Posts Tagged ‘Women for Sobriety’

I’ve been speaking on and off again recently to someone very new to recovery–only days in, barely weeks. She is angry, beyond angry, and cynical and frustrated and resentful and…well, you get the point. Mostly, I think she’s looking for someone/something to blame and looking even harder for a way out. In short, it’s like looking in a mirror.

I don’t have to dig very far in my past to find the Me who was a walking defense mechanism. I don’t even have to look that far into my psychology to find these feelings, simmering like a black hot spring under the good earth I’ve been planting over top. I don’t count it as humility to be able to recognize these things in myself. It’s just a measure of my grasp on an unpleasant reality. On the one hand, I like to think I’ve traveled very far past the days when I lived as one, gigantic red nerve just waiting to cry or lash out. On the other, I live in the knowledge that, in some ways, it would take very little to get back there. One drink, of course.

I don’t believe in a “cure” for alcoholism, simply because I have not found a cure for stress or bad days or accidents or despair. As the phraseology goes: treatements, but no cure. Spending time, even very little time, with someone just days or weeks into her or his recovery is one form of treatment that is almost universally acknowledged among recovering addicts. When I ventured back into recovery circles in 2010, I didn’t realize I was a walking, talking memento mori–but that is probably the newcomer’s most important function in recovery circles. The newly recovering addict is a skull on the desk, the painting of the skeleton, the “remembrance of death.”

Hundreds of years ago, the pious kept these objects in full sight–particularly in their private rooms–to remind them of the inevitability, the closeness of death. In my twenties, I couldn’t quite wrap my brain around this medieval/Renaissance habit of scholars and theologians. At best, it seemed like a quaint, foreign custom. At worst, fetishistic. I identified more easily with Hamlet, whose reaction to a skull is just a commonsensical freak out, followed by a little ego trip and nausea. Skulls belong in graves, not on top of the furniture.

Raised a good protestant, I still don’t quite get the power of the fully physical representation of Our Last End. (Southern Baptism will teach anyone that the scariest place to be is your own head. No need to decorate the lobby with Halloween enthusiasms.) Now that I am some years (and many close calls) nearer to my own death, it’s somewhat easier to understand the practice. I also understand the memento in its complexity a little better: these were not blunt objects designed to conjure simply the last gasp and the shroud, but were to remind the owner too that we can hasten death; we can live in it. For the medieval miind (and those religious folks who essentially keep the medieval world alive today), sin is a form of death. John Milton went so far to allegorize Sin as the daughter of Satan and Death as their incestuous offspring. (Paradise Lost gets serious kink points for this one in my opinion.) To live in sin is to live in death. For anyone coming out of addiction, it is easy enough to acknowledge that there are ways of living that more closely resemble death than life, ways of being that bring on a wish for death rather than survival.

At the very beginning of my recovery, I was encouraged to write a list of all the things my drinking had done that had led to suffering for me and other people. I realized quickly that this could be a very short list (“It destroyed everything”) or a very long one (if I decided to name all the things my addiction ruined). What one winds up with will hardly be comprehensive–because addiction’s losses are hardly comprehensible–but effective, just as the scholar did not have to look at every skull in the world to know he’d die eventually. One was plenty. I was told to look at this list any time I felt like drinking or any time it occurred to me that I wasn’t “really” an alcoholic.

I never look at this list, by the way. I just know it’s there, just as the scholar knew the skull was there without having to look at it, perhaps having even forgotten it a little. These mementos of my addiction–whether represented in my own hand in a journal or freshly from the experience of someone new to sobriety–will occasionally catch me off-guard, however. Listening to them, I am emotionally transported to the pain and rawness of addiction and the hard scrabble work of early weeks in recovery. I do not want to go back there, but it is good to go back there. It is psychologically good, if a little painful, and warns me against complacency. It’s also less conspicuous than keeping a skull on my desk, which would be weird and I think, somehow, less effective, though I don’t ever rule anything out.


