Hi, my name is Jenna and I’m an alcoholic.
The first time I said the words, I tried not to let it sound like a question. After all, the past several years had been spent asking this. Am I?
Hi, Jenna, the Greek chorus sounded.
This ritual was repeated 25 times as we went around the room. Hi, my name is Cletus and I’m an alcoholic and an addict.
The ground rules quickly became apparent. First there were the introductions (first names only) and the statement of what substance or substances made life unmanageable. If someone was talking, you could not interrupt, even to offer support. Thanks were expressed when someone was finished sharing. Politeness was very big in this room.
I still wasn’t sold on the idea of my being an alcoholic and the words fell flat. This was partly because my life had never become unmanageable. I was managing quite well, in fact, titrating the next day’s pace and caffeine intake according to the previous night’s alcohol consumption. Wine usually meant a snail’s pace and 3 big cups of coffee; cocktails predicted the pace of molasses moving uphill in January and an n+1 coffee formula, n being the number of drinks. I’d taken many an alcohol-related questionnaire and always came up short on the definition of my condition. And relative to those around me, it just wasn’t clear where I stood.
All of this had made it very difficult for me to decide to stop drinking and that to do so I needed help. On the suggestion of a physician, I contacted a local outpatient addictions management program that was covered by my health insurance. At the intake interview, my counselor assured me that having questions about whether or not I needed to be there was itself an indication that I was in the right place.
This was the first night of many in the program. My commitment was 3 hours a night, three nights a week, for four weeks over the December-January period of 2007-2008. The first hour and a half was spent on introductions and open discussion. Then came the obligatory cigarette break (I was one of few who didn’t smoke but went downstairs with the rest to fully participate in the group). The second hour and a half was spent discussing a specific topic; at this time of the year, that meant staying sober during the holidays, one of the riskiest times for relapse.
The four-week commitment was meant to serve as a bridge between sobriety and what came before. For me, what came before was fairly consistent drinking that caused me guilt and shame, even though it did not clearly garner the title alcoholic.
What came before the program for the other people in the room was quite different. I was in fact the only one who had not just left rehab, the hospital, or jail.
A sweet, middle-aged man, who had arrived as ridiculously early as me and introduced himself immediately, risked being kicked out of his halfway house if he didn’t stay sober. A woman my mom’s age had been so committed to drinking that she left her home only to buy more booze; staying drunk had become a full-time job. An attractive and successful young banker cried that he couldn’t even count how many times he had cheated on his wife (thereby placing them both at risk of AIDS and who knows what else) while high on cocaine. Seemingly everyone there clearly belonged.
I felt a kinship to the articulate and bright young man who expressed some doubt as to whether or not he really needed to be there and why “experimenting” with various psychotropic drugs was inherently wrong, that is, until I learned that he had shot himself in the head during one of his trips.
Over the course of my four weeks, in our group discussions, I started to notice a certain lack of receptivity or even disdain when I spoke up. I identified with so much of what was shared in that room – the insecurities, the restlessness, the urge to fill in those empty spaces, the depression, the discomfort with uncertainty, feeling unlovable. I wanted to connect. Yet it was becoming clear that others in the room didn’t think I belonged. Eventually they either turned away from me mid-sentence or said outright, “you don’t know,” “you’re not an alcoholic,” or “maybe you’ll understand in a few years.”
In a way I understood their frustration. I was this middle-class, slightly overeducated girl who maybe liked her drink a bit too much but clearly did not share the problems of everyone else in the room. I felt like a kid who didn’t meet the height requirement for a roller coaster, not that this was an enviable ride. So, while I had taken an important step toward towards taking better care of myself, I felt no closer to understanding so many of my questions.