Susan asked me to write a piece describing in detail the difference between sobriety and recovery, since I tend to refer to the two as separate and distinct terms. For me, they clearly are.
When Alcoholics Anonymous first started up, in the 1930’s, before it had even adopted that name, they were not about “getting sober” or “stopping drinking”. It was about recovering from the life-threatening malady of alcoholism. Back then, there were no other known cures for it. The early AA-ers discovered the miracle that occurred when one alcoholic shared the good news of his recovery with another, and they continued to work with others who suffered from this problem, until there were nearly 100 of them who had recovered. They worked closely with what was known as “the Oxford Groups” at the time, a spiritually-based group who believed in spiritual healing. Those early AA-ers found the way out of hell through a belief in a spiritual recovery from the problem of alcoholism.
They decided to get together to write a book about their shared recovery experience. The primary author was the first guy who’d found recovery in this manner, Bill Wilson, but the book was reviewed and edited by groups of recovered alcoholics in Akron, Ohio and New York City. It was in the course of writing this book that the 12 Steps were first developed. They were derived from some of the Oxford Group’s spiritual principles that the group had been using to recover, and all agreed that in this 12 Step format, they would be easier for Alcoholics to follow. The Book gave specific guidance in how a person seeking recovery could go about experiencing it. They called the book “Alcoholics Anonymous”, and that’s how A.A. first got its name.
The book became known, simply, as the “A.A. Big Book”, or just “the Big Book”. It doesn’t talk much about sobriety or getting sober – it talks about recovery from alcoholism. It talks about the necessity of having a spiritual experience in order to achieve sustainable recovery from alcoholism. Upon its publishing, AA grew in leaps and bounds. Instead of the impromptu gatherings that occurred with the early members, pre-Big Book, the organization began to get more organized. It split off from the Oxford Groups as it came into its own. Regularly scheduled meetings began to spring up. Soon, many alcoholics found that they could actually stay sober by simply going to these meetings regularly. The therapeutic value of sitting in a meeting and talking and listening to other alcoholics talk about their struggles, helped the alcoholic to stay sober.
There became two types of alcoholic in AA. There was the “sober” alcoholic, who was able to maintain “sobriety” by going to meetings regularly, and didn’t really need to have the spiritual “recovery”. Then there was the “recovered” alcoholic, who went through the 12 Step process, as outlined in the Big Book, usually with the guidance of a group or a sponsor. There were a few who would have an almost instantaneous “awakening”, where the realization that a power greater than themselves could heal their problem would occur, but these were the exception. Most experienced the recovery process gradually, as they progressed through the Steps.
These “recovered” alcoholics are the ones who either went back to the meetings to help the newcomers to find recovery, or who just went back to live their lives, now on a solid spiritual footing, the question of whether to drink or not having been lifted from them through recovery. These ones didn’t usually just attend meetings – they would become part of a “Home Group”, where they got to know their fellow group members well, and would become very effective at working with newcomers seeking recovery. They didn’t need to “maintain” their “sobriety”. The spiritual experience they had through the 12 Steps had“lifted” their desire to drink, and they no longer had to fight it. They had recovered from alcoholism.
What no one disputed was, once someone had crossed that line into alcoholism, there really was no going back. A true alcoholic could never learn to drink in moderation, successfully. No matter how long they managed to stay sober, one drink was all they would need to once again be off to the races, usually worse than ever. This was proven many times over through extensive “real life” research. I engaged in this type of research myself, early on. For many of us, we needed to prove this to ourselves, usually not content to simply take AA’s word for it.