If you’re expecting something ironic to follow this provocative title, I’ll hate to disappoint.  This post really is going to be about how my sexual fantasies keep me sober.  And if you’re hoping to hear about my girl-on-girl pirate fantasy…read on.

Many moons ago, a friend of mine was dating someone new and was naturally awash with praise for the new Ms. Right.  But with darkened features, she added about her new love interest, “She doesn’t fantasize about sex..”  We stared at one another in mutual shock and, after a short beat, exclaimed at the same time:

“What does she do when she’s bored!?”

Now, admittedly, I was in my early twenties during this exchange and my hormone levels hadn’t been pummeled by a decade of graduate school and a steady supply of hooch.  Even so, I’m still shocked to think of someone who never, ever fantasizes about sex.  If I didn’t think it weren’t physically impossible, I’d certainly think that our culture makes it virtually impossible.

I fantasize a lot less than I did twenty years ago, but it’s still a pretty daily occurrence.  (Now that I think about it, it’s amazing that I had time to do things like learn to drive and read cereal boxes back in those days.)  My fantasy life is rich and complex–like the wine I used to drink or the bullshit I used to spill–and it would take me hours just to explain the costumes.  My fantasies range from the Tolkeinesque to more Austenian period pieces. The 21st century doesn’t do much for me, nor even reality as we’ve ever known it. As a matter of fact, I don’t go in for quick-and-dirty fantasies very often, and am usually asleep before I’ve managed to decide if the room I’m about to have sex in should have a fire place or not.  My partner will attest that a particularly involved fantasy of mine, inspired by Tolstoy’s War and Peace on the one hand and by Vita Sackville-West’s real-life romancing of Violet Trefussis on the other, had to be scrapped after several weeks of “work” because I couldn’t decide what either of us should be wearing.

Funnily, this may be the one part of my life where delayed gratification is my favorite sort.

But, let’s face it:  sex plays a big role in our lives and, therefore, in our recoveries.  The Big Book doesn’t blush at this, nor does St. Jean Kirkpatrick in any of her publications.  Relapse is often associated with inappropriate sexual behavior.  Witness the grotesquely sexist slogan, “Under every skirt, there’s a slip.”  My sex life itself –with real people, not with sorceresses or Russian countesses–has been a different kind of journey.  Just having sex sober was difficult at first, even with a supportive partner.  And developing a healthy, sober sexual self is an ongoing project.

But I’m talking about something much simpler and more straightforward.

What happens in our heads is a rehearsal for reality.  In recovery, you learn this quickly or you don’t stay very long.  Advice for anyone going to a party with drinking will include the following suggestions, “Imagine yourself at the party.  See yourself there getting a non-alcoholic beverage.  See yourself having a good time.  Most importantly, envision yourself leaving the party sober and feeling good about it.”  This is a very basic psychological technique used by counselors and hypnotherapists to help clients create an effective self-concept during problematic situations.

Sex is problematic no matter what, but even just images–fantasies–about sex can be problematic for a recovering alcoholic.  How often do media images couple sex with drinking?  How often have we been encouraged, especially as young people, to use alcohol to lower our inhibitions–to feel, in a word, sexier.  What I’ve seen of The Jersey Shore is a fantasmagoric exaggeration of both these problems–as it blurs the line between manufactured media image and “reality” tv.  See them drink; see them gyrate; see them screw; see them hung over.  And repeat.

So why not use our sexual fantasies to combat this pressure? these endless pictures?  Why not make sobriety play a big role in our imaginary sex lives?

In fairness, booze never played a big role in my sexual fantasies, which might seem unusual.  Maybe there was a glass of wine here or a drink there…before the main event, stashed in with the detail of the demure spectacles on the pirate’s lieutenant or the epaulets on the dragon rider’s uniform.  But when I decided to get sober, I determined that no part of my life was too small, too forgettable, or too “private” (as it were) for my sobriety not to reach.  Being sober meant making every part of my life reflect very consciously my new, sober goals.

