When I was in my 30s, I fell in love with a real piece of work. Fell in love is probably wrong, piece of work is good. I’ve never come up with a good definition for love, or even a good question to ask about love that might lead us into some useful conversation. Anyway, there I was in the middle of a life that with any semblance of sanity I would have recognized as a never-ending and wholly undeserved visit to an amusement park, and I chose to get on a ride best described as “shitty boat operated by drunk captain that went back and forth across the same weedy, mosquito-infested stretch of river.” That was the whole ride. And why? Because I’d had such a great time waiting in line. Once the ride began, I thought it must be my fault that it sucked, and that I could make it better, obviously, by making myself better.
I was so in love with this person — who had made it very clear that he did not love me, even though he said he wanted to marry me and was living with me and told me he loved me all the time — that I was seriously afraid I might die trying to get him to actually love me.
As much as he did not love me, he loved alcohol.
The person who told me to go to Al-Anon is one of the sketchiest people I have ever been friends with, and an addict himself. He explained that Al-Anon was for people who were involved with, friends with, or related to, or just bothered by alcoholics and addicts. “Will it get him to stop drinking?” I said.
“The fact that you want to know that is reason you have to go,” he said.
Jesus, I thought, sketchy people are so weird. Then I thought, If I go to this, maybe he will stop drinking.
It’s so funny now, because I really can’t remember what it felt like to believe that. I mean it makes about as much sense as my saying “If I go over and wash that pile of dishes in the sink in Nevada City my friend in Vermont will go wash her dishes right now too.” But I thought that. It’s really kind of adorable!
At my first meeting, this woman talked about how her partner had stopped drinking and now they were really happy together. I wanted that. It seemed so doable — she wasn’t even THAT pretty. I thought about how I would talk to that woman at the end of the meeting and ask her about everything she did and then just do exactly what she had done, and all my problems would be solved. But then a bunch of people told stories about how they went to Al-Anon and their partners still drank. And some of those people were really pretty or good-looking. How could you be that hot and not just like MAKE SOMEONE do what you wanted? It just didn’t make ANY SENSE.
For about a week I went to two meetings a day. I actually kept score at every meeting of how many people were happily with partners who weren’t drinking. Those were the only people I wanted to be. I didn’t listen to anyone else.
Al-Anon people said to go to six meetings before you decided Al-Anon wasn’t for you. I was thinking about bailing —why waste my time with something that wasn’t guaranteed to give me exactly what I wanted —when, at meeting number six, on the dot, a woman got up and shared a story about being affected by someone else’s alcoholism in a way that was so fucking bad I couldn’t believe she’d managed to dress and drive from her house to this meeting. I imagined her in a car, a capsule on the freeway, holding pain. How had she driven here, how had she operated a door handle, how could she sit and stand? Yet there she was. She spoke in measured tones without crying. She was not there to be judged as a winner or a loser, or as successful or unsuccessful, or as desirable or undesirable. She was just a person, speaking of the life she had lived, and would continue to live.
As I listened, the boundaries between my mind and my body, and between myself, and other people seemed to dissolve. I was devastated, of course; in that moment I would have removed my own skin and wrapped the woman in it if I thought it would help her. But the experience of listening was also making me kind of high, as if I’d been injected with pure dopamine. I get the irony of this, that it’s selfish on some level, but the truth is it just felt so good to care about someone other than myself. I mean, if you asked me before that day “Sarah, are there other people in the world?” I’d have been like, “LOL, yes, hello, obviously.” But in that moment I realized that I didn’t actually really know that. I was like, Okay, there’s me, and then there are these other things that are sort of like me, they have heads and arms and legs, but I was so preoccupied with how these objects might hurt me or help me that I’d lost track of the idea that they had lives of their own.
I got a sponsor. She was an older woman, in her late 40s, like I am now. I thought she was really old. We didn’t have a lot in common. I called her once a day. I did my reading and my steps, and answered questions at the ends of the chapters in Paths to Recovery. I remember how all the questions about controlling other people struck me as absurd. Of course you had to control other people. How else were you supposed to get what you wanted? I remembered justifying those feelings to my sponsor and her just saying calmly, “Okay, well, let’s just keep going with the questions and see what we find out.” What I found out was I have an addiction to people and to the feelings people give me. It’s not something you can test my blood for, but it is there, and it has as much potential to be dangerous as anything else.
At some point I stopped keeping track of who had stuck with their partner and who had not, whose partner had gotten sober and whose had not, who was single and who was not. A few months later I stopped feeling so stupid that I used to think that stuff was important. My sponsor told me I would not have to do anything about the boyfriend, that the relationship would just resolve itself. There’s nothing about Al-Anon that says you have to trust your sponsor, but she told me to just keep going to meetings and doing my steps and I wouldn’t have to worry about him, and I didn’t have any better ideas.
Because life sometimes just does what it does, that guy and I did in fact stay together for another year after she told me that. But day by day, I was less upset that he was drunk or that he wasn’t nice to me or that he didn’t call me when he was away, and then, finally, we just weren’t together. He just meant less and less to me every day, until he meant nothing, and I didn’t even hate him. A year later, I found out he was marrying someone, and honestly, you could have told me I was out of washer fluid, or, on the other hand, that someone had just given me a year’s supply of it. And all I had done was answer a bunch of questions about the ways in which I wanted people to change and how mad it made me when people did things I didn’t like, and listen to a bunch of other people discuss the same.
I went to Al-Anon almost every day for several years, and then once or twice a week for a while. I’m not going to say I should go more now, because “should” is a word that I learned not to use with myself or others with any degree of regularity. I mean, it’s a pretty common fucking word, kind of hard to avoid altogether, but a good word to notice. When I tell myself how things should be, I’m basically saying that I understand the way the world works, when I definitely do not. I go back to Al-Anon every now and then, (once for a whole year when I thought I SHOULD have more money) whenever I start thinking that the world would be so much better if only people would do what I wanted them to, or pay attention to me in exactly the way that I think would make me happy. I go back when I find myself thinking that if I somehow made myself perfect, and did everything right, then the big problem that I have (which is definitely my fault) would just go away. I go back when I find myself behaving in ways that suggest that I actually believe that love, attention, praise and appreciation are guaranteed to me if I am good enough, reliable enough, loving enough, quiet enough, loud enough, responsible enough, smart enough, dumb enough, mean enough, nice enough.
After some time in Al-Anon, it became clear to me that while it was founded for people who had issues with alcoholics, it could be of great use to anyone habitually disappointed and/or enraged that people do not behave as they would wish them to. As I “got healthier” about the reason I had come to Al- Anon, this category came to re-include me in a brand new way, in that I became annoyed by friends of mine complaining at great length about some situation or person in their life (especially when their complaints were not punctuated with amusing anecdotes or jokes) when those same friends would not take me up on the suggestion that they attend at least one Al-Anon meeting.
I see almost all culture and pop culture through the lens of Al-Anon. I do not consider it proper to diagnose real people, but in lieu of that, hear this: Lady Macbeth and Macbeth are classic Al Anons, as is Michael Corleone. The movie Love, Actually should be called Go To Al-Anon Now, Actually. The other day I was listening to a podcast about Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. I love her and I think he’s an asshole. But I found myself shouting at my portable speakers, “You had no business being that in love with someone. No one stuck your head in that oven but you, honey.” Now, of course, this response evades issues of sexism, unpaid labor, and abuse. Al- Anon does not make everything clear for me, and does not explain every issue in the world. But it does give me a point of view beyond “Look what you all did to me, a wonderful and innocent lamb.”
Sarah Miller is a writer/editor for Popula.