Sick and Selfish: Leaning into AA’s Least Glamorous Labels

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WELCOME TO OUR NEW COLUMN, “TACKLING 12-STEP,” WHERE EVERY WEEK A WRITER WILL SHARE AN OPINION ON 12-STEP AND THE FOLLOWING WEEK, ANOTHER WILL OFFER A REBUTTAL. THIS COLUMN IS A RESPONSE TO OUR PREVIOUS STORY, “SORRY AA; ALCOHOLICS AREN’T SPIRITUALLY DISEASED

[PLEASE SHARE YOUR OPINION ON THIS IN THE COMMENTS AND LOOK OUR FOR OUR NEW 12-STEP RELATED ISSUE NEXT WEEK!]

I’ll be the first to admit it: I’m delusional. No, really and this isn’t low self-esteem or some manipulative plan to make you sing my praises. It just happens to be the truth. I have always struggled with reality and with being honest with myself. So much so that it took me over 10 years to see how bad my drinking and drug use had gotten. Sure, I had a few evictions, a few hundred drunken brawls with my ex and more than a few thoughts of suicide as a result of my drinking and using. But in my delusional mind, it was all okay or it was at the very least going to be okay. Everything would magically work out and I wouldn’t have to actually change or do anything to make that happen. Well, obviously this thinking didn’t work out and I had to drop the delusion and get real with how screwed up my life was. So when I got to AA and heard alcoholics (people like me) described as sick or selfish, it felt like a relief.

The word “sick” gets casually tossed around in the rooms of AA. We’re described as “sick people” who are “only as sick as our secrets.” People rattle off their battle stories about coming into AA “sick and broken.” People with decades of sobriety will even call themselves sick or laughingly refer to their sick minds. At first blush, it looks like a warped group of people hell bent on staying sick. But when you tear open the Big Book, the word is only used about a dozen times and mainly in the context for newcomers to recovery. For me, the word made a lot of sense. My thinking was not okay and as luck would have it, neither was my body when I first got sober. This was a result of 20 years of drinking and drugs. I felt legitimately sick so when I heard others use the word, it not only signaled that I might be in the right place but also that I had to get honest about how bad it really was. Introducing myself as an alcoholic at meetings was the beginning of shattering the delusion that I was okay and this continues to work for me. When those words fly out of my mouth, I remember and admit that I have a disease, regardless of what my delusion wants me to believe. The process of talking about how terrible I felt at meetings took my drinking and drug use out of the realm of the pretend and made it look real. The solution, in turn, looked real too, especially as others shared that they felt the same way. A willingness to embrace the sickness of my addiction and alcoholism made me also eventually open up about my struggles with depression and my life as an HIV positive man. The more honest I was about how I was and how I felt, the better I felt. Reinventing and owning this idea of “sick,” as weird as it sounds, helped me heal.

As far as being selfish goes, that’s a harder label to wear with pride. I mean, no normal personal really embraces the idea that they might be a total selfish jerk. Saying that we are selfish goes against the very moral codes most of us grew up. For me, I never had a problem calling out the selfish behavior of other people. It was totally unacceptable and they needed to be told how wrong they were; luckily, after a few drinks, I could do this very easily. I’m a middle child from an alcoholic home so I had a keen eye when it came to identifying selfish, self-centered d-bags. Forever the victim of circumstance and never in the wrong, I was driven nuts by other people’s selfish behavior. How dare they not consider my feelings, 24 hours a day? Thus when I heard “Selfish- self-centeredness! That, we think, is the root of our troubles” read from the Big Book in meetings, I thought, “Well, everybody else in here is selfish. Not me.” The idea that I was selfish didn’t gel with my lifelong status as a doormat. Besides, I could rattle off at least 40 people who were more selfish than I was and some of them weren’t even alcoholics! But the more I hung out with alcoholics who routinely called out their own selfish behavior, the more I started to wonder if they, that ubiquitous AA they who seemed to know everything, were right?

As I started the inventory process, I was sadly confronted with page after page where the only person I ever thought about was Sean. Turns out, the lifelong suffering victim was, as fate would have it, completely selfish. The longer I’ve stayed sober and helped other addicts and alcoholics through the steps, the more I’ve realized that my own selfishness is something that I continually have to keep in check. Thankfully, when I go to meetings, the seats are filled with folks who gladly (and sometimes hilariously) admit how selfish they are. Like the idea of being “sick,” selfishness feels less horrible to admit when I’m in a room with others who are doing the same.

Yet this blanket idea that alcoholics are the most selfish and sick people on the planet surely isn’t accurate. Holes could be poked in these monikers person by person and case by case. No group of people are ever all one way and certainly not alcoholics and addicts who come from all walks of life. But to me that really doesn’t matter. How other people feel or identify with the concepts of being sick or selfish really doesn’t concern me. In fact, I get epically bored by the word dissection that happens in 12 step programs. Like, who cares? If someone identifying with the ideas of being sick or selfish works for them, then why not let them have that? It’s not hurting anyone. Besides, I’ve got my own crazy to deal with. I drank and used drugs every day for the better part of 20 years. I ain’t got time to put the words and phrases of the program under a microscope. Eight-and-a-half years into sobriety, my goal is to stay out of delusion and as real as possible about my alcoholism and addiction. And if fessing up to being sick and selfish is how I do that, than so be it.

[DO YOU DISAGREE WITH SEAN? TRACY DOES. PLEASE SHARE YOUR OPINION IN THE COMMENTS. AND LOOK OUR FOR OUR NEW “TACKLING 12-STEP” COLUMN NEXT WEEK.]

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  1. I enjoyed “Murph’s” writing about HIS process. My initial attraction to AA 45 years ago was the brutal honesty of most members–at the podium or just shooting the breeze. I am still floored by that and for better or worse I have lived the last 44 years openly honest almost 100% of the time! This has had an untold number of real benefits from not having to remember my lies to an increase in the love I receive from my wife of 57 years. Being fired 13 times was a mixed bag!—but mainly a blessing! I look forward to more good stuff in this space.

  2. Interesting read. I am not very concerned about the whole selfish thing or the labeling. I dont think i have ever heard the “alcoholics are the most selfish people in the world blah blah blah” thing, so maybe I am going to the wroing meetings or reading the wrong literature. If i have a broken leg, I would like to diagnosed as having a broken leg. By minimzing the severity of my afflication, the treatment i undergo to repair it may fall short of what is needed. It is the same with a substance use disorder. Don’t tell me it is mild or moderate if it meets the criteria for severe. Diagnosising correctly is not unkind, it is a statement of what is. For this reason, I am okay with dicussing my selfishness in the open. I dont think people are making judgements when they say this in AA, they are just stating facts. What is really occuring is people are sharing honestly about their true behaviors and attitudes in an open setting that does not carry judgement, allowing people grow. People laugh about it and seek to grow past the maladaptive behavior. From a clinical standpoint, it is very healthy.

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