So I didn’t just excise the booze or replace it with a glass of water.  No, my fantasies became vehicles for sober sexiness!  No longer did the pirate’s lieutenant merely display a surprising fastidiousness and introversion…oh no!  Now she gazed soberly at her sexual object across a room of lewd, drunken buffoons–her refusal to drink another important adornment to her strangely bookish allure, already so out-of-place in this den of saltwater theives.  And, wow, did this ever give me an opportunity for great back-story.  (Bookish pirates are hot, by the way)

Joking aside, I’m not making a point about sex at all–or, at least, my primary point isn’t about sex or sexual fantasy.  It’s just that when I decided to get sober, I knew that I would have to live out my sobriety in every thought, word, and deed.  I actually knew that long before I got sober, and it was fear of having to live like that, fear of becoming “one of those people” that gave my disease great excuses for a long, long time.  I knew there was no part of my life that would be overlooked by my recovery.  If I’d known it could be so fun, I probably wouldn’t have minded the idea so much!

My point is not that my fantasies somehow got me sober magically.  They didn’t.  I’m just saying that there’s no harm in fantasizing that the designated driver goes home with the hottie at the end of the night.  And for me, there’s even a benefit–the benefit of making sobriety conscious at every level of thought.  Finally, my sobriety touches every part of my life.

Especially my private parts.

Like most alcoholics, I have had my struggles with “privacy”–whom to talk to about my disease and recovery, whom to keep in the dark.  When I got sober, my immediate family knew about my alcoholism anyway, so that was done.  After that, I told close friends and other relatives.  As a lesbian, I have a lot of experience with these kinds of questions.  Like my sexuality, my alcoholism and even my recovery have been and continue to be “an open secret.”  Some people know; others may or may not know.  The revolving door of my friends and acquaintances, the very natures of gossip and talk and general communication all ensure that my control over this information is limited–perhaps even fantasmatic.  I have learned it’s best to act on the principle that everyone either knows about my recovery or is allowed to know.  And here’s why:

Trying to control the secret of my disease was a feature of my disease.  It’s as fruitless to try to control who knows and who doesn’t as it was to try to control my drinking.  This came to me forcefully when a woman very new to recovery asked me some advice about whether she should disclose her drinking and recovery to a close relative.  My thoughts crystallized, and I was able to say more or less this:  “Remember how exhausting it was trying to control drinking?  How much psychological and emotional energy we wasted on that?  I know that I don’t want to spend that kind of energy controlling who knows and who doesn’t.”  It’s not merely a waste of time, of course.  It’s dangerous.

“Coming out” as an alcoholic is touchy, of course, and I’m not hiring a float.  I wouldn’t recommend to myself or anyone else they disclose their disease merely for the sake of disclosure.  Under certain circumstances, doing so could be damaging or self-defeating.  I won’t tell the red-state, rural high school queer to go to the prom with her cheerleader girlfriend either.  But in most circumstances, a quick gut-check will tell me that the only thing I’m likely to protect by keeping my recovery a secret is my disease–however the “ism” is manifesting itself.

I’ve met some AA members who are insistent that everyone in one’s life should know–even, for instance, prospective employers who may not be enthusiastic about the prospect of hiring the newly recovered.  Sobriety is #1, after all.  Secrecy nourishes the disease, so (the thinking goes) we shun ALL secrecy, even if it seems on the surface self-defeating.  I’m sympathetic to this position, just as I’m sympathetic to LGBTQ activists who believe in the political outing of gay conservatives.  What’s the old ACT-UP matra?  SILENCE = DEATH

Yet again, I think the gut-check is in order.  The principle of honesty is not to prevent our lives from moving forward positively.  It’s there to defeat the disease and to help others who may need our help.  I am “out” as a lesbian for precisely this reason, and I’m “out” as a recovering alcoholic for the same.  Still, I’m not going to disclose either identity for disclosure’s sake.

