I spent over five years in AA, and many of my worst memories involve my former sponsors. Here are three of them:
Vivian: There used to be a female AA member I'll call Vivian, who, I heard, had about 42 years sober. She was a member of one of the first fellowships I went to, and she was my first sponsor. She disturbed me deeply and seemed to want to bore through boundaries by alluding to very personal matters whenever I was stuck trying to talk with her. When I first started going to meetings, I talked with Vivian, because she seemed to always be there, ready to help newcomers. With her, however, I always had the feeling that it was not okay to say I was "fine."
But I did feel fine; I usually felt good during the first few sober weeks after a bad bender. But Vivian would act like I was not being honest if I said I felt fine. She would call me, too, which perhaps I should have been grateful for since in many groups newcomers are ignored. When we talked, I always felt pressured by her to go to a meeting, or I would feel like I had to act a certain way, or that I was not asking the right questions. Vivian personified AA in that way. To her, I was not acceptable as I was.
The suggestion to attend 90 meetings in 90 days bothered me. My family needed my time and attention, and I wished to make up for neglecting them during benders. And I didn't understand what they were talking about at meetings. Also, I don't like to talk in public, but felt pressured to do that at meetings. It seemed that many in AA, especially Vivian, did not approve of me, though others were nice.
But I needed to work. I began to take in typing assignments at home. One night, I had an emergency assignment from a student who had to get his final exam in. Vivian called. You're coming to the meeting, aren't you, she asked in her gravelly voice, like coals on the grate. No, I've got a typing assignment, and the man is depending on me. There was a moment of silence on the other end of the line. This moment was filling rapidly with my guilt over disappointing Vivian. Well, she said, make lots of money then. Her emphasis was not entirely lost on me. I knew then that to the AA way of looking at things it was not okay to think about money, and that I should be thinking of something else; but what that might be remained a mystery for quite some time. What I had wanted was sobriety. And I was sober, so what was the big deal? No one would ever explain that to me, especially Vivian. All I heard was 90 in 90, keep coming back, and stick with the winners. Also, it works if you work it. And read the Big Book.
I'd read some of it, and I didn't like the steps. I believed in God; that wasn't the problem. But admit to someone all my wrongs in a confession? Who would listen to it? The people in AA? I didn't know them well enough. And what were you supposed to admit? Your deepest secrets? No way! I wasn't ready for that. But when I told Vivian I was going to stay sober without working the steps, she assured me that was impossible. Somewhere, somehow, someday, I would drink again. Alcoholics work the steps or die. Maybe I hadn't had enough, she said.
I heard later that she had groups of newcomers over to her house for special AA meetings, where she would put them on the "hot seat" and tear into them, trampling their boundaries. She was scary, but everyone seemed to respect her because she'd been sober since the days of Bill W. And I eventually found that she was typical -- nearly every group has its stock, abusive old-timer. Everyone shrugs their shoulders, for rarely is an old-timer challenged. Old-timers are icons in the AA subculture; time sober is held in awe.
This whole deal confused me. I wasn't with that fellowship long, though I did come back to it from time to time, and Vivian was always there, giving abusive shares.
When she died, the usual four-star AA funeral was held, with weeping AAs giving powerful and loving tributes to Vivian's "tough love." Amen.
Yesterday, while talking to my sister on the phone, I found out that several years ago she cleaned house for Vivian. Vivian told her never to go in one room. Barb went in anyway and found an enormous stash of booze bottles. Some were old, many were fresh. Hearing this years later, I was shocked.
You just never know.
But the end of Vivian was by no means the end of sponsors for me, unfortunately. I was not yet finished with "tough love" in AA.
During these naive days when I thought dying drunk was the only alternative to AA, I went through a couple more totally inept sponsors. By the late summer of 1991, I had drunk myself out my life in the San Fernando Valley. The realty company sent a letter advising me that my lease on a downtown house would not be renewed. I didn't blame them. My noisy lover and his family had frightened the owners of the beauty parlor next door. Our electricity had been turned off, and at night we'd been lighting the house with candles.
Druggie acquaintances would show up at the door evenings and knock. I'd hide in the back rooms and wait for them to go away. Sometimes, I'd find haven in the nightly AA meetings at the nearby courthouse. No one paid attention to me there. I could be swallowed up in the sea of the court-coerced attendees with their papers to be signed. One day, especially anxious and desperate, I approached some of the women for their phone numbers. But during that time, one of the women in AA had been found murdered, and everyone was going to the funeral. One woman told me, "Okay, here's my number, but don't call for about a week. I'm still upset about Liz (the dead woman). Others said I could call, but when I called, no one was ever home. Often I'd walk to the phone booth, put my last quarter in the slot, and lose it when the message machine came on.
I decided to move with my children, now teenagers, and start over in the nearby university town where I had studied foreign languages. One day I ran into an AA member, Cecelia, who laughingly called such a move the geographical cure, and predicted failure with the warning, Wherever you go, you take you along!
I had buzzed all over trying to find housing, but no one in town wanted to rent to me, because by that time I was on welfare. Although I did have a housing voucher to offer and had always paid my rent, my bad credit report sent prospective landlords fleeing. A friend I'd met in community college, who was also an AA member, helped me find an apartment. She herself would not be staying much longer -- she'd been accepted at Wellesley and would be moving to the East Coast. She was a winner, and being happy for her soothed my own despair at being a loser. I had three friends left who cared for me, and at least one of them was a winner.
From the very first day I dealt with the people in this wonderful little city, I felt at home! The first apartment complex I applied at welcomed my family. I found that PG&E wanted a $1000 deposit, so my son, now 18, opened up a utilities account in his name. The apartment complex was beautifully kept, quiet. How wonderful it was to have a refrigerator that buzzed! How fine it was to come to a well-lit home at night, and cook on an electric stove. I felt like one long marooned in icy lands now come home to warmth. We were safe here, I thought.
