Alcoholism often reveals itself first in broken promises. If you are lucky, these are promises to yourself. I really need to cut back. Jesus, I’m never gonna do THAT again. I’m just going to have one last time – the Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles – and then I’m going to stop.
Some of these promises are unspoken: the I would nevers. But one of the most common experiences of addiction is learning that you’re capable of much more than you’ve ever realized. You can do anything! Nothing can stop you! You won’t like it.
Alcohol itself is a great maker of promises. You could say herself: that golden-skinned brunette in the glass, her ice cubes clinking like bracelets as she leans in toward your lips. Liquor promises a lot and for a long time she delivers. I have a lot of good memories – and even more things that were probably good memories when they happened. When the thunder cracks and the streetlights start to swing high on their wires, how great to stand in the lightning, how great to rear up on your hind feet against the sky!
Liquor promises confidence (I was about three drinks in when I gave my first public speech, and now public speaking is the most lucrative part of my job). Liquor promises camaraderie (I met my best friend in those long spilled-out nights when we’d roar in the streets, arguing until breakfast about whether education is real). Liquor promises ecstasy, and in that bright happy blackout darkness you will be sure you are kissing God, or just about to. The real ecstasy is always just one drink further in.
My best friend and I would quote Shakespeare at one another, “We did sleep day out of countenance, and made the night light with drinking.” It was true! It was what we were promised. It was almost true.
Nowadays everybody seems to be very constructive, and you’re supposed to care that the ecstasy wasn’t real. Yes, okay, the promised ecstasy was fake. But if nobody ever promises you ecstasy, how will you know what you can long for? Be grateful to alcohol, because all her promises may be a list of everything she’ll eventually take from you, but they’re also a list of everything you need. Give thanks for Sister Booze, who is grabby and playful and educational, and very, very strong.
She will teach you what justice is, because she keeps count of everything she’s lent you and, if you are a certain kind of person, she will take all of it back someday with keen and gleaming interest.
“Normal” people make cute little promises to themselves and then they keep them. “Normal” people who “experience problem drinking” just grow out of it. Boring! What do these people know?
How to love their spouses, sure, whatever. How to hold down a job. Fancy fancy! (I have a working theory that people who never become alcoholics just get less out of booze. They don’t know her like I do!)
If you do not know how to do these things then there is a good chance you’ll end up in one of the controlling metaphors of American culture: “in the rooms” of a Twelve Step group. “Normal” people absolutely love AA. They really want to believe that once you have been punished enough by your fun, you’ll find God and knuckle under, and it won’t cost anybody else one red cent. “Normal” people love AA as a metaphor, as a language they can use to talk about repentance and transformation without getting into the whole politics of Jesus. “Normal” people (yes, I do know normal people don’t exist) are desperate to believe that AA works for everybody. Christians in particular love AA because it makes you accept God so you don’t, as David Foster Wallace put it in Infinite Jest, “die in slime.” AA sometimes calls itself “the spiritual solution,” and if there’s one thing Americans want it’s a solution to the problem of other people.
If there’s a second thing Americans want it’s a solution to the problem of themselves: they want a self-improvement plan. Self-improvement plans sell. Self-improvement plans feel great at the beginning. Self-improvement provides a simulacrum of hope, and that’s the best simulacrum money can buy.
There’s a specific bright washed beauty in nature itself on those hangover mornings when you go out, aching, having counted out your change so you can get an orange soda at the corner store, and because you don’t want to drink right this second you feel like maybe this time you can change. It feels good to think maybe you will.
The best part of any self-improvement plan is the part where you make your to-do list, and the first item is, “Make To-Do List.” That one always gets crossed off.
Maybe the most convincing feature of AA is that it feels awful at the beginning. Sometimes that feeling doesn’t last through the first meeting. You hear something you can (here borrowing from Wallace again) Identify with and you are filled with hope, and it feels the same as the simulacrum, I’m sorry to say, but it’s better. But even if you are so lucky, thunderstruck by the humility of recognition right away, there are some rough nights at the very beginning when you’re drunkenly googling “how much vodka per night is alcoholism” and “singns of alchoolism” and “whre is liver and how do i know if it hurts.” And then, eventually, “aa in my area.” And before you know it you’re slinking into those rooms, not able to look at anybody and not able to say any of the things they’ll try to make you say, and you brought your own coffee because if you drink theirs that might mean you owe them something.
And everyone’s very welcoming but even that welcome feels like a punishment. As I say, it’s a convincing experience.
But there are reasons to think AA isn’t well-designed. Like Christianity, it promises an endless string of second chances. You can always crawl back and get your twenty-four-hour chip, no matter how many times you’ve done it before. You can come to AA hungover and you can come to AA drunk, just like Mass. If AA sold drinks you could call it The Lowest Bar.
If instead of googling “how to get malbec vomit out of carpet” or “can i use same cleaner on lipstick and blood,” you look up “social science forgiveness,” you will find endless pages of thoughtful, cottony research telling you that forgiving people will make you feel better, as if that’s the point. But look closer and the picture becomes more complicated. There’s some painful social science out there suggesting that forgiving “too quickly” in relationships may encourage your partners to continue to mistreat you. Psychology professor James K. McNulty seems to specialize in this area, authoring a sheaf of studies finding that forgiveness correlated with lower self-respect and worse behavior from spouses. I don’t care what social science says and so I take no position on the relative merit of McNulty’s oeuvre. I know that believing you can never be forgiven is a really bad incentive to change. But is knowing you will always be forgiven a better one?
