Most of us don’t get sober right away. We get dry first, which means we trade wet for dry booze, and drink it just as hard. We gulp down sex and food and work and romance and whatever else comes our way. When we can’t get our hands on anything solid, we start drinking our own emotional turmoil. Worry, anger, lust, and self-pity are the rotgut of dry drinkers. You can go blind on an emotional bender. And you’re guaranteed one big bastard of a hangover.
Some folks call this condition “switching addictions,” because we’re trying to treat our alcoholic drinking by abusing new substances and behaviors. Others call it “untreated alcoholism,” because we aren’t doing anything to treat the underlying causes of our disease.
Early AA in New York had adopted a welcoming attitude toward the dry drunk. I remember hearing an old-timer talk about coming into the program in ’41. The New York guys started selling him on the “God-stuff,” and he said “No thanks.”
“Well,” they said, “stick around anyhow. Maybe you’ll learn something.”
He did stick around for a while, but he didn’t learn much. Two years later he was drunk—wet drunk—and only by the grace of God did he manage, many years after, to crawl back into AA.
These days, the 12 step fellowships are full of people “sticking around anyhow.” Our halls buzz with the nervous activity of untreated alcoholism. Sit in the back of any sizable meeting and you’ll see them milling around, cracking lewd jokes and smoking, hitting on each other and picking fights. Their attention flitters about, desperately seeking the next dry shot. None of them pay any attention to the person sharing, yet each takes a turn at the podium to bitch about their lives.
As someone who wasted many years on dry drinking, I can tell you it’s a wretched life, just as painful and purposeless as the life of a wet booze drinker. And just as hard to shake.
Try to tell a dry drinker that life is better without the secondary addictions and emotional benders, and see what happens. The poor sot will exercise a sudden passion in defense of his “program.” You might as well be telling a wet drunk he should give up his bottle. No drinker—wet or dry—will ever give an inch.
Dry boozing AAs are tough nuts to crack. Griping their new bottle, knuckles white, they eye you with suspicion. Many of these people have been in AA longer than you. Some quote the Big Book better than you can. A few even have an entourage of sponsees at their command, all of them dry as dust.
These folks can sometimes pose a problem for the recovered drunk hoping to carry a spiritual message to newcomers. “God talk” is not always welcome in meetings dominated by dry drinkers, and recovered drunks can find themselves the subject of a heated controversy after doing nothing more provocative than relating their experience of the 12 steps.
I once sat in as a group debated before the vote for a new chairperson. One of the regular members was passionately arguing against the election of the candidate who had worked steps. This man claimed that he felt “unsafe” in his “own homegroup” when the stepworker was around. The message the stepworker carried “jeopardized” his “program,” he said.
I don’t think that he was lying. That man probably did feel unsafe. If a recovered drunk was running his homegroup, his program would be jeopardized. Every time he showed up at that meeting, he would hear a message that contradicted everything he was doing in AA. Over and over again, he would be challenged to put down the dry bottle and find God.
How do drunks feel when you take away their drink? They feel like their world has come undone. And the same is true of dry drinkers. Start suggesting that real recovery is be possible, and they see you as a threat. Dry drinkers already have their own ideas about recovery, and the suggestion that they are doing it wrong is, to them, both offensive and dangerous.
So how do you help a people like that? How do you carry a message to AA members who’ve got AA ass-backwards and are losing their minds on a dry jag?
For a full answer to that question, it’s worth reading over “Working With Others” with dry drunks in mind. The advice in that chapter is just as good for one drinker as it is for the other. In fact, the whole book can (and should) be read with untreated alcoholism in mind. Give it a try sometime. I’m sure you’ll find it opens up a new dimension of the message.
For now, let me just point out a couple of things from chapter 7:
If he does not want to stop drinking, don’t waste time trying to persuade him. You may spoil a later opportunity. This advice is given for his family also. They should be patient, realizing they are dealing with a sick person. (pg 90)
How do you carry a message to a guy who feels threatened when you elect a recovered drunk to chair his homegroup? You don’t. Leave the poor guy alone. Do what the old timers in New York did and let him hang around undisturbed. Don’t carry a message to someone who doesn’t want to hear it. Don’t be an “evangelist” or a “reformer.” Just look for the folks you can actually help, and spend your time with them.
The book also suggests that, before talking to a (dry) drunk, we:
Wait for the end of the spree, or at least for a lucid interval. (pg 90)
That “lucid interval” is sometimes called “rock bottom” in AA. Lucid intervals are the moments when life on the bottle becomes so painful that we suddenly see our powerlessness with clarity. In those moments, the lies we’ve been telling ourselves just don’t work. It’s only then that there’s any chance for a recovery to get started, and those moments rarely come unless we’re in a great deal of pain.
Dry drinking has its “lucid intervals” too. All alcoholic behavior has consequences, and sooner or later, every dry drunk gets in so much pain from their untreated alcoholism that they will either kill themselves or get wet again. Those dry drunks, the ones in unbearable psychic pain, are the ones to talk to. They’re the only ones ready to hear the message.
One last quote:
See your man alone if possible. At first engage in general conversation. After a while, turn the talk to some phase of drinking. Tell him enough about your drinking habits, symptoms, and experiences to encourage him to speak of himself. If he wishes to talk, let him do so. You will thus get a better idea of how you ought to proceed. If he is not communicative, give him a sketch of your drinking career up to the time you quit. But say nothing, for the moment, of how that was accomplished. If he is in a serious mood dwell on the troubles liquor has caused you, being careful not to moralize or lecture. If his mood is light, tell him humorous stories of your escapades. Get him to tell some of his. (pg 91)
This is what Bill called “identifying”—the recovered alcoholic talks to the newcomer about his drinking so that the newcomer will know (a) that he is not alone, and (b) that there is hope. This same approach works wonders with the dry drunk, though it does require an extra dose of humility; identifying around dry drinking requires that you be candid about your own intimate struggles and personal failings. You have to talk, not just about alcohol and your wet drinking, but about all the substances, emotions, and behaviors that, for you, are dry booze.
An atmosphere of real honesty—absolute honesty as they used to say—is the only place dry booze drinkers are ever going to realize that there is hope for everything that ails them.
Those of us who have experienced release from dry drinking are called to offer active dry drinkers a place where they can hear that kind of honesty. We need meetings where members share freely about their most recent dry surrenders, their most recent scrapes with booze of every kind.
Unfortunately, AA is not always receptive to this level of honesty. The fellowship, remember, is chock-full of dry drunks who get angry when you try to take their sauce away. Many meeting halls will kick you out on your ass if you so much as mention any difficulty other than alcohol. Even those meetings less defensive of their dryness will inevitably focus on wet drinking; it’s AA’s “primary purpose” after all. If we didn’t focus on wet drinking, we wouldn’t be able to reach the active alcoholic.
It’s true that we need a place where people can identify around wet drinking. But we need more than that. We need an answer for all the misery that comes after we stop drinking, too. Most of us can’t even stay dry very long if we don’t get the whole message.
There are still some meeting halls where the truth can be heard, but they are, in my experience, few and far between. Most of AA has been handed over to the restless, shiftless masses of untreated alcoholics. AA today is like a bus shelter; it’s a place to stay dry awhile, maybe strike up a conversation with the guy beside you on the bench.
I’m not advocating for reform. AA is exactly what it should be. But some of those dry drunks are reaching the breaking point. They desperately need a place where they can hear the whole message, and it’s our job to make sure they hear it.
If we want to reach dry boozing AAs, we have to create meetings where its acceptable to talk about both kinds of booze.