Sex and Dating in Sobriety

By Amy Dresner

I wish I could say that it was the “gift of desperation” or the rabid desire for a new life that kept me coming back to the rooms when I was new. But it wasn’t. It was the boys. Oh, the boys…with their smoky breath and ironic t-shirts and tattooed forearms, waxing philosophical about life and spinning tales of desperation, desecration and finally redemption. It was all too sexy and alluring to resist.

I could easily branch off into horror stories about how I was 13th stepped by program quasi-gurus who had double-digit sobriety while I was just stringing days together. I am still envious of the young newcomer girls who are pulled aside by other women and warned about the predatory old timers who wait in anticipation for the next wave of fresh meat. That was never me. I became best friends with another hot newcomer girl and together we went through the 13th step mill, at times sharing some of the same old timers. I think I hooked up with five different people within my first four months, and that’s not counting the occasional rendezvous with an old using buddy.

But I am not crying victim here. I was never raped. I was a willing participant, although at 45 days or even four months, you’re so hungry for attention and distraction that you think you can handle things that you’re clearly not able to in retrospect. Romance took me out of the rooms more times than I’d like to admit. I always relapsed over a boy. I can think of at least four specific times. And, if it wasn’t romance taking me out, it was the lack of romance—the ache of terrible loneliness.

I think dating in the rooms of AA is not unlike hooking up in prison. There is a limited supply of broken people and we recycle each other. So when you break up with somebody, don’t be surprised when they end up dating your sponsor or sponsee. Dating in the program is like fishing in a small toxic pond. And you’ll often hear sayings like, “Odds are good that you’ll meet somebody, but the goods are odd.” And I couldn’t agree more.

When I relapsed for the umpteenth time and ended up with a militant black lesbian for a sponsor, she was very clear that I was not going to fuck my way through the rooms this time around.

“Baby, you only going to go to women’s meetings and gay meetings,” she said.

“But how am I going to get laid going to women’s meetings and gay meetings?” I whined.

“You ain’t. You gonna focus on recovery.”

“Well that sounds boring,” I said.

But I had just come out of a psych ward, and had also just cracked my head open when I fell backwards after having a grand mal seizure when my meds were changed, so I was willing to try it another way. I would go to those uptight “lady” meetings in Beverly Hills and Brentwood where women with bad facelifts and expensive handbags complained about their gardeners. I would go to a Saturday women’s meeting in Crenshaw for lesbians. I was the only white straight Jew in the room and I’d sit in the back cowering, scratching at my stitches.

“Why you sittin’ in the back, Sugar Plum?” my sponsor asked me one day.

“Because I’m scared,” I answered honestly.

“Well,” she told me, “be scared in the front.”

But the desire to escape ourselves is so strong that we can often find a distraction, no matter how slim the pickings. One day at the crusty Brentwood “ladies who lunch” meeting, a tattooed, dark-haired man walked in.

“This is a women’s meeting,” one of the tautly pulled housewives said.

“I am a woman,” the man—who, as it turned out, was a woman—said. And at that moment, I found myself infatuated. I had never been attracted to a woman before but she wasn’t just a woman: she was, when I got to know her, this amazing combination of the best traits of a female best friend with all the machismo and chivalry of a man. She could fix your car and then stay up till 1:30 in the morning eating ice cream and talking about feelings, burning you Tori Amos CD’s. She was what I called “guy light.”

“It would be better,” I told her one night, “if you had a penis. But we can work around that.”

But she never touched me. She didn’t date straight girls, newcomers, or crazy people. And considering I was all three, there wasn’t a chance in hell she was going to turn me out.

“Amy, you are a newcomer. That’s a sanctity I can’t violate.” None of the men in AA had ever said that.

When you’re dating another alcoholic, there is that instant affinity: you both speak the same language of disease and recovery. You both live a lifestyle of sobriety and abstinence. You both go to the same trendy diner after meetings to eat French fries and fellowship. But when it goes bad, as it inevitably does when you’re dealing with two crazy selfish alcoholics, then you’ve accidentally shat where you eat. And then you have to split up territory: “Okay,” you’ll find yourself saying. “I‘ll take the 11:30 meeting and you can have the 4:00 Big Book study.”

