When I’m home, I like to kick my weekends off by attending the Saturday AA meeting for newcomers. This is a healthier choice for me (and those around me) than waking up with cotton mouth, a cracking headache, a bad disposition and a thirst that can only be quenched by gagging down my first drink of the day.
Another thing that separates we alkies from people who merely binge drink is our capacity – or rather our screaming physical and emotional need – to drink on a hangover, for example after passing out on the couch in front of the footy on Friday night. Oh, and did I mention we like to isolate, because it lowers the probability of someone interrupting us during a spree (usually a loved one, unless we’ve burnt all our bridges)?
The newbie’s meeting is a highlight for me, because every week, at least 20 people who look exactly like you and me stand up and own their addictions to a crowd of strangers. For many of them this is a new experience and you can smell the nerves when the convenor asks people to stand if they have less than 90 days sobriety. Some have 24 or 48 hours and are still tweaking. Others, a hopeful week or two. There are also familiar faces – others who have gone out and done more research with a head full of sobriety, the poor bastards. Then there are ‘older, sober members’: people who go along to support, drink shitty coffee, crack terrible jokes, and sometimes get up the front and speak. Like me.
The first and only step you have to get 100 percent, they say in AA, is the first one: acknowledging you have a problem – owning it – and sincerely wanting to get well. That’s it.
It sounds like an excruciatingly shameful ritual, and it can be, for some. For me it was liberating and the first crucial step in getting well.
Alcoholism is a serious business. I know without a question of doubt that if I kept drinking at the pace I was at the very end – barely able to draw a sober breath and drinking to blackout every other day, obese, heavily medicated and suffering from the ‘isms’ (insert pharmaceutical dependence as prefix), hypertensive, unfit, pre-diabetic, with bonus fatty liver disease, chronic anxiety and depression – my life expectancy was short. That, and the fact that the only reason I didn’t hang myself at Rock Bottom was that I was too drunk to find the climbing rope, let alone have the dexterity to tie a noose.
To stay well, we have to own our addictions. Not once, like at the newbies’ meeting, but every single day.
Congratulations you have reached step one! Level Up!
Accountability and memory
The later AA steps focus on reviewing our strengths and weaknesses, identifying unhealthy character traits or problems that we have interacting with other human beings, cleaning up the messes we made when we were drinking and setting things right, and helping other alkies to get well by sharing our experiences of what it was like, what happened, and what it’s like now. Sponsorship (read: mentorship) helps too.
For me, AA’s steps are all about taking ownership, and being responsible and accountable for our actions. But, the problem I and many other alkies encounter during this process, is memory (or lack of it).
You see, one of the consequences of drinking to ‘get to sleep’ (read: pass out) for at least two decades is that my brain doesn’t hold memories as well as it should of events that transpired while I was under the influence. At the end of my drinking, the blackout period came much sooner than sleep: I only remember the first light beer of my last bender.
This, for me, is where ethnographic methods are suprisingly helpful. Anthropologists use ethnographic methods to find out why people do the strange things we do. Anthropologists mostly rely on long term participant observation, which involves immersing themselves in a cultural situation (usually somebody elses’) and taking careful notes on things .
Ethnographic methods also include the same tools that other social scientists use, which (to be honest) are pretty much the same as what historians, journalists and legal investigators use: any ethical or legal way to obtain relevant and available data with fully informed consent (which makes us distinct from spies, I guess).
These days, anthropologists can only dream unethical dreams of having access to the range of data on their informants as they have about themselves. But, despite the so-called reflexive turn in anthropology, I doubt if many non-alcoholic anthropologists mine this data too closely. It can be deeply uncomfortable.
You’d be surprised at how many biscuit crumbs we leave behind as we go about our lives that tell our story. Maybe when VHS was newfangled and disco biscuits were literally Tim Tams at the Blue Light Disco, it was harder to trace our movements or find our car keys. But in the era of FB, cloud back-ups, online bank statements – instantly downloaded and downloadable memory on multiple devices – we leave a digital footprint that we hope only ourselves and a select few others have access to.*
Photographs too, are useful. Diary and calendar entries. Spreadsheets on dietary consumption and weight loss, hours worked for various employers, letters, emails, postcards, sick notes, scraps of paper, receipts and empty bottles hidden in really fucking weird places.
We have an enormous amount of information at our fingertips if we want to reconstruct our past and review our behaviour and motivations. Even more so if we take detailed (if sometimes illegible) notes on things that interest us by force of habit and training.
To sum: doing AA step work is a bit like doing ethnography on yourself, except with more information at your fingertips. Some of it is gold, and other bits are misleading, factually incorrect, biased, or simply incomplete. The moral and ethical imperatives in both AA and ethnography are to hasten slowly, be critically self-reflexive in analysing various data and forming conclusions, write and speak carefully and not throw anyone else under the bus in doing so.
P.S. A preliminary review of some relevant/inspiring social science literature relating to alcoholism and addiction is coming – just trying to get my hands on a particularly elusive book 🙂
*Civil liberties are among those taken-for-granted things that you don’t notice until they are absent. The erosion of these liberties, for example, of the right to privacy, is something that we should all be deeply concerned about. Our data has become valuable. The ubiquitous FB only exists to shop the data of its users – some of it we would consider to be very personal – to companies to enable those companies to try and sell you stuff you may or may not want or need. Rumours that Mark Zuckerberg may run for politics could well imply that the man who now holds much of the world’s personal data, could have a decent chance of adding Mr President to his resume. Stranger things have happened.