Human beings respond to incentives and forgiveness feels good. Feeling unforgiven is “aversive” (it sucks) and feeling forgiven is fantastic. If the only stick the mule-driver’s got tastes just like a carrot, how will the mule ever learn?
AA’s only membership requirement is “an honest desire to stop drinking.” As it happens, alcoholism is not good for your confidence in your own honesty. David Carr’s memoir The Night of the Gun is the account of addiction and recovery which comes closest to the emotional tenor of my own. His stories are much more hardcore – if I wrote a memoir it would have to be called, like, The Night of the Vintage 1982 E. T. Commemorative Pizza Hut Glass Where It Puts Out Its Weird Finger and Says “Be Good” – but the shame is quite familiar. One of his touchstones is the line from Norman Mailer’s Armies of the Night: “Who could tell anymore where was what? Liars controlled the locks.” (I copied this into the inside front cover of the journal my first spiritual director made me keep. I was not good at inspirational quotes.) Carr cashes it out:
Part of the problem with authentic recovery is that you are stuck with the same rhetorical set that you had when you were chronically relapsing. This time, I’m really about something. No, this time. No, now, I really, really mean it. That was then, today I’m completely done with that shit. OK, I know I said it before, but once and for all, it is over. Unless it isn’t. The addict shares the skepticism of those who behold him.
The promise of AA, like the promise of sacramental confession, is that somebody else will muster all the strenuous credulity needed to believe you when you say the things nobody could say, in your shoes, and believe. And this gullible person will then extend to you the possibility of forgiveness, yet again: your fifteen-thousandth second chance. In confession the priest, acting as Christ, puts you through the excruciating ordeal of trusting you to promise you won’t do it again. The Act of Contrition I learned when I became Catholic makes me say I “firmly intend, with Your help, to make amends, to sin no more, and to avoid all that leads me to sin.” My friend (my Friend), I “firmly intend” to do a lot of things. Last week I intended with every fiber of my being – and I am one fibrous beast – but here I am again, slinking back.
And absolution is given anyway, and the priest is just as encouraging as last week; it’s a little bit Groundhog Day except you don’t learn to play the piano.
AA culture takes the opposite tack. You’re trained to say not “my last drink” but “my last drink so far.” You’re trained to remember that you are still dangling at the end of your rope above the slime, so you’d better be grateful for whatever Higher Power has a hold on the other end. You’re reminded, not just at the beginning when it may come as a relief but later when it’s kind of rubbing your nose in it, that your recovery has to be One Day at a Time. These ritual affirmations are the result of a hard education in the flexibility of your firmest intentions. If “expectations are just planned resentments” (you like that? I’ve got hundreds of ’em), then promises are just planned disappointments.
A caveat, before getting to the point: neither confession nor AA reliably work in this ultra-forgiving, carrot-flavored-stick way. You can be told in confession that you have a problem and need help that sacramental absolution won’t give. It isn’t always, “Oh, it’s okay, dear, take two Hail Marys and call me if the pain gets worse”; you can be told to do things.
You can show up hungover again to your regular hangover meeting and get taken aside and gently told, by somebody with a voice like tweezers, “You know you don’t absorb this through the skin, right? You have to do the work.” There are internal consequences for repeated failure, even when it comes with repeated forgiveness. And there are also, you know, the kind of consequences where people look you in the eye and tell you what you need.
Try not to blame them. It was for your own good, and most of them probably didn’t enjoy it.
Still, the church and the Twelve Step group offer a lot more forgiveness than most other places, and at a great value for money. Does it work? Does it make you better?
Everybody who hangs around long enough knows that the only answer is, “It depends.” And so you hit the deeper question: Does it matter if it works?
On the one hand, of course it matters. You are desperate to stop hurting the ones you love. You may not care as much about dying in slime as you would have expected, but you still don’t want to make your mom watch it happen. You go to AA and to confession because you hope it will help, you need it to help. In the case of AA specifically it is morally necessary that you be told it might not, and there are other ways. If AA isn’t right for you then let it matter to you that it isn’t working. Keep looking, there are other paths, from the r/stopdrinking subreddit to anti-anxiety meds to your local church.
My own recovery is twelve-steppy but highly unorthodox. One of the most hopeful things I read in my last drinking days (so far) is Maia Szalavitz and Joseph Volpicelli’s Recovery Options, which, as the title suggests, goes through a wide range of approaches and resources and makes clear that sobriety can be found by as many paths as there are people in need of it. Anyone who makes AA seem like the only option is making a promise AA itself never makes – because it knows that promise would be false.
But there is a way in which it doesn’t matter if it works. Even in AA, and especially when you turn to confession, something other than moral improvement is being sought. The purpose of the forgiveness you extend to others likely differs from the purpose of the forgiveness God extends to you, but neither is offered as a tool to extract compliance. The honest desire to stop drinking is valuable in itself even if you can’t make it stick. The honest desire to surrender your will and life to your Higher Power still connects you to that Power; the trust you show when it isn’t “working” has its own beauty and its own unwanted light.
In confession you do not seek primarily moral improvement but reconciliation with God. The confessional is less a classroom and more a trysting place. In my own life, my best current understanding of what I’m doing is not that I’ve turned away from drunkenness and to abstinence; abstinence is an absence. It’s slightly more true to say that I am turning from drunkenness to sobriety: a path of peace. But it is most true to say that I hope to turn from drunkenness to Christ. And this in all things: not from vice to virtue but from vice to God.
The promise that will be kept is not any of my strenuous, heartfelt, necessary promises of sobriety, but God’s promise of presence. He can say credibly what I can’t: that he will “keep showing up.”