Even if you avoid those meetings and drive 45 minutes out to bumfuck where nobody knows your name, word gets out. It’s only a matter of time before he hears how—and who—you’re doing. The “Grapevine” couldn’t be a better metaphor for the growing gossip and intertwining overgrowth that is the fellowship of AA. And let us not forget about the amends that have to be exchanged once the relationship has gone awry.

And yet I met my husband in AA. We had a mutual sober friend who kept the connection going even when our diseases and neuroses kept us—or me—apart. He pursued and pursued, and I rejected and deflected, hating myself too much to respond to anyone who liked me. One day, when I was telling him everything about him that made him not my type, he said, “You really should be nice to me because we are going to end up together.”

He’s not what I would have ever imagined for myself back when I was a distraction-seeking, unhinged newcomer. And thankfully I kept coming back long enough to figure out that he was right.

This piece originally appeared on The Fix, a website about addiction and recovery. Amy Dresner is a sober comedian who liberally pulls material from her depressive illness and drug addiction. She performs all over Los Angeles and is also on a national recovery tour called “We Are Not Saints.”

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A.A: What Led Me There; What Keeps Me Going

By Annabelle Kathryn

“I don’t drink.” It’s a phrase I’ve imagined myself saying for the past two years, especially the morning after a particularly bad night, when I wonder if giving up drinking would ever be something I could actually do. Sometimes, I’d even practice it out loud, trying to get just the right inflection so it conveys just the right combination of aloof nonchalance and hard-earned knowledge. With those few words, I wanted anyone I’d met to know I wasn’t someone who’d never touched alcohol, or had gotten scared straight from just one night spent puking in the communal dorms at college. With that phrase, I wanted people to hear all the inherent subtext: that I wasn’t naïve. I’d had experiences.

But I always just sounded young and dumb, or self-conscious, so I’d shrug and head off to the bar and drink, where I’d usually black out, wonder if I had a problem, practice saying I don’t drink a few times, then start the whole cycle all over again.

It wasn’t until this year that I realized my drinking had moved past “kind of out of control” and towards “seriously fucked up.” I was drinking every night, blacking out at least once a week, and, on a few occasions, sneaking vodka into Sprite at work. And while I tried to justify it by all the mitigating factors that had recently occurred up in my life—in the past six months, I broke up with my boyfriend, had an abortion, sat by my mom’s hospital bed as she died of cancer, and, just two months after that, had to do the same for my grandmother—the fact was, I had a problem.

So I knew that I needed to eventually give up drinking for real, but didn’t feel any impetus from within to stop, which terrified me. If losing my wallet and my shoes and my jewelry and my iPhone all in one night hadn’t stopped me, if spraining my wrist hadn’t stopped me, if having unprotected sex that resulted in an unplanned pregnancy hadn’t stopped me—what would? Every time I’d go out, I’d feel an anticipatory sense of dread. Sometimes I went out almost hoping I’d wake up in a hospital, because then, at least the answer would be obvious.

But I didn’t. And as it was, the night I realized I needed to go to A.A. was pretty tame. I went to a friend’s house and drank a bottle of wine before meeting a guy who I desperately wanted to be my boyfriend for a third date at a bar.

I concentrated on acting sober. But from tripping on the step into the bar to talking too loudly to drinking two and a half vodka sodas before he even finished his first drink, I knew it wasn’t working. I realized he knew I was hammered, but I thought I had a shot with him, especially when he suggested we leave. I assumed that meant he wanted me to come home with him and when he didn’t, saying he had to get up early the next morning, I started sobbing. I felt rejected, alone. Drunk. I cried my way to the subway, took the wrong train and ended up in Queens instead of Brooklyn, where I lived and finally got home at four AM.

The next morning, I woke up, disappointed and exhausted and embarrassed and just done. It wasn’t the specifics so much as the utter, been there done that blaseness I felt from the core of my being. For the first time, I truly realized that this would keep happening and happening and happening unless I did something.