As more and more people “got sober”, as opposed to “recovered”, it became popular to mark one’s “Sobriety Date”, or the date that they stopped drinking. The term sobriety became more and more common, and the term “recovered” became discouraged. The thought process was, they didn’t want alcoholics to think they were now “well”, and to think they could then go out and successfully drink. So, they subsituted the term “recovering”, as in, “I’ll always be recovering” from alcoholism. Rarely do you hear, in the meetings and the halls of “sobriety”, anyone say “I’m a recovered alcoholic”. They will usually say, “I’m a recovering alcoholic”. I find this sad. They are short-changing themselves. The Big Book said it clearly – “we can, and do, recover”. Nowhere in that book does it say that you must attend meetings for the rest of your life.
When I got out of the Navy, my addiction to alcohol, and other drugs, rapidly escalated, and within 2 months of my discharge, I was completely on my ass, down for the count, all of my dreams had been beaten into submission by my addiction. I began to seek a way out of my personal hell. I quit drinking and all forms of drugs. I tried rehabs and meetings, and they didn’t help, much. I couldn’t relate to the people in either. I became very suicidal, but went into the V.A. Hospital’s Depression Clinic. I was diagnosed as manic depressive, put on 20 mg of Lithium Sulfate, stabled out some, and went to AA meetings. I stayed sober this way for 2 years. I continued to smoke pot throughout this time. AA didn’t have a stance on pot, or any drugs, for that matter. They dealt strictly with alcoholism, and did not encourage members to discuss addiction to other substances. So, I was going along, 2 ½ years sober, when it all began to unravel. I had a near-death, out-of-body experience, brought back by the strength of a dear friend, who then turned around and died himself days later. I turned increasingly to getting high on pot and opium, as I tried to figure out the meaning of life – “why him, and not me?” I was truly seeking an answer, the only way I knew how. Getting high made me feel more in touch with my “spiritual” side. When I was not high, I felt very restricted, very confined, I had a hard time dealing with life’s day to day little challenges.
One evening, having smoked a few doobies, sitting in my apartment alone, playing hours of strat-o-matic baseball by myself, as I’d done that entire winter – baseball and statistics, numbers and calculations, were my “comfort food”, if you will, this was where I felt most at home – the loneliness and isolation of my situation overwhelmed me. I remember this moment like it was yesterday, but it was 33 years ago, almost to the day. I saw my AA Big Book sitting on my kitchen counter. I’d never been able to really read it. I didn’t like the way it was written. But, something compelled me to pick it up in that moment, and as I read it, the words reached right down into my soul, and I connected with those people who had written it. I got it. I understood what they were saying. The spiritual recovery that got them well. I resolved, in that moment, to find this, what they were talking about. Even though I’d been attending AA meetings all over South Jersey, Philadelphia, and Bucks County, PA, and not really seen what they were talking about in that book, I figured there must be some of them out there, somewhere.
I immediately began my search for them. I wanted what they had. After several weeks of AA meetings, where they were all talking about the therapeutic value of the meetings, and “recovering” one day at a time, slogans like “just don’t drink and go to meetings”, “keep it simple”, etc., etc., I was getting frustrated. Then, a guy told me about N.A. – Narcotics Anonymous. It wasn’t just for people addicted to hard drugs. It based itself on the 12 Steps of AA, but applied to any mind or mood-altering substance. It talked about complete abstinence from all drugs, including alcohol. I jumped in. I knew that’s what I needed, as soon as I heard it. I had one relapse, on St. Patrick’s Day of 1980, visiting my friends in Connecticut, and against my own will and better judgment, I got high with them. That’s what I did with them. They didn’t have a problem – but I knew that I did.
I looked for recovery in N.A. They were “clean and crazy”. Let’s all get “clean” and we’ll keep each other clean through regular attendance at meetings, and we’ll do all kinds of crazy shit together. Someday, we’ll even think about those 12 Steps. When I couldn’t find recovery there, I tried to manufacture it. I got involved with N.A.’s effort to write its own “Big Book”. I helped to write the N.A. 12 Steps and 12 Traditions. I typed reams and reams of material for the N.A. book and literature movement, started up 2 N.A. Newsletters, hosted and chaired the conference that pulled together recovering addicts’ stories to be included in the “N.A. Basic Text for Recovery”, calling addicts in Japan, Australia, Hawaii, for inclusion.
