March 1, 2010

Amateur Ethnography: Alcoholics & Sexaholics Anonymous

On October 19th, 2006, I visited an Alcoholics/Narcotics Anonymous meeting near the University of Cincinnati. For one hour, I listened to approximately twenty-five men (and one woman) discuss an addiction that has systematically ruined their lives. I had never been to a meeting like that before, but I am eternally grateful for their willingness to share personal stories with one another. After more than a decade of attending church on a fairly regular basis, I'm not sure I ever experienced anything as "spiritual" as I did in that cramped room on a rainy Thursday evening.

I witnessed grown men love one another, accept one another, encourage one another, hug one another, and cheer for one another in a way that I don't see very often.

In the world of twelve steps, no one gets abused for sharing their struggles. No one gets rejected. Addicts walk in and announce they have been sober for two days, and people cheer, because two days is two days, and two days is a victory.

I loved the man who led the meeting. He said, "Don't live in the past; don't live in the future; all you have is today." He shared his struggles with alcohol—getting divorced, spending his kids' allowances on whiskey, getting stabbed in the chest after a night of drinking, getting shot, waking up under a bridge next to a strange woman (with his wife and kids at home in bed). He didn't censor himself, and the crowd hung on his every word.

No one flashed a judgmental look when someone admitted to slipping up earlier that day. No one was scolded for dropping the f-bomb. People were allowed to be themselves because all that mattered was recovery. All that mattered was making it through the day sober. Window dressing means absolutely nothing when you wake up in the gutter.

These people were tired of playing the game while their lives spun out of control. They longed to be healthy. Not play healthy, but be healthy. And their companions celebrated any attempt at healthiness, no matter how messy they looked in the process.

During the meeting, I was given a chip that signified my desire to surrender something in my life. I had to walk up, collect my cheap, white poker chip, hug the man who handed it to me, and receive a round of applause. Addicts carry the chip around as a reminder of what they're fighting for. It's been years since my visit, but I still have my chip. Whenever I look at it, I still think about the men (and one woman) in that room. I wonder where they are now. I wonder how many of them are drunk or high at this very moment. I wonder how many are still clean. Regardless, they were brave enough to show up and admit their addictions to a community of fellow addicts while so many of us hide our struggles from the very people who were meant to help us overcome them.

Shortly after my visit to Alcoholics Anonymous—partly because of what I learned while in attendance—I realized I had a problem. Not with alcohol, and not necessarily with sex, but with relationships. I was addicted to the thrill of the chase, and more specifically, I craved attention from women. When a female liked me, I felt validated. When a student had a crush on me, I felt worthy. My self-concept was based primarily on what women thought about me.

This excerpt from Addicted to Love, by Stephen Arterburn, summed up my problem perfectly:

Romance addicts are love terrorists who take their lovers hostage. They bind them with syrupy words of flattery and with manipulation that has been raised to an art form ... The more unobtainable the other person seems to be, the greater becomes the addict's will to win. But once having won, he or she will abandon the victim completely. The game is over. It is time to move on to the next round ... In the addict's desperate search for relief, he does not care who he hurts. He attaches quickly and detaches even more quickly. He leaves his victims utterly confused as to how something that looked so good and felt so right could end so suddenly and severely. Romance addicts believe they are searching for love. But without commitment, love is impossible ... There is always a back door to the relationship, standing slightly ajar, ever available for a quick flight to a new supplier of false hope, superficial attention, and a quick fix for the pain. The addict invests no more than is necessary to grab that momentary gratification.

It sounds ridiculous, but the reality television show, Scott Baio is 45 and Single, shined a spotlight on my condition. Baio wasn't able to commit, even at age forty-five. As he explored his issues, our stories sounded eerily familiar (apart from him being a celebrity). While watching the series, I feared I was staring into a crystal ball. I would spend the rest of my life alone if I didn't get help.

In 2007, I decided to attend a Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous group. Unfortunately, I didn't get any further than the lobby before running away. Three years later, I had gotten healthier. Partly because of the relationship with my (now) wife, Liz (I was actually fighting for someone I cared about), partly because of my faith journey, and partly because I was getting older and naturally settling down.

In the winter of 2010—in conjunction with my novel's publication about a college professor struggling with sexual addiction—I knew it was time to try again, so I made another attempt at attending a 12-step meeting for sex and love addicts.