So I decided to go to a meeting, spending more time figuring out what to wear than I usually do when I’m going on a date. I decided I wanted to look very Mary Louise Parker in Weeds—a tough and sexy woman who always ends up in situations just beyond her control. I wore skinny jeans, an oversized white T-shirt with a nautical-striped scarf. Lots of leather bracelets. Leather jacket. Pink sunglasses. Marc Jacobs bag. Extra-large iced latte as a prop. I knew my posturing was both ridiculous and the only thing that would get me out the door.

I chose one that was far away from my neighborhood, arrived 15 minutes early, and froze at the door. I was terrified. I’ve interviewed A-list celebrities, traveled abroad on my own with just a plane ticket and a backpack, and have shown up on strangers doorsteps to exchange sex for coke, but a meeting in a church basement terrified me.

So I left, frantically searching for another meeting on my iPhone. I found one a few blocks down, and the same thing happened. I just couldn’t make myself go in. Which is why finally, on my third try, I ended up at a lesbian, transgender, and bisexual focus meeting. I’m none of those things, but, frustrated with my fear and the fact I’d wasted almost two hours, I forced myself to walk in and sit the fuck down.

And it was fine. It wasn’t earth shattering and it was mostly like how I’d imagined. Some hand-holding. A lot of gratitude. Coffee. I sat in the back and didn’t speak, but did listen.

And then I went to another meeting, and another. And it’s just the first week, only five meetings in—so I know I don’t know anything yet, not really. But the only thing I know is that I’m going to try to keep going—even if at first it takes a few outfit changes to actually get out the door.

This piece originally appeared on The Fix, a website about addiction and recovery. Annabelle Kathryn is the pseudonym for a writer living in New York City.

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A Debate Rages On: Should They Drop the Second “A” in “AA”?

Should the second “A” in AA be dropped? A.A.’s 11th Tradition states, “We need always maintain personal anonymity at the level of press, radio and films.” To clarify—it’s okay to identify yourself as “sober” or “in recovery,” but it’s not okay to identify yourself as a member of A.A. or other 12-step groups.

But is this anonymity a throwback to another era, when being an alcoholic was a disgrace? A debate is raging in the media and on the internet, and it’s worth examining both sides.

Last week, the New York Times ran a story by a recovering alcoholic, “Challenging the Second ‘A’ in AA.”  The author, David Colman, calls anonymity a “collective fiction.” At the meetings he’s attended over the years in Manhattan, the people he hears telling their stories are often people he knows–people from work, or well-known authors and actors.

Why should AA be so secretive, Colman and others argue, when that only reinforces the idea that being an alcoholic is shameful? People should be able to share their stories publicly, as many celebrities (Pink, Eminem) and memorists already have (think Mary Karr, Susan Cheever, Caroline Knapp, James Frey).

Maer Roshan, editor of The Fix, a new site aimed at the recovery world, compared the anonymity of alcoholics to gay people being in the closet. “Having to deny your own participation in a program that is helping your life doesn’t make sense to me…You could be focusing light on something that will make it better and more honest and more helpful.”

In a piece for The Fix, Susan Cheever, also a recovering alcoholic, who has written a book about Bill Wilson, the founder of AA writes: “We are in the midst of a public health crisis when it comes to understanding and treating addiction…A.A.’s principle of anonymity may only be contributing to general confusion and prejudice.”

Then came the rebuttals. Mary Elizabeth Williams wrote a piece for Salon–“Can AA survive our tell-all era?” She argues that you can’t really compare celebrities, writers and other people in creative professions to others. Not everyone has the freedom and clout to come clean. Entertainers like Eminem and Russell Brand are supposed to run wild and free—admitting their alcoholism only contributes to their mystique. But what about doctors or teachers, or people who don’t live in ultra-liberal Manhattan? As Williams writes, for these people, there could be “profound social and career repercussions” if their colleagues and clients “know that a year ago, [they were] getting obliterated before work.”

Williams also points out that telling people you’re in AA opens you up for criticism, skepticism and debate, which might weaken your chances for recovery.