(Pictured above - my "clean and crazy" N.A. crew, in the apartment where we first began to develop N.A.'s version of the 12 Steps)
N.A. grew exponentially in the next several years. Meetings sprang up everywhere, all over the world, fueled by the good news in the new book. I was still not well myself. I still had not found people like that AA Big Book had talked about. I still struggled each day with my addiction. I fought hard to find an island of sanity. I went to jail, 3 ½ years “clean and sober”. I went through 17 jobs in 4 years of “sobriety”. Women came and went in my life, like water flowing through and past me. Relationships were something I could never sustain. My family grew fearful that I would not make it to age 30. I was 25 and rapidly burning myself out, working hard at “recovering”, staying clean and sober. It was a God-awful existence and struggle. I was acclaimed in N.A. as one of the writers, I was a sought-after speaker at conventions and conferences around the country, I was a “working class hero” througout this burgeoning fellowship – and I was dying. The line from John Lennon comes to mind – “One thing you can’t hide, is when you’re crippled inside”. I made sure that line made it into the N.A. Basic Text. That was me. Clean and sober and crippled inside. It's in there. You could look it up!
Then, I found them. Or they found me. That elusive Group of individuals who had found recovery, through A.A.’s Big Book, and were about that and nothing else. I found them in the most unlikely of places. I didn’t find them in A.A. – they were in N.A. This guy who had gotten recovery in Cleveland, Ohio, at one of the original A.A. Groups, and had moved to Philadelphia to be near his kids, and came to N.A. because his addiction was to more than just alcohol, and he wanted to share what he had found with other addicts, started a group up. Many were warned against attending his group in South Philly. They were a cult, was the company line. They’re “drinking the koolaid” down there. They think you can get well. You can magically recover from addiction. You don’t have to work at it. They’re freaks. Stay away from there.
They tended to attract the really sick ones. The ones who couldn’t maintain sobriety by going to meetings. The ones who were in state mental institutions (they still had them back then), and no one else could seem to help. They went there, and got well. I went there, and got my covers blown off my N.A. celebrity. They saw right through my façade. They didn’t have to say a word to me about it. I knew they knew. I couldn’t stay away. It took me months, in my fog and my confusion and my desperation, to recognize what I had found, there. Then, I finally succumbed to what I could not resist, I forgot what everyone had warned me about the group, and I "drank the koolaid". I got sponsors, and I got well. My struggles ceased, almost immediately. I met my wife there. I found a job that I haven’t walked out on or gotten fired from in 28 ½ years now, going from a Supply Clerk/Typist to Senior Executive in that time. Very simply, I found recovery. Just like they had outlined in A.A.’s Big Book. It was truly a miracle in my life. To this day, I still don't know how I could possibly have gotten so lucky. I wake up each morning, and I know, down to my toes and to the top of my head, that I am truly blessed to be alive, and to be o.k. I just got lucky.
So, I can’t just go to meetings. I really have no business there. I belong in a home group, helping addicts find recovery. I might start going to meetings again to find some of those addicts who are dying there. I don’t know how else they will find us in the smoking room of an AA clubhouse in Georgetown, DC. But, I have reached a point in my life, in my recovery, where it is time to start giving it back, again. I need to pay it forward, now. The only thing I have to offer is the thing that I found – recovery. That’s what I believe in.
Sobriety means nothing to me. It's empty, it's a date, it represents 17 jobs in 4 years, loneliness, depression, quiet desperation. Recovery means life, abundance, as the Big Book puts it, being "rocketed into a 4th dimension of existence, beyond our wildest dreams". That is where I live today, each day. I didn't get sober. I recovered. Life is good.
(Photo above: charcoal drawing of me during the period when we were compiling N.A.'s Basic Text, drawn by a dear, late friend Gina from St. Louis)