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The Six Year Question: “Am I or Aren’t I?”

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I want the people I love to do not as I would or have done, but whatever will keep them safe. –Melissa Febos, Abandon Me

The first AA meeting I attended does not cling to my memory as much as the AA meeting I attended when I first asked “Am I or aren’t I?”, it was to asking a woman I had just met who had offered to take me through the 12 Steps if I was an alcoholic. I’ve found that if you spend enough time in the rooms of AA or any 12 Step meeting, you begin questioning certain parts of yourself, dusting off notions you only held the vaguest ideas of, and ultimately going around and around until you come to a satisfying answer–

“I am.”

6+ years ago I asked that question, and though I’ve had long and short periods of sobriety, worked with a handful of sponsors within AA, attended meetings rigorously and casually, read countless memoirs, engaged in healthy and unhealthy discussions, continued to deal with addicts in my life and aged, I still don’t have an answer. That is to say, I don’t know. I don’t know if I am an alcoholic, I don’t know if I’m not, and since nobody can answer this question for me with any kind of authority (trust me, I have asked doctors, therapists, friends, peers, sponsors, etc.) I’m left to my own devices: Google and my mind. Google brings me to an “Am I Alcoholic Self Test.” Here are my results:

In Your Self Test 10.00 Answer(s) Caused Concern

Now, the questions range from “have you ever sought help about your drinking” to the infrequency/frequency of blackouts to a desire for hiding alcohol when no one is around. You only have the option to answer YES or NO. If I gave this self-test to all of my friends, I have a feeling everyone would have an answer or two that is cause for concern. I know there are different sorts of tests/evaluations out there, but since I’m not a professional, I’m using the resources that I have immediate access to. I’m also a feeler, a survivor, and an adult child of an alcoholic with three generations of addicted women behind me. Some of these women are sober now, others aren’t. The point is, the odds are against me. If I was a betting woman, I would say my chances of being an addict now or developing an addiction later in life are high.

But, the self-test alone doesn’t give me an answer that puts a 6+ year question to rest. My mind says it doesn’t matter. I’ll always have this question no matter how many times I put it down (and I mean this time for real now). It’s almost like I’m addicted to the question itself. I’ve looked for the easy way– just continuing to drink– and the harder way out– follow what other people do who voice this same question. I’ve tried being sober without attending meetings, being sober and reading books on recovery, being sober and interacting with other sober women and men on social media, and finally, this– I tried being sober and writing about it.

When I first created living inside the grey, it was because I felt the need for a community. You know how they say write the book you needed as a kid (or maybe, it’s be the parent you needed as a kid, but for me, one and the same)? That’s what this space is for me. living inside the grey is an ongoing conversation, a place for all of us who can’t find ground anywhere else, who are still asking the question(s). I’m not reinventing the wheel. I’ve seen this conversation in a few places now, like drybeclub, run by Aidan Donnelley Rowley on Instagram. But, I don’t see it from people my age (mid-twenties) or identity (Queer).

I’m not a quiet person, so it came as some surprise that in September of this year, I stopped talking in this space quite suddenly. Though I’m still processing what happened, the basics are this: I left a space that I had felt threatened my sobriety at the time. I didn’t think too much about how I left (my primary concern was me and me only), and I got a lot of backlash for it via text and email by multiple people who fixated on “owing” something to the leader and/or community and less on why I had left in the first place. I know that me continuing to bring up a very sensitive situation makes some people unhappy, but happiness is not what I am aiming for here. Comfort isn’t either. I need the answer to my question– though I probably won’t get it, not for a lifetime of work– and I also need to create a safe, honest space for people like me and/or all people who have had odd, oppressive, silencing situations happen within the recovery world and stay silent. This is not a space to elaborate in great detail about the WHOs and WHATs, but it is a space to feel, to talk about the now, to delve into how it feels to be kicked out of a so-called “safe space” and flounder. If I was a different person, and I am being honest here (as honest as I can be), I would have started to drink very heavily. Though I did start drinking again, I did so intentionally, while in an open-dialogue with a therapist and my partner. I was not hiding, I was experimenting. I was trying my best to not judge myself, hoping I could rectify the situation that had caused me so much distress in the first place.

The foundation of my exit from this recovery program was the notion that we can have endless chances at recovery. As a person who has lost a loved one to addiction– someone who believed in their active addiction that they could keep using and stay alive– I disagree with the idea that there is room in this life for continuous day ones. I feel like a hypocrite just writing these words, because if you look at the timeline of my drinking story and tally up the number of “day ones” I’ve had, you’ll need an extra set of hands. I’m not kidding. I’ve most likely stopped drinking 10+ times in a little under 6+ years. Each period of sobriety for me in my head has been “the last time” or something close. Most, if not all of those times of sobriety, I’ve looked for a guide map on how to stay sober. I launch into AA meetings, start contacting women I know are devote Big Booker’s and forget that my journey is not theirs.

You’d think I would have more an idea of who I am if I start to look at who I’m not, but because how I define myself is almost constantly changing, it’s really hard for me to make an overall assessment. It’s also hard for my therapist to do so. Most professionals who I’ve spoken to have placed me in a grey area. One said I could drink meaningfully with the information that hard liquor would never be good for me. One said I didn’t match up with any addicts that they knew of. One asked me if I was making my history up because they had never seen someone so coherently parse together such a nightmarish history as mine. Perhaps I haven’t asked the right person, but I think there’s something more than that. Perhaps I’m asking the right question the wrong way.

When I judged the way this person was running their program and the things they were saying, I didn’t account for the fact that we’re all married to our ideas of what’s right and what’s wrong, and how could I fault someone who wants to believe– who needs to believe– that every day is another chance. My judgement comes from a deep well of sadness. I lost my ex, a friend, a beautiful soul, because she believed that if she used this time, it wouldn’t be any different from all the other times. Yes, she’d almost died, overdosed, et cetera enough times to know the game she was playing was a dangerous one, but her understanding was that this time wouldn’t be the last. Or that’s what I choose to believe with the facts I was given. It’s why I struggle with my own drinking so much, because I feel like every time I drink, I essentially play a round of Russian Roulette. So, yeah, my judgement was impaired by my past, but whose judgement isn’t? If I could go back to the events of this summer, what I would have done differently is this: written an email expressing my feelings to the program runner/friend, backed with my own experience and tried to have a dialogue. Regardless of if I still would’ve left, I would’ve given this person an opportunity to explain her reasons and been able to do the same. Instead, I reacted– like I’ve done every other time I’ve set out to get sober– instead of sit back and listen to what I need to do next.

Often times, when everything gets quiet, I know. It doesn’t happen often, because lately my life is so inundated by, well… life– the news, the dog, the to-do list, the hustle– and that scrolling is the most consistent thing I do in a day. Not say thanks. Not write. Not engage in open and honest dialogues with the people around me. That’s fucked up. Yes, I regret my behavior this summer, but no, I don’t regret voicing my concerns when I felt my safety was being threatened.

Back to the question. If “Am I or aren’t I?” is the right question, what’s the way I think I need to be asking it? Like this. Openly. From the deepest part of my heart. Without an expectation of a black-and-white answer, without the desire to find a neat little box to stick myself in. With the understanding that as long as I keep asking questions, I’ll get closer to the answers I already know to be true.

Other resources I read/kept in mind while writing this post:

Teaching the Literature of Mad Women

Tell Better Stories

Am I an Alcoholic?

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