All that said, it surprised me when I came into several discussions among recovering women in WFS (Women for Sobriety) that took for granted not merely the “right to privacy” when it comes to our recoveries, but virulently defended that “right” as almost necessary to healthy sobriety.  One conversation revolved around a woman’s boyfriend, who had disclosed her disease and recovery to his family without talking to her first about it.  Bad form on his part, I’ll grant, but her reaction (and others’ reactions on her behalf) were completely out of proportion.  “How DARE he!” they seemed to shout.  “He had NO RIGHT to tell others about your recovery!”  Oh, really?  What right?

Leaving off the fact that these were largely North Americans and that in the United States we still have an ongoing argument about whether or not our constitution recognizes a “right” to privacy… why wouldn’t this guy have a right to talk about his girlfriend’s illness with his close family members?  Pragmatically, if she’s recently sober, it means she was pretty recently drunk too.  As her romantic partner, he would have been in the eye of her alcoholic storm.  He probably needed to talk to his family about it all.  This is Alanon 101, no?  But not in the eyes of the other recovering women there, and I have been deeply surprised since to discover that I am very much in the minority among WFS members in my thinking that I do not have a natural “right” to privacy when it comes to my recovery.

Of course, WFS members are primarily white, middle-class women.  We are predominantly middle-aged as well.  Most of us have college-degrees, whether or not we’re putting them to good use or not.  When we hit bottom, when we decide to get sober, it’s not usually because we’ve been court-ordered to do so.  Many, if not most, of us get sober from the comfortable seclusion of our homes. Possibly from the tan, bland chairs of an out-patient clinic for which our insurance might pay.  Possibly from the bed of a rehab clinic whose bill gets footed the same way.  We don’t often have our names in the police blotter, do not lose our jobs or children in ways that impact us financially, socially, and legally.  We’re not wearing ankle bracelets or making the beds of a half-way house.  So many women and men in recovery are subject to these realities.  Where is their right to privacy?

When it comes to alcoholism, privacy is a class privilege.  Socially and financially buffered, the “high bottom” drunks of the middle class can claim a right to privacy that others in recovery from the same disease have never had the slightest chance of exercising.  There is nothing special about someone who, by accident of birth or circumstance, is able to have some control over the disclosure of her or his alcoholism.  I can buy a special relationship with an attorney, then anything I tell her is considered “privileged.”  But I can’t just say anything to any lawyer and expect it to be a secret.  The middle and upper classes, however, have always operated subtly on the premise that anything that one can afford, one deserves.

Privacy is always the euphemism the privileged classes (middle class or white or Western or whatever) have used to describe their own right to keep information from other people.  Other people, people we don’t like, people not like us…they’re the ones with SECRETS.  Secrets are nasty, disturbing things.  We don’t like secrets.  We don’t even have them.  We just have…you know…PRIVATE things. Consider this:  when celebrities are forced into rehab and it’s splashed over the headlines, we call them trashy.  When a celebrity announces months or years afterwards that s/he has overcome addiction, we say, “Wow, that was really classy.”

It seems to me that for all kinds of reasons, most importantly the health of my sobriety, it’s dangerous for me to think I have a right to keep my disease “private.”  I may have the opportunity to do it, but it’s an accident of circumstance, not some human right that I’m exercising.  It’s definitely a choice that not everyone in recovery has.  I certainly choose not to put myself back on the path of control-driven anxiety for the sake of an imagined privilege.

So today marks 40 days of sobriety.  And, indeed, I do see clouds parting and the audible flap of a bird’s wing (perhaps a labored one, heavy with its olive branched burden).  They have not always been an easy 40 days–especially the last 10 or so.  My obsession came back ferociously around Day 30, which I’m told is not uncommon. One day, one week, thirty days, sixty days, ninety days, one year… these are “anniversaries” celebrated in AA with little coins bearing the number of sober days one has achieved.  Apparently, some of us get squirrely around these notable dates.  I am not immune.