Yes, anonymity may seem old fashioned in this era of reality TV, but still—as Williams writes: “AA’s business model of having no official spokesperson and of attraction rather than promotion…is not for everybody, but you’ve got to give it props for its refusal to turn itself into TLC network, quick-fix shlock.”

It’s easy to understand both sides of the debate, but I say, if you want to write a memoir or come out of the closet as an alcoholic, that’s fine, but don’t make it policy that everyone should have to do the same.

If they dropped the anonymous part of AA, millions of people who could have been helped will turn away from the organization because they don’t have the desire to share their sobriety with the world—or their neighborhood.

Anonymity also protects children of alcoholics. If I ever asked my mom, “Who goes to your AA meetings,” she would explain AA’s code of anonymity, and how important it was for people’s information to remain private. I, in turn, felt secure that the other people at her local meetings wouldn’t be blabbing all over the neighborhood about the personal information my mom shared. What if some kid in my class got hold of that information?

I shudder to imagine some reality TV show, “My mom, the alcoholic,” where the camera goes inside an AA meeting, the recovering alcoholics performing for the camera. Just because the parent agrees to reveal personal details of his or her life, doesn’t mean the child is ready to deal with the repercussions of those revelations.

















Interview with an 80-year-old woman alcoholic: Sober for almost 35 years…

desiderataList some words that describe you…

Artist, grandmother, ultra-liberal, health-conscious vegetarian, lover of nature, immigrant.

How old were you when you had your first drink?

I was in my early twenties, I was working as a children’s nurse at a hospital in the city. People smoked and drank. I did it, too.

What was your favorite drink?

I was never really hot for drinking. The only time I liked to drink was when I was on vacation with my girlfriends–we drank a lot of wine and other stuff in Greece and Spain, and I got a taste for it.

Did your parents or siblings drink?

My older brother drank (I am the youngest of 5). My other brother drank only on special occasions. Not my sisters or my mother. In those days (Europe in the 1940s and 50s) it wasn’t fashionable for women to drink. Men and boys drank, but mostly on special occasions, and at dances. I don’t know if my father drank. [He left the family when she was one.]

Was there alcoholism in your family?

According to a family tree that my oldest brother researched and made, one guy a long, long time ago was put in jail for drunken behavior. I have a picture of my father, in a Teetotaler’s Club.

When did your drinking cross a line? Were you aware that you had crossed a line?

In my early 40s. I had been socially drinking before then. I bought a gallon of wine and I drank all day long. I always had liquor in the house, mostly wine–Ernest & Julio Gallo was my favorite–because it was cheaper, and I thought wine wasn’t so bad.

Did anyone notice you were drinking too much?

My husband was nice, but he said things. Some of my friends noticed. Once, on vacation,  [the husband of a friend] said, “You don’t have to drink everything there is.” I guess I drank all the beer in the house. He bawled me out, and it was traumatic.

How was it raising two kids while drinking?

Miraculously, I could function–I don’t remember who made breakfast, or who made the lunches, but I always had dinner on the table.

What was the low point?

We went to Mexico City with our two children and stayed with a friend who had a huge property, like the Garden of Eden, surrounded by a high wall. I got so upset because there was a flood, and I felt like the Garden of Eden was being lost, so I drank myself into oblivion, and ended up in bed. In Mexico, I drank from beginning to end. When we came home, my husband said, “You have to do something about your drinking.” I got scared when he got serious. It’s hard even to think straight when you’re drunk all the time.

How did you get sober?

I was detoxed in a hospital. A lot of people do it themselves. I was in the care of a doctor, and I was in the hospital for at least a week, and then I went to a group for a long time, a therapy group run by this doctor, who was also a psychiatrist and a [recovered] alcoholic. He was the right guy for me. I also went to AA at least twice a week. I made all my friends there. I went to AA for many, many years–20 to 25 years.

Do you have any advice to someone trying to stay sober?

In my case, I had to think about something that could replace the drinking. I was still smoking. Stopping smoking [some years later] was extremely hard.

What helped you the most?

My husband was supportive. He stopped drinking. We had no liquor in the house. If we’d had liquor in the house, I know for sure I couldn’t have made it.

