventually cause.

And yes, Steve the upholsterer finally got sober. Steve is still an upholsterer and he still has the same "upholstering stressors" in his life but his perspective has completely changed. That’s what happens in the rooms of AA...a truly miraculous shift in perception. We begin to uncover the reasons we needed to self-medicate in the first place. Then we develop new ways to live comfortably in the world without turning to drugs and alcohol. We slowly learn how to wear life like a loose garment - and what could be better than that?

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