The past 10 days have been pockmarked with desperate moments of alcoholic obsession.   It reminds me painfully of a tragic little crush I had on a student of mine some years ago.  (Please, no rolling of the eyes at this dreadful cliche.  When Sting sang about it, you ate it up and suckled the spoon afterward.  And this one was a legal 23 years old, thank you very much.)  It wouldn’t have been so awful had the crush not been returned and had the opportunities to have pursued this passion been so damned numerous.  Ethics of all sorts were not merely observed but put into painful,  self-abnegating practice for the span of about 3 1/2 months.  Happily, and unspectacularly, my relationship to inappropriate peccadilloes places me archetypally alongside  the Jimmy Carters of the world and not the Bill Clintons.  I only sinned in my heart (and sometimes with my right hand… but you can’t blame a girl, right?)

Just so:  I have romanced this phantom bottle for almost two weeks.  Like my student, that bottle always seems to be showing up–quite physically.  Not as a pair of brown eyes gazing adoringly at me from across a desk, but at any party I attend, any grocery I frequent, even in my house (when some folks took advantage of the BYOB on the invitation).  Tantalizingly out of reach, of course, only because of my ethics.  What is the harm?  Surely one drink–maybe just two–could not hurt.  Think about how good it would feel, smell, taste–and, ah!, the thrill of getting away with it!

Play the tape to the end, I tell myself.  Look at the consequences.

With these temptations around me and the complacence that sometimes follows a mile-stone like the 30-day marker, surely I’d envy the enforced de-tox of Noah’s experience?  No liquor stores to tempt me there.  Every partygoer’s six pack would be under hundreds of cubits of God’s deluvian wrath.  But, no thanks, anyway.  I’d take some temptation over that period of time packed in with thousands of smelly animals and, worse, all the members of my extended family.  A tee-totaler might be tempted to ferment the first fruit dry ground offered after that experience.

We think of Noah’s forty days and forty nights as that period of prolonged terror mixed with faith.  The Bible reads like a Weather Channel account, of course, and no word is spared for what Noah et al. enduring spiritually during the trial.  Faith that the waters would recede was all anyone had.  The narrative is silent about the difficult, resentful prayers that might have been on the survivor’s lips, the gallows humor that might have abounded, the petty spats, and the sleepless nights.  But forty days doesn’t sound like all that much; Chilean miners have endured more.

But it wasn’t forty days, as our amnesiac Sunday School-trained minds will misremember.  Those were only the days of rain.  The Almighty’s watery fury takes a long time to abate.  If Genesis is to be believed:  it takes exactly a year.  And if you’re Noah, you’re grateful for the initial reprieve, but you spend the next eight and a half months sending out ravens and doves in the hope of discovering dry land.  Forty days is the time of terror and half-certainty of death:  the months after are the long, bitter battle with and for hope.

To read the passage of Genesis describing Noah’s post-forty-day experience is to confront a certain resentful weariness with the process of trusting God’s will.  “And God remembered Noah, and every living thing . . . and the waters were asswaged” (8: 1).  Remembered?  Seriously?  Was Our Lord off playing golf or out moonlighting in some other universe?  Noah is cautious in his approach to what’s going on outside the ark.  The dove brings back the olive branch?  He still stays.  The dove doesn’t come back at all?  He still stays.  It’s dangerous out there, and God doesn’t seem in such a hurry to “remember” Noah.

I won’t get into what happens afterward.  God decides flooding isn’t in His best interest from now on, but we still get bad human behavior in the form of hubris and the tower of Babel hard on the heels of Noah’s holy fidelity.  But like most things in the Bible, I’m usually more interested in what is NOT said than what is.  For instance, what happened to the Ark?  It was not merely home for a year; it was the physical vessel of salvation.  It was most certainly a mess, however.  C’mon:   “every beast after his kind, and every cattle after their kind, and every creeping thing that creepeth… every fowl… every bird” are going to make for a Biblical manure heap after 365 days.  (Of course, creationists have some pretty interesting theories about this.  If I didn’t have to pay, I’d like to see The Creation Museum’s exhibit on this one.)