Also, though I was now sober and determined to remain so, it was clear that I had not been successful at that in the past. How long would it be this time? Two months? Six months? I really could not think of anything I could do but go to AA. And, if nothing else, people at the meetings would know more about the job market in town than I did. Shortly after I started going to meetings in my new town, I met my next sponsor.
Hilda: Few who meet Hilda ever forget her. At the time her attempts to tutor me in the AA way of life began, she was ensconced at the front table of the Friday Noon Acceptance Group, the oldest group in town. This group was, somewhat against the traditions, run by a rapidly dwindling core of old timers, six folks who had known one another for years. They chose the secretaries of the meetings.
Hilda would settle her 300-pound bulk into her chair, spread her skirts about, and surround herself with knitting and tatting projects taken from a sewing bag beside her. Then, she would knit or tat throughout the meeting, putting aside her handiwork only to speak, filling a full 20-minute segment of the 90-minute meeting with her praise of the Clancy group from Pacifica, where she had found sobriety, and also, more and more often, her rage emerged, directed at the fellowship members whom, she assured us, often neglected, slighted, and insulted her!
It was true. Often others of the little core of old-timers really would treat Hilda badly. Occasionally they would plot ways to exclude her from lunches and gatherings. She had no car, and might not have been able to fit behind a wheel anyway, so she depended on others for rides to meetings and other social gatherings among the fellowship. Sometimes she would be snubbed, or even tricked.
For instance, once Hilda was told she was getting a ride to a tea. But the person "forgot" to pick her up. Then it was too late for Hilda to find another ride. We had to listen to her rant and rave about this petty trickery for weeks thereafter. But Hilda, and anyone else who complained about other AA members at the meetings, was careful to not name the guilty parties directly, making reference to this person, or a member of the fellowship. But we all knew who was being talked about, although we did not always know exactly what the person did, because gossip in the fellowship was so wild and repeated so inaccurately that often, by the time the tales got to the last ears, an incident would be changed so completely as to be unrecognizable.
Anyway, Hilda said she would help me. The rules were, I had to call her every day at 9 a.m., and go to a meeting every day. I said, Meetings really don't help me. But Hilda asked me who was sober 10 years -- me or her? So I agreed to go to the meetings. And I started calling Hilda every day at 9 a.m. She'd ask me if I'd had anything to eat. When I said no, she'd say, Well, fix a peanut butter sandwich and go to a meeting. She insisted I go to meetings every day. Once when I wanted to go to a poetry workshop instead, she said, Fine. When you get drunk, call your poetry teacher.
After awhile, my ties to Hilda became burdensome. She needed a lot of help with shopping and cleaning. I'd drive her shopping and about town in the 100-degree heat in my big old black station wagon. She would be very nervous, and quite often she'd lose her temper and scream: You shouldn't be driving. At two months sober, you can't even see yet!
Also, it was hard for her to move around because of her arthritis, and so her apartment would become filthy, with several days of dirty dishes piled high; there were so many of them they wouldn't all fit in the sink. So, I had to move them onto the stove and on top of the fridge in order to get started with the hour-long job of washing the dishes. They smelled so bad I would gag while trying to clean them.
She paid me for cleaning, but after awhile I did not want to venture near her house. I dreaded talking to her, because you never knew what would set her off. If I called her, she would briefly ask how I was doing; then she would rant and rave about the latest slights and rudeness that came her way from other members of the fellowship.
Most of the time, I felt that I was helping her more than she was helping me. I didn't mind that I guess, but I had been told I needed a sponsor, not that a sponsor needed me. Come to think of it thought, in meetings I would sometimes hear someone say: I need my sponsees as much as they need me! I just hadn't realized that meant as a taxi, cleaning, and listening service.
Billie: When another woman, Billie, who had 28 years of sobriety, offered to help me so I could get away from Hilda, I gladly accepted. Hilda was hurt, and there was a terrible fight about it. It seems these two were enemies. Billie, my new sponsor, now started to get up and go outside for a smoke whenever Hilda started to speak at the Friday noon meeting. I thought that was rude, but how can you tell your sponsor she is being rude and just making your former sponsor more angry? Billie would not go to lunch afterward if Hilda was coming, and both of them would try to get the other woman to go with them.
It turned out Billie also wanted to run my life, but in a different way. She was a rich widow, and did not understand what it's like to be a single mother. She wanted me to open all of my old bills and pay them. I was barely off welfare by then, and had no money to pay old bills with. I did not think this was a big deal, but apparently she did, because later, after the joy of getting a sponsee away from her enemy wore off, this woman dumped me for having "too many problems." One of my problems was that I had discovered I was pregnant via my old boyfriend. Billie wanted me to immediately make an appointment for an abortion. I was not ready to do that yet. I had never had an abortion, and I didn't want one until I'd had some time to think. I thought maybe I wanted to have the baby, although I knew there was no way I could ever afford it. So she dumped me.
I went through a couple of other sponsors. It seems that whomever I asked to help me had some agenda. I did finally decide to have an abortion. Everyone in AA who had sponsored me couldn't help that day, so another newcomer, someone who was scorned by everyone else because she talked too long during her "shares" at the meetings, drove me down to the Planned Parenthood clinic. That was the worst day of my life. Somehow I got through it sober.
Eventually, I became more and more depressed in spite of AA meetings, sponsors and steps. I drank again. If there's one thing that will separate you from your AA associates very rapidly, it's drinking. But I sobered up again and fortunately, I found a doctor who would prescribe an antidepressant for me. It turns out depression, not alcoholism, had been my problem all along. Now I am five years free of drinking, depression -- and AA and it's sponsors.