What’s the best part about being sober?

Everything. I was amazed at how I felt in my head. Before, my head felt heavy, like I had cottonballs in it. After I stopped drinking, I got so light; it felt great.

Did you ever have a relapse?


Is there anything you miss about drinking?

Nothing. Sometimes, when I see people drink a little wine for dinner, I wish I could have that, but I put it far away from me. I know it’s untouchable. If I were to start drinking today, I would go back immediately to my dependence.

What’s your view of AA?

It’s great. It saved my life. If I were ever tempted, I’d go back.

Do you have a favorite quote or book or inspiration that has helped you through the years?

When I was in AA, somebody gave me a poem called “Desiderata.” When you drink, you have a lot of self doubt and guilt. It’s a three-fold illness: spiritual, emotional and physical. The poem helped because it says you shouldn’t compare yourself with others, and everybody has a right to be here on earth. Everybody who is born has a right. “The Big Book” from AA and the Twelve Steps helped very much, too. “The Big Book” helps, because it has drinking stories in it.


Sober Coaches: “Hired Powers” for the Rich & Recovering…

sheencoachesAlcoholics Anonymous used to be the great equalizer: Rich or poor, famous or unknown, everyone was an addict, and everyone sat on the same hard chairs, in the same church basement, drinking the same bad coffee. My mom used to tell me about all the politicians and other muckety-mucks in her Washington-area AA meetings (never naming names, of course, but just mentioning that this or that famous person was there, as if to prove she was in good company). And that was a good thing, especially for celebrities and other narcissists, who needed the humbling.

Then along came fancy rehab centers (yes, there’s always been Betty Ford, but usually after rehab, those people went straight to AA), Celebrity Rehab with Doctor Drew, and now–sober coaches–a sort of first-class airplane ticket to sobriety.

Maybe I’m out of the loop, but I learned about sober coaches for the first time, recently, when I happened to be reading about Brooke Mueller & Charlie Sheen’s early-morning knife fight (yes, I admit, I was kind of fascinated). Since both celebs apparently have a history of alcoholism and addiction, they had their Sober coaches on hand that morning. So what is a sober coach? Basically, it’s a person you pay to help you stay sober, after you leave rehab. Apparently, if you don’t feel like going to AA and hanging around those icky basements, the one-person AA meeting will come to you. How’s that working for you, Charlie Sheen?

For $40-$100 per hour, companies like Sober Champion will appoint someone to be your “sober escort” (to take you from point A to point B, such as on an airplane) or your “sober coach” (your companion for a finite number of hours). If you’re willing to shell out up to $1800 a day, you too can have a “sober companion,” who will go through all your stuff to make sure you’re not hiding booze or drugs, and basically follow you around, coaching you, praying with you, and helping you find ingenious alternatives to boozing (i.e. meditating, taking a bath, exercising). Sorry, but sober coaches are not generally covered by insurance, so you’ll have to shell out all the dough yourself. The maximum suggested time for the 24/7 sober coach is 90 days. Celebrities like Drew Barrymore, Owen Wilson, Robert Downey, Jr., Lindsay Lohan and Mary-Kate Olsen have used sober coaches.

Frankly, not that I’m his mother or anything, but what Charlie Sheen needs is a bad cup of coffee and a basement full of regular people calling him on his shit, not a suck-up sober handler who charges him $650-1800 day. Ditto Lindsay Lohan et al. The cure for narcissism is a dose of reality. One of the most helpful cures for addiction is to find a community of people who can bolster and support you, and who you in turn can bolster and support. Sober coaches offer a community of one–a one-sided arrangement.

I’m sure there are cases where sober coaches have saved peoples’ lives, and that’s nothing to sneeze at. They have testimonials out the wazoo from grateful celebs, I’m sure. But still…

What I don’t get is that AA has always offered sober coaches–for free! They’re called “sponsors,” and they are AA veterans with years of sobriety under their belts. If it’s hard for celebrities to attend public meetings, couldn’t they have celebrity AA meetings or something? And get this–one of the sober coaching companies is called “Hired Power.” A sellout G-d. How ironic.