My analogy with my recovery goes only so far here, I know.  But all that animal dung and mess reminds me of my past–the pain I’ve felt and cause, the ugliness of addiction, and the smell and wreck that still clings to my present life.  The Ark got Noah through the rain and the flood’s aftermath, but what does he do with the wreckage?

What would an AA member do?  I tell you exactly what she’d do:  she’d take an inventory.  She’d catalog all the scat, every last bit of it, then humbly ask God to help her get rid of it.  If she’d hurt some people in the Ark, she’d apologize and do her best to make amends.   An AA-attending Noah would sweep that Ark out and make it useful or maybe turn it into a museum for generations to come.  It would be a monument to salvation.  This is the untold AA-inspired narrative of Noah’s adventures post-Ark.

Now, if we’re following Women for Sobriety founder Jean Kirkpatrick’s program, we get a different story.  St. Jean isn’t much for inventory taking; it was one of the ways WFS broke definitively from Alcoholics Anonymous.  Of steps Four and Five Dr. Kirpatrick had this to say:  “I began to wonder why I was feeling guilt and atonement for my physical disease.  Was I so immoral that I had to make this searching and fearless moral inventory?  …. I began to see that my problem was the lack  of self-confidence, a lack of self-esteem.  I didn’t need the heaviness of all this moral atonement, not now anyway, not if I were going to stay sober.” (102)   The WFS statement #9 most clearly articulates this position:  “The past is gone forever.”  Kirkpatrick was roundly criticized for this position, but defended herself with the simple statement that she did not “see any value to be had from a constant reiteration of past misdeeds and misconduct.  I do not have to talk about my past continualy to know it is there.” (154)

A Noah–or let’s say Noah’s wife-would look at the Ark, be grateful for the safe passage it wrought, and either sink it in what was left of the oceans or turn it into kindling or break it up for building materials.  There would be no lingering over the remains.  Noah always struck me as being more or less pragmatic, and one can’t help thinking that the immediate needs for warmth and shelter after the deluge would prompt such exigent use of resources.

These analogies do some epistemological violence to both AA and WFS–neither of which in practice either enshrine and endlessly rehearse the past on the one hand or bury it like an inconvenient corpse on the other.  But they do offer different paths for dealing with the wreckage of the past–even, in my case, just the recent past.  Do I search endlessly for the triggers that prompted the return of my obsession?  Do I firmly close the door on this uncomfortable hiccup and walk away with only the gratitude that the episode is over?  Are those who do not master and inventory the details of their personal history doomed to repeat it?  Or do those who continually inventory their pasts (distant and recent) only live in it?

I raise these questions with the most genuine of rhetorical motives.  However I deal with the frightening, if now receded, return of my drinking obsession, I am at least grateful for the momentary reprieve–a lull in the rain that can make the space for asking such questions possible.


Kirkpatrick, Jean.  Turnabout:  New Help for the Woman Alcoholic.  New York:  Bantam/Madrona.  1977/1990.

Picture it:  a soft, very early October morning (the precise opposite of the “soft October evening” described by T.S. Eliot in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”), a candle burning in a cozy room, fresh coffee mellowing beside a hopeful woman, who sits with toes lightly touching the dense, expensive wool of the Persian rug beneath her socked feet.  She is meditating on the following thirteen mantras, written by Jean Kirkpatrick, the founder of Women for Sobriety:

1. I have a life-threatening problem that once had me.

2. Negative thoughts destroy only myself.

3. Happiness is a habit I will develop.

4. Problems bother me only to the degree I permit them to.

5. I am what I think.

6. Life can be ordinary or it can be great.

7. Love can change the course of my world.

8. The fundamental object of life is emotional and spiritual growth.

9. The past is gone forever.

10. All love given returns.

11. Enthusiasm is my daily exercise.

12. I am a competent woman and have much to give life.

13. I am responsible for myself and for my actions.

I made it to No. 10, and (more…)