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Sh*t Non-Addicts Say

When you're sober, many people just have no clue where you're coming from. Here are five not-so-informed things "normies" normally say to me—and how I attempt to respond.

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"Why not bring wine to your willpower classes?" Normie via Shutterstock

By Anna David

05/30/13

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When you get sober, you find yourself having to explain your situation to a number of different people in your life—people who often know very little about addiction and recovery.  

The fact that you’ve gone to rehab, or have put down the bottle, or are announcing that you now know you have a problem with substances can be very disconcerting to these people. They don’t understand why anyone—let alone someone they know—would make such a dramatic and insane-sounding decision.

Maybe they’ve been drinking alongside you for the past 10 or 20 years, and see your change as a terrifying threat to their very way of life. Maybe they always assumed they’d only encounter words like “sobriety,” “rehab” and “ninth-step amends” in Augusten Burroughs memoirs or obscure Anne Hathaway movies. Maybe they’re your parents, and never fancied themselves the sort of people who would give birth to, and then raise, an addict. Or maybe they think that recovery is just south of Scientology: Oh, no, they’ve gotten her—am I next?

I actually find it cute when people call AA “classes,” because I like to imagine them thinking we’re all sitting at desks taking notes.

Of course, plenty of people don’t react this way. Plenty of people saw that look on your face as the birds started chirping those mornings, or noticed the way you’d sometimes quickly and sometimes slowly take an axe to your life. But the number of people who never noticed these things—or who may have noticed but still changed their tune once you actually changed your ways—is astounding. Because of this, and the necessity of explaining your situation to new acquaintances too, sober people end up responding to certain familiar statements and questions over and over again. In no particular order, I’ve listed below—and considered my answers to—five of the most common.  

1) Oh, you didn’t have to go to those classes, did you?

I actually find it cute when people call AA “classes,” because I like to imagine them thinking we’re all sitting at desks taking notes while a professor type breaks down alcoholism and addiction from the front of the room. From what I can tell, these are people whose familiarity with AA is based on having heard that if you get a DUI, you’re court-ordered there. AA, to them, is roughly synonymous with jail. If you explain that you do indeed go to those “classes” and that you in fact call them "meetings," you may well be met with a look of pity or horror. Adding that no one’s forcing you to be there and that you go because it makes you feel good may only cause that look to intensify.

It can thus be fun to respond with great enthusiasm to these people—to say things like, “Yes and it’s the highlight of my day!” Or, even better, “It’s the main thing in my life”—because it will pretty much guarantee that the person will never bother you with this question again since they will be too busy running away from you. I’ve found that the quickest way of all to end this conversation is to respond, “I do; want to come with me sometime?”

2) Not even wine? (Or, alternatively: Not even pot?)

Now, I relate to people who don’t understand why, if you had a problem with cocaine, you need to also stop doing those things with which you allegedly never had a problem. I was once one of them. And I think the best way to explain why you don’t take Oxys when meth was your problem—or why you gave up alcohol when you were addicted to crack—is that it’s all the same. I firmly believe that if you’re a true alcoholic or addict, and you put down your substance of choice but not another addictive substance, you will then abuse that other substance. I also believe that there’s a high probability that you do, in fact, abuse those other substances already, but that your primary devotion to one drug makes your abuse of those others seem relatively minor.

The best expression I’ve heard to explain what it is to quit one drug but not another is that “It’s like switching seats on the Titanic.” But I’ve also learned that non-addicts just making conversation don’t tend to get this if you share it with them.

3) Wait, you’re still going to those meetings—even after all this time?

This one, like the question about “classes,” makes the assumption that meetings are a total drag. I get it; I imagined before I went to meetings (and even after checking out a few before I was ready) that all people did there was talk about how much they wanted to drink. I had no idea that the addicts in there were often not discussing alcohol or drugs at all, but how to live with a brain that had told them that consuming lethal amounts of it was a good idea. I didn’t understand that these were people gathering in order to support each other through the sort of life problems that everyone, alcoholic or not, must confront. I certainly didn’t get that meetings could be hysterically funny; even though people were laughing in the meetings I went to before I was ready to really hear the message, I decided they were all losers with weird ideas about what was funny. But I’ve found that explaining all this tends to make non-addicts' eyes glaze over.

The best response, I’ve found, is to compare it to the gym—to explain that working out every day for a year and then stopping wouldn’t do much for you five or 11 years later. But that still doesn’t seem to erase the dumbfounded looks entirely.

4) You must have so much willpower!

The willpower issue is an interesting one. It feels strange to write this—since I know that it isn’t the case for everyone—but for me, for the most part, the desire to drink and use excessively went away a long time ago, and the years since have only shown me how much better I feel without those things. If being sober was about willpower, I’d be fucked—and anyone watching me eye and then demolish a brownie sundae or BLT could immediately glean that. That isn’t to say I've never been tempted. Even just a couple of years ago, when I was in Indonesia with some ridiculously heavy (but not alcoholic) drinkers whose lives all seemed to be perfect, and I was sad and lonely and dying to do anything I could to connect, I absolutely wanted to drink.

Still, the fact that most of the time I don’t even think about something I couldn’t stop doing—couldn’t, in fact, leave the house and face people or even breathe the air outside without doing—feels miraculous. I have noticed, though, that using words like “miracle” in this context can get you categorized in some people’s minds as some sort of religious zealot. Point is: I get why this willpower thing doesn’t make sense to people; I just don’t have the easiest time explaining it.

5) It must be so hard...

If, when people say this, they mean that life is hard, they’re right. Life is hard for everyone at times. But I find that sobriety is only quote-unquote "hard" when I’m in situations like the Indonesia one I just described. Usually when you’re around a lot of heavy drinkers or drug users, there tends to be someone whose drinking or using is so obnoxious or self-destructive that it serves as a strong reminder of why you don’t do it anymore. When everyone looks fabulous and almost like it’s their very drinking that makes them so fabulous, that is hard. It’s also rare.

I’ve gone through incredibly difficult times since getting sober—experienced emotional pain as great or even greater than I experienced pre-sobriety. But I’m 100% clear that a drink or drug is only going to make that pain worse. Yes, I have to go to meetings and take calls even when I’m not in the mood and do humbling things that can sometimes feel humiliating, and write down more in notebooks than I did even as an angsty teen. But it’s not exactly hard; it’s just a lot of work.

So what I tend to say to people in response to this is that what I was doing before—hiding and isolating and feeling depressed as I chased a drug that had been making me feel terrible for years—was hard. This, in comparison, is easy.  

Fix columnist Anna David is the author of Party Girl, BoughtReality Matters and Falling For MeShe served as The Fix's Executive Editor for over two years. Her previous columns have tackled subjects like catching alcoholismno-good doctorsAA-hatersbeing a so-so sponsor and the unpredictability of making amends.

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