This time, I made it past the lobby.

Because I respect the anonymity of the 12-step process, I won't be giving any details concerning the meeting's time or location. Also, I won't give any details concerning anyone in the group. Instead, I'm going to focus on the actual 12-step process and my experience at the meeting I attended.

First, I admit I was very nervous walking into the room. I was afraid someone I knew (or someone who knew me) would be at the meeting. I was afraid it would be awkward. I was afraid people would judge me. I was afraid everyone would be weird. I was afraid of things I didn't even know I was afraid of. I realized fear of the unknown keeps many people away from recovery groups.

The group met in a small room with a conference table. By the end of the meeting, there were only seven of us (compared to twenty-five at the Alcoholics Anonymous meeting), but the intimate setting was actually nice. I introduced myself, and they immediately recognized I was new, so everyone made sure to welcome me and make me feel comfortable.

We opened by reading standard documents (the preamble, the twelve steps, and some other introductory material). The leader chose me to read the twelve steps aloud to the group, which I'm sure is their way of getting everyone involved.

From there, we transitioned into about an hour of open discussion. This was an incredibly powerful experience. Here are some of my reflections:

1) I believe the great success story of 12-step programs is how open people are about their issues. Too many people of faith go into hiding when they screw up because they don't want others to judge them. That's what Ted Haggard did. That's what thousands of pastors do. And it's what millions of people in congregations do all over the world. Masks keep us safe. Walls hide our ugly truths.

I experienced more openness in that ninety-minute meeting than I have in over a decade of being a Christian. Maybe that's not your experience with religion, and that's great for you, but I assume many of us are in the same boat. Maybe it's my fault for embracing the silence, but there is a reason many Christians don't feel comfortable opening up to other Christians, and there is a reason most addicts do feel comfortable opening up in 12-step meetings.

Shortly before my visit, someone e-mailed me to explain he had been removed from a parachurch leadership position because he confessed to having sex outside of marriage (the guy was single and in his twenties). Their response was to punish him for admitting his sin. This reaction teaches everyone in that ministry to hide their sins. If I confess, I get punished, but if I hide, I am rewarded with stability.

I have never experienced such a free environment. People were honest. Really, totally, completely honest. (I only say that because I can't imagine anyone could be hiding anything after hearing their confessions.) And their honesty encouraged me to be honest. I said things out loud in that room that I have never spoken aloud before. Not even to my closest friends.

They even passed around a list of phone numbers. Everyone in the group supplies a number, and new members are encouraged to call day or night in case they are struggling. Amazing.

If we have to hide around other Christians, but speak freely to a roomful of strangers, something is drastically wrong with our faith.

2) One of the men in the meeting used the phrase "loaded guns," meaning addicts often see people as opportunities to feed the addiction. Do I see others as loaded guns or human beings? That question really shook me up. I realized my whole life is about viewing others as loaded guns. Not every minute of every day, but too much. How different would my life be if I started seeing my students as people with hopes, dreams, and fears, instead of loaded guns for me to manipulate? Same thing goes for Liz, my friends, or random strangers.

As someone in the meeting pointed out, addiction affects everyone around the addict. I'm not just hurting myself, but I hurt my students, my friends, my family, and Liz. I could potentially hurt my future children.

In other words, like everything else in life, people make addiction about themselves. But it's really about the people around you. That's who really suffers.

3) There were other random statements that stuck with me. Someone mentioned that power is a fantasy. So is control. So is self-sufficiency. I think I am strong. I think I am "normal" and "sane." But if I'm honest, I'm not in control. I'm not any more or less "normal" or "sane" than anyone else. A feeling of superiority (I'm too smart, cool, talented, sophisticated) gets addicts in trouble. I am not invincible. Neither are you. Addiction knows no boundaries. The disease doesn't discriminate.

We all have issues. Some of us deal with them in healthy ways. Others of us are drowning in our dysfunction. 12-step meetings throw addicts a life raft.

Like my trip to Alcoholics Anonymous, because it was my first visit, I was given a chip signifying one day of sobriety. Both chips represent two memorable groups of strangers who had a big impact on my life. Regardless of which of the twelve steps they were taking, all thirty-two addicts were moving in the right direction. Their journeys inspired me to get better, and for that, I am forever grateful.